Brother Denise

by Rutebuef

This text copyright ©2001 Dr Helen Nicholson




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Two manuscripts survive. Probably written in the early 1260s.

Text: Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux, 6, ed. Willem Noomen (Assen and Maastricht, Van Gorcum, 1991), no. 56, pp. 3–23.


Clothes don’t make the hermit: even if a man lives in a hermitage and wears poor clothing, I don’t think he’s worth two straws unless he lives a pure life to match his clothing. But many people make a good display and seem to be amazing, yet are like the trees which produce masses of blossom and fail to fruit. Such folk deserve to die a dishonourable death in great disgrace!

A proverb says: ‘All that glitters is not gold’. Before I die, I must tell you a tale about something which happened to the prettiest creature which anyone could find or seek from Paris to England. I’ll tell you how it happened. More than twenty very noble men had asked her to marry them, but she did not in any way want to enter the order of marriage, because she had vowed her virginity to God and Our Lady. The maiden was a noble woman: her father had been a knight; she had a mother, but no sister or brother. The maiden and her mother, I believe, were very attached to each other.

Friars Minor (Franciscan friars) used to frequent the place; all those who passed by that way. Now it happened that one of those who frequented their house enchanted the young lady, and I’ll tell you how. The maiden begged him to ask her mother to put her into his religious Order; and he said, ‘My dear friend, if you want to follow the life of St Francis, as we do, you cannot reasonably fail to be a saint.’ And she, who had already been touched and conquered and defeated and overcome as soon as she heard the Friar Minor talk, said, ‘God give me honour! I can never have such great joy from anything as I could have if I could belong to your Order; it was a lucky hour when God made me be born if I can be a religious!’

When the friar heard what the young lady said, he said to her: ‘Noble maiden, may God allow me to have his love! If I could know for certain that you wished to enter our Order, and that you would be able to protect your virginity without fraud, you may be certain that I would place you in our Order and its good works.’

The maiden promised him that she would preserve her virginity all the days of her life, and he received her at once. He deceived her with his guile, so that she did not suspect his trick; he forbad her on peril of her soul to say anything about what he had said to her, but she should have her beautiful blonde hair cut off so secretly that no one knew anything about it; and have herself tonsured, and put on clothes suitable for a young man, and, so disguised, come straight to a place of which he was in charge. He, who was more wicked than Herod, then left, fixing a date when they would meet again, and she wept many tears when she saw him leave her.

He has aroused false expectations in her – may evil death take him! – but he would soon make her understand the secret meaning of his teaching. She thinks that all he has preached to her is a prophecy – she has given her heart to God, and he will give her a gift that will fully repay her. The friar’s thoughts are very different from her own good intentions! Their minds are completely at odds with each other, for she intends to withdraw and remove herself from the pride of the world, while he, who is deep in sin and burning with the fire of sensuality, has fixed all his thoughts and desires on accompanying the maiden to the bath where he wants to bathe. He will burn himself up in it if God does not protect him, for she will never forbid him or refuse him anything he wishes to suggest to her.

The friar went along thinking about this, and as they walked along his companion, who was worried when he did not talk, said: ‘What are you thinking about, Brother Simon?’

‘I am thinking about a sermon,’ he said, ‘the best that I ever thought of.’

‘Then go on thinking!’ the other said.

Brother Simon could not find in his heart anything to stop him thinking about the maiden whom he had left behind. Meanwhile, she was very much looking forward to the hour when she was belted with the cord; she carried in her heart the instructions which the friar had given her.

Within three days she crept away from the mother who had borne her, who was very distressed. The mother was extremely anxious when she did not know where her daughter was; she had great grief in her heart all that week. She wept over her daughter, but her daughter didn’t give a toss – she only thought about getting as far away as possible. She had had her lovely hair cut off short all round; she was dressed like a youth, with good boots on her legs and wearing a man’s gown, divided down the front, embroidered at the front and behind. She came like this to the place where he had arranged to meet her. The friar, who was being pushed and urged and hurried along by the devil, was very glad to see her. He had her received into the Order. He was well able to deceive his Brothers; he gave her the habit of the Order, and had a great tonsure put on her, and then made her come into the church.

She knew how to behave beautifully and properly both in the cloister and in church, and she knew all her psalter and learnt how to sing well; she sang with the Brothers in church very well and fittingly; she acted very honourably. Now the young lady Denise had exactly what she wanted. They didn’t change her name; they called her Brother Denise.

What more can I say? Brother Simon succeeded in getting everything he wanted from her, and he taught her these new games in such a way that no one else noticed. Brother Denise’s appearance deceived all her Brothers; she acted nobly and she did everything she should. All the Brothers who were there loved Brother Denise, but Brother Simon loved her most! He often laid himself between the shafts like a man who would not withdraw, and he liked nothing better than being coupled up; he was a good workhorse in harness. He lived the life of an idle layabout, and abandoned the apostolic life; while she learnt her ‘Our Father’, and she willingly took it in.

He led her through the countryside, not wanting any other companion, until one day it happened that they came to the house of a knight, who had good wines in his cellar and willingly gave them some. The lady of the house concentrated her attention on looking at Brother Denise, considering her face and her appearance. The lady noticed that Brother Denise was a woman, and she wanted to know whether this was true or not. When the men had risen from the table, the lady, who was a well-mannered woman, took Brother Denise by the hand. She began to smile at her husband, and said as she smiled: ‘Good sir, let’s go outside to amuse ourselves and divide ourselves into two groups. You take Brother Simon with you, and Brother Denise will hear my confession.’

Then the two friars were not pleased – they would rather have been in Pontoise! The lady’s words troubled them; her speech did not please them, because they were afraid of being discovered. Brother Simon approached her, and when he was standing close to her he said: ‘Lady, make your confession to me, for this Brother does not have licence to enjoin penance on you.’

The lady replied, ‘Good sir, I wish to speak my sins to this man, and to talk about confession!’

Then she made her go into her chamber, shut the door and closed it tight, shutting Brother Denise in with her. ‘My dear young lady,’ she said to her, ‘who advised you to act so foolishly as to enter such a religious Order? God give me confession when my soul leaves my body, if you tell me the whole truth you won’t come to any harm. Holy Spirit help me, you can trust me completely!’

The girl was absolutely overwhelmed, yet defended herself as best as she could. But the lady reasoned with her and brushed aside her excuses until she could no longer defend herself. She fell on her knees and begged for mercy, with hands joined together, asking and praying that the lady should not have her put to shame. She told her the whole story from beginning to end: how he had led her away from her mother’s house, and then she told her who she was, concealing nothing from her.

The lady called the friar and said to him, in her husband’s hearing, such insulting words that no greater were ever said to any man.

‘You sanctimonious fake! You lying hypocrite, leading a lying, filthy life! The person who hangs you from your own knotted cord will have done a good day’s work! People like you cheat the world, looking so good on the outside, and all rotten inside. The woman who suckled you did a thoroughly bad job of it, when you’ve brought such a lovely creature into such disgrace! An Order like yours, by Saint Denis, is not good or fair or proper! You forbid young people to dance and sing, with viols, drums and pipes, or any of the amusements which ministrels give. Now tell me, Lord Shaved-on-top, did St Francis live this sort of life? You deserve as much dishonour as a false proven traitor! And you have found the person who will give you what you deserve!’ Then she opened a great wooden chest to put the friar in.

Brother Simon fell on his face in front of the lady, stretched out as if he were on the cross. The knight also humbled himself, for he was a generous man and had a tender heart. When he saw the friar stretched out like a cross he put out his right hand and helped him up.

‘Brother’, he said, ‘would you like to be freed from this affair? Then get four hundred pounds quickly, so that the young lady can be married!’

When the friar heard this news, he had never been so happy in his life. He gave his word to the knight that he would hand over the cash – he would easily find it without having to borrow, because he had a good idea where he would get it from! At that he took his leave and left.

The lady very nobly kept the young lady Denise at her side. She did nothing to frighten her, but very gently requested her to be absolutely assured that her secrets would never be known to any other creature, nor that she had laid with a man, but that she would soon be very well married; she could choose the man she wanted most from the whole region, as long as he was of her own social rank. The lady succeeded in setting Denise’s mind at rest. These were not merely fair words; she had one of her best dresses laid out on her bed for her; she comforted her as best as she could, and said to her, ‘My dear friend, you will wear this dress tomorrow.’ Before going to bed, she dressed her with her own hand; she would not allow anyone else to touch her, because she wanted to deal with her business privately and as was most appropriate. She was a wise and courteous woman.

She sent her own messenger privately to Denise’s mother, who was overjoyed when she saw the daughter whom she thought she had lost. But the lady gave her to understand and to believe that the truth was that Denise had joined the Order of the Daughters of God, and that she had taken her away from one of the other nuns who had brought her to her house that evening, who had almost gone mad when she did so. What should I say about the words they spoke to each other? It would be pointless to repeat them, but Denise remained there until the cash was handed over. Then with hardly any delay she was settled to her own satisfaction: she was given in marriage to a knight who had asked for her hand previously. Now her name is ‘Lady Denise’ and she in held in far more honour than she was in the habit of a friar minor!

 This text copyright ©2001 Dr Helen Nicholson

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