[The following article is taken from Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, ed. William W. Kibler and Grover Zinn (New York: Garland, 1995). There are some minor differences between this version and the one in the volume, as this is from an unedited version from diskette, posted on the Web by the publishers and here lightly retouched by the author. The edited version can be found, accompanied by a brief bibliography, on pp. 332-34 of the Encyclopedia.]

Fabliau. Concentrated in the north of France and dating from the 13th and first half of the 14th centuries, the fabliaux are relatively brief and generally comic tales, composed in the octosyllabic rhymed couplets that are the standard narrative form of the period. Although many Chaucerians designate certain of the stories in the Canterbury Tales as fabliaux, the term is more properly, if not exclusively, applicable to a large group of French texts. Over forty surviving manuscripts preserve fabliaux. Some include only a single one alongside texts from other genres; others are veritable compendia of fabliaux, with one (Paris, B. N. fr. 837) containing around sixty of the works.

A traditional controversy about the fabliaux concerns their public and their fundamental character. Conceptions of the fabliaux were shaped largely by Joseph Bédier's 1893 study. Bédier, who had comparatively little regard for the purely literary merits of the fabliaux but a keen appreciation of their value for social historians, found a correlation between the rise of the genre and the growth of cities and of a thriving bourgeoisie. His conclusion was that, just as the courtly circles had their literature (e.g., courtly romances, cultivated lyric poetry, lais), now the bourgeois public had its own. This conception of origins and audiences offered a convenient explanation for the fabliaux' apparent lack of literary pretentions, their frequent choice of middle-class or peasant settings, their preference for frankness in sexual and linguistic matters, and their irreverent and often unsubtle humor. The fabliaux, in other words, were everything the courtly romance was not, and they must therefore belong to a different social class.

In fact, Bédier's views were considerably less categorical than this summary suggests; he acknowledged, for example, that the fabliaux were heard and enjoyed in courtly circles. Nonetheless, what most scholars retained from Bédier's book was a sharp division of literature into courtly and bourgeois genres; and while a few studies questioned or qualified his theories, they continued to be widely accepted until challenged by Per Nykrog in 1957. Acknowledging most of the characteristics Bédier identified in the fabliaux, Nykrog disagreed that the genre was the product of a bourgeois mentality. Identifying in a number of fabliaux certain situations and formulas that would likely be appreciated only by a courtly audience, he concluded that the fabliaux often exploit or parody courtly texts and situations. They are thus as courtly, in their way, as are romances and lais.

Although excellent and remarkably influential, and a necessary corrective to Bédier's theory, Nykrog's study is at times too uncompromising. Numerous fabliaux clearly do not reflect courtly ideals or language, even as parody. In fact, the range of fabliau subjects and methods is extraordinarily wide, varying from linguistic playfulness and complex comic developments to unsubtle anecdotes and simple dirty jokes. Some are "courtly" in some sense; others are not, although we have no convincing evidence that even the crude sexual jokes might not appeal to inhabitants of courts. Moreover, as Jean Rychner demonstrated in 1960, we often have two or more variants of the same fabliau, with the situation or the language apparently adapted to different publics.

A second and more persistent controversy concerns the definition of the genre and the precise constitution of the fabliau canon, questions that have never been satisfactorily resolved. Bédier formulated the most frequently quoted definition: "Les fabliaux sont des contes à rire en vers" ('comic tales in verse'). The generality of this convenient definition holds a certain appeal but also limits its usefulness considerably. Furthermore, the emphasis on humor may raise a question instead of resolving it. The inspiration or purpose of a fabliau is not always easy to define, and it is in any case of questionable value as a generic determinant. If we assume with Bédier that all fabliaux are humorous, we should then routinely exclude from the genre all compositions that we judge to be (for example) primarily moralizing, including a number of texts once published with fabliaux. An example is the well-known La Housse partie, a work sometimes excluded, despite its cleverness and its general resemblance to fabliaux, simply because it is considered more serious than humorous. On the other hand, this criterion is not applied uniformly, and scholars often include among the fabliaux a few works that make a serious moral point in a clever fashion. In Du vilain qui conquis paradis par plait, for example, the protagonist argues his way into heaven by pointing out that the sins of those already there (e.g., Peter, who denied his Lord) are considerably more serious than his own.

One frequent approach to the problem of definition is to study self-nominated fabliaux, that is, those that describe themselves as being fabliaux. A critic may thus limit himself to those works, which number about seventy, or he may begin with those in an attempt to define the properties of the genre and then include in the canon other poems that exhibit those same properties. Even this approach is problematical, however, because it assumes that medieval authors possessed both a specific consciousness of literary categories and a precise terminology for them, and the evidence does not convincingly support such an assumption. For example, many of the compositions commonly taken as fabliaux describe themselves in a variety of ways, as fabliaux, fables, contes ('stories' or 'tales'), dits (short narratives), and a number of other terms.

The formulation of a satisfactory definition is by no means a simple matter. In practice, each critic is left to construct his own canon. Bédier listed 147 works he considered to be fabliaux; Nykrog expanded that number to 160. Noomen's critical edition of the fabliaux, begun in 1983, will include 127 texts. Most likely, the specific confines of the genre can never be established; at the edges of the genre, at least, works that are presumably fabliaux tend to merge with other forms and types of texts. The solution to the problem of taxonomy is necessarily more pragmatic than technical or scientific: there is a solid core of texts accepted as fabliaux by virtually all critics, and from a study of those compositions we can derive reliable notions of the themes, styles, and techniques characteristic of the genre.

The fabliaux, although related by inspiration and often by specific thematic properties to earlier works from Europe, the classical world, and even the Orient, came into existence in France toward the end of the 12th century. Some scholars identify Jean Bodel as the first author of fabliaux; Bodel, who died in 1210, was in any case the first whose name is known. Most fabliaux are in fact anonymous, but a number of fabliau authors in addition to Bodel are identified; they include Gautier le Leu, Henri d'Andeli, Eustache d'Amiens, Rutebeuf, Baudouin de Condé, and his son Jean (d. 1346), who was the last known composer of fabliaux. The shortest of the fabliaux is Du Prestre et du mouton (signed by one Haiseaus or Haisel) at eighteen lines. The longest run to some 1300 lines, with the single exception of Trubert, a 3000-line text which is often but not always considered a fabliau. Most contain between 100 and 300 lines, with the average around 250.

Whether or not the fabliau is taken as a bourgeois genre, it is true that the characters most often belong to the middle class or to peasant society. Only rarely do knights play prominent roles in the fabliaux. In some works, such as De Celle qui se fist foutre sur la fosse de son mari, a knight may appear, but he is often not the protagonist, a role taken in this text by his squire. Similarly, descriptions of activities associated with the nobility are rare but not unheard of; the text entitled Le Chevalier qui recovra l'amor de sa dame offers an account of a tournament, through which a knight will win a lady's love, and is identifiable as a fabliau only because of a ruse perpetrated by the knight in the second half of the poem.

Readers interested in social history will find in these texts fascinating reflections of the daily life of the period. The characters in fabliaux are very often observed working, eating and drinking, and carrying on all the usual activities of middle-class and peasant existence. We have descriptions of houses, towns, professions (notably merchants, millers, and farmers), and leisure activities. References to work, food, and drink are extremely common in the fabliaux, but the activity most frequently depicted is sexual. Of course, sexuality within marriage is hardly ever treated, and sexual satisfaction between spouses is practically unheard of. When it is mentioned at all, marital sex is dismissed with a very few words or else reduced to an emphasis, not on desire or sexual intimacy, but on sex organs. A memorable but not atypical example is the absurd story told in Les quatre souhaits saint Martin, where a husband and wife, granted four wishes, have their bodies covered with genitals and have to use all their remaining wishes to return to normal.

Much more common is seduction or attempted seduction outside of marriage. This can hardly come as a surprise, not only because sexual humor is almost universally extramarital, but also because fabliau characterizations imply and invite such dalliances. Husbands are routinely presented as cruel or stupid, while many wives are found to be lascivious creatures with gargantuan sexual appetites, either ripe for an adulterous relationship or already embroiled in one. Adultery is in fact a prevalent theme in the fabliaux. Nykrog calculated that 63 of his 160 fabliaux dealt with love triangles. Almost invariably, the participants in an adulterous relationship are married women and men other than their husbands, rather than husbands with mistresses. Seducers are never in short supply. Priests attempt the most seductions of married women, but they are rarely successful (only five out of 22 times, according to Nykrog). Knights and clerics invariably succeed.

The fabliaux frequently show an interest in language and its uses or misuses. Some are mere puns: in Estula, for example, a man calls to his dog, but the dog's name, Estula, also means "Are you there?" and a thief hiding in the garden responds, "Yes, I'm here." Linguistic taboos provide the subject of La Damoisele qui ne pooit oïr parler de foutre, a work about a young woman who finds the sexual act considerably less offensive than the word. Several texts offer amusing anecdotes that play on the distinction between figurative and literal language. In Brunain, la vache au prestre, an avaricious priest tells a naive couple that whatever they give to God will be returned doubly to them; they take his words literally (as indeed he intended) and obediently give the priest their cow, but the tables are turned when the cow comes home later, leading the priest's own.

Revenge is the motivating force in some of the best fabliaux. L'Enfant qui fu remis au soleil has a woman explain her pregnancy to her husband by noting that a snowflake fell into her mouth and grew inside her; the husband bides his time, eventually sells the child into slavery, and explains his disappearance by insisting that the hot sun melted him. Le Boucher d'Abbeville deals with a butcher who seeks shelter in a priest's house and revenge when the priest refuses it to him; he steals one of the priest's sheep, trades it for lodging, shares the meat, and seduces the priest's maidservant and mistress by offering both of them the sheepskin--which he then sells to the priest himself.

The authors of fabliaux show a keen interest in genitalia. They thus give us works in which genitals talk, multiply, detach themselves from their owners, exhibit prodigious dimensions, and are frequently personified and described in endlessly imaginative ways. At the other end of the thematic and tonal spectrum are texts of considerable subtlety and refinement, even though they are still intended for amusement and often have seduction as their subject. Guillaume au faucon presents a young man who is passionately in love with his noble master's wife and who fasts nearly unto death when the lady repels his advances. When her husband asks the reason for William's suffering, the woman, inventing an explanation in order to avoid complications, replies that William has asked for her husband's falcon. Most of this text is indistinguishable from a lai or an episode from a courtly romance, but it presents an ingeniously humorous conclusion, turning on the pun involving faucon ('falcon' and faux con 'false cunt') and on the result of her pretext: he orders her to give the young man what he wants.

A commonplace of fabliau criticism concerns the anticlericalism and antifeminism of these compositions. In the former instance, it is true that the fabliaux are populated with priests who are most often avaricious or lascivious; while the reader never senses that authors are attacking the institution of the church itself, it is indisputably true that priests themselves provide a tempting and popular target for humor. The question of antifeminism is more complex. Certain female characters in the fabliaux are presented as intelligent and virtuous, and the Borgoise d'Orliens is treated sympathetically even as she commits adultery while her husband is being brutally beaten nearby. In general, however, the weight of evidence, drawn both from situations and from explicit authorial commentary, suggests a considerably less than favorable view of women, many of whom are explicitly condemned for lasciviousness and deceitfulness. Admittedly, the fabliaux also criticize some men, but it is often for their foolishness in trusting women or allowing themselves to be led astray by them, and the condemnation thus extends to women as well. The most extreme treatment of women is exemplified by La Dame escoilliee, in which a wife's strong will and presumption are attributed to her having testicles, a graphic organic metaphor for "wearing the pants in the family." Here, though, the metaphor provides the pretext for physical punishment, and a brutal operation is performed to "remove" the offending items. In case she has not learned her lesson, she is told that any repeat of her unacceptable behavior will necessitate additional surgery.

In both theme and technique, the fabliaux exhibit a wide range, as indeed we should expect of a group of some 150 texts composed over a century and a half. Some are little more than dirty jokes; others are sophisticated and subtle compositions that indulge in refined humor. Some append morals (although they often have little or nothing to do with the preceding text), while others tell their story quickly and then stop. Most are simple and economical narratives, stripped of all non-essential material, while a few go to some lengths to establish character or tone. They do not always agree about women, priests, nobles, or other subjects--or especially about the best way to tell a story. What most do agree on is the need to please and amuse their audiences. Even when the authors draw logical moral conclusions from their anecdotes, their primary purpose is in a broad sense entertainment, if not always specifically humor. The fact that they succeeded in most cases is demonstrated by their literary influence on Chaucer, Boccaccio, and other authors, by their preservation and their survival in impressive numbers into the 20th century, and by their continued ability to give us pleasure today. [Norris J. Lacy]