Jenifer Sutherland

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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 years later.

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 Tale).


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 in shock.

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.

Works Consulted:
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 York. 1993.
Muscantine, C. The Old French Fabliaux. Yale UP: New Haven. 1986.
Schenck, M. J. Stearns. The Fabliax: Tales of Wit and Decption. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia. 1987.


Lawyers in Chaucer’s Time

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 pastime.
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 families.

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 the King.

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 area.

Works Consulted:
U of Texas
Temple History
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.

Works Cited:
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, 1984.
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, 1999.