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The Divided Horsecloth

Elaine Marie Jordan

In the 13th century, a new type of literature began to flourish among the prospering urban class of Western Europe. They were tales called fabliaux [fables], which included not just moral stories, but everything from the ribald to the satirical and humorous. This anonymous French tale from the 13th century speaks vividly to our days. I think you will see what I mean by the time you reach the end of the story.
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Some time ago it so happened that a rich merchant of Abbeville left for Paris where he sought a shop and dwelling. The merchant was diligent and courteous, his wife smiling and gracious, and their son not over-given to folly, and so the shop prospered.

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The merchant and his family prospered in Paris
After seven years, by the will of God, the merchant’s wife was taken from him. The only son mourned deeply and could not cease his lamentations for the mother who had treated him so well. Finally, to put comfort in his heart, his father told him:

“Dry your eyes and face, fair son, for there is goodly comfort for you. You are a young bachelor and it is time to take a wife. So that you may find a fair marriage in an honorable house, I will endow you with my substance. I will now seek a bride for you of birth and breeding, a wife from honest folk and an honest home.”

Now there was in that place a worthy knight of high lineage, bearing a rich and honorable blazon on his shield, but with no heritage. He had one daughter who owned but a certain fair house that came to her from her mother. So the merchant, esteeming her a lady of family and estate, asked her father that she might marry his son.

The knight would only agree to the marriage on the condition that the whole of the merchant’s substance – all his wealth and houses – should be handed over to his son. The merchant was loathe to do so, but finally, having his son’s happiness in view, he agreed. And thus he divested himself of all he owned, and had neither purse nor penny nor food to break his fast, save if it were given him by his son.

For the first two years, the husband and dame lived a quiet and peaceful life with the merchant. Then a fair son was born to the couple, and the merchant found himself set aside in the poorest room of the house. For his son had begun to weary of his presence and readily would have paid for the spinning of his shroud. And the dame, who was proud and disdainful, held him in utter despite. Never was she silent, but always saying to her lord, “Husband, for love of me, send your father from this house for I lose all appetite just at the sight of him about the house.”

Finally, after 12 years, worn by his wife’s anger and importunity, he sought out his father and said, “Father, get you gone from here. You must do the best you can, for we can no longer concern ourselves with you and your lodging. For 12 years and more we have given you food and clothing in our house. Now all is done, so rise and depart forthwith, and fend for yourself, as fend you must.”

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A good marriage was arranged for the son, who received all his father's property
When the father heard these words, he wept bitterly and cursed the day and hour in which he had found he had lived too long.

“Ah, fair sweet son, what is this you say to me!” he exclaimed. “For the love of God turn me not from your door. Keep me in the attic and feed me what remains you desire these few short years I have to live. In the eyes of God this charity will cover all your sins better than if you were in haircloth next to the flesh.”

The son replied, “Fair father, preach me no preachings, but go forth at once, for my wife would have you gone. Right or wrong, I take the blame upon my own head, but you must go.”

Then the father grieved so bitterly that his heart almost broke. Finally, he rose up and made this one last request, “Son, I commend you to God. But since you will have it that I go, for the love of Him, give me at least a little cloth to wrap abound me, for I am but lightly clad and fear to die for reason of the cold. Give me at least the cloth you spread upon your horse so that I come to no evil.”

Seeing he might not rid himself of his father save by granting a gift, the son agreed. Then he called to his son and bade him fetch this horsecloth. He told him: “Give my father the best cloth in the stable so that he may make himself a mantle or any sort of cloak that pleases him.”

Then the lad, who was thoughtful beyond his years and watched all these proceedings with no words, answered, “Grandsire, come with me now.”

So the merchant, sad and wrathful, went with him to the stable. The lad chose the best horsecloth he could find in the stable, the newest, the largest and the most fair. Folding it two and drawing forth his knife, he divided the cloth in two portions. Then he bestowed on his grandfather one half of the sundered horsecloth.

“Fair child, what have you done?” asked the man. “Why have you cut the cloth that your father has given me? Very cruelly have you treated me, and I shall return and complain to my son of this unjust act.”

“Go where you will,” replied the boy, “for certainly you shall have nothing more from me.”

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The Four Ages of Men - the first three, at right, provide for the last
The merchant went to complain to his son, who called the lad to him and ordered him to give the whole cloth to his grandfather as he had commanded.

The lad replied, “But that will never do, for how then shall you be paid? Rather will I keep the half until I am a man, and then give it to you. For just as you have chased him from your house, so I will put you from my door. Even as he has bestowed on you all his wealth, so in my turn, will I require of you all your substance. And you shall carry away nothing from me save only that which you have granted to him. If you leave him to die in his misery, I wait my day, and surely will leave you to perish in yours.”

The father listened to these words and at the end sighed heavily. He repented of the evil that he had intended and from the parable that his child had spoken took heed and warning.

Turning toward the old merchant, he said, “Father, return to my house. Sin and the Enemy thought to catch me in the snare, but please God, I have escaped from the fowler. You are master and lord, and I render all that I have received in to your hands. If my wife cannot live with you in quiet, then you shall be served and cherished elsewhere. Henceforth you shall have carpet, pillow and bed of feathers. I take St. Martin to witness that never will I drink stoup of wine nor carve morsel from dish but that you shall have the richer portion. And you shall live softly in the best chamber, nearby a blazing fire, clad warmly in your furred robe, as do I. And all this is not of charity, but of your right, for, fair father, if I am rich it is because of your substance.”

Thus the brave witness and open remonstrance of a child freed his father from the bad intentions he had harbored.

And let this adventure be deeply pondered by those who would marry their children. Let them not strip themselves so bare as to have nothing left. For he who gives all and depends upon the charity of others prepares a rod for his own back.

Posted January 30, 2009

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