For several years near the beginning of my storytelling career I used an old gag about a hedgehog as my encore number. It explains the origin of the well known phrase for getting on with a task: “Off we go again then, as the hedgehog said to The Devil”. I first learnt it as a short filler story for a guided Performance Archaeology walk at Lechlade. Between the very interesting historic town centre and the very interesting historic riverside tower, there was quite a long section of footpath past garden fences and allotments which was very uninteresting. However, we needed an excuse to stop and let the audience catch their breath and whilst they did so it was somewhat incumbent upon myself and my archaeologist compatriot, as walk leaders, to entertain them while they did so. That, to a fair extent, being the point of the exercise.
The thing with guided walks is that your location is part of the show, it is both the inspiration and the backdrop, the set and the subject. Having chosen a specific site to build one’s performance on, it is rather a requirement that said performance be site specific. Unfortunately at this particular pause in forward locomotion the only landscape features available to talk about on the otherwise flat, floodplain fields, were a hedge and a ditch. Neither of these could be conclusively proven to have historical provenance, so it would obviously be the storyteller’s job to fill the yawning chasm with excitement. The brief then, was to tell a short story somehow connected to the aforementioned hedge and ditch, and since the majority of the history on the walk was from the Middle Ages it should preferably be a medieval story… about a hedge or a ditch. I expect I don’t need to elaborate on the unsurprising paucity of material in the ‘Hedge and Ditch’ genre of medieval folktale. Oh the conundrums we contrive for ourselves!
What the Middle Ages did have in copious quantities were stories about The Devil. I say, The Devil but I should say “devils”, plural. Although the hellish antagonist is mostly referred to as “The” singular, one and only, definite article “Devil”, the plots have him killed off or permanently confined to the flaming pits of the nether regions too often for us to be able to accept the entire trope as the single saga of one solo demon. A quick shufti at the sources of some of his many names will also demonstrate that we are looking at more than one. For instance Beelzebub was a pun used by the early Israelites to insult a Philistine god called Beelzebul. Beel meant “Lord”, Ze can be read as “of the” and Bul translates as “heavenly home”. Bub on the other hand, meant “flies”. Leaving the dubious humour of the pre-biblical authors aside, it is clear that this is not the same fella who sat at Yahweh’s right hand until he got too big for his boots and had his wings clipped.
The obsessively Christian society of the Medieval period was beset by a plethora of devils. One of the problems of a monotheistic religion is that one has to do something with all the other deities that are hanging around. The obvious solution is to deny their heavenly status and send them to hell, to quite literally demonize them. Since there is only one god the general populace tend to simplify the over subscription of hell by assigning the activities of numerous underworld denizens to the one primary evil doer. The attributes of the foremost fiend are transferred the other way and all manner of newly ex-gods find themselves sporting horns, tails and hairy legs as they are forced to conform to the stereotype.
Amongst the great pile of devil related tales of the time I managed to find “How The Hedgehog ran The Devil To Death” which has a hedge and, more importantly, a ditch in it. I was going to tell it to you but I have been sidetracked by devils and demons, not unreasonably since they will be the subject of my autumn tour. Maybe if you come along I will tell it you then, in the meantime I must get back to my research.
Off we go again then…