What is it with the monkeys?

I picked up a bunch of Osprey books for cheaps in a local charity shop a few weeks ago, and I have been idly reading them over the break. So far the most interesting has been Turnbull’s book on ashigaru in feudal Japan. Very educational, but one section in particular caught my eye; it’s part of a call-up order sent in the mid-16th century:

All men from 15 to 70 years of age are ordered to come; not even a monkey tamer will be let off.

Now, if you also read my gaming blog you may recall that I mentioned a similar quote, this time in an ancient Egyptian context. Horemheb himself said:

As for those monkey-handlers who go around levying taxes in the South and North, extorting grain from the citizenry … My Majesty orders these to be suppressed entirely, to prevent them wronging persons by such fraud.

The author of the book I found it in commented:

The term ‘monkey-handler’ is not to be taken literally, but is probably the late Eighteenth-Dynasty equivalent of ‘shyster’. It goes without saying that the real handlers of monkeys can have done nothing to merit such an unjust reputation.

What is it with the monkeys?

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What is it with the monkeys?

5 thoughts on “What is it with the monkeys?

  1. Well, you only have to look at how “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been popularised by The Simpsons, or the stories about monkey-hanging from Hartlepool etc. to see how popular monkeys are.

    It’s worth pointing out three things, though. First, in Japan, that was during the Sengoku period, so it wasn’t a surprise they needed as many men as possible. Second, a monkey handler would have been *almost* at the bottom of their social hierarchy – one step away from burakumin. So it is saying “it doesn’t matter how worthless you are, as long as you’re not a death-tainted butcher or grave digger, you come”. And third, the monkey had major significance in Japan, and that the meaning of the monkey was, at this period, shifting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkeys_in_Japanese_culture

  2. Another term which always puzzled me was “pastry-cooks” as a term of derision or an example of an unworthy class of person. Naturally, I can’t come up with a cite off the top of my head, but I’ve encountered it in Roman satires and (I think) in Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights. Nowadays it’s considered a fairly high-status craft; why was the ancient world so down on pastry-cooks?

    1. I have not come across that one — but I do recall Burke disdainfully laughing at the idea that you could have a government where you cared what hairdressers thought. Again, it’s the weird specificity of it that’s interesting. Why hairdressers specifically?

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