A story about the infamous 14th century, German prankster Till Eulenspiegel, who finally, after all his pranks, finds he is too well known to continue with his usual tricks, and turns to wandering around dressed as a priest, peddling fake relics.
The problem of fake relics was all too real in medieval Europe. The Roman Catholic church had for a long time believed that the bones and other remains of saints and martyrs held a special power. Indeed, almost every church was founded with a relic of the church's namesake placed underneath the altar-stone, a practice more or less continued even today. Certainly most cathedrals contained famous relics, and became the center of pilgrimages; the Cathedral of Köln contains a large collection still, including a tabernacle which supposedly contains the bones of the three magi.
Obviously, though, it was all too easy to fake a "relic". Today, there are more than four churches which claim to possess the skull of St. John the Baptist, including Amiens, Nemours, and St-Jean d'Angeli in France and S. Silvestro in Capite in Rome. The arguments over authenticity became so ludicrous, that at one point two churchs agreed that while one had the head of St. John the Baptist preserved after his beheading, the other, which possessed a much smaller skull, must have the head of John as a child.
With such a high value placed on such an easily forged commodity, it is no wonder that the medieval world was plagued by relic-sellers, who, usually in the guise of priests or monks, travelled the lands, selling bags full of chicken bones and other debris; it is no wonder, too, that this absurd abuse became the target of a Till Eulenspiegel story.
How Till Eulenspiegel Travelled Around With a Skull
The 31st story tells of how Eulenspiegel travelled around carrying a skull, in order to hoodwink the people and collect a fortune in donations.
Till Eulenspiegel had become known throughout the land for his pranks. Wherever he had once been, he was no longer welcome, unless he perchance succeeded in disguising himself and nobody recognized him. It finally happened that he no longer dared to support himself with his laziness, since he had been fairly well-off since his youth and had made quite a bit of money from his tom-fooleries. Since, however, his pranks were so well known, he had to come up with another idea, how he might earn some money without actually working for it, when he finally came upon the idea to pass himself off as a relic-seller, and travel through the land with his relic.
He got together with a student, disguised himself in a priest's cassock, took a skull and had it inlaid in silver. He went to the district of Pommern, where he knew the priests were more used to drinking than preaching, and where he found a baptism or wedding or any kind of gathering he approached the village priest, saying he wanted to preach and share the wonders of his relic with the villagers by letting them touch it. He promised the priest half of all the donations he received. Those ignorant priests would do anything, as long as they could earn a few dollars on the side.
And when the majority of the congregation had gathered, Eulenspiegel climbed up into the pulpit, talked a little about the old testament, carried around the gospels with the tabernacle and chalice, in which were placed the consecrated hosts, and told them all that this was the most holy of places. Meanwhile, he would talk about the head of Saint Brandanus, who had been a holy man, and whose skull he had with him, and with which he had been ordered to make a collection in order to build a new church. And, of course, this could only take place through their generosity; but he was bound never to take money from a woman who had committed adultery, saying: "Should any such woman be here, let her simply remain standing. Because when she tries to offer towards the collection while guilty of adultery, I'll refuse, and she'll remain standing, put to shame! Follow only this rule!".
And he let the people kiss the skull, which may as well have once been the head of a blacksmith, which he had found in a graveyard. He then blessed the farmers and their wives, descended from the pulpit and stood in front of the altar. The village priest would begin to chant and ring his altar bells. Then, both the good and wicked wives would walk up to the altar with pious faces, pressing so close together that they began to cough and choke. And the women with a guilty conscience and the ones who had actually sinned, they always wanted to be first with their donations. So, he took the offerings of the good and wicked alike, and rejected nothing. So the gullible women firmly believed in and fell for his foolish tricks, since nobody wanted to be the one woman who remained standing. Those women who had no money, gave him their gold or silver rings, and everybody watched everyone else, whether they would make a donation. Those who had made a donation believed that somehow they had thus proved the faithfulness of their marriage and removed any suspicions of adultery. There were even a few who went up to the altar two or three times, so that everybody would see it and any rumours about them would stop. And Eulenspiegel got the best collection he had ever had. When he had finally collected all he could, he told them all under threat of excommunication to go forth and sin no more, since they were all free from sin; after all, had any of them been impure, he wouldn't have taken their offering.
So, all the women were happy, and wherever Eulenspiegel went, he made a fortune. The people all mistook him for a pious preacher, and he was free to continue his pranks.
Translated from the original German story by Hermann Bote on Project Gutenberg for E2; that's right, baby, you've seen it here first. There are 96 stories total, and so far only alex and I have translated any (mostly alex). If you'd like to join, /msg him.