The almost complete text of the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is known from four Middle Kingdom manuscripts, two of which also contain the Story of Sinuhe. The earliest are two copies from an archive of literary manuscripts of the second half of the twelfth dynasty from Thebes, and these present slightly different texts (Papyrus Berlin 3023, 3025); another copy comes from the Ramesseum Papyri from thirteenth dynasty Thebes (Papyrus Berlin 10499). Various factors suggest that the Tale was composed in the mid-twelfth dynasty, possibly in the reign of Senwosret II. Although the Tale is not attested among the texts copied by apprentice scribes in the Ramessid era, it was still familiar enough to be quoted in a local literary composition from Deir el-Medina. The Tale is about six hundred metrical lines long.
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant begins in the manner of a folktale:
- There was once a man
- called Khunanup;
- he was a peasant of the Wadi Natrun …
It is set in the reign of the Herakleopolitan ruler Nebkaure. The peasant is robbed of his goods as he goes to the capital; he appeals to the king's high steward, who tells the king that he
- has found one of the peasants,
- whose speech is truly perfect, and whose goods have been stolen.
- And, look, he has come to me to appeal about it.
The king orders that the peasant's appeals should remain unanswered, in order that they will be extended and provide the king with “perfect speech” to hear.
This ironic narrative frames nine discursive petitions on the nature of maat (mʒʿt; “justice”), which occupy most of the composition. These pleas for “justice” address theodic issues though metaphorical extensions of the dramatic context, which present the peasant's plight as analogous to mankind's ability to question the justice of the creator god. The petitions grow in passion and desperation as they remain unanswered. They address the dichotomy between the imperfection of human society and the perfection of ideal justice in increasingly abstract terms. The peasant is eventually reduced to despair, and only then it is revealed that his pleas have been heard and recorded; they are recited to the king, judgment is passed in his favor by the high steward, and his goods are restored. Despite the prominence and force of the pleas, the narrative is the mode that determines the meaning of the whole as an allusive theodicy. The ironic structure of the plot, whereby the peasant's virtue prolongs his suffering before bringing final recompense, shows a complex sensibility.
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant addresses central cultural concerns, such as the necessity for social order, rather than specific political issues. The petitions are complex fusions of various genres, including laments and eulogies. Although the Tale is in many respects a treatise about maat, it is not a didactic work about cultural norms. It is also in part a satire on bureaucracy, as well as a study in high rhetoric, allusive wit, and entertainment. The prominence of rhetoric is not to modern tastes, but the Tale is arguably the equal of the Story of Sinuhe in terms of literary sophistication.
- Fecht, Gerhard. “Bauerngeschichte.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1: 638–651. Wiesbaden, 1975.
- Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. Oxford, 1991. Standard edition of the text.
- Parkinson, R. B. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 BC. Oxford, 1997. Provides a recent translation of the Eloquent Peasant, based on the author's doctoral thesis (Oxford, 1988).
R. B. Parkinson