The Butcher of Abbeville  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
Medieval literature, Medieval erotica, fabliau

"The Butcher of Abbeville,” a 588-line poem translated by Ned Dublin, suggests that the audience is about to hear “something marvelous” and lays upon them the burden of keeping the story alive, as it were, by paying close attention:

My lords, here’s something marvelous--
you’ve never heard the like of this
which I am about to tell,
so set your minds to listen well,
for words, when no one lends an ear,
in the end simply disappear.

The fabliau recounts the story of David, a butcher from Abbeville, France, who, visiting a fair, or market, in Oisemont, to buy livestock, finds nothing to his liking. It is night as he makes his way home, and, afraid of the robbers who are known to lurk throughout the countryside, he seeks lodgings with a local priest, Father Gautier. However, the clergyman, a deacon, refuses to rent him a room for the night, for the priest dislikes the laity, who treat him with “disrespect and spite.”

Denied a room, David goes upon his way, encountering a shepherd who is guarding Father Gautier’s sheep. Mindful of the way the priest has treated him, David steals a sheep--the best of the flock, as it turns out--and returns to the deacon’s house, the animal across his shoulders, with vengeance on his mind.

He tells the priest that he has bought the sheep at the fair and offers to kill it and share its meat with the deacon if Father Gautier will, in return, allow him to spend the night. When the priest agrees, David kills the animal with an axe he borrows from the priest, skins its carcass, and the butcher and the deacon and his household eat the mutton.

Besides the deacon himself, there are two other members of Father Gautier’s household: his wife and his wife’s maid, who does double duty, as it were, by serving as the priest’s mistress, or paramour. Normally, the priest keeps a close eye on the maid, as he is a jealous man, but, appreciative of the butcher’s apparent generosity in sharing his mutton with him and his household, the deacon bids her to be hospitable to their guest, denying David nothing.

The butcher asks the maid to have sex with him, promising her the sheepskin in exchange. He also vows to be discreet about their affair, and she acquiesces.

While the deacon is at church the next morning, David visits his wife, offering her the same bargain as he’d offered to the maid: the sheepskin (and discretion) for sex. The wife also accepts his offer, thereby cuckolding her husband. (Cuckoldry was a popular theme of such literature, especially when the cuckolded husband was haughty, pretentious, or domineering.)

Afterward, David visits the deacon at church, selling the sheepskin to him. The butcher has now not only stolen Father Gautier’s prize sheep, but he has given it to both the priest’s wife and mistress--and he has had the audacity to sell the stolen animal back to its rightful owner, whom he has cuckolded, as well. The butcher has avenged himself upon the priest several times over.

At the priest’s house, the wife and maid get into a vehement argument concerning which of them has rightful claim to the sheepskin, both claiming to own the fleece. The wife strikes her husband’s paramour, fires her, and evicts her. However, the maid refuses to leave until she’s had a chance to report her former mistress’ behavior to the deacon.

Returning home, the priest hears both his wife’s and mistress’ stories. The maid tells him what she did to earn the hide, and the deacon charges his wife with also having had sex with the butcher. He is outraged as he realizes, “I’ve been outsmarted! I’ve been fleeced!/ He’s fucked all the women in/ my house, and sold me my own skin!”

The shepherd arrives to report the loss of the sheep, and he is able to identify the animal by its fleece as “Cornelius,” the best animal in the deacon’s flock.

The household remains in an uproar, as both women continue to lay claim to the sheepskin. However, Father Gautier says that the fleece belongs to him, as he bought it from the butcher.

Having concluded his tale, the narrator leaves it to his audience to determine for themselves which of the three claimants has rightful title to the fleece:


To you, my lords, who are all wise,
I, Eustace d’Amiens, submit
their case that you may settle it,
and ask you with due courtesy
to render judgment loyally,
each one of you will speak his piece:
which of the three should have the fleece--
the deacon or the deaconess
or their maid (bless her sauciness).




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Butcher of Abbeville" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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