Women and the Fabliaux: Villains or Victims?

Women and the Fabliaux: Villains or Victims?

By Kyle White

Published Online (2009)

Introduction: Women have been getting a bad reputation throughout history but no more so than in the history of literature. From the Bible to the modern day comic book, women are either painted as the damsel to be rescued or as the evil temptress to be overcome; even the female superhero, such as Wonder Woman, inevitably ends up being captured and in need of rescuing by her male counterpart if she appears in the same comic as that same male character. Possibly one of the best examples for the victimization or villainy of women comes from the medieval fabliaux. “The fabliau, as the name implies, is a French genre that probably developed when traditional, popular, orally transmitted comic stories began to be written down and given verse form […] some two-thirds of French fabliaux have an explicit moral attached to them, either serious or, as is more often the case, mock serious.” Women in these fabliau are either victims or villains and “speak mostly to harangue or deceive their husbands; their voices issue from hungry and defective bodies and in some tales literally from their genitals.” Two such fabliaux, The Priest Who Peeked and the Berenger of the Long Arse, are examples of women being portrayed as either victims or villains. In The Priest Who Peeked, a priest who is in love with a man’s wife tricks the man into leaving his house so the priest can enter and have his way with the man’s wife; the wife tries to fight but quickly and quietly submits to the priest. The second fabliau, Berenger of the Long Arse, tells the tale of a woman who proves her husband, who she was forced into marrying, is nothing but a coward by disguising herself as a knight and challenging her husband to either joust with her or, quite literally, kiss her arse. After he surrenders without incident and kisses his wife’s arse, the wife returns home and summons the knight she is in love with and makes love to him without care that her husband finds out. It is clearly evident that women play really only two roles in fabliaux, either victim or villain, and that the source behind these roles is both religious and cultural.

Click here to read this article from St.Francix Xavier University

See also: Engendering vice: The exemplarity of the old French fabliaux

See also: The English Fabliau Tradition and Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine