Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

9. "A thing most brutish": The Image of the Rustic in Old French Literature

Herman Braet

For a long time now scholars have been investigating the vernacular literatures in order to gain information about medieval society. It is worthwhile taking all the evidence that can be gleaned into account since, apart from their primary purpose of instruction or entertainment, literary texts may provide us with insights into the society in which they came into being. To look for "realism" in literature is today no longer fashionable or considered advisable, and we recognize that the writer's representation of reality is often, whether purposely or accidentally, distorted and deficient. Even the so-called "realistic" genre of the fabliaux, which is one of our main sources here, cannot be taken at face value, since its authors did not in the first place aim to depict their contemporary reality, but rather intended to criticize, satirize, or amuse.

In particular with regard to the fabliaux, short tales written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, detail is scant and information about society is necessarily incomplete: such functional data as are mentioned exist solely to develop the action. Other snippets of "real life" as can be formed are purposely misinterpreted or magnified; they may nonetheless be valuable as evidence of certain mentalities. Indeed, beggars can't be choosers. We cannot afford to neglect any documentary evidence, however seemingly negligible; in submitting texts to comparative investigation, in sorting out what is inherent to the genre and what we may see as proceeding from the representation of reality, we may be able to gain some insight into the way contemporaries perceived their society.1

Some data may be considered as trustworthy because they occur frequently--or, better still, because of their gratuitous nature. Most of them are not surprising: one expects to learn about peasant children guarding flocks, about the kind of utensils laborers need to acquire, about techniques of manuring fields.2 Of course one can find mention of markets where farmers sell or buy livestock and produce; sometimes prices are men-

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