Robert Appelbaum • Pleasant and Useful? A Tale from the Middle Ages

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was taken for granted that the purpose of telling a story was to provide a moral example. That meant showing something that readers ought to emulate, or else something that they ought to avoid. There was no idea that fiction, in other words, was anything other than instrumental. That fiction ought to entertain was also taken for granted, though. The ancient authority Horace said that art ought to be dulce et utile, pleasant and useful. So it would be a surprise to most storytellers that there is anything to worry about if fiction was meant to be useful, and the very idea of “instrumentality,” as in Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous injunction against “instrumental reason,” would have seemed odd.

But that didn’t mean that instrumentality in fiction was straightforward. The example of the perennially popular Aesop’s Fables apart, early European fiction writers knew that though a story was one thing, the interpretation of a story was another. Moreover, although it was pretty important to know, along with the grasshopper, that it was best to live like an ant, and always prepare for the future, the stories that attracted the most interest could be morally ambiguous. In fact, it was common for storytellers to say that a story meant one thing when it actually meant another, or else to put out a story, salacious though it may be, and pretend that it expressed a strait-laced moral truth which it couldn’t possibly be expressing.

* * *

Here is an example from a medieval French fabliau (a comic short story) by one Hues Piaucele, collected (and translated) in what is called the British Library Manuscript.[1] It is about a loving couple named John and Yfame, who had recently fallen on hard times. Knowing this, three separate monks from the local monastery offered substantial amounts of money to Yfame if she would have sex with him. She indignantly told John about the monks and John came up with a plan for revenge, as also a plan for getting a hold of the monks’ money. He told Yfame to accept their offers, and have each of them come to their home at different times one evening the next week, saying that her husband would be gone from the house that night.

In came the first monk – the narrator loves adding the monk was old and fat. He put his money on the table and went after Yfame in the middle of the main room of the house, bringing the two of them down to floor. John, who had been hiding in the loft, came down and whacked the monk on the head with a club, instantly killing him. John took the corpse outside, dumping it beside a tree, where he thought he would later bury him, and collected the cash. In came the second monk, putting down his money and trying to take Yfame on her bed. Again, John whacked and killed him, and dragged the corpse out of the horse for burial. In came the third monk, and the same thing.

The narrator doesn’t spare his readers or listeners the gory details. On the first occasion, for example, we are told that John

who threw himself upon them,
Very hard with the club:
He hit his head so hard
That the blood and brains flowed out.
The man fell dead speechless.

But now it was getting late and John had the hard work ahead of him of burying the three men. And he was exhausted, though delighted at all the money he has suddenly accumulated from the monks’ down payments on sex they would never enjoy. So he asked his wife to go fetch her nephew Estormi, a simpleminded young man much addicted to gambling. She found him in a tavern, losing at cards, and offered to pay his debts if he came right away and helped her in a private affair.

When Estormi arrived at John and Yfame’s home, John told him that the body of a demonic monk had come back from the dead, and his body needed to be buried as soon as possible to prevent him from coming back to life altogether and cause who knows what kind of harm. So Estormi buried him. But when he came back to the house, John showed him the second monk, pretending that it was the same monk, again arisen from death. “There he is again.” Go bury him, John said, lest he return another time. Estormi did what he was told. But then, coming back to the house, he was shown the third monk, the same monk again, it is alleged, arisen one more time. With much effort, worn out by the previous two burials, Estormi went to work again, and found himself successful at ridding the world a third time of the ghostly priest. But as he was finishing the job, he saw a fourth priest walking past him down the street. “Look,” Estormi said, “this priest is getting away from me! By God’s ass, he’s going back! What is this, Sir Priest?”

Estormi took his shovel and attacked the fourth priest. As he reports the incident later on,

“And I gave him one with the pick
So hard that I made
His brains flow out on the street.
Then I took him, and I went back
Down there by the back door.
And I threw him down;
I stuck him into a mud pit.”

When the husband heard this he was flabbergasted. And he said aloud, though in a low voice,

“In faith, now things are going worse,
Because this man [the fourth  monk] hadn’t done anything wrong here.
Someone is paying the penalty
Who has not deserved death for it.
Very unjustly did the priest
Whom Estormi killed lose his life.
The devil has a great talent
For tricking and trapping people.”

And that is just about the end of the story. It has been modelled in typical folktale fashion, following what is often called “the rule of three,” and it has besides exploited what might also be called “the supplement of the fourth.” The rule of three portends an economical balance: readers will probably be most aware of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” where the third alternative portends a golden mean which solves a narrative problem. The device is common in all sorts of tales. There are three little pigs. In the classic Greek myth, The Judgement of Paris, the title character has to choose between three different goddesses as to which one is the loveliest. When a magic being is freed from a bottle or other impediment, his rescuer is entitled to three wishes. But there are cases when a folktale cannot end on the resolution of the rule of three, and so brings in a fourth phenomenon, which upsets the balance altogether. I call it the supplement of the fourth.

And in any case, after the fourth monk is killed, and John bewails the injustice of it, this supplement of the fourth overturning the story’s balance, there is still more to come, because after John finishes speaking, the narrator comes in to tell us the moral of the story:

Through these priests,
I would like to teach you
That it is folly to covet
Or woo somebody else’s wife.
The reason for this is very clear.
Do you think that because of any poverty
A decent woman would forget her duties?
No! She would rather let her throat
Be cut with a sharp razor
Than ever to do for money
A thing that would bring shame to her lord.

Note how different are the responses of John and the narrator, John ending with alarm at the evil circulating in the world, the narrator ending with a caution against trying to seduce another man’s wife by paying her money. Meanwhile four monks lie dead.

* * *

For John and the narrator alike the story is an example of something, a higher moral truth which can come either in the form of a maxim (John) or in the form of a caution (the narrator). It is precisely because of its exemplarity that the story is understood to be “instrumental,” which is to say “useful” as well as pleasant. Watch out for the devil! Don’t try to bribe a married woman! But the author of the story, who uncharacteristically identifies himself at the end of the tale, seems disposed rather to point out that morals of this kind are arbitrary and beside the point. For it should be clear to any discerning reader that the story does not prove that the devil is everywhere, or that all wives would resist a bribe for sex, or that bribing a woman for sex is bound to get the perpetrator in trouble. In other words, whatever John or the narrator may think, the story does not mean what they say it means. Both John and the narrator seem to be committing the fallacy of the excluded middle, where a particular becomes a universal without a middle term to tie the universal to the particular. To put it another way, both John and the narrator assume an either/or state of affairs, although the story itself puts forward any number of alternatives. For example, instead of blaming the devil, John might have blamed himself for entrusting serious work to a fool. Instead of cautioning men to stay away from other men’s wives, the narrator might have said that the would-be adulterer should proceed by steps and make sure of a woman’s affection before he tries to seduce her with gifts.

The question may then arise as to the author’s intention. Why did he tell this story? One obvious answer is that he told it in order to mock exemplary fables. Stories like this, he implies, seem to have a moral but really don’t. There is nothing instrumental about them. Or he may be anticipating the Renaissance tradition which begins with Boccaccio’s Decameron, where time and again it is shown that different people may interpret the same story differently, given their own prejudices, needs and struggles. Or again, he may be anticipating the naturalistic tradition of storytelling, which becomes especially prominent in the nineteenth century, according to which the purpose of fiction is to illuminate the (ugly) truth of how the world really works. The story of John and Yfame casts light on a world where poverty can lead people to extremes, where religious people may ride roughshod over their vows to austerity, continence and charity, where violence and vengeance may seem to satisfy our inner needs coupled with our sense of justice … and so forth.

I was myself raised in this last tradition. I was taught, in high school, that Pride and Prejudice was about the vexing rise of materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain, that Macbeth was about the dangers of ambition, and that “Bartleby the Scrivener” was about the power of irrationality in the face of modern-day bureaucratic capitalism. Or at least, that is what I remember having been taught. But what if the stories are not about these things? What if they have no “use,” no propositional and ethical uptake? Or what if, as in the case of the fabliau, the instrumentality of fiction indefinitely recedes into the abyss of excluded middles?

I don’t have a ready answer to the question, but I hope I have at least pointed out that the problem of the instrumentality of fiction is nothing new; it was already a vital concern among storytellers in the thirteenth century.



[1] The French Fabliau B.N. MS. 837, ed. and trans. Raymond Eichmann and John Duval, Two Volumes, Vol. I (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018). Kindle Edition, position 951-1472.




Robert Appelbaum, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Uppsala University, and Senior Professor in Arts and Communications at Malmö University, is the author, most recently, of The Aesthetics of Violence: Art, Fiction, Drama and Film (2017). He is currently working on a book entitled The Renaissance Discovery of Violence, from Boccaccio to Shakespeare.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s