Roquelaure: A New Perspective on Louisiana Folklore's Master Thief

By Nathan Rabalais


The folklore of French and Creole Louisiana displays a remarkable affinity for the trickster figure. While many are familiar with the animal trickster Compère Lapin, a somewhat lesser known human trickster by the name of Roquelaure has carved out his place in Louisiana's oral tradition. Usually appearing as a Master Thief figure, Roquelaure is also found elsewhere in the folklore of French-speaking North America (Ancelet 1994, 52) and France. Like many folklore figures, the Master Thief has a way of playing the role of outlaw hero for a specific culture, even though nearly identical representations of such characters have been attested almost everywhere for centuries. While some outlaw heroes or Master Thief figures remain nameless, others possess names, perhaps based on reallife individuals that retain strong attachments to the image to this cunning figure. This poses a larger question about how we distinguish "history" from "folklore."

Master Thief tales are usually identified (at least loosely) with the Aarne-Thompson 1525 tale type. Variants throughout the French-speaking world exhibit many similarities, although the names—if the character is named—is more variable. In most versions collected in Louisiana the Master Thief figure is closely associated with some variation of the name Roquelaure (e.g. Roklore, Roclore, Roclos, etc.). These tales typically portray a peasant who repeatedly deceives the wealthy king and his men through a series of tricks using his stealth and wit. In most variants, the king is eventually dethroned, often drowned in a lake as a result of his own greed and stupidity. More specific details about these variants will be discussed below, but in all of these cases it is a matter of the underdog trickster undoing the powerful yet ignorant opponent through cunning, similar to the Bouki and Lapin tales.

Several inquiries have been made pertaining to the origin of the name Roquelaure that is nearly synonymous with the Master Thief figure in certain folklore traditions. It is understandable that such a question has baffled folklore scholars for some time. As a surname in Louisiana, Roquelaure seems to be nonexistent; however, one does find an entry for "rôquelaure" in the Dictionary of Louisiana French. As a noun, the word refers to a "good-fornothing," although this is more likely a result of the folklore figure's mischievous persona (Valdman et al. 2010, 561). Donald Haase proposes that the name is perhaps derived "from the family name of the Baron de Roquelaure and his son and grandson, all of whom were known for wit," but gives no further explanation (2008, 683). The most serious investigation of a potential connection with the noble family of France is George Reinecke's article, "Louisiana's Roquelaure: The Spanish Soil Trick and Le momus françois"1 in the 1975 issue of Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Le momus françois is the title of the 1727 book "recounting comic episodes purportedly from the life of Gaston de Roquelaure," a duke and military officer under Louis XIV (Reinecke 1975, 65). In his article, Reinecke mentions that he brought the text to the attention of his folklore colleague Ethelyn Orso who published two years earlier, also in LFM, "Roquelaure: An Acadian Trickster" (Orso and LaBorde Smith 1973). However, it seems that Reinecke's knowledge of references to Roquelaure in France was limited to this one text, Le momus françois. Orso offers an analysis of a Roquelaure tale submitted by Ethel LaBorde Smith and also acknowledges the historical reference to the French noble family (Orso and LaBorde Smith 1973, 29).

It seems fitting, then, to present here in Louisiana Folklore Miscellany a new and more complete historical perspective of Roquelaure. In this study, I propose a new and more complete perspective of Roquelaure based on archival sources and historical sources. This text explores more fully the possibility of a historical connection between the Master Thief figure and that of a noble family of France. To go beyond the research of Orso and Reinecke on this subject, I searched for written records of the Roquelaure family available through the Bibliothèque nationale de France as well as references to Roquelaure in French theatre and folklore. This considerable amount of evidence suggests that one or several members of the French noble Roquelaure family had already entered into the realm of "popular legend" in France as early as the seventeenth century, beginning in courtly society and later spreading to a wider popularity. By comparing episodes described in these period sources with Louisiana variants of the Master Thief tales, this article sheds new light on the significance of the name Roquelaure and its connection with the AaTh 1525 Master Thief type. Furthermore, I aim to add clarity to a seemingly direct link, alluded to by Orso and Reinecke, between the Roquelaure tales and Avoyelles Parish. Orso entitled her article "Roquelaure: An Acadian Trickster" (1973), which is odd considering that Avoyelles Parish is recognized more for its lack of Acadian settlement, populated mostly by French Creoles. Reinecke remarks on the "extreme localization" of Roquelaure tales in Avoyelles Parish (1975, 68). Curiously, neither Orso nor Reinecke acknowledge the Roquelaure tales in Elizabeth Brandon's fieldwork (1955) in Vermilion Parish, an area that does feature a significant Acadian population. This article goes beyond the limited scope of prior research demonstrating that numerous French sources in theatre and folklore point to the interplay between oral tradition and history beginning in the sixteenth century with Roquelaure's name persisting in France well into the nineteenth century and surviving in the folklore of francophone North America to this day.

AaTh 1525 The Master Thief Tale Type

The Master Thief, often called "Le fin voleur," or "Le franc voleur" in francophone folklore, is associated with Aarne-Thompson (AaTh) tale type 1525 The Master Thief. Barry Ancelet observes that AaTh 1525 is "one of the most popular English language tales in the South," but there exist many attestations of this type in French and Creole oral traditions as well (1994, 51). Several folktale catalogues attest to the popularity of type 1525 [K301] (Bolte and Polívka 1963, 379-406; Cosquin 1886, 274-281; Uther 2011, 243-245). Roquelaure's popularity in Louisiana folklore is evidenced by the collections of Elizabeth Brandon (1955), Calvin Claudel (1979), and Corinne Saucier (1972), all of which include variants of AaTh 1525 involving a Master Thief-like protagonist by the name of Roclore or Roclos.2

In general, the AaTh 1525 type also features a rather villainous authority figure, often a king, who opposes the Master Thief. In an attempt to rid himself of the thief, the king will usually challenge him to perform daring acts of theft that become progressively more difficult. The most commonly found motifs consist of some variation of the following, usually in this order: 1) stealing horses from a guarded stable, 2) stealing cows or sheep while they are being guarded by the overseer's field hands, and 3) stealing the sheets from the authority figure's bed during the night (Seal 2011, 27).

Because the "hero" is in fact a thief, Master Thief tales provide distinct insight into the culture's moral outlook with regard to social justice and class difference. Carl Lindahl notes that the Master Thief tale type "offers an exceptional opportunity for cross-cultural comparison because it is an amoral tale with a moral hero," wherein the protagonist, "normally the embodiment of his society's more positive values - is here asked to do the work of a sociopath, performing a series of robberies to win his fortune" (1988, 380). When is theft socially or even culturally permissible for an otherwise "moral" hero, and why? Faced with this ethical tension and fundamental dilemma, what is at stake for the storyteller and his or her audience on a moral, social, and even cultural level? The Master Thief tale type responds indirectly to these questions in ways that are as variable as the names, places, and characters that we find alongside them. As variants of this type are attested around the world, communities' specific needs for an "outlaw hero" who transgresses common moral boundaries can differ greatly. Likewise, the justification for the hero's "immoral" acts are subject to the storyteller's own moral perspective informed by his or her feelings toward theft and their attitude toward authority.

Scholars have often pointed to "Der Meisterdieb" ("The Master Thief") in Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen as somewhat of an archetype for AaTh 1525, and indeed a number of similarities exist between this tale and some Roquelaure tales told in Louisiana. In "Der Meisterdieb," the thief's first challenge is the same that is commonly found in the French oral tradition: stealing the count's (equivalent to the king) horses while they are guarded. He accomplishes this by disguising himself as an old woman seeking refuge for the night, and offering the guards a jug of Hungarian wine. When the guards are sufficiently inebriated, they fall asleep, allowing the thief to steal the count's horses. Similarly, Roquelaure's capacity to disguise himself - as a woman, a pig, a black man, etc. - is certainly a common trait found with Grimm's tale. In a sense, this element of his persona reinforces his identity as a trickster figure, as C. G. Jung has commented in Paul Radin's The Trickster on this figure's affinity for disguising himself (Jung 1972, 203).

Motif K842, The Sack Exchange

One need not analyze in depth the Louisiana variants of AaTh 1525 and similar thief tales to notice the prevalence of motif K842 Dupe persuaded to take prisoner's place in a sack: killed. (Claudel 1979, 59-60; Brandon in Dorson 1964, 253-256; Saucier 1962, 50-54). This motif invariably occurs at the end of the narrative and consists of the thief, finally trapped by the king and placed in a sack, duping an unfortunate passerby in switching places with him by crying, "I won't marry the princess! You can drown me, but I won't marry the princess." In most variants, the two exchange places while the king is distracted. When the king returns, he throws the sack into a lake believing that he has finally rid himself of the thief. Sometime later, the king sees the thief on horseback and exclaims in his disbelief to see the rascal alive. At this point, he cleverly responds to the king in anger for not having thrown him far enough into the lake, supposedly where the best horses could be found. Upon hearing this, the gullible king then pleads with the thief to throw him into the lake so that he might see the finest horses. The Master Thief gladly obliges the king, who never resurfaces. An underlying commentary of the king's ignorance about basic matters of rural life and self-sufficiency is particularly salient in such scenes. That is to say, although he may be wealthy and powerful, he is sufficiently gullible to believe that horses are sold at the bottom of a lake. Moreover, this last-ditch effort of survival using wit and a form of reverse psychology parallels the motif rabbit's briar-patch punishment K581.2 found in AaTh 175 The Tarbaby and the Rabbit.

A Real-life Master Thief?

Attestations of a character named Roquelaure (Roclore or Roclos) cast as a Master Thief figure in types AaTh 1525 The Master Thief or AaTh 1535 The Rich Peasant and the Poor Peasant are found in Louisiana, Maritime Canada, France, and Reunion Island. It is worth noting that, despite similarities with the English-language Jack tales observed by Lindahl, the character Roquelaure appears to be limited to French and Creole oral traditions (1988, 380). Given the quasi-ubiquity of the Master Thief tale type, one must ask why some oral traditions assign its protagonist a name and others do not? The possible connection between the Master Thief figure and the noble Roquelaure family has certainly been advanced before; however, I aim here to add validity and substance to this proposition by taking into account primary sources of the period.

Given the complexity of this link between history and folklore, and the various accounts describing members of the Roquelaure family, it is necessary to include some contextualization here. As mentioned above, in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folklore and Fairy Tales (2008, 683), Haase posits that several men of the noble Gasconian Roquelaure family were widely recognized for their wit and their closeness to kings Henri IV and Louis XIV. Perhaps much of the family's mystique - and consequently the confusion arising in an attempt to establish a veritable link between the Roquelaure family and the clever thief of Louisiana folklore - derives from a considerable array of anecdotes and references beginning in the sixteenth century and the conflation of numerous references to Ducs and Chevaliers of Roquelaure. Among these historical references, much distinction between the three dukes (Antoine the elder, Gaston, and the younger Antoine) and his brother Antoine le Chevalier is lost due to the use of a single reference of "Roquelaure." Moreover, the Roquelaure family's roots in the Gascony region are frequently mentioned in historical accounts. Perhaps this detail was a source of exoticism, "otherness," or even a pretext for the kinds of erratic behavior that they displayed toward other members of the French nobility at the court.

George Reinecke shed light on this historical connection in referring to Le momus françois (1727) as well as an encyclopedic entry from the Grand Larousse. In the subsequent paragraphs, I will show that additional sources from the period support my claim that "Roquelaure," or some conflation of one or more members of the family, had already attained a somewhat legendary status in French popular culture. Furthermore, the numerous historical accounts and theatrical works referencing Roquelaure persisted in France well into the 19th century.

Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux's (1619-1692) Historiettes, "which constitute the most lively and scurrilous tales about various figures of his time" (Burgwinkle et al. 2011, 346), give some insight into the reputation of the Dukes of Roquelaure (Tallemant des Réaux 1834, 291-313). The first duke Antoine, Baron de Roquelaure (1543-1625), also known as "le maréchal de Roquelaure," is most noted for his military prowess although Tallemant also notes his humor that was much appreciated by King Henri IV. Antoine's son, Gaston-Jean-Baptiste de Roquelaure (1615-1683), became duke in 1652. He later inspired T. de Robville's Histoire curieuse du Duc de Roquelaure, surnommé l'homme le plus laid et le plus gai de France published in 1861. In the preface to this colorful and pseudo-biographical work, de Robville draws attention to Gaston de Roquelaure's notoriety as a fixture of popular culture: "Gaston, duc de Roquelaure [. . .] est un personnage populaire; les salons et les ateliers le connaissent au moins nominativement, et on le fêtera comme un ami dont on attend le retour de voyage" (de Robville vi). One finds a more lengthy description in the earlier text, noted by Reinecke, Le Momus françois ou Le portrait et les aventures divertissantes du Duc de Roquelaure. This text is mysteriously attributed to S.L.R., perhaps Sieur Antoine Le Roy. The "Portrait of the Duke of Roquelaure" or "the ugliest man in the world" begins:

Ce Duc avait de petits yeux noirs, qu'on nomme vulgairement yeux de cochon; il avait les sourcils épais et larges, le teint brun, c'est-à-dire basané ; le nez plat et écrasé entre ses deux yeux, de manière qu'on aurait eu bien de la peine à le discerner, si deux larges narines, toujours barbouillées de tabac, n'eussent frappé la vue; enfin on ne peut mieux comparer cet antipode de nez qu'à celui d'un beau chien de Boulogne. . . (S.L.R. 1781, 5).

Gaston de Roquelaure's physical singularity echoes portrayals of the trickster figure in the oral tradition, which Roger Abrahams observes is "always a marked creature, an anomaly among animals or humans" (Abrahams 1983, 155). In a number of Master Thief tales, including Grimm's "Der Meisterdieb," a mark on the forehead or shoulder bears significance in the narrative as the means by which the thief's family recognizes him. The anonymous author also makes note of Roquelaure's humor and wit:

Pour ce qui est de son humeur, elle était gaie, son esprit satyrique, bouffon et railleur, ses manières civiles, insinuantes, aisées et nobles; son geste vif et passionné. Il avait la pointe fine et malicieuse; la répartie prompte, la langue déliée et bien pendu; il était d'un temperament fort amoureux et il aimait les plaisirs, même jusqu'à la débauche, et quelquefois jusqu'à l'excès. Il était brave comme un soldat, et généreux comme un prince, chaud au service de ses amis, libre en paroles et Gascon; mais il était des voisinages de la Garonne, c'est tout dire. Son vice le plus dominant était la satyre; il la poussait quelquefois si loin qu'elle dégénérait en calomnie. On peut dire que, s'il avait beaucoup de belles qualités, il avait aussi bien des défauts" (S.L.R. 1781, 5-6).

Here again, one notes several common characteristics of the Master Thief and the Roquelaure of Louisiana folklore, notably his civil and charming demeanor, particularly toward the king. One of the constant traits of the character in folktales is his ability to maintain his courteous yet sly manners throughout their interactions.

The member of the Roquelaure family that most resembles the human trickster figure of French and Creole Louisiana folklore, however, is not a duke at all. Duke Gaston de Roquelaure had a young brother, named Antoine after his grandfather. Remembered as one of the "figures représentatives du libertinage" of seventeenth-century France (Houdard 57), he is often referred to as "Antoine Chevalier de Roquelaure," perhaps to distinguish him from the more respectable reputations of the two "Ducs de Roquelaure"—his grandfather and nephew, Gaston's son—also named Antoine. Alain Mothu describes the Chevalier Antoine de Roquelaure as a "gentilhomme d'une puissante famille, blasphémateur et débauché célèbre" (2006, 220). Perhaps not coincidentally, it is blasphemy that led to the trials and eventual incarceration of the Chevalier de Roquelaure in 1646 in the Conciergerie de Toulouse, before he escaped from prison by bribing his guard (Mothu 2006, 220).

Stories of the Chevalier de Roquelaure's antics were apparently widespread and, as some have argued (Howarth 1982, 208; Morel 1972), the Chevalier de Roquelaure was Molière's inspiration for the "Pauper scene" of Molière's 1682 play Dom Juan. In Molière's play, Dom Juan offers a "Louis d'or" to a downtrodden hermit begging for alms in the street provided that he will "swear" (1985, 3.2). After the man repeatedly refuses to blaspheme, "Dom Juan gives him the money 'pour l'amour de l'humanité': a formula in which we are meant to see a profane version of the conventional 'pour l'amour de Dieu'" (Howarth 1982, 208). René Pintard describes a nearly identical scenario that became the subject of the Chevalier de Roquelaure's trial in 1646 (Pintard 1937, 22).

The significant number of anecdotes and historical records demonstrates that the name Roquelaure was, to some degree, a fixture of popular culture in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. Such an assertion is supported by Reinecke's discovery that Le momus françois "was featured in the celebrated 'Bibliothèque bleue' and thus reached the semi-literate public" (1975, 65). The popularity attributed to the Roquelaure name due to a reputation of being remarkably clever, however fictionalized the individual's representation may have been, is in line with Graham Seal's observation that "whether in history or myth, the outlaw hero mantle most likely will become attached to those who display some level of wit, style, or sympathy that distinguishes them from the common criminal, or simply from the crowd" (2009, 73).

Returning to Tallemant des Réaux's Historiettes, one can hardly ignore certain resemblances to the folklore hero in the description of Antoine Chevalier de Roquelaure.

Le chevalier de Roquelaure est une espèce de fou, qui est avec cela le plus grand blasphémateur du royaume. On dit qu'il s'est un peu corrigé. Â Malte, il fut mis dans un puits, où on le laissa quelque temps par punition. À l'armée navale, le comte d'Harcour fut sur le point de le faire jeter dans la mer avec un boulet au pied. Cela ne le rendit pas plus sage; car quelques années après ayant trouvé à Toulouse des gens aussi fous que lui, il dit la messe dans un jeu de paume..., baptisa et maria des chiens, et fit et dit toutes les impiétés imaginables. On en avertit la justice. [...] Quelques jours après il corrompit le geôlier moyennant six cents pistoles: le geôlier se sauva avec lui, dont mal lui en prit, car le chevalier lui prit son argent, et le renvoya comme un coquin (1834, 309-310).

This description evokes several motifs found in other Roquelaure folktales in Louisiana. Tallemant des Réaux describes the Chevalier de Roquelaure as someone who consistently defies authority. In addition, the above excerpt contains multiple instances of escaping from confinement. It is clear that Roquelaure is accustomed to regaining his freedom through his wit when opposed to authority. Even the reaction of the count of Harcourt, willing to throw Roquelaure into the sea, is reminiscent of motif K842, the sack exchange motif.

Roquelaure and the Spanish Soil Trick

It is likely the "Spanish soil trick" that first provoked Reinecke to remark the similarities present in the folktale and Le momus françois, based loosely in historical fact. In both instances, the king forbids Roquelaure to set foot on his land, before the clever Roquelaure circumvents this obstacle by standing on soil in his cart that he has transported from Spain.

An 1836 vaudeville play, Roquelaure, l'homme le plus laid de France, provides further evidence that the Duke of Roquelaure maintained a place in the collective imagination of nineteenthcentury France. In this curious theatrical work, Roquelaure is banished from the country by the king (presumably Louis XIV) and is forbidden to set foot on French soil. He manages to return, however, in a small cart ("charrette"), filled will Spanish soil, pulled by two men (Leuven et al. 1837, 5: 5.1). The choir announces his return to France: "Ah quel bon tour! / L'heureux retour! C'est encore/ Roquelaure! / Les jeux et les ris, en ce jour, / Reviennent à la cour" (Leuven et al. 1837, 5: 5.1). A song composed on the air, Le curé de Pomponne relates Roquelaure's clever trick to avoid the king's wrath. Roquelaure sings: Ce sable, en Espagne on l'a pris / Toujours il m'accompagne / Il me sert de tapis / Et je suis / Sur les terres d'Espagne" (Leuven et al. 1837, 5: 5.1). Roquelaure's song continues:

Quoique exilé je ne crains rien
D'un roi que je révère; Je suis toujours, je le maintien [sic],
Sur la terre étrangère; Car cette terre, mes amis,
En tous lieux m'accompagne..., Dans mes souliers j'en ai mis,
Et je suis Sur les terres d'Espagne! (Leuven et al. 1837, 5: 5.1)

This image of Roquelaure proudly standing on a bed of Spanish soil is yet another symbol of the character's precarious status between hero and criminal. Moreover, the striking similarity between this episode and the Roquelaure tales from France and Louisiana described below, suggest that Roquelaure's adventures and conflicts with authority entered into the popular consciousness of France and left a lasting impression, considering that this play was written nearly a century after the lifetime of the last Duke of Roquelaure, Antoine (1656-1738).

It is unclear if Reinecke was aware of Roquelaure's prevalence in the French oral tradition; however, I present here two examples collected by Paul Barrié from the region of Pays de Sault, published in the Revue d'ethnographie méridionale (Barrié 1967, 11). The storyteller, sixty-six years of age from Carcanières (Ariège), France describes a nearly identical story of an exiled Roquelaure returning to the king's court in a stagecoach ("carrosse") filled with foreign soil ("terre étrangère"). Although the Spanish origin of the soil is not made explicit in this variant, the following tale in Barrié's collection depicts Roquelaure defeating a Spanish general in a sword fight (Barrié 1967, 11-12).

The "Spanish soil trick" has even been attested in the Creole folklore of Reunion Island. Marie-Christine Decros includes a tale called "Roklor é le roi," Roklor and the king, in her 1978 masters thesis, Contes réunionnais: textes et traductions. Although not technically a variant of AaTh 1525, this tale is nevertheless similar in that it consists of a series of tricks that Roklor plays on the king (295-307). As in the French variant collected by Barrié, Roklor is banished from the land, and returns to the king in a wheelbarrow ("saret la ter" or "charrette de terre") filled with Spanish soil (Decros 1978, 304-307).

These multiple references to the same name from distant geographic zones are difficult to explain through mere coincidence. Are these similar episodes reflective of the Chevalier de Roquelaure's exile in Spain? Or is it rather a question of conflating other members of the Roquelaure family, notably the elder Antoine, Le Maréchal de Roquelaure who completed several military campaigns in Spain? Whatever the origin of this scenario involving Roquelaure transporting himself on a layer of foreign soil, it seems that the story had become a sufficiently stable fixture of the French oral tradition to survive in Louisiana through various waves of French and francophone immigration.

A Roquelaure tale told by a native of Abbeville in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, Edgar Boudreaux, was collected by Elizabeth Brandon in 1953 and can be found in Richard Dorson's Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States (1964). Similarly to what seems to be typical of the Roclore variants in Louisiana, the character is not cast as the king's servant, but simply "living with the king" (Dorson 1964, 254). After humiliating the king by succeeding in two assigned tasks, Roquelaure is banished from the king's domain that, curiously enough, is in Louisiana. Roquelaure decides to return to Louisiana after a year and aims to do so by filling up his buggy with Spanish soil (Dorson 1964, 254), just as is described in Roquelaure, l'homme le plus laid de France (Leuven et al. 1837, 5: 5.1).

The significance of the earth's Spanish provenance in Boudreaux's tale is ambiguous. Is the motif merely a holdover from French folklore? Several elements would indeed suggest this. For example, transporting soil in a cart from Spain to France is much more plausible than hauling soil from Spain to Louisiana. Would a boat not be required? The fantastical image of a king's court in Louisiana also points to an Old World tale simply transposed directly to the Louisiana context. Granted, such direct transposition would contradict Paul Zumthor's theory of false reiterability, which in oral narrative serves to "level off semantic difficulties [. . . ], especially for an ancient tradition: archaic words, ambiguities stemming from the disappearance of defunct cultural context, the apparent arbitrariness of proper names" (1990, 206). Although folktales generally do find a way of adapting to their cultural contexts, certain vestiges seem to persist. The monarchy could certainly be considered a "defunct cultural context" in 1950s Louisiana and "Roclore" had undoubtedly become an "arbitrary" proper name. At the same time, this variant contains a remarkable degree of localization. Unsurprisingly, this tale ends with the sack exchange, motif K842, during which Boudreaux specifies that Roclore's mules are from Kentucky, and Roclore's true motivation for returning from Spain is an important football game. Other Louisiana variants have Roclore retrieving the dirt from his own land (LaBorde Smith and Orso 1973, 27) or from a neighboring parish (Saucier 1977, 53). Could the fact that Spain has remained the source of Roclore's soil in some Louisiana variants signify some kind of historical relationship to Spain? After all, it was during the Spanish colonial era (1763-1800) that the majority of Acadian refugees arrived in Louisiana. The time period also coincides with the performances of Le momus françois and Un Tour de Roquelaure (Hapdé and Albert 1799). This would help explain the presence of Roquelaure tales in Acadian communities of Maritime Canada in that many Acadians came to Louisiana by way of France in the latter half of the 18th century when Roquelaure seemed to be more present on the French stage and popular culture.

As Carl Brasseaux notes, newly arrived Acadians were effectively placed by the Spanish government in "a series of settlements stretching along the Mississippi River from present day St. James Parish to modern-day Vidalia, Louisiana" (Brasseaux 2005, 18). The Spanish government, eager to populate the Louisiana territory newly acquired from France, did provide refuge to the Acadians. However, their frustration grew due to the Spanish government's practice of strategically placing the Acadians in areas that were demographically sparse subjecting them to what Brasseaux has called "a second diaspora" (2005, 18-20). Because Vermilion Parish, where Brandon collected this variant, became home to a particularly large number of Acadians (Perrin 2011, 7-24), is it possible that "Spanish soil" could have retained a certain connotation as a "middle-ground" between refuge and place of exile, or home and foreign land?

The attestation of this Vermilion Parish variant further sheds doubts on one of Reinecke's principal remarks on the Roquelaure tales of Louisiana, which is their exclusivity to Avoyelles Parish, "quite unlike Jean Sot, for example, who turns up in all parts of the state, or the song of the Wandering Jew, which is collected both in Avoyelles and on the prairie a hundred miles away" (1975, 68). It would seem, therefore, that Roquelaure tales in Louisiana are not necessarily typical of Acadian heritage or of Avoyelles Parish, but simply common to French popular culture of a bygone era.

To further illustrate the widespread popularity of Roquelaure tales in French-speaking North America, Jean-Pierre Pichette collected an Acadian variant of the Master Thief tale in Richibucto, New Brunswick, told by the prolific storyteller Séraphie Daigle-Martin (Pichette 1992).3 In this tale, the protagonist is also named Roquelaure and the theft motifs are very similar to the Louisiana variants, including the theft of the queen's ring and bed sheet by raising a sort of scarecrow to the king's window. The tale even ends with motif K842, the sack exchange. The Master Thief of this tale is rather peculiar, because unlike most variants, where the thief is forced by the king to steal, this Acadian variant depicts Roquelaure as relentlessly plaguing the king of his own accord. Daigle-Martin includes a variation of the "Spanish soil trick" that is highly reminiscent of the scene from the French play, Le momus françois, discussed above: "Roquelore s'en va le lendemain, [...] il garrochait une pelletée de terre puis il marchait dessus, il passait... Le roi a dit : Roquelore, je t'ai pas dit que je voulais pas te voir sur ma terre? Sire le roi, il dit, c'est pas votre terre c'est la terre d'Irlande, il dit. Il avont comprit là, il pouvait pas le tuer vois-tu c'était pas sur sa terre" (Pichette 2). Although, the name of the thief, the structure of the narrative, and the stolen items are more or less identical to what is found in the French variants, the origin of the soil has been changed to Ireland. It seems clear, then, that attestations in various regions (e.g. France, New Brunswick, Louisiana) of Master Thief tales featuring a character whose name is Roquelaure, or a variation thereof, completing a variation of the "Spanish soil trick" strongly suggests a historical connection with one or more members of the noble Roquelaure family of France.

Roquelaure as an "Outlaw Hero"

Certainly, the intermingling of history with myth and fact with fiction is quite common in folklore, particularly with outlaw figures, like the Master Thief. Graham Seal writes:

One element of the outlaw hero tradition that contributes greatly to the ambivalence of noble robber figures is its ability to inhabit the opposing realms of myth and reality. A few outlaw heroes are totally fictional figures, but the majority are historical persons. In the case of these historical outlaw hero traditions the actual events of their lives rapidly turn into legend (2011, 25).

The author of numerous texts about the outlaw hero, Seal acknowledges similar cases specifically associated with the Master Thief tales, including French historical figures that passed into the realm of the oral tradition at around the same period, namely Louis-Dominique Cartouche (1693-1721) and the notorious Louis Mandrin (1725-55) (Seal 2011, 28). Other parallels can be drawn between the Master Thief of the French and Creole tradition and certain figures that inhabit the border between myth, legend, history, and folklore and there is no shortage of examples of real-life "social bandits" or "outlaw heroes" who have passed into folklore and popular myth.4

The Roquelaure tales found in Louisiana's oral tradition correspond with Eric Hobsbawm's assertion in his book Bandits (1972).5 Hobsbawm posits that social bandits are distinguishable from common criminals in that they are peasant outlaws regarded as criminals by the established authority, but they remain in peasant society and are considered as heroes and admired by the people (1972, 17). Clearly this is an accurate assessment of the Master Thief tale figure, who invariably comes from a poor family. Although few tales recorded in Louisiana explicitly mention the Master Thief sharing his wealth with his fellow peasants, the tale type is widely prevalent and celebrated among rural communities. Moreover, with regard to social bandits who may have some grounding in real life, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is not necessarily a prevalent trait. Hobsbawm states: "As in so many other respects, Robin Hood, though in most ways the quintessence of bandit legend, is also rather untypical" (1972, 127).

In his article, "The Robin Hood Principle: Folklore, History, and Social Bandit," Graham Seal remarks on the general criteria for the making of an outlaw hero, based on approximately one hundred case studies (2009, 67). Seal summarizes his findings in what he calls the "Robin Hood Principle." He observes, "wherever and whenever significant numbers of people believe they are the victims of inequity, injustice, and oppression, historical and/or fictional outlaw heroes will appear and continue to be celebrated after their deaths" (2009, 83). One can imagine the social and economic state of French- and Creole-speaking Louisiana of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries being a favorable context for propagating such outlaw folk narratives.

Certainly, a level of universality should be recognized in the Master Thief figure that, upon consideration of Seal's findings, bears significant resemblances to many outlaw heroes. Even though representations of the Master Thief may vary from one oral tradition to another, his remarkable presence across regions hints at a universal human need for the social bandit. As Gabriel Cavaglion suggests, "every normal culture needs at least one outlaw hero whose transgression breaks through boundaries, to stand outside of the existing rules, regulations and rhythms of the social world, and to challenge and shock the existing social order" (2007, 256).

Carl Lindahl remarks on the wider cultural significance that AaTh 1525 exhibits by providing a particularly intriguing insight into the culture wherein respective variants are found because it is "an amoral tale with a moral hero" (1988, 380). The casting of an otherwise "good" character, invariably of lower social status, in the role of a thief results in a moral tension that is sensed by narrators. Lindahl observes that "variants of AaTh 1525 contain a greater number of subjective statements and narrative asides" and that "this interpretive imperative helps make the tale more volatile, and cultural differences emerge more quickly and clearly in The Master Thief than in other tales" (1988, 380). It seems that it in most cases, the hero's theft is justified by class struggle or the wickedness of the king or other authoritative figure. Seal remarks that the poor, from whose ranks the outlaw hero has usually arisen, generally sympathize with and support him. Poor and oppressed communities can find the outlaw's activities appealing and see his actions as "justified revenge" against forces of oppression (Seal 1996, 5). Perhaps the underlying message of the Master Thief tales means to imply that the thief, a product of a lower-class upbringing, is not the true criminal, but that the king is the true thief. In other words, even if poverty can justify theft, it is not what is stolen that directly presents the solution to a larger problem of inequality. Rather, the fact of showing one's capacity for outwitting the king is in itself an act of defiance. In this way, theft is justified because it results in the supplanting of an oppressive power. The universal need for an outlaw hero, combined with the particularity of each individual culture's condition, generates a genre capable of displaying a high degree of homogeneity across regions, but also much opportunity for localization. Seal writes:

Outlaw heroes are often related to powerful notions of national, ethnic, and regional identity and their legends are familiar to all who belong to their environing groups. They form a fundamental cultural paradigm or knowledge set crucial to the invocation of the other elements of the outlaw hero process" (2009 69-70).

Seal's argument for an outlaw hero being anchored in "national, ethnic, and regional identity" is certainly applicable to the Master Thief genre. It is perhaps for this very reason that folklore heroes, usually found in a variety of roles, are so frequently cast as the Master Thief.

Whether or not it is made explicit, the audience understands that the hero will not steal from his own community. Cavaglion would argue that it is for this very reason that he can be considered a hero at all (2007, 255). This essential aspect of the Master Thief genre also represents a parallel with the slave narratives of the American South. Levine notes how "slave tales document the distinction many slaves made between 'stealing,' which meant appropriating something that belonged to another slave and was not condoned, and 'taking,' which meant appropriating part of the master's property for the benefit of another part" (1977, 131). One can imagine how the Master Thief figure has maintained a prominent status in the French and Creole folklore of Louisiana, as it has in other regions. If Seal is correct in his assertion that such figures emerge when "social, cultural, ethnic, or religious groups believe themselves to be oppressed and unjustly treated by one or more other groups who wield greater power" (2009, 70), the Master Thief's appeal would make sense in the cultural context of French and Creole Louisiana that identifies itself to a large extent in opposition to Anglophone America (Griolet 1986, 109).6 Therefore, the Master Thief tales represent a way to place the oppressed culture on equal footing with figures of authority or oppression. Much like in the tales of Bouki and Lapin, this is accomplished through cleverness, adaptability, and wit.


By no means do I mean to suggest here that one or several members of the Roquelaure family are at the source of the Master Thief tales, AaTh 1525 and 1535. Certainly, ample evidence attests to the quasi-universality of these types and similar variants throughout the world (Seal 2011, 25; Bolte and Polívka 1963, 3: 33). However, in light of the evidence of specific scenarios in cultural and literary production of France, in folktales, oral tradition, and theatre, it seems clear that the name Roquelaure became associated with a sort of trickster figure in the French oral tradition. The numerous references to trickster-like figures named Roquelaure in theatre, folklore and Tallemant des Réaux's Historiettes suggest that this name was known both in and outside of courtly society in France by the eighteenth century. A certain degree of permeability of the border between folklore and history should be acknowledged, as Seal aptly observes, which would in turn explain the many attestations of Roquelaure tales throughout French-speaking North America.

The historical reference among storytellers linking the trickster figure Roquelaure (whatever the variation in spelling) of Louisiana folklore and a member of the French nobility by the same name was undoubtedly lost long ago. This obscurity can be likened to the character Bouki, whose original Wolof meaning of "hyena" is unknown to many of the most prolific Cajun and Creole storytellers. Nevertheless, I argue that research into written sources can illuminate the almost-lost significance of characters' names to return meaning to names in the oral tradition whose significance has become obscured. In this case, the Roquelaure name, as well as striking similarities with regard to character and similar motifs found in the oral tradition of France suggests a linguistic, narrative and cultural continuity. Put simply, the Roquelaure name seems to have been fused to the tale type AaTh 1525 in much of francophone North America, especially in Louisiana. The name and tale type are neither exclusively from Avoyelles Parish, nor are they indicative of specifically Acadian roots. Rather, Roquelaure the human trickster figure became part and parcel to a pre-existing Master Thief tale type and represents a testament to the fluent exchanges between Louisiana, France, and Acadia.


1. Perhaps as early as 1727, although the existence of several editions and the obscurity of the text's author render the original publication date unclear. Following his own archival research, Georges Reinecke came to a similar conclusion: "The Grand Larousse ("Roquelaure") authorizes the date 1727, but the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris contains editions ranging from 1739 to the mid-nineteenth century, many of them printed by Marteau at Cologne" (1975, 65).

2. I use the spelling employed in the transcription or version in question.

3. Séraphie Daigle-Martin also told another version of this tale collected by Ronald Labelle. Sound recording and transcription. "Conte de Roquelaure (fin voleur)." Centre d'études acadienne Anselme Chiasson. Coll. Ronald Labelle. Reel 186, recording 2838.

4. See Hobsbawm 1972, and Seal 1996 and 2011.

5. Originally published in 1962 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson under the title Social Bandits. Hobsbawm's early study has since been criticized by Seal and other scholars (Seal 2009, 67).

6. "Société hétérogène sur le plan ethnique (Cadjins, Indiens, Noirs cadjins ou créoles, métis) et linguistique (français classique, cadjin, parler 'nègre'), cette population se définit surtout par opposition aux 'Américains,' c'est-à-dire aux Anglo-saxons protestants" (Griolet 1986, 109).


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This article was first published in the 2017 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Nathan Rabalais is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the College of William and Mary. His research and teaching interests focus on the literatures and cultures of francophone North America with a particular interest in the languages and culture of French and Creole Louisiana. A forthcoming book of original poetry, Le Hantage, will be published later this year by Les Éditions Tintamarre. Rabalais's current research is focused on Louisiana folklore and questions related to francophone identity in North America.