15.08.15, Brown, Boccaccio's Fabliaux

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Stefanie A. Goyette

The Medieval Review 15.08.15

Brown, Katherine A. Boccaccio's Fabliaux: Medieval Short Stories and the Function of Reversal. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. pp. 236. ISBN: 978-0-8130-4917-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Stefanie A. Goyette
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Katherine A. Brown's study of the influence of the Old French fabliaux and fabliau codices on Boccaccio's Decameron proposes two principal links between the two groups of stories: the prevalence of narrative and poetic reversal in individual tales, and their emphasis on the importance and desirability of potentially diverse, even deliberately contradictory, audience interpretations. The central place of the manuscript tradition in Boccaccio's Fabliaux addresses a need in fabliau studies, since Keith Busby's Codex and Context (2002)--one of Brown's primary models--is one of the few monographs to address the evidence of the fabliau codex, along with Jean Rychner's Contribution à l'étude des fabliaux (1961). Brown's narrative and codicological approach is also refreshing in light of the fact that recent fabliau studies, which are generally excellent but relatively sparse, have been dominated by thematic and contextual studies focusing on sexuality, the body, and material culture. In linking the fabliaux to the Decameron, Brown is able to discuss the mutual influences of medieval short forms, bringing into view the web of forces at work between fabliaux, exempla, dits, lais, fables, and medieval adaptations of "Eastern" collections such as the Disciplina clericalis, The Book of Sindbad, and Barlaam et Josephat.

Brown introduces the work by arguing that inversion and reversal were central structures in medieval rhetoric and came to influence the ordering principles even of popular vernacular narratives like romance, fable, and fabliau. However, Brown states, while the romance and didactic or moralizing genres like fables use reversal to instruct, in the fabliaux "[r]eversal specifically calls attention to this open, nondidactic interpretation of texts because it equates, or at least gives equal weight to, both parts of an opposition" (4). The foregrounding of open interpretation forms the defining feature that Brown attributes to the fabliaux, particularly with regards to how the fabliau material functions in manuscript contexts and in the Decameron. Furthermore, Brown suggests, it is important to read the codices containing fabliaux as anthologies rather than miscellanies: these codices are not arbitrary collections, but possess organizing principles that function on a micro-context, i.e. between sets of texts within the manuscript, as well as across the manuscript as a whole.

The first chapter, "Fabliaux Reversals and La Grue," examines three types of "reversal" at work in the fabliaux: rhetorical reversal, comprising grammatical, semantic, or phonetic chiasmus and reflected in language on a sentence or verse level; reversal of narrative material, often as parody, including exchange of gender or class, as well as the use of unsuited concluding moral statements; and "inversion" or reversal of structure, that is when a narrative act is done and undone, as in the tricking of a trickster. The chapter explores each type of reversal in different fabliaux and then shows how each type works in a single fabliau, "La Grue" (a story that exists in a few different versions).

The polyvalence of language--"la grue" or the crane can be understood as representing male or female sexual parts, or the "fuck" or "screw" that is supposedly reversed within the story but which in fact has no reverse--forms the fundamental site of reversal in this story and places the focus on how the lack of a fixed meaning in language creates a need for narrative and interpretation. The chapter closes with an exploration of the manuscript context and micro-context of "La Grue," focusing on how the theme of polyvalence and interpretation influences the reading of other texts in the manuscript. This mode of analysis is explicitly inspired by Busby's in Codex and Context. The second chapter, I would argue, is the strongest in the book, presenting a convincing and comprehensive analysis of BNF fr. 2173, referred to as MS K in fabliau studies. Brown explains the placement of fabliaux within the manuscript and how they interact with the other texts, namely Gossuin de Metz's Image du monde and Marie de France's Isopet, or Aesopic fables. In MS K, the texts are largely kept separate, but two fabliaux are intercalated with fables, specifically "Celui qui bota la pierre," which enters into dialogue with the human-oriented fables "La Contrarieuse" and "L'Home qui avoit feme tencheresse." The latter human-oriented fables share strong similarities with fabliaux. The fabliau "La Coille noire" is also included within the fables, inserted just before the last fable, "La Femme et la poule," of the Isopet. Brown analyzes the chiastic structures in these texts, as well as the other types of reversals, suggesting that the reversals are only truly complete in the fabliaux. That is to say, in "La Contrarieuse," a fable, suggests a chiastic relationship between the contrarian wife's happiness and her husband's unhappiness, but the reversal of terms is not complete, and the story ends with the wife's death, as her exasperated husband refuses to save her from drowning. In a fabliau, we might expect a different sort of trick, whereby the husband would use the wife's insistence on acting in opposition to his desires in order to gain the upper hand in the marriage.

The overarching argument of this chapter concerns how these diverse texts function together, particularly with regards to the role of the fabliaux in shaping how the manuscript is read. Proceeding from the most sacred and cosmological with the Image du Monde to the most secular and earthy with the fabliaux, the codex reproduces Gossuin's image of the world as layered spheres. The codex is also ordered along generic and functional lines, moving from the encyclopedic work of Gossuin's text, to the practical didactic fables, and finally to the fabliaux, tales, as Brown suggests, which are open to interpretation and call into doubt the very moral proclamations they offer. The fabliaux likewise promote entertainment and narration, the substance of the tale itself, over didacticism or exemplarity (61).

Thus, in the fabliaux of MS K, the act of narration carried out by a character parallels that of the narrator and the content of the entire tale. The emphasis on narration suggests not only that fabliaux call attention to their status as fiction, but also that fiction and narration have value in themselves. The ambiguity inherent in all the fabliaux of MS K further emphasizes "the value of this fiction in forcing judgment" (80). The fabliaux, Brown argues, are deliberately intercalated with fables, highlighting the generic mixing of the fabliaux. Brown concludes by suggesting that despite the heterogeneity of fabliaux anthologies, they do posses and share principles of collection that will influence how novelle, and particularly those of the Decameron, were brought together and framed.

Within Boccaccio's Fabliaux, chapter 3, "Medieval Story Collections and Framing Devices," seems primarily to build a bridge between the earlier chapters and the analysis of fabliaux and the Decameron, but it promises to serve as an important source for future researchers due to the breadth of links demonstrated between various medieval short forms. Briefly, Brown explores the functioning of medieval story anthologies more broadly, proposing that fabliaux do not only influence individual novelle of the Decameron, but that the ways they were anthologized shaped the framing of the work as a whole. To this end, Brown explores the function of Boccaccio's framing "cornice" in depth. Among the most intriguing details in this chapter is Brown's suggestion that the presence of fabliaux in a given manuscript tends to dominate the way it is categorized. Why is this? The author argues that it is precisely because of the fabliaux' tendency to color the rest of the text, their function to disturb the other material, and particularly to destabilize univocal meaning and provoke audience interpretation (101-102). Finally, Brown notes that, like the Decameron, fabliau codices include both Western and Eastern material.

The fourth and final chapter concerns the structure of the Decameron at its extra- and intra-diegetic levels as well as the influence of the fabliaux on this structure and the content of individual novelle. Brown discusses here the direct influence of various fabliaux on the Decameron in terms of the theme of reversal, beginning with reversals and chiastic structures in "La Nonete" and Decameron IX:2. The function of "La Nonete" within the Decameron is to dialogue with novella of similar themes and to demonstrate the potential "multiplicity of interpretation through literary creation" (143). The chapter also addresses the question of how Boccaccio came to know this fabliau. Although Boccaccio's precise manuscript sources cannot be pinpointed, Jean's work was clearly known in Italy, and is included in one extant manuscript preserved in Rome. This codex, MS R (Rome, Casanatense 1589), exhibits Picard traits and contains works by Jean, including "La Nonete," as well as other popular French works like the Roman de la Rose. Brown offers further biographical evidence that might account for Boccaccio's familiarity with and affinity for Jean, as the French author was a favorite of the court at Naples, a milieu in which Boccaccio circulated. It would have been here, Brown argues, that Boccaccio could have encountered "La Nonete" and Jean's other works, likely in MS or a related manuscript (139).

The freshness of Brown's book is due in part to its independence from foregoing fabliau studies, its refusal to stay mired in old debates. In arguing for spheres of mutual influence, Brown in fact returns to one of the central concerns of fabliau studies in the late nineteenth century, namely the notion of Eastern derivation, which seems to have been largely abandoned following Joseph Bédier's single-minded refutation of Gaston Paris' arguments. On the one hand, Brown's open approach to fabliau sources and influences allows her to cast an inclusive and comprehensive eye on the field of medieval short forms. On the other, I wonder whether further engagement with Paris's work on the Disciplina clericalis, with Ferdinand Brunetière's subsequent takedown of Paris, and with Bédier's scholarship--particularly in light of Michelle Warren's incisive study of Bédier and the notion of polygenesis in Creole Medievalisms--even if only to disagree, would have been helpful or simply muddied the waters. As it stands, Brown argues convincingly for mutual influence without privileging a given direction, showing how a number of stories move from one corpus to another. Similarly, considering the relative paucity of studies on fabliau and exemplum, Brown might have engaged with the work of Paul Zumthor and Mary Jane Stearns Schenck on this topic.

Studies of the fabliaux, like all studies of large and heterogeneous groups of texts, face certain inherent challenges posed by the number and diversity of the texts they propose to analyze. While the focus of Brown's study allows a productive way of limiting the fabliaux under consideration, and although the book's caveats are numerous, the suggestion of "reversal" as a device proper to fabliaux still risks over-generalization. Furthermore, there is a good deal of slippage in the applications of the terms "reversal" and "inversion," as well as in the way various chiastic structures are identified and analyzed. If the differences between the three types of reversal identified here are significant, little distinction is made between them after the initial introduction of terms. This monograph also suffers what can best be described as a lack of distance between its dissertation form and its book form: there are a number of sections of analysis that feel unmotivated because insufficiently connected to the overarching argument. The critical voice is frequently softened and undermined with terms like "arguably" where the innovation and strength of its analyses could be foregrounded.

Nonetheless, Boccaccio's Fabliaux has important research and analysis to offer scholars of fabliaux and of novelle, particularly in its analysis of manuscript traditions and wide-ranging view on medieval short forms. In the conclusion, Brown places further emphasis on how Boccaccio uses fabliau material and reversal to highlight the potential for multiple interpretations of a text and its moral or social message. The Decameron, she argues, highlights the role of the audience in narrative both on the level of the frame narrative and within the internal novelle, emphasizing how roles of author, storyteller and audience are exchanged. Just as the audience within the Decameron--the "brigata"--is an exemplary audience telling and hearing stories in an idealized setting, the creator of a given narrative addresses her text to an ideal audience, which can never exist. In this way, texts are endlessly mutable, changing as they are interpreted and disseminated. Particularly through the deployment of fabliau themes and strategies from fabliau anthologies, the Decameron highlights the myth of its own order. Finally, Brown suggests new directions for research, namely comparisons with similar frame narratives like the Heptameron and comparisons of changing modes of reading, i.e. the move towards private reading in the thirteenth century and new digital reading praxes today.

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