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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754)

Judicial Decisions

From “The Pewterer-Politician”

Ab.I’ll tell you of a little trick that will make the whole town laugh. Do you know what plan I’ve made with three or four of our most prominent men?

San.I know nothing about it.

Ab.Do you know Herman of Bremen?

San.Yes; if I’m not mistaken, that’s the great pewterer-politician who lives in the house over there.

Ab.That’s the man. The other day I was in the company of several counselors who were very angry at the man because he criticizes the government very freely in all the taverns, and talks about reforming everything. The counselors were deciding to send some people to report on his speeches, and to punish him as a warning example.

San.It is indeed right that fellows of that kind should be severely dealt with. They sit over their beer and hold forth against kings, counselors, and all constituted authorities. They are dangerous, too, for the common people fail to see the humor of it if some pewterer, hat or brush maker talks about such things without the least knowledge of them.

Ab.Quite true. Such a pewterer-politician will smelt the whole Roman empire for you in the time it takes him to make one plate. And yet I don’t like the plan of the counselors. For to punish such a man or to throw him into prison excites the mob and gives prestige to a fool. I would prefer to play a comedy at his expense. The result would be better.

San.And what do you propose to do?

Ab.We can send him a pretended deputation from the town, congratulating him upon his election to the mayoralty, and then give him, in virtue of his office, some very difficult cases to decide. It will soon be seen how badly he manages, and what a difference there is between talking about a thing and really understanding it.

San.And what will the result be?

Ab.Either that he will simply turn tail, or, confessing his inability, ask to be released from the office. I have therefore come to ask for your assistance in the matter, as I know how inventive you are.

San.Yes, we might manage it. We could impersonate a deputation ourselves.


1st Law.From the very depths of our hearts we wish your Mayorship blessings and honor in the new dignity that has come to you in this city, and we trust that you will be behind none of your predecessors in clemency, wisdom, and bon ton. The more so as your Magnificence has reached this exalted station not through wealth, friends, or influence, but through your well-known virtues, and your learning and experience in matters of statesmanship.

Her.Très humble serviteur!

2d Law.And thus we rejoice to acknowledge an authority over us who is not only gifted with the highest wisdom——

Her.Yes, thank God for that!

2d Law.But who is also, as is well known, graciously inclined to hear the complaints of all who are burdened, and to have justice done them. Hence, in coming here to-day to offer you our most devoted felicitations, we take the opportunity of presenting for the judgment of your Magnificence a dispute that has arisen between our clients. Both parties had, indeed, determined to have the case tried according to the law of the land, but after mature deliberation, and in order to save the loss of time and money inseparable from a public trial, we decided to leave the case to the decision of your Mayorship.(HERMAN sits down. The others remain standing.)

1st Law.Our clients are neighbors, whose properties are divided by a brook. Now it happened, about three years ago, that the water washed a tract of land from the property of my client and added it to that of his opponent. Now, may the latter keep it? Does not the law say: Nemo ulterius damno debet locupletari? But my opponent’s client wants to enrich himself at the expense of mine. That in itself is an offense contra aquitatem naturalem. Is it not so, your Mayorship?

Her.Yes; the proceeding does seem unreasonable. You are right, sir.

2d Law.But Justinian says very clearly, Libro secundo institutionum titulo primo de alluvione——

Her.Who the devil cares for what Justinian or Alexander the Great may have said! Both lived several thousands of years ago, probably before Hamburg was built. How can they judge of a case that did not occur in their day?

2d Law.I trust that your Mayorship will not attempt to set aside the laws that are recognized throughout Germany?

Her.Why—not exactly—no! You did not quite understand me. I merely meant to say—(he coughs)—be so good as to give me some further information in this matter.

2d Law.The exact words of Justinian are: Quod per alluvionem agro tuo flumen adjecit jure gentium tibi adgiuritur.

Her.My dear sir, you say that so rapidly; and, furthermore, your Latin pronunciation is very poor. If you use your mother tongue, we shall get on much better. I do not say this because I have no love for the Latin tongue. I sometimes sit for hours and talk Latin with my servant. Don’t I, Henrik?

Hen.Yes, it’s remarkable to hear you speak Latin. The tears start into my eyes when I think of it. The words run so rapidly from his mouth, they sound like peas boiling in a pot. Heaven only knows how any one can do it!

2d Law.Justinian’s words are as follows, most honored Mayor: Whatever a river, by the action of its water, adds to your domain, that, by the law of nations, is yours.

Her.Yes, Justinian was quite right; he was an excellent person. I value his judgment too highly to dispute it.

1st Law.But, your Mayorship, my opponent quotes the law as the devil does Scripture. He leaves out the words that follow: per alluvionem autem videtur id adjici, quod ita paulatim adjicitur, ut intelligi non possit, quantum quoque temporis momento adjiciatur.

Her.Messieurs, your pardon. It’s half past five, and I must go to the town hall. Henrik, try to settle those people’s affairs outside on the stairs.

1st Law.But will you not give us any opinion?

Her.You are both right—each in his way.

2d Law.But how can we be both in the right? If I am right, my opponent must be wrong. Justinian certainly is on my side.

Her.I am sorry, but I must go.

1st Law.(holding HERMAN back).You must grant me that I am right.

Her.It is true, Justinian seems to support both of you. Then why don’t you come to an agreement? You don’t know Justinian as well as I do. When he looks both ways, he means to say: Go, rascals, and come to a peaceable understanding!

2d Law.But, your Mayorship, in order to interpret the meaning of a lawgiver it is necessary to compare passages. Now, in the next paragraph he says: Quod si vis fluminis de tuo prædio——

Her.I wish you would leave me in peace! Don’t you hear that I have to go?

1st Law.But just listen to what Hugo Grotius says.

Her.I don’t care a straw either for you or your Hugo Grotius. Henrik, turn these fellows out!(Exeunt HENRIK with LAWYERS. HENRIK is heard in violent altercation outside. He is thrown into the room, followed by a WOMAN who seems to be a man in disguise. The WOMAN seizes HERMAN by the collar.)

Woman.It is a fine mayor and fine laws that permit a man to have two wives! Don’t you fear the vengeance of God?

Her.Woman, are you crazy? Who ever thought of such a thing?

Woman.I won’t go till I see your blood!

Her.Help! Help! Henrik!

Enter HENRIK, who pulls the WOMAN away, and pushes her out of the door.
Her.Henrik, never you dare again to admit such women—or lawyers! They almost kill one. If other people come, tell them to be sure not to speak Latin to me, as, for a very particular reason, I have given up talking it.

Hen.I have given it up for the same reason.

Her.You may tell them I speak only Greek.(Some one knocks at the door.)

Hen.(goes out, and returns with a package of legal documents).Here are some documents from the syndic, which you are requested to look through and give an opinion on.

Her.(sits down and looks through the papers).It is not as easy to be mayor as I thought it would be. Henrik, here are some things that I am supposed to look through, which the devil himself would not understand.(He begins to write, gets up, wipes his forehead, and strikes out what he has written.)Henrik!


Her.Why are you so noisy? Can’t you keep still?

Hen.I didn’t move.

Her.(takes off his wig, so as to think with more ease).Henrik!


Her.The devil take you! Stand still! You disturb me in my mental processes.

Hen.Why, I did nothing but see whether my new livery was not too long.

Her.(knocks his fist against his forehead).Henrik!


Her.Go out and tell the oyster-venders that their shouts disturb me in my political business.

Hen.(opens the window and cries).Hullo, you rascals! Do you dare to bellow in the mayor’s street, and disturb him in his business?



Her.Stop, you ass!

Hen.It does no good, either. There are so many that as soon as you get rid of them, others begin; and——

Her.Not another word! Keep still, and don’t move.(Attempts to sit down again, but misses the chair, and falls on the floor.)Henrik!


Her.I’m lying on the ground!

Hen.I see you are.

Her.Why don’t you come and help me?

Hen.Because you told me not to move.

Her.(gets up again).Isn’t some one knocking?

Hen.Yes.(At door.)Whom do you wish to see?

1st Citizen.I am a hatter. I have a complaint to lay before the mayor.

Hen.Here is a hatter, with a complaint.

Her.Ask him to state the nature of his complaint.

Citizen.It is very complicated. I must see the mayor. Still, it will take no more than an hour, for my complaint contains only twenty points.

Her.May the Lord help me!

1st Citizen.Oh, your Mayorship, I have suffered great wrong, as your Honor will find when you hear my complaint.

Her.You must put it in writing.

Citizen.I have it here—four sheets.

Her.Henrik, some one else is knocking.

Hen.(at door).Whom do you wish to see?

2d Citizen.I want to complain against the hatter.

Hen.It’s the other man’s opponent.

Her.Let him give you his documents. Now, good people, remain outside, both of you. Henrik!

Hen.Yes, sir?

Her.Can’t you help me to settle these things? I don’t know how to begin. Read the hatter’s complaint.(HENRIK reads.)

Her.Enough, Henrik! I see that the man is right.

Hen.I always thought that a judge ought to hear both sides before coming to a conclusion. Shall I read the other’s paper?

Her.Yes, read it.(HENRIK reads.)

Hen.Well, both cannot be right.

Her.But who is right?

Hen.God and the mayor ought to know.

Her.The whole thing is utter confusion. Can’t you help me to decide, stupid? What do I pay you your wages for?—What is that noise out there?

Hen.Those two are fighting.

Her.Go and tell them to have more respect for the mayor’s house.

Hen.Isn’t it better to let them fight it out? Why, great heavens! I believe they intend to force their way in! Listen to them thundering on the door.(HERMAN hides under the table.)

Hen.(at door).Who’s there?

A Lackey.I have come from a foreign official. My master has some very important business to transact with the mayor.

Hen.(looking about).Where is the mayor? Did the devil fetch the mayor?

Her.(whispers from under the table).Who is it?

Hen.A foreign official wants to speak to you.

Her.Ask him to come back in half an hour. Tell him two hatters are here. Tell them to come to-morrow. Heaven help me! I’m at my wits’ ends! Henrik, can’t you advise something?

Hen.I think it would be best for his Mayorship to hang himself.

Her.Go into the next room and get me my political code. Perhaps I’ll find some directions in it.

Hen.Shall I bring mustard and butter, too, for the cod?

Her.No; it isn’t a fish—it’s a book, bound in white leather.(While HENRIK is away, HERMAN absent-mindedly tears up the hatter’s document.)

Hen.Here is the book. But what is that you are tearing up? Why, it’s the hatter’s complaint!

Her.Heavens! I had forgotten all about that!(Takes book from HENRIK, and, after hastily looking over a few leaves, throws it on the floor.)I think I had better take your advice, and hang myself!