Short Speech on the Essence of the Fabliau

The Bawdy Bards


I'll start out with a widely accepted and necessarily general definition of Fabliau as a "verse tale meant for laughter." The following comes from "The Petticoat" by Jean de Conde:

There are those who take more delight in hearing jests and sly mockeries than they do in sermons. Therefore I am often asked to write of light matters, and I should like to tell a true tale about a remarkable and quick-witted piece of deception, the Fabliau.

There is some question as to the social origins of these humorous and scatological tales that so freely mock the upper classes and the clergy. Initially, the Fabliau was thought to be of bourgeois origin because of its sharp contrast to the popular upper-class Romances of the time as well as on the assumption that the dirty, lowly aspects of these tales would appeal only to those of the lowliest classes. This has been challenged by a directly opposing theory that the genre was indeed born from the upper-classes. A viewpoint evinced by the permeation of courtly modes of thinking throughout the Fabliaux. Both viewpoints seem a bit too extreme to be entirely accurate. It is more likely that the Fabliau was born from a mixture of influences.

It's amazing to think that the courtly classes would have a hand in the types of plots and the language employed in these stories. For the most part, Fabliaux dealt with deception and revenge visited on the avaricious. Revenge often took the form of sex, as the initial victim makes a cuckold of the one who cheated him. More often than not, a smattering of scatological references in these tales would bolster the humor of the situation and make the revenge that much sweeter, all the while helping the tale along to its comedic climax. The story would slowly grow and grow, building to that moment where everything would come together and all hell would break loose, resulting in the joyous gushing of all those happy audience members. (Poorly masked double-entendres were a common means by which sexual references were made humorous.)

Although the words asshole, cock, cunt, and fuck occurred in these tales, gentle euphemisms were more often used to refer to sexual organs and the act of love. A man's organ was a pipe, staff, lance, root, horn, sharpening-stone, parsnip, sausage. The act of love was daintily referred to as: a squirrel searching for nuts, as the ever lovely feeding the pig, being skewered, plowing the field, seeding the grain, beating the drum, broaching the cask, polishing the ring, and the ever subtle and sexy getting plugged and getting greased. As I sat in my room reading this catalogue of euphemisms a childish urge took hold of me as I looked at the large banana I had pulled aside for a midday snack. I exited my room, the jaundiced curve of the yellow fruit protruding from my zipper, and proceeded to talk to my apartment mates as though nothing were wrong. I was quickly tackled then pummeled in part with my own stout banana. . . That actually never happened, but it would fit nicely into a Fabliau especially with its inclusion of emasculation imagery.

It would be an oversimplification for me to stand before you, my fellow clerks (we're lucky -- if we were the subjects of Fabliaux we'd always be the victors) and a grave injustice to the art form if I were to tell you that a Fabliau was merely a bawdy story or a long dirty joke. Although containing these aspects, the importance of the Fabliau to Old French and English literature and culture is minimized by so narrow a definition. Most modern men with average schooling maintain a view of the Middle Ages in which handsome, unfailing knights saved beautiful virtuous damsels, and peasants, despite working in the shit and muck were nobly tied to the earth, and humble monks went door to door for alms to fix a dilapidated church. And all were pure servants of the Almighty Lord. Under this picture no one was dishonest, no one had sex, and certainly no one ever farted or took a dump. The Fabliau plays the important role of exposing the warty side of this time period, providing us with an understanding of culture, of values, and of social structure without all that high-falutinítalk of the more respected literary forms. ( It's also pretty damn funny, to boot).



(Banana tale borrowed in part from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (Viking Press, 1973)
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