The Sacristan

This text copyright ©1999 Dr Helen Nicholson

From Nouveau Recueil Complet des Fabliaux, ed. Willem Noomen, vol. 7 (Assen, 1993), no. 74, pp. 3-189. Translated by Helen Nicholson.


Preserved in 7 manuscripts, in three different versions. This is 'version 1', the oldest version, which dates from the 13th century, possibly from before 1266. Written in French, but anonymous.


My lords, I have no wish to lie: I will tell you about something which happened not long ago.

A bourgeois, a pretty generous man, lived in a good town. He had a wife who was so attractive, courteous and worthy, wise and well-educated that you wouldn't find one like her in a hundred thousand. She used to go very willingly to church. He husband, who was a young man, loved hounds and hawks and playing backgammon and chess. He didn't spend half-heartedly: he liked to keep open house. As a result, he came to the point where he was forced to sell his land, and the only thing he had left to spend was his house; but he would rather have gone to prison than sold his house.

One day his lady came to hear mass at an abbey, to seek God's help and aid. I may tell you without a lie that between the abbey and the town flowed a river - not a wide one - which would not carry a boat or a barge. Don't ask any more about this river. The lady sat down in the church; like a well-educated woman, she went into one of the corners and knelt before the cross with hands together and tearful eyes and held a psalter in her hand. At that, the sacristan came up, and saw the lady. When he saw her weeping, he approached her gently.

'The God who made the firmament give you good day, my sweet lady! I would very much like to know, by my soul, why you are crying so bitterly.'

'Oh, sir, I am not wrong to do so - I weep with good reason! I have a husband who would spend a kingdom if he had one; he has spend so much that we have nothing left.'

The sacristan saw that she was very beautiful and a spark touched his heart, which made him change colour. Now he has entered into error, and he will not easily get out of it!

'My lady,' he said, 'by St. Legier, if I could have your love, I would give you more than a hundred pounds of my own money. You should be aware that I am not a fool in setting my love on you!'

'May evil death take me first,' she said, 'or may I go mad, before I commit such folly! I think you are crazy to ask me such a thing! Nevertheless, I shall think about it later.'

When the sacristan heard her, he raised his clasped hands to God in his joy. Their conversation ended at this point.

The lady went back to the house, and her husband addressed her: 'My lady, let's have dinner!'

'My lord, for the sake of God and His names, listen to my problem first: the sacristan wants me to give him my love and become his mistress, and says that he will give me a hundred pounds.'

'My lady, this is too vile! God help me, this will never happen!'

'My lord, now I have heard what I wanted to hear,' said the lady, 'as God help me!'

'My lady, let's be a bit crafty here, if you please, and then we'll get the money! If you want to have my love, you will go to the church tomorrow, and tell the sacristan to come to you in this house and to bring plenty of cash, because you'll do whatever he desires. And don't worry - he'll never touch you!'

'My lord, it will be as it pleases you, but be careful not to kill him, because that would be a sin and wrong.'

So they left the matter until the morning when the sun rose. The lady got up and went to the church, well adorned and dressed. When the monk saw her such great joy leapt into his heart that he was on the point of running to kiss her eyes and face; he was in such a state that he didn't know what to do, because there was too great a crowd of people there for him to speak to her. He got mass chanted very quickly, so that everyone would leave; he wasn't worried about God and the saints - he kept things moving quickly. He went around the woman like a greyhound chasing a hare; and when he saw that the place was empty and that everyone had gone, he greeted the lady, and she returned his greeting. Her words were precious to him; his heart filled with great joy.

'My wise lady,' he said, 'tell me what you will do to me.'

'My lord, by the good faith I owe you, I will do all that you wish. Come and don't be afraid; my lord is not at home. But there's just one little thing I want to tell you: you must not come without your money, because that would be very unwise.'

'My sweet love,' he said, 'by my order of St Vincent, there will be more than a hundred pounds.'

At this their discussion ended, and the monk, who felt that he had already waited too long, went all through the church searching and overturning all the altars; he put whatever he found inside the bosom of his habit. Then he went to a chest and opened it - there was money inside and, what can I say? - he filled a sack with them, and you should be aware that he put in a lot more than he had promised to take. At last he went and did no more.

The lady told her lord everything that he must do. 'Faith, my lord, the monk is coming: but I want to say just one thing to you: for God's sake, be careful not to kill him!'

The bourgeois did not hang around: he entered his bedchamber by a door, carrying a squared-off mace. The bed was large and wide. He hid between the bed and the wall. The monk did not hang around either: he arrived very quickly, for he hurried his business so that he would incur no shame or embarassment by being late. When he saw the lady, he grasped her by the bare hand, and gave her the sack.

'My lady,' he said, 'as God see me, there is more in there than I told you: for God's sake, let's go to your bed, lady, I am your beloved!'

At that, they entered the bedchamber. He placed her on the bed, and lifted up her underskirt... he would have done it at once, when the bourgeois leapt out of his hiding place, the mace held in his two hands, and cried: 'By my head, sacristan, you have come to your last day!'

The monk leapt up, sprang on him, grabbed him by the hair and gave him such a blow on the neck that the bourgeois thought he was dead. But he leapt up and got away from him, raised the mace in his two hands, and gave him such a blow on the head that he split the crown and all the brains splattered out. The monk fell dead.

When the lady saw this, she wept, but she dared not cry out, and said quietly, 'Unhappy wretch that I am! It is a great sin that I am alive and that my soul remains in my body, for this monk has died because of me - now I am shamed even more!'

'My lady,' her husband said, 'don't be afraid! You are not to blame! But shut the bedroom door.'

So they left it at that. Now, hear what the bourgeois did next: he waited cautiously until he saw that everyone in the town had gone to bed and were sleeping. Then he conceived a great plan: no man every thought of one like it! He picked up the monk and carried him quietly towards the abbey, but he did not hail the porter on the gate. He came to the privies [cambres prives], which were built over the water. He came to one of the openings, and sat the monk over it. Then he took a handful of straw and put it in his hand; he propped him up on all sides and pulled up his hood. He left the monk like that, and went back to his house.

'My lady,' he said, 'relax! We are safe: don't cry anymore. No one can ever find out about it; let's go to bed!'

So they went to bed together. And the sacristan, I believe, could not move or bend over. But the prior had to go whether he would or no, because he had a bad stomach; he went straight into the privy where the sacristan was seated. The prior thought that he was alive. He sat down over an opening, and did not move for a long time. He was holding a candle in his hand, and recognised the sacristan - he thought he was asleep.

'Hey,' the prior said, 'what's up with you, sleeping here like that? Get back to your bed!' When he did not reply a word the prior went and shoved him, thinking to wake him up; but he fell at the foot of the pillar, banging his head against it; no word came from his mouth.

The prior lifted him up, and saw his forehead broken, and his hands and feet limp. 'Oh, God,' he said, 'I've killed the sacristan! This sin will never be expiated! Do you wish to receive the last rites? My dear comrade, speak to me!'

He made no reply.

'God, what sin has encumbered me! I am a murderer! What shall I do, alas, if this is found out? All my comrades saw how we argued yesterday morning. Now I am in a real fix; I will never be able to chant mass again [because I have shed blood]. But, by God's order, I will do so! I think I can prevent that happening to me: now we'll see whether I know a thing or two!'

He lifted up the monk on his back, across his shoulders: his plan is to find a greater fool than he is. He set off across the river and said that he would leave the body at the door of the lady whom he knew to be the most beautiful and courteous; and this was the very same bourgeoise who had been the cause of the sacristan's death. He leant the body against the door, upright, and then returned with sad and mournful face to the abbey, undressed, and lay down on his bed.

The bourgeois lay in his bedchamber. His whole body was shaking; his fright made him wake up. He called his wife and said, 'My lady, give me my shirt: I am going out into the road. I don't know what's up with me, but I'm going outside.'

'My lord, God keep you safe for me,' said the lady, 'by His sweetness!'

He got up, all in a state as he was, and unfastened the door; but before he had unbolted it, the monk fell at his feet.

'My lady,' he called, 'help!'

When the lady heard her husband, she came with anxious heart, and said, 'My lord, do you need me?'

'Yes, lady! Look, here's the monk! He's almost knocked the sense out of me! God help me, I think he's come back to look for his money. I think we will never have peace unless he's fixed into the ground: otherwise, he'll come out again. Help me, I'll carry him. I know a good place to bury him.'

He lifted up the monk and went to the big dung hill, full of straw and stinking stuff; there he put the monk. In this dung hill was a big side of bacon which had been stolen by three thieves, who had hidden it there. The bourgeois dug down so far that he found the bacon; he almost went crazy; he thought it was a devil which must drive him out of his senses. He was amazed and wondered what it could be. When he saw that it was a side of bacon, he pulled it out and buried the monk in its place. He lifted up the side of bacon and went home to his wife.

'My lord, sweet love,' she said, 'why haven't you buried him in the ground? Why have you brought him back?'

'My lady, by the good faith I owe you, this is a good large side of bacon; there is enough here for two years.'

I will leave these two for a moment and tell you about the three thieves, who were in a tavern, where they were making their plans. 'Faith,' one said, 'I'm starving, and it's Friday tomorrow, when no one dares eat meat. But we can make ourselves a good meal: we have a good piece of salted meat.' So the thieves agreed that two of them would go and fetch the bacon, and the third remain behind as a guarantee that they would pay for their drinks.

'Tavern master,' he said, 'I am your guarantee, and these are going for food; they'll be back in a moment, without fail.' The tavern owner agreed.

They went straight to the dung hill and began to look for the bacon. They looked until they found the monk: and when they found his habit, they were astonished. One dug down to his feet; the other one said, 'What's up?'

'Our bacon's got boots,' he replied, 'and arms and hands and legs!'

'By God's eyes, you're joking!'

'Comrade, I'm not making it up; we have a devil instead of our bacon: big, hideous and deformed. My God, this is a bad case! What are we going to do?'

'I will tell you, by St Hilary!' said the other, 'If you wish to hear me out. I agree that we go and hang it where we stole it from this evening: and if you hear a great noise about it tomorrow, let the peasant be arrested and put in prison.'

So the thieves agreed. They carried the monk off quickly until they came to the house from which they had stolen the bacon, and there they hung it up by the neck. So they returned it to the peasant. Then they went back to the tavern, without candle or lantern. When their comrade saw them coming he asked them why they hadn't brought anything with them.

'You're a fool to ask us, because the bacon has become a monk with boots and habit.'

'And what did you do with it?

'You'll hear a different story tomorrow, because we have hung it up back from where we took it.'

I have told you the truth about the thieves: but the peasant was laid in his bed, and his wife next to him. 'My lady,' he said, 'tomorrow I will go to a market which is near here. I have seen all my neighbours getting rich and doing well and I ought to do the same.'

'Faith, sir, you're right! But I will tell you something - you should have breakfast before you go.'

'What shall I eat, then? Something as cheap as possible.'

'My lord, don't be silly. Don't you still have that bacon? You can make a good meal of that!'

'Let's get up and eat it hot,' said the peasant said. So they both got up, and the good woman lit the fire. The peasant took the dish and lent it against a post and held a knife in his hand to attack the bacon. But when he saw the big legs, and saw the monk's habit: 'Help! God and St Anthony! Oh, wife, I'm not making it up! We have a devil in place of our bacon, huge and hideous and deformed. By God's heart, this is a bad case!'

Then he cut the rope, so that the monk fell down. He looked at it carefully, and recognised him. 'Hey, wife!' the peasant said, 'I do believe that it's the sacristan!' When his wife heard this, she was not at all pleased, and said quietly, 'What shall I do, alas for me! I am sure that I will be burned tomorrow, and you will be hanged, good sir! Tomorrow the world will say that you found him sleeping with me.'

'Wife, don't be afraid. I will soon cast a charm to absolve you from blame. The chaplain's white mule is over there, with a colt. Don't worry about a thing. If the monk is mounted on the colt, and tied on well with a rope... and we have an old saddle, and we will put it on the colt's back.'

'My lord, for God's sake, do it quickly, because that will make me very happy!'

At that he seized the colt and put the saddle on it. He tied the monk on so that he didn't wobble about. Then he took an old lance and put it under the monk's arm so that it looked exactly as if he were carrying it. He hung an old, battered shield with flaking paint around his neck, and sent him out like that. The colt galloped away, leaping from one side of the road to the other so quickly no one could catch hold of it.

Then day began to break, and the people of the town got up - there were more than twenty thousand inhabitants. They were astonished when they saw the monk coming thundering down on them: 'Shut the gates, shut them, shut them! Here comes a monk, fully armed!' They all jeered and yelled at him, and emptied many pots and much bum-wiping straw over him. A peasant told the abbot: 'Sir, here comes the sacristan, with everyone yelling madly at him; he has a shield around his neck and is carrying a great strong lance; he wants to kill someone, I don't know who!'

When the prior heard that, he said that the sacristan was coming to kill him: 'But he'll never catch me!' He rushed into the abbey and hid behind the high altar, muffled inside the hood of his cowl, on his knees and with his hands clasped in prayer.

Meanwhile, the sacristan was still on the colt. Because of the noise and confusion that the people were making, the colt thundered towards the church; but the entrance was so low that as it shot inside the corpse hit his head on the lintel. The cords broke and he fell off head over heels, legs apart. The monks came running up and stood around him. They found his cowl covered in blood and his body as cold as ice. When they saw that he was dead, there was not one of them who did not grieve. The abbot buried the body; but before he was laid in the earth he was mourned and lamented.

This book tells us that the bourgeois kept the one hundred pounds and the bacon! Here ends the fable of the monk.

This text copyright ©1999 Dr Helen Nicholson

Please do not copy or quote from this page without acknowledging the author.