The Tale of the Priest's Bladder

by Jacques de Baisieux

(French fabliau, early 14th cent.)

































Instead of a fabliau, I shall tell you
A true story, as I have heard tell,
Of a priest who dwelt
Near Antwerp. What he had acquired
In the way of possessions was very great,
For he was filled with good sense.
He had not spent everything;
He had taken care to save,
And thus he was a rich and prosperous man.
Of beef cattle, and cows, and grain
He had so much that one could not count them.

But Death, who spares neither
Duke nor count, had summoned him with his messenger
To the inevitable departure.
He became dropsical;
By no one was it believed
That he had promise of a long life.
This priest, who had a deep desire
To die well and justly,
Sent right away
For his dean and all his friends,
And put his possessions into their hands
To give out and divide up
When they should see that his soul
Was striving to leave his body.
Not jewels, cushions, pots, nor benches,
Mattresses, linens, not even a tablecloth,
Sheep, mutton, beef, not even his cape --
Nothing remained to him that he did not give away.
And he named each person
To whom he wished his things to be given.
He had public, not private,
Letters written and notarized
On this-more I can't tell you.
In short, whatever he had
He gave away as best he knew how.
Since he had no hope
Of any relief from his illness,
For his disease was severe.

At this time two Jacobin friars
Had set out from Antwerp to preach;
They greatly desired to profit themselves
By putting back on the right path any who strayed.
They came directly forth on their way
Until they arrived at the priest's house.
They expected to be invited in there
For eating, for pleasure, and for a feast,
For they had been there before.
But they will neither eat nor drink,
For they have found the priest ill.
Nevertheless, they ask him
About his state and about his condition;
They feel his hands, his face,
His feet, and they look at his legs
And carefully examine his whole body.
Thus it was clear to them indeed
That he could not be cured of his malady,
And that surely he must die of it;
It had been allowed to develop for such a long time
That it is not easy to cure.

"Although we should care for him,"
Said the one to the other, "it is too late for that.
Yet, from the possessions he has amassed
He should leave our house twenty pounds
As a bequest for repairing our books;
If we could manage that
It would be pleasing to our prior
And our brothers would rejoice."

"You speak the truth, by God our Father,
Friar Louis. Now I shall prepare
My best snares, and I shall speak to him
And reveal our need to him."

To the priest, who was in grave danger
From his illness, they said straightway,
"Sir, your illness afflicts you severely,
And you seem to us gravely ill.
You must think of your soul;
Give something from your possessions for God."

Said the priest, "I cannot think
That I have held back anything -- not a coat
Nor even the sheets against which I rub myself.
I have given all for God."

"But," say the friars, "how have you
Ordered your business?
The Scriptures warn us
That one must be careful to whom one makes gifts
And be sure that they are given to the person
To whom one wishes to give alms."

The priest answered agreeably,
"To my poor relations I have given
Sheep, and cows, and calves,
And to the poor of this town
I have also given, by Saint Giles,
Some grain that is worth more than ten pounds,
So that I might be delivered
From any wrongs that I have done them,
Since I have made my living among them;
And I have given to orphan girls
And to orphaned lads and to nuns
And to people with small means,
And I have also left, for their daily bread,
One hundred sous to the Franciscan friars."

"These alms are very fine,
But have you had no thought
For the friars of our house?"
This the two friars said to the priest.

"No indeed." "How could this be?
In our house there are so many good men,
And we are such close neighbors to you
And we live so soberly
That you will not die justly
If you do not leave us something of yours."

The priest, completely astonished,
Answered, "By the eyes of my head,
I have nothing to give, neither grain nor beast,
Gold nor silver, cup nor bowl."

Each of the friars reproaches him
And shows him by examples
That he could retract one of his gifts
And call it back to give to them,
"We have been willing to take great pains
That your soul should be set right,
For in this place has been set forth --
Many times and well -- our teaching;
And the alms are especially good
Which are given to our house.
We do not wear fine shirts,
And we live on poor food.
God knows, as to the value
Of your money, we say nothing."

The priest hears this and is enraged by it,
And he thinks that he will be avenged for it
If he can, and that he will trick them;
They are going to suffer for pressing him so closely.
Then he answers the friars,
"I have decided that I should give you
A jewel that I have always loved very much
And love still. By Saint Peter,
I have nothing nearly so valuable.
I would not take a thousand marks of silver for it,
And, if I were in good health,
I would not let another have it
For two hundred marks.
God directed you here;
Bring your prior to me,
And I shall tell you about it
Before my life fails me."

The friars, without sadness or wrath,
Answer, "God bless you for this!
When do you want us to return
And bring our prior?"

"Tomorrow, if it pleases God I am here,
You shall take your bequest,
Although I shall be greatly troubled."

Straightway the friars were
On their way; to Antwerp they came
And called together their chapter.
Each told what befell,
But they had no concern for making a long tale,
But shouted out in the assembly,
"Bring forth a good feast!
We have gained two hundred pounds
From a priest whom we know,
Ill in a small village."

Friar Nicholas and Friar Giles,
Friar William and Friar Ansel,
Came to hear this news,
Which very greatly pleased them.
They ordered huge fishes,
Old wine and new, custards and pastries.
This great feast was quickly brought forth;
Each thinks himself well at ease;
They do not drink cheap wine;
With drinking and eating they are well entertained,
And they kiss their cups for the priest
Who promised them the jewel.
When they had poured in their heads
This good wine, they made a great festival:
They rang their bells resoundingly
As if for the relics of a saint.
There was not a neighbor who did not bless himself
And wonder whom the feast honored.
They came racing to the preachers
To see the great marvel.
None of the friars could keep
From acting in a disorderly way,
For each of them had befuddled his head
With good wine and with their food.
By their bizarre looks
And their postures and their manners
They seemed indeed to be out of their minds;
All who saw it wondered at it.

Then Friar Louis draws himself up
To ask exactly how
They could best
Obtain their bequest from the priest.
"Tomorrow, before Mass is sung,
It will be well to be on our way."
Each says, "As Jesus may save me,
Before Death seizes him,
We must have knowledge of our gift,
Of how one gets the thing.
We will have a great alms-gift there,
But one must take great trouble for it.
Friar Louis, whom do you want
To take with you? Tell us now!"

"Friar William, the hermit,
Will go there, and Friar Nicholas,
For they know how to speak well,
And also Friar Robert will come,
For there is no wiser convert here,
And he will carry our breviary.
We need not bother with our prior."
Thus the business is settled.

The next day they were on their way
Straight to the priest's house.
They did not worry about being early,
But, before the day had ended,
They wished they had stayed
In their house at Antwerp.
Straightway they greeted
The priest and saluted him in God's name;
Then they asked if he felt any change,
Any easing of his illness.

The priest very politely
Said, "You are indeed welcome;
I have not forgotten
The gift that I promised you,
For indeed I am still so inclined;
Have the town councillors come
And the mayor, so that in the future
There will be no trouble for you.
In their presence I shall gladly
Do this for you,
And I shall name this thing to you
And I shall tell you where it is."

While the priest was yet speaking,
Friar Robert so busied himself
That he brought the mayor
And all the councillors as well.
The four friars, as I have heard,
Nobly greeted them.
The priest, who was very clever,
Then straightway spoke out
And said to them exactly thus,

"My lords, you are my friends;
By God, now listen to me:
Friar Louis and Friar Simon
Came to me yesterday to give a sermon
That they might bring me back to health,
But God in His providence had planted
In me a disease so severe --
That it is clear I will never recover from it.
They came and looked at me,
And then they asked me
If I had thought of my soul
And I said to them, by our Lady,
That I had given away everything.
They asked if I had provided
Any gift for their house,
And I said no; as God may save me,
I had not thought of it,
And now they had come too late.
I had nothing more to give.
'No?' they said, 'You are going
Too far astray; you will die in a state of sin
If you persist in this intent
And do not give us something of your goods.'
And I, by the holy Our Father,
Did not wish to die in a state of sin.
I therefore considered this for so long
That I thought of a thing
That I have locked in my possession
That I greatly love and hold very dear,
But I grant it to them in such a manner
That they will not have it as long as I live,
For I have never given it
Into anyone's keeping save my own
Know you that I deeply love it
And will love it all my life;
Without covetousness or envy
I give it to them in your presence,
And let no one raise any dispute about it."

The four friars say to the priest,
"Good father, tell us what this thing is!"

"Indeed, I will; it is my bladder.
If you see that it is well cleaned,
It will be better than leather
And last you much longer.
You can put your pepper in it."

"Have you brought us here
To fool us, false stubborn priest?
You intended to shame us,
But you will never profit from this, by St. Obert,
Though you now consider us fools."

"But you considered me a beast
When you wanted me to take back
The gifts that I had given.
Indeed, you made my blood boil
When you wanted me to recall them.
Indeed, I told you that I had
Neither pot nor pail nor anything to give;
But you wanted to convince me
That the alms would be better bestowed on you
Than in any place I would have given them,
Because you are the best of all."

The Jacobins hang their heads,
And then turned themselves back
Toward their house with sorry faces;
And all those who lived around there
Nearly fainted from laughing
At the trick of the bladder
Which the priest had so praised
To the Jacobins, who drank on it,
And feasted, and received for it
Rations of wine and fish.

Jacques de Baisieux, in truth,
Translated this from Flemish into French
Because he so enjoyed the trick.

From Larry D. Benson and Theodore M. Andersson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux. Indianapolis and New York, 1971. Pp. 354-59.