Professional NPCs from the Medieval Joke Book

Last month, we looked at some jokes from the earliest known printed joke book, the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini. This month we return to the Facetiae for more late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian jokes, each of which has at its heart a character who makes a great professional or tradesman NPC.

Some readers of last month’s post expressed dismay that Poggio often explains his jokes at the end. They feel that ruins the gag. I would argue that it’s interesting that Poggio explains his jokes and that there’s probably something we can learn there about humor over time. Plus, the explanation is often helpful to a modern audience that doesn’t possess the same cultural references Poggio could assume.

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A furrier making a garment of squirrel furs (1483)

A miraculous false physician. There was lately in Florence a confidence man who plied no trade. He read in a medical book the compositions of pills said to be good for certain diseases and got it in his head that, by means of those pills, he might set up as a physician. So he made a bunch of pills, left town, and roamed through villages and farms practicing medicine. He applied his pills to all diseases and, as chance would have it, some people got better. The fool’s fame spread among fools. One day, a man who had lost his ass came and asked him if he had some medicine for recovering animals. The quack said he had and gave the man six pills to swallow. The next day, while looking for his ass, the pills took effect. The man rushed to side of the road to take a messy dump. And there, grazing among the reeds, was the donkey. He exalted the physician to the skies and peasants flocked to the doctor who had cures even for the recovery of lost asses.

A foolish priest. Aello is a small village, hidden in the Apennines, where there lived a priest more ignorant and illiterate than even the country people there. Failing to notice the changes of the year, he did not warn his parishioners that Lent had arrived. When he came to another town for the market on the eve of Palm Sunday, he saw the clergy preparing palms and olive boughs. At first he wondered what it could mean, but he discovered his omission and learned that Lent come and gone without any observation on his part. On his return to Aello, he set about preparing boughs and palms for the next day. He summoned the peasants and said, “This is the day on which it is customary to give palms and olive boughs. Next Sunday will be Easter. We will thus have to do penance but during one week, so our fast will be a short one this year. Here’s why. Carnival was slow and late, on account of the snow and bad roads which prevented his crossing the mountains. Lent, following close in his steps, got on laboriously and couldn’t carry the weight of more than one week, having to leave the others on the side of the road. So during the short time that Lent will stay with us, come to confession and do penance.”

A procession of priests (~1464)

An obstinate notary. During a dinner in the papal palace, at which we were sitting with some of his secretaries, the conversation turned upon the ignorance of those whose whole learning lies in the writings of the past and who, without inquiring into causes, merely say that their forefathers have left them written as they are found. “These people,” said Carlo of Bologna, “are very much like a certain Bolognese notary. Two men called upon him to have a deed of sale drawn up. Pen in hand, he began writing and asked their names. ‘John’, said one. ‘Phillip’, replied the other. The notary at once exclaimed, ‘This contract cannot be made out between you. Unless the vendor is called Conrad and the vendee Titius, this deed cannot be drawn up!’ – those being the names he learned in his formulary. They protested that they could not alter their names, but he persisted in the literal wording of his formulas and sent them on their way.”

A bold cook. The Duke of Milan, a man of most refined taste, had an eminent cook whom he’d sent to France to perfect his art. During a war against Florence, the Duke one day received a messenger with unfavorable news that weighed on his mind. Soon after, the cook set several dishes on the table before him. The Duke found fault with all of them, detecting some bad taste or another, put them aside as poorly seasoned, and sent for the cook, whom he chewed out for incompetence. The cook at once retorted, “If the Florentines take your taste and appetite away, is it my fault? My dishes are savory and skillfully prepared. It is Florence’s fault and none of mine!”

Much later, the cook noticed there was no end of people asking all kinds of favors of the Duke. So he sat at the table and earnestly requested that his master make an ass of him. Quite at a loss, the Duke inquired why his cook would rather be an ass than a man. “Because,” said the cook, “I notice that those whom you raise, and on whom you bestow honors and offices, get puffed up with arrogance, pride, and insolence and become asses. So I wish you would make an ass of me too!”

Two physicians seeing a patient (1483)

Two physicians: one cunning, one foolish. An ignorant but sly physician used to visit his patients in the company of a student. He felt their pulse, and if he noticed anything amiss, he threw the blame on them for having eaten a fig, an apple, or some other article of food he’d forbid on the spot. As the patients usually acknowledged eating the offending food, he came to be seen as possessing supernatural vision, so skilled was he. His amazed pupil at last asked him his methods: the pulse, the touch, or some higher knowledge? The flattered physician told his student the secret: “When I walk into a patient’s room, I give a quick look around to see if I spot any parings of fruit on the floor or chestnut or fig peels, nut shells, apple cores, anything. Whatever I notice, I charge the patient with having made himself worse through his gluttony and thereby free myself of all responsibility should his condition take a turn for the worse.”

When the student entered medical practice, he used the same technique. One day he was called in for a poor peasant whom he promised to restore to full health – if he could keep to the prescribed regimen. When he came on his second visit, the patient was much worse. Too ignorant to ascertain the cause, the doctor looked about for an excuse. But no matter where he looked, he could find no remnants of food. All he found was an ass’ pack saddle under the bed. He cried out, “I see now why you are sick! You have committed such an excess that I wouldn’t be surprised if I found you dead, ill as you are. You have eaten an entire ass!”

A fraudulent divination instructor. Gonnella, formerly a juggler, promised an inhabitant of Ferrara who wanted to become a diviner that he’d make him one – for a fee, of course. He made the man lie in a bed with him. Gonnella then let out a silent fart and had the man put his head under the sheets. The fool complied, then jerked his head out. “You farted!” “Out with the money,” retorted Gonnella, “for you have divined correctly.”

Gonnella promised another student to make him a diviner by means of a single pill. He made a little ball of poop and thrust it into his student’s mouth. The man spat it out, exclaiming “What you gave me tastes like shit!” Gonnella laughed. “Right you are, friend. Pay up!”

A juggler in the margin of an illuminated book of psalms. He’s keeping a plate aloft using sticks (early 1300s).

A lying juggler. Gregory XII, before he was elected pope, pledged himself to a number of measures to resolve the schism which at the time divided the Church. For a few days he stuck to his promises so strongly he even threatened to abdicate if he had to. But soon he grew captivated by supreme power, forgot his oaths, and kept none of his pledges. The Cardinal of Bordeaux, a man of singular discretion, was grieved at this development and once spoke to me about it. “He has played us,” he said, “the trick of the juggler who promised the Bolognese that he would fly. There was in Bologna a juggler who advertised that, on such-and-such a day, he would leap from the top of a tower close to the bridge of St. Raphael and fly more than a mile beyond the walls of the city. On the appointed day, almost the whole population of Bologna congregated. They waited until sunset, though they were half-dead with heat and hunger. They were all in suspense, their eyes riveted on the tower. Now and again, he showed himself atop the building, clapping his wings as if to take flight, and the people stared open-mouthed and cheered him. At last, when the sun had set, the juggler – not wishing to appear as if he’d done nothing – turned his back to the public and mooned them. Everyone had to stumble home in the dark, tricked and starved. Our friend Pope Gregory has served us the same. After a parade of promises, he pays us off with his backside.”

Finally, though he’s not a professional, we have a lazy and self-important official. Antonio Lusco  was a witty man of learning. An acquaintance of his one day submitted to him a letter which he wished to address to the pope and Lusco advised him to correct and alter a certain passage. The next day, the writer showed it to him again as if it had been corrected, though it clearly hadn’t been. After glancing at it, Lusco quipped, “You perhaps take me for Giannozzo Visconti?” When asked what he meant, he explained. “Giannozzo, formerly our governor of Vicenza, was a very good-natured man, but a heavy fellow, both in body and mind. He often called his secretary and had him write some letter to the Duke of Milan. He dictated the greetings and titles and left the real work to his secretary. Pretending to read the finished letter, Giannozzo always found fault with it and had his secretary make changes. But the secretary, familiar with the folly of his governor, would come back with the same letter unaltered, which he pretended to have corrected and written out again. Giannozzo took it up, gave it a glance, and ordered it sent.”

Excerpt of January, from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1440)

About the source, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini

Poggio Bracciolini was born near Florence in 1380. His father was a debt-ridden notary. At the age of 23, Poggio went to Rome and became apostolic secretary to the pope. You may recall from a previous post that this was a weird time for popes! There were two of them at the time, and five years into Poggio’s work, a third pope was declared. Poggio no longer knew which pope to follow and resigned his position. After eight months, the third pope died and a successor was elected: the Pisan pope John XXIII. Poggio went to work for John as his secretary. When John fled in 1414, Poggio took up traveling and visiting monasteries to find lost manuscripts. A few years after the schism was resolved and there was once again only one pope, Poggio rejoined the papal court as secretary to Pope Martin V. Over a long career in the curia, Poggio was involved in a few minor scandals involving sex, violence, and a short temper. He also developed a considerable literary reputation. Most of his writings are of no interest to us: translations of classical works, dialogues on morality and life, that sort of thing.

His Facetiae is the earliest printed joke book known to western scholars. (Older joke books exist, but the Facetiae was the first to come off a printing press.) It’s a collection of 273 jokes supposedly swapped by papal secretaries and assistants in their leisure hours. Quite a lot of the jokes are filthy. As a result, the book was widely condemned – even banned by the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, it proved popular and even kicked off a whole genre of joke books. Not everything in it is a joke; there are averred stories of mermaids and two-headed calfs, anecdotes about historical figures, and retellings of Aesop. But most of the book is short stories still recognizable as jokes, many of them even still funny. Some are even still in popular use; the very first joke in the book is basically the plot of the Irish folk song Seven Drunken Nights, but with Jesus in place of whiskey.

The characters in the Facetiae are archetypal. Even the stories about named contemporaries of Poggio (and there are plenty) really just attach a convenient name to stereotypes like ‘the lusty priest’ and ‘the clever duke’. That’s what makes these characters good NPCs. They’re ‘types’ that your players will immediately understand and remember, even if they’ve never encountered the archetype before. Plus, y’know, they’re funny. Everyone likes funny NPCs! If you wind up using any of these fellows at your table, you’ll want to consider changing some genders around; you may have noticed they’re all male. It’s not that there are no women in the Facetiae. It’s just that they skew towards “the widow so buxom she caused the friar to masturbate”. While that’s a funny image, “widow with big tits” isn’t a great NPC.

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