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:
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.
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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