Largely unavailable for centuries, a new collection of bawdy, naughty, and vivid medieval French tales reminds us that our ancestors were a dirty bunch. Yunte Huang on what they reveal about human nature.
“By trade I am a fucker, miss
so may your heart be filled with bliss”
Scandalous at the time of their creation in the Middle Ages, the old French comic tales in verse, commonly known as the fabliaux, can still shock you today with their outrageous obscenity, salacious humor, and carnivalesque laughter. Equally scandalous, if not more so, is the fact that these lyrical tales, as provocative as The Plum in the Golden Vase, the Kama Sutra, or Ovid’s The Art of Love, have remained virtually inaccessible for so long due to censorship by cultural and religious orthodoxy. Over the centuries, general readers have only been able to savor a whiff of the fabliaux’s scatological aesthetics and erotic trickery filtered through bowdlerized versions or watered down by canonical authors. Chaucer, Boccaccio, Rabelais, and Molière, to name just a few, were all indebted to those itinerant minstrels wandering the countries and marketplaces of medieval France, those quixotic jongleurs who composed, performed, and passed down these quaint literary jewels. Now thanks to Nathaniel Dubin, a professor of modern classical languages at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota, we finally can read for ourselves these almost-millennium-old tales that once titillated some of the best literary minds in the West.
Literary history aside (or be damned), these anti-establishment, anti-ecclesiastical fabliaux are pure, unadulterated fun. Naughtily sporting 69 stories in total, Dubin’s volume is a golden bough of erotic imagination and folk humor, peopled by randy wives, cuckolded husbands, fornicating priests, and priapic knights. Breaking down rigid social hierarchy so characteristic of the Middle Ages, these riotous tales poke fun at everyone. In “The Three Estates,” two knights ride along and find a shady spot in the woods, “decked with flowers and herbs.” They imagine this to be a nice place for a picnic, a party of wine, pasties and other niceties “as gay as/in a great hall on the high dais.” Along come two clerics, who have a different idea for the use of the sylvan enclave: bring their lady friends here and have a quality time. At last, two peasants barge into the scene, with spades and threshers on their backs. Seeing the enticing spot,
they started speaking just like peasants:
“Hey, Fouchier, from the looks of it
this is the perfect place to shit.
Let’s take a dump right now, old pal.”
“Upon my soul, we may as well.”
Then each of them squats down and strains.
In contrast with the well-mannered noblemen on high horses and clerics with not-so-clerical minds, the peasants, in the parlance of everyone’s native town, just don’t give a shit.
Very often a fabliau is a comedy of situation: a rendezvous between a married woman and a priest is interrupted by the unexpected return of the cuckolded husband. All parties must think on their feet or risk exposure and shame. It’s a survival of the wittiest. In “The Crucified Priest,” the wife of a master carver and her cleric paramour are caught on a tight spot. She tells him to hide inside her husband’s studio and pose as a naked statue. As in all of the fabliaux, the table can be turned as easily as changing positions in bed. A trickster can be tricked, a duper duped. The husband, seeing through the ruse as clearly as he sees the “hanging balls and cock” of the priest, does not let on and comes up a clever scheme of revenge:
“Lady,” he says, “I’ve made a shock-
ing image here by not omitting
those virile members. How unfitting!
I must have had too much to drink.
Some light! I’ll fix it in a wink.”
He goes on to nip off the priest’s genitalia.
In spite of the exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness, the fabliaux embody an authentic, deep sense of realism. In the words of R. Howard Bloch, a Sterling Professor at Yale who writes a truly inspiring introduction to the volume, “the fabliaux make the body speak.” To be more precise, they make the lower body speak: cocks, cunts, butt holes, farts, shit, and urine. “The Blacksmith of Greil” sings a super-phallic panegyric, rendered superbly into colloquial English:
he was endowed with a prick,
the most colossal slab of meat
that’s served to women as a treat,
God’s honest truth—one shaped so fair
that Nature must have lavished care
to make it, and surpassed her craft,
around the bottom of the shaft
two palms in length, wide as a fist.
A hole, though shaped like an ellipse,
in which this well-hung stud had placed it
would look as if a compass traced it.
Or, in “Trial by Cunt,” three sisters fight for the same man by trying to outwit each other in reply to a Jeopardy!-style question: “Who was born first, your cunt or you?” The first sister replies that her cunt is older because it has a beard and she does not. The second thinks otherwise, because she has grown teeth, whereas her cunt has not. The third sister believes her answer hits the jackpot: “my cunt’s younger than I,/and I’ll tell you the reason why./While I have been weaned from the breast,/the mouth of my cunt gapes from thirst/and, at its young age, needs to suck.” Or, in “The Two Peasants,” the hostess’s gassy butt hole is mistaken for the hungry mouth of the peasant’s companion. Chaucer, it is said, borrowed the rim-job motif for “The Miller’s Tale” in his magnum opus.