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D.S. Brewer, "The Fabliaux."
by Chrysula Dimitrakopulu
Web posted at 4:20 PM on 3/8/96 from 26.salc.wsu.edu.
Brewer, D.S. "The
Fabliaux." Companion to Chaucer Studies. Ed. Beryl Rowland.Oxford
Brewer states that only in the 20th-century the fabliaux have begun to receive
adequate criticism and only now they are accepted as among Chaucer's highest
Definition: Fabliau is a versified short story designed to make you laugh,
and its subject matter is most often indecent, concerned either with sexual
or excretory functions. The plot is usually in the form of a practical joke
carried out for love or revenge. Fabliaux are: Miller's, Reeve's, Cook's,
Friar's, Summoner's, Merchant's, and Shipman's Tale.
Outline of the progress of 20th-century criticism and scholarship of the
-medieval French fabliau first edited and studied in 18th-century (1872-90
standard collection of Montaiglon and Raynaud)
-1893 modern study by Baudier: fabliau is invention of 13th-century in France,
did not long persist in the 14th; he conceived refined and idealizing romance
as courtly genre, coarse and realistic fabliau as bourgeois genre
-1957 Nykrog: fabliau is as courtly a genre as a romance; is aristocratic
burlesque, holding up to amusement the coarse buffooneries of lower classes
and some clergy; subject matter low, but no erotic elaboration, no pornography,
about Chaucer's fabliaux:
-first five centuries caused amusement (Wordsworth)
-early 20th-century caused embarrassment, e.g. Manly omitted fabliaux from
his edition, Root has divided judgment: low in artistic value, extreme indecency
but brilliant characterization and consummate narrative skill
-Germaine Dempster (1932): for first time fabliaux are shown to be artistic
center of Chaucer's poetry; Chaucer learnt from fabliaux objectivity, impersonality
of style, quickness and lightness of touch, pervading realism; she notes
cruelty and fierce irony of some tales
-Shelly (1940): notes vivid realism, merriment, lively characterization,
and the neglect of fabliaux so far
(in late 40's and 50's greatness of fabliau as poetry is emphasized)
-Coghill (1949): contrasts fantasy of plots with realism of description
-Lawrence (1950): question of interrelationship of tales, pilgrimage to
introduce fabliaux with dramatic plausibility
-Speirs (1951): points to allegories, symbols, and imagery in poems; remarkable
is range Chaucer spans from farmyard to court
-Muscatine (1957): fabliaux represent extreme of realism, * naturalism,
poems maintain conflict between Chaucer's general * idealism of his world
view, and his realism-naturalism in equilibrium; (e.g. Miller's, Merchant's
Tale are dualistic, mixture of courtliness and naturalism); New Criticism,
stylistic analysis, introduces notion of narrator of poem; emphasizes Symbolist
-Robertson (1962): emphasizes allegorical and conceptual elements; questions
that fabliaux are * like life
-Corsa (1964): Chaucer as poet of mirth and morality; fabliaux concerned
with justice of several kinds
-Ruggiers (1965): Chaucer more and more sympathetic to the secular and profane;
Chaucer's concern with morality; all tales contribute to some moral end,
are expressions of characters of tellers
From lowly position, regarded with contempt or neglect, however modified
by amusement, Chaucer's fabliaux have gained position of central importance
for most critics; reasons for this shift( change in notion of poetry; satire
and humor now viewed as appropriate poetic expressions; modern literature
more indecent and immoral than Chaucer's indecency
general notes on tales:
* Miller's Tale( language as parody of popular romance; Freudian symbolism
in action and style; mocking Seven Liberal Arts and Miracle Plays; alluding
to Song of Songs; (Brewer) comedy of sex, full of injustice, and immoral
* Reeve's Tale( comedy of social pride; emphasizes poetic justice and comic
morality; relation of tale to the character
* Friar's Tale( little linguistic or stylistic analysis; full of echoes
of excommunication; realism is sacrificed to irony; greed and coarse sexuality
* Summoner's Tale(richer, though more unsavory than The Friar's Tale; many
puns and verbal allusions; characterization of Friar through his odiously
smarmy speech; no comment on scholastic elements
* Shipman's Tale( nearer to pure fabliau-type; double-entendre at the end,
no agreement that poem was meant for woman speaker; relationship between
sex and money
* Merchant's Tale( furthest away from fabliau-type; does not fit to any
simple category; ironic references to the Song of Songs; physical and moral
blindness of January has Freudian symbolism; structure of plot is ironical;
matter of argument: levels of narration, degree of drama of tale, relationship
between Merchant's own experience and tale to be examined: differences and
similarities between traditional fabliaux and Chaucer's; Chaucer's philological,
linguistic, stylistic resources, levels of narration, kind of characterization.
Brewer is of the opinion that we should see the fabliaux for what they are,
as comedies, fantasies full of fun and enjoyment, both like and unlike life.
This article is surely very valuable to gain an overview of representative
studies of the European fabliaux and of twentieth-century scholarship of
Chaucer's fabliau, but does not go into detail.
Bedier, J. Les Fabliaux. Bibl. de l' ecole des hautes Etudes, fasc. 98.
Paris: Emile Bouillon, 1893.
Coghill, Nevill. The Poet Chaucer. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949.
Corsa, Helen Storm. Chaucer: Poet of Mirth and Morality. Notre Dame, Ind.:
Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1964.
Dempster, Germaine. Dramatic Irony in Chaucer. 1932. Rpt. New York: Humanities
Lawrence, William Witherle. Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales. New York:
Columbia Univ. Press, 1950.
Montaiglon, Anatole de, and Gaston Raynaud, eds. Recueil gnral et complet
des fabliaux des XIII et
XIV sicles, imprims ou indits, publis avec notes et variantes d' aprs les
manuscrits. 6 vls. Paris, 1872-90.
Muscatine, Charles. Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and
Meaning. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1957.
Nykrog, Per. Les Fabliaux: tude d'histoire littraire et de stylistique mdivale.
1957. New ed. Genve: Librairie Droz, 1973.
Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives.
Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962.
Ruggiers, Paul G. The Art of the Canterbury Tales. Madison: Univ.of Wisconsin
Shelly, Percy Van Dyke. The Living Chaucer. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania
Speirs, John. Chaucer the Maker.1951. Rev. 2d ed. London: Faber, 1960.
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