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Fabliau

A fabliau is a traditional French tale penned by an anonymous writer between 1150 and 1400. These were usually written by jongleurs or medieval entertainers.

Fabliaux-told bawdy and scandalous tales were usually rife with obscenity and attitudes contrary to the moral standards of the time. This meant that, for some, these stories were entirely inappropriate, but they always had an audience. There are around 150 known fabliaux (plural for fabliau) in existence, and several of these were reworked by other authors to make them more acceptable within a more formal literary context. (For example, Chaucer included some fabliaux in his Canterbury Tales.) 

Fabliau pronunciation: fab-lee-ohz
Fabliau definition and examples


Definition of Fabliau

Fabliaux are obscene and humorous tales written by anonymous jongleurs between the 12th and 15th centuries in France. There are a few different definitions of fabliaux, some narrower than others. Some scholars, such as the famed Gaston Paris, believe that the fabliaux originated from the Eastern world. 

Fabliaux are between 300 and 400 lines in length and usually employ satiric and comedic elements. Most of these stories were written in octosyllables or lines that use eight syllables each. They are similar to what later become labeled as a short story and, in some cases, a fable. But, the fabliaux has also been described as far less “didactic” than the fable. It does not directly convey a moral in the same way. In fact, some are complete without a moral element. Interestingly, after realizing the importance and popularity of the fabliaux, the church turned the minstrel songs into moral tales and promoted Christian beliefs. 

Fabliaux Characters and Subject Matter 

These stories contained many similar elements (although there are examples that go against the norm). Within fabliaux, readers can find examples of duped husbands, immoral clergymen, beggars, thieves, and conniving women. There are also often examples of noblemen and women who are portrayed as villains or witless. 

Often, these stories dealt with sexual subject matter. There are love stories filled with scandals and untrustworthy partners. They use puns, satire, and humor to create entertaining stories. 

Examples of Fabliaux

Richeut 

Richeut is one of the earliest known fabliaux. It was written around 1159 and tells the story of a prostitute who uses her skills and the men they attract to her advantage. She controls men of all social standings but focuses on three specific men who she dupes. The three men give her as many gifts as she wants and provide her with anything they can. She eventually has a son, Samson, and the story turns to focus on his exploits. He travels the world, having sex with whomever he wants. Finally, he comes home, and his mother tricks him as well, eventually hiring men to beat but not kill her son. 

This famous fabliau has a few features, according to Fragments d’un Moniage Richeut, that make it stand out from others. For example, it’s quite long at 1,019 lines. It includes incest, has character development, and uses tail rhyme strophe rather than the normal octosyllables. 

Gombert et les deus clers

Gombert et les deus clers or Gombert and the two clerks is a well-known fabliau. In the story, readers learn about two students who lodge with Gombert and his wife (and their two children). One of the students sleeps with the daughter after promising her he’ll stay with her. The other student sleeps with Gombert’s wife (who believes it’s her husband). The first student admits allowed what he’s been up to with Gombert’s daughter. Gombert hears him, tries to beat him up but is attacked by both students. 

This story is a great example of a fabliau that was adapted by later authors. Boccaccio used the story in “Sixth Story of the Ninth Day” in the Decameron, and Geoffrey Chaucer included a version of it in “The Reeve’s Tale,” a part of his Canterbury Tales. 

Bérangier au lonc cul 

Bérangier au lonc cul, or Bérangier of the long arse, is a fabliaux that has two different versions. One was written anonymously, and another by the author Guerin. The story follows an earl who marries off his daughter to a peasant, who he names a knight. He does nothing through the first ten years of their marriage until he gets jealous and decides to prove himself to his wife and their family. He goes into the forest and beats his shield with his sword, making it look like it’s been through a battle. Here are a few lines from an English translation taken from The Literary Context of Chaucer’s Fabliaux:

But to return to that which I began,
From the beginning to the end, as I have gathered it:
The knight without delay
Had his daughter well decked out
And married her to the churl.
Thus he made him a knight with his own hands
And raised him in rank, as I have heard.

As the story progresses, he continues to go into the woods, and the wife starts to get suspicious. She eventually disguises herself as a mighty knight and challenges him to a battle. He shows his cowardice, and the wife comes out on top with enough to blackmail him into submission for the rest of his life. 

FAQs

Why are fabliaux important? 

Fabliaux are an important part of the French literary tradition. They’re often cited as the precursors to the short story, and they bridged the gap between literature meant for the lower classes and the higher. These stories were enjoyed by a wide audience, all of whom were entertained by the scandalous subject matter. 

What are the characteristics of a fabliau?

Fabliaux are defined by their use of humor, satire, and sexual subjects. Characters included husbands that were frequently duped by their wives, villainous noblemen and women, and immoral clergymen who slept with prostitutes. 

Why did writers create fabliaux? 

Writers created these stories to entertain audiences. They were told out loud and passed down from person to person. They gave audiences a chance to hear and retell scandalous and traditionally immoral stories that went against the standards of the day.

Is The Canterbury Tales a fabliau?

As a whole, no. But, there are examples of fabliaux within the story. For example, “The Reeve’s Tale” is almost an exact replica of a famous fabliau. 

How is “The Miller’s Tale” an example of a fabliau?

“The Miller’s Tale” is an example of a fabliau because it satirizes the legal system at the time. Characters who were deserving of punishment escape it, and others who did nothing wrong get sucked into trouble. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Apologue: a short story, sometimes a fable, that shares a moral lesson.
  • Fable: a short and concise story that provides the reader with a moral lesson at the end.
  • Moral:  the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Short Story: a piece of writing with a narrative that’s shorter than a novel. These stories usually only take one sitting to read.
  • Chaucerian Stanza: a stanza form introduced by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. 
  • Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.


Other Resources 

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