Pronunciation key
Fabliaux Sample #1
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Fabliau. A comic or farcical short story, mainly in rhyme (in octo-syllabic verse) and rarely more than 400 lines in length, designed to amuse and entertain. These narrative poems were created in Mediaeval times characterized by their vivid detail and realistic observation.

Fabliaux were popular in France from the middle of the 12th to the middle of the 14th century, and they were composed and recited by wandering minstrels known as jongleurs. Manuscripts are for most part, from the 13th century.

The fabliaux range from a few lines to about one thousand three hundred, and were written in Champenois, Picard, Anglo-Norman or Ile-de-France dialect. THe earliest fabliau, Richeut, dates from 1175, but the main period of their composition was the 13th century. Some of the authors include Phillipe de Beaumanoir and professionals Jehan Bodel and Rutebauf.

The fabliaux were realistic stories of everyday life told in a bawdy and mocking spirit. The prose scoffs at morality, satirizations of common subjects such as the faults of women and the vices of some members of the clergy. Their skepticism and disrespect for authority were in sharp contrast to the romantic sentimentality of the type of verse associated with knighthood known as the lais, also popular at the time. The fabliaux could be discreet, delicately insinuating, charming and sentimental. They present an ironic picture of ordinary, every day life. Generally, a lover, a faithless wife and deceived husband are main characters, as well as a cast including naughty priests and stupid peasants. The fabliaux stem from folklore, some have classical affinities. Most are of popular origin, spread through oral tradition, with some originating from Oriental sources. Women were often portrayed as shrew-like and depraved. Many of the tales are so simple they probably arose spontaneously.

Many were based on elementary puns or jokes -- such as one called Estula which can be taken two ways, as a name or mean "Are you there?" Another tale is about a man who is rescued from drowning but has his eye put out by the boat hook that saves him. Most of the fabliau are erotic in nature. The theme is often treated to reveal the deceiver as the one who is deceived.

Fabliaux as a genre disappeared by the 15th century in France. They were important sources for later nouvelles and contes appearing in England, Germany and Italy. Boccacio and Chaucer drew from them as did La Fontaine, Molière and Anatole France. Richeut, written about 1159, and Auberée, written at the end of the twelfth century, are the earliest known fabliaux; Baudouin and Jehan de Condé of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century are among the latest writers of fabliaux; while Jean Bedel, Rutebeuf, Gautier le Long, and Huon le Roi are among other known authors. Some of the most well known and amusing are La Housse partie, (The Divided Covering) Les trois aveugles de Compiègne (The Three Blind Men of Compiègne), Le Conte d' Aristote, (The Story of Aristotle), Le Vilain mire (The Peasant Physician), and Le Tombeor Notre-Dame (The Tumbler of Notre Dame).

Of the enormous number of fabliaux produced, about 150 are extant; and of their numerous authors, approximately 20 are known, including the noted satirical poet Rutebeuf, among whose fabliaux are Le Sacristain and Frère Denyse. The fabliaux strongly influenced French writers of prose narrative through the 14th to 16th century, including Margaret of Navarre and Antoine de La Salle. The form was used by many authors of the Middle English period of English literature, including Chaucer, whose masterpiece The Canterbury Tales contains six fabliaux.

In later times Shakespeare, Baccaccio, and Molière made use of material in their works.

It was once held that fabliaux represented literature of the bourgeous, however this is unlikely since they contain substantial elements of burlesque (or mockery and parody) that requires considerable knowledge of courtly society, love and manners. They also express scorn for some of humble position.

Because of its characteristic brevity and emphasis on plot and climax, the fabliaux is considered a forerunner of the modern short story.


  • Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia, ©1950
  • Collier's Encyclopedia, ©1960
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia, ©1984
  • “The Bad Behaviour of Friars and Women in the Medieval Catalan fabliaux and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales”
  • l'image: découvrir l'univers des fabliaux
  • Rutebeuf, Encyclopédie Larousse
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