NUMSKULLS, NINCOMPOOPS AND THE AGE OF FOOLS

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Ship of Fools – Pieter van der Heyden  (fl. 1551–1572)

In our current era of globalised stupidity it seems fitting to take a look at the folklore of fools. Pretty much every culture has them and the same tales of their stupidity often turn up in different traditions. The Turkish Hadji, the Italian Bastienelo, the Cambodian Kong, the Chinese Wang and the Arabic Djuna typify this class of heroism, which seems to be largely restricted to males. Hmm.

Numskulls, as these characters are often known, characteristically perform foolish tasks through misunderstanding a verbal communication or taking one too literally. The English Lazy Jack simply does whatever he is told, regardless of the circumstances. The Drongo is the Australian nincompoop, a heroically stupid figure who interprets whatever he is told literally. When the boss tells him to ‘hang a new gate’, the Drongo takes the gate out to the nearest tree and hangs it in a noose.

Jean Sot is a character in French and French diaspora lore. In the Louisiana French versions Jean is a fool who usually misunderstands instructions and shoots the cow instead of milking it. Or he may take what he is told literally and throw a dog named Parsley into the broth instead of the herb parsley, as his mother has requested. On other occasions Jean may remove and take with him a door he has been asked to guard and sometimes makes a fortune when he accidentally frightens off the robbers who have stolen it.

Some cultures have so many fools they have to keep them all in areas or towns designated for the purpose. In ancient Greece those who lived in the province of Boetia were treated as hopeless hayseeds and hicks. The English town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire has been the focus of numskull tales since at least the fifteenth century. One story told of the Wise men of Gotham is that twelve of them went fishing in a boat but returned in a state of great despair believing that one of them had drowned. They knew this because they could each only count eleven fishermen: each forgot to count himself.

Other fooltowns include Chelm or Helm in Poland, where even the intellectually-challenged Berel the Beadle seems like a mental giant; Altstätten in Switzerland, and Emesa in what used to be Persia. Other towns of clowns are found in Pakistan (Buneyr) and Sri Lanka, (Kadambawa), as well as in Japan, Finland and elsewhere.

In German tradition, the inhabitants of Schwarzenborn and Mutschingen are said to be foolish, as are those of the mythic German town of Schild. Here, the people were so stupid they built a council house without windows but were unable to understand why it was so dark inside. Eventually they realised that no light was able to enter the building, but instead of putting windows in, the people of Schild tried to carry beams of sunshine into the building. This did not improve the lighting and so they next took the advice of a passer-by to take the roof off, richly rewarding him for his assistance. This was fine and the people of Schild were very happy – until it rained. They had to replace the roof and consider what they might do next.

Groping around in the darkness of the council house, one of the fools noticed a small beam of daylight lancing in through a crack between roof and wall. After looking at the light for a while and giving the matter a good deal of thought, he suggested to the others that it might be possible to brighten the building by adding some windows. After considering this suggestion for quite a long while there was general agreement that it just might be worth a try.

Many of these tales are more or less affectionate and the characters in them often much loved. What is there to like about stupidity? Perhaps folk fools are reflections of ourselves. With rare exceptions, few of us are actually fools, we just sometimes do foolish things. It’s all part of being human and if we can find a way to weave an enjoyable and witty yarn around foolish deeds of trivial as well as gargantuan dimensions, we will, just as we have done for thousands of years.

What a pity that foolishness seems to have now broken out of folkloric fantasy and into reality.

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William Wallace Denslow’s illustrations for Three Wise Men of Gotham, from a 1901 edition of Mother Goose

 

 

 

PIED PIPER STILL PIPING

From a window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633), thought to be the earliest representation of the legend.
 
A well-known story of German, and now global, tradition is a constant reminder of what might happen if a helper is not properly rewarded for his assistance. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the ambivalent focus of an enduring medieval legend. In 1284 the town of Hamelin in Saxony is disturbed by a plague of rats. The piper, dressed in motley, hence the term ‘pied’, pipes the rats into the River Weser where they drown. But the people of the town refuse to pay him and so he pipes their children inside Koppenberg Hill, from where they have never emerged. Only one lame child, too slow to keep up with the others, survived.
 
This is the most familiar version of this enigmatic legend today, though its original form, as far as can be known, was a little different. One of the earliest and most significant accounts of the event is the fourteenth century version appearing in the Latin chronicle Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain) and written by a monk known as Heinrich of Hereford. This account has nothing about a plague of rats but simply tells of a handsome and well-dressed young man appearing in the city on the Feast of Saints John and Paul (26 June). He went through the streets playing a magnificent silver pipe, attracting about 130 children to follow him out of the city to the execution ground known as Calvary. There they all vanished without trace. Heinrich gives an earlier written source for this information and also refers to the testimony of an eye-witness relayed to him through the witnesses’ son.
 
As well as the absence of the rats and the reluctance of the townspeople to pay the piper’s fee, there is nothing ‘pied’ about the piper in Heinrich’s version of events, and no children returned. By the mid-1550s, though, an account written in Bamberg elaborated the story with such details as the threat of the piper to return in three hundred years and take more children away and the return of two naked children, one blind and one mute. Another account from around the same period identifies the piper as the devil and the fate of the children a result of God’s retribution for human sin. The return of the one lame child seems to appear first in the English translation made by Richard Verstegan in 1605.
 
The detail of the rat plague is first heard of in the Swabian Zimmer Chronicle of 1565. However, it is known that by this time there were other legends involving rat and mouse-catchers attached to other parts of Europe and it may be that these became mixed with the basic Hamelin story. By whatever and various ways the story evolved, it was already a popular item of print entertainment by the early seventeenth century and, in one version or another, continued to attract the interest of poets like Robert Browning (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, 1842) and of folklorists like the Brothers Grimm as well as carrying on a busy life in oral tradition, including a number of German folksongs.
 
This disturbing legend has attracted a good deal of scholarly speculation through the succeeding centuries. Some suggest the legend is derived from the eastward migrations of young Germanic peoples during the thirteenth century. Others relate the story to the disastrous Children’s Crusade in which many children left their homes, never to return. There are also suggestions that the story is related to the medieval dance epidemic known as ‘St John’s Dance’ or ‘St Vitus’ Dance’ or to a major bubonic plague outbreak. Others have looked to mythological and historical sources for enlightenment and explanation.
 
Whatever its source, the tale has been continually in oral tradition and, later, in literature, theatre, children’s books, advertising, cartoons, political propaganda, films and, of course, in the tourism industry of the city of Hamelin. The many-faceted legend of the Pied Piper is largely due to the ambiguity of the piper’s character, both good and evil, and the ingratitude and stupidity of the burghers of Weser. As well as all the other many uses to which the tradition has been put, in the end it is perhaps primarily an appealing moral tale about just rewards (‘you must pay the piper’s fee’) and being careful about which processions you follow.
 
 

From Graham Seal and Kim Kennedy-White, Folk Heroes and Heroines Around the World