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Engendering vice: The exemplarity of the old French fabliaux
By Ingrid D. Horton
PhD Dissertation, University of Kansas, 2007
Overview: During the nineteenth century, the fabliaux were rediscovered at a time when Romance scholars, particularly German, advocated categorizing different types of literature into a coherent system and rigid taxonomy. They created a hierarchy of genres shaped according to criteria related to language, register and formulae, as well as other structural and thematic considerations. Their rewriting of medieval literature also resulted in an altered perspective of the period. As the canon coalesced, certain texts did not fit into the assigned scheme, especially not the fabliaux. The fabliaux became a genre by default: if a short narrative was deemed somehow anti-courtly or immoral, it became a fabliau, and the genre is not alone in being over-determined by this initial redefinition. Having designated the fabliaux as anti-courtly and using it as a catch-all for many disparate types of texts, scholars have had to cope with the question of audience, a major problem as we continue to try and accommodate these texts.
Early scholars equated vulgarity with the lower classes and the urban bourgeoisie, whereas refinement was associated with the aristocracy, and this led to assumptions about for whom these texts were written and how they were received. We now rightly believe that audiences for, and authors of, these texts were as familiar with romance, lyric and exempla as well as fabliaux. This, however, problematizes the previously accepted view that these were marginal tales. Because our view of the interface between and definition of fabliaux and courtly literature has evolved and changed, we now think that the fabliaux audience was rather broad, and we include these tales in the canon instead of exiling them.