Ackroyd is unable to reconcile Thomas More the humanist, Thomas More the clever, sophistic lawyer, Thomas More the loving pater familias, Thomas More the fawning courtier, Thomas More the devious diplomat, Thomas More the foul-mouthed sadist and Thomas More the martyr for the Faith, but I suspect that any biographer who could make sense of the multi-faceted More would either be adding something that isn’t there or leaving out something that is.
I was surprised to find that More, in 1532, used the term “a tale of a Tubbe” (referring to a pleading made to him by an attorney named Tubbe). I’d thought it was Swift’s coinage. I should have known better. A Tale of a Tub is also a play by Ben Jonson; I must have been asleep in my Elizabethan literature class.
After Googling for quite a while, I found no reference to any usage of the phrase earlier than More’s, although all the lexicographers seem to agree that long before More used it, it meant “apocryphal story” or, as we would say here, “tall tale.”
As for its origins, etymologists seem to be in the dark. So I will make a conjecture: “a tale of a tub” goes back to Apuleius, one of the bawdy stories in his Metamorphosis or, as it has come down to us, thanks to St. Augustine’s reference to it, The Golden Ass.
Briefly: The smith’s wife and her lover are interrupted by the unexpected return of the smith. The wife tells the lover to hide himself in an old tub. The wife berates the smith for coming home early, instead of working to keep them out of poverty. The smith announces that he has come home because he has found a buyer for the old tub, someone who is willing to take it off their hands for six drachmae. The wife responds that she has found someone who will buy it for seven and that, in fact, he is that very moment in the tub inspecting it. The lover emerges from the tub and complains that before he will pay seven drachmae, the inside of the tub needs a good scrubbing. The smith dutifully gets into the tub and, while he is scouring it, the wife and her lover copulate above him, with the wife calling out directions, such as, “Harder! Harder! That’s right! Now a little to the left. Etc.”
Apuleius was not one of those Latin writers who had to await the Renaissance before being rediscovered. His Metamorphosis, in the original Latin and vulgate translations, kicked around Europe right through the Middle Ages. And the tale of the smith, his wife, the lover and the tub is good enough to have made the rounds among those who’d never heard of Apuleius, much less have been able to read him if they had.
In fact, how’s this for a definition of “tale?” A story which can be aurally transmitted without losing its essential nature through multiple and varied retellings.
To use Apuleius as an example. I could relate the tale of the tub, or even that of Cupid and Psyche, in my own words, without anything of importance being lost. If I attempted to do the same with the adventures of Apuleius’ hero, Lucius – in which characters and settings are described in detail, as well as the nuances of the plot – the whole thing would fall flat.