Lower-Class NPCs from the Medieval Joke Book
The earliest known printed joke book, the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, is a fabulous window into how this late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian saw his world. It’s also legitimately very funny. This week we’re going to look at seven jokes from the Facetiae, each of which has at its heart a character who makes a great poor or peasant NPC.
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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 last month’s post that this was a weird moment 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 seven fellows at your table, you’ll want to consider changing some genders around: as written, 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.
Excerpt of September, from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1440)
An adulterous mimic. The father of a friend of mine was having an affair with the wife of a total fool. One night he went to her house, believing her husband was away, knocked loudly at the door and asked to be let in, imitating the cuckold’s voice. The blockhead, who was at home, heard him and called to his wife, “Giovanna, open the door and let him in, for he does seem to be me.”
A very literal peasant. The Abbot of Septimo, a very fat man, on his way to Florence one evening, enquired of a peasant he met, “Do you think I shall be able to enter the gate?” Of course, he meant to ask whether he was likely to reach the city before the closing of the gates at nightfall. But the country man, with unimpeachable practicality, replied, “Of course you will. A cart-load of hay fits through, why not you?”
A rascally child. Some people were talking in Florence. Each wished for something that would make them happy; such is always the way. One would have liked to be a pope, another a king, a third something else, when a garrulous child interjected, saying “I wish I were a melon.” When asked why, he said “Because then everyone would smell my bottom.” It is usual for folks buying melons to sniff underneath.
An unrepentant criminal shepherd. A shepherd, from a part of the Kingdom of Naples where brigandage is a way of life, once came to a priest to confess his sins. He knelt and sobbed, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned terribly.” He could barely get the words out, so abominable was the weight on his conscience. “During my Lenten fast, I was making a cheese when, through squeezing, a few drops of milk happened to spurt into my mouth. I didn’t even spit them out!” The priest, familiar with the ways of the country, smiled at hearing the shepherd charge himself with not keeping Lent as if it was a grievous sin. He asked whether the shepherd had not any other sins to confess. “No, I don’t think so,” came the reply. The priest pressed him, asking whether he’d gone with friends to rob or murder any travelers. “Oh, yes!” replied the penitent. “I have many a time had a hand in both. But it’s such a frequent thing that we think nothing of it.” The priest assured him those were two terrible crimes, but it was no use. The shepherd, convinced that the manslaughter so common among his countrymen was of no consequence, merely begged to be absolved of the milk.
Excerpt of July, from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1440)
An anti-competitive moneylender. A friar, a man of great authority who frequently preached to the people, was constantly pestered by a moneylender of Vicenza to inveigh against moneylenders and brand their villainous trade. The man was so pressing as to be troublesome. Someone was surprised at the fellow’s anxiety to bring into contempt misdeeds he shared and asked him the reason. “There are so many moneylenders here in Vicenza,” he replied, “that hardly any borrowers come to me, and I make no money. But if the rest could be persuaded to give it up, all their profits would come into my till.”
A liar. There lived in Florence a man so addicted to lying that never a word of truth escaped his lips. A friend of his, whom he had repeatedly deceived, met him one day. As he was about to speak, the friend interrupted. “You lie!” “How could I, since I have not yet said anything?” “I mean,” replied his friend, “that you will lie as soon as you speak.”
A randy hermit. In the time of Doge Francesco Foscari of Venice, there lived near Padua a hermit named Ansimirio who had a reputation as a holy man and took confession. Within the privacy of confession, he had sex with a great many women, some of whom were even members of the aristocracy. Word of this got out and he was apprehended by the Head Constable. He admitted his guilt and was taken before Doge Francesco. The Doge thought he’d have a bit of fun. He asked the hermit some particulars and the names of the women he’d slept with. A great many were given, among them those of ladies married to officers of the Doge’s household. The Doge’s secretary was on hand to write them all down for future amusement. When the hermit was done, the secretary urged him sternly and threatened him with rigorous punishment if he held any back. “Well then,” sighed the hermit, “write down your own wife and add her name to the roll.” The secretary dropped his pen in shock and the Doge burst into laughter, saying it was right that a man who took such pleasure in other people’s shame should suffer their same fate.
Going to be at Gen Con in Indianapolis this August? I'll be running a game of Shanty Hunters on Thursday at noon. If you're interested, I'd love to have you!