The Comic Uses of Torture in the Fabliaux: When Comedy Crosses the Line

Florilegium 23.2 (2006): 143-68

By Larissa Tracy

Comic violence is a device used in the Old French Fabliaux to mete out just punishments, to castigate transgression, and to amuse a widely mixed audience for whom death and violence were all too common. Yet, despite the farcical nature of most violence in the fabliaux, some plots cross the line demarcating torture in medieval culture. It is in these tales that a modern audience sees realistic medieval fears of power and dominance, where justice is replaced by tyranny, and violence is no longer a question of good clean fun. Stories like Du Prestre crucifié, De Connebert (Li prestre ki perdi les colles), and La Dame escoilleé engage in realistic forms of torture, the purpose of which is to cause prolonged pain in a public demonstration of power and dominance. This article addresses the possible motivations behind depicting such excessive forms of violence in the guise of a cleverly crafted tale. While medieval culture has often been thought to have a higher tolerance for violence in daily life, these stories fuse violence and punishment in a formal manner that exceeds the usual limits of humorous spectacle. Looking at medieval representations of punishment and torture, this article explores social norms regulating violence that were designed to shape audience response, particularly the uses of torture and violence in secular literature represented by the comic milieu of the fabliaux.