Although its precise origins have since been lost, we do know that The Farce of the Worthy Master Pierre Patelin, or to give it its original title, "La Farce du Maître Pierre Pathelin," has its origins in 15th-century France as a short play of some sort, probably as something performed by various troupes of travelling players. And although not exactly a mystery play, it has a bit of a moral to it, specifically, that what goes around comes around, as we shall see.
How do I know about this little theatrical gem? Well, when I was about 12, 13 or so I had a certain English teacher who was a fan of the "Mummery Method" of teaching English and who got us to get up on stage and perform stuff like this, but that's a whole other node. Needless to say, he had a bit of a hard on for Pierre Patelin and various other short French plays from the 16th century, and getting us to perform them before our comrades, and by the end of that academic year I could pretty much recite a fair amount of the (rather short) play from memory. Coming back to it thanks to the magic of Google here in the dying days of 2007, I personally think it would make a pretty ace Play for Today on Radio Four or suchlike, if it were tweaked slightly for a modern audience, although I do get the impression it'd be a bit short.
So what happens then? Well, it goes something like this - the titular Pierre Patelin is a lawyer who, by some inexplicable quirk of fate, has fallen on such hard times that he's reduced to looking like "a beggar on the highway." Needless to say, his recent misfortune, according to his long-suffering wife, Guillaumette, is because of his rather, shall we say, unscrupulous, method of handling cases, whereas Patelin himself prefers to think it's because of peoples' general distrust of folks wiser than themselves. Of course, if this was set in 21st century America rather than 15th century France he'd be coining it in like anything, but that's by the by.
So while his wife's berating him about her shame at being married to "a member of the learned profession" yet being broke, Pierre Patelin resolves to do something about it, and sets out to acquire a roll of high quality blue cloth from "our long-nosed neighbour," one Guillaume Joceaulme, a rather greedy merchant, and the man regarded as the tightest skinflint in town, despite having no money. Needless to say, through fine words, flattery, and some none too subtle persuasion, Patelin returns home with the cloth, having promised that the Draper can come round that lunchtime and pick up the money then. Which he does, to find that Pierre Patelin is bedridden; so inconsolably ill that he is "nearer to Paradise than to Earth" and has been for the past eleven, twelve, fifteen, or seventeen weeks, depending on when the Draper asks Guillaumette's wife - this being a trick that Guillaumette is in on in order to avoid having to pay for the cloth that Patelin just wandered off with. To the audience, the transparency of this scam is pretty evident, and the scene finishes with Patelin, clad only in his smalls, dancing about and pretending to hallucinate with his sickness-induced delirium (along with plenty cheap jibes at the Draper's physical appearance.) Frustrated, the Draper leaves in a bit of a huff.
We next see him before the local courthouse, where he is pressing for the prosecution of one of his shepherds, Agnelet, who has apparently been involved in a scam of his own against the Draper - killing his sheep, taking the wool and some of the meat and burying the remains and claiming that they had "the hoof-sickness." The Shepherd is quite worried by this, until he bumps into none other than Master Pierre. Knowing that "no man is better at gulling," Agnelet the shepherd offers to hire Pierre Patelin as his defence counsel for the princely sum of five gold crowns. Patelin, since he's not seen any clients for some time, jumps at the offer without thinking about where a slack-jawed yokel like the shepherd might acquire such a sum.
Court begins its sitting, and it transpires that Patelin's advised Agnelet to, whenever asked a question, simply stare blankly at the questioner and bleat, like one of his sheep. This, combined with Patelin's mere presence in the courtroom with the Draper as plaintiff causes the latter to garble his story and become increasingly infuriated with the intractable shepherd, who has evidently become the second person to con the Draper that day. The Judge, who, it is implied, is more interested in getting his duties over with as quickly as possible, throws the case out, threatening Joceaulme the draper with contempt of court in the process for his outbursts, and telling the Shepherd that he never wants him to see the inside of a courtroom ever again.
But just as Patelin approaches Agnelet to collect his fee, the latter simply stares and bleats, and even when Patelin threatens to get the bailiffs onto him, Agnelet points out that the judge told him never to come back. In resignation, Patelin sighs, and muses out loud "how 'tis only paying me in my own coin."
One cannot help but form the impression, in the play, that none of the characters are particularly morally upstanding. Patelin himself pretty much crystallises all the negative stereotypes surrounding lawyers, while Guillaumette is more than happy to play along with his various scams if it will help her keep up with the Joneses, so to speak - at one point she refers to the wife of "that thick headed draper" as being used to habiliments of gold-trimmed cloth, and the like. While the Draper is portrayed as a grasping, tight-fisted individual, openly gloating about how Patelin is being taken for a mug at being sold "six yards at twenty-one sous the yard." And as for the shepherd, he sees his defrauding of the Draper and of Patelin - both of whom are of a higher social standing than he - as being justified in the light of how the latter two both see him as a pleb and treat him accordingly.
Well, that's about it really. And, in the words of the Judge in the play - words that are still relevant today (and which I utter on a daily basis):
"By all the saints, never have I come upon such a nest of idiots!!"