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Comments on "The Rich and the Poor Farmer"

Folklore contains understanding that is tucked in entertainment.

"The rich and the poor peasant" has the AT number 1535. A synopsis: "A rich peasant ('Store-Per') slaughters the only calf (cow, horse) of his poor brother ('Vesle-Per'). Vesle-Per avenges himself on Store-Per by tricking him into imitating his acts - with disastrous results: using the calf-hide (or another thing) as an 'augur', selling a dead old woman, and letting himself be driven to 'Paradise'. (Hodne 1984)

There are listed about a hundred variants of this tale, so the synopsis of a Norwegian variant above is not all good for many of them.

Under a revised title, "The Rich and the Poor Farmer" and with the ATU number 1535, Hans-Jörg Uther tells:

"This tale often begins with one of the following episodes:

(1) The family of a poor man (farmer) kills their only cow (two oxen) and uses all their flour to bake bread. They invite all the villagers to a big dinner. The family waits in vain for a return invitation from the guests.

(2) A rich man kills his poor brother's only horse, and gives him its skin.

Main part:

The poor man goes to the city to sell the cowhide (oxhide, horsehide). During the night he discovers the innkeeper's wife with her lover and threatens to expose them. They bribe him not to tell. Or, a merchant believes that the poor man's sacks of refuse contain valuables. The merchant takes the sacks, and in return leaves his goods for the poor man.

Back at home, the poor man tells his rich brother (the villagers) that he received all the money for the animal hide (the refuse). The brother (villagers) kills all his cattle in order to sell their hides, and impoverishes himself (tries to sell refuse and is beaten).

In some variants the rich man is angry and tries to kill his brother, but instead he kills an old relative (dead man) who is lying in his place in bed. The poor man takes the corpse away, and convinces an innocent man that he killed the person. This man bribes the poor man not to tell. Then the poor man claims that he had sold the corpse. Cf. Types 1536C, 1537. The rich man kills all his relatives, hoping to sell their corpses. He is put in prison and set free after he serves his sentence.

Still angry, he tries to drown his brother. The poor brother, confined in a sack (chest), finds a passer-by (shepherd, rich lord) who is willing to trade places with him. After this person has been thrown into the water, the poor man comes back to the village with the sheep (horse, riches) and claims he found them under the water. The jealous rich man (the villagers) jumps into the water and drowns.

Cf. Types 1539, 1737.

Combinations: This type is usually combined with one or more other types . . .

Remarks: Traced to . . . the 10th-11th century, and popular since the 15th century . . . (Uther 2004:267-68)

From the Cultural History of Humour

Folk entertainment centuries ago could be course and vulgar, tell Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (1997). They find that in ancient Greece and Rome, moderate humour became the domain of the social elite, whereas buffoons and mimes gradually lost official approval. In the Middle Ages the jester is usually grouped with actors, jongleurs and mimes, people with a low social standing. Only the court fool rises to some social prominence during those centuries.

After the Middle Ages the collecting and telling of jokes became widely spread over the social spectrum, and the telling of jokes became part of the art of conversation among gentlemen. When this ideal of culture waned, however, the modern professional jester, rose - the clown, the comedian and the satirist.

Then, to what extent did humour change over the centuries? Some of the humorous texts of the past are not bad at all, others distinctly unfunny and others quite incomprehensible. Peter Burke notes how the areas of humour were shrinking from the later sixteenth century, and that the clergy, ladies and gentlemen no longer took part in certain kinds of humour, at least not in public. So humour was not allowed in some areas, as time went by. Church and state came to cherish sobriety and gravity above riducule, and gradually gained the upper hand after the Reformation. The society, strengthened its hierarchies, followed up with disdain of all sorts of lower humour.

In this period the court fool finally made his exit. Ridicule of those in power was still popular in the countryside, however. But upper class humour (polite humour) and folk humour had grown apart. "When the brothers Grimm rediscovered the 'People' and started to collect folk tales, they deliberately omitted jests and comic stories, concentrating instead on the more innocent genre of legends and fairy tales. We are still trying to fill that gap," write Bremmer and Roodenburg (op.cit.)

To become a fairly rich farmer was a step up for most people

Harsh stories may reflect harsher conditions than in Europe today. In past centuries too, brothers were not always the best of friends, and some warred against and killed each other too, for the sake of resources or getting an upper hand. It could happen among the nobles. Rulers, whether they were kings or earls or dukes, and so on, also lived in fear of being poisoned by envious plotters.

So in olden times much depended on who was favoured, and how resourceful the others might be. Folk tales may be used as mirrors into other time periods and local customs, in part in burlesque ways.

In plain view: The type of tale in its Norwegian shape is about a victim of bullying who makes up his mind to fool his bullying neighbour or brother, and gets rid of him eventually. Some delight in such violent tales, with or without good reasons. Inequal distribution of wealth has been a problem before, in feudal times, and is a rising problem the world over again. It is not only one of the biggest problems in the USA.

The Danish poet Hans Christian Anderson modulated and expanded existing folk taless, and also wrote a variant of this tale type, calling it "Big Claus and Little Claus": [Link] What is more, Andersen often used figures, themes and segments from older tales to make a point.

Contents


Rich and Poor Peasant, Literature

Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.

Hodne, Ørnulf. The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

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