Good Unclean Fun

The Fabliaux

translated from the Old French by Nathaniel E. Dubin, with an introduction by R. Howard Bloch
Liveright, 982 pp., $29.95
Album/Art Resource
A colored engraving of a couple in bed from Miracles de Notre Dame, fifteenth century

“Restricted: Language.” Meaning that what you are about to watch is not a silent film? No, a movie with a blue streak.

What is a fabliau, exactly? The French dictionary says simply that it is a medieval story in verse, “popular in character, most often satiric.” But “broadly” may be a fitter word than “exactly,” since the broad humor of the Old French fabliau calls a spade a spade. “The Cunt Made with a Spade” (Du con qui fu fait a la besche) can stand as Exhibit Number 1, being the very first of the fabliaux in this thousand-page, twelfth- to fourteenth-century compilation. Understood, as it is again (and again and again) when we encounter—to continue with the c-word—“The Cunt Blessed by a Bishop,” “The Knight Who Made Cunts Talk,” and “Trial by Cunt.” Enter “The Mourner Who Got Fucked at the Grave Site,” flanked by “The Fucker.”

Genitals are not blackballed: “Black Balls.” Scatology does its business: “Long Butthole Berengier”—likewise, “The Piece of Shit,” when the husband tucks in. But then the only person who can have his cake and eat it is the coprophage. Or, in the famous retort of the lavatory-cleaner, “It may be shit to you but it’s my bread and butter.” “The fabliau authors,” Nathaniel Dubin reminds us, invented metaphors and “enlarged on them in tasteless detail.”

True, we ought never to forget what Yeats remembered, that “Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement” (“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”), but then so has Lust, and Lust has a way of quickly becoming repetitious and very, very boring. Within the fabliaux, not finding any of this funny is found particularly funny, especially if it happens to be a woman who is uptight: “The Maiden Who Couldn’t Abide Lewd Language.” But then the fabliaux unremittingly have it in for women. “The Gelded Lady” has apparently asked for it, unlike the Female Eunuch.

The fabliau, then, is a short story that is a tall story. It combines a burly blurting of dirty words with a reveling in humiliations that are good unclean fun. A popular venture that is keen to paste—épater—everybody (not just the bourgeoisie), it is the art of the single entendre. Highly staged low life, it guffaws at the pious, the prudish, and the priggish. High cockalorum versus high decorum.

Yet the obvious snag rises at once: Is it any longer possible, these days, to thrill to indecorum, given the fact that decorum has long since vacated the field? When I was young or younger, there were jokes that didn’t just seem to me to be funny, they were funny. Their worth depended on their coming on as anti-chameleons, figures that delighted in taking on the color opposite to that of the orthodox ground upon…

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