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The recent American publication of the Fabliaux, or Old French comic tales, can be taken in two ways. On one hand, the long refusal by the French to include them in their canon speaks to a part of their national character that most visitors notice immediately: their incredible sense of their own intellectual and cultural importance. On the other hand, it introduces us to a medieval French world that may not please its contemporary heirs, but is a rich and delightful place, full of delicacy, carnality and obscenity, where subversive humor and exaggerated plots give us unexpected insight into the everyday life of, say, adulterous priests or professional fornicators.
Written in octo-syllabic couplets, the fabliaux date back as early as the 12th century, though the genre flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. While some of the texts were presented to the French public in a 1752 collection, it wasn't until 1872 that a complete six-volume collection was translated and published in modern French. And though the fabliaux went on to be generally unappreciated by French scholars until the second half of the 20th century, the question of whether there is more to these medieval tales than dirty stories is one still being asked today.
Howard Bloch, a professor of French at Yale University, realized that most of the existing English translations of the fabliaux were at best antiquated, and at worst unreadable. When he met fellow scholar Nathaniel E. Dubin, who had started translating the fabliaux during his graduate studies, Bloch encouraged him. (Bloch insists Dubin's translations are on par with the late Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.) Stunned at how little the published versions in France resembled the originals, Dubin worked from the medieval manuscripts to "establish the tales" himself. (Since the fabliaux were oral texts reproduced in writing, there were several manuscripts of the same tale that had alternate versions.) The result of years of effort culminated in The Fabliaux: A New Verse Translation (Liveright/Norton, June 2013), which includes 69 faithful translations into English.
Written with wordplays and rhyme, the fabliaux are complex, and though the plots are straightforward, character portraits, euphemisms and metaphors often make up for the occasional lack of complexity. One such example is The Piece of Shit, where a woman convinces her husband to eat her excrement: "The bet thus closed, they gave their word/and his wife handed him the turd/He takes and rubs it to and fro/between his fingers. 'Is it dough?'"
Others, like The Peasant's Fart, by Rutebeuf, address the effects of food in relation to class. In this fabliau, the peasant’s digestive troubles are caused by his bad diet, but a devil convinces him that his fart is his soul leaving his body and that he must trap it in a bag and release it in Hell.
These comic tales show corrupt ecclesiastics, priests, monks and even high church officials who do not respect their vows of poverty, abstinence and chastity, but who are interested in getting rich, eating well and fornicating with the wives of their parishioners.
Wildly popular in their time, fabliaux saw their fortunes change when they were later collected and published in 1752. "The French were embarrassed by the fabliaux," says Bloch, "because they depict a world of lusty women, cuckolded husbands, clever peasants and the sometimes unscrupulous inhabitants of Northern France of the 12th and 13th centuries.… Most of all, these comic tales show corrupt ecclesiastics, priests, monks and even high church officials who do not respect their vows of poverty, abstinence and chastity, but who are interested in getting rich, eating well and fornicating with the wives of their parishioners."
Of course, not all the tales are scandalous, nor were they meant to teach virtuous or moral behavior (though some do have ethical overtones). Instead, the fabliaux originated as public performances intended to make an audience laugh.
Certainly some of the early-19th- and 20th-century French scholars saw the fabliaux as an embarrassment. Compared with romances, lyric poetry and other forms of the time, the tales certainly got less attention. As Dubin says, "It was an age where prejudgment kicked in and [scholars] assumed crude humor meant the composition was likewise crude."
According to Dubin, the scholars who began unearthing and studying the old texts had conservative tastes; they were people who came from a privileged, upper-middle-class milieu. While the fabliaux were recognized by some as French, others tried to displace them, claiming them to be anything but French.
In his Mémoire sur les fabliaux, published in 1753, Comte de Caylus suggested the tales had distant Indian sources. The effort to exile the origins of the fabliaux continued, with scholars like Gaston Paris (the father of medieval studies), who claimed to have traced the origins of the tales to the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of animal fables. When Anatole de Montaiglon took on editing the six-volume publication of the fabliaux in 1872, he traced the stories to Semitic roots, whether from Arabic translations of the Sanskrit tales or from so-called Jewish traditions.
The fabliaux's displacement went on into the 19th century until a student by the name of Joseph Bédier, in 1893, refuted the claim that the tales had Orientalist roots. Still, they weren't French, Bédier said; rather, the stories were an amalgamation of universal folklore that could be found in ancient Greece as well as Germany, Spain and other places.
Dubin finds the Orientalist attribution and displacement of the fabliaux to be an unsubstantiated speculation. "Oriental origins were quite the rage among philologists for much of the 19th century, when the discovery of the resemblance between Sanskrit and European languages and from there the reconstruction of an Indo-European ancestor turned scholars' focus toward the East for anything that appeared folklorish," he says.
Many literature aficionados I spoke with — in and out of academia — knew nothing of the fabliaux, French or otherwise, despite the fact that Chaucer reworked several of them to include in 'The Canterbury Tales'.
In any case, during the nation-building of 19th-century France, the French had already found their national epic in The Song of Roland, which is said to be France's oldest work of literature. When it came to the narrative of the making of a national identity during the Middle Ages, the tales weren't useful, nor did they fit the images politicians and nationalists envisioned for their country.
As Bloch writes in the book's introduction, "Scholars soon realized that the outrageously obscene, anticlerical, misogynistic fabliaux, which wildly violate any notion of bourgeois respectability, were an embarrassment, and hardly the stuff of national moral revival."
Though the fabliaux today are taught across curriculums in France, they are still not very popular. With the obvious omission of the obscene and sexual passages, the tales are included in state literature exams for collégiens (junior high school students) and many are adapted even for young children. But many literature aficionados I spoke with — in and out of academia — knew nothing of the fabliaux, French or otherwise, despite the fact that Chaucer reworked several of them to include in The Canterbury Tales.
Elizabeth Kinne, a professor of literature at The American University of Paris, says it is not so much a question of how contemporary audiences react to the sexual content of the Old French comic tales today, but rather how they would have been appreciated by a medieval audience: "What is at work in the fabliaux is the legitimacy of power, social status, and relationships between the estates [social classes]." Kinne suggests therefore that the fabliaux were not scandalous in their time, but became so only after the advent of the "age of shame," when the reactions of their audience, including their audience today, shifted.
Some say the problem lies elsewhere, that the fabliaux's unpopularity is related to France’s elitist cultural system. François Huguet, a graduate student from southern France, says they are too folkloric for the French. "In Paris, there's savant culture and there’s folkloric culture. Anything that comes from the 'province' is badly considered. Until we accept the differences that come from outside, only then will we start to accept the different cultural centers [Basque, Breton, Corse, Occitan, etc.] inside our borders as equally creative," he says.
Ultimately, beyond the issue of these tales' scandalousness, an investigation into the content of the fabliaux, or the cultures and traditions that produced them, allows us to understand the creative process of storytelling that mirrored the society of the High Middle Ages in France.
As Dubin so aptly puts it, "Cultures differ, and we have to understand the scandal in terms of what would have scandalized/offended them, not what scandalizes/offends us."
No doubt, the fabliaux enjoy a certain popularity among medieval literature scholars; but now, thanks to this new English translation, general readers have a chance to discover, in Dubin’s words, a "goldmine of information" that is more than just dirty stories.