Le vilain mire fabliau parodied Saint Blaise’s fishbone cure

Blaise, a Christian bishop in central Anatolia probably during the fourth century, reportedly cured a boy who had a fishbone stuck in his throat.  The cure occurred while Blaise was being led to prison and subsequent martyrdom.  Blaise became a highly popular saint widely celebrated for curing illnesses of the throat.[1]

Saint Blaise, who cured boy with fishbone stuck in throat

Contrasting vibrantly with the story of Saint Blaise is a thirteenth-century Old French fabliau, Le vilain mire.  In this fabliau, a king’s daughter was gravely ill from a fishbone stuck in her throat.  A peasant, mistakenly regarded as a better doctor than Hippocrates, promised to cure the girl in order to get royal officials to stop beating him.[2]

The peasant treated the king’s daughter with his laughable beastliness.  The peasant shrewdly reasoned:

If she’d just laugh — I know I’m right —
with all her force and all her might,
it would be coughed up and discharged,
because the bone’s not deeply lodged. [3]

The peasant arranged for an erotic setting: he was secluded with the girl in a room with a blazing fire.  Erotic cures feature in medieval poetry and ancient novels.  Here the peasant made a spectacle of his body:

The peasant takes off all his clothes —
even his britches — then he goes
and sits beside the fire and scratches
and roasts himself while the girl watches.
He’d long nails and thick hide; I’m sure
any man twixt here and Saumur
who scratching of that sort received
would find his itching well relieved. [4]

The king’s daughter burst out laughing at the naked peasant’s itching.  Her laughter expelled the fishbone stuck in her throat and cured her grave illness. This un-erotic erotic cure turns on bringing together the laughably incongruous.

The peasant doctor did not become a celebrated saint.  But he did receive a large income from the king, never needed to farm again, and went on to live happily with his wife.[5]

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[1] Aetius of Amida, a Christian physician active in Anatolia about 530, mentioned Saint Blaise’s cure. See Aetius of Amida, Sixteen Books on Medicine, 2.4.50, in Corpus Medicorum Graecorum VIII 1.  The means of Saint Blaise’s cure was his holiness and his holy prayer to God.

[2] In Le vilain mire, the royal officials had been searching for a doctor to treat the king’s daughter.  The peasant’s wife, seeking to get him beaten, told the officials that the peasant is a better doctor than Hippocrates, but only acts as a physician after being beaten.  The officials carried off the peasant against his will to the king.  There the peasant protested that he knows no medicine.  The royal officials then beat him.  The peasant stopped the beating by promising to cure the girl.

[3] Le vilain mire (The Peasant Doctor), trans. Dubin (2013) p. 205.

[4] Id.

[5] The peasant later cured a crowd of sick persons who had gathered at the royal court.  The peasant stated that he would first sacrifice one sick person in a fire, then use the immolated person’s ashes to cure the rest.  Seeking a sick person to immolate, the peasant found no one willing to admit to being sick.  All left claiming that they felt well.  The Sermons of Jacques de Vitry (c. 1200) includes a similar account of a priest’s cure of a crowd of sick persons.  Clark (1990) no. 254, summarized pp.  241-2.  The Sermons of Jacques de Vitry also includes an account of wife who falsely described her husband as a great physician in order to get royal officials to beat him.  Id. no. 237, summarized pp.  231-2.  The sermons don’t include the unerotic-erotic cure of a girl with a fishbone stuck in her throat.

[image] Saint Blaise. In Book of Hours, Use of Sarum; Netherlands, S. (Bruges); c. 1500. British Library, King’s 9, ff. 2v-255v.


Crane, Thomas Frederick Crane, ed.. 1890. The exempla or illustrative stories from the Sermones vulgares of Jacques de Vitry. London: Pub. for the Folk-lore Society, by D. Nutt.

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

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