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LET US PAUSE to enjoy theatrical farce. In fact, The Farce of Pierre Pathelin may be one of the earliest of its kind, the genre defined by Merriam-Webster as “a light dramatic composition marked by broadly satirical comedy and improbable plot.”

Improbable, unless one lives in improbable times.

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits about this fifteenth-century farce gleaned from Minute History of the Drama, 1935, and from my usual Internet sleuthing, some of it in Middle French.

Minute History of the Drama, by Alice B. Fort and Herbert S. Kates, Grosset & Dunlap, 1935.

Origins. “The origin of this French farce is unknown,” Fort and Kates wrote. “It was played by the Fraternity of the Bazôche in Paris as early as 1480 and apparently was immensely popular.” 

An academic paper “The Ideology of Deception in ‘La Farce de Maistre Pathelin,’ ” by Carol J. Chase and Marie-Sol Ortolá, Modern Language Studies, 1986, suggests first performances as early as 1464: “Scholars of the fifteen century have shown convincingly that farces were performed during festivals, at fairs and carnivals, and in the marketplace. This genre belongs to a world of popular culture imposing laughter as its underlying principle.”

Chase and Ortolá make an interesting point: “Although the farce was intended to entertain and amuse a popular audience composed of all social classes (‘nobles, bourgeois, gens du peuple’), one should not underestimate its subversive potential. Its unstated purpose was to release tensions and social frustrations and to present, in a vivid and pungent manner, some of the evils of contemporary society.”

Sort of a fifteenth-century SNL. 

Five Characters in Search of a Farce. Pierre Pathelin is a lawyer, largely unschooled at a time when professionally trained clerks and lawyers were emerging in medieval society. He’s a shyster, and a ne’er-do-well one at that.

“Billie, you look just fine in that outfit,” Pierre says. Image from

His wife Guillaumette, “Billie” to us, nags him that she has nothing decent to wear, despite his being a member of “the learned profession.”

Pathelin and Billie discuss matters au lit. The dog seems perfectly contented. Image from fr.m.wikipedia.

Guillaume Joceaulme, the Pathelin’s “long-nose neighbor,” is a greedy draper known to be the tightest skinflint in town. Let’s call him the Draper.

Agnelet the Shepherd, as his name suggests, raises sheep for the Draper’s wool; agnelet is French for “lamb.” We’ll call him the Shepherd. 

The fifth character is the Judge. He deals, eventually if not effectively, with the chaos that evolves.

Tomorrow in Part 2, there are medieval cons, indeed, a trio of them, each involving lawyer Pathelin. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020  

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