There once was a group of people, high and low, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, religious and fool, who suddenly found themselves thrown together in most charming disarray upon the Road to Canterbury. Geoffrey Chaucer was a famously political scholar of his time and an impetuous writer from the medieval period of English literature. His many works, which includes an extensive poetic narrative titled The Canterbury Tales, were widely popular during his time and have remained so ever since. The Canterbury Tales, a group of tales packed within a framing narrative, are widely studied and adapted today reinforcing Chaucer’s enduring talent to produce written works which so enduringly grasp the corages of human nature.
One of the many things about The Canterbury Tales that makes it so readable today, hundreds of years later, is Chaucer’s utilization of various familiar genres within the tale. One of those genres, the fabliau, is a surprising twist when first encountering The Canterbury Tales. Even when read in the hard to understand dialect of Middle English, the fabliau elicits mirth as it is simple to spy crass but humorous jokes, despite the language barrier. The fabliau in fact is a genre specifically not to be taken seriously. Larry Benson defines it in his introduction to the Riverside Chaucer:
…a brief comic tale in verse, usually scurrilous and often scatological or obscene. The style is simple, vigorous, and straightforward; the time is the present, and the settings real, familiar places; the characters are ordinary sorts… the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The fabliaux thus present a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes. Yet that representation only seems real… the plots, convincing though they seem, frequently involve incredible degrees of gullibility in the victims and of ingenuity and sexual appetite in the trickster-heroes and –heroines. (7)
Chaucer’s fabliaux are usually centered around a trick and imbued with elements of course speech, blatant sexual themes, and bodily functions such as farting or references to body parts. Fabliaux, though seemingly crude next to tales such as the chivalric romance of the Knight’s Tale or the serious exemplum of the parson, in actuality establish a safe construction for the excess of emotions and thoughts of the reader, much in the style of Nietzsche’s opposing forces of nature, the Apollonian, “stress[ing] the gentle reign of reason and intellect, pushing life to a somewhat unnatural ordering” and the Dionysian, “governed by emotions and particularly passions, sometimes whipped to a self-destructive frenzy of excess” (Horton). While a few of the tales aspire to the Apollonian higher sphere of the metaphysical nature, the fabliaux establish an egalitarian tone of palpable festivity on the pilgrimage—everyone is connected in a spirit of “getting all the fun in on the night before church.”
Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian theorist and...