Woodcut by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531), from
Trostspiegel in Glück und Unglück
("consolation in fortune good and bad"),
Frankfurt, 1584.

All creatures of this earthly life
       Contend among themselves in strife.
Whatever walks or swims or flies
      Its fellows doth antagonize.

Once there was a farmer who hated his wife. He might even have killed her, had he not feared what people would say. For the bonds of holy matrimony he had only contempt. Having to speak to her disgusted him, and he took deep offense at whatever she said or did.

"God preserve me from you," he said, over and over. "So help me, I can't wait for death to part us. I hope lightning strikes us both! The Devil himself brought me together with you, and it must have been his mother that gave you to me."

He often tore her hair out and beat her nearly to death, and then, still not satisfied, he would kick and trample her, swearing horribly all the while that she deserved more blows than all the people on earth could give her. Still, had anyone asked him what her faults were, he would not have known how to answer. It hurt her more than all his blows that he was more intent on beating her than on the misdeeds for which supposedly he did so. He could accuse her only of disgusting him.

And so her life was pure misery. No sooner had she recovered a little from one beating than he began again. She would rather have died than suffer such joys of living.

But God willed that her torture should end. One day, a neighbor woman came in, and learning of her troubles, offered to set things right. "Don't you worry," comforted the neighbor, "he may have it in for you now, but I'll soon have him begging you to let him be sweet to you."

"But he hates me," cried the wife, "and he doesn't really know why, himself. And he used to be so fond of me! I never disobeyed him, and he really was devoted to me. May the God who saved Daniel from the lions help me, poor wretch! I couldn't begin to count all the blows, kicks, and knocks he has given me. If only he didn't have such fits of anger, he'd be the finest husband on earth."

"Just do as I tell you," said her neighbor, "and not only will he never strike you again. He'll treasure you more than he would all the Kaiser's gold."

"I don't care about that," sobbed the wife. "But I'll give you anything I own if you can just make him stop beating me."

"Oh, I don't want any reward," replied the neighbor. "We've long been friends, and that's enough. Now, do just as I say. When he is getting ready to go out into his fields, lie down and say you're deathly ill. And I'll tell him also that you're sinking fast, and won't last another two days. You can thank your luck that I've come to help you."

With that the neighbor left, and next morning, when she saw the farmer going out to the fields, she ran up to him in tears. "Oh, sir," she began, "You mustn't go out today. Your dear lady is about to pass out of this life. Death is at hand!"

"Do you mean it?" said the farmer.

"So help me God," she replied, "if you don't hurry back home, you'll never see her alive again."

"For that news," he said, "I'd give you ten marks reward, if I had it. At least I can have you to dinner as soon as she's dead. And I'll be sweating blood until she is. Tell the priest to hurry up and get her buried, because I won't go back while the soul is still in her. In fact, you can plant her a little early, to speed things up. I'll be only too glad to pay whatever it costs to get her in the grave."

The neighbor went back to the farmer's house, thinking over what she had heard and wondering what to do next. "Your husband certainly is angry with you," she told the wife. "But take heart. I'll soon have you back in his best graces. Go get your prettiest dress." A plan was starting to take shape in her mind. "In fact, go get everything. Clothes, money, linens. I'm going to patch things up or die trying."

They packed up all the wife's belongings and moved her into the neighbor woman's house, taking care not to attract attention. Now, the neighbor, whom everyone knew to be clever and kind, had long managed very well without a husband, nor was she eager to change her state. She therefore had leisure and facilities to help.

She put the wife in a comfortable, well-shuttered bedroom and set to work. She hauled in an old plank, a bale of hay, and other scraps she found about the house and courtyard, out of which she soon put together a very good likeness of a human body, and dressed it so carefully in the wife's clothes that anyone would have taken it for her corpse. Then she hurried off to tell the priest that her friend had died during the night. "Her husband can't wait to have her buried," she said. "In fact, he won't even attend, but I'll stand good for whatever it costs."

"What do you say?" gasped the priest. "I should have given her confession, absolution--last rites, before she died--"

"Of course, of course, but it was her husband's fault that you couldn't. Not only did he refuse to look out for her. He hated her! So name your fee. It'll come from him, I guarantee that. But she must be buried today, and in holy ground, too. Why, she confessed to you often enough, and faithfully. She died suddenly, and you ought to know what the good books say, that no matter how the just die, their souls are safe."

"Oh, all right," said the priest. "Two marks."

He sent the sextons to fetch the supposed corpse, which they buried with all ceremony. Now, the priest may have been tricked, but not cheated. He still had his two marks coming. The neighbor woman went to collect the fee from the farmer.

"Neighbor," he said, "take my oxen here, and the plow too. I'm so happy I'll give you half of all I own, if that's not enough. I've hardly been able to wait for this day!"

"What you pay me is not important," she answered. "Anything you've gained was granted by God. I had nothing to do with it. But I will hold you to your offer of dinner, and further, I want you to promise me that if you decide to marry again, you'll come to me for advice. You won't be sorry. I'll find you the perfect woman."

"Indeed I will do that," he said, "and may the wolves eat me if I don't take your advice. You've done me favors I can never repay."

He was so pleased that he soon forgot all about what had troubled him before. After no more than a few weeks of high spirits, he went to the neighbor and told her he was tired of being single. "Now show your neighborliness and help me to new pleasures. After all the talk I've heard of marital joys, I don't want to spend another day without a wife."

"I'll take care of that," said the neighbor woman. "I'll show you a woman that God used all his skill to make. She has everything. You'd be the luckiest man alive to get her. She's virtuous, modest, and trusts me, so that she would only marry someone I approve of. It won't be easy, but I'll talk to her, and if possible, I'll have you meet her next week. Then we'll see. Maybe she'll take to you."

"My lady, I'm at your disposal," said the farmer, bowing. "Whatever you say or ask of me, I am ready to do , beholden to you as I am for all my happiness."

Meanwhile, the neighbor had been giving her guest, the farmer's wife, special care. She fed her, bathed her, and saw that she got plenty of sleep in a fine, soft bed with no fleas, carefully draped to keep out the dust. The room was kept full of fresh flowers. The neighbor was an excellent cook, and when she went to market, she freely used the savings her guest had brought from home to buy the finest of everything.

The farmer's wife soon looked more beautiful than any woman for miles around. Her clothes, too, were elegant, not such as peasant women had. Beneath her carefully-sewn blue cloak she wore a daring, fur-trimmed. white stole, which fitted very well. Her cap was draped with a silk scarf. The plain linens she used to wear were no more. Now her shift and skirt were slim and white, sewn with fine pleating. On her embroidered sash there hung a small purse filled with sweet herbs. She was a vision of perfection, from her lovely shoes to the crown of her white maiden's wreath, such as well might have become a lady of high birth.

When a week had passed, the farmer came to learn how things were progressing. "I don't know if this will work or not," the neighbor stalled him. "I've been trying very hard for you. I told her what a fine man you are, and you have to bear me out, or all is wasted. I said you were loyal, honorable, industrious, reliable, clever, generous, and good, modest, constant, and kind. She agreed to come here today to meet you, but we must keep this business quiet. Come back after mass for lunch with us, but take care not to let anyone know. We don't want to let out anything before we see what's going to happen."

The farmer did as he was told, although he was none too eager to waste his time in church. He fidgeted through the mass, and then, avoiding everyone, he made all speed back to the neighbor's house. She admitted him to the cool, flower-bedecked chamber, where the chairs all had fine cushions. The farmer was received very cordially by his own wife, who so dazzled him that he had no memory of ever having seen her before, or indeed any woman so beautiful. He could think only of how he wanted to win her.

She bade him sit next to her, and their host brought them fingerbowls before serving the feast she had spent most of the night preparing. If he could only have her, he thought, how happy life would be! He was ready to do whatever he had to, out of thankfulness to God and to the neighbor. After the meal, he took the neighbor aside and told her so. "Take anything I have," he enthused. "Just get me that woman. I'll die waiting."

"I haven't forgotten how my late friend, your former wife, suffered such bad treatment from you," she said. "Why, I don't know. But if you are cruel to this woman also, you'll make a disgrace of me, because I've been telling her what a fine husband you would surely make."

"Oh, no," he cried, "I swear by all that exists I'll be kind to her."

"Well, we'll see," replied the neighbor. "Come back this evening, very quietly, and you can spend the night with her. If she doesn't like you, the fault is all yours, not mine. She's so fine that even a noble lord would be honored to have her. Let's see if you know quality when you find it. The wise say you can't cast pearls before swine."

"Ah, if only she will have me," he sighed, "I'll pay her more honors than even the priest knows."

"I'll be much readier to believe all your promises in the morning," she replied.

The farmer went away then, but came back that evening and spent what he thought was the shortest night of his life. When the neighbor came to wake them, he refused to get up. "No, I'm not leaving," he swore. "God has given me a heaven right here, and it's only proper that I enjoy it."

He stayed on, night and day, and could not get enough of the pleasures he had there. His friends saw his plow and cart standing idle, and soon found him in his love retreat. They warned him he would go to ruin unless he went back to his labors, but he vowed than nothing short of black magic could pry him away, now that he understood the true value of a good woman. The whole countryside heard about him soon, for he made no effort to conceal what he was doing. He spent everything he owned to stay on in his paradise. "I'll starve here by your side," he at last told his supposed paramour. "If no one will feed us, I'm resigned to die here, for it would kill me anyway to let you from my sight for a moment."

When his wife saw that he would not earn a living, she decided that love was not worth starving for. "Tell me, for God's sake," she said, "why my body is so much more precious to you now than before, when you used to beat me, night and day. I'm not doing anything different. I've lain with you just as I always did."

The farmer paled and crossed himself. "Is this the truth?" he sputtered.

"Certainly," she answered. "I didn't die. I'm as alive as can be, and have shown you that you're a fool who can't tell right from wrong."

"Oh, God," he moaned, "just don't tell on me! I'd never live this down. If people find out, they'll make my life so miserable I'll be wishing I were dead!"

But it was not the sort of story that could be concealed for long. Soon he was the biggest joke in every village for miles around. He had to let his wife strictly alone, since now he could neither praise her nor revile her without drawing a storm of mockery from everyone. And if you look, you can find many a man that might be deceived by so clever a trick.