The Heptameron, by Marguerite de Navarre

the Grey Friar Telling his Tales
The Grey Friar telling his Tales

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Tale xi. (B).

Of the jests made by a Grey Friar in his sermons. 1

Near the town of Bléré in Touraine there is a village called St. Martin-le-Beau, whither a Grey Friar belonging to the monastery at Tours was summoned to preach during the seasons of Advent and Lent. This friar, who was more garrulous than learned, and now and then found himself at a loss for matter to eke out his hour, would thereupon begin telling tales which more or less agreeably satisfied the good villagers.

One Holy Thursday he preached about the Paschal Lamb, and while speaking of how it was eaten at night, seeing that there were present at the preaching some handsome young ladies of Amboise, who were newly arrived to keep Easter at the village, and to stay there for a few days afterwards, he wished to surpass himself, and thereupon asked all the women-folk whether they knew what it was to eat raw flesh at night. “I will tell you what it is, ladies,” he said, whereat the young men of Amboise, who had just arrived with their wives, sisters, and nieces, and who had no knowledge of the pilgrim’s humour, began to be scandalised; though on listening further their indignation gave place to laughter, even when he said that to eat the lamb it was needful to have one’s loins girt, one’s feet in one’s shoes, and one’s hand on one’s staff.

The friar, seeing them laugh at this, and guessing the reason, immediately corrected himself. “Well,” said he, “to have shoes on one’s feet and a staff in one’s hand; ’tis all one.”

That this sally was received with laughter you will readily believe. Even the ladies could not refrain from merriment, and for them he added other diverting sayings. Then finding the time was nearly up, and wishing the ladies to be well pleased with him when they departed, he said to them — “Now, fair ladies, when you are chatting presently with your gossips, you will be asking one another: ‘Who, pray, is this Master Friar, that speaks out so boldly? He must be a brisk fellow.’ I will tell you, ladies, yes, I will tell you, and be not astonished if I speak out boldly, for I am of Anjou, at your service.”

With these words he ended his sermon, leaving his hearers more disposed to laugh at his foolish speeches than to weep in memory of our Lord’s Passion which was then being commemorated.

The other sermons that he preached during the festival had much the same value. You are aware that these friars never fail to go begging for their Easter eggs, and receive not only eggs, but many other things, such as linen, yarn, chitterlings, hams, chines, and similar trifles. So when Easter Tuesday came, and the friar was making those exhortations to charity of which such folks as he are no niggards, he said —

“I am bound to thank you, ladies, for the liberality you have shown to our poor monastery, and yet I cannot forbear telling you that you have hitherto not duly considered the nature of our wants. You have for the most part given us chitterlings, but of these we ourselves have no lack. God be praised, our monastery is indeed full of them. What then can we do with so many? I will tell you. My advice, ladies, is that you should mix your hams with our chitterlings; in this way you would bestow fine alms.”

Then, continuing his sermon, he brought into it certain scandalous matter, and, whilst discoursing upon it somewhat bluntly and quoting sundry examples, he said in apparent amazement —

“Truly, ladies and gentlemen of Saint-Martin, I am greatly astonished that you should be scandalised so unreasonably at what is less than nothing, and should tell tales of me wherever you go, saying: ‘It is a big business; who could have thought that the father would have got his landlady’s daughter with child?’ A monk get a girl with child!” he continued; “forsooth, what a wonder! But hark you, fair ladies, would you not rather have had cause for wonderment, had the girl acted thus by the monk?”

“Such, ladies, was the wholesome food on which this worshipful shepherd fed the Lord’s flock. And so brazen was he, that after committing the sin, he spake openly of it in the pulpit, where nought should be said that tends to aught but the edification of one’s neighbour, and above all to the glory of God.”

“Truly,” said Saffredent, “he was a master monk — I should have liked him nearly as well as Brother Anjibaut, who gets credit for all the jests that are spoken in merry company.”

“For my part, I can see nothing laughable in such mockery,” said Oisille, “especially in such a place.”

“You forget, madam,” said Nomerfide, “that at that time, though it was not so very long ago, the good villagers, and indeed most of the dwellers in the large towns, who think themselves cleverer than other people, had greater regard for such preachers as he than for those who purely and simply preached the holy Gospel to them.”

“However that may be,” said Hircan, “he was not wrong in asking for hams in exchange for chitterlings, for in hams there is far more eating. And even if some devout creature had understood him amphibologically, as I believe he wished to be understood, neither he nor his brethren would have fared badly any more than the wench that had her bag full.”

“But how impudent of him,” said Oisille, “to pervert the meaning of the text to suit his fancy, thinking that he had to do with beasts like himself, and shamelessly trying to entice the poor little women so that he might teach them how to eat raw flesh at night.”

“True,” said Simontault; “but you forget that he saw before him those young tripe-sellers of Amboise in whose tub he would fain have washed his ——— shall I name it? No, but you understand me — and have treated them to a taste of it, not roasted, but stirring and frisking, so as to please them the more.”

“Softly, softly, Simontault,” said Parlamente; “you forget yourself. Have you laid aside your accustomed modesty to don it only in time of necessity?”

“No, madam, no,” said he; “’twas the unworthy monk that led me astray. Wherefore, that we may return to the matter in hand, I beg Nomerfide, who caused my offence, to give her vote to some one who will make the company forget our common fault.”

“Since you include me in your transgression,” said Nomerfide, “I will choose one who will atone for our failings, that is Dagoucin. He is so discreet that to save his life he would not say a foolish thing.”


1 See ante, p. 89, note 2.

An anecdote in keeping with this story will be found in Brantôme’s miscellaneous works (Petitot’s éd., vol. viii. pp. 382-4). The author of Les Dames Galantes, after alluding to his aunt Louise de Bourdeille — who was brought up at Court by Anne of Brittany — proceeds to say:—

“A certain Grey Friar, who habitually preached before the Queen, fell so deeply in love with Mademoiselle de Bourdeille that he completely lost his wits, and sometimes in his sermons, whilst speaking of the beauty of the holy virgins of past times, he would so forget himself as to say some words respecting the beauty of my said aunt, not to mention the soft glances which he cast at her. And sometimes, whilst in the Queen’s room, he would take great pleasure in discoursing to her, not with words of love however, for he would have incurred a whipping, but with other covert words which tended towards love. My aunt in no wise approved of his discourses, and made some mention of them to her own and her companions’ governess. The Queen heard of the matter and could not believe it, on account of this man’s cloth and holiness. For this reason she kept silent until a certain Good Friday, when, in accordance with custom, this friar preached before her on the Holy Passion. The ladies and the maids, including my aunt, being seated as was their wont before the reverend father, in full view of him, he, as though giving out the text and introit of his sermon, began to say: ‘It is for you, lovely humanity, it is for you that I suffer this day. Thus on a certain occasion spake our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Then proceeding with his sermon the friar chronicled all the sufferings and afflictions which Jesus endured for mankind at His death upon the Cross, and these he compared to the sufferings that he himself endured on account of my aunt; but in such covert, such disguised words that even the most enlightened might have failed to understand their meaning. Queen Anne, however, who was very expert both in mind and judgment, laid hold of this, and took counsel as to the real meaning of the sermon, both with certain lords and ladies and certain learned men who were there present. They all pronounced the sermon to be most scandalous, and the Grey Friar most deserving of punishment; for which reason he was secretly chastised and whipped, and then driven away, without any scandal being made. Such was the Queen’s reply to the amours of this Grey Friar; and thus was my aunt well avenged on him for the way in which he had so often importuned her. In those times it was not allowable, under divers penalties, either to contradict or to refuse to speak to such people, who, so it was thought, conversed only of God and the salvation of the soul.”

In Mérimée’s Chronique de Charles IX., there will be found a facetious sermon by another Grey Friar; this, however, is less in keeping with the Heptameron, than with the character of the discourses delivered by the preachers of the League. — M.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57