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Tales of White Magic

The Tale of the Basin is grouped together with Jack and His Stepdame in this edition because in both poems the plot turns on white magic. Each poem has a benign figure — an old man in Jack and His Stepdame, a concerned brother who is also a priest in The Tale of the Basin — who intervenes to help the protagonist in his domestic struggles. The brother in The Tale of the Basin enchants a chamberpot so that his sister-in-law’s lover will not be able to put it down once he picks it up, and a cluster of those who try to help by tugging each other away cannot be broken. The old man in Jack and His Stepdame grants three wishes to the kind hearted little boy Jack, and two of those wishes (for a bow and for a pipe) are met with enchanted objects as well: a bow and arrows that cannot miss, a pipe that causes all who hear it to dance uncontrollably. The third wish — that Jack’s cruel stepmother should fart thunderously every time she scowls at him — is harder to categorize.

For those accustomed to reading fabliaux, the comic tales from medieval French literature of a type made known to later English readers through Chaucer’s adaptations of the genre, the husband in The Tale of the Basin is a peculiar figure: a hapless and ineffective husband in two senses of the word husband, married man and domestic manager, who is never­theless rescued in the course of the tale by his brother’s cleverness instead of ending as a comic victim of the plotting. It is the manly hunk, the adulterous priest, who is humiliated and blackmailed out of the picture, and the erring shrew of a wife is also shamed and reined in sexually and financially by the exile of her lover so that domestic harmony is restored.

The motif of the magic object to which a group of people become stuck is a widespread one in European folklore. It is discussed in an important German article on the story collected by the Grimm Brothers: Die goldene Gans, in Johannes Bolte and Georg Polívka’s Anmerkungen zu der Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 2, article 64. The Tale of the Basin seems to be the earliest of the stories in which the sticky situation arises as a punishment for adultery.

Jack and His Stepdame is a peculiarity, not only when read against a background of fabliaux, but when read against the background of medieval literature in general. Its protag­onist is a child, an ordinary little boy. And the tale itself has a distinctive comic innocence about it: normally a comic plot involving a friar who is the confidant of the wife of the household would hinge upon adultery, but any suggestion of an adulterous relation­ship between the friar and the wife in this story is brought to it by an experienced reader, not explicit in the story itself. Instead the comedy of the tale derives from slapstick violence and from flatulence, and from the stripping of power away from the threatening figures of the stepmother, who wants to get Jack out of the household, and the friar, who is enlisted by her to beat Jack brutally as revenge for her gassy humiliation.

Jack and His Stepdame became a remarkably popular story. It survives in four medieval manuscripts as well as the later Percy Folio Manuscript and five early printed editions or fragments from London up to 1626. There is a longer version of the story in one of the medieval manuscripts, in the Percy Folio Manuscript, and in all the printed texts, in which the friar retaliates against Jack by having him summoned to court to answer to the “offycyal” for necromancy. In all the printed editions the extended story is titled some variant of The Friar and the Boy, and that is the name under which it continued to be known for hundreds of years. It was published as a chapbook, like Dane Hew, Munk of Leicestre, and in chapbook form — small, cheap, and portable for chapmen to carry across the countryside for sale — it was disseminated not only from London but from other printing centers in an increas­ingly wide circle, up into Scotland, over to Ireland, and then to the United States. It was modernized, extended, and given a sequel, which was also widely circulated. After being read, chapbooks could serve as what was indelicately called “bumfodder”; they were a sort of value-added toilet paper. But the unbound chapbook, mass printed on paper, achieved a much more widespread circulation for The Friar and the Boy than the laboriously produced manuscript ever could have done for Jack and His Stepdame. At one extreme, the literary luminary Robert Burton alluded to it in his immensely learned Anatomy of Melancholy, and valued it enough to preserve his copy with some other chapbooks and leave it to the Bodleian Library on his death in 1639/40. At the other, it may have been one of few books ever read by the barely literate. Its childish appeal may mean it was one of the first books read by many.

Recent scholarship on Jack and His Stepdame has taken various directions. Nicholas Orme, a historian of medieval education, has written on Jack and His Stepdame (under the title The Friar and the Boy) as a rare example of medieval literature for children with a protagonist who is a child throughout the story, in “Children and Literature in Medieval England.” Brian S. Lee cites Jack as a “pert” child (such children “are those self-conscious enough to be able to articulate their opposition to adult constraints”) in “Seen and Sometimes Heard,” p. 42. But the American folklorist Carl Lindahl has written on it as the first of the “Jack” folktales, a large group in American folklore describing the adventures of a man named Jack. He argues that folktale Jacks are off-limits to children and women because of the obscenity and scatology of their stories in “Jacks: The Name, the Tales, the American Traditions.” This last observation seems better suited to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which modernized and bowdlerized versions (versions with the naughty bits taken out) of the story were circulated, than it does to the periods before or since.

Richard Kieckhefer mentions Jack and His Stepdame as an exception to the usual role of magic in fabliaux, in his Magic in the Middle Ages: “The power of Jack’s magical pipe might be mysterious, but most magical trickery, even in the fabliaux, worked in natural ways” (p. 93). The Tale of the Basin, though not mentioned, is a similar exception in that the chamberpot is genuinely enchanted, as are the objects in the two Arthurian bourdes included in this edition. Kieckhefer’s section “The Making of a Clerical Underworld” (pp. 153–56) is useful on priests practicing magic.

The Tale of the Basin is mentioned by Peter Goodall in “English Fabliau after Chaucer,” especially pp. 9–10, and by Marie Nelson and Richard Thomson in “Fabliau,” especially pp. 261–62. As The Tale of the Pot it appears modernized in Derek Brewer’s Medieval Comic Tales, pp. 55–58, and is discussed by him on pp. xxxii–xxxiii. Jack and His Stepdame is mentioned by Goodall under the title The Frere and the Boye, pp. 9–10. As The Friar and the Boy (but in the shorter version of most of the medieval manuscripts) it appears in Brewer’s Medieval Comic Tales, pp. 58–62, and in the discussion on pp. xxxii–xxxxiii. Both poems are men­tioned in the more general generic discussions of Glenn Wright in “Fabliau Ethos in the French and English Octavian Romances,” p. 479n3; and Melissa Furrow's “Comic Tales.”

Go To The Tale of the Basin: Introduction
Go To The Tale of the Basin
Go To Jack and his Stepdame: Introduction
Go To Jack and his Stepdame