violence against men in fabliaux and reality

Old French fabliaux from about the thirteenth century were meant to be funny.  They contain much violence against men.  That violence has hardly been noticed and typically doesn’t impede laughter.  The comedy of the fabliaux is the comedy of social reality.

One fabliau describes killing a monk and abusing his dead body.  The monk became infatuated with an impoverished married woman.  He offered to pay her a large amount of money for sex.  When she told her husband of the proposed transaction, he objected vehemently.  She then formulated a scheme to get the money from the monk without having sex with him.  The husband hid in bed with a club.  The wife invited the monk to her home.  The wife and the monk had dinner and wine together, the monk handed over the money, and the wife invited him to carry her to the bedroom to consummate their deal. The husband, hidden under the bed’s covers, rose up when they laid down.  The plan apparently was to frighten away the monk.  The husband, however, got over-excited:

William {the husband} clubbed him {the monk} in the chin
And knocked him senseless, then before
He could recover, struck once more.
The monk’s brains spattered and his blood streamed. [1]

Now the frightened couple had to dispose of the monk’s dead body.  The husband carried the corpse to the monk’s monastery and set it up on a toilet hole in an outhouse. Misunderstandings, scheming, and coincidences quickly brought the monk’s body back crashing through the couple’s front door.  The husband, even more frightened, again carried the body away and buried it in a tenant farmer’s dung heap.  Surprises, misunderstandings, and coincidences then brought the monk’s corpse into a bar to be served as bacon to a man who had stolen bacon.  Further scheming sent the monk’s corpse, set up like a knight on a horse, crashing into his monastery’s kitchen.  In the end, the impoverished married woman’s scheme worked out well for her and her husband.  But the monk who wanted sex was dead, and his corpse, mutilated.

A fabliau variant on killing men and disposing of their bodies makes fun of physically deformed men.  A beautiful woman and a rich hunchback man married.  Against her husband’s wishes, the wife invited three hunchback minstrels into her home to entertain her while her husband was out.  When the husband arrived and called out at the door, the wife hid the hunchbacks in drawers.  After the husband again left, the wife opened the drawers and discovered that the three hunchbacks were dead.  The context suggests that they suffocated.  The wife contracted with a porter to dispose of one hunchback’s corpse.  The porter hauled away the body, threw it into a river, and returned for his pay.  The wife showed the porter another hunchback’s corpse and claimed that the body had returned.  The porter carried off that corpse and threw it in the river.  When the porter returned, the wife bitterly complained that the hunchback’s body had returned.  The porter carried off the third hunchback’s body and threw it in the river.  This time, returning to the wife’s home, he saw a hunchback walking towards the home.  That hunchback was the wife’s husband.  The porter clubbed the husband (“his brains spattered left and right”), bagged him, and threw his body in the river.  The wife was then satisfied with the porter’s service:

{she} gave the young man his reward
of thirty pounds, not one cent short,
freely and generously paid,
for the best bargain she’d ever made,
she said, delighted with her day,
because he’d gotten out of the way
her husband who was so disfigured. [2]

In this fabliau, four men were killed, and their bodies perfunctorily thrown in a river.  The tale moves forward with one disfigured man being indistinguishable from another.

In addition to being killed, men are physically mutilated and severely beaten.  A fabliau that tells a super-hero’s tale has the super-hero pluck out his male cook’s eye and cut off the cook’s hand and ear before exiling him.[3]  A knight in another fabliau has a hot awl rammed up his ass, with “blood spurting from the wound.”  A mentally feeble knight’s ridiculous mistake generated this wounding.[4]  In another fabliau, a husband pursuing a priest who had sex with his wife embroiled his household in a brawl.  Several men were severely wounded in the animalistic violence, including the priest.[5]  A contrasting motif in medieval European tales is the cuckolded husband, beaten and content.  In a fabliau version of this theme, a cuckolded husband put up no resistance as his household beat him severely:

They really gave it to him good:
They didn’t cease to dun and dog him;
they rained down blows upon his noggin;
the nephews with ferocity
displayed their animosity
and beat their uncle high and low;
and all the while she {his wife} yelled, “Now go!
Pummel him soundly! Lay him flat!” [6]

The beaten husband was dragged like a dog and thrown on a pile of dung.  The household, but not the wife, wrongly thought that the husband was actually the paramour.  The husband was content in thinking that another man who sought consensual sex with his wife would be so abused.

Associated with punishment for men’s sexuality, violence in fabliau in some instances is directed specifically at men’s genitals.  A blacksmith, angry that a priest was sleeping with neighbors’ wives, arranged to catch the priest in bed with his wife.  He then dragged the naked priest to his forge.  There he nailed the priest’s testicles to a workbench, handed the priest a razor, and set the shop on fire.  The priest cut off his own testicles to escape from the fire.[7]  In another fabliau, a crucifix carver discovered a priest attempting to seduce his wife.  The priest fled and attempted to hide among the carver’s works by posing naked as a crucifix.  The carver recognized him and cut off the false crucifix’s testicles and penis.  The wounded priest again fled, but was caught, beaten, and thrown in dirt.[8]  In a simpler fabliaux, a peasant dug a pit to catch a priest having sex with his wife.  The peasant caught a wolf, the priest, and a maid functioning as a go-between for the priest and the peasant’s wife.  The peasant killed the wolf, castrated the priest, and dismissed the maid.[9]  These fabliaux do not mention punishment of the wives who had consensual sex with the priests.

Violence against men in fabliaux is far more frequent and severe than violence against women. That’s also a general, unappreciated pattern in reality.  In the U.S., both males and females kill more than twice as many males as females.  Men’s death rate from violence-related injuries is about four times that of women’s.  Attacks on men’s genitals conventionally generate laughter.  Laughter at violence against men copes with reality that is socially repressed in public discourse.[10]

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[1] Le sacristain ou Du segretain moine (The Sacristan Monk), from Old French trans. DuVal (2002) p. 155.  The wife was aware of her husband’s acute concern for her chastity.  Although she insisted on asking for her husband’s advice about the transaction, she told the monk, “I’ll trick him into trying to convince me to comply with you.”  Id. p. 151.  The complexity of scheming fell to the impoverished husband’s visceral reaction.  For available English translations of this and other fabliaux, look up the Old French title in the translations index in the fabliaux bibliographic dataset.

[2] Des trois boçus menesterels (The three hunchback minstrels), from Old French trans. Dubin (2013) p. 713.

[3] La dame escoilliee (The lady gelded).

[4] Du sot chevalier (The Stupid Knight). Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale of the Canterbury Tales presents a version of this story.

[5] Aloul.

[6] La borgoise d’Orliens (The townswoman of Orléans), from Old French trans. Dubin (2013) p. 633.  A wife’s treatment of her cuckolded husband is a central theme in the fabliau La Saineresse.

[7] De Connebert / Li prestre ki perdi les colles (About Connebert / The priest who lost his balls). The fabliau declares:

Puis li covint mander un mire,
Qui lo sena mout longuement
Par la force d’un oignemant.

{Then he {the priest} had to order a doctor,
who treated him for a long time,
by mean of an ointment.}

That treatment cruelly mocks the treatment that the “lady healer” provided in the fabliau La Saineresse. With foolish, comic violence towards the text, Horton (2007), p. 209, describes Connebert as a tale of “male power mediated by a woman’s body.”

[8] Du prestre crucefié (The priest crucified).

[9] Du prestre et du leu (The priest and the wolf).

[10] That repression is apparent in scholarly works that address violence in fabliaux.  For example, one such work considers Du Prestre crucefié, De Connebert, and La dame escoilleé.  Its summary of De Connebert refrains from mentioning the castration: “De Connebert narrates the consequences of cuckolding a blacksmith bent on revenge.” The summary of La Dame escoilleé ignores the extreme violence against the male cook: “La Dame escoilleé deals with a shrewish mother-in-law whose sharp tongue provokes a staged scene of pseudo-castration enacted with realistic violence.”  Tracy (2006) pp. 143-4.  The pseudo-castration staged in La Dame escoilleé is hardly realistic in the context of the castrations described in Du Prestre crucefié and De Connebert.  This article’s main thesis also obscures the general structure of violence against men.  The article declares: “each of these three fabliaux evokes horror and condemns the excessive brutality that stretches the limits of comic violence.”  Id. p. 144.  Condemning the horror and brutality of violence against men, in fabliaux or in reality, seems extraordinarily difficult to do.

video note: Excerpts from the Three Stooges, Brideless Groom (1947).


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

DuVal, John, trans. and Raymond Eichmann, intro. and notes. 1992. Fabliaux, fair and foul. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Horton, Ingrid D. 2007.  Engendering Vice: The Exemplarity of the Old French Fabliaux.  Ph.D. Thesis.  Program in French and Italian. University of Kansas.

Tracy, Larissa. 2006. “The Uses of Torture and Violence in the Fabliaux: When Comedy Crosses the Line.” Florilegium. vol. 23.2: 143-68.

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