Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Have You Heard the One about the Episcopus Vagans and the Peasant's Daughter?

While cleaning my office yesterday, I found an old copy of The Humor of the Fabliaux, and was struck by how many of the stories had wandering clerks (sometimes known as episcopi vagantes) bedding down the wives and daughters of peasants.

This got me to thinking -- could the stories of episcopi vagantes and peasants' daughters be the ancestors of the modern "travelling salesman & farmer's daughter" jokes? They are certainly of the same type, but the types might just seem similar because they are types. After all, the naive rural girl (or the faux ingenue) is a stock character in a lot of stories, as is the travelling male predator, but something about the way the fabliaux so often poke fun at the relative social distance between the clerk and the peasant girl (or her father) seems very similar to the social distance between the worldly salesman and the farm girl (and her farmer father).

I'm not sure how one would even go about proving the link -- I'm reminded of Mike Barnacle asking how one sources a joke -- but it's certainly intriguing, and a reminder that medieval people found a lot of the same things funny that we do.


  1. Anonymous1:30 AM

    I'm not convinced that there's a direct link, because I think that the travelling salesman joke stereotype normally has the 'selling' aspect in the transaction. This is best summed up in 'Shuffle off to Buffalo': 'She was just a farmer's daughter, And the salesman made his sale, What she got she didn't order, And you can't return by mail'. In contrast, isn't it normally the peasant in medieval stories who is motivated by money, not the clerk?

    A possible alternative ancestor of the salesman motif might be gypsies, as the original door to door salesmen and peddlers. Though I admit that the stereotype here, at least in songs, is the high-born lady running off with them, rather than the lowly girl who is gulled.

  2. There are two streams of travelling salesman jokes, I think. In one, the salesman tries to con or fast-talk a clever housewife, who reverses the trick.

    There's another stream, the one I'm thinking of, which involves the travelling salesman being forced by circumstance to stay the night, and managing to sleep with the farmer's daughter or his wife -- like the tale of Pinuccio in The Decameron (Day 9, Story 6).

    In the second stream of stories, both the modern AND medieval, I think the peasant/farmer's daughter is motivated by money (as well as lust) because the salesman/nobleman is richer than the other rural people around them.

    I agree the peasant girl is often motivated by money, but that's the case in many of the modern stories too. Of course, in the example I've just given above, the man is a nobleman, not a vagans.

  3. And lest we forget, there were clergy who were involved in selling things....Chaucer's wonderfully drawn Pardoner comes to mind....

  4. Anonymous4:57 PM

    I am such a dunder head. I read that as Vegans not Vagans and was amazed there were Vegans in those days LOL. Fawn