Thursday, 23 October 2014

Sex and scandal à la Middle Ages

Full title: The Fabliaux
Author: Nathaniel E. Dubin; Introduction by R. Howard Bloch
Genre: Fiction, poetry
Attributes: 982 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Liveright (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This is a book of a genre. It’s a collection of translations with a mission: to make texts written hundreds of years ago sound contemporary. It succeeds to a great extent. Nathaniel E. Dubin, who approached the genre of fabliaux first as a scholar, found a gap and was quick to fill it. With this collection, Dubin returns the fabliaux to their rightful condition of texts performed to popular audiences, capable of easing the spirit and causing affluent cascades of laughter. They show misogyny at its most cruel, welcome buffooneries and anticlerical rants, debunk social norms with the ease of a quick piss, and, generally speaking, build a glorious monument to the middle finger. They are verbose, foul-mouthed, impudent, abusive, playful, bad-mannered, frivolous, insulting, uncouth, insolent, lustful, licentious, cheeky. “Precursors to the short story,” as R. Howard Bloch, the author of the introduction, calls them, the fabliaux reveal a world of practical townspeople, ordinary men and women who seem to regard life as something to be explored and experimented with, and who take play to be the only serious alternative to social and cultural imperatives.
Utterly modernized, the translations in the volume capture not so much the language (although they’re following very closely the French originals) as the spirit of the genre. That’s because they are translations of a zeitgeist, of that spirit of a time when things appeared unsettled and exposed, weakened to the point of ridicule. What’s more, they look good in contemporary English. As the translator himself declares:
“Fortunately, the English language, with its long tradition of humorous verse, is singularly suited to approximate the Old French originals, more so, in fact, than contemporary French.”
What a blessing, then, for a translator!
Pranks, theft, charlatanry, practical jokes, cheap cheats, deceiving devilries, adultery, the whole gamut of human depravities is paraded through these mini-treatises on transgression. They deal in scandal and turn a good profit out of it – a social profit just as well, considering the binding agency of humor and laughter. Little pieces of ribaldry, they take pleasure in language as much as they take in carnality.
“Part of a naturalistic sensualism of the High Middle Ages, a celebration of the appetites, the fabliaux made the body speak.”
As largely expected, at their most scandalous, the fabliaux turn into blasphemies. In “The Soul That Argued Its Way into Heaven,” a debate is sparked by a peasant’s soul, who had found his way to Paradise by accident. He challenges Saint Peter, the guardian of Heaven’s gates, and builds an argument as good as any sample of theological reasoning:
“I swear that he was crazy who
made an apostle out of you!
It redounds little to your pride
that by you Our Lord was denied.
Your faith must have been very small,
for you denied three times in all
that you were of His retinue.
This dwelling wasn’t made for you;
it hates you and your living here.”
Peter left speechless, the peasant’s soul moves on to do the same to Saint Thomas (scolded for his doubting) and Saint Paul (reminded of his repression of Christians, prior to the conversion). When he finally wins the sympathy of Christ, the simple-minded peasant places, if only for the length of a good old story, humankind back into the lost Paradise: a gesture at odds with the theological arguments of Christianity. But so comforting, so hospitable, so reassuring.
The fabliau just mentioned is delightful in its unfolding of a perfect argument. But other stories of its kind are even more irreverent insofar as religious symbolism is concerned. “The Chaplain’s Goose,” for instance, tells the story of a priest cheated by his clerk, who gobbles down the much-coveted bird of the title, and then cooks up a story that’s sure to take the blame away from him:
“He climbed on the altar and smeared
with goose fat just the mouth and lips
of the Christ on the crucifix
and stuck a drumstick in His fist.”
Blasphemous but practical; offensive but efficient; impious but adroit. The wit of the inferior beats the ordained authority of the higher-up.
But the most juicy and satisfying are the fabliaux of sexual content. No surprise, since this is what has made them famous. One finds lessons based on the wrongful use of things and functions, always a source of delight in the comic genre. In “The Squirrel", one finds the wrong use of language: a mother teaches her daughter the word “dick” but not the ways the object works – which gives plenty of opportunity to the familiar prankster figure to enjoy a hearty sexual intercourse with the ignorant girl. In “The Maiden Who Couldn't Abide Lewd Language,” one takes note of the wrong use of body parts: as in the previous case, the prankster takes the spoils by making the girl perform sexual acts under the guise of an innocent lesson in anatomy. In “Saint Martin’s Four Wishes,” the misuse of miracles is put on display: given four wishes, a peasant squanders them on transforming himself and his wife into abundant collections of dicks and cunts, only to realize, soon enough, that the only proper way to be is the natural way: “one prick for me, one cunt for you.”

An artist of the seventeenth century, Jan Steen was far from the medieval standards.
However, his paintings capture pretty well the atmosphere of the bawdy fabliaux.
"Leaving the Tavern" (Resource: Wikiart)
This is how easy it is to recognize in fabliaux (the genre of excess) the traces of abundance: there's always too much of something, always of the wrong kind. But that’s exactly where humor lies, and where it thrives and grows to astronomic dimensions. The collection put together by Nathaniel Dubin (which includes only half of what he says he’s managed to translate) is that necessary proof that there’s truth in rebellion and that the insurgence of the body often brings pleasures to the soul.