From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The fabliau (plural fabliaux or "'fablieaux'") is a comic, usually anonymous tale written by jongleurs in northeast France circa the 13th Century. They are generally bawdy in nature, and several of them were reworked by Geoffrey Chaucer for his Canterbury Tales. Some 150 French fabliaux are extant depending on how narrowly fabliau is defined.
Typical fabliaux concern cuckolded husbands, rapacious clergy and foolish peasants. 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 fabliau gradually disappeared at the beginning of the 16th century. It was replaced by the prose short story. Famous French writers such as Molière, Jean de La Fontaine and Voltaire owe much to the tradition of the fabliau, in their prose works as well as in their poetry.
In "L'enfant de neige" ("The snow baby"), we hear a tale of 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 he was begotten by a snowflake, he melted in the heat.
- "La vielle qui graissa la patte de chevalier" ("The old woman who put grease on the knights hand")
- "Estula" ("Estula")
- "Le Pauvre Clerc" ("The poor clerk")
- "Le Couverture partagée" ("The shared covering")
- "Le Pretre qui mangea les mûres" ("The priest who ate mulberries")
- "La crotte" ("The turd")
- "Le Chevalier qui fist les cons parler ("The Knight who made cunts and assholes speak")
- "The Miller's Tale" ("From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer")
- "The Butcher of Abbeville"
- "The Three Hunchbacks
- "The Wild Dream
- "The Ring That Controlled Erections
- "The principal authorities for the fabliaux are MM. Anatole de Montaiglon and Gaston Raynaud, who published the text, in 6 vols., between 1872 and 1890. This edition corrected and supplemented the very valuable labours of Meon (1808-1823) and Jubinal (1839-1842). The works of Henri d'Andeli were edited by M. A. Heron in 1880, and those of Rutebeuf were made the subject of an exhaustive monograph by M. Leon Cledat in 1891. See also the editions of separate fabliaux by Gaston Paris, Paul Meyer, Ebeling, August Scheler and other modern scholars. M. Joseph Bedier's Les Fabliaux (1895) is a useful summary of critical opinion on the entire subject. (E. G.) --EB1911
The Norton Anthology of Western Literature
Among its many other essays, poems, and stories, The Norton Anthology of Western Literature offers several erotic tales known as fabliaux. A fabliau, the volume’s editors explain, is “a short tale in rhyming couplets that must meet one criterion above all others: humor” and often ends “with a lesson,” although “few actually claim to offer much moral improvement.” A well-known example of a fabliau is “The Miller’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Concerning these humorous narrative poems, the anthology’s editors point out, “The values the fabliaux promote are frankly hedonistic. They celebrate the pleasures of food and wine, comfortable lodgings, and--above all--sex,” taking “delight in witty rhymes and clever puns,” frequently showcasing “over elaborate plotting.” Fabliaux are often satirical. Their favorite targets include “social affectation and priestly misbehavior.”
The anthology offers its readers four fabliaux that were written in the thirteenth century: “The Butcher of Abbeville,” “The Three Hunchbacks,” “The Wild Dream,” and “The Ring That Controlled Erections.” Several were originally written in French, but they are translated into English for the anthology. As the editors point out, “they are written in a jaunty verse form (nicely imitated)” in their translations.
Most of the fabliaux begin with a brief introduction that whets the reader’s appetite, so to speak, for the tale to follow, a sort of mini-prologue to the narrative poem itself.