Bawdy Tales

Chapter 7

Yes, Mennonites, being human, are also fascinated by taboo subjects—whether profane, obscene or merely vulgar. Chapter 1 presented a number of bawdy riddle-jokes, including the very popular ones about "two men a night" and intercourse standing up, and a few shady tales also appear in other chapters. I am surprised that there are not more such stories in my collection.

Of course, I was not expecting audiences of Mennonites to contribute bawdy stories in public settings. In fact, on occasion I was corrected by audience members, following the program, for telling a story that was too naughty for the setting. The stories in this chapter were usually told in one-on-one conversations or in small groups of closely-knit friends and relatives, where it is "safe" to tell such stories in Mennonite culture.

Printing them here might also be a bit risky--somewhat like telling them in public to a Mennonite audience. Their proper venue is informal and intimate situations, not public discourse. Knowing that Katie Funk Wiebe was roundly criticized for publishing stories using the word "Hell" in her folk humor column in Festival Quarterly, which is not even a church-sponsored publication, I can also expect criticism for including them here. But any survey of a group's storytelling tradition must include a report and assessment of how they handle taboo content in folk narratives. I will invoke my literary hero Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, and interpret the chapter by saying that to omit, improve or censor such things would be to falsify reality, which is also immoral. In Chaucer studies it's called the Doctrine of Moral Realism.

It should not be necessary to make a defense of the bawdy Mennonite tale, since one of the widely circulating legends about Menno Simons himself is implicitly erotic, if not also bawdy. The story, which I analyze as a trickster tale in Chapter 4 of the first MennoFolk book, says that Menno fell into a barrel of molasses one time when officers of the law interrupted his preaching. He was able to run away and escape only because the quick-witted women who surrounded him proceeded to lick the molasses off his hosen. Even if he sank only up to his thighs--let alone his waist, as some versions claim—the licking of his body parts by female followers is not only bizarre and humorous but also sexually suggestive.

Most of the stories that follow are bawdy, not truly obscene. None of them are profane, meaning that they do not ridicule the Trinity or Godhead. Almost none of them use profane language or blatantly obscene words. Since I did not actively seek out Mennonite stories on taboo subjects, there may be more profane, scatalogically laced stories than I am aware of. But I would guess that the stories printed here embody a certain Mennonite decorum in regard to bawdy tales. That decorum rules out defamation of holy things, using the Name of the Lord in vain, and avoiding the notorious four-letter words.

Once again, Mennonite sensitivities to restrained, careful speech seem to be operative in the content and diction of bawdy story-telling.

Intercourse, Pennsylvania

Mennonites are always amused by the fact that the densely Mennonite and Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, harbors a crossroads village named Intercourse. Intercourse is near Blue Ball. And Intercourse and Blue Ball are on the road to Paradise. A major Mennonite-Amish information center, The People's Place, owned by Mennonites, was formerly located in Intercourse.

No wonder, then, that the most often repeated bawdy story in my collection capitalizes on that in-group knowledge. Here it is, in a form that combines two versions to create a more coherent variant:

*I heard this one a long time ago, and it is an Amish joke. An Amish man was riding through a town with his horse and buggy and he realized he needed to make a pit stop. But he just couldn't get out of the buggy in town. So he saw a bowling alley and he decided, "Well, I'll have to go in there and use their rest room." He went in there and, as he was standing at the urinal, a bowler came in and stood side of him. The bowler didn't know quite what to say, but finally he said: "I'm a little stiff. From bowling." And the Amish man replied: "Glad to meet you. I'm Chris Stoltzfus. From Intercourse." To which the bowler replied: "Oh, I know that. Now where are you from?"

Roll in the Hay: Passion
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Roll in the Hay: Passion

More often, the story is told about a Mennonite man rather than an Amish man, perhaps because Mennonites travel more. The Mennonite is sometimes J. C. Wenger sitting in a restaurant, or an unnamed Mennonite riding in a train or sitting in a bus station beside a stranger. The surprising thing is the number of versions in my collection that mess up the bawdy pun implied by the conjunction of being stiff from Intercourse. Readers will also notice in this version the assumption that the typical Amishman from Lancaster County is named Stoltzfus, as in the Stoltzfus Factory story. A variant of the story was published by Elmer L. Smith in his Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore (p. 20), although using arthritis instead of bowling and New Holland instead of Intercourse, hence lacking the bawdy twist.

Sex and the Amish

Giving the Intercourse story an Amish context is not surprising, considering the number of short Amish stories, told by Mennonites, that reveal a fascination with the sex lives of Amish couples. They probably are related to a certain sexual ambiguity or ambivalence that Amish culture projects to the world in regard to sexuality. On the one hand, the Amish radiate very little sexuality in their public appearances, thanks to their plain, shapeless clothing that is, in part, intended to mute the sexual appeal of their bodies. On the other hand, the Amish have very large families—in northern Indiana, an average of seven children--which indicates that the Amish certainly do not abstain from sexual intercourse.

A host of stories illustrate this outsider's fascination with the possibility of sexual intercourse by Amish people.

*Instead of spending their first wedded night at a friend's house, as is the Amish custom, a newlywed Amish couple decided to stay overnight at a motel. When they arrived there and asked for a room, the desk clerk asked: "Suite?" The man thought that sounded good, so he said, "Yes." Then, "Bridal?" "Oh, no, that's not necessary," the husband said. "I'll just hold her by the ears until she settles down."

The narrator is self-consciously aware that, in putting his Amish couple in a motel, his story does not fit an almost universally practiced custom by Amish newlyweds. The joke may come from elsewhere, but it fits the Amish context because the husband uses images that come from horse-taming culture--like the story told earlier in the book where the new husband threatens with “That’s one!”

*An Amish woman was being interviewed by a doctor who asked her if she had ever been bedridden. "Yes," she said, "many times. And even twice in a buggy."

*An Amish couple married, but were told to abstain from intercourse for three weeks. Two weeks later the husband confessed to the bishop. They had restrained themselves for two weeks, but then one day his wife bent over to take something off a shelf, and he couldn't stand it, so they went to it right there. "You'll get kicked out of the church for doing that," said the bishop. "Well, I'm not surprised," the Amishman said. "We got kicked out of Krogers."

*Amos Herr [fictional name], an Amish farmer in Lancaster County, was busily working around the farmstead when he was visited by a non-Amish person. The visitor noticed a pair of twins with Amos, another pair nearby, and still another pair farther away. Amazed, he asked, "Have you had twins every time?" "Ah-h, no," said Amos. "Tousands and tousands of time we ain't got nothin'."

*An Amishman who had already fathered twelve children was asked whether he didn't think that was enough, in light of the population explosion and the problem of feeding the world. "Oh, no," he said. "Sometimes I feel as if I could feed the whole world."

*The story is one about the Old Orders [Mennonites]. They have about as many babies as the Amish, you know. So this one morning the mother had had her fifteenth child and had it in the home there. So the neighbor come a-running over and he says, "Abie, I just wanted to see your wife when she wasn't pregnant." And he said, "Aw, you're just fifteen minutes too late!"

In addition to the bridal suite story, others above bear evidence of imperfect adaptation to an Amish context. In the last story, "Abie" suggests a stereotypical Jewish name, rather than Amish (although many Amish men are named Abe). Intercourse in a Kroger aisle would be bizarre for anyone, but even more incredible for Amish people.

And Others

The ancient historical conflict between high church Roman Catholic and low church Mennonite, as seen in the Menno Simons and many other trickster stories, takes on a sexual cast in this story, which also satirizes the Catholic ritual of confession:

*A Catholic priest invited a Mennonite to observe him hear confession and prescribe penance. The first penitent confessed to having had sex with three women since the last confession. The priest prescribed 10 Hail Marys, 10 Our Fathers and 25 cents. Ditto with the second penitent. But then the priest was called away and asked the Mennonite to fill in for him. The third penitent confessed the same sin, except that he had had sex with one woman rather than three. The Mennonite said, "Well, they're three for a quarter this week."

*In my home community in Ontario the Mennonites told this story about an Old Order [Mennonite] farmer. It happened that in a farm accident his horse received a cut of about eight inches long. Not knowing how to handle the wound, he went to the vet for advice. "Put a Kotex as a bandage on it," the vet said. So the Old Order Mennonite went to the store and asked for a box of Kotex. "What size?" asked the salesman. "Well, I don't know," said the Mennonite. "But the cut's this long [demonstrating a twelve-inch length]."

*[Mary's] husband, Bill's brother-in-law, was apparently working on the car. He was underneath the car up to his waist. Mary came by and, out of a great sense of humor, she reached down and unzipped his fly and went on into the house. There she found her husband, the pastor, sitting on the table. And she said, "Oh, my God! What have I done?" He said, "I don't know. What have you done?" "I thought that was you out there working on the car." "No," he said, "that's the neighbor I asked to look at . . ." "Well, I came by and since I thought it was you, I unzipped the trousers." And at that moment the neighbor appeared at the door. And he was bleeding profusely to his forehead. "You'll never believe it, but a moment ago someone unzipped my trousers and," he said, "I tried to sit up under the car." Then he recognized from the shock on her face that it was she! So he solemnly affirmed never to tell anyone. Not to this day!"

This story was told, as a true story, by a very well known Mennonite professional about an equally well known pastoral couple. However, it is definitely a Mennonite variant on a widely distributed American urban legend, named "The Unzipped Plumber or Mechanic" by Jan Brunvand in his book Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (ABC CLIO 2001). The story bears every earmark of urban-legend telling: second-hand reporting, reference to people several steps removed from the narrator, the formulaic "You'll never believe it," and the vow of secrecy. In Chapter 5 of the first MennoFolk book I analyze Mennonites' use of the urban legend known as the Elevator Incident, involving three Mennonite women and baseball superstar Reggie Jackson.

A final bawdy story also may at first not seem to be Mennonite in any way. However, the punch line will communicate a lot to anyone who recalls the riddle jokes based on the Mennonite family name of Yoder:

*A man boards an airplane and takes his seat. As he settles in, he glances up and sees the most beautiful woman boarding the plane. He soon realizes she is heading straight towards his seat. A wave of nervous anticipation washes over him. Lo and behold, she takes the seat right beside his. Anxious to strike up a conversation, he blurts out, "So where are you flying to today?"

She turns and smiles and says, "To the annual Nymphomaniac Convention in Chicago."

Whoa! He swallows hard and is instantly crazed with excitement. Here's the most gorgeous woman he has ever seen, sitting right next to him, and she's going to a meeting of nymphomaniacs! Struggling to maintain his outward cool, he calmly asks, "And what's your role at this convention?"

She flips her hair back, turns to him, locks onto his eyes and says, "Well, I try to debunk some of the popular myths about sexuality."

`"Really?" he says, swallowing hard. "And what myths are those?"

She explains: "Well, one popular myth is that African-American men are the most well-endowed, when in fact it is the Native American who is most likely to possess this trait. Another popular myth is that Frenchmen are the best lovers, when actually it is Mennonite men who romance women best, on average."

"Very interesting!" the man responds.

Suddenly, the woman becomes very embarrassed and blushes. "I'm sorry," she says. "I feel so awkward discussing this with you. And I don't even know your name."

The man extends his hand and replies, "Tonto. Tonto Yoder."

Gordon Yoder. Yoder Dame. Toyoder. Deyoderized. Kunte Yoder. And now Tonto Yoder.

Yes, The Gordon Principle is at work here, adding a Mennonite label to a joke from mainstream culture. The pairing of key words might just as well be Polish-Kowalski or Irish-O'Reilley or Jewish-Goldberg—all of which any assimilated American would recognize and enjoy. But only a Mennonite would catch on and laugh at the utterance of the final word Yoder, knowing that it referred to a Mennonite.

The story, if told in public, would be offensive to a Mennonite audience because it assumes sex outside of marriage and exploits ethnic and racial stereotypes. But I suspect it represents other such stories told by Mennonites in private, intimate situations.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.