The Fabliaux (book review)

Aug 26 2013

The Fabiluax

The Fabiluax

The Fabliaux is an odd little book, which I bought on a whim because it’s an odd little book.

We’ve all heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those saucy stories of pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Some know that Chaucer didn’t invent these stories; he cobbled them together from various stories floating around at the time. Common folk traded these profane little tales in taverns, forming the “reality TV” of its day. These were supposedly true stories, nearly always involving sex, scatology, and/or sinning priests.

In France, these were called fabliaux, and this beautiful hardback of the same name collects dozens of them that cross a wide range of experience. The translator put them into a simple, natural rhyming verse that mimics the French pattern.

(One side note: the translator chose vulgar terms for genitalia, mainly because there’s no English equivalent for the French words, and these are meant to be bawdy, shocking tales. So be ready for frequent uses of the ‘c’ word.)

The stories fascinate for two reasons. On the one hand, naughty stories always carry at least a small thrill, and it’s fascinating to see what was considered naughty six hundred years ago.

Secondly, The Fabliaux provides a window into common life in the Middle Ages. So much of what we know of that time comes from high literature: noble tales of knights and ladies, or official histories written by victors. We read of battles and courtly romance.

While that has its place, in The Fabliaux we see dusty, everyday life. Now this has its own sensationalism; these were stories meant to entertain, after all. I wouldn’t take the preponderance of extramarital sex in these stories as an indication it was that common in medieval times (any more than the family drama in a “reality TV” show is a complete accurate representation of life in America).

Those caveats aside, these stories are delightful romps in bourgeois drama: wives lusting over hot guys, battling spouses, and over-protective fathers.

And the stories are not without shock value. Indeed, the over-protective father has a young daughter whom he has carefully protected from every biological term, to protect her chastity. When he finds a boy her own age as a companion, and who expresses similar horror at such terms, the father leaves the two of them alone, presuming she is safe. She immediately asks the boy about the differences of the male body to the female, and they proceed to describe each others’ most intimate areas using only metaphor. Before long they shuck their clothes and screw with abandon.

Not so shocking, except that their metaphors make it very clear that they are both barely pubescent. Such were the realities of the times.

Other stories deal with bad priests–in fact, can’t recall a single righteous priest in the entire book–and a lot of scatological humor. I found this refreshing; we haven’t changed so much. We’ve always loved to skewer the powerful and joke about poo, for some reason.

Interestingly, the nobility in these stories are treated very much like the common folk: more wealthy, but not inherently evil. They deal with avenging spouses, rebellious children, and fickle friends just like everyone else. In general, they’re doing their best with what they have.

And they fart a lot.

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