French and English fabliaux (17th February 2016)

The Summoner from the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Next meeting: 17th January 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Fabliaux genre was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France, and around 150 French fabliaux are now extant. The genre was briefly revived in England the fourteenth century, and Geoffrey Chaucer included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales.

Fabliaux are traditionally set in real, familiar places, and the characters are ordinary sorts – tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives; the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The genre presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, but the class politics and function of these tales are often complex: some scholars suggest that they were subversive tales which were consumed by the lower classes, while others argue that they were a product of aristocratic society that were designed to reinforce social hierarchy.

We are reading a selection of French and English fabliaux, including:

Le Prestre Crucefié / The Crucified Priest (Old French / early thirteenth century / France)

In this tale, a cuckolded husband, who is also a wood carver, castrates a priest who has an affair with his wife. There are two later versions of this fabliau, including De Connebert and Du Prestre Teint (The Dyed Priest)

Li Dis de la vescie à Prestre / The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder (Old French / early fourteenth century / Antwerp

In this tale, two friars beg a dying priest to leave them his property. The Priest consents on the grounds that the friars bring their Prior with them the next day. Five friars arrive without their Prior, but the Priest insists he will only reveal his secret in the presence of the Sheriffs and the Mayor. The Priest berates the friars for their importunity, and bequeaths his bladder to them. This text is an analogue for The Summoner’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s Summoner’s Prologue and Tale (Middle English / late fourteenth century / England)

In The Canterbury Tales, The Summoner takes offense at The Friar’s Tale, which focuses on a corrupt summoner and his interaction with a demon. In response, The Summoner tells the tale of a dishonest friar, who wanders from house to house begging for alms.

The friar arrives at the house of Thomas and his wife: Thomas is ill, and their child has just died. The friar reassures Thomas’ wife that their child has entered heaven, but he insists that Thomas is ill because he has not donated money to the church. The friar continues to lecture Thomas, and finally asks him for money to build a cloister. Thomas tells the friar he has a gift for him, and that he can have if he divides it between his twelve brothers. The friar attempts to retrieve the gift, which Thomas is sitting on, but it is, in fact, no more than a fart.

The friar is chased from the house, and complains to the lord of the village about how he is supposed to divide a fart into twelve. The lord suggests that a cartwheel could be used to distribute the fart equally.


 Some possible topics for discussion

  • The body / fetishization?
  • C12th / C13th contexts?
  • Conservative (Norris Lacy) or subversive (Benson)? Reflective or corrective?
  • ‘Fabliaux are the essence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque and violence is often a part of that humour which was directed at mixed audiences of peasantry, bourgeoisie, and nobility.’
  • The meanings generated by torture and (judicial / non-judicial punishment)?
  • ‘The episodes interrogate the “Other within” – those who function within a society and a shared cultural identity, but who transgress societal norms and act in ways beyond social or literary sanction’.
  • What are the advantages and limitations of reading the Summoner’s Tale as a response to the Friar’s?
  • Despite the scholarly emphasis placed on Chaucer’s comic tales, the English fabliau is relatively rare. Why use a form that was, to all intents and purposes, dead?
  • And how does Chaucer use the form? What are the characteristics of Chaucerian fabliaux?
  • (and if you want more, you could look at one version of Boccaccio’s handling of the fabliau form from II.iv of the Decameron: )