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

Rutebeuf (fl. c. 1249–c. 1277)

The Ass’s Testament

A PRIEST there was in times of old,

Fond of his church, but fonder of gold,

Who spent his days and all his thought

In getting what he preached was naught.

His chests were full of robes and stuff,

Corn filled his garners to the roof,

Stored up against the fair-times gay,

From Saint Remy to Easter Day.

An ass he had within his stable,

A beast most sound and valuable.

For twenty years he lent his strength

For the priest, his master, till at length,

Worn out with work and age, he died.

The priest, who loved him, wept and cried;

And, for his service long and hard,

Buried him in his own churchyard.

Now turn we to another thing:

’Tis of a bishop that I sing.

No greedy miser he, I ween;

Prelate so generous ne’er was seen.

Full well he loved in company

Of all good Christians still to be;

When he was well, his pleasure still,

His medicine best when he was ill.

Always his hall was full, and there

His guests had ever best of fare.

Whate’er the bishop lack’d or lost

Was bought at once despite the cost;

And so, in spite of rent and score,

The bishop’s debts grew more and more.

For true it is—this ne’er forget—

Who spends too much gets into debt.

One day his friends all with him sat,

The bishop talking this and that,

Till the discourse on rich clerks ran,

Of greedy priests, and how their plan

Was all good bishops still to grieve,

And of their dues their lords deceive.

And then the priest of whom I’ve told

Was mention’d; how he loved his gold.

And because men do often use

More freedom than the truth would choose,

They gave him wealth, and wealth so much,

As those like him could scarcely touch.

“And then besides, a thing he’s done,

By which great profit might be won,

Could it be only spoken here.”

Quoth the bishop, “Tell it without fear.”

“He’s worse, my lord, than Bedouin,

Because his own dead ass, Baldwin,

He buried in the sacred ground.”

“If this is truth, as shall be found,”

The bishop cried, “a forfeit high

Will on his worldly riches lie.

Summon this wicked priest to me;

I will myself in this case be

The judge. If Robert’s word be true,

Mine are the fine and forfeit too.”


“Disloyal! God’s enemy and mine,

Prepare to pay a heavy fine.

Thy ass thou buriedst in the place

Sacred to church. Now, by God’s grace,

I never heard of crime more great.

What! Christian men with asses wait?

Now, if this thing be proven, know

Surely to prison thou wilt go.”

“Sir,” said the priest, “thy patience grant;

A short delay is all I want.

Not that I fear to answer now—

But give me what the laws allow.”

And so the bishop leaves the priest,

Who does not feel as if at feast.

But still, because one friend remains,

He trembles not at prison pains.

His purse it is which never fails

For tax or forfeit, fine or vails.

The term arrived, the priest appeared,

And met the bishop, nothing feared;

For ’neath his girdle safe there hung

A leathern purse, well stocked and strung

With twenty pieces fresh and bright,

Good money all, none clipped or light.

“Priest,” said the bishop, “if thou have

Answer to give to charge so grave,

’Tis now the time.”
“Sir, grant me leave

My answer secretly to give.

Let me confess to you alone,

And, if needs be, my sins atone.”

The bishop bent his head to hear,

The priest he whispered in his ear:

“Sir, spare a tedious tale to tell.

My poor ass served me long and well,

For twenty years my faithful slave,

Each year his work a saving gave

Of twenty sous—so that in all

To twenty livres the sum will fall;

And, for the safety of his soul,

To you, my lord, he left the whole.”

“’Twas rightly done,” the bishop said,

And gravely shook his godly head:

“And, that his soul to heaven may go,

My absolution I bestow.”

Now have you heard a truthful lay,

How with rich priests the bishops play;

And Rutebœuf the moral draws

That, spite of kings’ and bishops’ laws,

’Gainst evil is the man secure

That shields himself with money’s lure.