1902 Encyclopedia > France > Fabliaux

(Part 31)



There are few literary products which have more originality and at the same time more diversity than the fabliau. The epic and the drama, even when they are independently produced, are similar in their main characteristic all the world over. But there is nothing in previous literature which exactly corresponds to the fabliau . It comes nearest top the Aesopic fable and its Eastern origins or parallels. But it differs from these in being less allegorical, less obviously moral (though amoral of some sort is usually if not always enforced), and in having a much more direct personal interest. It is in many degrees further removed from the parable, and many degrees nearer to the novel. The story is the first thing, the moral the second, and the latter is never suffered to interfere with the former. These observations apply only to the fabliaux, properly so called, but the term has been used with considerable looseness. The collectors of those interesting pieces. Barbazan, Méon, Le Grand d’ Aussy, have included in their collections large numbers of miscellaneous pieces such as dits (rhymed descriptions of various objects), and débats (discussions between two persons or contracts of the attributed of two things), sometimes even short romances, farces, and mystery plays. The Fabian proper, according to the definition of its latest editor, is "the recital, generally comic, of a real or possible incident occurring in ordinary human life." The comedy, it may be added, is usually of a satiric kind, and occupies itself with every class and rank of men, from the king to the villain. There is no limit to the variety of these lively verse-tales, which are invariably written in eight-syllabled couplets. Now the subject is the misadventure of two Englishmen, whose ignorance of the French language makes them ask some donkey instead of some lamb; now it is the fortunes of an exceedingly foolish knight, who has an amiable and ingenious mother-in-law; now the deserved sufferings of an avaricious or ill-behaved priest; now the bringing of an ungrateful son to a better mind by the wisdom of babes and sucklings. Not a few of the Canterbury Tales are taken directly from fabliaux; indeed, Chaucer, with the possible exception or Prior, is our nearest approach to a fabliau-writer. At the other end of Europe the prose novels of Boccaccio and other Italian tale-tellers are largely based upon fabliaux. But their influence in their own country was the greatest. They were the first expression of the spirit which ahs since animated the most national and popular developments of French literature. Simple and unpretending as they are in form, the fabliaux announce not merely the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and the Heptameron, L’Avocat Patelin, and Pantagruel, but also L’Avare and the Toman Comique, Gil Blas, and Candide. They indeed do more than merely prophesy the spirit of these great performances, -- they directly lead to them. The prose-tale and the farce are the direct outcomes of the fabliau, and the prose-tale and the farce once given, the novel and the comedy inevitably follow.

The special period of fabliau composition appears to have been the 12th and 13th centuries. It signifies on the one side the growth of a lighter and more sportive spirit than had yet prevailed, on another the rise in importance of other and lower orders of men than the priest and the noble, on yet another the consciousness on the part of these lower orders of the defects of the two privileged classes, and of the shortcomings of the system of polity under which these privileged classes enjoyed their privileges. There is, however, in the fabliau proper not so very much of direct satire, this being indeed excluded by the definition given above, and by the thoroughly artistic spirit in which that definition is observed. The fabliaux are so numerous and so various that it is difficult to select any as specially representative. We may, however, mention, both as good examples and as interesting from their subsequent history, Le Vair Palfroi, treated in English by Leigh Hunt and by Peacock; Le VGilain Mire, the original of Le Médecin malaré lui’ Le Roi d’Angleterre et le Jongleur d’Eli; La Houce Partie; Le sot Chevalier, an indecorous but extremely amusing story; and Les Deux Bordeors Ribaus, a piece of great literary interest, as containing allusions to the chansons de gestes and romances most in vogue.

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