Manual The Great Cat Massacre: A History of Britain in 100 Mistakes

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Table of contents

In a society of de facto vegetarians, the luxury of luxuries was to sink one's teeth into a side of mutton, pork, or beef. The wedding feast in "Royaume des Valdars" tale type includes roast pigs who run around with forks sticking out of their flanks so that the guests can help themselves to ready-carved mouthfuls. The French version of a common ghost story, "La Goulue" tale type , concerns a peas- ant girl who insists on eating meat every day.

Unable to satisfy this extraordinary craving, her parents serve her a leg they have cut off a newly buried corpse. O n the next day, the corpse appears before the girl in the kitchen. It orders her to wash its right leg, then its left leg. W h e n she sees that the left leg is missing, it screams, "You ate it. But whether they filled up on meat or porridge, the full belly came first among the wishes of the French peasant heroes. It was all the peasant Cinderella aspired to, even though she got a prince. Immediately a fully decked table appeared before her. She could eat what she wanted, and she ate a bellyful.

They also imagined other dreams coming true, including the standard run of castles and princesses. But their wishes usually re- mained fixed on common objects in the everyday world. One hero gets "a cow and some chickens"; another, an armoire full of linens. A third settles for light work, regular meals, and a pipe full of tobacco. And when gold rains into the fireplace of a fourth, he uses it to buy "food, clothes, a horse, land. Despite the occasional touches of fantasy, then, the tales remain rooted in the real world. They almost always take place within two basic frameworks, which correspond to the dual setting of peasant life under the Old Regime: on the one hand, the household and village; on the other, the open road.

The opposition between the village and the road runs through the tales, just as it ran through the lives of peasants everywhere in eighteenth-century France. The folktales constantly show parents laboring in the fields while the children gather wood, guard sheep, fetch water, spin wool, or beg. Far from condemning the exploitation of child labor, they sound indignant when it does not occur. In "Les Trois Fileuses" tale type , a father resolves to get rid of his daughter, because "she ate but did not work.

Three magic spinning women, one more deformed than the other, accomplish the tasks for her and in return ask only to be invited to the wedding. When they appear, the king inquires about the cause of their deformities. Overwork, they reply; and they warn him that his bride will look every bit as hideous if he permits her to continue spinning.

So the girl escapes from slavery, the father gets rid of a glutton, and the poor turn the tables on the rich in some versions the local seigneur takes the place of the king. The French versions of "Rumpelstilzchen" tale type and some related versions of tale type follow the same scenario. A mother beats her daughter for not working. When a passing king or the local seigneur asks what the matter is, the mother devises a ruse to get rid of an unproductive member of the family.

She pro- tests that the girl works too much, so obsessively, in fact, that she would spin the very straw in their mattresses.


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Sensing a good thing, the king carries off the girl and orders her to perform super- human tasks: she must spin whole haystacks into rooms full of linen, load and unload fifty carts of manure a day, separate moun- tains of wheat from chaff. Although the tasks always get done in the end, thanks to supernatural intervention, they express a basic fact of peasant life in hyperbolic form. Everyone faced endless, limitless labor, from early childhood until the day of death. Marriage offered no escape; rather, it imposed an additional bur- den because it subjected women to work within the "putting-out" system cottage industry as well as work for the family and for the farm.

The tales invariably place peasant wives at the spinning wheel after a day of tending livestock, hauling wood, or mowing hay. Some stories provide hyperbolic pictures of their work, show- ing them yoked to ploughs or hauling water up a well with their hair or cleaning ovens with their bare breasts.

The animals did not always turn into princes, although that was a com- mon form of escapism. According to the Irish and North European versions of the tale, the couples set off on a series of adventures, which are neces- sary to metamorphose the animals back into men. The French ver- sions simply recount what the young couples serve when the mother comes calling—mutton procured by the wolf, turkey fetched by the fox, cabbage filched by the hare, and filth from the pig.

Having found good providers, each after his own fashion, the daughters must accept their lot in life; and everyone gets on with the basic business of foraging for a living. Sons have more room to maneuver in the tales. They explore the second dimension of peasant experience, life on the road. The boys set out in search of their fortune, and often find it, thanks to the help of old crones, who beg for a crust of bread and turn out to be beneficent fairies in disguise. Despite the supernatural interven- tion, the heroes walk off into a real world, usually in order to escape poverty at home and to find employment in greener pas- tures.

They do not always get princesses. In "Le Langage des betes" tale type , a poor lad who has found work as a shep- herd comes to the aid of a magic snake. In return, he finds some buried gold: "He filled his pockets with it and the next morning he led his flock back to the farm and asked to marry his master's daughter. She was the prettiest girl in the village, and he had loved her for a long time. Seeing that the shepherd was rich, the father gave him the girl.

Eight days later they were married; and as the farmer and his wife were old, they made their son-in-law sole master of the farm. Other boys take to the road because there is no land, no work, no food at home. The hero of "Jean de l'Ours" tale type 30IB serves five years with a blacksmith, then sets off with an iron staff, which he takes as payment for his labor.

Once en route he picks up strange fellow travelers Twist-Oak and Slice- Mountain , braves haunted houses, fells giants, slays monsters, and marries a Spanish princess. Standard adventures, but they fall with- in the framework of a typical tour de France. They confronted danger everywhere on their travels, for France had no effective police force, and bandits and wolves still roamed through the wild lands separating villages in vast stretches of the Massif Central, the Jura, Vosges, Landes, and bocage.

Men had to make their way through this treacherous territory by foot, sleeping at night under haystacks and bushes when they could not beg hos- pitality in farms or pay for a bed in an inn—where they still stood a good chance of having their purses stolen or their throats cut. W h e n the French versions of T o m Thumb and Hansel and Gretel knock at the doors of mysterious houses deep in the forest, the wolves baying at their backs add a touch of realism, not fantasy.

True, the doors are opened by ogres and witches. But in many tales "Le Garcon de chez la bucheronne," tale type , for example , the houses contain gangs of bandits like those of Mandrin and Cartouche, who really did make traveling hazardous in the eight- eenth century.

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There was protection from traveling in groups, but you could never trust your fellow travelers. They might save you from disaster, as in "Moitie Poulet" tale type and "Le Navire sans pareil" tale type ; or they might turn on you when they caught the scent of booty, as in "Jean de l'Ours" tale type B.

Petit Louis' father was right when he advised the boy never to travel with a hunchback, a lame man, or a Cacous a pariah-like ropemaker tale type Anything out of the ordinary repre- sented a threat. But no formula was adequate to the task of decod- ing danger on the road. For most of the population flooding France's roads, fortune seeking was a euphemism for beggary. Beggars swarm through the tales, real beggars, not merely fairies in disguise. W h e n poverty overwhelms a widow and her son in "Le Bracelet" tale type , they abandon their hut at the edge of the village and take to the road, carrying all their goods in a single sack.

Their way leads through a menacing forest to a gang of robbers and the poor house before rescue finally comes from a magic bracelet. Desperate for food, they can think of no way to survive except by operating as a team of beg- gars, the blind man and his keeper. In "Norouas" tale type , a single crop of flax means the difference between survival and desti- tution for a peasant family living on a tiny plot of land. The crop is good, but the bad wind Norouas blows the flax away while it is drying in the field. The peasant sets out with a club to beat Nor- ouas to death. But he runs out of provisions and soon is begging for crusts and a corner in the stable, like any vagabond.

Finally he finds Norouas on top of a mountain. Give me back my flax! Taking pity on him, the wind gives him a magic tablecloth, which produces a meal whenever it is unfolded. The peasant "eats his fill" and spends the next night in an inn, only to be robbed by the hostess. After two more rounds with Norouas, he receives a magic staff, which thrashes the host- ess, forcing her to surrender the cloth.

The peasant lives happily— that is, with a full larder—ever,after, but his tale illustrates the desperation of those tottering on the line between poverty in the village and destitution on the road. The picture fits, and the fit was a matter of consequence. By showing how life was lived, terre a terre, in the village and on the road, the tales helped orient the peasants.

They mapped the ways of the world and demonstrated the folly of expecting anything more than cruelty from a cruel social order. To show that a substratum of social realism underlay the fanta- sies and escapist entertainment of folktales is not to take the argu- ment very far, however. We need to make at least a brief attempt at comparative analysis. Consider, first, the Mother Goose that is most familiar to Eng- lish speakers. Admittedly, the disparate collection of lullabies, counting rhymes, and bawdy songs that became attached to the name of Mother Goose in eighteenth-century England bears little resemblance to the stock of tales that Perrault drew on for his Contes de ma mire I'oye in seventeenth-century France.

But the Eng- lish Mother Goose is as revealing in its way as the French; and fortunately a good deal of it can be dated, because the verses pro- claim their character as period pieces. Most of the rhymes, however, appear to be relatively modern post , despite persistent attempts to link them with names and events in the remoter past. They have more gaiety and whimsy than the French and German tales, perhaps because so many of them belong to the period after the seventeenth century when England freed itself from the grip of Malthusianism.

But there is a note of demographic agony in some of the older verses. Thus the English counterpart to the mother of Le Petit Poucet: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe; She had so many children she didn't know what to do. Like peasants everywhere, she fed them on broth, though she could not provide any bread; and she vented her despair by whip- ping them. Nor was their clothing: When I was a little girl, About seven years old, J hadn't got a petticoat, To keep me from the cold. And they sometimes disappeared down the road, as in the Tudor- Stuart rhyme: There was an old woman had three sons Jerry and James and John.

Jerry was hung and James was drowned, John was lost and never was found, So there was an end of her three sons, Jerry and Jama and John. Life was hard in the old Mother Goose. Many characters sank into destitution: See-saw, Margery Daw, Sold her bed and lay upon straw. Others, it is true, enjoyed a life of indolence, as in the case of the Georgian barmaid, Elsie Marley alias Nancy Dawson : She won't get up to feed the swine, But lies in bed till eight or nine.

Curly Locks luxuriated in a diet of strawberries, sugar, and cream; but she seems to have been a late eighteenth-century girl. Old Mother Hubbard, an Elizabethan character, had to cope with a bare cupboard, while her contemporary, Little Tommy Tucker, was forced to sing for his supper. Simple Simon, who probably belongs to the seventeenth century, did not have a penny.

Poverty drove many Mother Goose characters into beggary and theft: Christmas is a-comin; The geese are gettin fat. Please to put a penny In an old man's hat. They preyed on defenseless children: Then came a proud beggar And said he would have her, And stole my little moppet [doll] away. And on their fellow paupers: There was a man and he had nought, And robbers came to rob him; He crept up to the chimney top, And then they thought they had him.

The old rhymes contain plenty of nonsense and good-humored fantasy; but from time to time a note of despair can be heard through the merriment. It summons up lives that were brutally brief, as in the case of Solomon Grundy, or that were overwhelmed with misery, as in the case of another anonymous old woman: There was an old woman And nothing she had, And so this old woman Was said to be mad. All is not jollity in Mother Goose. The older rhymes belong to an older world of poverty, despair, and death.

In general, then, the rhymes of England have some affinity with the tales of France. The two are not really comparable, however, because they belong to different genres. Although the French sang some tontines counting rhymes and lullabies to their children, they never developed anything like the English nursery rhymes; and the English never developed as rich a repertory of folktales as the French.

Nevertheless, the folktale flourished enough in Eng- land for one to venture a few comparative remarks and then to extend the comparisons to Italy and Germany, where they can be pursued more systematically. English folktales have much of the whimsy, humor, and fanciful details that appear in the nursery rhymes. They concern many of the same characters: Simple Simon, Dr.

The English tale dwells on his pranks and the Lilliputian quaintness of his dress: "The fairies dressed him in a hat made of an oak-leaf, a shirt of spiders' web, jacket of thistle-down, and trousers of feathers. His stockings were of apple-rind, tied with one of his mother's eyelashes, and his shoes of mouse-skin, with the hair in- side. The French tale tale type does not mention his clothing and does not provide him with help from fairies or any other supernatural be- ings. Instead, it places him in a harsh, peasant world and shows how he fends off bandits, wolves, and the village priest by using his wits, the only defense of the "little people" against the rapacity of the big.

Despite a considerable population of ghosts and goblins, the world of the English tales seems far more genial. Brave but lazy, good-natured but thick-headed, he blunders into a happy ending in a happy-go-lucky world. His initial poverty and the ominous chorus of fee-fi-fo-fums from above the beanstalk do not spoil the atmosphere. Having overcome adversity, Jack earns his reward and emerges in the end looking like Little Jack Horner: " O h what a good boy am I!

A pint-sized younger son, "extraordi- narily sharp witted. Like most French giants, this "bonhomme" does not live in a never-never land somewhere over the beanstalk. He is a local landlord, who plays the fiddle, quarrels with his wife, and invites the neighbors in for feasts of roasted little boys. Petit Jean does not merely run away with the treasure; he bamboozles the giant, torments him in his sleep, oversalts his soup, and tricks his wife and daughter into bak- ing themselves to death in an oven.

Finally, the king assigns Petit Jean the seemingly impossible task of capturing the giant himself. The little hero sets off disguised as a monarch and driving a coach loaded with a huge iron cage. I'm looking for him, too. He is supposed to be terrifically powerful. I'm not sure that I can keep him locked up in this iron cage. Petit Jean locks it. And after the giant exhausts himself trying to break the bars, Petit Jean an- nounces his true identity and delivers his victim, helpless with rage, to the true king, who rewards him with a princess.

In the case of tale type , which concerns the rescue of princesses from an enchant- ed underworld, the English hero is another Jack, the French anoth- er Jean. Jack frees his princesses by following the instructions of a dwarf. He descends into a pit, runs after a magic ball, and slays a succession of giants in copper, gold, and silver palaces. The French Jean has to contend with more treacherous surroundings. His fel- low travelers abandon him to the devil in a haunted house and then cut the rope when he tries to haul himself out of the pit after delivering the princesses.

The Italian hero, a palace baker who is run out of town for flirting with the king's daughter, follows the same path through the same dangers, but he does so in a spirit of buffoonery as well as bravura. The devil comes down the chimney of the haunted house in a magic ball and tries to trip him by bouncing between his feet. Unperturbed, the baker stands on a chair, then on a table, and finally on a chair mounted on the table while plucking a chicken as the diabolical ball pounds helplessly around him. Unable to overcome this circus act, the devil steps out of the ball and offers to help prepare the meal.

The baker asks him to hold the firewood and then deftly chops off his head. He uses a similar trick in the underground pit to behead a sorcerer, who meanwhile has abducted the princess. Thus piling trick on trick, he finally wins his true love. The plot, identical to those in the Eng- lish and French versions, seems to lead through the Commedia delP Arte rather than into any kind of fairy land. And the Italian "Bluebeard" shows how completely a tale can change in tone while remaining the same in structure. In Italy, Bluebeard is a devil, who lures a succession of peasant girls into hell by hiring them to do his laundry and then tempting them with the usual device of the key to the forbidden door.

The door leads to hell; so when they try it, flames leap out, singeing a flower that he places in their hair. After the devil returns from his travels, the singed flower shows him that the girls have broken the taboo; and he tosses them into the flames, one after the other— until he comes to Lucia. She agrees to work for him after her older sisters have disappeared.

And she, too, opens the forbidden door, but just enough to glimpse her sisters in the flames. Because she has had the foresight to leave her flower in a safe place, the devil cannot condemn her for disobedience. O n the contrary, she ac- quires power over him—enough, at least, to be granted one wish.

She asks him to carry some laundry bags back to her mama so that she can have help in coping with the gigantic backlog of filthy washing that he has accumulated. The devil accepts the task and boasts that he is strong enough to make the entire trip without laying the bags down for a rest. Lucia replies that she will hold him to his word, for she has the power to see great distances.

Then she frees her sisters from the hellfire and sneaks them into the laundry bags. Soon the devil is lugging them back to safety.

The Great Cat Massacre: A History of Britain in 100 Mistakes

Every time he begins to stop for a rest they call out, "I see you! I see you! So all the girls reach safety, using the devil himself to do the job and making a fool of him while they are at it. The villain is a mysterious wizard, who carries the girls off to a castle in the midst of a gloomy forest. The forbidden room is a chamber of horrors, and the narrative dwells on the murdering itself: "He threw her down, dragged her along by her hair, cut her head off on the block, and hewed her in pieces so that her blood ran on the ground. Then he threw her into the basin with the rest.

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She brings her sisters back to life by reassembling their mutilated corpses. Then she hides them in a basket, covers it with gold, and orders the wizard to carry it to her parents, while she prepares for the wedding that is to unite her with the wizard. She dresses a skull in bridal ornaments and flowers and sets it in a window.

Then she disguises herself as a giant bird by rolling in honey and feathers. Coming upon her on her way back, the wizard asks her about the wedding preparations. She answers in verse that his bride has cleaned the house and is waiting for him at the window. The wizard hurries on; and when he and his accomplices have gathered for the ceremony, the girl's kinsmen sneak up, lock the doors, and burn the house to the ground with everyone in it. As already mentioned, the French versions tale types and , including Perrault's, contain some gruesome details but nothing approaching the horror of the Grimms.

Some of them emphasize the escape ruse, and most depend for their dramatic effect on the delaying tactics of the heroine, who slowly dons her wedding dress, while the villain a devil, a giant, a "Monsieur" with a blue or green beard sharpens his knife and her brothers rush to the rescue. The English versions seem almost jolly in com- parison. It meanders through episodes involving riddles and elves but no hacked-up corpses, and it ends with some good, clean giant killing by boiling water. There is no way of knowing what effects the different versions of "Bluebeard" actually pro- duced on listeners in different parts of Europe two centuries ago.

And even if that could be known, it would be absurd to draw conclusions about national character by comparing variations of a single tale. But systematic comparisons of several tales should help one to isolate the qualities that gave the French oral tradition its peculiar character. The comparing works best where the tales are most comparable, in the French and German versions.

If done thoroughly, it could extend to many volumes filled with statistics and structural diagrams. But one should be able to do enough within the bounds of a single essay to advance a few general propositions. Consider "Godfather Death" tale type The French and German versions have exactly the same structure: a A poor man chooses Death as a godfather for his son. In both versions the father refuses to accept God as godfather because he observes that God favors the rich and powerful, whereas Death treats everyone equally. This impiety is rejected in the Grimms' transcription of the German tale: "Thus spoke the man, for he did not know how wisely God apportions riches and poverty.

The doctor makes a fortune, because Death provides him with an infallible prognostic technique. When he sees Death standing at the foot of a sick per- son's bed, he knows the person will die. When Death appears at the head of the bed, the patient will recover and can be given any kind of fake medicine. In one instance, the doctor successfully pre- dicts the death of a lord and in return receives two farms from the delighted heirs.

In another, he sees Death at the foot of a princess's bed and pivots her body around so that Death is duped. The prin- cess survives, he marries her, and they live to a ripe and happy old age. When the German doctor tries the same stratagem, Death seizes him by the throat and hauls him off to a cave full of candles, each of which stands for a life. Seeing that his own candle has almost expired, the doctor begs to have it lengthened. The French doctor eventually comes to the same end, but he postpones it quite successfully.

In one version, he asks to say a Pater before the extinc- tion of the candle, and by leaving the prayer unfinished tricks Death into allowing him a still longer life. Death finally gets him by pretending to be a cadaver at the side of the road—a common sight in early modern Europe and one that evoked a common re- sponse: the saying of a Pater, which brings the tale to a rather unedifying end. True, the story demonstrates that no one can cheat death, at least not in the long run.

But cheating gives the French- man an excellent short run for his money. It, too, has the same organization in the French and German versions: a A poor, discharged soldier agrees to work for the devil, stoking fires under cauldrons in hell, b He disobeys the devil's order not to look inside the cauldrons and finds his former commanding officer s. In the German version the plot unwinds in a straightforward manner but with fanciful details that do not exist in the French.

As a condition for hiring the soldier, the devil demands that he not trim his nails, cut his hair, or bathe during the seven-year term of his service. After finding his former commanding officers in the cauldrons, the sol- dier stokes the fire higher; so the devil forgives him for his disobe- dience, and the soldier serves his seven years without further inci- dent, growing more and more hideous in appearance. He emerges from hell looking like Struwelpeter and calling himself "the devil's sooty brother" as the devil had commanded.

His obedience is re- warded, for the sack of sweepings which the devil had given him as wages turns into gold. W h e n an innkeeper steals it, the devil intervenes to get it restored. And in the end, well-heeled and well- scrubbed, the soldier marries a princess and inherits a kingdom. The French version turns on trickery. The devil lures the soldier into hell by pretending to be a gentleman in search of a servant for his kitchen. W h e n the soldier discovers his former captain cooking in the cauldron, his first impulse is to pile new logs on the fire.

The soldier should feign ignorance of his true situation and demand to be released on the grounds that he does not like the work. The devil will tempt him by offering gold—a ruse to get him to reach into a chest so that he can be beheaded when its cover slams down. Instead of gold, the soldier should demand an old pair of the devil's breeches as payment. This strategy works; and the next evening, as he arrives at an inn, the soldier finds the pockets full of gold. While he sleeps, however, the innkeeper's wife grabs the magic breeches and screams that he is trying to rape and murder her—another ruse, this time aimed at capturing the gold and sending the soldier to the gallows.

But the devil intervenes in time to save him and to claim the breeches. And meanwhile the soldier has siphoned enough gold out of the pock- ets to retire happily and even, in some versions, to marry a princess. By out-tricking the tricksters, he arrives at the same point that his German counterpart reached by hard work, obedience, and self- degradation. It goes as follows: a A king promises his daughter to whoever can produce the finest fruit, b A peasant boy wins the contest after being kind to a magic helper whom his elder brothers had treated discourteously, c The king refuses to give the princess up and sets the hero a round of impossible tasks, d Aided by the helper, the hero performs the tasks and marries the princess after a final confrontation with the king.

The hero of the German version is a good-natured numbskull, Hans Dumm. He carries out the tasks in a setting charged with supernatural forces and crowded by fanciful props—a boat that flies over land, a magic whistle, a hideous griffin, dwarfs, castles, and damsels in distress. Although he sometimes shows glimmers of intelligence, Hans overcomes disaster and wins his princess by taking orders from his magic helper and by following his nose. His French counterpart, Benoit, lives by his wits in a rough-and- ready world of dupe or be duped.

The king defends his daughter like a peasant battling for his barnyard, using one ruse after anoth- er. But instead of sending Benoit, like Hans, on a chase after a man-eating griffin, the king tries to separate rabbits from the pack by a series of stratagems. Disguised as a peasant, he offers to buy one for a high price. Benoit sees through the maneuver and uses it as an opportunity to turn the tables on the king.

He will only surrender the rabbit to someone who can succeed in an ordeal, he announces. The king must drop his breeches and submit to a flogging. The king agrees but loses the rabbit as soon as it hears the magic whistle. The queen tries the same rase and gets the same treatment, although in some versions she has to turn cartwheels, exposing her bare bottom.

Then the princess has to kiss the hero—or, in some cases, to lift his donkey's tail and kiss its anus. No one can pry a rabbit from the pack. Still the king holds out. He will not give up his daughter until Benoit produces three bags of truth. As the court gathers round, Benoit lets loose his first truth, sotto voce: "Is it not true, Sire, that I switched you on the bare behind?

He cannot bear to hear the next two truths and surrenders the princess. The magic props have fallen by the side. Battle has been joined terre a terre, in a real world of power, pride, and deviousness. And the weak win with the only weapon they possess: cunning. The tale pits the clever against the clever by half: "A ruse, ruse et demi," as one of the peasant raconteurs observes. One can certainly find clever underdogs in Grimm and magic in Le Conte populaire franqais, especially in the tales from Brittany and Alsace-Lorraine.

A few of the French tales hardly differ at all from their counterparts in the Grimms' collec- tion. The peasant raconteurs took the same themes and gave them character- istic twists, the French in one way, the German in another. Where the French tales tend to be realistic, earthy, bawdy, and comical, the German veer off toward the supernatural, the poetic, the exotic, and the violent. Consider a final set of comparisons. In "La Belle Eulalie" tale type , as already mentioned, the devil's daughter makes some talking pates and hides them under her pillow and the pillow of her lover, a discharged soldier who has sought shelter in the devil's house, in order to cover their escape.

Suspecting foul play, the devil's wife nags at him to check on the youngsters. But he merely calls out from his bed and then snores off again, while the pates return reassuring replies and the lovers dash to safety. In the corre- sponding tale from the Grimms "Der liebste Roland," number 56 , a witch mistakenly decapitates her own daughter while trying to dispatch her stepdaughter one night.

The stepdaughter drips blood on the stairs from the severed head and then runs away with her lover while the drops answer the witch's questions.

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The good daughter who obligingly delouses the strange woman at the well in "Les Fees" tale type finds gold louis in the hair and becomes beautiful, while the bad daughter finds only lice and turns ugly. In "Frau Holle" Grimm 24 , the good daughter de- scends into a magic land beneath the well and serves the strange woman as a housekeeper. W h e n she shakes a feather quilt, she makes it snow on earth. And when she receives a reward for her good work, a shower of golden rain clings to her and she becomes beautiful.

The bad daughter performs the tasks begrudgingly and is showered with black pitch. Persinette, the French Rapunzel tale type , lets down her hair so that she can make love with the prince in her tower. She hides him from the fairy who keeps her captive and devises a vari- ety of burlesque stratagems to impugn the testimony of the pet parrot who keeps betraying them.

In one version Persinette and the prince sew up the parrot's rear end, so it can only cry, "Ass stitched, ass stitched. He wanders in the wilderness for years, until at last he stumbles upon Rapunzel, and her tears falling on his eyes restore his sight. After sharing his food with a fairy disguised as a beggar, the poor shepherd boy in "Les Trois Dons" tale type gets three wishes: that he can hit any bird with his bow and arrow, that he can make anyone dance with his flute, and that he can make his wicked stepmother fart whenever he says "atchoo.

The priest has to turn her out of church in order to get through his sermon. Later, when she explains her problem, he tries to trick the boy into revealing his secret. But the little shepherd, who is trickier still, shoots a bird and asks him to fetch it. When the priest tries to grab it in a thorn bush, the boy plays the flute, forcing him to dance until his robe is torn to shreds and he is ready to drop.

After he has recovered, the priest seeks vengeance by an accusation of witchcraft, but the boy sets the courtroom to dancing so uncontrollably with his flute that they let him free. In "Der Jude im Dorn" Grimm , the hero is an underpaid servant, who gives his poor wages to a dwarf and in return receives a gun that can hit anything, a fiddle that can make anyone dance, and the power to make one unrefusable request. He meets a Jew listening to a bird singing in a tree. He shoots the bird, tells the Jew to retrieve it from a thorn bush, and then fiddles so implacably that the Jew nearly kills himself on the thorns and buys his release with a purse of gold.

The Jew retaliates by getting the servant con- demned for highway robbery. But as he is about to be hanged, the servant makes a last request for his fiddle. Soon everyone is dancing wildly around the gallows. The exhausted judge sets the servant free and hangs the Jew in his place. It would be abusive to take this tale as evidence that anticlerical- ism functioned in France as the equivalent of anti-Semitism in Germany.

But it helps one to identify the peculiar flavor of the French tales. Unlike their German counterparts, they taste of salt. They smell of the earth.

See a Problem?

If that is the case, can one be more precise in construing what the tales might have meant to the tellers and their audiences? I would like to advance two propositions: the tales told peasants how the world was put together, and they provided a strategy for coping with it.

Without preaching or drawing morals, French folktales demon- strate that the world is harsh and dangerous. Although most were not directed toward children, they tend to be cautionary. They erect warning signs around the seeking of fortune: "Danger! They show that generosity, honesty, and courage win re- wards. But they do not inspire much confidence in the effective- ness of loving enemies and turning the other cheek. Instead, they demonstrate that laudable as it may be to share your bread with beggars, you cannot trust everyone you meet along the road.

Some strangers may turn into princes and good fairies; but others may be wolves and witches, and there is no sure way to tell them apart. The magic helpers whom Jean de 1'Ours tale type picks up while seeking his fortune have the same Gargantuan powers as those in "Le Sorcier aux trois ceintures" tale type and "Le Navire sans pareil" tale type But they, try to murder the hero at the point in the plot where the others save him. However edifying some folktale characters may be in their be- havior, they inhabit a world that seems arbitrary and amoral.

In "Les Deux Bossus" tale type , a hunchback comes upon a band of witches dancing and singing, "Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Delighted with the innovation, they reward him by removing his deformity. A second hunchback tries the same device, adding, "and Friday. They punish him by inflicting him with the first hunchback. Dou- bly deformed, he cannot bear the taunts of the village and dies within the year. There is neither rhyme nor reason in such a uni- verse. Disaster strikes fortuitously.

More than half of the thirty-five recorded versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" end like the version recounted earlier, with the wolf de- vouring the girl.


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  • She had done nothing to deserve such a fate; for in the peasant tales, unlike those of Perrault and the Grimms, she did not disobey her mother or fail to read the signs of an implicit moral order written in the world around her. She simply walked into the jaws of death. It is the inscrutable, inexorable character of calamity that makes the tales so moving, not the happy endings that they frequently acquired after the eighteenth century.

    As no discernible morality governs the world in general, good behavior does not determine success in the village or on the road, at least not in the French tales, where cunning takes the place of the pietism in the German. True, the hero often wins a magic helper by a good deed, but he gets the princess by using his wits. And sometimes he cannot get her without performing unethical acts. The hero in "Le Fidele Serviteur" tale type escapes with the princess only because he refuses to help a beggar drowning in a lake.

    Similarly, in "L'Homme qui ne voulait pas mourir" tale type B , he is finally caught by Death because he stops to help a poor wagon driver who is stuck in the mud. And in some versions of "Le Chauffeur du diable" tale type the hero wards off danger only as long as he or she the protagonist can be a servant girl as well as a discharged soldier can maintain a string of lies. As soon as he tells the truth, he is undone. The tales do not advocate immorality, but they undercut the notion that virtue will be re- warded or that life can be conducted according to any principle other than basic mistrust.

    Those assumptions underlie the nastiness of village life as it ap- pears in the tales. Neighbors are presumed to be hostile tale type and may be witches tale type They spy on you and rob your garden, no matter how poor you may be tale type You should never discuss your affairs in front of them or let them know in case you acquire sudden wealth by some stroke of magic, for they will denounce you as a thief if they fail to steal it themselves tale type One of them pretends to fall asleep by the fire and runs off with the doll as soon as the girl goes to bed.

    But when he says the magic words, it craps real crap all over him. So he throws it on the dung heap. Then, one day when he is doing some crapping of his own, it reaches up and bites him. He cannot pry it loose from his derriere until the girl arrives, reclaims her property, and lives mistrustfully ever after.

    If the world is cruel, the village nasty, and mankind infested with rogues, what is one to do? The tales do not give an explicit answer, but they illustrate the aptness of the ancient French prov- erb, "One must howl with the wolves. Of course, tricksters exist in folklore everywhere, notably in the tales of the Plains Indians and in the Brer' Rabbit stories of American slaves. As shown above, whenever a French and a German tale follow the same pattern, the German veers off in the direction of the mysterious, the supernatu- ral, and the violent, while the French steers straight for the village, where the hero can give full play to his talent for intrigue.

    True, the hero belongs to the same species of underdog that one meets in all European folktales. He or she will be a younger son, a step- daughter, an abandoned child, a poor shepherd, an underpaid farm hand, an oppressed servant, a sorcerer's apprentice, or a Tom Thumb. But this common cloth has a French cut to it, particularly when the raconteur drapes it over favorite characters like Petit Jean, the feisty blacksmith's apprentice; Cadiou, the quick-witted tailor; and La Ramee, the tough and disillusioned soldier, who bluffs and braves his way through many tales, along with Pipette, the clever young recruit, and a host of others—Petit-Louis, Jean le Teigneux, Fench Coz, Belle Eulalie, Pitchin-Pitchot, Parle, Bon- homme Misere.

    Sometimes the names themselves suggest the qual- ities of wit and duplicity that carry the hero through his trials; thus Le Petit Ffiteux, Finon-Finette, Parlafine, and Le Ruse Voleur. When passed in review, they seem to constitute an ideal type, the little guy who gets ahead by outwitting the big. In the English tales, Simple Simon provides a good deal of innocent amusement. In the German, Hans Dumm is a likeable lout, who comes out on top by good-natured bumbling and help from magic auxiliaries. The French tales show no sympa- thy for village idiots or for stupidity in any form, including that of the wolves and ogres who fail to eat their victims on the spot tale types D and Numbskulls represent the antithesis of trick- sterism; they epitomize the sin of simplicity, a deadly sin, because naivete in a world of confidence men is an invitation to disaster.

    The numbskull heroes of the French tales are therefore false numb- skulls, like Petit Poucet and Crampoues tale types and , who pretend to be dumb, all the better to succeed in manipulating a cruel but credulous world. Little Red Riding Hood—without the riding hood—uses the same strategy in the versions of the French tale where she escapes alive. But the girl insists, so the wolf permits her to go outside, tied to a rope.

    The girl attaches the rope to a tree and runs away, as the wolf tugs on it and calls out, having lost patience with waiting, " W h a t are you doing, shitting coils of rope? These characters have in common not merely cunning but weakness, and their adversaries are distinguished by strength as well as stupidity.

    Tricksterism always pits the little against the big, the poor against the rich, the underprivileged against the powerful. By structuring stories in this way, and without making explicit social comment, the oral tradition provided the peasants with a strategy for coping with their enemies under the Old Regime. Again, it should be stressed that there was nothing new or unusual about the theme of the weak outwitting the strong. It goes back to Ulysses's struggle against Cyclops and David's felling of Goliath, and it stands out strongly in the "clever maiden" motif of the German tales. They do not slay giants in a never-never land, even if they have to climb beanstalks to reach them.

    The giant in "Jean de l'Ours" tale type is le bourgeois de la maison,M living in an ordinary house like that of any wealthy farmer. The giant in "Le Conte de Parle" tale type is an overgrown coq Ju village "having supper with his wife and daugh- ter" 6 7 when the hero arrives to bamboozle him. The giant in "La Soeur infidele" tale type is a nasty miller; those in "Le Chas- seur adroit" tale type are common bandits; those in "L'Homme sauvage" tale type and "Le Petit Forgeron" tale type are tyrannical landlords, whom the hero fells after a dispute over grazing rights.

    It required no great leap of the imagi- nation to see them as the actual tyrants—the bandits, millers, estate stewards, and lords of the manor—who made the peasants' lives miserable within their own villages. Some of the tales make the connection explicit. A poor blacksmith is being cuckolded by his priest and tyrannized by the local seigneur. At the priest's instigation, the seigneur orders the smith to execute impossible tasks, which will keep him out of the way while the priest is occupied with his wife.

    The smith succeeds in the tasks twice, thanks to the help of a fairy. But on the third time, the seigneur orders a "capricorn," and the smith does not even know what it is. The fairy directs him to bore a hole in his attic floor and to call out "hold tight! First he sees the servant girl with her nightdress between her teeth picking fleas from her private parts. The "hold tight! Walking in backward in order to hide her nudity, the girl presents the pot to the mistress, and both hold it for the priest just as another "hold tight!

    In the morning, the smith drives the trio out of the house with a whip and, by a series of well-timed "hold tights! A Jacobin might be able to tell that story in such a way as to make it smell of gunpowder. But however little respect it shows for the privileged orders, it does not go beyond the bounds of nose thumbing and table turning.

    The hero is satisfied with exacting humiliation; he does not dream of revolution. Having ridiculed the local authorities, he leaves them to resume their places while he resumes his, unhappy as it is. Defiance does not take the heroes any farther in the other tales that venture close to social comment. When Jean le Teigneux tale type gets the upper hand on a king and two haughty princes, he makes them eat a peasant's meal of boiled potatoes and black bread; then, having won the princess, he takes his rightful place as heir to the throne.

    La Ramee wins his princess by using a kind of flea circus in a contest to make her laugh tale type Unable to bear the idea of a beggar for a son- in-law, the king goes back on his word and tries to force a courtier on her instead. Finally, it is decided that she will go to bed with both pretenders and choose the one she prefers. La Ramee wins this second contest by dispatching a flea into his rival's anus. The bawdiness may have produced some belly laughs around eighteenth-century hearths, but did it knot the peasant viscera into a gutlike determination to overthrow the social order?

    I doubt it. A considerable distance separates ribaldry from revolution, gauloiserie from jacquerie. In another variation on the eternal theme of under- dog boy meets overprivileged girl, "Comment Kiot-Jean epousa Jacqueline" tale type , the poor peasant, Kiot-Jean, is thrown out of the house when he submits his proposal to his true love's father, a prototypical fermier or wealthy peasant, who lorded it over the poor in the villages of the Old Regime and especially in Picar- dy, where this story was collected in Kiot-Jean consults a local witch and receives a handful of magic goat dung, which he hides under the ashes of the wealthy peasant's hearth.

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    Trying to revive the fire, the daughter blows on it, and "Poop! The same thing happens to the mother, the father, and finally the priest, who emits a spectacular string of farts while sprinkling holy water and mumbling Latin exorcisms. Kiot-Jean promises to deliver them if they will give up the girl; and so he wins his Jacqueline after surreptitiously re- moving the goat dung.

    No doubt the peasants derived some satisfaction from outwitting the rich and powerful in their fantasies as they tried to outwit them in everyday life, by lawsuits, cheating on manorial dues, and poaching. They probably laughed approvingly when the underdog dumped his worthless daughter on the king in "Les Trois Fileuses" tale type , when he whipped the king in "Le Panier de fi- gues" tale type , tricked him into rowing the boat as a servant of the devil in "Le Garcon de chez la bucheronne" tale type , and made him sit on the peak of his castle roof until he surrendered the princess in "La Grande Dent" tale type But it would be vain to search in such fantasies for the germ of republicanism.

    To dream of confounding a king by marrying a princess was hardly to challenge the moral basis of the Old Regime. Taken as fantasies of table turning, the tales seem to dwell on the theme of humiliation. The clever weakling makes a fool of the strong oppressor by raising a chorus of laughter at his expense, preferably by some bawdy stratagem.

    He forces the king to lose face by exposing his backside. But laughter, even Rabelaisian laughter, has limits. Once it subsides, the tables turn back again; and as in the succession of Lent to Carnival in the unfolding of the calendar year, the old order regains its hold on the revelers. Trick- sterism is a kind of holding operation.

    It permits the underdog to grasp some marginal advantage by playing on the vanity and stu- pidity of his superiors. Many economic historians say the necessary reorganisation of production also led to capitalism as we now know it, which replaced feudalism as the dominant structure of society. While the doctrine of Papal infallibility was the 'environmental' factor transmuting a single foolish pronouncement of Gregory IX into a continent-wide pestilence, the slightly less infallible Protestantism was far from innocent when it came to pointless massacres.

    In the case of the British witch hunts, all it took was a single mistranslated word in the great King James Bible and any old ladies who lived in cottages and looked a little bit magical were being burned at the stake like it was going out of fashion. The King James Version, the greatest legacy of a monarch who was obsessed with identifying demons walking the earth, was unambiguous. It stated in clear English: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live', thus confirming beyond doubt the existence of such child-snatchers in the minds of simpletons up and down the country.

    But anyone who troubled himself to go back to the original Hebrew might just notice that the word interpreted as 'witch' actually meant something a bit different. It is closer to 'diviners', 'magicians' or 'people who claim to have supernatural powers'. In the time of Moses, it seems many frauds wandered around Israel claiming to be able to do magic and interpret the stars or dreams, and Moses thought it best to have them closed down by the authorities.

    Little did he know that a few thousand years later, Britons would be running around burning their next-door neighbours as a result. It was bad news for anyone who could be described as 'a bit cackly'. To be fair to their accusers, a number of those sent to be drowned on the off-chance that they were witches didn't help matters by telling everyone that they could do magic.

    Normally — like modern astrologers or homeopaths — they were either boasting or crazy. Even before King James had taken the English throne and published his own Bible, he was reigning in Scotland and showing witches no mercy. In the eminently readable book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds , the Victorian journalist Charles Mackay relates the story of a coven of Scottish witches who had a tale tortured out of them by James's authorities that would put Edgar Allan Poe to shame.

    In one Dr Fian and his spooky accomplice, Gellie Duncan, were put on the rack after evidence — best described as 'circumstantial' — came to light that they were in league with the Devil. Mackay picks up the story, told to the court, after they have flown through the air to a church in North Berwick at night:. Arrived at the kirk they paced around it withershins, that is, in reverse of the apparent motion of the sun.

    Dr Fian then blew into the keyhole of the door, which opened immediately and all the witches entered. As it was pitch-dark, Fian blew with his mouth upon the candles which immediately lighted, and the Devil was seen occupying the pulpit. He was attired in a black gown and hat and the witches saluted him by crying 'All hail master!

    He commenced the preaching commanding them to be dutiful servants to him and do all the evil they could. When they had done scolding, he invited them all to a grand entertainment. A newly-buried corpse was dug up and divided among them, which was all they had in the way of edibles. King James may have gone to his grave feeling that his work battling the brides of Satan was done, but the Anglican Church in Britain disagrees and still has official exorcists for each diocese.

    Each one currently goes into battle with an average of ten demons, poltergeists or witches per year. Prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act have also taken place much more recently than many would imagine. The thrust of the Act which was finally repealed in was not, in fact, to outlaw witchcraft — our parliamentarians had, by then, generally accepted that magic was a load of bobbins. It was to outlaw those claiming to be witches or diviners and therefore spreading belief in supernatural powers; and this was why it was employed in London in the twentieth century.

    During the early s, the Luftwaffe was inflicting a terrible toll on British cities. The relatives of the dead were distraught. Then one woman said she could help ease their pain. She could put them in touch with the spirits of the dead — for a price. This odd trick seemed to pay off as hundreds of families from London contacted her for news of their loved ones who had been killed while away fighting or during the Blitz.

    Then, in , one of her more unusual evenings supposedly included a ghostly sailor entering the room wearing a cap from the HMS Barnham — a striking occurrence given the fact that Barnham had just been sunk and the British government was keeping it a secret, so no civilians were aware that its crew were dead. Duncan's impressionable followers declared she had 'the gift'. The police said what she actually had was 'classified information' and arrested her. Since she refused to stop spreading rumours, there was only one thing left to do: prosecute her for claiming to be a witch.

    When not pretending to vomit ectoplasm, she worked in a bleach factory. The law is the point of friction between the individual and the state — a set of restrictions on personal freedom. That is because there are many freedoms that no one should have, such as the freedom to push someone off a bus on an afternoon whim. Laws also demand that you keep others safe when those people reasonably expect you to. If the law had stated that the RMS Titanic' s look-out had to present his binoculars to the captain before the ship set sail, things might have turned out differently for more than 1, passengers who found they didn't need the return halves of their tickets.

    Often terrible outcomes have happened because keeping others safe would have cost time or money. But, in the first case we're going to look at, the protagonist made his error because he believed he could mock the system, without taking into account the size of the beast he was taunting. Government is traditionally split into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. Those who enter the first two are frequently accused — often with very good reason — of only having done so to feather their own nests.

    Yet, for a long time, the third branch was every bit as riddled with corruption as the others. Corruption, however, breeds enemies: often the envious, rather than the outraged, and they will ensure any wrongdoing by an official on the take is brought to light, even if it is only so they can take his place. Robert Tresilian, for example, quite liked making cash.

    As a thoroughly corrupt Chief Justice to the King's Bench who was always ready to hang an enemy of Richard II, he had many ways of doing so. His downfall, however, was a result of his attempt to play both sides in the struggle between the King and the Lords Appellant, a group of nobles demanding a say over the royal spending patterns. When these noblemen rose up against the King and ordered Tresilian's arrest, Robert made himself scarce.

    It was rumoured that he had fled abroad — which would have been the sensible thing to do — and the heat died down. But Tresilian had not run away to the Continent, he had not even gone to Berkshire: he was still ensconced in London. The very least he should have done was to keep his head down and stay indoors in order to continue evading justice. Instead, he decided to play detective and keep his enemies under his personal surveillance.

    Donning a fake beard, he took rooms in a house opposite Westminster Hall, where the Lords Appellant were meeting. In order to get a better view, he climbed onto the roof of an apothecary's house, shinned down the gutter and hid, watching to see who came and went. Quite what he would do with the information and why he wanted to get it personally instead of asking someone else to keep watch, is unknown.

    What is known is that the Lords in the hall were wishing they could get their hands on Tresilian and wondering where he was, when one of them pointed out that he was on the other side of the road.