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The Boy and The Friar

The Boy and the Friar
a woodcut from the 1475 printing

A 15th century fabliau [comic story] for children

(July, 2010)

Here is a comical tale that was popular in the middle ages. It was copied by hand and sold in the marketplace before Gutenberg invented movable type printing presses. The enterprising young printers who bought the presses needed to come up with a quick way to make money. One of the easiest ways to get started was to print a children's book. They only needed one picture and 4 to 8 pages of text. These booklets were sewn together by hand without any expensive covers and sold like hotcakes. This story, which was a poem composed in 6-line stanzas, was very popular for over 300 years until the Victorians found it inappropriate for children. I think you will see why.

The Boy and the Friar

As retold by Gael Stirler

Once upon a time there was a boy named Jack who lived with his father, a farmer, and his disagreeable step-mother, and three mean step-sisters. His step-mother doted on her daughters and hated Jack and they all made his life miserable. She told her husband, "You must send him away. Sell him into service so we won't have to feed or clothe him anymore." But the farmer loved his son and said, "He is too young to go into service. I will find work for him here to keep him out of trouble." So he put him in charge of taking the cattle to the high meadow where they could eat the sweet grass.

Jack gives his dinner to the beggar.

The next morning, Jack said goodbye to his father and taking the dinner pouch that his step-mother made for him, he drove the cattle to the field. "Hey cows, hoa cows!" he called as he walked behind them waving his arms. He eagerly looked forward to spending all day alone in the sunshine.

After watching the cattle graze he, too, felt hungry so he opened the dinner pouch to find that his step-mother had only packed a heel of bread and a tin of sour milk. He put the food back in his pouch and lamented, "No one has ever been as hungry as I am!" When it was time to return home, he still hadn't eaten the food in his pouch, so he whined as he drove the cattle home, "I'm so hungry, woe is me!" But no sooner than he said this, he spied a poor beggar on the side of the path. "Please help an old man. I haven't eaten in days." Jack looked at his hollow cheeks and sunken ribs and felt a new pang in his belly, shame. He took pity on the old man who was truly starving. "I am sorry this food is not better, but this is all I have," Jack said as he gave his paltry dinner to the beggar.

The old man blessed him and since he was really a fairy in disguise, he gave Jack three magical gifts—a hunting bow that always hits its mark, a little pipe that makes everyone dance, and a special charm that would make his wicked step-mother fart whenever she was angry. Jack accepted the gifts graciously. He piped a merry tune and the cattle danced all the way to the barn.

When Jack entered the cottage he saw his parents and step-sisters eating supper and he begged for something to eat. His father passed him a wing from the little roast capon they were eating. His step-mother scowled and immediately a sound like a loud bang exploded from her backside! Everyone roared with laughter. She made another noise as loud as a canon blast and turned red as a turnip.

Just then a fat friar arrived. The wicked step-mother accused Jack of sorcery and shrieked that for the sake of his soul he must be beaten. The friar, who was very tired, said he would see to it on the morrow and off he went to bed. The next morning the friar got up early and went into the woods to cut a rod to beat Jack. Jack followed and diverted the Friar's attention by using his magic bow to shoot a bird in a thorny bush. The greedy friar waded into the thorny bushes to claim the bird for himself and Jack began to pipe a merry tune. Quite against his will, the friar began to dance among the thorns. Jack kept piping and the friar kept dancing until he was bleeding from head to toe and his robes were all in tatters. Jack stopped playing and the friar ran all the way back to the house with his hands over his ears.

Peasant dance by Albrecht Druer
Peasant Dance

by Albrech Drurer

When Jack got home he saw the friar speaking to his father. His father demanded Jack produce his pipe and told him to play it just as he had in the wood. The friar cried out, "Have pity and tie me up before he blows that devil's pipe again!" The father obliged the friar's request and, when he was secure, Jack played a tune upon the magic pipe making everyone dance. The step-mother grew angry and exploded with such a foul cloud that even the friar, twitching in his bonds, swore like a sailor. Jack then led his father, farting step-mother, and sniveling step-sisters in a dance down the lane. The sound of the pipe made the neighbors pour out into the streets to follow Jack. Even the lazy lay-a-beds sprang naked from their sheets to follow in the dance. Anon, back at the house, the friar wrestled free of his bonds and ran to alert the Bishop who sent the bailiff to summon Jack before the Church Court. I wasn't long before Jack was striding into Court followed by his father, step-mother, step-sisters, neighbors, Bailiff and all. As the sound of the little pipe echoed through Bishop's Hall, the bishop, the prefect, and even the friars in the choir loft hiked up their robes and began to dance about. The clatter of wooden shoes and his step-mother's explosive farts created such a din that you would have thought that pirates were trying to get in.

"Stop playing!," cried his father. "I'll get you," threatened his step-mother. "Stop, please, stop!" begged his sisters. "Let us rest!" pleaded the neighbors. "Stop, I command you!" ordered the bishop. "Stop, stop STOP!," sang the choir in perfect unison and pitch. Jack paused only long enough to say, "Not until you promise to release me!" and he began playing again, faster than before. "I promise," shouted the pompous old bishop, who was beginning to wheeze. Jack added, "And you must make my step-mother treat me kindly on threat of banishment!" But the noise drowned out the last part. "I promise," wheezed the bishop. "On threat of banishment?" Jack lifted the pipe to his lips again. "Yes, yes, on threat of banishment!" the bishop swore.

With that Jack ceased his piping and released his step-mother from the charm. And from that day to this, she has treated Jack with the utmost respect. And even though it was not with kindness, Jack felt that it was good enough.


Medieval Children, by Nicholas Orme, Yale University Press, 2001

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