The Eloquent Peasant

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"The Eloquent Peasant" (Ancient Egyptian: Sekhti-nefer-medu, "a peasant good of speech")[1] is an Ancient Egyptian story that was composed around 1850 BCE during the time of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt. It is one of the longest Egyptian tales that has survived completed.[2] The tale is about a peasant, Khun-Anup, who stumbles upon the property of the high steward, the noble Rensi son of Meru, guarded by its harsh overseer, Nemtynakht.[3][4] It is set in the Ninth or Tenth Dynasty around Herakleopolis.[5] This tale is described as an elaborate reflection on the connection – or disconnection – of ethical order and refined speech, as transliterated into refined writing.[6]

sḫtj nfr mdw
in hieroglyphs

Story summary[edit]

The story begins with a poor peasant, Khun-Anup, traveling to market with his donkeys heavily laden with goods to exchange for supplies for his family. While Khun-Anup was en route, Nemtynakht, a vassal of the high steward Rensi, notices the peasant approaching his lands and devises a scheme to steal Khun-Anup's donkeys and supplies. Nemtynakht tricks the peasant by placing a cloth on the narrow public path, where one side was bordered by the river and the other side were the private fields of Nemtynakht. His placing of the cloth on the path forces the peasant to either trample the cloth, step into the water, or take his donkeys over Nemtynakht's fields in order to continue his journey. As Khun-Anup is appealing to Nemtynakht's sense of reason in blocking his path with the cloth, one of Khun-Anup's donkeys eats a bite of barley, and Nemtynakht uses this as a justification to take Khun-Anup's donkeys and goods. When Khun-Anup complains this punishment is unfair, Nemtynakht beats him. Khun-Anup cries out for justice, and Nemtynakht threatens the peasant with death if he dares to complain.[7] Khun-Anup does not accept this injustice and continues to appeal to Nemtynakht for ten days.

Failing to receive justice from Nemtynakht, Khun-Anup seeks out the high steward, the noble Rensi son of Meru, and presents his case.[8] Rensi brings the peasant's case to the magistrates, who dismiss the case as merely being a matter of a peasant at odds with a landowner, but Rensi does not relay this information to the peasant.[8][9] Rensi brings the story of the wronged peasant before the pharaoh, Nebkaure (who is believed to be Nebkaure Khety[10][11]), telling him how elegantly the peasant speaks. Intrigued by the report of a peasant who speaks so elegantly, the pharaoh instructs Rensi to not respond to the peasant's pleas, so that the peasant would continue to make his elegant speeches and they could be written down for the pharaoh. The pharaoh orders Rensi to feed the peasant and his family while the peasant continues to plead his case, further instructing Rensi not to let the peasant know he was providing the food.[9]

For nine days Khun-Anup complimented the high steward Rensi and begged for justice. After nine days of speeches, Khun-Anup threatened suicide.[12] After sensing that he was being ignored, Khun-Anup insulted Rensi and was punished with a beating. After one last speech, the discouraged peasant left, but Rensi sent for him and ordered him to return. But rather than being punished for his insolence, the peasant was given justice. Rensi, after reading Khun-Anup's last speech, was impressed and ordered the donkeys and the goods to be returned to Khun-Anup and the peasant to be compensated with all the property of Nemtynakht, making Nemtynakht as poor as Khun-Anup had been.



The poor peasant, Khun-Anup, lives with his wife, Marye, and their children in an oasis around the Nile Delta in Egypt.[7][6] He goes on a journey taking with him his donkeys and a variety of goods to market so he can bring food and supplies back to his family. Along his journey, Nemtynakht, a vassal to the high steward Rensi, notices Khun-Anup's supply-laden donkeys and devises a plan to cheat Khun-Anup of his possessions. Khun-Anup does not accept this injustice and appeals to the vassal for ten days before he seeks out the high steward, the noble Rensi son of Meru. Khun-Anup's eloquent plea for justice surprises Rensi and he informs the pharaoh about the peasant's surprising gift with words. Intrigued by Rensi's report of a peasant so eloquent, the pharaoh orders Rensi to deny justice to the peasant so that he will continue to plea for justice and his eloquent words can be written down. Khun-Anup presents his case for justice nine times before his eloquence and persistence is rewarded and he is given all of Nemtynakht's property.

Rensi son of Meru[edit]

The noble Rensi son of Meru is the high steward of Pharaoh Nebkaure.[6] The peasant Khun-Anup appeals to Rensi when he does not receive justice from Nemtynakht.[9] Rensi is so surprised at the eloquence of the peasant's speech that he takes Khun-Anup's case before the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh orders Rensi to deny the peasant's pleas for justice in order that his eloquent words can be written down. Rensi hears Khun-Anup's petitions for justice nine times before the Pharaoh allows Rensi to provide justice for the eloquent peasant.


A greedy vassal to the high steward Rensi, Nemtynakht notices the peasant Khun-Anup's supply-laden donkeys and devises a trap that will provide him with a reason for taking Khun-Anup's donkeys and goods.[9] Nemtynakht confiscates Khun-Anup's goods and donkeys and then beats Khun-Anup when he argues Nemtynakht is behaving unjustly. Khun-Anup cries out for justice but Nemtynakht tells him no one will take the word of a peasant over his own.[9] In the end, Nemtynakht is proven wrong because Khun-Anup ultimately receives justice when Nemtynakht is ordered to return all of the peasant's property and to also give the peasant all of Nemtynakht's property.[9]


He is his Majesty of the Dual King Nebkaure, the justified. “The justified” is a standard epithet of the deceased. Nebkaure is a king of the tenth dynasty of Heracleopolis, ca. 2050 BCE.[13] He is a pharaoh (king) of Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. When told of the eloquent language spoken by the peasant, Khun-Anup, Nebkaure is intrigued. He orders his head steward Rensi the son of Meru, to refuse to respond to Khun-Anup's petitions so that the peasant will continue to eloquently make his case for justice and his words can be written down and brought to Nebkaure. He further instructs Rensi to feed Khun-Anup and to send food to his family during the time he is being forced to plead his case but Khun-Anup is not to know Rensi is providing for the peasant and his family.[13] At his ninth petition, Khun-Anup threatens suicide, therefore, Rensi brings him before Nebkaure and has all nine of Khun-Anup's petitions read aloud to Nebkaure. His Majesty Nebkaure the justified allows Rensi to determine Khun-Anup's justice.[12]



Ma'at is the ancient Egyptian law based on the idea of harmony and balance and allows for the social hierarchy to be prevalent in citizen's everyday lives. This theme is present throughout the poem, especially in Khun-Anup's speeches about what justice means to his situation.[14]

Ma'at is also exemplified in the courts of the story because justice and social hierarchy is fully dependent on the judge and how he interprets ma'at in relation to the trials.[15]

Textual history[edit]


While we do have a somewhat cohesive narrative for The Eloquent Peasant, to our current knowledge, a narrative for the entirety of the poem does not exist. The tale is a compilation of four incomplete manuscripts that have some conflict in overlapping sections. The names of people and places seem to differ amongst the four different pieces. Despite this, there is an understanding that they are all versions of the same story. Like most stories, it is implied that different people told the story in different ways - leading to some discrepancies in written versions.


Information concerning the author (or authors) of the text is minimal. It is assumed that the author(s) were more than likely male(s), but even that information may not be correct. The themes and intellectual points in the story make it evident that the author - if it was one person - was a part of the educated class. He or she was literate enough to put the story in hieroglyphics. The story was likely not originally told in the form of poetry, but was later translated.[16]

Time period[edit]

The poem was written around the same time as "The Tale of Sinuhe", during Egypt's Classical Age.[16] This time period was said to have produced some of the greatest works of literature and art. The wealthy and well educated Egyptians focused greatly on these aspects, as well as entertainment. The Eloquent Peasant would have been considered a generous amount of both. The poem was also one of the first recorded texts that focused on the lives of people other than the kings or the gods. The story reflected ideals of Egypt at the time among the common people. It was extremely popular.[17]

The Middle Kingdom[edit]

While the story of The Eloquent Peasant was set in the ninth and tenth dynasties, it is generally accepted that the poem itself was written during the Middle Kingdom. While many scholars are divided on which dynasties are encompassed in the Middle Kingdom, the most commonly accepted dynasties are from the end of the eleventh dynasty through the middle of the thirteenth dynasty (2040-1782 BCE). There are claims that The Eloquent Peasant was one of the few texts that highlighted some of the concepts of Egyptian law during the Middle Kingdom dynasties.[18]

Influence on arts and literature[edit]

The Eloquent Peasant shows the modern reader a glimpse of how justice in crime might have been attained in ancient Egyptian culture. While it is natural to assume that guilt may be determined by the hierarchy of the time, The Eloquent Peasant shows us that you could speak your mind and possibly change the verdict cast upon you. The theme of justice featured so prominently in The Eloquent Peasant might have been a precursor to themes of justice in later works.


  1. ^ Huehnergard, John; Pat-El, Na‘ama (June 14, 2018). "The origin of the Semitic relative marker". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 81 (2): 191–204. doi:10.1017/S0041977X18000496 – via Cambridge Core.
  2. ^ Simon, Peter; Goff, Gerra, eds. (2018). The Norton Anthology of World Literature (4 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-60281-4.
  3. ^ Parkinson, Richard (1991). The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. Griffith Institute. ISBN 978-0900416606.
  4. ^ "The Eloquent Peasant (5)". AEL Email List. Archived from the original on 2008-08-28. Retrieved 2007-12-17.
  5. ^ Parkinson, R B (1999), The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC, New York, ISBN 978-0-19-283966-4, OCLC 317507143
  6. ^ a b c Simon, Peter; Goff, Gerra, eds. (2018). The Norton Anthology of World Literature (4 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 1077. ISBN 978-0-393-60281-4.
  7. ^ a b Gardiner, Alan (April 1923). "The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 9 (1/2): 7. JSTOR 3853490.
  8. ^ a b Gardiner, Alan (April 1923). "The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 9 (1/2): 8. JSTOR 3853490.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Mark, Joshua (6 October 2017). "The Eloquent Peasant & Egyptian Justice". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 29 October 2018. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  10. ^ Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs. An introduction, Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 112.
  11. ^ William C. Hayes, in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol 1, part 2, 1971 (2008), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-077915, p. 465.
  12. ^ a b Simon, Peter; Goff, Gerra, eds. (2018). The Norton Anthology of World Literature (4 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 1082. ISBN 978-0-393-60281-4.
  13. ^ a b Simon, Peter; Goff, Gerra, eds. (2018). The Norton Anthology of World Literature (4 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 1078. ISBN 978-0-393-60281-4.
  14. ^ "Ma'at". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 2019-03-27. Retrieved 2018-11-15.
  15. ^ Mark, Joshua (6 October 2017). "The Eloquent Peasant & Egyptian Justice". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 29 October 2018. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  16. ^ a b "Anonymous author of The Eloquent Peasant - The Greatest Literature of All Time". Archived from the original on 2018-11-16. Retrieved 2018-11-15.
  17. ^ "The Eloquent Peasant & Egyptian Justice". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 2018-10-29. Retrieved 2018-11-15.
  18. ^ Shupak, Nili (1992). "A New Source for the Study of the Judiciary and Law of Ancient Egypt: "The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant"". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 51 (1): 1–18. doi:10.1086/373521. JSTOR 545594.

External links[edit]

This article is about an item held in the British Museum. The object reference is EA 10274.