The Merchant and his Magpie

The Seven Sages of Rome (French prose tale, 12th Cent.)

The Merchant and His Magpie


In this town there was once a merchant who owned a magpie that would tell whatever one asked her about what she had seen, for she spoke the French language very well. The wife of this merchant was not very well-behaved, for she had a lover in the town. And when the good man went out, the magpie would tell him what she had seen, and it often happened that the magpie told the good man truly that his wife's lover had been there. And he believed her completely, for she did not know how to lie and always told her lord what she had seen.

Once this husband was away on business; he did not return that night; the lady sent for her lover. The magpie was in a cage hung up high on a perch in the middle of the entrance hall of the house. And the lover came right to the door, but he did not dare enter, because of the magpie. He sent for the lady; she came to him. "Lady," he said, "I do not dare come in because of the magpie, for she will tell everything to your husband."

"Come on," she said. "I will think of something to do."

"Lady," he said, "willingly." He walked in beside her and went into the bedroom.

The magpie looked at him and recognized him, for he had done an evil deed there once before, and she cried out, "Aha, sir! You who are at ease in that bedroom, why don't you come here like that when my lord is here?"

Then she was quiet; and the lady thought of a dirty trick. When it was night she called to her chambermaid and gave her a great basin filled with water, a brightly burning candle, and a wooden mallet. When it was about midnight she had the maid climb up on top of the house, near to the place where the magpie was. Then she began to beat on the shingles with the mallet and when she had beaten them enough, she picked up the candle and thrust it between the shingles so that its light hit the magpie right in the eyes. Then she took the basin and emptied the water on the magpie. She carried on in that manner until it was day, and when it was daylight, she came down, the mallet in one hand, the candle in the other. The lady's lover went away.

It was not long before the husband returned. He came straight to his magpie. "Friend," he said, "how are you? Have you eaten today?"

"Sir, my lady's lover has been here, last night -- all night -- and he slept with her; he went away just now. I just now saw him go straight through here."

The husband looked at his wife with angry eyes. Then he turned back toward the magpie and said to her, "Of course, my pretty sweet friend, I believe you completely in this."

"Sire, what a night it was, such a foul night, and it rained all night, and it thundered, and crackled with lightning, and made great noises; and the lightning struck me right in the eyes. I was very nearly killed."

The husband looked at the wife, and the wife at him. "By the faith that I owe to God, lady," says the husband, "it was a very good night last night, and very clear."

"Certainly, sir, by my faith," replies the lady, "one of the most lovely and most clear of the year."

The husband asked his neighbors and they all agreed that it had been a very lovely night. The lord was enraged; the lady saw him angered and saw well her chance to speak, and she said, "Lord, now you can see why my husband has always blamed and beaten and chastised me, because he believes his magpie whatever she may say. Now see, she told him that my lover slept with me last night; indeed, she is lying now just as she has so many other times."

The husband was enraged because his magpie had lied to him about the night; he believed that she had also lied to him about his wife. He went to his magpie. "By my head," he says, "you will never lie to me again!" Then he grabbed her and wrung her neck.

When he had done this, he was more abashed than ever before. He looked at the cage where the magpie was; he looked up at the shingles and saw them pushed aside, he took a ladder, climbed up on top of the house; and he saw the basin that the chambermaid had carried there, and he saw the wax that had dripped on the shingles, and he saw that the roof was all disarranged, and he saw the large hole through which the chambermaid had thrust the brightly burning candle; and he realized the treachery that his wife had done. Then he began to make his lament. "Alas," he said, "why did I kill her? Why did I believe my wife?" He then immediately came down and chased his wife out of the house. Then he began to lament and to wring his hands.


From Larry D. Benson and Theodore M. Andersson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux. Indianapolis and New York, 1971. Pp. 367-71.