Parlor Games — Sex and Semantics in Medieval Fabliaux

©April 2015 Mary Crockford

The Medieval period enjoys a persistent reputation as an age of high ideals and adventure, memorialized in Arthurian literary and artistic representations of monarchical government, knightly conscription and impulses of courtly love. While these forms do effectively convey the obvious importance of these ideals to those living in Medieval European society, close reading of the period’s literature reveals that neither value statements nor entertainment sufficed as the raisons d’etre for authors’ work. The Pearl Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Caxton and others used literary techniques of riddles, double entendre, and other forms of semantic wordplay to expose hypocrisy, question and even ridicule societal norms, and effect change in the traditions and institutions of their still highly stratified feudal society.
One institution heavily debated among Medieval citizens was that of marriage, and by extension the roles of men and women in matters of sex. In Anglo-Norman fabliaux, authors often employed language to upend the expected role of women as passive participants in marriage, and as sexually taboo and even treacherous outside its bans. The text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exposes the tension between the Catholic Church’s view of marriage as a “binding, dissoluble union” and one of its seven sacraments (McSheffrey 3), and the adoption of what Sheehan argues was an “astonishingly individual approach to marriage” by many, especially the possibly one quarter of citizens who would never marry (para 9).
As a woman of great sex appeal and intelligence, Lady Bertilak as Lord Bertilak’s wife is a woman of both intimate and political importance to her husband, exemplifying McSheffrey’s assertion that the “bonds of marriage and sex were simultaneously intimate, deeply personal ties and matters of public concern” (para 4). As an unmarried “man of the world” and emissary of King Arthur’s court, Sir Gawain exemplified this tension due to the expectations that he “keep his sexual urges in check” in spite of Lady Bertilak’s advances, thereby honoring his civic obligation of “respect for the integrity of another man’s household,” and demonstrating “honesty and reliability in business dealings” (McSheffrey 7). As in much medieval fabliaux, this civic and sexual tension becomes the fodder for heavy use of double entendre to “sustain the balance between the sexual and non-sexual answers” (Smith 5) to his predicament arising from the moment he meets Lady Bertilak. Prior to their meeting, however, it is Lord Bertilak who lays the foundation for Sir Gawain’s dilemma, that of the relationship between the allegiance and virility upon which the noble class depends, and the understanding that a knight must wield both his words and wooing judiciously in the course of traveling and defending Arthur’s kingdom:

“Now shall we see show of seemliest manners
and the faultless phrases of noble speaking.
What superior speech is, unasked we shall learn,
since we have found this fine master of breeding.” (38)

Bertilak’s mention of “faultless phrases,” “noble speaking” and “master of breeding,” equates to a throwing down of the verbal gauntlet to Gawain, utilizing irony and dual meaning to challenge the knight’s ability to keep his chivalric vows congruent with his reputation as a lady’s man. In the same passage, the forest king doubles down on his challenge, intimating with his verbal jousts that Gawain’s choice between professed love of court and physical love of women would be memorialized in songs by which generations would remember, and secondarily judge, the integrity of his vows:

“The meaning of manner here
this knight now shall us bring.
I hope whoever may hear shall learn of love-making.” (38)

Double entendre as political speech is a significant theme in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Rather than instinctively read the poem “as a romantic celebration of chivalry,” Arkin urges an approach to medieval poetry for its intent to expose the “drastically weakened…religious values behind chivalry” and warn “aristocratic readers that the traditional religious values underlying the feudal system must be upheld in order to avert destruction of their way of life” (para 1-2). As an originally monastic order, knights had historically taken “vows of poverty, obedience and chastity,” but “masses of clerical writings” from the period reveal how the temptations of material and sexual gratification had tainted both the clergy and knighthood with “devotion to a mistress rather than to God” (para 1). Gustatory language illustrates this temptation in Gawain’s desire to “partake” of Lady Bertilak from the moment he is introduced to her on his first day in the castle. He compares her to Morgan la Fey, disguised as a crone by her side, and finds the Lady a much “sweeter sweet to lick” (Kline 39). The author employs other erotic descriptors as veiled references to the seduction awaiting Gawain, including architectural properties of Bertilak’s castle. The author’s metaphorical wordplay portend swallowing and nakedness as his host’s servants swing “the broad gate, opened wide,” leading him to a sumptuously appointed bedchamber and relieving him of “the burden of his mail” (38).
But it is in the early celebration scenes that the text of Sir Gawain begins to earn elevation alongside the purposefully bawdier fabliaux of the period, as the author subverts symbolism and semantics in order to criticize spiritual and physical infidelity by the avowedly celibate clergy. On the first night of feasting celebrating his arrival at the castle, overtly phallic musical instruments, associated terminology and anatomical bons mots suggesting the siring of heirs, compete with foods symbolizing Christian communion and confession for primacy in Gawain’s appetites:

“Servants him served…all kinds of fish, some baked in bread…some in stews
savoured in spices…penance now you take, after it shall amend.’” (37)

“That man much mirth did make, for the wine to his head did tend.” (37)

“Kettledrums and trumpets, much piping there of airs; Each minded his,
and those two minded theirs.” (41)

Where Gawain and Lady Bertilak initially expressed their desire for each other in flirtatious “luf-talk,” Gawain demonstrates what could be described as semantic recklessness on the eve of Lord Bertilak’s departure for a hunt. He teases his host about his “lust for play,” but then retreats to the leisure of his own “bed…full soft” (45) while the author adds a false denouement to the men’s drunken dialogue that some scholars consider a blatantly homoerotic use of double entendre:

“To bed yet ere they sped, repeating the contract oft; the old lord of that spread
could keep the game aloft.” (45)

While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not counted squarely among the classically burlesque works called fabliaux, such elements of satire and sexual reference demonstrate medieval writers’ tendency to “conceal their erotic subject matter under thinly veiled wraps” (Kleinmetz 104). Through manipulation of linguistic conventions and use of archetypes, Sir Gawain’s author could criticize betrayals and illegitimacy in matters of court politics and clerical behavior, but do so in a safe manner in which his “ultimate goal was rarely stated by the subject” but which the peasant public “almost always understood” (Stubbs para 1).
The sexual tension between Gawain and the Lady intensifies that evening, and their conversation moves from merely suggestive to seductive when she steals into Gawain’s chambers. While he and his hostess may not yet be lovers, she employs double entendre and alliteration to express her heightening desire to seduce and dominate the knight in bed – a scandalous stance for a “proper” woman to adopt at all, much less a noblewoman toward a man not her husband. In addition, her use of phonemically similar “trice,” “trust” and “truce” act in opposition to the loosely martial terms “unsafe,” “slip” and “binding” to hint at the diplomatic dangers fraught in consummating their tryst:

“You are a sleeper unsafe, that one may slip hither./Now are you taken in a
trice, lest a truce we shape,/I shall bind you in your bed, that you may trust.” (49)

Gawain, in direct contretemps to his chivalric vows, returns her innuendo with an ironically submissive plea charged with sexual double meaning, at once confessing the medieval view of women as manipulative temptresses, while acknowledging the limits of courtly love to uphold hegemonic masculinity:

“But would you, lovely lady, but grant me leave/and release your prisoner
and pray him to rise…” (49)

Not one to be bested by his parries, the Lady praises Gawain’s renown as a lover, through more double entendre offering her own body and “threatening” once again to capture and tame him in bed:

“I shall wrap you up here on this other side,/and then chat with my knight
who I have caught;/for I know well, indeed, Sir Gawain you are,/that all
the world worships, wherever you ride.” (49)

The Lady then uses the word “servant” as she offers herself to Gawain. Unlike its use by the author for the castle’s porter and other staff, in this case the author employs the Middle English vernacular variation of “hende” as a “euphemism for sexual prowess” (Smith 9):

“…other knights are abed, and my ladies also,/the door drawn and shut with
a strong hasp…I must by necessity your servant be…” (49)

This term, “hende” is used in this context in other medieval fabliaux and riddles dealing with sexual themes, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Like the earlier French fabliaux on which he patterned much of his work, Chaucerian fables invited a previously excluded peasant public to participate in discourse on subjects ranging from sex and marriage to criticisms of religious and class hierarchy. Such fables often employed double entendre riddles in order to reveal attitudes among various occupations and social classes, especially those of men – including the clergy – toward women. In The Miller’s Tale, the Canterbury poet employs a technique native to French riddle literature, that of ascribing sexual characteristics to an inanimate object, in this case the grinding mill. With its millstone as the means of grinding other people’s corn, the mill becomes the vehicle for a “scurrulous double entendre” that is “analogous to the procreative act” and promiscuity, as his “tool” pounds the reproductive seed into flour (Delasanta para 3). The miller is also a “jangler” and liar, in this case not the jongleur employed as an entertainer, but a teller of coarse jokes and lies who skimmed money from his patrons while swearing by God:

“He was a jangler and a goliardese/And that was most of sin and harlotries./
Well could he stealen corn and tollèn thrice,/And yet he had a thumb of
gold pardee.” (560-563)

In addition, he plays a bagpipe, a phallic instrument illustrating through more double entendre his lewd and bombastic nature:

“A bagpipe well could he blow and sound/And therewithal he brought us
out of town.” (565-566)

Smith notes that a number of Canterbury’s pilgrim narratives contain terms orthographically and morphologically similar to their modern equivalents, which function as obscenities illustrating medieval society’s surprising “sexual aggressiveness” and appreciation for the shock value of “taboo words” (para 3). In the original text of The Miller’s Tale, for example, the word “harde” for the grinding motion of the millstone is a euphemism for the thrusting action of the penis, and the “hole” of the grinding depression was “a probable ancestor of the modern slang word for vagina.” Other examples of these obscene euphemisms in The Reeve’s Tale include the word “heed” or head for the penis, “fille” for the action of the penis and possibly ejaculation. Again in The Miller’s Tale, “swyved” equates to the “sweeping” motion of intercourse, and “ventre” to the “vent” or opening of the vagina (Smith 8-9).
Like medieval fables, Anglo-Saxon riddles demonstrate the importance of dialect and vernacular among the lower classes as fabliaux “became a refuge for contemporary colloquial speech” viewed as vulgar and coarse by the educated and privileged upper class (Smith para 3). The Exeter Book of Riddles described by Crossley as “the song of the unsung laborer,” often combined inanimate objects with sexual themes, and by design “tested a participant’s creativity, knowledge, and mastery of language” in order to comprehend their hidden meanings. Such riddles were often performed by jongleurs, itinerant minstrels who entertained while confronting issues of the “everyday ordinariness of life” (Smith para 1-2) for their target audiences. As Smith explains, these riddlers’ “use of idioms and proverbs give way to so-called rough language and double meaning” (para 4) as devices to mirror and express “the views of people…more concerned with crops than concepts” (para 2), but who nonetheless had much to say about the institutional and social realities of their time. In keeping with the agrarian lifestyle of much of the peasantry, an otherwise ordinary vegetable becomes a vivid, if vulgar, analog to the male sex organs as a means of mocking the perception by the upper classes that to the peasant class, procreation was merely an instinctive, animalistic act void of real pleasure or intellectual value. Riddle 23 employs an onion to signify the male organs, using the same terms of “hard” and “heed” found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and others to describe the process of arousal:

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

Similarly to the risque double meanings in Riddle 23, Riddle 43 of The Exeter Riddles couches the description of a woman preparing bread dough in sexual double entendre, ascribing bawdy humor to make a mundane task “more titillating” and consequently lightens with humor the burdens of homemaking and servitude:

“I heard that something or other was growing in a confined space
swelling and surging, pushing up its covering;
on that boneless thing a bride took up a grip,
proud, in her hands, a lord’s daughter,
clothed with a covering that bulging thing.”

Rather than evidence of the ignorance and baseness attributed to the peasant class by their overlords, Orchard argues that because Anglo-Saxon riddles have their foundation in “a learned literate Latin tradition,” they “had pedagogical value” and encouraged interest in language (para 5,6). Riddles thus actually highlight the capacity of the uneducated of medieval society to engage in linguistic deciphering, draw associations between symbols and semantics, and thereby enjoy “intelligent games” along with “a vulgar belly laugh” (Nyland para 4). Through the use of an everyday object or activity as “disguising image,” the riddler’s promotion of sexual expression is accomplished in bawdy and entertaining fashion, and with linguistic nimbleness he has “triumphed over the censor’s power” to stifle what would have been considered sinful speech (Cesario 521).
In much the same manner as his English contemporaries employed semantic gamesmanship and caricature to expose political and religious problems, the author of the French fabliau Roman de Renart employed animal metaphor and linguistic mischief to mock the laziness and corruption of Anglo-Norman gentry. Renart the fox, as the jongleur or tale-teller of the dialectically diverse peasant class, utters “a broken French…the medieval audience recognised as a caricatural version of Anglo-Norman…the imperfect speech of a foreigner” (Calin 1) that deeply disturbs his upper class antagonist, Isengrin the Wolf. Renart’s inability to speak “pure” French is typical of the “deviation from grammatical norms a learner or recent immigrant can make.” His “substituting one phoneme for another” may be purposeful, so that his audience will find the resulting obscenities “humorous, not offensive” (Calin 5), while Isengrin’s politically correct fur is rubbed the wrong way. In perhaps the most famous example of Renart’s linguistic chicanery, the fox mispronounces ‘fut,’the definite third-person singular form of the verb ‘to be” (Calin 11). What he actually utters is the obscenity “fotre,” but he gets away with it based on the assumption by Isengrin that as an ignorant foreigner, the fox’s impatience and vulgarity are not based on disrespect for the wolf’s signeur position, but that he simply does not know better:

“And my God bless you, my dear fellow!/Where are you from? … You
are not French/nor of any species from around here.” (2353-56)

“Nay, my lord, but from British./Me you fucking lost all my goods and/to
fucking look for my mate./Not to fucking find someone who learns me.”
(2358-60)

During the shocking exchange, Isengrin crosses himself, preferring false courtesy to pointing out the problems caused by Renart’s grammatical confusion, and sets himself up for the delivery of even more double entendre as the fox not only repeats the vulgar “fotre” for “fut,” but also “mistakes” the words for rape and violin, as well as for repose and sex, resulting in a shocking homosexual innuendo:

“If I to have a fucking viol, me fucking to sing good retrouenge, and a fine
lay and a fine song for you who was seem a worthy man.” (2373-75)

Italian fables like those in Boccaccio’s Decameron also exemplified medieval writers’ “plea for freedom of expression” amid the “didactic and moralistic constraints” of the period (Kleinhenz 104). Like his English and French counterparts, Boccaccio employed double entendre and puns in his stories to signify the tensions of competing personal and social interests, including sexual and economic treatment of women. In Peronella’s tale, Boccaccio uses “a play on words…condensed in a single acoustic image [pun, figurative]” to highlight the “conflicting motives” of “adultery and industry” in the vat Peronella uses to “hide her illicit lover and make a quick florin” (Reuter para 8). Her husband’s sudden return achieves the effect of coitus interruptus, foiling her and her lover’s tryst:

“Peronella hideth a lover of hers in a vat, upon her husband’s unlooked for
return, and hearing from the latter that he hath sold the vat, avoucheth herself
to have sold it to one who is presently therewithin…” (326)

In spite of her infidelity, deft cuckolding of her husband, and finagling of a florin from her trapped paramour, Peronella’s literary reputation fares more positively than that of Canterbury’s Alisoun, whose gap tooth hints at both fellatio and a tendency toward hyperbole when proclaiming her virtues. Unlike Lady Bertilak, she is not a libidinous woman who wields her powers of seduction for the the sake of both politics and pleasure. Boccaccio takes brilliant advantage of double entendre to playfully allude to the sexual and industrial utility of Peronella’s “vat,” so that the coin she earns from its supposed “sale” is such a testament to her wit and mastery of men that she effectively rescues herself from suffering the label of harlot and cheating wife. Because of her ability to combine passion with profit, Peronella can be viewed as more triumphant than treacherous.
Medieval authors like Boccaccio approached issues of sex and spirituality as two sides of one coin, taking liberties – and often breaking – with linguistic and social convention to creatively inform and influence public and private discourse on the subject. Many fabliaux, because of their unflattering depiction of uncontrolled earthly appetites and religious corruption eventually became part of the significant body of medieval didactic or confessional literature, with their linguistic elements just one aspect of their appreciable qualities. Others remain as beloved classics to consumers of literature even today, with their versification, alliteration and other structural components seen as incontrovertible complements to the courtly ideals of romance, fidelity and religious purity. In either case, from grail grammar and religious rhetoric, to “luf-talking” ladies and “fut-ing” foxes, it is evident that on medieval matters both sexual and semantic, all sectors of society had something to say.

Works cited:
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