Politics Magazine

Chaucer and the Fabliau

Posted on the 11 December 2011 by Erictheblue

A fabliau, according to Merriam Webster's online dictionary, is "a short, usually comic, frankly coarse, and often cynical tale in verse popular especially in the 12th and 13th centuries."  Chaucer, whose life coincides pretty nearly with the second half of the 14th century, was a practitioner: of the Canterbury tales, the stories told by the miller, the reeve, the shipman, and the merchant all either qualify as fabliaux, or else exhibit the influence of the form.  Every aspect of the dictionary definition is present in these tales.  To illustrate, consider the plot of the tale of the shipman:

A merchant has a pretty wife who spends freely on the nice things she loves.  The merchant himself, however, is something of a miser, and is given to retiring to his counting house to tally up accounts.  His best friend is a young monk, who when visiting endears himself to the household help by tipping liberally.  On one of these visits, the wife confides to the monk that she is unhappy with her tight-fisted husband who, she suggests, does not satisfy her in bed, either.  She asks the monk for 100 francs to pay her debts.  The monk secures the 100 francs from the merchant and then, having turned it over to the wife, enjoys her sexual favors, their agreement being

That for thise hundred frankes he sholde all nyght
Have hire in his armes bolt upright.

When the merchant eventually asks for his money back, the monk says that he has returned it already--to the wife.  This man of God then hits the highway.  The merchant naturally asks his wife for the 100 francs.  She says that she's already spent it; also, that she had thought it was for the monk's long stay at their house, not repayment of an actual cash loan.  She will make it up to him in the bedroom:

For I wol paye yow wel and redily
Fro day to day, and if so be I faille,
I am youre wyf; score it upon my taille.

The pun--"taille" in the sense of "tally" or "ledger" and also "tale" or "ass"--neatly summarizes the theme of this story in which the price of sex, whether it be with your husband or his good friend the monk, is 100 francs.  F Scott Fitzgerald was not the first writer to investigate the financial foundations of the impulses to which all the finest citizens attach only the most exalted motives.  Everything in the story tends to impress upon us the brutal idea that money is at the root of everything.  The monk, besides duping both merchant and wife, purchases with coins the courtesy of the household help.  All of life is a confidence game.  Having been played herself by the monk, the wife cons the unknowing husband, and the tale ends with another double entendre:

Thus endeth my tale, and God us sende
Taillynge ynough unto our lyves ende.

The traditional fabliau is just for laughs, a kind of coarse joke at the expense of some ridiculous character.  In Chaucer's hand, the joke remains, you laugh and laugh, but finally you may wonder what exactly is so funny. The emotional source of the story is something like disgust.  And the tale of the shipman is by no means the only one like this.  One critic, discussing the merchant's tale, offers the opinion that it's "one of the most savagely obscene, angrily embittered, pessimistic, and unsmiling tales in our language."  In several of these stories, the coarse joke of the fabliau describes the whole human scene.

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