Anatole France: The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche

Anatole France’s Merrie Tales: Satan’s Tongue-Pie

The image of a “Devil’s Pie” might appear to be a bit odd nowadays, but according to Barry Popik in”The Big Apple“, it apparently hails from the famous English priest Thomas Adams: “The Devil makes his Christmas-pyes from lawyers’ tongues and clerkes’ fingers”, attributing his original source to an Italian proverb. Probably the one written about by Giovanni Florio in Second Fruits in 1591. Not just the Adams quote favoured male gossips. Florio, a linguist, poet, writer and language teacher for Lady Jane Grey in the court of James I in England also singled out lawyers, back then all males. Adams would have found Second Fruits in the Cambridge University Library.

In terms of malicious gossip, my personal best bet as to where the devil could find enough of the tastiest morsels for his minions to bake a huge pie of them would be the lunchrooms of any public service organisation dominated by certain types of people. It’s simply because this is where I have witnessed it.

Gossip Sisters and the Devil, woodcut by Hans Weiditz (1488-1534)

Perhaps my experience of nasty scandal chitchat could be somewhat limited however, not having had the experience of hearing what goes on in nunneries. Thank God… But here is a nice pic for it, rosaries and all, the devil writing down every word.

Our writer, Nobel Prize winner Anatole France, appeared to believe that a nunnery was where world champion gossiping went on, obviously not in orders with vows of silence, not in monasteries, and apparently not among lawyers for some reason. Hmmmm…

I wonder if there could be any truth in it? Surely males in a monastery, peeved at not being allowed to engage in sins of the flesh might sometimes also be inclined to release some pent up bitterness and frustration by a bit of evil tongue wagging? France’s mouthpiece Jacques Tournebroche attributes the chapter’s content to a sermon by a Capuchin monk. Well, at least they gave us the Cappuccino. Or perhaps not. Apparently the brown colour of these is the same as that of a Capuchin monk’s robe.

So the Capuchin monk, and France, singled out nuns, while Thomas Adams and Giovanni Florio had attributed the most evil gossip to lawyers. I still prefer to award the malicious gossip gold medal to certain public servants.


ATAN lay in his bed with the flaming curtains. The physicians and apothecaries of Hell, finding their patient had a white tongue, inferred he was suffering from a weakness of the stomach and prescribed a diet at once light and nourishing.

Satan swore he had no appetite for aught but a certain earthly dish, which women excel in making when they meet in company, to wit, tongue-pie.

The doctors agreed there was nothing could better suit His Majesty’s stomach.

In an hour’s time the dish was set before the King; but he found it insipid and tasteless.

He sent for his Head Cook and asked him where the pie came from.

“From Paris, sire. It is quite fresh; ’twas baked this very morning, in the Marais Quarter, by a dozen gossips gathered round the bed at a woman’s lying-in.”

“Ah! now I know the reason it is so flavourless,” returned the Prince of Darkness. “You have not been to the best cooks for dishes of the sort. Citizens’ wives, they do their best; but they lack delicacy, they lack the fine touch of genius. Women of the people are clumsier still. For a real good tongue-pie a Nunnery is the place to go to. There’s nobody to match these old maids of Religion for a pretty skill in compounding all the needful ingredients,—fine spices of rancour, thyme of backbiting, fennel of insinuation, bay-leaf of calumny.”

This parable is taken from a sermon of the good Father Gillotin Landoulle, a poor, unworthy Capuchin.

Note on Anatole 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) 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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3 replies »

  1. Another great introduction, Oliver. My coffee will never taste the same. France is clever in avoiding criticism of Church, while entertaining the reader with the hypocrisy of its institutions. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Prince of Darkness sent me here to tell me he appreciates your writing and “hopes to see you in hell real soon.” I asked if he was joking and he replied, “Not at all. Emissaries of fiction, in the service of the Infernal Lord, are always welcome in the Ninth Circle of Hell.” That’s sad. We’re going to miss you, furinchime.

    — Catxman

    Liked by 1 person

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