By Cait Stevenson
“A certain redneck, from whose hand an object had fallen into the river, stood on the bridge waiting for all the water to pass by.” ~ Jacques de Vitry (c.1160-1240), Bishop of Acre
One imagines that fourteenth-century conscripts forced to guard English beaches in English winter were none too pleased with being “those who work.” Nor were peasants negotiating for their lord to provide lunch on the days they were forced to work his crops, nor laundresses in city slums. But at least there could be a sense of dignity with a place in Ælfric of Eynsham’s (c.955-c.1010) “laboratores, oratores, bellatores.” As early authors tended to use this famous trinity of those who work, those who pray, and those who fight, the idea was that everyone had their indispensable role in society -even if they might have preferred a different one.
But even this small positive was lacking in the more common nickname for peasants in Latin Europe: rustici (sing. rusticus). The obvious etymological ancestor of our “rustic,” rusticus originally meant country or rural. But used as a label for the vast majority of the medieval European population, it expanded from signifying where peasants lived and what they did, to who they were. Portuguese bishop Alvaro Pelayo (d. 1352) didn’t hold back:
For even as they plough and dig the earth all day long, so they become altogether earthy: they lick the earth, they eat the earth, they speak of the earth; in the earth they have reposed all their hopes, nor do they care one bit for the heavenly substance that shall remain. (trans. Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant)
Pelayo’s point was the standard pastor’s complaint that his flock didn’t care about God, but he used the dehumanizing, offensive side of “those who work” to make it. His comment also shows how “rustic” had already evolved the same connotations and meanings it does today: rough, old-fashioned, unsophisticated, simple (or simple-minded). Or, as the Complaynt of Scotland put it in 1550, “destitute of urbanity and of speculation of natural philosophy.” Call it hick, hayseed, or hillbilly: if you’re one of the rustici, you might be a medieval redneck.
Judging by surviving sources, there was little that middle- and upper-class comedians liked more than a good redneck joke. (Anticlerical satire unsurprisingly edges out antipeasant. Including when clerics were the comedians.) Medieval rusticus jokes often rely on the same markers of “uncivilized” as modern hayseed humor: stupidity and sexual impropriety. But rather than incest jokes (a redneck stereotype that only took root in the 1970s), antipeasant satire leaned heavily on scatology.
For example, the fourteenth-century German Konni, where peasant farmer Konni seems to get the upper hand by winning a princess for his wife, peasants’ lack of fitness for civilized society is nevertheless the joke’s engine and target. The beautiful princess has a standing offer to suitors: if one can best her in verbal combat, she will marry him; if she bests him, he dies. She has enjoyed a long series of victories by the time Konni is brought to court. Of course, Konni winds her up in an argument until she can’t put together a coherent response. But rather than let that be his victory, the poem’s author continues:
The lady became so angry
That she lost her wits.
She said: “That is shit.”
Konni had good luck:
His hat he opened up
So that all could see.
Before them all, he decreed,
“This is shit: this shat I!”
Konni had, I find,
Bested the lady for a third time.
On one hand, Konni’s victory lies partially in the poet’s wordplay and partially in his crude bodily functions and willingness to be as rude as possible at court. On the other, in the end, the princess’s subsequent marriage to Konni serves as her punishment for having orchestrated the deaths of so many men: she is brought down to his level by being brought home to his village. In medieval redneck jokes, even when peasants won, they didn’t win.
Unfortunately, we have no surviving peasant voices from the Middle Ages. We have no idea if they joked about haircuts that were “sowing in the front, harvest in the back” or smiled that “If Mansa Musa of Mali distributed so much gold as alms on his hajj that it crashed the Mediterranean economy for a decade but didn’t affect you one bit, you might be a rusticus.” We do know that whether or not they told their own version of redneck jokes, peasants weren’t about to live down to the stereotypes.
For example, in 1402, the villagers of Kraftshof and five other villages requested the diocese send them a priest who could say a daily Mass to give them “spiritual sustenance” during the day’s work. Since they had the money for a salaried benefice, the bishop shrugged and sent them a priest. Well, in 1431, the Kraftshofers’ messenger was annoying the bishop once more. The villagers were insisting on a priest who could actually preach a competent sermon. They wanted to know more about their religion than their current schoolroom-educated priest was able to provide. So much for destitute of speculation of natural philosophy.
One must always add the obligatory warning: despite the similarities in status and satire, it’s important not to draw a continuous cultural line between stereotypes of medieval rustici and modern rednecks. The hillbilly stereotype as linked to the Appalachia, Ozarks, and rural South regions of the United States has specific roots in the mid-nineteenth century, related to the construction of transcontinental railroads that sped right past the communities of the eastern mountains. There’s a lot to be said about nineteenth-century phenomena that were inspired by the Middle Ages, but the steam engine is probably not one of those.
On the other hand…
Consider thirteenth-century Cistercian monk and author Caesarius von Heisterbach. His most famous text collects a large number of anecdotes to illustrate little bits of Christian faith and practice, called exempla. Exempla are a particularly useful source for historians in that, regardless of the stories’ reality, their trappings had to come across as realistic to their audiences – they reflect a general mindset. And in discussing one noble’s desire to know what demons looked like, Caesarius describes one in a form he hopes his listeners will recognize:
“A thick-set peasant…had a broad breast, pointed shoulders and a short neck; his hair was fashionably dressed in front, the rest hanging down like drooping ears of barley.” (trans. Scott and Bland, The Dialogue On Miracles)
The oratores might have said Matins in the front, vespers in the back. Maybe the bellatores joked about Guinevere and Arthur in the front, Guinevere and Lancelot in the back. One way or another, I give you: the medieval mullet.
Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages. You can follow Cait on Twitter @sunagainstgold
Top Image: Peasants in a fifteenth-century manuscript. Bibliothèque nationale de France Français 135, fol. 327r