Prof. G. Steinberg
Study Sheet
Medieval Tales

One of the most popular forms of literature in the Middle Ages were the fabliaux.  These dirty stories all seem to share a the same basic story line and a similar style and tone.  They are very distinctive tales.  Students are often shocked at their explicit sexual content, but the stories are really much more than just tales about sex.

What do we learn about medieval culture from these stories?  How did the tellers of these tales view the world?  What is the point of telling such stories?  What social purpose do they serve?  According to anthropologists, stories in any culture are shared in order to promote social cohesion.  How would fabliaux fit that bill?

In order to answer such questions, consider what elements the stories all share.  What do the fabliaux have in common?  What plot elements and themes seem to be shared by all four?

How do the fabliaux characterize women? men? the relationship between the sexes?  What do the fabliaux reveal about medieval thought on gender roles and issues?

What do the tales' shared elements tell us about their purpose?  What would you say the moral of each fabliau is?  What can we conclude about the values of the culture that produced them?  Who do you think was the primary audience for the tales?  Did fabliaux likely add to or detract from social cohesion in the medieval world?

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The Trial of Renard:
The Trial of Renard is a beast fable, a very popular literary form in the Middle Ages.  The basic premise behind beast fables is the supposition that the animal kingdom can be compared to human courtly society (or vice versa).  Each animal of the forest or barnyard is compared to someone in the medieval social hierarchy.  So, the lion becomes King Noble; the bear becomes Sir Bruin, the priest; the wolf becomes Sir Ysengrin, the angry, bitter knight; the hen becomes Lady Pinte, the wronged damsel demanding redress; and so on and so on.  The most important and central character in most medieval beast fables is Renard the fox -- the sly, irreverent outlaw.  In The Trial of Renard, Renard has gotten into trouble again by having an affair with Ysengrin's wife (and, to top it off, peeing on Ysengrin's cubs).  Things go downhill from there.

Part of the fun of beast fables is the way in which the author of the story shifts back and forth between talking about what are clearly animals, described in fairly acccurate zoological terms, and what are obviously human beings with clearly human characteristics and foibles.  One minute, Lady Pinte is a squawking chicken, and the next, she's a grieving, abused, melodramatic lady who is demanding justice against Renard.  One minute, Renard is a fox in his den, and the next, he's a renegade knight in his castle.

Like most other medieval stories, however, beast fables serve a more serious purpose.  They were, for example, often satires of medieval society.  What do we learn about medieval culture from the beast fable?  What point does The Trial of Renard make?  What is its moral?  Why would people want to tell (or hear or read) such a story?  For whom (or against whom) is it written?  To whom is it written?

What does the author of The Trial of Renard seem to value?  What purpose does his tale serve?  In what sense would it add to or detract from the social cohesion in the medieval world?

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Marie de France:
The tales of Marie de France are Breton lais, a very popular literary form in the Middle Ages.  Breton lais tended to be sweet, sad tales of love between knights and ladies.  Although many Breton lais end happily (e.g., Lanval), the protagonists always experience a great deal of pain and suffering before finally gaining their happy resolution.  Many Breton lais don't end very happily at all (e.g., Laüstic).

Love, honor, fantasy, fairy magic, and court life tend to be the staple themes of Breton lais.  But more than their subject matter, their tone (sad and wistful) is their most important defining characteristic.  As you read Lanval and Laüstic, think about what these tales tell us about medieval culture.  What do the tales seem to value?  What purpose do they seem to serve?  What seems to be their moral or point?  Who would need or want to hear such tales?  Why?

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Medieval Stories:
Medieval people told different kinds of stories for different kinds of purposes.  If you wanted to inspire your audience to increase their holiness, for example, you might tell a saint's life.  The consistent, faithful example of the saint-hero of your tale (described in an entertaining and exciting narrative) would encourage your listeners/readers to consider their own spiritual state and to reform their lives as appropriate.  But even if your tale didn't immediately produce an entire audience of saints, it reinforced your audience's shared Christianity and Christian pride (through its recounting of the miraculous accomplishments and courageous endurance of one of Christianity's own).  The entire audience, saint and sinner, could look on with pride as you told the story of its Christian brother or sister who succeeded in routing evil and overcoming every obstacle on the road to heavenly glory.  In this sense, your story would add to the social cohesion of your audience and serve a very clear social purpose (beyond the more private purpose of inspiring each individual's  personal growth in holiness).

But the very same medieval storytellers who told saints' lives also told beast fables, fabliaux, and Breton lais.  As we read examples of these kinds of stories together, I'd like us to consider how each might have served some need or other for the medieval people who read and wrote them.  What need -- social or personal -- could possibly be served by telling dirty fabliaux about men and women tricking one another in bed?  What need -- social or personal -- could possibly be served by telling satiric beast fables about the outlaw Renard and his successful evasion of his just deserts?  What need -- social or personal -- could possibly be served by telling wistful Breton lais about sad, persecuted lovers who can only fulfill their love by escaping to fairylands of fantasy?

As you read these stories, think about what the morals of the stories seem to be.  What is the audience supposed to learn from these stories?  Are we supposed to admire the characters in the stories or revile them?  Which characters are to be reviled and which are to be admired?  Why?  What do the bad characters do that is bad?  What do the good characters do that is good?  How would these stories add to or detract from the social cohesion of their audience?  What values do they encourage in their audience?

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