The Eloquent Peasant

Papyrus of the tale

Amenemhat_IIIThe tale of the Eloquent Peasant is a story from the Middle Kingdom, about 1800 BC. It is funny, thought provoking and affecting. Read it. It tells of a peasant, Khun Anup, whose donkeys and goods are stolen by a wicked servant, Nemtinakht. The peasant pleads, eloquently, for justice from the servant’s employer, the noble Rensi son of Meru, who shows him off to the Pharaoh, but eventually gives him justice. This is an older translation of parts of it.

The steward does not merely steal the goods. He lays his cloak on the path, so that Khun Anup must either trample it or drive his donkeys over the fields. A donkey eats a stalk of barley, so the steward takes the donkey. That is, rather than simply taking the goods and lying about how he obtained them or on what basis, he engineers a situation where he pretends to have a complaint against the peasant which justifies his theft.

The peasant’s speeches concern the relation of rulers and ruled, which is of mutual obligation. It is for the ruler to do right and give justice. The elites reading and hearing the story would laugh at the cheekiness of the peasant, and part of the joke is that peasants rarely have the gift of the gab, but would hear these persuasive arguments. The tale helps the powerful to know their obligations.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f2/P1070007_Louvre_S%C3%A9sostris_III_jeune_E12960_rwk.JPG/492px-P1070007_Louvre_S%C3%A9sostris_III_jeune_E12960_rwk.JPGFirst he pleads with Nemtinakht, who ignores him. Then pleads with Rensi the high steward’s other servants, and they say, well, so what? So Khun Anup approaches Rensi. He praises him as just, and tells of his misery. The King tells Rensi to ensure Khun Anup has enough to eat, but wants to hear further.

Khun Anup proclaims that when wrong is done, words lose their meaning and the world is upside down. If the governor orders theft, then no-one will prevent evil. So the governor who condones wrong is acting against his own interests. The peasant compares the lord to Gods, who maintain the world. If he does wrong, then no-one is safe.

Rensi orders that Khun Anup be beaten, but Khun Anup still pleads his cause. Not just the peasant is harmed, but Goodness itself. A wrong unpunished multiplies. The ruler who does not correct it is complicit in the wrong. If the judge does not punish evil, no-one will.

Your neglect will lead you astray, your avarice will befool you, and your greed will make you acquire enemies.

When you are buried in the earth, your goodness will be remembered. (This surprises me, as the Afterlife was so important.) Eventually, the peasant says that the one standing against the righteous pleader is a murderer: he will plead his case with Anubis, god of the dead.

Rensi sends men after Khun Anup, which terrifies him: he prays for death. But Rensi gives him justice against Nemtinakht.

A happy ending. Or- wait! Nemtinakht made up a ridiculous story that Khun Anup’s donkeys had trampled his fields and eaten his crop. But how do we know that?

12 thoughts on “The Eloquent Peasant

  1. I teach this tale in my Syracuse University College of Law courses on the history of regulation and of property and tax as this is an informing tale of social control, of self-interest by leaders (a Pharaoh in this case) in maintaining peace and order as well as the fealty of the people to their administration. Indeed, today’s class is about the Eoloquent Peasant.

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    • Hello. Lovely to have you here.

      “It’s not fair” is the child’s cry no adult ever entirely grows out of. Khun-Anup keeps pleading though he fears he will be killed. In the end (as with Jesus’ story of the Unjust Judge) it is more convenient for the ruler to do the right thing. And yet- we only have Khun-Anup’s word about the wicked and ridiculous scheme hatched to steal his donkeys.

      Do you have any sources you could recommend to your students for Egyptian law? Executive Orders or precedents? In the Middle Kingdom there was a Corvée, forced labour, and I read that it was legitimate to pay someone else to undertake ones Corvée. And I thought- was that written into the law, or was a blind eye turned? I would not want to study these things terribly deeply, but would be interested to dip my toe in.

      Thank you for commenting.

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      • Sorry, no. I am not an Egyptologist, but an investigative reporter and author. You can find on the Internet that Upton SInclair took an interest in this tale as have others because it deals with justice (and, in my view, social control).

        Several Egyptologists as well as scholars in other disciplines have written on this and you can find their works easily via an Internet search and then a research library if you want to dig deeper.

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  2. Pingback: Who were the ancient Egyptians? – The Half Not Told

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