tagReviews & EssaysFour More Fabliaux

Four More Fabliaux

byCal Y. Pygia©

In "Four Fabliaux," I referred to the definition of the fabliau in The Norton Anthology of Western Literature: a "short tale in rhyming couplets that must meet one criterion above all others: humor" which often ends "with a lesson," although "few actually claim to offer much moral improvement," offering, as examples of the form, summaries of the plots of "The Butcher of Abbeville," "The Wild Dream," "The Three Hunchbacks," and "The Ring that Controlled Erections." In this essay, I will offer summaries of additional fabliau and some thoughts on some of the stable (and staple) elements of the genre.

"The Four Wishes of St. Martin" takes its title from the rewards that St. Martin presents to one of his more devout devotees, a peasant married to a rather shrewish wife.

After receiving his reward of four wishes from the saint, the peasant returns home, only to be castigated by his wife for his not being at work. However, her ire subsides when she learns of her husband's good fortune, and she convinces him to let her make the first wish. He allows her to do so, and she wishes that he were covered, all over, with penises.

He takes the next turn wishing she had a vagina for each of his penises.

His wife next wishes that neither of them had either set of genitals.

Finally, the peasant uses his fourth wish to restore each of them to his or her original state.

The fabliaux ends with a specious moral: any man who trusts his wife more than he does himself is apt to regret it.

In "The Partridges," a peasant delivers two partridges that he's caught into the hands of his wife, and she cooks them for their evening meal. They invite the village priest to join them.

After her husband departs, she tastes the cooked partridges. Before she knows it, she has eaten both birds, and there is nothing left for the main course of their dinner.

When her husband, returning, asks what became of the partridges, she tells him that their cat has eaten them. He doesn't believe her, so she tells him that the birds are being kept warm until he can carve them. He sharpens his knives before doing so.

The priest arrives for dinner, and, knowing that she will be found out, the wife panics. To frighten off their dinner guest, she tells the priest that her husband is sharpening knives with which to castrate the clergyman.

The priest flees, and the wife tells her husband that the clergyman has stolen their partridges. He gives chase, and the terrified priest believes that the husband is intent, as his wife warned, upon castrating him.

The tale ends with a dubious moral, the gist of which is that women are deceitful.

In "Jouglet," a mother arranges a marriage for her retarded son, hiring a disreputable traveling entertainer, known as a jouglet, to prepare her son for his wedding night by teaching him the facts of life. Instead, the jouglet advises the son to eat as many pears as he can, and the unfortunate youth is sick with a stomachache on his wedding day—and afterward, on his wedding night.

He explains his predicament, and the cause of it to his bride. Incensed, she tells her husband that he must avenge himself upon the jouglet by defecating upon him, which the husband does, repeatedly. The jouglet finds that everything he touches turns to shit—literally—and he leaves town.

Passing another village, the townspeople insist that he play music for them. The jouglet agrees, provided that they unpack his instruments for him. When they reach into his bag, they soil their hands with the feces therein, and the villagers beat him soundly.

Like most fabliaux, this one ends with a dubious moral: "He thought to shit on another, but he was shitted on much more himself."

In "The Squirrel," a young woman sees a young man masturbating and asks him, concerning his penis, what he has there. "A squirrel," he replies, asking her whether she would care to play with it. She accepts his offer, and, after further foreplay, the "squirrel" is allowed to enter her vagina in search of nuts she had eaten yesterday.

The titles of fabliaux often indicate the poems' basic plots: "The Knight Who Made the Cunts Talk," "The Three Ladies Who Found a Prick," "The Wager," "The Peasant Who Conquered Paradise By Arguing." The poems feature simple characters, more type than individual, one of whom is a sympathetic trickster, and another of whom is the unsympathetic dupe. Often, through trickery, the dupe is cuckolded; in addition, to add insult to his injury, he is beaten or otherwise humiliated. Usually, the dupe deserves what he gets. Sometimes, he is a jealous old lecher who is so possessive of his beautiful young wife that he denies her the society of her friends—especially male friends—leaving her in want, both socially and sexually. More prisoner than wife, she plots with a younger man who is as virile as he is handsome, and they employ their stratagem, enjoying one another at the old lecher's expense.

The characters tend to be of the lower and middle class, and, as mentioned, they are often stereotypical or stock characters appropriate to the ribald tales that fabliaux routinely feature: the beautiful young wife, the prostitute, the cuckolded husband, the jealous old lecher, the clerk (student), the village priest, and their identities are one with their stations or occupations as townsmen, peasants, jongleurs, knights, or squires.

A constant theme of many such tales is the deceitfulness and treachery of unfaithful wives and the jealousy and possessiveness of rich old men.

Of course, several fabliaux are present among the tales in Geoffrey Chaucer's poem, The Canterbury Tales, including those of the Miller, the Reeve, the Summoner, and the Merchant.

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