The Three Hunchbacks  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Medieval literature, Medieval erotica, fabliau

"The Three Hunchbacks," consists of 296 lines. Despite the title of the poem, it involves, four, not three hunchbacks. Three are traveling minstrels; the fourth is the protagonist’s husband.

The husband amassed a fortune which, despite his hideous ugliness, led his friends to arrange a marriage with a beautiful young woman who lived in the same town (Douay, in northeastern France) as he. Theirs is not a marriage made in heaven. She does not like being wed to him, and he is jealous, keeping a close watch upon her as they live as essential recluses, admitting no visitors to their house unless it is someone who has come to borrow or to repay money that the hunchback has loaned them.

When three other hunchbacks, traveling minstrels, ask to spend the night with him, the homeowner makes an exception to his rule of disallowing company. He is hospitable to them, not only allowing them accommodations in his house and treating them to dinner (“a capon roast with peas and bacon”), but also giving each of them spending money. However, the next morning, the husband forbids his overnight guests to return to his residence, vowing that “things would go hard” for them if he caught any of them upon his premises again.

The minstrels leave, and the homeowner keeps watch from his station on the bridge that spans the canal beside which his house is located.

The wife sends for the minstrels, bidding them to return and sing to her. Soon have they arrive, her husband returns and calls to her from the door to admit him to the house. (Apparently, he insists that the door be locked to frustrate any man who may wish to have sex with his wife.)

After she hides the hunchbacks in the three drawers with which a spare bed is equipped, the wife lets her husband into the house. He doesn’t stay long, and, as soon as he has left, the wife opens the drawers to release the hidden minstrels. To her “awful shock,” she discovers all three of them dead. (The poem never explains why they died.)

After swearing a passing porter to secrecy, she opens one of the drawers in the bed, revealing the body inside, and hires the porter to dispose of the body by dumping it into the canal.

As he executes this task, carrying the body to the canal inside a sack, the wife removes the body of another of the dead hunchbacks from its drawer and sets it aside. When the porter returns to collect the 30 pounds she has promised him for his service, she says that he has played a “joke” on her. Pretending to dispose of the hunchback’s body, the porter has, instead, brought the corpse back into her house with him. As proof of her assertion, she points out the body of the second hunchback. (The poem never explains why the porter is fooled by this ruse.)

Thinking that the dead hunchback may be “the Antichrist,” the porter bags the body and carries it to the canal.

The wife plays the same trick on the porter, removing the third corpse from the drawer in the bed and laying it out beside her fireplace. When he returns for his fee, she points out the cadaver next to her hearth.

Thinking that he’s been bewitched somehow by the dead hunchback, the porter bags the third body, dumping it into the canal, and vows to strike the body on its neck should he encounter it yet again.

On his way to collect his payment, the porter sees the wife’s husband approaching the lady’s house and, with a club he picks up from its place on the wall inside the front door, the porter strikes the husband upon the head as the hunchback nears the top of the stairs to the second floor of the house, splattering “his brains . . . left and right.”

Once more to the canal, the porter goes, disposing of the fourth body.

This time, he receives his pay from the wife, who is “delighted with her day,/ because he’d [the porter] got out of the way/ her husband, who was so disfigured” and could, therefore, thereafter live with no more “pain or strife.”

In the poem’s closing lines, the narrator leaves the audience with not one, but several, rather dubious morals to his story:

Durant says, rounding off his tale,
that everything on earth’s for sale--
there’s not a girl that can’t be bought,
nor any treasure that God wrought,
however valuable and good,
that. If the truth be understood,
cannot be had for the right price.
The hunchback used wealth to entice
his marriage with a lady fair.
Shame on the man whose only care
is massing money for his purse!
And on who coined it first, a curse!

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Three Hunchbacks" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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