The geographical situation of Italy and its commercial connections during the Middle Ages would lead us to expect a large foreign element in its popular tales. This foreign element, it is hardly necessary to say, is almost exclusively Oriental, and was introduced either by direct communication with the East, or indirectly from France, which received it from Spain, whither it was brought by the Saracens. Although this Oriental element is now perfectly popular, it is, as far as its origin is concerned, purely literary. That is to say, the stories we are about to examine are to be found in the great Oriental collections of tales which were early translated into all the languages of Europe, and either passed directly from these translations into circulation among the people, or became familiar to them from the novelists who made such frequent use of this element.  A few stories may have been taken from the French fabliaux or from the French translations of the Disciplina Clericalis, as we shall afterwards see.  The Pentamerone, and especially Straparola's tales, may finally be mentioned as the source from which many Oriental stories have flowed into popular circulation.  In this chapter it is proposed to notice briefly only those stories the Oriental origin of which is undoubted, and which may be found in the great collections above mentioned and in some others less known. For convenience, some stories of this class have been referred to chapter VI.
The first of this class which we shall mention is well known from the version in Lafontaine (IX. 1), Le Dépositaire infidèle. The only Italian version we have found is Pitrè, No. 194, which is as follows:
XXXVII. THE PEASANT AND THE MASTER.
A PEASANT one day, conversing in the farmhouse with his master and others, happened, while speaking of sheep and cheese, to say that he had had a present of a little cheese, but the mice had eaten it all up. Then the master, who was rich, proud, and fat, called him a fool, and said that it was not possible that the mice could have eaten the cheese, and all present said the master was right and the peasant wrong. What more could the poor man say? Talk makes talk. After a while the master said that having taken the precaution to rub with oil his ploughshares to keep them from rusting, the mice had eaten off all the points. Then the friend of the cheese broke forth: "But, master, how can it be that the mice cannot eat my cheese, if they can eat the points of your ploughshares?" But the master and all the others began to cry out: "Be silent, you fool! Be silent, you fool! the master is right!" 
 There are three Italian translations of the Pantschatantra, all of the XVI. century. Two, Discorsi degli Animali, by Angelo Firenzuola, 1548, and La Filosofia Morale, by Doni, 1552, represent the Hebrew translation by Rabbi Joel (1250), from which they are derived through the Directorium humanae vitae of Johannes de Capua (1263-78); the third, Del Governo de' Regni, by G. Nuti, 1583, is from the Greek version of Simeon Seth (1080). A full account of the various translations of the Pantschatantra may be found in Max Müller's Chips, Vol. IV. p. 165, "The Migration of Fables." See also Benfey, Pant. I. pp. 1-19, Buddhist Birth Stories; or, Jataka Tales, By V. Fausböll and T. W. Rhys Davids, Boston, 1880, p. xciii., and Landau, Die Quellen des Decamerone, mentioned in the following note.
The Seven Wise Masters was also translated into Italian at an early date. One version, Il Libro dei Sette Savj di Roma, Pisa, 1864, edited by Prof. A. D'Ancona, is a XIII. century translation from a French prose version (Cod. 7974, Bib. nat.); another, of the same date, Storia d' una crudele Matrigna, Bologna, 1862, is from an uncertain source, from which is probably derived a third version, Il Libro dei Sette Savi di Roma tratto da un codice del secolo XIV. per cura di Antonio Cappelli, Bologna, 1865. The MS. from which the version edited by Della Lucia in 1832 (reprinted at Bologna, 1862) was taken has been recently discovered and printed in Operette inedite o rare, Libreria Dante, Florence, 1883, No. 3. A fourth version of the end of the XIII. or the beginning of the XIV. century is still inedited, it is mentioned by D'Ancona in the Libro dei Sette Savj, p. xxviii., and its contents given. The latest and most curious version is I Compassionevoli Avvenimenti di Erasto, a work of the XVI. century (first edition, Venice, 1542) which contains four stories found in no other version of the Seven Wise Masters. The popularity of this version, the source of which is unknown, was great. See D'Ancona, op. cit., pp. xxxi.-xxxiv.
The Disciplina Clericalis was not known, apparently, in Italy as a collection, but the separate stories were known as early as Boccaccio, who borrowed the outlines of three of his stories from it (VII. 4; VIII. 10: X. 8). Three of the stories of the Disc. Cler. are also found in the Ital. trans. of Frate Jacopo da Cessole's book on Chess (Volgarizzamento del libro de' Costumi e degli offizii de' nobili sopra il giuoco degli Scachi, Milan, 1829) and reprinted in Libro di Novelle Antiche, Bologna, 1868, Novelle III., IV., and VI. This translation is of the XII. century. Other stories from the Disc. Cler. are found in the Cento nov. ant., Gualt., LIII., XXXI., LXVI., Borg., LXXIV. (Cent. nov., Biagi, pp. 226, 51, 58); and in Cintio, Gli Ecatommiti, I, 3; VII. 6.
 It has been generally supposed that the Oriental element was introduced into European literature from Spain through the medium of the French. We shall see later that this was the case with the famous collection of tales just mentioned, the Disciplina Clericalis. Oriental elements are also found in the French fabliaux which are supposed to have furnished Boccaccio with the plots of a number of his novels. See Landau, Die Quellen des Decamerone, 2d ed., Vienna, 1884, p. 107. Professor Bartoli in his I Precursori del Boccaccio e alcune delle sue Fonti, Florence, 1876, endeavors to show that Boccaccio may have taken the above mentioned novels from sources common to them and the French fabliaux. It is undeniable that there was in the Middle Ages an immense mass of stories common to the whole western world, and diffused by oral tradition as well as by literary means, and it is very unsafe to say that any one literary version is taken directly from another. Sufficient attention has not been paid to the large Oriental element in European entertaining literature prior to the Renaissance. In early Italian literature besides Boccaccio, the Cento novelle antiche abound in Oriental elements. See D'Ancona, Le Fonti del Novellino, in the Romania, vol. III. pp. 164-194, since republished in Studj di Critica e Storia Letteraria, Bologna, 1880, pp. 219-359.
 See Introduction, Notes 3, 7.
 In the Pantschatantra (Benfey's trans, vol. II. p. 120) this story is as follows: A merchant confides to a neighbor some iron scales or balances for safe-keeping. When he wishes them back he is told that the mice have eaten them up. The merchant is silent, and some time after asks his neighbor to lend him his son to aid him in bathing. After the bath the merchant shuts the boy up in a cave, and when the father asks where he is, is told that a falcon has carried him off. The neighbor exclaimed: "Thou liar, how can a falcon carry away a boy?" The merchant responded: "Thou veracious man! If a falcon cannot carry away a boy, neither can mice eat iron scales. Therefore give me back my scales if you desire your son." See also Benfey, Pant. I. p. 283. La Fontaine has used the same story for his fable of Le Dépositaire infidèle (livre IX. 1): see also references in Fables inédites, vol. II. p. 193.
Peasant and the Master, The
Italian Popular Tales
Crane, Thomas Frederick
Houghton Mifflin and Company
Year of Publication:
Country of Origin:
ATU 1592: The Iron-Eating Mice