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Who knew the French could be so lewd? In this lesson, we’ll learn about the fabliau – those vulgar, funny, and oftentimes obscene stories which were popular in France during the Middle Ages. We’ll look to ‘The Canterbury Tales’ for three great examples.

What Is Fabliau?

Fabliau (the plural form is fabliaux) is a comical fable told in verse. They were all the rage in the 12th and 13th centuries. Fabliaux were typically told by jongleurs (professional storytellers/public entertainers in France). The short stories were known for their colorful and comical observations on life, sort of like a cynical and harsh Middle Age version of Jerry Seinfeld.

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The stories took comedic shots at things like religion, the sanctity of marriage, and the treatment of women.The fabliau style was simple and straightforward. The narratives were always situated in present day and the characters were from the middle or lower classes. Fabliaux made fun of everyday life. The plots were often centered on women with large sexual appetites and men who were ignorant fools. There was typically some sort of scam or practical joke in the narrative and trickery was usually successful.

There are about 150 surviving fabliaux from various jongleurs from the over 200 or so years that the form was popular in medieval literature. However, one of the most revered fabliaux writers in the history of storytelling was Geoffrey Chaucer.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), regarded as the ‘Father of English Literature,’ is considered by most to be the most important writer of the Middle Ages. By the time Chaucer started writing, the fabliaux was a passé genre in French literature, pretty much dead for over 100 years. However, Chaucer turned to the fabliaux as a style to write certain parts in his most acclaimed work, The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales was published in 1483.

The main narrative is about a group of pilgrims traveling to the Canterbury Cathedral. In order to pass the time, the pilgrims have a storytelling contest. The winner of the contest would receive a free lunch upon their arrival home.

The novel is an example of a frame narrative, in which each short story is framed by an overall context; in this case, the context of the contest. One by one, the pilgrims begin their elaborate, often comical tales with each pilgrim trying to one-up the storyteller that went before him. Many of the stories, but not all of them, are fabliaux retold by Chaucer in his own way. Let’s take a look at three of the most popular examples.

‘The Miller’s Tale’

‘The Miller’s Tale’ is the second story in The Canterbury Tales.

It is told by a drunken miller who may or may not be the rube in his own narrative. The tale is a love triangle, but with four people, a common occurrence in the fabliau genre. In the story, a carpenter and his much younger, beautiful wife decide to provide a boarding room for a scholar in order to make extra money. The scholar falls in love with the carpenter’s wife. A parish clerk also falls in love with the young beauty.

The wife begins an affair with the scholar but ignores the clerk.The scholar desires more time with his new love interest without worrying about her husband, so he develops a ruse that convinces the carpenter that a massive flood is coming. The carpenter, in order to prepare, ties a tub to the ceiling of the house so he can float away when the waters rise.

Meanwhile, the parish clerk arrives on the scene in order to convince the great beauty that she should be with him.The story ultimately ends with the carpenter breaking his arm and looking like a giant fool when his tub crashes to the floor. All in all, the story contains a man farting in the face of another man, a burnt anus, the parish clerk lusting after a woman who doesn’t want him, and a carpenter embarrassed and made to look like an ass in front of his neighbors.The story is rude, abrasive, obscene, and hilariously funny, essentially all the common attributes of a fabliau. The story also explores themes of social class, religion, and, of course, lust and love.

‘The Reeve’s Tale’

‘The Reeve’s Tale’, the third story in The Canterbury Tales, is told by a reeve (a land supervisor) who used to be a carpenter when he was younger. In turn, he takes great umbrage by the miller’s story because the butt of the joke in that tale was a carpenter.

The reeve’s story features a miller who steals wheat and corn from his customers. Two college boys want to get back at the miller because he stole from one of their friends. They devise a scheme in which they plan to board with the miller and his family for the night. The family includes the miller’s wife, 20-year-old daughter, and baby.

The miller’s family gets drunk off wine and the two students take advantage; they really take advantage. They wind up having sex with both the wife and the daughter, and then they get away without paying the miller for boarding. The students also steal both food and horses in addition to beating the miller as he lies on the ground unconscious.What makes the reeve’s story much different from the miller’s story is that the reeve was extremely angry with the miller. The reeve does not tell his story in the same good-natured, humorous tone. The reeve’s story, while comedic in a very dark way, is fairly brutal and extremely vengeful. But the brutality is supposed to be in the name of justice; in the story the miller was a thief who took advantage of his customers.

‘The Shipman’s Tale’

Several pilgrim stories later, we get ‘The Shipman’s Tale’, the story of a wealthy, miserly merchant and his wife. The wife is unhappy in her marriage, and her cheap husband won’t give her any more cash. So she offers to sleep with the monk (a good friend of the husband) in exchange for money. In order to pay for the sexual encounter, the monk asks the merchant to borrow money.

Then the monk pays the wife for her services with her husband’s money. When the merchant asks for his money back, the monk informs him that he paid it back already, to the wife. Finally, when the merchant asks his wife about the money, she tells him that she will pay him back in bed.

Once again, we see a few of the familiar fabliau themes. There is the denigration of the female who prostitutes herself and an obvious knock on religion by making the monk a bit of a conniving thief and a man who sleeps with his friend’s wife for money. Of course, there is also the ruse, the trickery that is common in fabliaux.

Lesson Summary

Obscenity, comedy, and trickery are just a few of the common trademarks of a fabliau.

The French genre of storytelling was popular in the Middle Ages and made timeless by Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three examples of fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales include ‘The Miller’s Tale,’ ‘The Reeve’s Tale,’ and ‘The Shipman’s Tale.’

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