To Masa Site

To Motifs List

The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif X415

The hog in church. Locked in church all week by mistake. When the congregation comes, the hog runs between the parson's legs and carries him out. *Type 1838; Fb svin.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

1. Jests and Anecdotes

O. Parsons

The liking of people for such a story as that of the peasant who masks as a parson and tries to preach a sermon [324] is easily understandable. In simple communities a clergyman is always a person of such outstanding respectability that if he is placed in an embarrassing position the very absurdity of the situation appeals to a sense of the ludicrous in every member of his or similar congregations. The great Danish folklore collector, Tang Kristensen, assembled in western Denmark enough of these stories to make up a very diverting volume. [325] Of course, not all anecdotes that are told of parsons are found in such a collection, for many of the old fabliaux in which the actors may belong to any trade or profession, or none at all, have frequently been retold as happening to the priest or the vicar of the local parish. But such tales aside, there are a considerable number of anecdotes which owe their point to the special position occupied in the community by the parson and the special setting afforded by church; pulpit, sermons, burials and grave yards, and, in Catholic countries, the confessional.

The fact that these tales have been so thoroughly collected in the Lutheran countries of the north may account for the presence there and the absence elsewhere of a considerable number of anecdotes. On the other hand, assiduous collection in other parts of the world, in Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic countries, for example, might bring these same anecdotes to light in other environments. In connection with one Italian priest, Arlotto, a considerable number of these jests were assembled in the Renaissance.

Some of the best known of these anecdotes which are apparently confined to the Scandinavian and Baltic states will show the general tenor of the whole collection. One group of tales tells how the parson is put to flight during his sermon. It may be that the sexton's dog steals a sausage from the preacher's pocket, or that the sexton has put a needle in the sacramental bread, so that his reverence sticks his hand; and even sometimes the sexton prepares a wasp nest for him to sit on (X411; Type 1785). Occasionally the parson wishes to vary his church service and add interest to it, as on the day in which he rides an ox into church to show how Christ rode into Jerusalem. All goes well until the sexton sticks the ox with a needle (X414; Type 1786). His sense of the dramatic sometimes proves ridiculous. Such it is when he decides to let a dove fly in the church to illustrate his sermon. Unfortunately, he finds that it has died in his pocket (X418; Type 1837). A country congregation is doubtless the scene of the accident in which the hog has been locked in the church all week by mistake. When the congregation comes, the hog runs between the parson's legs and carries him out into the churchyard (X415; Type 1838). The country preacher has other [p.213] experiences with livestock. It is told of one that he kept his fine new cow grazing in the cemetery. At a woman's funeral he is afraid the cow will break out and run away, and he keeps his eye on her so much that he makes in appropriate remarks as each spadeful of earth falls on the coffin. When at length he sees her break loose and run away, he calls out "Now she is gone to the devil," just as he lets fall the last spadeful of earth (X421; Type 1840).

One of the difficulties every clergyman has is the presentation in his sermons of difficult theological concepts and utterly unfamiliar historical characters and situations. It is no wonder that the literal-minded should sometimes make wrong interpretations. A number of such anecdotes have been collected (X435; Type 1833), some from jestbooks and some from oral story-tellers. One favorite type tells how the parson asks a rhetorical question "What says David?" The boy, thinking of a David he knows, says, "Pay your old debts." There are many variations, and not all of them very pointed. One priest has tried to explain the Doctrine of the Trinity and has illustrated his point by identifying each One of the Three with one of his cows. The boy speaks up, "The Holy Ghost has just had a calf." In a third anecdote, a boy has ridden to church with a rich man. He goes into the church and leaves his coat lying on the sled. When the parson preaches about the rich man who went to hell, the boy calls out, "Then he took my coat along."

The contrast between the spiritual devotion normally expected from the clergyman in his pulpit and the demands of ordinary life affords a basis for occasional mirth. The priest may have some business dealings with the sexton, and he may intone instructions to him as a part of the mass (X441; Type 1831). Or the parson, not unobserved, may sneak a drink of liquor or a chew of tobacco during the sermon (X445; Type 1827).

The three best known stories about clergymen are told in most parts of the world and at least two of them seem to go back to Oriental literary sources. In the first of these the parson and sexton are traveling and stay overnight at a peasant's house. In the night the parson becomes hungry and hunts some porridge in the dark, guided by a rope which the sexton has given him. He has a series of accidents because he loses his way. He spills the porridge on his host or hostess and sometimes finds himself in un seemly positions reminiscent of the two clerks in Chaucer's Reeve's Tale (X431; Type 1775). The second of these popular anecdotes finds the preacher back in his pulpit. During the sermon he sees an old woman weeping and believes that she is touched by his singing. When spoken to about it, she says that his voice has reminded her of the old goat which she has lost (X436; Type 1834).

Probably the most popular of all tales of parsons concerns the devil in the cemetery. A sexton hears thieves in the cemetery cracking nuts and thinks it is the devil cracking bones. With the gouty parson on his back he [p. 214] comes upon the thieves who, thinking it is their companion with the sheep, call out, "Is he fat?"—The sexton, dropping the parson, "Fat or lean, here he is!" (X424; Type 1791). This anecdote is certainly as old as the Thousand and One Nights, and appears in nearly every medieval and Renaissance tale collection. But it is widely told by oral story-tellers all over Europe and, for some reason, is about the best known of all anecdotes collected in America. It is found among the Canadian French; it has been told in the Anglo-Saxon tradition in Indiana, the Ozarks, Canada, North Carolina, and Texas; and it has been heard from Negroes in various parts of the south and the West Indies. The tale appears in two forms. In one there are sheep thieves, as in the form just given. And in another there are merely boys dividing nuts. And it is not absolutely necessary that the tale be told about a parson at all. [326]

[324] See p. 206, above.

[325] Vore Fadres Kirketjeneste, Aarhus, 1899.

[326] For discussion of American versions, see R. S. Boggs, Journal of American Folklore, XLVII, 311f.


1775, 1785, 1786, 1791, 1827, 1831, 1833, 1834, 1837, 1838, 1840


X411, X414, X415, X418, X421, X424, X431, X435, X436, X441, X445