Until the Reformation, Europe was, by its religion and the culture growing out of it, a homogeneous state. Not only, however, did the legends of the Church find access to the people everywhere, but the stories imported from the Orient were equally popular and wide-spread. The absence of other works of entertainment and the monotonous character of the legends increased the popularity of tales which were amusing and interesting. We have considered in other places the fairy tales and those stories which are of more direct Oriental origin. In the present chapter we shall examine those stories which are of the character of jests or amusing stories, some of which are also Oriental, but may more appropriately be classed in this chapter. The first story we shall mention is familiar to the reader from the ballad of "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury," in Percy and Bürger's poem of Der Kaiser und der Abt. There are two popular versions in Italian, as well as several literary ones. The shortest is from Milan (Imbriani, Nov. fior. p. 621), and is entitled:
XCI. THE COOK.
THERE was once a lord whose name was "Abbot-who-eats-and-drinks-without-thinking." The king went there and saw this name on the door, and said that if he had nothing to think of, he would give him something to think of. He told him that he must do in a week the three things which he told him. First, to tell him how many stars there were in heaven, how many fathoms of rope it would take to reach to heaven, and what he, the king, was thinking of. The cook saw that his master was sad, and sat with his head bent over the table, and asked him what was the matter, and his master told him everything. The cook promised to settle the matter if he would give him half of his property. He also asked for the skin of a dead ass, a cart-load of rope, and his master's hat and cloak. Then the cook went to the king, who said to him: "Well, how many stars are there in heaven?" The cook answered: "Whoever counts the hairs on this ass' skin will know how many stars there are in heaven." Then the king told him to count them, and he answered that his share was already counted, and that it was for the king to count now. Then the king asked him how many fathoms of rope it would take to reach to heaven, and the cook replied: "Take this rope and go to heaven, and then come back and count how many fathoms there are." Finally the king asked: "What am I thinking of?" "You are thinking that I am the abbot; instead of that, I am the cook, and I have here the stew-pan to try the broth."