Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Cuckold and the Ring

The Cuckold and the Ring
Adapted from a tale in, Fabliaux, Ribald tales from the Old French

One thing that really frustrates me as a storyteller is that many people still assume stories are only for children. But I know from my own research finding authentic tales from medieval times and before that many stories were not intended solely for children. Many were intended for a family audience to be told around the hearth. Many developed from moralising sermons for all in the church. But some clearly grew and grew in ribaldry as they were told and retold in the alehouse and were perhaps never ever intended for children's ears at all. Stories like this one adapted from a thirteenth century French fabliaux; a fable told to amuse. And what better way than to mock the old fool who chooses to take a young wife - a stock character in many a medieval tale.....

There was once a rich merchant of Norwich, who brought and sold and sometimes sold and brought  and when he wasn't doing that he would lend money at high interest, for he was only interested in himself.  He was very rich, but unlike his friends who all had large apple cheeked wives whom they draped in fine cloth and jewels to demonstrate their wealth and success, he had not. All his life he had been too busy making coin to marry, for he was a miser. Lets say a bit of a banker. You all know what I mean!

But now he was growing old, cold and achey and he sought the comfort of of young firm flesh and so he set out on the road to find himself a willing young wife. He travelled north, he travelled south, he traveled east and even west, and he met many many a potential mate. Some were pretty, some were plain, but non to his fancy until he met Bess. Never had he seen one as beautiful as this young maid. She was as skittish as a colt as straight as a crossbow bolt.  She was to use an underused term from long ago… Comely to behold.

The merchant had found a wife . They married but they did not live so happily ever after. For his Young Bess had  come hither and come to bed eyes  and the rich merchant began to worry that many another man would come hither when he was away on business. That many another man would come a knocking, come a tupping when he was away making coin. Such were his fears the merchant stopped going on his travels, he even feared to leave his own house lest others come and make him cuckold. Where once he had many chests of coin in his counting house, now he had few and the old merchants friends began to mock him, telling the many tales of old fools who sought young and willing flesh.

The old man did indeed feel foolish, knowing that he should never have married one so young and beautiful, knowing that soon he would not even have enough coin to care for her. Such were his fears that now the old merchant got very little joy from life and even less sleep. Each night he would lie besides the beautiful Bess tossing and turning preying to no one in particular for help, before falling into fitful dream leaden sleep. And this night so tired was he that no sooner had his head hit the pillow than he began to dream.  Dreams of counting coin mostly and as he slept he fingered the chinks with his hands. But then there was a blast of bright light and standing at the the foot of his bed was an angel. A beautiful man with fine wings and a glimmering gown. The angel smiled serenely upon the old man and held out a hand, In which he held a golden ring. And then the angel spoke. I am an angel,  said he to the merchant, But fear not. Rest happy and be of good cheer this night. For take this golden ring and place it upon the middle finger of you right hand and as long as you wear this ring  your wife will never be unfaithful. Now sleep old man, said the Angel. before smiling once more, winking and disappearing before the merchants eyes.

The merchant knew his prayers had been answered. He wiggled and pushed the ring onto the middle finger of his right hand and settled down to sleep. And that night he slept the deep, deep and very sweet, sweet sleep of a happy and contented man. And in the morning the light spilt thru the open window. Birds were singing loudly and cocks were crowing as cocks so often crow in stories. The merchant he woke up feeling oh so much happier, energised even. He lept from his bed, or should I say he made to leap from his bed. For where his legs went, his body would not follow. For his body was attached to his right arm (as most are) His right arm was attached to his right hand and of course his right hand to his fingers. And the right middle finger? Well that was shoved firmly up his wifes arse!

And do you know, whilst he wore that particular ring on his finger the merchant's wife was never ever unfaithful!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Of the Miller Who Stole the Nuts

Chaucer's Miller taken from the 14th Century Ellesmere Manuscript

It is perhaps strange that most of the stories I tell are not about nuts. For nuts were and important part of the medieval diet. Acorns fattened many a pig, whilst walnuts were candied in honey and served as a treat for the rich. Almonds were ground to make a milk used in cooking and many a Dr of Physick thought that nuts were good for the health. Their dry humors helped balance the more moist humors that could upset the stomach. Nuts were an important part of the medieval menu. And many a medieval man liked nuts, although some did not as you will hear from my story….

For once long ago there was a rich farmer who had great love of nuts! He planted trees of filberts and other nut trees in his orchard that he tended carefully all his life. Indeed, so great was the farmers love of nuts that when he died he had a great bag of them buried with him in his grave. A great bag of nuts to take with him to the next life.

But the local miller, a grinder of grain and well known for the wearing of a white coat was also a lover of nuts. The very night of the very day that the farmer was buried with his nuts the miller went to the farmers orchard to steal some filberts for himself. Well on the way he met his friend the taylor, a maker of clothes and well known for the wearing of a black coat and who like the miller was a thief in the making. For having heard of the farmers death and having no liking for nuts, he choose instead to steal one of the dead mans sheep.

And so it was the two men decided that each would go about his business, the miller stealing the nuts, the taylor stealing the sheep and then by way of celebration they would meet in the church porch. Whosoever arrives at the porch first, says the miller, must wait for the other and then we’ll away to the alehouse. Both agreed and went about their thievery and it happened that it was the miller was quick to steal his nuts! He arrived at the church porch first and whilst waiting for the taylor he decided to crack and eat some of his ill gotten gains.

Well it happened that it was nine of the clock at night. The time when the sexton, the man who buried the dead was to ring the curfew bell, telling all it was time to leave the streets. But as he walked towards the church, he heard a strange tap. tap tapping and crack, crack, cracking coming from the porch and when he looked into the porch he saw a man all in white cracking nuts, breaking them open upon the hard stone pavement. ARRRRGH cried the sexton, it’s the ghost of the farmer, the farmer risen from his grave in search of more nuts! And with that he ran quickly home and told his ancient father all that he had seen and all that he had heard. Well, when the sextons father heard all that the sexton had to say, he did not believe him and wished to see for himself. But the old man was lame, he could not walk and so needed his son the sexton to carry him. And so it was father and son set out for the church yard, the father riding upon the sons back.

The miller was still sitting in the porch, still waiting for his friend the taylor and still eating his nuts, when he looked up and saw someone coming, someone carrying something on his back. And thinking it was his friend the taylor carrying a stolen sheep he stood up and called out, Is he good and fat this fellow you carry, for I could do with a feast! and when the sexton heard the miller speak he thought that it was the dead farmer and he threw his lame father from his back. Fat or lean, says he to the miller, you can have him, just don’t have me, and with that he ran away, leaving his father on the road. But by a miracle the old man was cured. He got up and ran away as fast if not faster than his son. Both ran away.

Well the miller when he saw there were two men, the one running after the other, he thought that someone was chasing his friend the taylor; that someone must have seen him stealing the sheep! And so it was he was sore afraid for he felt certain that if the taylor was caught then he would tell on the miller. If the taylor is caught thought the miller, he will blab. He will tell how I stole the nuts! And in such a fright was he that the miller ran home leaving all the stolen nuts behind.

Well it was just a little while later that the taylor returned to the porch with the stolen sheep and when he found all the nutshells he saw that the miller must have been waiting some time, before he got bored and went home to his mill. But what's this, wondered the taylor, the miller had left the uneaten nuts the whole bag is still here, and so it was he decided to take the nuts to the millers house. He took up the stolen sheep upon his back and went towards the mill.

Meanwhile the sexton ran to the house of the priest and told him all that he had seen and all that he had heard. The farmer is risen from the grave, says he, and now he wanders abroad cracking his nuts and seeking out the flesh of living men! Well when the priest heard all that the sexton had to say he was more than a little afraid, but decided that as a man of the cloth it was his duty to exorcise the ghost off the farmer. To put an end to the unholy cracking of nuts! And so it was he put on his surplice of white linen and the other clothes of a priest and along with the sexton went back towards the church.

But on the road to the churchyard, they met the taylor who was on his way to the mill and the taylor thinking that the priest in his white surplice was the miller in his white coat he called out to him, By God, I have him, I have him firmly in my grasp, meaning the sheep that he carried on his back. But the priest seeing the taylor all dressed in black with a white thing squirming and wriggling upon his back, he felt certain that it was the Devil! The Devil himself carrying off the spirit of the dead farmer to Hell! ARRRRGH cried the priest I knew no good would come of the unholy eating of nuts! He ran away, whilst the sexton he too ran away as fast if not faster than the priest!

The taylor seeing two men running; the one running after the other, he thought surely someone must be chasing his friend the miller, that someone must have seen him stealing the nuts! He felt sore afraid, for he felt certain that if the miller was caught then he would tell on the taylor… If the miller is caught, thought the taylor, then he is sure to squeal, he will tell how I stole the sheep! And so it was he decided to give chase, to run to the mill, for that is where the miller was sure to go.

The taylor ran to the mill and seeing no one outside he beat loudly upon the door and called to his friend, By God I have caught one of them, says he, I have him tied fast by the legs, meaning the sheep that he carried upon his back. But the miller who was inside the mill hearing the words thought it was the local constable talking and that he had caught the taylor for stealing the sheep, and that he had the taylor tied up fast by his legs. That he had caught the taylor and now he the constable had come for the miller, too arrest him for stealing the nuts! ARRRGH cried the miller and he ran out the back door of the mill as fast as he could.

And so it was the miller ran down the very road that the priest and the sexton were running up and they seeing a man in white and thinking it to be the dead farmer who must have escaped from the Devil, the sexton ran one way whilst the priest he jumped into a ditch. But the ditch was deep and the priest would surely drown and so it was he screamed out at the top of his voice, Help, help, for Gods sake help me. The taylor having heard the back door of the mill slam shut, having ran round the mill and seen the miller running one way, the sexton running the other and having heard the priest calling for help, thought that it must be the constable with men from the village, and all of them after him! And so it was that he threw the stolen sheep down to the ground and he too ran away. The taylor he ran here, the miller he ran there and the sexton, well he ran everywhere, whilst the priest remained in the ditch. And if you had been out that night; the night of the day that they buried the farmer and if you had seen all that went on that night, then you would have surely thought that each and every one; the miller, the taylor, the Sexton and the priest were well and truly……NUTS!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Pardoners Tale - Three foolish youths and Death himself

Adapted from Chaucer's Canterbury Tale

Hopefully one thing you will take away from any of my stories is that although life could be hard in medieval times our ancestors still knew how to laugh albeit in a moral way! They liked their jokes and jests just as we still do today and they needed to be able to laugh, for life could be very hard indeed. War, famine and disease were never far away and so people had a greater intimacy with Death than we today, they knew Death well enough. In all the churches of the land at this time the people would have seen depictions of hell and Death, which served as warnings to all. Pictures of monstrous animals and demons consuming the sinful, eating all those who had lived a bad life. All those who had lived lewd lives and died of diseases like the Black Death. In my own home town of Norwich there were 3 outbreaks in the 1300s and there are some as say that up to 25,000 people lost their lives to it. Oh how they suffered before they died, large black buboes and boils some said to be as big as apples under the armpits and elsewhere, a violent fever and sickness, 3 to 6 days of melancholy and misery before death and being tipped into a common grave shared with many other unfortunate victims of the pestilence that plagued the land. And what could be done, for no one knew the cause. Was it the wrath of God upon a sinful people or ‘arsenical’ fumes, polluted gases erupting from the very earth beneath our feet? No one knew what caused the plague and so there was little that could be done to protect against this terrible disease. But as you will hear there were some as tried…….

For my tale begins in Flanders - a distant City, but not that different to Norwich. For like Norwich it suffered greatly from the ravishes of the disease and like Norwich it had its fair share of alehouses, pubs, taverns, call them what you will. And like Norwich, Flanders had its fair share of drunkards and fools who lived within the taverns drowning their sorrows now that the plague was upon them……

For in Flanders there was such a company
Of youngsters wedded to such sin and folly

The folly of gaming, of playing dice and cards and drinking too much and swearing outrageous oaths. For they swore in the medieval fashion…

By Gods precious blood!’ and ‘By Gods nails
By the blood of Jesus kept at the Abbey of Hails
My dice scores seven, yours only three
By Gods two arms, if you try cheating me

And as they swore they drank some more and as they drank some more they swore some more! For it is a common known fact that the more a man drinks, the more foolish he becomes and the more foolish he becomes the more he drinks and so on and so forth. As it was with these three young men….

The three loose livers of whom I tell
Along time before the first church bell
Had seated themselves in a tavern drinking
And as they sat, heard another bell clinking

But it was the not church bell calling all to a service, It was but a solitary hand bell and it let forth a sad, a sorrowful report, whilst in the distance a lone voice could also be heard….

Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.

And through the window of the tavern the three youths saw a corpse being carted. A dead man being carried on his last journey, to be rudely tipped into a common grave, there to lay with the other unfortunate victims of the plague. Well all three now wished to know who had died, for which unlucky soul the bell now tolled. And the serving boy of the tavern told all three that it was a friend of theirs and that Death had taken him suddenly just the evening before. He died as the boy said whilst he sat making merry upon that very bench where they now sat.

And whilst he sat there blind drunk, there came
A softly treading thief and Death was his name!

It was Death the thief who steals the life from all eventually. Be they rich or poor, old or young, all are the unwilling victims of his crimes! But now their host, the landlord spoke and he reminded the youths that Death had already taken thousands whilst the plague raged in Flanders and he warned all three to be on their guard lest Death should come a creeping and steal the very life force from them.

Death the thief! A strange idea to you and I, but remember that the people of medieval times had an intimacy with Death that we do not have today. They knew Death well enough. In all the churches of the land at this time the people would have seen depictions of hell which served as warnings to all. Pictures of monstrous animals and demons consuming the sinful, eating all those who had lived a bad life. They knew Death well enough because it could be all around them! That doesn’t mean that men didn’t fear dying, for like you and I most wanted to live long happy lives, but not it seems our three drunken friends in Flanders. They were much offended by the demise of their friend. He had been a fine friend who had drunk many a quart of ale with the three young men and now they wanted revenge! They were not scared of Death, for he was nothing but a common thief who steals the life of men as if it were no more than a few base coins in a poor mans purse and as a common thief should not he be punished for his crimes?

And so it was pondering upon these thoughts they drank some more and as they drank their anger like their foolishness grew. Anger at the loss of a friend, but anger fuelled by drink, which was the worst kind of anger, because it could not be controlled. Anger at that ruffian Death, that common thief. Should not he himself be put to death for all his evil crimes? Why yes of course he should agreed all three and all three drew their daggers and brought them down into the very bench upon which their friend had died. And each swore this very oath….

Each of us will hold his hand up to the other
And with this oath become his brother
And we will kill this black betrayer Death
And we will kill the killer, by Gods Holy breath

Each swore the oath upon his life that all three would act as one and be Death's executioners. They would punish Death for all his thieving ways. And so it was all three set forth from the tavern upon their foolish quest. And it was a foolish quest, for they were as drunk as drunk could be and it is a common known fact that the more a man drinks the more foolish he becomes and the more foolish a man becomes then the more he drinks and so on and so forth! And it was a foolish quest because none of them knew not what Death looked like or from whence he came. Although they did know that he had been hard at work in the City, especially in the poorest quarter of Flanders. Death had been especially busy there and many had died and so they thought if they were to find Death anywhere then sure it would be there.

But they had not gone as much as half a mile
And just as they were about to cross a stile
When they a met an old man who greeted them
He said ‘God save and keep you Gentlemen

But their greeting back to him was less kind and all three looked with suspicion upon the old man. For why was such an old frail man abroad on such a cold night as this? And how come such an old man as he was still alive when so many young folk were dead of the plague? How come, they asked him had old man as decrepit as he not yet shuffled off this mortal coil, how come he had not perished of the foul pestilence that was upon the land? And he answered thus

Although I have walked the length and breath of this land in many a town and village and even to the end of the earth, I have never found anyone on my travels who would exchange his youth for my old age. I’m so tired and like a prisoner trapped upon this earth. Upon this earth which was is heavens gate I go knocking from early till late Saying, my dearest earth let me in See how I wither, flesh, blood and skin. But mother earth will not let me in and though I yearn to exchange my poor mans shirt for a linen shroud, it is not yet to be.

But, the three foolish youth were not convinced by the old mans words. Surely they thought this old man he must be in league with Death, perhaps he was Death's spy looking for his next victim. Perhaps he had even struck a bargain with Death, that would explain how an old man as he were still alive. Why he might even be Death himself for all they knew, for the foolish youths did not know what Death looked like or from whence he came. And even if he were not Death they still felt certain that one so old, so close to death as he would know where thief Death might be found. And so they asked him…

Old man says they, old man. It is Death we seek and so prey tell us where he is?

Now the withered old mans dull eyes flashed brightly…

Well gentlemen said he if you’re so keen
I’ll tell you now that death I’ve seen
To find death, follow this crooked road
For upon my word, I left him in that grove
Under a tree and there he will abide
For all your boasting, he’ll not hide

So follow the crooked road to the oak tree yonder and there you will find Death!

Thereupon all three foolish youths began to run. God be with you the old man shouted after them, but they did not reply. They were already near the tree running toward their destiny. They ran and they ran….

Until they reached the tree and then they found
Gold Florins, gold coins, fine and round
Near eight bushels of them, or so they thought
Thenceforth it was no longer Death they sought
For each was happy at the sight
Those Florins, those coins, so beautiful and so bright

The sight of such a precious hoard of treasure meant that all three now forgot their sworn oath to punish Death. But know this, Death had not forgotten them although all three were happy for now for…

Upon them fortune had bestowed his treasure
So they might live in luxury forever

But wait. How could they claim this treasure for themselves? If they were to carry it away now whilst others were still abroad they might see the treasure. They knew that they must wait until the alehouses and taverns were closed and non but the vilest rogues were still abroad. They must wait until the veil of darkness had descended so no one could see them carrying away the treasure to their houses...

This treasure must be carried away at night
As quietly and slyly as it might

For if they were caught, people would say they were thieves and for their treasure they would be hanged. They would have to wait, but waiting could be thirsty work. So all three drew straws to see who among them would go to town to fetch some wine and some bread, whilst the other two kept a sharp eye upon the gold. And as it happened it fell to the youngest of the three friends to leave, for it was he that drew the shortest straw. And so it was he that set off for town.

Forth toward the town he went, anon
But almost as soon as he were gone
One of the two who stayed said unto the other
You must knowest well you are my brother
Well, I’ll tell you something you won’t lose by
Now our young friend has gone awry

Why asked he, should we share the gold between three?...

How would it be, if I could work it with you
That we only shared the gold between us two

Both agreed that they were two and two are stronger than one. And both agreed that upon their young friends return they would wait until he settled and when he sat down they would leap upon him as if having fun, as if making sport, but with their daggers they would skewer him right through the back! It seems then that two foolish youths were taken by greed. But greed is a disease just like the plague, for like the plague it is very infectious and not many are immune. For the youngest of the foolish threesome, the one heading into town, he too was thinking of the gold…

Those lovely shining Florins, new and bright
‘Oh Lord!’ said he, ‘if I only I might’
Keep all the treasure for myself alone
I be the happiest person beneath Gods heavenly throne

And to that end he went first to an apothecary, a chemist if you like and upon the excuse of needing to kill some rats, he bought poison. And It was a good strong poison that no living creature could withstand, for as the apothecary noted, it was so strong that anything that drank but drop the size of a grain of wheat…

Then it would die, in less a while
Than it takes to run an even mile

Satisfied with his poison, the young man bought some bread and three large bottles of wine and then hiding in an alleyway nearby he uncorked two of the bottles and poured the poison into them and then made his way back to the tree. Well what more do I need say, for there was to be no going back, the die had been cast. No sooner had all three sat down and broken the bread than as if to make sport the two attacked the one…

And before he’d a chance to be well fed
They jumped upon him and killed him dead

But killing a friend can be thirsty work and just as their dead friend had planned they drank from the bottle of poisoned wine. And just as their dead friend had planned, they both suffered slow agonising deaths. The murderers were murdered by a murdered man! And so it seems the old man had been right all along, for it was Death the three foolish youths had sought and he had indeed been waiting for them at the foot of the great oak tree…..

For although they found not Death, not he
Death found them and claimed all three!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don't Count Your Chickens

'Henwife'. Taken from the Luttrell Psalter c. 1330

Don’t Count your Chickens
I can often be heard saying that there are no new tales in the world and we storytellers simply grow new corn from old fields. We take those old tales and make them our own. We impose our culture and our beliefs on them and in that way they travel around the world. Don't Count Your Chickens is a story that is a good example of this, because it is an ancient tale in both the East and the West. In the East more often than not the main character is a young man who is the fantasist, but in West it is a woman who plays the fool (Although even here there are exceptions like Johnny Wopstraw and the Hare) There are then many different versions of this tale, some of which can be found in the Hindu Hitopadesa, The Arabian Nights, Rablais Gargantua and La Fontaine’s Fables. Enjoy...

Once there was young woman who was fair of face and soft of thigh and a girl who had many an admirer. But she cared little of the attentions of local lads, for with a purse full of naught but head full of dreams she was a flibberty gibbit. A lass who was never in the here and now, for she was always in next week, next month, next year… For she was a girl who always wanted more….

Well once a year she had to take her honey, or rather the honey of her mother’s bees she kept in her small garden to market. Once a year she carried that precious load from her mother’s hives to the autumn fayre to sell. The girl trudged the long road to market and as she walked on this fine late summers day with the pot of honey set with a basket upon her back, she began to dream of how she would spend her mother’s profits, the coin from the sale of the honey….

First, she thought to herself, I will sell my honey and this very day buy me a dozen fine and goodly eggs And I shall take those twelve eggs home and set them under my mother’s fat brown hen, and in time they will hatch and I shall have me a dozen little fine and goodly chicks. And when those chicks become chickens, perhaps two cockerels and ten hens, I shall sell them all and buy myself some fine and goodly lambs. And when those lambs become sheep, I shall shear their backs of wool. Fine and goodly wool it shall be. Wool to be spun into fine and goodly threads. Fine and goodly thread to be woven into fine and goodly cloth. That’s it yes, she thought, fine and goodly wool, which will bring a fair price at market and so lots more coin. And with that coin I shall buy myself some fine and goodly cows and they shall feast upon the lush, fine and goodly grass in the churchyard and their milk it too shall be fine and goodly and folks shall travel from miles around to buy my milk and I shall be rich!

And so it was she dreamt of how she would become richer than her neighbours, how she would, be able to marry the handsome son of a Lord from here or there or even somewhere else for that matter. How she would live in a fine house and marry her fine and goodly sons, all twelve of them to fine and goodly wives and how they would sing and dance each night to beat of the tabor and fine and goodly pipe….

But the young woman who fair of face and soft of thigh was so taken with her fine and goodly thoughts that she really did begin to dance… skipping this way and that, clapping her hands to the beat… she leapt into the air so high that suddenly the jar of honey was thrown from her basket. It flew high into the air and along with her dreams was smashed upon the floor. For want of honey she never did get her fine and goodly eggs, nor her two cockerels and ten hens, her sheep with fine and goodly wool, her cows, her handsome husband, twelve sons and their fine goodly wives. All were all lost. All were left naught but a sticky mess upon the road.

Monday, September 27, 2010

No Tale to Tell

Inside the Cardinal's Hat, Norwich!

No Tale to Tell

Adapted from an Irish Story

The nights are drawing in and so its time for all storytellers out there to turn their attentions to those darker Devilish tales. Tales like this one, although all you storytellers spare a thought for all those who do not have a story; men like the Pedlar you'll meet below who didn't have a tale to tell....

Once long ago there was Pedlar who went from town to town, village to village and house to house selling his wares, crying, what do you lack, what do you lack, what will you buy from the pack on my back... wherever he went. And one day he came to Norwich walking here and there, there and here, from Ber street to Bishopsgate bridge, from Westwick Street to Whitefriars and on the market place as well, selling his wares.

But times were hard in the City. It was winter, food was short, prices were high and plague was rife and carts loaded with bodies were carted to mass graves to be buried with out care or much in the way of prayer. Whilst others suspected of the great pestilence were nailed up in their houses to await their doom. And so it was the Pedlar did little trade and with little coin in his pouch and winters icy grip reaching deep inside him, he went from inn to alehouse seeking a cheap bed for the night. And after many wrong words his search brought him to the Cardinals Hat, an inn well known for harboring all manner of rogues and knaves . A house of ill rule if ever there was one! The landlord was a giant of a man, red faced and roaring but with smile in his eyes that put the Pedlar at his ease.

He told the Landlord of his needs and the landlord smiled, he sat the Pedlar down and fed him upon hot soup and ale heated with a poker fetched from the fire. He offered the Pedlar a bed free of charge for the night, for all the landlord wanted in return was a story. A story from the Pedlar. But the Pedlar did not have a story. Why even my own story is of little worth, says he, I was born, I was raised and I took to the road like my father and his father before him, and so I have no tale to tell. But the landlord merely laughed. He patted the Pedlar upon the back, lit a candle and led him to a room. Have the bed anyway, says he as he bowed to the Pedlar and bid him goodnight.

Well the Pedlar was well pleased with his room and the bed was the softest he had ever slept in and soon he was drifting off to sleep. But there was a noise, feint at first, a tap, tap, tapping upon the window pane. The Pedlar peered over the covers and saw nowt and so thought it must be a branch from a tree swaying in the wind, for the weather had worsened and there was snow on the way. And the Pedlar thought the tap, tap, tapping so annoying, he would sleep very little that night. He rose from his bed, he padded to the window and opened it to see what he could see. He peered into the darkness but could see no tree nearby, he saw nothing.... Save only a hand attached to the ragged remnants of an arm.... A hand pointing at him. The hand grabbed the Pedlar taking hold of his throat it dragged him through the window, the nails tearing at the flesh of his neck and now another and another hand, many hands took hold of the Pedlar taking his hair, his arms, his feet, dragging him to a churchyard nearby.

And there in the churchyard was pit half dug with a great pile of bodies mouldering nearby. A spade leant against a nearby tree and hanging from its branches was a winding sheet flapping in the breeze. A winding sheet waiting a body to wrap tight. The hands pointed into the pit and a voice that came from void said, Dig. And other voices they too whispered, dig, dig, dig, as the hands pushed the Pedlar into the unfinished grave. To say the Pedlar was scared could not do his feelings full justice, for he was terrified and he knew that the winding sheet flapping on the tree was his, but still he dug. Seeing no way out he dug and he dug and he dug his sobs mingling with the melancholic cawing of crows; crows who sat upon the tree and cackled like old crones, laughing at the poor Pedlar forced to dig his own grave.

The Pedlar dug for what seemed an age whilst the snow fell heavily, making the sides of the pit cold and slippery to the touch. The Pedlar stop crying, resigned now to his fete. But the crows they too had ceased their scathing mocking calls and the whispering cries of, dig, dig, dig, they were no more. The Pedlar set the spade across the top of the hole and pulled himself up, eyes half closed terrified of what he might see. But he saw nowt except the thick snow laden clouds passing across the moon. The hands were gone. The Pedlar slowly pulled himself from the grave and crept through the graveyard making his way towards the gate set in the churchyard wall in front of the porch. Closer and closer he crept as silently and as slowly as he could. Feeling for the gravestones he got closer and closer... But a hand from nowhere took hold of his leg, then another and another. The Pedlar screamed tearing the hands from his body . He threw himself through the gate running as fast as he could towards the Inn, not looking back he leapt onto a cart that sat beneath the open window of his chamber and from the cart he leap towards the window, hooking his fingers over the ledge, pulling himself up. Heaving his aching body into the room, he slammed the window shut, he crawled into the corner of the room and curled up like a frightened child...

And that is how he remained for the rest of the night. Sitting with head between his knees and arms wrapped about him, rocking backwards and forwards until the sun began to rise, the cock crowed and there was a knock at his door that set him jumping again. The Pedlar got to his feet and slowly, very slowly he opened the door just enough to peep through and there was the innkeeper before him. The Pedlar broke down and sobbing he told the red faced man all that had happened in the graveyard, of the crooked crows, hurtful hands and the winding sheet waiting for him. And the Innkeeper looked at the Pedlar still with a smile in his eyes, except now it was a wicked smile. His face that too was much redder than before and now the Pedlar saw that he had hooves for shoes, hairy legs for trousers and a tale that lish lashed, lash lished behind him. For the Innkeeper was the Devil himself, the biggest rogue, the biggest knave of them all. Last night when you came to my Inn, says the Devil to the Pedlar. You told me that you did not have a tale to tell. Well, says the Devil to the Pedlar, well says he.... You have now!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Of the Knight and the Widow

Of the Knight and the Window
Taken from Aesop’s fables and other medieval folklore

Image from William Caxton's Original Illustrated edition of Aesop's Fables (1484)

Most people think of animal stories when they think of Aesop' Fables. Animals like the sly fox who took on the bad characteristics of we humans. But not all of the fables involved animals, although they were still about the darker side of life. Stories like the Knight and the Widow, for I have always enjoyed telling merry gestes; short jokey tales with a great punch line and that's why I like this story. It's also a story that you can really work with, making it as gruesome and as silly as you please!

Once long ago there lived an alewife. An old woman who divided her time between the selling ale and the finding a new man to wed For the alewife had had many husbands in her many years. More husbands than there were days in the week, and weeks in the year. All had felt the sharp end of her tongue, and Death's cold bony fingers upon their shoulders. And in truth all were happy to go, for the alewife was the most troublesome, the most noisome women any of them had ever known. And so it was her last husband had died this very week and she was already searching for his replacement.

Well it was at this time that a notorious rogue, a thief and murderer of many years standing was hanged by the neck for all his terrible crimes. Hanged at a crossroads and as was the custom of the day, he was left hanging in chains to rot to serve as an example to all those who sought to steal and kill. But such was the hatred and notoriety of the hanged man that the local Lord ordered a young Knight, new in his service to guard the body. To protect the body from any who sought to attack it or even steal it away and sell to others. To those who might use for who knows what!

Well the young Knight wanted to please his new Lord and so he followed his orders faithfully. For three long days and three longer nights the knight guarded the corpse and never once left his post. But he grew tired, he grew hungry and thirsty and besides no one had tried to touch the body of the hanged man, save only the crows that pecked at his eye and his flesh. Surely thought the young Knight no one shall touch the hanged man now, for it was summer and the body was already beginning to stink. Surely thought he, no one will mind if I slip away for a while and have an ale or two or maybe even three. And so it was the young knight left the body hanging at the crossroads and went quickly to an alehouse nearby; the alehouse of the alewife who divided her time between the selling of ale and the finding a new man to wed!

Well the alewife was pleased to welcome the handsome young man to her house and even more pleased to pour him an ale or two, an ale or three, an ale or four and many, many more! So many in fact that the knight spent most of the night at the alehouse and only as the first cock crowed in the early hours did he remember his duty.

But when he returned to the cross roads all was not as he had left it. Something was wrong, for all was not right and where once the body had hung; now only chains remained. Well straight way the young knight returned to the alehouse. He knew only a few people of the town and he trusted even less and the alewife had treated him kindly and the Knight thought that an old woman such as she must have a good supply of wit and wisdom about her. He fell to his knees before the old alewife and pleaded with he. Good Mistress says he. You must help me. For if you don’t I must leave this place, lest they take me for a knave hang me in the rogue's place. The alewife could not believe her ears, it could not be, for she had taken quite a fancy to the young Knight. She thought him a lusty young fellow and was not about to give him up so easily. And the young Knight had indeed been right and she had wit and wisdom enough for the both of them.

Fear not gentle Knight says she. For if you follow what I say and do, you shall be safely delivered. And with that she fetched a spade and lantern and made straightway for the graveyard where her last husband was three days since buried. And whilst she held the lantern high the old alewife set the young Knight to digging. Fear not gentle Knight, says she, for we shall hang my husband’s body in the rogues place!

And so it was they dug up her dead husbands mouldering corpse and set it high on the gallows in place of the murdering thief. And the knight was much pleased….. But wait says he, something is wrong, for something is not right. For the murdering rogue that once hanged here had but one leg, for the other was lost long ago when he fell beneath the wheels of a cart. The old woman merely laughed. No problem, says she, and she went quickly, fetched a saw and sawed off her dead husband’s leg!

And the knight was much pleased.... But wait, says he, something is wrong, for something is not right. For the murdering rogue that once hanged here had no eyes, for the one was lost long ago when he got into a fight after cheating at cards and the other was lost just the other night when a crow took it for its dinner! The old woman merely laughed. No problem, says she, and she went quickly, fetched a dagger and plucked out both her dead husband’s eyes!

And the knight was much pleased.... But wait, says he, something is wrong, for something is not right. For the murdering rogue that once hanged here had a brand upon his cheek, a mark burnt into his skin to show all that he was a thief. The old woman merely laughed. No problem, says she, and she went quickly, fetched a poker from the fire and burnt deeply into her dead husbands flesh!

And the knight was much pleased.... But wait, says he, something is wrong, for something is not right. For the murdering rogue that once hanged here had but two teeth in the whole of his head, for the others had rotted away long, long ago. The old woman merely laughed. No problem, says she, and she went quickly, fetched a hammer and knocked all but two of her husbands teeth from his mouth!

And the knight was much pleased.... But wait says he, something is wrong, for something is not right. For the murdering rogue that once hanged here had but three fingers upon his right hand, for the other was lost long, long ago, when he had been bitten by the Lords best hunting hound. The old woman merely laughed. No problem, says she, and she went quickly, fetched an axe and chopped off her dead husband’s fingers!

And the knight was much pleased.... At last the alewife’s husband was a goodly match for the murdering rogue who had once hung there. And so pleased was the knight that once again he fell to his knees and thanked the old woman for her help and promised her any reward that it was in his power to give. Well, says the old woman, I wish to be wed, once more to marry. So how would it be that you become my husband and I become your wife?

The knight, he slowly raised himself to his feet and rubbed his chin as if in careful thought. No fear mother, says he, for I have seen well enough how you treated your last husband. I’m off! And with that the young knight jumped upon his horse and galloped off into what was left of the old night. And he was never seen in that locality again.

And as for the alewife’s last husband? Well, he was left to rot.

And as for the alewife? Well, some of those who have told this tale are not certain, but I feel sure that she served many more pots of ale and wed many more a foolish husband. Of that I have no doubt!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Riddle me this...

Like many storytellers I like to add a riddle or two to my sessions to add a bit of interest. They are particularly good when waiting for a crowd to arrive. I often use them to set up a particular tale and as a means for an audience to 'earn a story. If they get the riddle right, they get a story or two. If they cannot answer the riddle, they must stay behind till the end, help me pack up and carry all my skins, tent and other stuff back to Norwich!

Some riddles like many of the Saxon examples collected in the Exeter Riddle Book are very complicated. So complicated we don't now know the answers to all of them. But others are easier and far more silly like this one adapted for a week of storytelling in Sherwood Forest this coming August...

Friar Tuck was baking some pies for Robin of the Hood and his very Merry Men. But what did the Friar Tuck and his helpers put in the pies to stop them going rotten?

The answer to this riddle is cunningly hidden on my latest blog post about the travels of an itinerant storyteller in the New Forest....