Old French fabliaux in modern English translations

Fabliaux are short, comic tales in verse written in Old French from roughly 1150 to 1350.  Modern English translations of fabliaux exist in a variety of books.  The online Archives de littérature du Moyen Âge (ARLIMA) provides much bibliographic information about fabliaux, but the information is not structured as a dataset.  To aid further study of fabliaux, I’ve created a fabliaux bibliographic dataset for modern English translations of fabliaux.

You can use the fabliaux bibliographic dataset as an index to modern English translations.  Given an Old French title for a fabliau, the fabliaux translations index indicates page numbers of modern English translations of that fabliau in published collections of fabliaux in English translation.  For example, Dubin’s recent book, The Fabliaux, contains English translations of sixty-nine fabliaux.  But it doesn’t have a fabliaux index.  If you want to find Dubin’s translation of La Dame Escoilliee, you have to scan through his book’s table of contents.  With the fabliaux bibliographic dataset, you can easily look up the title in an alphabetical title index by the first key word (“dame” for this title) and see the page number in Dubin’s collection.[1]  Moreover, the same line also indicates page numbers for other modern English translations of that fabliau in other published collections.

You can also use the fabliaux bibliographic dataset critically.  It shows collections of fabliaux translations in relation to each other.  It also shows those collections in relation to the overall corpus of fabliaux.  Fabliaux chosen for translation and their ordering in a collection of translated fabliaux provide insight into translators’ perspectives on fabliaux and interest in reading fabliaux.

Across the seven major collections of fabliaux in English translation, four fabliaux were translated five times each.  These most popular fabliaux in translation are:

  • Du bouchier d’Abevile
  • De Brunain la vache au prestre
  • La borgoise d’Orliens
  • Berengier au lonc cul [2]

All four fabliaux depict men being robbed, beaten, and/or humiliatedBerengier au lonc cul tells of a man being coerced into kissing the ass of a woman.  The fabliau La Gageure seems to respond to such depictions of ass-kissingLa Gageure is not presented in any of the seven major collections of fabliaux in English translation.

The first fabliaux in Dubin’s collection is Du con qui fu fait a la besche.  Only one other fabliaux collection has an English translation of Du con qui fu fait a la besche.  That other collection is a scholarly work clearly intended for academic readers.  Dubin’s work, in contrast, has much more popular packaging.  Publishing Du con qui fu fait a la besche first in Dubin’s collection suggests that this fabliau has become much more attractive.[3]

The leading appearance of Du con qui fu fait a la besche in Dubin’s collection may indicate the growing importance of the literature of men’s sexed protests. Du con qui fu fait a la besche is a rather crude reworking of the Genesis account of the creation of woman.  In contrast to many other fabliaux, this fabliau presents a false image of domestic violence (that false image has become a stereotype today).  More importantly, this fabliau describes women’s propensity to talk.  That’s a common observation in the literature of men’s sexed protests.  Propensity to talk seems to be associated with women’s social superiority.  In addition, Du con qui fu fait a la besche concludes with these observations:

they’ve {women have} destroyed many good men,
who’ve come to grief and been disgraced
and lost what wealth they once possessed. [4]

These concluding observations echo down through the ages to the persecution of Charlie Chaplin and the imprisonment of men impoverished and unable to pay child-support debts.  Medieval scholars, with their new embrace of transgressive works, seem to be crossing boundaries, interrogating and unsettling discourse, and problematizing naturalized social injustices.

Update: I’ve added additional sources to the fabliaux bibliographic dataset.  They change slightly the statistics cited above.

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fabliaux bibliographic dataset (also available as an Excel workbook)

Read more:

Notes:

[1] The Old French fabliaux title list in the fabliaux bibliographic dataset is from the ARLIMA list, augmented with the Old French titles of any additional tales included in collections of fabliaux in English translation.  ARLIMA’s individual entries for fabliaux show in some instances multiple Old French titles for a given fabliaux.  In most cases, variant titles have common key words.  If you can’t find the title of an Old French fabliaux in the fabliaux bibliographic dataset, you should consider variant titles.  Consider also whether Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux doesn’t categorize that particular tale as a fabliaux.  Various authorities count from 130 to 160 tales as fabliaux.  The fabliaux corpus in the fabliaux bibliographic dataset currently consists of 136 fablaiux.

[2] See translation frequencies in the fabliaux bibliographic dataset.  I define a major collection as a work that contains five or more fabliaux in modern English translation.  For bibliographic citations for these collections, see source identifiers.

[3] Dubin’s collection is based on the Old French texts in Willem Noomen’s Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux. The other collection that includes Du con qui fu fait a la besche is Raymond Eichmann and John DuVal’s The French fabliau: B.N. Ms. 837.  Its title indicates well its academic orientation. The French fabliau: B.N. Ms. 837 follows the fabliaux ordering adopted in Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux.  Dubin’s collection has a new ordering.  That ordering may be based on an approach like that for making textual choices:

Noomen seeks to produce as close a text as possible to that of the original author; I looked for the version that pleased me most.

Dubin (2013) “Translator’s Note,” p. xxx.  Dubin’s collection oddly doesn’t include Le lai d’Aristote.  That tale is included in four of the seven major collections of fabliaux in English translation.

[4] Dubin (2013) p. 9.  Dubin comments:

there are limits to {the fabliaux’s} daring.  When we consider what is missing, for example, even the sexually explicit fabliaux strike us as almost prudish by today’s standards.  The man is invariably on top but for one comic exception, oral sex is entirely absent, and the rare instance of same-sex relations are all misunderstandings.  Their moral stance is thus at once conservative and rebellious.

These comments are somewhat misleading.  Anne Ladd’s pioneering and scarcely known statistical analysis of fabliaux indicates that fabliaux depict women winning in over 50% of male-female conflicts.  Cited in Johnson (1983) p. 298.  The absence of oral sex in the fabliaux isn’t a major weakness.  Other medieval literature presents men’s protests against oral sex that doesn’t fully meet many men’s needs.  With enlightened reading, fabliaux present major challenges to current academic conservative morality.

References:

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Johnson, Lesley.  1983. “Women on Top: Antifeminism in the Fabliaux?” The Modern Language Review. 78 (2): 298-307.

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