This book begins with a long Latin passage: Slawkenbergii Fabella. Tristram has every confidence in the laziness of his readers, so he pulls out a translation.
A stranger comes to the German town of Strasburg (Strasbourg). He has a mammoth nose but no scabbard (it might help to know that the word for 'scabbard' in Latin is vagina, pronounced wa-gee-na) for his sword.
Everyone marvels at his huge nose, and all the women in town want to touch it. He resists and even leaves town to avoid having his nose touched. He's careful with it because, as he tells the innkeeper, he's just acquired it from the Promontory of Noses. The inn-keeper's wife is really jonesing to touch the noble nose, even though her husband insists that it's a fake. (A fake nose? Now we've heard it all.)
The stranger leaves town, but not before getting the whole town worked up about his awe-inspiring nose. As he rides, he mutters to himself about a woman named Julia.
He arrives at the German town of Frankfurt and hits the hay just as the townspeople of Strasburg are climbing uneasily into their beds. Even the Abbess, the head nun of the town's convent, can't get the stranger's nose out of her mind. Tossing and turning, the nuns scratch themselves on their bedclothes so badly that they look like they've been flayed.
The next morning, the town is a mess. The bakers forget to start their loaves; the cathedral is in tumult, and it's all the fault of the stranger's nose.
Everyone in Strasburg longs to see and touch this magnificent nose. What's more, rumor has it that the stranger is the most beautiful man anyone has ever seen.
Everyone talks about the nose: religious leaders, who claim that the story about the Promontory of Noses must be false; scientists, who discuss the network of blood vessels necessary to sustain the nose; logicians, who prove that the stranger's nose was neither true nor false.
Tristram is beginning to start in on a discussion of the universities in Strasburg arguing over Martin Luther's birth date and salvation, but he has to stop because the Latin translation has tuckered him out.
(Martin Luther is the guy who broke away from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. Lutherans are named after him.)
Tristram notes that Mr. Shandy always seized this part of the story as time to point out the importance of names—if Luther had not been called Martin, he'd have been damned forever. But even these universities begin to argue about the stranger's nose.
Back to the story. This state of affairs continues for 27 days, after which the stranger is supposed to return to Strasburg. On the morning of the 28th day, the entire town sets out to meet him. There's pretty much bound to be a catastrophe.
Slawkenbergius now outlines the structure of his tale so far:
(1) From the stranger's arrival at Strasburg to his leaving is the protasis.
(2) The epistatis, acts two and three, occurs from the first uneasy night to the 27th day.
(3) Now, the catastasis: the fourth act, when things get real in preparation for the explosive fifth act.
The stranger arrives at an inn just outside Strasburg and needs a bed pronto.
The innkeeper tells him about a traveler who has also just arrived, who has such a glorious nose that he couldn't even fit in the inn-keeper's camp bed. You know, because noses take up that much room.
The stranger gives thanks: this is the man he's been seeking, Julia's brother. Julia's brother, meanwhile, has been searching for him—he has a letter for Diego (the stranger) from Julia. The letter begs Diego to return to Julia, who has sent him away out of suspicion that his nose was not real. She's dying of sorrow, and Diego immediately saddles up to ride to her.
The Strasburgers, consequently, never did meet up with Diego again, and they suffered a terrible fate: when they marched out of their city, the French marched in. The city never fully recovered. Fortresses, Slawkenbergius says sadly, can be won or lost by noses.