The Laughable Stories of Bar-Hebraeus, by Bar-Hebraeus, tr. E.A.W. Budge, , at sacred-texts.com
The present work contains the complete Syriac text of the seven hundred and twenty-seven "Laughable Stories"—which were collected by John Abu’l-Faraj, more commonly known as Gregory Bar-Hebræus, the head of the Jacobite Church, or Maphrian of the East, from A.D. 1264 to 1286. Sixty-eight of these stories have been published before, eight by Adler, Bernstein and others, and sixty by Morales; but the remainder now appear in print for the first time. The text is edited from two MSS., one of which (India Office MS. No: 9) was written in the year 1712, and the other (a modern copy in my own possession) in 1893, and so far as can be judged from the extracts given by Morales from the Vatican MS. No. CLXXIII, the greater part of which was written about the year 1333, we have the text much as it existed about fifty years after the compiler's death. The translation has been made tolerably literal, but the language of Bar-Hebræus is so concise that I have been obliged to give paraphrases rather than translations of certain of his stories and pithy sayings. No attempt has been made to trace the source of all the stories and sayings, for
parallels and counterparts of the greater number of them may be met with in the literature of most of the ancient civilized countries. As was to be expected in a work devoted to a delineation of the virtues, and follies, and vices of man, by means of proverbs, anecdotes and narratives, a number of stories occur which would have been omitted by an occidental compiler. These have, however, been relegated to the respectable obscurity of the Latin, tongue by my friend Mr. J. B. Hodge, M.A., of the Department of Printed Books, British Museum; thus the integrity of the work has been maintained in its printed form, and it is hoped that the general reader will find nothing to offend his taste.
A peculiar interest attaches itself to the "Book of Laughable Stories" for it was the child of the compiler's old age. And it says much for the broadmindedness and versatility of the, learned and venerable Bar-Hebræus that, while his mind was closely occupied with history and philosophy and with the writing of works on grammar and other difficult subjects, the enthusiastic churchman found time to jot down notes of the witty, cynical, amusing, edifying, and didactic sayings and narratives which he came across during his perusal of the literatures of the Jews and Greeks, Arabs and Persians, Indians and Syrians. Lists of proverbs and moral and religious aphorisms have been the normal product of the writers of. the East from the time when Kaqemna, who flourished in the reign of Kuni, kin of Egypt, about B.C. 3800, wrote his Book of
[paragraph continues] Instructions;" but the work of Bar-Hebraeus differs considerably from them all, inasmuch as the soundest and best teaching, both as regards the present and the future life, is successfully inculcated by means of a series of concise sayings and stories culled from some of the best literatures of the world. It has been the fashion among some to scoff at Syriac literature as being the product of priests and monks who had no knowledge of the profane writings of other nations; that the greater part of it as known to us relates to ecclesiastical matters is true beyond a doubt, but that the greatest Syriac writers had other interests is also equally true, and of these Bar-Hebraeus is the most brilliant example. The "Book of Laughable stories" covers a wide ground, and embraces a very miscellaneous group of subjects. We should hardly expect the idea of "Woman's Rights" ever to have entered into the head of the Maphrian of the Jacobite Church, or even to have existed in an Oriental land in the XIIIth century of our era, yet from one of his stories we see that it did, and also that some women's views of the matter were much then what they are now. For when one woman asked another why a man should have the power to buy a woman and to do what he pleased with her while a woman could not act with freedom in any matter, she replied, "It is because kings, and judges, and lawgivers have all been men. They have, therefore, acted the part of advocate of their own cause, and have, in consequence, oppressed the
women" (see infra, p. 136). Similarly we should hardly expect Bar-Hebraeus to refer to the breakage of glass by careless servants, and yet he does so, for he relates that a set of beautiful glass vessels was given to Alexander the Great and that, although he much admired them, he ordered them to be broken. When he was asked why he had done so, he said, "I know that they would be broken one after another by the servants’ hands, and that thereby anger would be always stirred up in me; for this reason it is that with one burst of wrath I have driven away many storms of rage" (see infra, p. 14). Sometimes, too, curious information is preserved in a story. Thus among Bar-Hebraeus, anecdotes of weavers is one in which we are told that it was men who followed that trade who stole "Joseph's cup, and the rod of Moses, and the fleece of Gideon, and the sling of David, and the swaddling bands of John, and the sandals of the Apostles; and when Mary asked them to shew her the way to the Sepulchre, they sent her by a wrong road" (see infra, p. 123).
For a general description of the plan of the "Book of Laughable Stories" the reader is referred to p. XXI ff, and it only remains for me to express here my grateful thanks to Mr. C. H. Tawney for his kindness in obtaining for me the loan of the India Office MS. containing a copy of the Syriac text of the work.
London, August 1, 1896.
E. A. WALLIS BUDGE.