Anatole France: The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche

Anatole France’s Merrie Tales: Five Fair Ladies of Picardy, of Poitou, of Touraine, of Lyons, and of Paris

A certain Brother Olivier Maillard’s sermon is recalled by a Capuchin monk, who describes it as “macaronic“. If macaroni is a pasta made without eggs, then what kind of text or speech could this be? One without a binding element such as proforms and antecedents? That could prove rather difficult to find any meaning in, so, luckily, this is not the case. The word actually means a speech or text in two languages, in this case probably vernacular mixed with Latin. But don’t worry, we are reading another monk’s recollection of it, so hardly any Latin at all, thank God.

The sermon is also described as “edifying“, but what moral or intellectual instruction would monks find edifying in a short tale about five ladies from Picardie, Poitou, Touraine, Lyons, and Paris? Perhaps it depends on which particular religious order these other monks had belonged to, but monks in France were Catholic, and Catholic monks were supposed to be “chaste“. No wonder many of them had to observe routines that began at almost ungodly hours and continued all day, leaving little time for any minds to wander… Little wonder also that sermons sometimes, if chastely indirectly, got into the realm of desires and what to do about them.

The Procuress (1622), Dirck van Baburen

Without giving away the ending of this tale, it mentions what Anatole France refers to as a “go-between” or a “procuress“. How difficult finding a partner, or partners, must have been in the dark ages before Tinder and Snapchat? Just imagine: a knight sees five attractive ladies in church (“Sacré bleu, zese are corquers!”) and wants to find out if any of them might be interested.

Think about it. No even halfway noble knight lusting after any members of the congregation could skulk around in front of the church, trying to chat them up (“Bon Jour, jolie femme, ow’z about…”), lest the priest should see or hear this. Nor could he hop onto his steed and try to follow any of them home for a bit of knightly stalking. So what could he do? Bribe the priest to slip saucy notes into their Bibles? Hardly.

Quite difficult, such knightly plight must have been. So what do you do? In this case, the knight engaged said “go-between” to find out if any of the alluring ladies might have been interested, employing a reward to attract their interest. I hope you enjoy reading the edifying result of the hopeful knight’s endeavour.

Five Fair Ladies of Picardy, of Poitou, of Touraine, of Lyons, and of Paris


NE day the Capuchin, Brother Jean Chavaray, meeting my good master the Abbé Coignard in the cloister of “The Innocents,” fell into talk with him of the Brother Olivier Maillard, whose sermons, edifying and macaronic, he had lately been reading.

“There are good bits to be found in these sermons,” said the Capuchin, “notably the tale of the five ladies and the go-between…” You will readily understand that Brother Olivier, who lived in the reign of Louis XI and whose language smacks of the coarseness of that age, uses a different word. But our century demands a certain politeness and decency in speech; wherefore I employ the term I have, to wit, go-between.

“You mean,” replied my good master, “to signify by the expression a woman who is so obliging as to play intermediary in matters of love and love-making. The Latin has several names for her,—as lena, conciliatrix, also internuntia libidinum, ambassadress of naughty desires. These prudish dames perform the best of services; but seeing they busy themselves therein for money, we distrust their disinterestedness. Call yours a procuress, good Father, and have done with it; ’t is a word in common use, and has a not unseemly sound.”

“So I will, Monsieur l’Abbé,” assented Brother Jean Chavaray. “Only don’t say mine, I pray, but the Brother Olivier’s. A procuress then, who lived on the Pont des Tournelles, was visited one day by a knight, who put a ring into her hands. ‘It is of fine gold,’ he told her, ‘and hath a balass ruby mounted in the bezel. An you know any dames of good estate, go say to the most comely of them that the ring is hers if she is willing to come to see me and do at my pleasure.’

“The procuress knew, by having seen them at Mass, five ladies of an excellent beauty,—natives the first of Picardy, the second of Poitou, the third of Touraine, another from the good city of Lyons, and the last a Parisian, all dwelling in the Cité or its near neighbourhood.

“She knocked first at the Picard lady’s door. A maid opened, but her mistress refused to have one word to say to her visitor. She was an honest woman.

“The procuress went next to see the lady of Poitiers and solicit her favours for the gallant knight. This dame answered her:

“‘Prithee, go tell him who sent you that he is come to the wrong house, and that I am not the woman he takes me for.’

“She too is an honest woman; yet less honest than the first, in that she tried to appear more so.

“The procuress then went to see the lady from Tours, made the same offer to her as to the other, and showed her the ring.

“‘I’ faith,’ said the lady, ‘but the ring is right lovely.’

“‘’T is yours, an you will have it.’

“‘I will not have it at the price you set on it. My husband might catch me, and I should be doing him a grief he doth not deserve.’

“This lady of Touraine is a harlot, I trow, at bottom of her heart.

“The procuress left her and went straight to the dame of Lyons, who cried:

“‘Alack! my good friend, my husband is a jealous wight, and he would cut the nose off my face to hinder me winning any more rings at this pretty tilting.’

“This dame of Lyons, I tell you, is a worthless good-for-naught.

“Last of all the procuress hurried to the Parisian’s. She was a hussy, and answered brazenly:

“‘My husband goes Wednesday to his vineyards; tell the good sir who sent you I will come that day and see him.’

“Such, according to Brother Olivier, from Picardy to Paris, are the degrees from good to evil amongst women. What think you of the matter, Monsieur Coignard?”

To which my good master made answer:

“’T is a shrewd matter to consider the acts and impulses of these petty creatures in their relations with Eternal Justice. I have no lights thereanent. But methinks the Lyons dame who feared having her nose cut off was a more good-for-nothing baggage than the Parisian who was afraid of nothing.”

“I am far, very far, from allowing it,” replied Brother Jean Chavaray. “A woman who fears her husband may come to fear hell fire. Her Confessor, it may be, will bring her to do penance and give alms. For, after all, that is the end we must come at. But what can a poor Capuchin hope to get of a woman whom nothing terrifies?”


  • thereanent: concerning that matter

Note on France’s text and the illustrations: Translation of The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche is by Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1909). Woodcuts by British artist Marcia Lane Foster (1897–1983) have been confirmed as Public Domain Mark 1.0 (free of known restrictions under copyright law). Acknowledgement to David Widger for his digital edition.

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2 replies »

  1. Great intro, Oliver. Quite an instructive religious conversation which seems to explore the heart of the matter – how much can the church rip off peasants. How much they rely on fear.


    Liked by 1 person

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