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…
I’ve told you about my storyteller’s “ready bag” before. It got quite a work out this week at Wickham Festival. On Sunday night at about 12.30 I was rummaging around in the bottom for something I could do easily but I hadn’t done the year before. You see, I’d set myself the task of giving my regular visitors fresh tales, or at least no repeats from 2014, for the whole four days of the festival. Come my last set and with no throat left after shouting over a succession of overloud bands on the nearby second stage during Saturday afternoon, I was very much after something that would leap from my lips with gay abandon and not take too much shaping or remembering. So, shoulder deep in my ready bag, fishing around amongst the fairy dust and crumbled fragments of legends, I finally laid my hand on a dead medieval monk. Always good for a laugh! Although he had been down there for some time, I resurrected him (briefly) and set him to work.
Dom Hugh of Leicester is a comic tale from the middle ages in which the eponymous monk makes unwelcome advances to Mrs. Weaver until she decides the only way to get him to leave her alone is to agree to satisfy his desires. After she has made the arrangements she informs her husband who is quite shocked until she mentions that the plan is for Mr. weaver to hide in the chest at the end of the bed, leap out and scare Dom Hugh so much that he never comes back. All goes to plan until the husband improvises and wallops Dom Hugh with a club. Dom Hugh falls to the ground stone cold dead.
To avoid blame they drag the ecclesiastical corpse to the monastery and prop him up against the wall. When Dom Hugh doesn’t turn up for prayers a search is made and when he won’t answer the bishop’s questions about his absence the Bishop whacks him with his crozier and down he goes: stone cold dead. Again. The guilty bishop tries to lay the blame off on the weaver using the same trick and after killing Dom Hugh for the third time the weaver loads him in to a sack with the intention of dumping him in the river. Meanwhile a couple of thieves who have stolen a side of bacon from the mill are making off under cover of darkness with their booty also in a sack. When they see Mr. Weaver they drop the pork and run. Naturally Mr. Weaver swaps his ex-mendicant for the savoury sack-full and heads back home. The robbers return and lug the lifeless cenobite to their house and hang up their prize. When they open it for some breakfast there is Dom Hugh, stone cold dead.
Not wishing to get hung themselves they decide to return the stiff to the mill from which they think they brought it. Thus the Miller finds himself repeating the horror of discovering a very dead monk instead of rashers. Mrs. Miller comes up with a plan to tie Dom Hugh on to a stallion and send him after the bishop when he goes on his rounds in the morning riding on a mare. The stallion, who is usually kept in a field on his own, is very excited by the possibility of meeting the bishop’s mare and gallops down the lane towards her. The bishop is terrified to see the man he thought he had killed charging towards him, the thoughtful Millers having given him a saucepan helmet and a broom for a lance, so he sets his men at arms on the hapless cadaver who drag him to the ground and beat him until he is stone cold dead. Since this time everyone knows how Dom Hugh died they finally bury him, and it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if that was what the Weavers had done in the first place!
You’d be forgiven for thinking this tale type is particular to the middle ages but it crops up, a bit like Dom Hugh himself, all over the world and across many centuries under titles like “Old Dry Fry” and “The Thrice Killed Corpse”. Stretched out over 20 minutes, with a bit of joining in, it is thankfully as amorally amusing to tent full of festival goers in modern day Wickham as it was to the Yorkists of Tudor times. I think I’d better dig that monk up and stick him back in the bag.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.