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. 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?