The corpus of the Old French fabliaux, a genre that flourished in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, consists of some 160 short comic tales in verse, produced with almost no exceptions in Northern and Central France. Not all critics agree on which texts should be included in the fabliau canon, an uncertainty that derives in part from the rather loose use of terms such as fabliau, lai, conte, dit, among others, in mediaeval texts. The majority of these texts is anonymous or, with a few exceptions, attributed to authors about which little more than their name is known. Further, the wide variety of themes found in the genre also adds to the difficulty of defining it satisfactorily.
Nonetheless, a high proportion of fabliaux deal with gender relations and sex. The storylines may be grouped into three broad categories: those that treat an adulterous relationship; those that focus on marital difficulties other than adultery; and those involving a variety of—often unexpected—sexual situations. Although these categories frequently overlap, these major themes help highlight the core of the text. Whereas many fabliaux can be read as espousing an openly misogynist view, commenting negatively on women's penchant for deception and their sexual desires, they do not always overtly condemn the successful deceiver nor do they explicitly rebuke women for their sexual appetites. However, since neither of those traits is particularly praiseworthy, it is difficult to view the fabliaux as not reflecting an inherently misogynistic view of women. Although the characters that populate these texts are most often members of the bourgeoisie, the clergy, or peasants, members of the nobility make occasional appearances.
As examples of bawdy humor, the esprit gaulois, the storylines regularly reenact the courtly erotic triangle. Yet, as in "La Bourgeoise d'Orléans," called "a courtly adventure" by its author, the successful resolution often leads to possibilities of continued infidelity as the wife outmaneuvers her jealous husband. The tale is typical of a theme that runs through the genre, "le mari cocu, battu, et content" (the husband who's cuckolded, beaten, and happy). The husband who facilitates his own cuckoldry, as in other examples situated in courtly settings such as "Le chevalier qui recovra l'amor de sa dame" (The knight who recovered his lady's love), or "Guillaume au faucon" (Guillaume with the falcon), the latter based on a pun—the word faucon (falcon) creates a homophone of faux con (false cunt), points to the ambiguity of the attitude toward the adulterers who succeed, thus echoing to a certain extent the same ambiguity found in the courtly literature they parody.
Jean Bodel (1165–1210), one of the earliest authors of fabliaux, establishes the lubricity of the clergy in his "Gombert et les deux clercs" (Gombert and the two clerks, c. 1190), in which one young cleric sleeps with their host's wife, while the other does the same with the daughter. Satire of the clergy's sexual mores developed into a staple of the genre, with clerical participation in adulterous relations the norm. In tales where the adulterers are discovered, punishment tends to be exacted on the clergyman, rather than the wife, perhaps reinforcing the view that while one should expect no less from women, the clergy are held up to more strict scrutiny. One of the most notable examples in this vein is "Du Prestre crucifié" (The crucified priest), in which the naked priest, caught unexpectedly when the crucifix-maker husband comes home, hides out in the latter's workshop. The husband, noting that one of his Christ-figures displays unsightly genitalia, takes out his tools to remedy the situation. Not all clergymen suffer such extreme punishment, but few of them escape totally unscathed.
Language also furnishes a theme for sexual comedy in the fabliaux. Sometimes the tales are elaborated around a sexual metaphor, based on the renaming of sexual organs. A young man attempting to trick an uninitiated girl into a sexual relationship relies on a metaphor of an animal and food, as in "L'Esuiruel (The squirrel) or "La Dame qui abevra le polain" (The lady who watered the horse). Similar sexual metaphors figure in fabliaux such as "Porcelet" (Piglet) or "La Dame qui aveine demandoit pour Morel" (The lady who asked for oats for morel), but here they function as linguistic games to initiate sex in a married couple as well as to demonstrate that women's sexual appetite can be insatiable.
Other tales, too, offer variants of women's sexual appetites, both in and after marriage. "Le Souhait des vez" (Wishing for pricks), also by Jean Bodel, presents a husband who falls asleep without having sexually satisfied his wife. She refrains from waking him (as it would not be fitting). She in turn falls asleep and has an erotic dream: a fantasy of a village market in which all the stands sell penises of every size and description imaginable. As a woman cannot be satisfied by just one penis, she requires more. In "Celle qui se fist foutre sur la fosse de son mari" (The lady who got screwed on her husband's grave), a widow mourning the loss of her husband allows herself to be seduced by a squire who claims he killed his wife presumably through exhausting her in sexual intercourse. The widow asks to be killed in the same way (ostensibly to free her from her grief). She does not die. The equivocal ending, in which the widow has had some pleasure but the squire did not live up to his claims, reinforces the stereotype of the sexually voracious female.
Heterosexual relationships dominate the erotic preoccupations of the fabliaux, although few of the situations presented would fall into the realm of those activities blessed by the Catholic Church. Practices that would fall into the category of contra naturam or sodomy, although not a major theme of the genre, are hinted at and occasionally described. References to fellatio or cunnilingus, couched in metaphoric terms, appear in a number of fabliaux, as do couples whose sexual activities vary from the missionary position prescribed for procreative sex. Anal intercourse appears more than once, for example, in "Gombert et les deux clercs" and "Richeut." While heterosexual variant behaviors do occur, same-sex relations are nearly absent. Aside from veiled allusions, only "Le Prestre et le Chevalier" (The priest and the knight) offers an episode in which the humor derives from an encounter between a priest and a knight, the former being hinted at as a sodomite. No actual same-sex act occurs in the text. The "Trois dames qui troverent un vit" (The three ladies who found a prick) hints at possible same-sex relations in a convent and the use of a dildo, either in a couple or alone.
Other forms of gender transgression also appear relatively rarely. Nonetheless, one fabliau, "Berenger au lonc cul" (Long-assed Berenger) offers a complex set of transgressive activities, while at the same time commenting on class by means of gender. The wife who suspects her husband, a bourgeois who has married "up," of shamming his knightly, dresses as a knight herself and confronts him. The cowardly husband, rather than fight, willingly kisses the knight's ass. Passing as a man, the wife effeminizes her husband. In contrast, "La dame escoillée" (The castrated woman) presents an extreme instance of the misogynistic vein of the fabliaux, filtered through gender transgression and violence. A contradictory wife is upbraided by her noble son-in-law (who has already nearly beaten his wife to death for refusing to obey him) for her pride. He attributes her inappropriate behavior to her having testicles. A make-shift operation is performed by his servants who, after cutting into her thighs, pull out bloody bull's testicles that he had brought. The emasculated wife vows obedience, as does the terrified daughter. An insubordinate female is rendered subservient through a bodily transformation. Both fabliaux fit into what can be seen as an overarching conservative tendency of the sex genre in terms of gender relations.
Akin to the fabliau is the German Schwänke. Early Schwänke were in verse, but by the sixteenth century the genre was in prose. While they bear some thematic relationship to the French fabliaux and share some common stories (for example, the tale of Phyllis and Aristotle, a cautionary example concerning the power of women when men give in to desire), the genre has a wider range of themes. Nonetheless, one can identify a specific type for the wife in the Schwänke: she is typically portrayed as a shrew who angers easily and contributes to her husband's overall unhappiness. Although not common in English literature, there are also a few English fabliaux, the most famous of which are part of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Some, such as "The Reeve's Tale," have close parallels to French sources; others, for example "The Miller's Tale," have distant analogues in the French tradition. By the mid-fourteenth century, the genre had run its course in French literature. To a large extent, the prose nouvelle (short story) and the farce, two genres that grew in popularity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, carried on the sexual themes of the fabliaux. The sexual misadventures of the clergy remained as a major theme in the Renaissance nouvelle.
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Edith Joyce Benkov