by Ryan Fontaine
The tradition of the fabliau is generally accepted to
have begun during the 12th and 13th Centuries and the
pieces, of which there are about 160, were composed
in French. Their length ranged anywhere from 60-1000
lines of octosyllabic couplets (like those we have seen
from Chaucer this year), but like everything else concerning
fabliaux, there are certainly exceptions to this rule.
Bédier simply defines the Fabliau as, "les
fabliaux sont des contes à rire en vers,"
which translates as "fabliaux are funny tales in
verse." Bédier’s definition has been
subject to violent scrutiny, particularly of late, with
a great deal of literature surfacing in the past decade
or so that attempts to deal with the fabliau. Because
there is so much divergence in this field, even basic
definitions are hotly contested, and so the academic
works produced so far are generally unsatisfactory.
This also points to what might be the greatest success
of the fabliau; its ability to raise controversy 800
As stated, from my readings, the fabliau is something
like an epic Limerick. They are almost always meant
to be funny, are dirty and bawdy in content, full of
double-entendre, offensive, and always have a moral
which has to do with a kind of rough social justice
rather than conventional ethics. Like a fable, and potentially
derived from the genre of fable, the fabliau has a short
story to tell, although they are more clearly targeted
to adults. Of course, in reading the Grimm’s fairy
tales or Aesop’s Fables many to-day would consider
them to be too violent or horrific for children and
that perhaps even the tradition of the fable has its
roots in being for the adult audience. Conversely, however,
even the most violence-numb of children would make an
appropriate audience for the tamest fabliau. Evidence
of this is that by contrast to the fable, children simply
could not understand what the fabliau was getting at.
In truth, many read as a series of preposterous events,
loosely strung together if only to include some dirty
sexual situation. And it is possible that this is the
real motivator for fabliaux: a situation with the goal
of making the audience laugh where the moral is merely
incidental; a sort of justification for telling a dirty
story. Imagine a contemporary comedian ending every
joke about the hazards of marriage and the vast differences
between men and women with, "…and the moral
of that is don’t get married." It should
also be noted that all the comedians would have to be
men because nearly all fabliaux concern homocentric
situations, where women are conniving, and vengeful
monsters, with the sole focus of ruining their mates.
In line with this male-dominated construction is the
curious contradiction, that despite all of the anti-woman
and pro-man propaganda that fabliaux profess, less than
20% address any homosexual content, and when they do
the homosexual act is always the result of gender confusion,
a misunderstanding, or simple accident (as in The Miller’s
Men, however victimized by their women, are often depicted
as very stupid and bumbling. Both genders are fixated
on wealth, eroticism, and gluttony. As a result of this
raw content, the intended audience is absolutely unclear.
Initially it was thought that the poor or working classes
were the proliferators of these tales. More recent studies
show that the audience may have actually been the wealthy
or at least bourgeois. Since there is no agreement on
this subject, it is also possible that all classes of
people relished in the cynical hilarity of fabliaux
at the time.
The fabliau also incorporated extremely precise language
where every word is integral to the plot development
and success of the story. The language is also very
easy to understand, and was probably composed for a
general audience of both educated and uneducated, which
may signify that women were part of the targeted listeners
and readers. In keeping with the theme of internal contradiction,
fabliaux would often employ courtly language and imagery
concurrent with swearing and bawdiness. In the example
referenced during my presentation, a valiant knight’s
squire attempts to woo a sorrowful widow by explaining
that he killed his own beloved, "by fucking, my
fair dear lady." The situation is somewhat romantic
where the knight-in-training tries to save the distressed
damsel and speaks to her in lovely words (my fair, dear
lady) while what they are really talking about is having
intercourse (fucking). Even to our weathered sensibilities
(think of South Park or Tom Green), this phrase and
situation is surprising and borders on offensive (surely
more so to some). The fabliau represents the ultimate
The objectives of fabliaux always revolve around deceptions
to achieve a goal of revenge, seduction, or the previously
unattainable. Often, a single fabliau would deal with
all three themes and would become quite lengthy as a
result. To combat this symptom of length comes one of
the only shortcomings of the fabliau and that is the
employment of what usually reduce to stock characters
to move the action. This makes the fabliau more efficient,
but at the cost that they become somewhat repetitive.
Chaucer takes the concept of the fabliau and works it
to effect various purposes in the Canterbury Tales.
In "The Miller’s Tale", he develops
many of the common elements of the fabliau in a story
that incorporates many of the situations and characters
that can be found in its French precedents. "The
Reeve’s Tale" works in a similar way, while
"The Cook’s Tale", although unfinished,
suggests another fabliau-influenced work. "The
Merchant’s Tale" takes the fabliaux’
duplicitous female character and pushes her to take
advantage of a blind old knight (who happens to be twice
her age). And finally in "The Shipman’s Tale",
though a little more advanced than a fabliau, mirrors
the fabliaux’ economy of language and construction.
Chaucer’s interest in fabliaux is actually quite
amazing because the poems are thought to have been generally
unpopular among other English writers.
With all of the literature currently available on the
subject, fabliaux are still not fully understood nor
do they even have a stabilized definition. The debate
that focuses on them points to their enduring value
to modern language and its foundations. However, as
there is so little information that is agreed upon,
the fabliau is defined almost exclusively by conjecture
and so all "facts" are totally misleading
and often without evidence.
Benson, L.D., Theodore Anderson. The Literary Context
of Chaucer’s Fabliaux: Text’s and Translations.
The Bobbs-Merrill Company: New York. 1971.
Bloch, R.H. The Scandal of the Fabliaux. U of Chicago
Press: Chicago. 1986.
Cooke, T.D., Benjamin Honeycutt. The Humor of the Fabliaux.
U of Missouri Press: Columbia, Missouri. 1974.
Cooke, T.D. The Old French and Chaucerian Fabliaux:
A Study of Their Comic Climax. U of Missouri Press:
Columbia, Missouri. 1978
Hertog, E. Chaucer’s Fabliaux as Analogues. Leven
UP: Belgium. 1991.
Lacy, N.J. Reading Fabliaux. Garland Publishing: New
Muscantine, C. The Old French Fabliaux. Yale UP: New
Schenck, M. J. Stearns. The Fabliax: Tales of Wit and
Decption. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
Lawyers in Chaucer’s
by Ruby To
The 14th Century legal profession is comprised of Sergeants
and attorneys. Sergeants at Law have an exclusive right
of audience in the main civil court known as the Court
of the Common Pleas (Court of the Common Bench). They
alone can perform the functions of pleader or counter.
Judges are selected from among the Sergeants.
Attorneys are apprentices who have the right of audience
in all courts except the Court of the Common Pleas.
They study the Sergeants in action from a box positioned
to one side of the court known as the "Crib".
They take notes of the court proceedings such as arguments,
objections, rulings and judgments. Sergeants are chosen
from among the attorneys.
The Temple is the legal community where attorneys and
Sergeants congregate. It is the area between the two
main centres of legal activities, Westminster Hall and
St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sergeants interview clients
on the great west porch of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Westminster Hall houses the Court of the Common Pleas
and the Courts of Chancery. The Inns of Chancery and
Inns of Court are also located in the Temple area where
law students live and study.
Before entering the Inns of Court, a student must study
for 2 years in one of the 10 minor inns known collectively
as the Inns of Chancery. There are approximately 100
students per inn. They study original writs and basic
elements of the common law. Written text is scarce so
a student is chosen to be the reader while others take
notes. Classes are followed by debates to ensure that
the students have understood and memorized the material.
Students with good memory would excel. Upon graduation
(matriculation) the students enter the Inns of Court.
The Inns of Court is an organization similar to a guild
that regulates and protects a profession. It exercises
a monopoly to train and educate apprentices, to set
fees and to grant the right to practice. It also serves
as a training ground for gentlemen’s sons (knights,
barons and the greatest nobility) for careers other
than law such as public officials or business administrators.
The Inner Temple (inner inn), Middle Temple (middle
inn), Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn make
up the societies of Inns of Court.
There are approximately 200 students per Inn. The law
apprenticeship is sixteen years that includes daily
lectures, note-taking, serving as a Reader and debates.
Apart from law, students also study dancing, history,
music and divinity. Beer drinking is known to be a favorite
Students have to be proficient in English, Latin and
Norman French. The 14th Century English court proceedings
are conducted in all three languages. For example, counsel
begins in French with a formal plea, switches to English
to advance an argument and then breaks off again into
French or Latin to express technicalities.
The lengthy education at the Inns of Court is expensive.
In addition, the expenses associated with the appointment
of Sergeant further limit enrollment to sons of wealthy
Sergeants at Law are the most powerful and prestigious
group of lawyers that equals the rank of knights. They
are a tightly knit fraternity of approximately 21 members
known as Order of the Coif. The coif is a tight fitting
cap of white silk or linen that covers a Sergeant’s
hair and ears and fastened under his chin. He never
takes it off not even in the King’s presence.
In ordinary occasions, he wears a long priest-like woolen
gown, a cape furred with squirrel or lambskin, a hood
with 2 tippets. In court, he wears a parti-colored robe
of green and blue. Striped or rayed either vertically
or horizontally. The division of colors separated straight
down the front and back of the robe. Attorneys wear
blue/brown and Judges wear scarlet.
The Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas graduates three
to seven attorneys into the ranks of Sergeants on the
advice and consent of other Judges. The graduates are
selected based on their academic accomplishments and
high moral character. The Lord High Chancellor of England
orders each by royal writ to present himself before
As part of the appointment formalities, the candidate
is to host feasts for 7 days. He is also to give presents
of gold rings to an endless list of princes, dukes,
clergy, petty officials, lords, knights and men of social
prominence. Value of each ring is in proportion to the
social rank and quality of the recipient.
A Sergeant is bound by duty to give legal advice to
any of the King’s subjects, regardless of their
ability to pay. As Sergeant he was enjoined from refusing
to give counsel to the empty-handed. Generally, it is
payment before service and the client or witness who
has more money wins the suit.
Sergeants travel to counties in England and Wales often
on assize duties. These are periodic trial of both civil
and criminal cases held locally to save the litigants
from having to go to London. A patent from the King
appoints the Sergeant to serve as a judge and the range
of his jurisdiction is stated in a commission. The journey
is usually on foot or on horseback. However, the hardships
of travel are offset by generous compensations.
A Sergeant’s annual income includes 20 pounds
from the King and a robe at Christmas. This would put
the Sergeant in the same tax basis as esquires, merchants
and Franklins. Most lawyers have income from other investments
and a popular one is real estate.
Popular resentment of lawyers runs high in the 1300’s.
In theory, a lay person can represent himself in courts
other than the Common Pleas but language and pleading
complexities dictate legal help. This exclusivity creates
popular resentment. In the 1381 uprising, Wat Tyler’s
followers destroyed all existing records of the legal
profession by burning down the chambers in the Temple
Benson, L.D., The Riverside Chaucer Third Edition. Houghton
Mifflin Company: Boston. 1987
The State of Drama in Medieval England
by Susan Bond
Drama held an interesting position in medieval English
society. During the decline of the Roman Empire, the
Christian church lashed out against many classical forms
of entertainment, and part of the group of things condemned
was anything where people pretended to be people or
things they weren’t (along with such spectacula
as feeding Christians to lions). There was thus a fairly
sharp break with the tradition of theatre in the classical
style presented in an amphitheatre as represented by
the works of Plautus or Terrence. Drama did exist in
two forms in this period, one a continuation from previous
traditions, and on a reemergence in an unlikely place.
The continued tradition of drama was in the form of
folk plays performed in village celebrations, usually
celebrating solstices, but more generally a celebration
of Spring (or presumably also autumn). These were originally
pagan solstice and harvest celebrations, but much of
the pagan religious element was gone by the time of
Chaucer. As these plays were never formally institutionalized
and very rarely written down, not a lot can be said
about them with any great degree of certainty. It is
known, however, that presentations of the works of Saint
George (the patron Saint of England) and the story of
Robin Hood would be enacted, often with the roles of
Robin Hood and Maid Marion being enacted by the ‘king’
and ‘queen’ of the May festival.
The reemergence of dramatic tradition happened in a
very unlikely place – the church, which was itself
trying to suppress most dramatic forms. It is thought
that the first ‘play’ in the Middle Ages
was performed in a monastery during the Quem Quaeritis,
the Easter morning presentation of the three Marys going
to the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty. Initially,
it was performed by three monks and only for the clergy,
during the song of praise Easter morning. Gradually
it was expanded to show more and more of the resurrection,
with monks representing more and more of the roles.
Eventually, the laity were welcome to witness the performances
and the naves of churches became suitable venues. After
extending Easter-season performances to include all
the events immediately leading up to the death and resurrection
(think Jesus Christ Superstar) they began presenting
the other end of Jesus’ life, the nativity. People
played wise men, shepherds, in addition to Gabriel,
Mary and Joseph (very much like contemporary American
Christmas pageants, which are essentially a continuation
of this tradition).
Eventually, non-clergy began to take over the roles,
and even added significant sets and costumes. The stories
displayed were also expanded, from the entire life of
Jesus, to many of the familiar Old Testament narratives
(the Ark of the Covenant, the story of Job, etc.), and
in some cases the entire history of the world as told
by the Bible. The naves of many churches were quite
large. As there were no permanent pews or benches until
much later, the nave was essentially the entire interior
of the church building, and so could fit fairly large
productions, and usually all of the townspeople could
fit inside at once. Nonetheless, the scale of some of
these productions eventually necessitated moving them
outside, at first to the steps of the church and then
to beside the building. The sets became very elaborate
– one production, Adam, is known to have had an
extremely elaborate set, representing multiple locations,
and even had the maw of hell, a venue large enough to
house several devils when they exited the stage. Eventually,
what were essentially professional acting companies
developed and would bring their portrayals of Bible
stories from town to town, from church to church. In
addition to portraying discrete segments of the life
of Christ and Old Testament stories, they would portray
lives of saints and prophets. Eventually, they began
showing simply stories of essentially ordinary people
that were used didactically to teach Christian virtues,
particularly of obedience and faith.
As by this time the acting companies had very little
formal connection to the church, it was appropriate
that they concern themselves less with tricky doctrinal
issues and focus on eschatological moral stories. Many
of these still exist – a famous example is the
play Everyman. Meanwhile (or, more accurately, earlier)
churches in large cities were able to expand their productions
without completely losing control of them. As part of
the Easter celebrations in many towns, the entire story
from slightly before creation to the day of Judgement
would be told in discrete segments, by different groups.
Each vocational or religious guild would be assigned
a story, for which they would be responsible. Each production
was responsible for its own cast and set, which would
be built on a movable platform – a pageant wagon.
This is administratively similar to contemporary parades
– the Santa Claus parade is probably the closest
local parallel. The entire story would move along what
was essentially a parade route and stop at designated
locations to perform: thus townspeople who sat or stood
in one spot would see all of history over the course
of the day. The York cycle, about which the most is
known, initially followed the route of the Corpus Christi
parade: an Eastertide procession in which consecrated
sacramental bread (which was then considered to be the
actual body of Christ) was marched through all of the
city before being deposited in the Cathedral.
Clopper, Lawrence M. "English drama: from ungodly
ludi to sacred play." In The Cambridge History
of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace.
New York: New York. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Higgins, Anne. "Streets and Markets". In A
New History of Early English Drama. Edited by John D.
Cox and David Scott Kastan. New York, New York: Columbia
University Press, 1997, pp 77-92.
McGee, Timothy J. "Drama, Liturgical" In Dictionary
of the Middle Ages, Vol. 4. Edited by Joseph R. Strayer.
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984.
Mills, David. "Drama, Western European". In
Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vol. 4. Edited by Joseph
R. Strayer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
Wasson, John. "The English Church as Theatrical
Space". In A New History of Early English Drama.
Edited by John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan. New York,
New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, pp 25-38.
Watkins, John. "The allegorical theatre: moralities,
interludes and Protestant drama." In The Cambridge
History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David
Wallace. New York: New York. Cambridge University Press,