One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”
Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.
My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.
The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.
The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.