Content Note: Discussions of Sexual Assault, Violence, Racism, and Anti-Semitism
What do you think about when you hear the words “medieval literature”? Do you think of chivalric romances filled with brave knights rescuing fair maidens from fire-breathing dragons? Or do you think about Icelandic sagas, starring wild Vikings conquering far-off lands and murdering anyone who enrages them? Perhaps you think of stories of holy men and women performing saintly miracles? Or maybe, just maybe, you think about comedic poems filled with references to the obscene.
If you thought about the last option, you certainly would not be wrong! Medieval literature wasn’t just about knights, Vikings, or saints. One genre, in particular, was all about the common man. And the common man was always up to some sort of mischief.
As you can probably guess from the title, this genre is called the fabliau, or fabliaux if plural. Fabliaux are Old French poems that are made up of eight-syllable lines paired into couplets. The poems vary in length but it’s common for a fabliau to consist of about 200 to 400 lines. This genre of poetry was most popular during the late twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. In total, about 150 fabliaux exist in their entirety. However, that doesn’t mean only 150 fabliaux ever existed! Who knows how many other of these poems have been lost to time.
Fabliaux were mostly written by anonymous jongleurs, who were the French equivalent of the minstrel. However, the keyword there is “mostly.” A good portion of surviving fabliaux do have known creators. The social status of the authors varies. Some were amateur writers while others were professionals. Here is a list of some known authors who wrote fabliaux:
- Guillaume le Normand
- Jean de Condé
- Gautier le Leu
- Hues Piaucele
- Jean Bodel
- Eustache d’Amiens
- Marie de France
These are most certainly not all the named authors out there, but this list should give you a sense of how many people were known to have written fabliaux. A good chunk of the people named wrote several fabliaux as well.
What exactly were fabliaux about? While they did have different topics, their overarching theme was to satirize medieval society. If other forms of medieval literature were designed to glorify knights and the Church, fabliaux did the exact opposite. I will note that some fabliaux feature knights, but these men are certainly not brave or noble. In fact, they are extremely far from it! The satirical nature of fabliaux was executed in extremely crude ways. No topic was off-limits. Fabliaux are filled with sex, crime, violence, adultery, and excrement. So much excrement. Like, it’s kind of insane how many fabliaux include excrement in some way or another. Upper-class characters were usually portrayed as antagonists to the lower class/marginalized heroes. Or if they aren’t outright villains, then they are often on the receiving end of pranks pulled by the lower status characters. Some stock characters include cuckolded husbands, adulterous wives, lecherous priests/monks (who when they aren’t sleeping with the wives are going after innocent virgins), lecherous knights, and excrement obsessed peasants.
Fabliaux were written specifically to entertain and to make people laugh. However, they also demonstrate just how awful society and people in that society could be. While the marginalized heroes rarely succeed in climbing the social ladder, they still succeed in preventing the privileged characters from taking advantage of them. As long as they are clever, witty, and quick thinking, the heroes may even get their revenge and teach the antagonists a lesson or two about attempting to screw over the vulnerable. That being said, a good amount of these “tricks” are simply flat-out violence or even rape.
Women in fabliaux are rarely treated well. The genre as a whole is extremely misogynistic. Women are punished for a variety of “offenses” which often just boils down to being a virgin and not wanting to have sex with a man, talking too much, trying to take control of things her husband feels like isn’t her business, among other things. Fabliaux show just how badly medieval society thought of women. However, you do get the occasional fabliau where the woman is the hero and manages to outsmart men in power who are trying to wrong her.
For a good chunk of time after the Middle Ages, fabliaux were pretty unknown. Of course, some scholars read them, but they weren’t really known until the nineteenth century. During this time, Europeans were rediscovering a lot of medieval literature to elevate their history (in historically inaccurate ways I will note). And as you can see from the rise of white supremacy, it unfortunately worked.
Due to the obscenity of the genre, there were quite a bit of mixed feelings about fabliaux. While other countries had big sprawling epics, France had poems about peasants and excrement. That’s not exactly what you want when you are trying to glorify your past. In the minds of French scholars, something had to be done. So instead of admitting that medieval French wrote obscene things and had very dirty minds, nineteenth-century academics went into full-on denial mode. Their denial mode was just flat-out racism and anti-Semitism.
Scholars tried to claim that it wasn’t the French who wrote all those dirty poems. Oh no, they came from somewhere else. That somewhere else being Indian, Persian, and Jewish cultures. The (false!) argument was that there were some similarities between some of the fabliau and folklore from those cultures. And while there were some similarities, only eleven fabliaux out of the one hundred and sixty-ish poems sort of kind of resembled an Eastern source. That’s 6.88%. That is a minuscule amount. Thanks to human nature, there will always be some overlap between different cultures’ stories. Think of all the different versions there are of Cinderella! (I will also note that one of the people spouting off this nonsense, Anatole de Courde de Montaiglon, did not actually know any Hebrew what so ever so all of his “arguments” about linguistics came from a place of extreme ignorance.)
Overall, the fabliau is a fascinating genre. It allows modern people to look into the past and observe how attitudes towards society, social status, and humor change (or don’t). It also makes you realize that humanity as a whole still finds poop jokes funny centuries later. Even if people are in extreme and dangerous denial about that fact.
Anderson, Natalie. “The Romance of the Past? Nineteenth-Century Medievalism and the Tournament.” Medievalists.net, 27 Mar. 2019, www.medievalists.net/2018/03/romance-past-nineteenth-century-medievalism-tournament/.
Benson, L. D. “The Fabliaux.” The Fabliaux (General Note), The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 26 Apr. 2001, sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/litsubs/fabliaux/.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Fabliau”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Dec. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/art/fabliau. Accessed 13 March 2021.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Jongleur”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/art/jongleur. Accessed 13 March 2021.
Dubin, N. E., & Bloch, R. H. (2013). The Fabliaux: A new verse translation. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division of W.W. Norton & Company.
projects, Contributors to Wikimedia. “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fabliau.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 21 Oct. 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclopædia_Britannica/Fabliau.