Disabusing Women in the Old French Fabliaux
Serving as critics of medieval institutions such as courtly love and knighthood, women in diverse roles affirm their agency as subjects through the manipulation of language. The depiction of these women asserting their subjectivity within medieval literary and cultural conventions often distorts the normal relations between the sexes, putting into question the very gender framework within which the fabliaux operate. Written by men for men, the closing moral frequently serves to reassert traditional male dominance, thereby reducing any uneasiness the audience may have felt. Thus the fabliaux cast women as powerful users of language all the while acknowledging the limits of their subversion.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Medieval Views of Women
- Feminist and Theoretical Discourses
- Chapter One. Defending Women: Women Fighting Against Social Norms
- Exposing Knights
- Surviving in the Systems
- Chapter Two. Designing Women: Women’s Use of Manipulation in the Fabliaux
- Chapter Three. Desiring Women: When Objects Become Subjects
- Conclusion: Defining Women
- Series Index
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Qui croit sa fame plus qui lui
Sovent avra duel et anui.1 (Noomen and Boogaard 2 4: 150, v.155-56)
These are the closing words to “Le vallet aus douze fames,” an Old French fabliau, whose prominence is attested to by the fact that it was found in four different manuscripts. Given the popularity of this fabliau, such anti-feminist sentiments must have been widespread or at least well known in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in France. As will be discussed in further detail in chapter 2, these closing words are particularly shocking because the wife has saved her marriage from adultery by having sex with her husband, a braggart who claimed that twelve wives would never satisfy him. It was not uncommon for fabliaux in which women are victorious in their encounters with men to have such misogynist closures, transforming women from victor to victim. Though it is not the overt subject of the fabliaux, a power struggle between men and women is evident.
Despite the significant role women play in the fabliaux, no one critic has ever devoted an entire book to women in these texts. According to Marie-Thérèse Lorcin, ninety-five out of one hundred and sixty contain some sort of family household,3 establishing an indirect reference to women. This figure does not include the many fabliaux that deal with puceles, or single women, which would bring the total of fabliaux dealing with women to well over one hundred. In her article “Women on Top,” Lesley Johnson estimates that more than fifty percent of the female-male conflicts depict a woman overcoming or outwitting her male opponent (Johnson 298). While not specifically addressing the role of women, Per Nykrog remarks that, traditionally, the victorious character is considered more sympathetic, or less ignoble, than the victim of the plot in the fabliaux (Nykrog, Fabliaux 109). Where there is not a clear opposition of male versus female, the two characters often come to a mutual agreement or work together to defeat a third party. In this light, the audience is more prone to favor the female characters than not, and even to view them and their successes with considerable esteem (Johnson 299). Critics have rightly noted that the antifeminism ← 9 | 10 → of the fabliaux is not as prevalent as previously supposed, yet the role of women in the fabliaux has not been treated in a full-length book.
Trying to understand and paint an accurate picture of women in the Middle Ages is a daunting task. This can prove difficult for many periods of history but it is especially compounded in the Middle Ages by the limited amount of primary sources, particularly those written by women because, even more than their male counterparts, women were for the most part illiterate. Understanding women on their own terms then becomes almost impossible, forcing us to depend on the words of men. Many scholars turn to literary texts in order to get a more complete view of women. Yet again with rare exception, men also wrote these texts, which are often filled with violence, fantasy, and irony for the purposes of entertainment. However, we have no choice but to rely on these texts and authors to provide us with the tools with which we can dig up the traces of what life was like for women in the Middle Ages. The fabliaux offer multiple focalizations of the roles of women by depicting them as working within the medieval literary and cultural conventions to assert their agency, a fact that simultaneously raises questions regarding the legitimacy of traditional representations of medieval women.
To better understand what the literary and cultural conventions are, a brief history of fabliaux criticism will begin with Joseph Bédier’s seminal work on the fabliaux, Les Fabliaux, his doctoral thesis first published in 1893. Perhaps Bédier’s two most enduring contributions to the study of the fabliaux are his definition of fabliaux as “des contes à rire en vers” (Bédier 6) and the fact that he thought them worthy of true scholarly work: “j’ai traité gravement cette matière frivole” (Bédier vii). The first half of Bédier’s work concerns itself with disproving the oriental origins of the fabliaux. In his conclusion of the first half, he states that the search for oriental origins was not entirely fruitless because it allowed him to firmly negate that hypothesis (of his mentor Gaston Paris) and to study the fabliaux systematically, giving scholarly respectability to the study of popular tales (Bédier 246-47). The second half of his work concerns itself with the literary study of the fabliaux, covering the wit, versification, audience, authors, and the place of the fabliaux in the literature of the thirteenth century. A much-debated area of study is the intended audience of the fabliaux. Bédier contends that the fabliaux were created by and for the bourgeois class: “Ils sont la poésie des petites gens” (Bédier 329). While his definition is extremely succinct, Bédier’s description of the fabliaux as very funny tales using a variety of humor but never quite attaining the status of satire is more inclusive:
[l]’esprit qui anime cette masse est fait de bon sens frondeur, gai, d’une intelligence réelle de la vie courante du monde, d’un sens très exact du positif. Pas de naïveté, mais un tour ironique de niaiserie maligne; ni de colère, ni de satire qui porte, sauf, ← 10 | 11 → parfois, contre les prêtres; mais la dérision amusée, la croyance, commune à tous au moyen âge, que rien ici-bas ne doit ni ne peut changer, et que l’ordre établi, immutable, est le bon; l’optimisme, la joie de vivre, un réalisme sans amertume (Bédier 299).
Although Bédier makes the claim that the fabliaux were of bourgeois origin because of the coincidence of the appearance of the genre and the class and the negligence of style and versification, he also attempts to reconcile the fact that aristocratic audiences must have listened to them as well. A jongleur had to be ready to recite a variety of texts according to the desires of his public. The result is that in the thirteenth century there is a “confusion des genres et promiscuité des publics” (Bédier 343).
While Bédier believes that the corpus of fabliaux as a whole reflected life without bitterness, his study catalogs the vices of fabliaux women, displaying what Bédier considered to be the medieval authors’ opinion of women: “Il ne s’agit plus ‘de ce fond de rancune que l’homme a toujours contre la femme,’ mais d’un dogme bien défini, profondément enraciné, qui voici: les femmes sont des êtres inférieurs et malfaisants” (Bédier 281-82). Later, however, Bédier notes the frequent appeals to female listeners in the audience and found that the thirteenth century was “moins chaste ou, si l’on veut, moins prude” (Bédier 337) than his own century. This begs the question then of whether the misogyny often found in the fabliaux is a product of critics’ own personal biases, whether there is a misogyny inherent in the fabliaux, or possibly a combination of both.
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- Publication date
- 2014 (August)
- subjectivity gender framework male dominance
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 138 pp.