Read This and Blush: Naughty Medieval French Tales

A new collection of bawdy medieval French tales reminds us that our ancestors were a dirty bunch. By Yunte Huang.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images,Franco Origlia

“By trade I am a fucker, missso may your heart be filled with bliss” —“The Fucker”

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 itthis 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 omittingthose 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 meatthat’s served to women as a treat,God’s honest truth—one shaped so fairthat Nature must have lavished careto make it, and surpassed her craft,around the bottom of the shafttwo palms in length, wide as a fist.A hole, though shaped like an ellipse,in which this well-hung stud had placed itwould 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.

Having learned to conceal our primitive passions behind the façade of respectable, polite language, some of us may be shocked or offended by the coarseness and vulgarity of these bawdy tales. But Montaigne, perhaps the paragon of bourgeois respectability, once said, “What harm has the genital act, so natural, so necessary, and so lawful, done to humanity, that we dare not speak of it without shame, and exclude it from serious and orderly conversation? We boldly utter the words ‘kill,’ ‘rob,’ ‘betray’: and the other we only dare utter under our breath.” In other words, why the fuck can’t we say fuck? Even Jacques Lacan, speaking from the most cultured depths of lacquered and paneled auditorium of the French Academy, used the F word more than once in his lectures. Mikhail Bakhtin, in his classic study of Rabelais, offers the best defense of the seemingly grotesque medieval obsession with the lower body and the billingsgate language. In the realist images of genitalia, urine, and excrement, writes Bakhtin, “is preserved the essential link with birth, fertility, renewal, welfare.”

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Coy readers should heed the lesson learned by the young woman in “The Squirrel.” Having reached puberty, the girl is cautioned by her mother not to “speak the word by which we call/that thing that hangs in a man’s britches”: “We women mustn’t be so bold/as call it by its right name nor/refer to it by metaphor.” Sexually awakened but linguistically ill prepared, the girl is later seduced by a con man who cunningly refers to his own genitalia as a squirrel with two eggs in its nest. Or, in “The Crane,” a well-protected girl wants to buy a crane from a man who asks for a price of “a fuck.” When the girl says she has no fuck around her, the crane man helps her find one. In such a world of chicanery, wordplay, and disguise, as Ovid recognized long ago, “chaste modesty doesn’t stand a chance.” Not even a grieving widow is spared, as in “The Mourner Who Got Fucked at the Grave Site”: a weeping widow is approached by a squire who claims to have just fucked his lady to death. Seemingly sad beyond consolation, the widow begs the squire to finish her off the same way.

Ultimately, what’s so potent and profound about these risqué yarns is not their unbridled expressions of sexuality and vulgarity per se, but their unusual ability to provoke a carnivalesque laughter in all. Through denuding, debauchery, and bodily degradation, the fabliaux create a common denominator for humanity, an earthy, holistic world in which, to quote Bakhtin again, “he who is laughing also belongs to it.” Flaunting unabashed obscenity in delightful verse, The Fabliaux is a book that would entertain the fans of Dr. Freud and Dr. Seuss alike.