FABLIAU. The entertaining tales in eight-syllable rhymed verse which form a marked section of French medieval literature are called fabliaux, the word being derived by Littré from fablel, a diminutive of fable. It is a mistake to suppose, as is frequently done, that every legend of the middle ages is a fabliau. In a poem of the 12th century a clear distinction is drawn between songs of chivalry, war or love, and fabliaux, which are recitals of laughter. A fabliau always related an event; it was usually brief, containing not more than 400 lines; it was neither sentimental, religious nor supernatural, but comic and gay. MM. de Montaiglon and Raynaud, who have closely investigated this class of literature, consider that about 150 fabliaux have come down to us more or less intact; a vast number have doubtless disappeared. It appears from a phrase in the writings of the trouvère, Henri d'Andeli, that the fabliau was not thought worthy of being copied out on parchment. The wonder, then, is that so many of these ephemeral compositions have been preserved. Arguments brought forward by M. Joseph Bédier, however, tend to show that we need not regret the disappearance of the majority of the fabliaux, as those which were copied into MSS. were those which were felt to be of the greatest intrinsic value. As early as the 8th century fabliaux must have existed, since the faithful are forbidden to take pleasure in these fabulas inanes by the Paenitentiale of Egbert. But it appears that all the early examples are lost.
In the opinion of the best scholars, the earliest surviving fabliau is that of Richeut, which dates from 1159. This is a rough and powerful study of the coarse life of the day, with little plot, but engaged with a realistic picture of manners. Such poems, but of a more strictly narrative nature, continued to be produced, mainly in the north and north-east of France, until the middle of the 14th century. Much speculation has been expended on the probable sources of the tales which the trouvères told. The Aryan theory, which saw in them the direct influence of India upon Europe, has now been generally abandoned. It does not seem probable that any ancient or exotic influences were brought to bear upon the French jongleurs, who simply invented or adapted stories of that universal kind which springs unsown from every untilled field of human society. More remarkable than the narratives themselves is the spirit in which they are told. This is full of the national humour and the national irony, the true esprit gaulois. A very large section of these popular poems deals satirically with the pretensions of the clergy. Such are the famous Prêtre aux mûres, the Prêtre qui dit la Passion and Les Perdrix. Some of these are innocently merry; others are singularly depraved and obscene. Another class of fabliaux is that which comprises jests against the professions; in this, the most prominent example is Le Vilain Mire, a satire on doctors, which curiously predicts the Médecin malgré lui of Molière. There are also tales whose purpose is rather voluptuous than witty, and whose aim is to excuse libertinage and render marriage ridiculous. Among these are prominent Court Mantel and Le Dit de Berenger. Yet another class repeated, with a strain of irony or oddity, such familiar classical stories as those of Narcissus, and Pyramus and Thisbe. It is rarely that any elevation of tone raises these poems above a familiar and even playful level, but there are some that are almost idealistic. Among these the story of a sort of Sisyphus errant, Le Chevalier de Barizel, offers an ethical interest which lifts it in certain respects above all other surviving fabliaux. An instance of the pathetic fabliau is Housse Partie, a kind of primitive version of the story of King Lear.
In composing these pieces, of very varied character, the jongleurs have practised an art which was in many respects rudimentary, but sincere and simple. The student of language finds the rich vocabulary of the fabliaux much more attractive to him than the conventionality of the serious religious and amatory poems of the same age. The object of the writers was the immediate amusement of their audience; by reference to familiar things, they hoped to arouse a quick and genuine merriment. Hence their incorrectness and their negligence are balanced by a delightful ease and absence of pedantry, and in the fabliaux we get closer than elsewhere to the living diction of medieval France. It is true that if we extend too severe a judgment to these pieces, we may find ourselves obliged to condemn them altogether. An instructed French critic, vexed with their faults, has gone so far as to say that "the subjects of these tales are degrading, their inspiration nothing better than flat and cruel derision, their distinguishing features rascality, vulgarity and platitude of style." From one point of view, this condemnation of the fabliau is hardly too severe. But such scholars as Gaston Paris and Paul Meyer have not failed to emphasize other sides to the question. They have praised, in the general laxity of style and garrulity of the middle ages, the terseness of the jongleurs; in the period of false ornament, their fidelity to nature; in a time of general vagueness, the sharp and picturesque outlines of their art. One feature of the fabliaux, however, cannot be praised and yet must not be overlooked. In no other section of the world's literature is the scorn and hatred of women so prominent. It is difficult to account for the anti-feminine rage which pervades the fabliaux, and takes hideous shapes in such examples as Le Valet aux deux femmes, Le Pêcheur de Pont-sur-Seine and Chicheface et Bigorne. Probably this was a violent reaction against the extravagant cult of woman as expressed in the contemporary lais as well as in the legends of saints. The exaggeration was not greater in the one case than in the other, and it is probable that the exaltation was made endurable to those who listened to the trouvères by the corresponding degradation. We must remember, too, that those who listened were not nobles or clerks, they were the common people. The fabliaux were fabellae ignobilium, little stories told to amuse persons of low degree, who were irritated by the moral pretensions of their superiors.
The names of about twenty of the authors of fabliaux have been preserved, although in most cases nothing is known of their personal history. The most famous poet of this class of writing is the man whose name, or more probably pseudonym, was Rutebeuf. He wrote Frère Denyse and Le Sacristain, while to him is attributed the Dit d'Aristote, in the course of which Aristotle gives good advice to Alexander. Fabliaux, however, form but a small part of the work of Rutebeuf, who was a satirical poet of wide accomplishment and varied energy. Most of the jongleurs who wrote these merry and indecent tales in octosyllabic verse were persons of less distinction. Henri d'Andeli was an ecclesiastic, attached, it is supposed, to the cathedral of Rouen. Jean de Condé, who flourished in the court of Hainaut from 1310 to 1340, and who is the latest of the genuine writers of fabliaux, lived in comfort and security, but most of the professional jongleurs seem to have spent their years in a Bohemian existence, wandering among the clergy and the merchant class, alternately begging for money and food and reciting their mocking verses.
The principal authorities for the fabliaux are MM. Anatole de Montaiglon and Gaston Raynaud, who published the text, in 6 vols., between 1872 and 1890. This edition corrected and supplemented the very valuable labours of Méon (1808-1823) and Jubinal (1839-1842). The works of Henri d'Andeli were edited by M.A. Héron in 1880, and those of Rutebeuf were made the subject of an exhaustive monograph by M. Léon Clédat in 1891. See also the editions of separate fabliaux by Gaston Paris, Paul Meyer, Ebeling, August Schéler and other modern scholars. M. Joseph Bedier's Les Fabliaux (1895) is a useful summary of critical opinion on the entire subject.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)