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A fabliau (plural fabliaux) is a comic, often anonymous tale written by jongleurs in northeast France between c. 1150 and 1400. They are generally characterized by sexual and scatological obscenity, and by a set of contrary attitudes--contrary to the church and to the nobility. Several of them were reworked by Giovanni Boccaccio for the Decameron and by Geoffrey Chaucer for his Canterbury Tales. Some 150 French fabliaux are extant, the number depending on how narrowly fabliau is defined. According to R. Howard Bloch, fabliaux are the first expression of literary realism in Europe.
The fabliau is defined as a short narrative in (usually octosyllabic) verse, between 300 and 400 lines long, its content often comic or satiric. In France, it flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries; in England, it was popular in the 14th century. Fabliau is often compared to the later short story; Douglas Bush, longtime professor at Harvard University, called it "a short story broader than it is long."
The fabliau is remarkable in that it seems to have no direct literary predecessor in the West, but was brought from the East by returning crusaders in the 12th century. The closest literary genre is the fable as found in Aesop "and its eastern origins or parallels," but it is less moral and less didactic than the fable. Indeed, the word is a northern French diminutive from fable.." In terms of morality it is suggested to be closer to the novel than to the parable: "the story is the first thing, the moral the second, and the latter is never suffered to interfere with the former." Still, according to Robert Lewis, "some two-thirds of the French fabliaux have an explicit moral attached to them."
The genre has been quite influential: passages in longer medieval poems such as Le Roman de Renart as well as tales found in collections like Giovanni Boccaccio's Decamerone and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have their origin in one or several fabliaux. Additionally, the medieval church also found use for the fabliau form. Noting its popularity, the church turned to their own form of minstrelsy similar to the fabliau that espoused "worthy thoughts" rather than the "ribaldry" a more typical fabliau would couch its moral in.
When the fabliau gradually disappeared, at the beginning of the 16th century, it was replaced by the prose short story, which was greatly influenced by its predecessor. Famous French writers such as Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, and Voltaire owe much to the tradition of the fabliau.
Typical fabliaux contain a vast array of characters, including cuckolded husbands, rapacious clergy, and foolish peasants, as well as beggars, connivers, thieves, and whores. Two groups are often singled out for criticism: the clergy and women. The status of peasants appears to vary, based on the audience for which the fabliau was being written. Poems that were presumably written for the nobility portray peasants (vilains in French) as stupid and vile, whereas those written for the lower classes often tell of peasants getting the better of the clergy.
The audience for fabliaux is estimated differently by different critics. Joseph Bedier suggests a bourgeois audience, which sees itself reflected in the urban settings and lower-class types portrayed in fabliaux. On the other hand, Per Nykrog argues that fabliaux were directed towards a noble audience, and concludes that fabliaux were the impetus for literary refreshment.
The subject matter is often sexual: fabliaux are concerned with the elements of love left out by poets who wrote in the more elevated genres such as Ovid, who suggests in the Ars Amatoria (II.704-5) that the Muse should not enter the room where the lovers are in bed; and Chrétien de Troyes, who maintains silence on the exact nature of the joy discovered by Lancelot and Guinevere in Le Chevalier de la Charrette (4676-4684).Lais and fabliaux have much in common; an example of a poem straddling the fence between the two genres is Lecheor.
Fabliaux derive a lot of their force from puns and other verbal figures; indeed, "fabliaux . . . are obsessed with wordplay." Especially important are paranomasia and catachresis, tropes which disrupt ordinary signification and displace ordinary meanings--by similarity of sound, for instance, one can have both "con" and "conte" ("cunt" and "tale") in the same word, a common pun in fabliaux.
The standard form of the fabliau is that of Medieval French literature in general, the octosyllable rhymed couplet, the most common verse form used in verse chronicles, romances (the romans), lais, and dits. They are generally short, a few hundred lines; Douin de L'Avesne's Trubert, at 2984 lines, is exceptionally long.
Some representative tales:
A well-known storyline is found in "Gombert et les deus clers" ("Gombert and the two clerks"). Two traveling clerks (students) take up lodging with a villain, and share the bedroom with Gombert, his beautiful wife, and their two children--one teenage girl, and one baby. One of the clerks climbs into bed with the teenage daughter and, promising her his ring, has his way with her; the other, while Gombert is "ala pissier" ("gone pissing", 85), moves the crib with the baby so that Gombert, on his return, lies down in the bed occupied by the clerks--one of whom is in bed with his daughter, while the other is now having sex with Gombert's wife, who thinks it's Gombert come to pleasure her. When the first clerk returns to his bed where he thinks his friend still is, he tells Gombert all about his adventure: "je vien de fotre / mes que ce fu la fille a l'oste" ("I've just been fucking, and if it wasn't the host's daughter", 152-53). Gombert attacks the first clerk, but ends up being beaten up by both.
In "L'enfant de neige" ("The snow baby"), a black comedy, a merchant returns home after an absence of two years to find his wife with a newborn son. She explains one snowy day she swallowed a snowflake while thinking about her husband which caused her to conceive. Pretending to believe the "miracle", they raise the boy until the age of 15 when the merchant takes him on a business trip to Genoa. There, he sells the boy into slavery. On his return, he explains to his wife that the sun burns bright and hot in Italy; since the boy was begotten by a snowflake, he melted in the heat.
De Bérangier au lonc cul is a medieval French fabliau. There are two versions of the fabliau: one by Guerin and one anonymous. In summary, the story begins when a rich earl marries his daughter off to a "young peasant" and deems him a knight. The knight abandons the code of chivalry and lazes around for the first ten years of the marriage. When his wife, tired of his demeaning attitude and lazy nature, speaks of the greatness of the knights in her family, the husband decides to prove himself a worthy knight. He dresses in armor and goes into the forest on horseback. Once in the forest, he hangs his shield on the lowest branch of a tree and beats it until it looks as if it endured a great battle. The knight returns to his wife, shows her his bruised armor, and gloats about his victories. After a few trips into the forest, the wife begins to wonder why the knight himself is unscathed while his armor is in shambles. The next day, she suggests he take servants with him. When he refuses, the lady dresses in a full body suit of armor and follows him into the forest. When she sees him beating his own shield, she steps into sight and threatens to kill him for his dishonor to chivalry. The knight does not recognize his wife's voice. He begs for "pity" and offers to do anything to avoid conflict. His wife, disguised as a mighty knight, gives him the option of jousting her, in which he will surely die, or kissing her arse. Out of cowardice, the knight chooses to kiss her arse. She hops off her horse and pulls down her pants. While the knight should have recognized her female genitalia, he remarks that she has a long arse. Before she leaves, she tells him, "I'm Bérangier of the Long Ass, Who puts shame to the chickenhearted." The wife returns home and sleeps with a valiant knight. When her husband arrives from the forest, he rebukes her. However, that was his last demeaning remark to her. She tells him she met Bérangier and learned of her husband's cowardice. To protect his own name, the knight is forced to succumb to his wife's wishes. Her cleverness leads her to do as she pleased for the rest of her life, and her husband lives in shame.
The husband's initial antagonistic behavior cues the gender moral of the story: constantly demeaning a clever wife can be dangerous. In order to find out her husband, the wife disguises herself as a knight who she calls "Bérangier au lonc cul" [Bérangier of the long ass]. She follows her husband into the forest, and, upon seeing his foolish actions, "the roles are reversed". Whereas the woman previously had "[caught] the brunt of [her husband's] bragging and insults", seeing the "absolute farce" of his claims in the forest inspires her to become a "hard, driving force that will not only teach him a lesson but also will annihilate him in position as leader in the household". Upon the encounter with his wife, disguised as a valiant knight, the husband automatically reveals his cowardice and, out of terror, begs for mercy. His wife gives him an ultimatum: he can "jostez" [joust] and surely die or "vos me venroiz el cul baisier" [kiss her ass]. Without realizing the gravity of his decision, he yields the power in his marriage to his wife, reversing his position of power, when he refuses to fight the knight. In addition, he displays ignorance when he does not recognize her genitals; he merely thought the knight had "au lonc cul" [a long ass]. In an exploitation of his ignorant failure to recognize her female genitals, the wife and the audience share pleasure in the fact she has duped her husband and the fact he will never know. The story "draw[s] a conventional lesson about proper gender roles in marriage", which suggests the demeaning of a wife by a husband is not "proper". Thus, the reversal of the gender roles in this story creates the moral.
Other popular fabliaux include: