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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif T230ff

Faithlessness in marriage. Irish myth: *Cross; India: Thompson-Balys.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

1. Jests and Anecdotes

L. The Bad Wife

In those anecdotes in which the wife hides behind a tree and deceives the gullible husband, the sympathy of the story-teller is nearly always with her, for ordinarily her cause is just. And in folktales in general the wife is likely to be the object of pity and commiseration, so that some of the most beloved characters in the wonder tales are the long-suffering and persecuted heroines. But even in these same wonder, tales cruelty often shows itself most merciless in faithless sisters, mothers, and wives. [321]

In the folk anecdote, influenced perhaps by fabliaux and novelle with their medieval bias against women, the woman usually appears as wicked, over bearing, and faithless, or at best unutterably stupid.

The medieval literary tale of the Widow of Ephesus (K2213.1; Type 1510) has itself never become popular among the folk, but it has given rise to a number of similar anecdotes of faithless widows. In all of these the central point is that the wife plans her new marriage on the day of the husband's funeral. In one such tale she is ready to marry the messenger who brings news of the husband's death, but the husband has only feigned death in order to test her (T231.3; Type 1350). With slight variation this tale is known in the folklore of various parts of Europe. It is the only one of the considerable cycle which has become thus popular. [322]

In the tales of King Thrushbeard and The Taming of the Shrew (Types 900, 901) we have seen how husbands have, in one way or another, brought under subjection their shrewish wives. But sometimes the wife is so evil that neither man nor devil can cure her. Thus it is in the well-known literary story of Belfagor. In its usual form, the man persuades his shrewish wife to let herself be lowered into a well. When he comes to pull her out, he raises a genie or devil, who is glad to escape from the woman. Later, when he wishes to frighten the devil, he has only to tell him that the wife has escaped (T251.1.1; Type 1164). This story goes back to India and the Sukasaptati, but it appears in nearly every later collection of tales down through the Renaissance, and as a folktale it has been recorded more than one hundred times in various parts of Europe.

Another literary anecdote which has been generally adopted by tellers of folktales is that of the obstinate wife. In its three forms it has essentially the same action. The husband has a long argument with his obstinate wife which ends with his throwing her into a stream. As sometimes told, the argument has been about whether something has been cut with a knife or with scissors. She gets the last word, for as she sinks under the water, she makes with her fingers the motion of shearing with scissors. Or she has called her husband a lousy-head and as she sinks she makes the sign of cracking a louse. [p. 210]

In a third variety the obstinate wife falls into the stream and drowns. Neighbors find him next day seeking for her upstream from the drowning place. He says that she would be too obstinate to go with the current (T255 and subdivisions; Type 1365ABC). All three of these forms appear frequently in the tale collections of the Middle Ages and all of them may still be heard in almost any part of Europe. So far as I am aware, only the variety with the sign of the shearing has been reported from America.

Evil intentions on her part are not necessary to make a wife undesirable. She can be so stupid that there is no living with her. Such is the experience of the husband who goes out on the long quest to find three persons as stupid as his wife. In one way or another, he finds them, and in comparison it turns out that his own wife is not so stupid after all (H1312.1; Type 1384). This anecdote often serves to introduce longer tales of stupid persons, but it has, had a vigorous independent life. Like most jests about wives, it has a place in the older jestbooks. But this tale is also told frequently in all parts of Europe and well out into Siberia. Versions apparently based upon English originals have been found in Virginia, and close parallels exist in Africa.

In examining these tales of evil wives, one is struck not so much by the fact that some of them are told by story-tellers over a large area but that out of the scores of such anecdotes to be found in fabliaux, novelle, and books of exempla and Schwänke only a bare half dozen have received any general acceptance by the folk.

[321] Sec Ziegler, Die Frau im Märchen for a good discussion of this point.

[322] For this group of anecdotes, see T230ff., with cross references.


900, 901 1164, 1350, 1510, 1365A, 1365B, 1365C, 1384


H1312.1, K2213.1, T230ff, T231.3, T251.1.1, T255