tagReviews & EssaysFour Fabliaux

Four Fabliaux

byCal Y. Pygia©

Among its many other essays, poems, and stories, The Norton Anthology of Western Literature offers several erotic tales known as fabliaux. A fabliau, the volume's editors explain, is "a short tale in rhyming couplets that must meet one criterion above all others: humor" and often ends "with a lesson," although "few actually claim to offer much moral improvement." A well-known example of a fabliau is "The Miller's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Concerning these humorous narrative poems, the anthology's editors point out, "The values the fabliaux promote are frankly hedonistic. They celebrate the pleasures of food and wine, comfortable lodgings, and--above all--sex," taking "delight in witty rhymes and clever puns," frequently showcasing "over elaborate plotting." Fabliaux are often satirical. Their favorite targets include "social affectation and priestly misbehavior."

The anthology offers its readers four fabliaux that were written in the thirteenth century: "The Butcher of Abbeville," "The Three Hunchbacks," "The Wild Dream," and "The Ring That Controlled Erections." Several were originally written in French, but they are translated into English for the anthology. As the editors point out, "they are written in a jaunty verse form (nicely imitated)" in their translations.

Most of the fabliaux begin with a brief introduction that whets the reader's appetite, so to speak, for the tale to follow, a sort of mini-prologue to the narrative poem itself. For example, "The Butcher of Abbeville," a 588-line poem translated by Ned Dublin, suggests that the audience is about to hear "something marvelous" and lays upon them the burden of keeping the story alive, as it were, by paying close attention:

My lords, here's something marvelous--
you've never heard the like of this
which I am about to tell,
so set your minds to listen well.
for words, when no one lends an ear,
in the end simply disappear.

The fabliau recounts the story of David, a butcher from Abbeville, France, who, visiting a fair, or market, in Oisemont, to buy livestock, finds nothing to his liking. It is night as he makes his way home, and, afraid of the robbers who are known to lurk throughout the countryside, he seeks lodgings with a local priest, Father Gautier. However, the clergyman, a deacon, refuses to rent him a room for the night, for the priest dislikes the laity, who treat him with "disrespect and spite."

Denied a room, David goes upon his way, encountering a shepherd who is guarding Father Gautier's sheep. Mindful of the way the priest has treated him, David steals a sheep--the best of the flock, as it turns out--and returns to the deacon's house, the animal across his shoulders, with vengeance on his mind.

He tells the priest that he has bought the sheep at the fair and offers to kill it and share its meat with the deacon if Father Gautier will, in return, allow him to spend the night. When the priest agrees, David kills the animal with an axe he borrows from the priest, skins its carcass, and the butcher and the deacon and his household eat the mutton.

Besides the deacon himself, there are two other members of Father Gautier's household: his wife and his wife's maid, who does double duty, as it were, by serving as the priest's mistress, or paramour. Normally, the priest keeps a close eye on the maid, as he is a jealous man, but, appreciative of the butcher's apparent generosity in sharing his mutton with him and his household, the deacon bids her to be hospitable to their guest, denying David nothing.

The butcher asks the maid to have sex with him, promising her the sheepskin in exchange. He also vows to be discreet about their affair, and she acquiesces.

While the deacon is at church the next morning, David visits his wife, offering her the same bargain as he'd offered to the maid: the sheepskin (and discretion) for sex. The wife also accepts his offer, thereby cuckolding her husband. (Cuckoldry was a popular theme of such literature, especially when the cuckolded husband was haughty, pretensions, or domineering.)

Afterward, David visit's the deacon at church, selling the sheepskin to him. The butcher has now not only stolen Father Gautier's prize sheep, but he has given it to both the priest's wife and mistress--and he has had the audacity to sell the stolen animal back to its rightful owner, whom he has cuckolded as well! The butcher has avenged himself upon the priest several times over.

At the priest's house, the wife and maid get into a vehement argument concerning which of them has rightful claim to the sheepskin, both claiming to own the fleece. The wife strikes her husband's paramour, fires her, and evicts her. However, the maid refuses to leave until she's had a chance to report her former mistress' behavior to the deacon.

Returning home, the priest hears both his wife's and mistress' stories. The maid tells him what she did to earn the hide, and the deacon charges his wife with also having had sex with the butcher. He is outraged as he realizes, "I've been outsmarted! I've been fleeced!/ He's fucked all the women in/ my house, and sold me my own skin!"

The shepherd arrives to report the loss of the sheep, and he is able to identify the animal by its fleece as "Cornelius," the best animal in the deacon's flock.

The household remains in an uproar, as both women continue to lay claim to the sheepskin. However, Father Gautier says that the fleece belongs to him, as he bought it from the butcher.

Having concluded his tale, the narrator leaves it to his audience to determine for themselves which of the three claimants has rightful title to the fleece:

To you, my lords, who are all wise,
I, Eustace d'Amiens, submit
their case that you may settle it,
and ask you with due courtesy
to render judgment loyally,
each one of you will speak his piece:
which of the three should have the fleece--
the deacon or the deaconess
or their maid (bless her sauciness).

The second fabliau in the anthology's collection, "The Three Hunchbacks," consists of 296 lines. Despite the title of the poem, it involves, four, not three hunchbacks. Three are traveling minstrels; the fourth is the protagonist's husband.

The husband amassed a fortune which, despite his hideous ugliness, led his friends to arrange a marriage with a beautiful young woman who lived in the same town (Douay, in northeastern France) as he. Theirs is not a marriage made in heaven. She does not like being wed to him, and he is jealous, keeping a close watch upon her as they live as essential recluses, admitting no visitors to their house unless it is someone who has come to borrow or to repay money that the hunchback has loaned them.

When three other hunchbacks, traveling minstrels, ask to spend the night with him, the homeowner makes an exception to his rule of disallowing company. He is hospitable to them, not only allowing them accommodations in his house and treating them to dinner ("a capon roast with peas and bacon"), but also giving each of them spending money. However, the next morning, the husband forbids his overnight guests to return to his residence, vowing that "things would go hard" for them if he caught any of them upon his premises again.

The minstrels leave, and the homeowner keeps watch from his station on the bridge that spans the canal beside which his house is located.

The wife sends for the minstrels, bidding them to return and sing to her. Soon have they arrive, her husband returns and calls to her from the door to admit him to the house. (Apparently, he insists that the door be locked to frustrate any man who may wish to have sex with his wife.)

After she hides the hunchbacks in the three drawers with which a spare bed is equipped, the wife lets her husband into the house. He doesn't stay long, and, as soon as he has left, the wife opens the drawers to release the hidden minstrels. To her "awful shock," she discovers all three of them dead. (The poem never explains why they died.)

After swearing a passing porter to secrecy, she opens one of the drawers in the bed, revealing the body inside, and hires the porter to dispose of the body by dumping it into the canal.

As he executes this task, carrying the body to the canal inside a sack, the wife removes the body of another of the dead hunchbacks from its drawer and sets it aside. When the porter returns to collect the 30 pounds she has promised him for his service, she says that he has played a "joke" on her. Pretending to dispose of the hunchback's body, the porter has, instead, brought the corpse back into her house with him. As proof of her assertion, she points out the body of the second hunchback. (The poem never explains why the porter is fooled by this ruse.)

Thinking that the dead hunchback may be "the Antichrist," the porter bags the body and carries it to the canal.

The wife plays the same trick on the porter, removing the third corpse from the drawer in the bed and laying it out beside her fireplace. When he returns for his fee, she points out the cadaver next to her hearth.

Thinking that he's been bewitched somehow by the dead hunchback, the porter bags the third body, dumping it into the canal, and vows to strike the body on its neck should he encounter it yet again.

On his way to collect his payment, the porter sees the wife's husband approaching the lady's house and, with a club he picks up from its place on the wall inside the front door, the porter strikes the husband upon the head as the hunchback nears the top of the stairs to the second floor of the house, splattering "his brains . . . left and right."

Once more to the canal, the porter goes, disposing of the fourth body.

This time, he receives his pay, "delighted with her day,/ because he'd [the porter] got out of the way/ her husband, who was so disfigured" and could, therefore, thereafter live with no more "pain or strife."

In the poem's closing lines, the narrator leaves the audience with not one, but several, rather dubious morals to his story:

Durant says, rounding off his tale,
that everything on earth's for sale--
there's not a girl that can't be bought,
nor any treasure that God wrought,
however valuable and good,
that. If the truth be understood,
cannot be had for the right price.
The hunchback used wealth to entice
his marriage with a lady fair.
Shame on the man whose only care
is massing money for his purse!
And on who coined it first, a curse!

The third fabliau in the set is "The Wild Dream," and a wild dream it is! The 213-line poem shows, among other things, that women are as needful and desirous as sex as men are, although, perhaps, they conceal their lust better--at times, at least. The opening lines of the poem capture the audience's attention by promising that they shall hear of sex between "fine, upstanding folk":

I'll tell as briefly as I can
about a woman and a man
and what befell them, if I may.
I heard about it in Douay.
I do not know his or her name,
but I can affirm all the same
what fine, upstanding folk they were
and that she loved him and he her.

A woman's husband returns home after having been away on business for three months. Horny, she is looking forward to having sex with him. However, during dinner, she plied him with wine, and he falls to sleep (or passes out) soon after they retire. Annoyed, she falls to sleep, and has a wild dream:

She dreamt a dream while she was lying
there fast asleep--don't think I'm lying!--
that she'd gone to a yearly fair,
the likes of which you have to hear,
for every shop and stall display
there, every house and place to stay,
every exchange and table was
not selling bolts of cloth or furs
or linen, wool or silks of price,
it seemed to her, or dyes, or spice,
or goods, or pharmaceuticals--
just penises and testicles
in wild profusion. . . .

There is a penis for every girl or woman, at every price, from eight shillings for "some smaller ones, which could still sate," to a pound for "good ones," and "the best and biggest ones for sale," the narrator emphasizes, "were closely watched and very dear."

The wife seeks the biggest, best penis she can find, searching the market until she finds one that meets her high standards:

The wife went looking everywhere
and put much effort in her quest
till at one stall she came to rest
on seeing one so long and wide, it
just had to be hers, she decided.
The shaft was large and well-endowed
with a big head, cocky and proud,
and if you want to hear the whole
truth, you could toss into the hole
with ease a round, ripe cherry, and it
would go on falling until it landed
down in the scrotum, which was made
like the shovel-end of a spade.

The vendor, a man, tells the wife that the member was amputated from "the finest. . . stock" in Lorraine, a "province in northern France, where men were reputed to be sexually well-endowed," as the anthology's editors' gloss on this line points out.

The wife purchases the penis, and raises her hand to "give him [the vendor] high five." In doing so, she inadvertently awakens her husband, who demands to know why she has struck him in his sleep. She begs his pardon, relating the incidents of her dream of the penis fair and how "she bought the largest they had,/ by far more impressive than any,/ for fifty shillings and a penny."

He accepts her apology, and they hug and kiss. His organ becomes erect, and he "lays his penis in her hand," asking her what price it might have brought at the penis fair. No one would have wanted to buy it, she replies, even if he were selling them by the bushel, because, even, erect, his penis is too small to be of any interest to a buyer:

. . . someone selling a full coffer
of them would find no one who'd offer
a speck of money for the lot
Why, even those the paupers bought
were such that one of them with ease
would equal at least tow of these
the way it is now. . . .

It's unclear as to whether the wife is merely teasing her husband, is gaining revenge upon him for having fallen asleep (or passing out) and leaving her sexually aroused but unsatisfied, or truly means what she says. In any case, she seems to agree with her husband that an available penis is better than an imaginary "dream" penis, for the storyteller leaves his audience with the impression that, at last, the spouses make love:

"So what?" he says. "That's how it goes.
Take this one--the others don't matter--
until you think you can do better."
(And so she did, if I am right.)

The last lines of the poem, as is often the case with fabliaux, identify the author. This one is Jean Bodel, who came to hear of the incidents he reports in the story as a result of the husband's having injudiciously "spread it round/ till a rhymer of fabliaux. . . . put it in his anthology neither embellished nor extended."

The last of the four fabliaux that are included in The Norton Anthology of Western Literature is "The Ring That Controlled Erections." At a mere 50 lines, this is the shortest of the narrative poems, but it manages, in its brevity, to take a humorous view of men's erections, which, especially among younger males, often seem to have lives (and wills) of their own. Apparently, a follow-on story to a previously told tale, this narrative begins with the following lines, which identify the narrator:

Haiseau has yet another thing
to tell. A man once owned a ring
which, when worn, by a magic spell
at once would make his manhood swell.

Perhaps its owner suffers from erectile dysfunction. As he travels on horseback, he comes across a stream. Dismounting, he washes his face and hands. He also removes and washes his ring. When he leaves, he forgets the ring, leaving it upon the bank.

A bishop riding by sees the glint of the ring. Attracted to the piece of jewelry, he puts it on his finger. Immediately, his penis becomes erect and continues "growing" to immense size. Ashamed of his condition, the bishop nevertheless shows his servants "what hard luck mortifies and burdens" him, but none of them suspect that the ring has anything to do with the bishop's problem.

The bishop's penis continues to lengthen, "till it dragged on the ground," despite that he is on horseback. It seems that his apparent erectile dysfunction now has been replaced with satyriasis--a condition in which the erect penis will not subside. The cleric sends his messengers "to find someone who could advise/ him how to bring it back to size."

The man who lost the ring responds to the messengers' announcement, and offers to help the bishop--for a price: the two rings the clergyman wears and 100 pounds. The bishop agrees to the man's terms, and, when he removes the ring to hand it over, his erection subsides. Taking a jab at the clergy, the narrator implies that the bishop is glad to be rid of his momentary virility, just as the ring's owner is glad to regain the sexual potency that has disturbed the bishop and which the churchman rejects: "wasn't it a fair exchange/ when each was glad to have the change?"

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