Medieval Comic Tales

Derek Brewer
Illustrated by Becca Thorne
Preface by Peter Ackroyd

A wonderful collection of bawdy and playful tales of foolish monks and cunning wives, illustrated by Becca Thorne and introduced by Peter Ackroyd.

‘It is wonderful to contemplate the medieval spirit, with its piety and its brutality, its capacity for violence and its respect for formal order, its chivalry and vulgarity’

  1. Peter Ackroyd

Quick-thinking wives caught with their lovers turn the tables on their husbands; a trickster exposes the impiety of a priest; St Peter rescues all the souls in hell by gambling with loaded dice … When Chaucer and Boccaccio wrote The Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, they were drawing upon a great wealth of comic tales, ranging from crude anecdotes to mock courtly romances. Derek Brewer's compendium, first published in 1973, brings together a selection that spans the length and breadth of Europe, some written in the vernacular, some in Latin. Organised by country of origin, they are translated in pithy prose that captures the flavour of the originals. The reader will recognise the sources of later comic stories ('The Smith in the Baking-Trough' from Germany inspired Chaucer's 'The Miller's Tale') within a treasure-trove of often ribald tales. There is plenty of innuendo and wordplay: a monk who blesses a maiden with his own personal trinity; half-shocking blasphemies, such as the Friar who preaches against riding on a Sunday and, when challenged that Christ rode on Palm Sunday, replies, 'What came of it? Wasn't he hanged on the Friday after?' There are farcical mistaken identities: a porter paid to throw a hunchback in the river ends up disposing of four different men. And there are cruel tricks: a deceived husband tells his wife that her illegitimate 'snow-child' melted, when, in fact, he sold the boy as a slave.

The book is illustrated with witty linocuts by Becca Thorne, modelled on illuminations from psalters and bestiaries. In his original introduction, Derek Brewer explores the role humour played, then as now, in binding and defining cultures and communities. Peter Ackroyd has written a new preface in which he considers the nature of this humour, musing that, 'In a world of pain and suffering … the restorative power of laughter must have been proportionately great.'

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