All About Fabliaux: A Genre of Medieval French Poetry

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:

  1. Guillaume le Normand
  2. Rutebeuf
  3. Jean de Condé
  4. Gautier le Leu
  5. Garin
  6. Guérin
  7. Jehan
  8. Hues Piaucele
  9. Jean Bodel
  10. Eustache d’Amiens
  11. 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.

Sources:

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.

Fabliaux, user.phil.hhu.de/~holteir/companion/Navigation/Text_Groups/Fabliaux/fabliaux.html. 

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

Rating 10 Weird Drawings I’ve Found in Medieval Manuscripts

I’m not really a list making sort of guy, but today I wanted to do something a little different. Since late June, I’ve been running an Instagram where I share images I’ve found in medieval manuscripts. During my searches, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of weird and strange things drawn in the margins. Today I want to share with you some of these images so you too can have some of the delight I’ve had while finding these. (After all, it’s a lot of fun to sift through manuscripts and find a weird thing you absolutely were NOT expecting!) I will also be rating these images on a scale of 1 to 10 on how weird I personally find them.

1.

Add MS 42130 f.13v | Source: The British Library

This little guy I found in the Luttrell Psalter. (A great source for weirdness!) I find him extremely endearing. Medieval manuscripts are filled with little monsters that are combinations of animals and humans. The technical term for them is “grotesque.” Grotesques are often found in the margins. Personally, I like to try to figure out what kind of animals the artist took inspiration from when drawing their grotesques. My educated guess is that this creature is made up of an owl for the face/head and some kind of hoofed animal for the feet and tail. (Though the artist definitely took some creative liberties by making those party’s green!) I’m not sure what kind of animal the red and white spotted body is from (if it’s from any animal at all!). The grotesque’s hood is definitely a very human element. While this image is certainly strange, it’s not the weirdest I’ve found.

Weirdness Rating: 4/10

2.

Add MS 18852 f.87r | Source: The British Library

Here we have another grotesque from a later manuscript. This is another manuscript that’s absolutely filled with delightfully weird creatures. The longer you look at this little guy the more and more you find. First off, he’s completely naked except for his rather fashionable hat. (Look at that feather!) He has the body of a baby but has the head of a grown man. That’s definitely an interesting and amusing style choice. He’s got bird wings and bird feet. (At least they somewhat resemble bird feet!) Then of course, he’s holding a flower but his hands don’t seem to have fingers. Over all, he’s definitely one of the weirder images I’ve found so far.

Weirdness Rating: 8/10

3.

Stowe MS 17 f.8r | Source: The British Library

Medieval people sure did love their snails! Here we have a snail with a human head. Or he could also been interpreted as a tiny human living in a snail shell. He’s a strange little thing, but certainly not the strangest. Either way, he certainly seems to be happy with his shell!

Weirdness Rating: 1/10

4.

Add MS 29433 f.47v | Source: The British Library

This grotesque is unlike anything I’ve seen before. They seem to have the body of some kind of dog (a greyhound perhaps?), the torso of a human, and their head is maybe some kind of nut? I believe the lower part of the body is so orange to match with the general color scheme of the manuscript. (Other grotesques in this manuscript have the green and orange color scheme.) However, what I personally find the weirdest is their head. So far this is the only grotesque I’ve seen where the head is a nut! (At least I think it’s a nut.) As a side note, I love how the grotesque’s body language suggests that they are all turned around. They certainly look as though they have something stuck on their head and are trying to make sure they don’t walk into anything.

Weirdness Rating: 7/10

5.

Yates Thompson MS 14 f.7r | Source: The British Library

If this creepy looking man wasn’t here, then this detail wouldn’t classify as weird. But he is here, so it’s made the list. Everything about this guy is extremely unsettling. He’s mostly naked except for his braies (at least I think they count as braies). His hood is barely covering his shoulders. He’s hunched over. And of course, he’s got a pretty scary look on his face. If I saw this man in real life, I’d probably avoid him!

Weirdness Rating: 8/10

6.

Add MS 62925 f.12v | Source: The British Library

There’s certainly a lot going on in this illustration. We have a bald head with a beard that has been impaled at the top of his skull and through his mouth by a golden spike. This golden spike is sticking out of the bottom of a luxurious sort of column. (The column goes up the entirety of the page and the first letters of each sentence are drawn as fancy initials in it.) Then to add to the overall strangeness of the decapitated head, he seems to be alive and reacting positively to the wyverns nibbling at his ears. While this is strange in itself (the wyverns nibbling), it becomes stranger with a bit more context. This is not the only image in this manuscript that features wyverns eating/licking a person’s body. On other folios I’ve found two images of people getting their feet licked/eaten. (If I had to guess, I think the artist may have liked the idea of wyverns licking people. But that is pure speculation on my part!)

Weirdness Rating: 9/10

7.

Add MS 24686 f.13r | Source: The British Library

This illumination answers the age old question of how merfolk would feed their merbabies. By breastfeeding of course! But in all seriousness, let’s analyze the weird. Besides the breastfeeding imagery (which implies that merfolk are more mammal than fish, also implying merfolk give birth to their young rather than lay eggs), there’s the creature doing a handstand on the mermaid’s tail. I’m not a parent, but I would assume it would be difficult to breastfeed while you had a person doing gymnastics on your lower half (whether you have a tail or legs). The creature seems to have hands for feet, so I don’t believe that they are intended to be a human being. Also, to add to the strangeness, even though the merbaby is, well, a baby, she has breasts too. That’s definitely an interesting stylistic choice and personally not one I would have chosen myself if I was told to draw a mermaid breastfeeding. So while breastfeeding imagery isn’t strange in itself, the other details about this drawing definitely amps up the strangeness.

Weirdness Rating: 5/10

8.

Add MS 62925 f.58v | Source: The British Library

This is definitely another image that has a lot going on in it! First we have the larger figure. It’s not quite human but not quite animal either. It has a long kind of s-shaped neck. (Think the front of a Viking longboat.) to continue with the boat comparison, the lower half of its body is shaped kind of like a boat. Though it also reminds me of a leaf, especially the orange part. The tail of this figure is also kind of weird looking. It’s long and a little curly but it doesn’t look like an animal tail. It makes me think of the geometric decorations that can usually be found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Then of course you have its very human head. This poor fellow looks quite concerned! By the larger figure’s head is a little orange arrow that resembles a fishhook. Finally, we have a person in the larger figure. I’m not quite sure if the person is a child or an adult, but it’s certainly an interesting choice to have a person there!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10

9.

Add MS 37049 f.74r | Source: The British Library

Here we have a bunch of demons entering the jaws of Hell. While normally I wouldn’t consider this subject matter strange, I do find the artwork itself a bit weird. If I had to guess, I think the artist was either trolling or simply trying their best to draw something outside of their comfort zone. While I won’t describe each demon in detail, I will say that each demon has an extremely goofy looking face, including some silly bug eyes. Other interesting details include guts coming out of one demon’s stomach (who also has a skeleton face for some reason), another demon who seems to be pregnant, backwards thighs, duck feet, a spider (?) on one demon’s crotch, and the lamb (?) ears on the disemboweled demon. Medieval demons were often drawn having a combination of different animal and human traits, so these aren’t necessarily strange in itself. I just find how awful these demons look to be weird.

Weirdness Rating: 6/10

10.

Add MS 10294/1 f.1dr | Source: The British Library

Our final image! This one is weird! Of course, there’s the king pooping. But he’s pooping on two grotesques heads while also standing on their necks. The grotesques are kissing and don’t seem to be noticing what the king is doing. (Though to be fair, the excrement has not landed on them yet.) Nor do they seem to mind that the king is standing on them. Is it possible this image is a metaphor for oppressive rulers? Or is it just some artist finding poop funny? Who knows!

Weirdness Rating: 10/10