La Farce de maître Pathelin
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|La Farce de maître Pathelin|
Illustration of the trial scene
|Date premiered||Unknown (c. 1440)|
|Original language||Middle French|
|Setting||Market, Pierre's home, and a courtroom|
La Farce de maître Pathelin (in English The Farce of Master Pathelin; sometimes La Farce de maître Pierre Pathelin, La Farce de Pathelin, Farce Maître Pierre Pathelin, or Farce de Maître Pathelin) is a fifteenth-century (1457) anonymous medieval farce written originally in French. It was extraordinarily popular in its day, and held an influence on popular theatre for over a century. Its echoes can be seen in the works of Rabelais. A number of phrases from the play became proverbs in French, and the phrase "Let us return to our muttons" (retournons à nos moutons) even became a common English calque.
In the play there are only five characters: the title character, his wife Guillemette, a clothier named Guillaume Joceaulme, a shepherd named Thibault l’Aignelet, and finally a judge. Every character except the last is dishonest in some way, which is exploited to great effect.
The play focuses on issues including the complex emerging state structure and honesty. In total, it can be performed in approximately one hour.
Master Pierre Pathelin is a local village lawyer with no professional, formal training who has very little work, due to the emerging class of professionally trained clerks and lawyers. In order to obtain cloth to replace his and his wife's holey clothing, he visits the clothier Guillaume Joceaulme. By flattering him, Pathelin convinces the clothier — against his better judgment — to let him have six yards of fine cloth on credit. However, he promises Joceaulme that he can visit his house that day to be paid.
When Pathelin arrives home he tells his wife Guillemette that the clothier is due to arrive home and to pretend that Pathelin has been sick in bed for almost three months. After some humorous arguments, Joceaulme barges in on Pathelin, who is in bed and raving like a madman. In time Pathelin's entertaining babble moves from one French dialect to another, which Guillemette has to explain away.
After Joceaulme gives up on attempting to retrieve his payment, he turns his thoughts to his shepherd, Thibault l’Aignelet, who has been stealing Joceaulme's sheep and eating them for the past three years. Joceaulme summons Aignelet to court, and the latter goes to Pathelin in order to be legally represented. Pathelin directs Aignelet to say only "Baaa" (like a sheep) when anyone questions him in court in the hope that the judge will find Joceaulme's case groundless, as it will appear that he has taken a mentally-challenged person to court.
At the trial Joceaulme instantly recognizes Pathelin. He tries to explain the details of both cases (the stolen cloth and the stolen sheep) to the judge, but he is unable to do so clearly, and the judge conflates the two cases. Because of Joceaulme's incoherent case against the shepherd (and the latter's one word nonsense response of "Baaa"), the judge rules against him. Pathelin attempts to collect his fee from Aignelet, but the latter only answers Pathelin's demands with "Baaa." Pathelin realizes that his brilliant defense is now being used against him, and he goes home.