Back to top

Art. 82, Le chevaler e la corbaylle: Introduction

Abbreviations: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); DOML: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; FDT: French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages (Sinclair 1979); FDT-1French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages, . . . First Supplement (Sinclair 1982); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

The author of this fabliau gives it two internal titles. To start with, it is The Knight and the Basket; by the end, it is The Old Woman and the Basket. Hanging in balance, the titles respond to the tale’s content and to the contrastive rides in the basket, its main prop. First, the basket swings the aspirant lover into the castle; then it tosses and disorients the old woman. Each character finds a deserved fate — his reward or her punishment — by riding in the basket.

Known only in the Harley manuscript, this fabliau follows a plot of adultery enabled by an elaborate, ingenious scheme, such as is found in Dame Sirith or Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. Its fun lies in its spatial and architectural precision enhanced by a mechanical gadgetry that achieves the technology needed for the wife and knight to consummate their passion. The castle walls are thick rock and the castellan’s wife is well guarded, but, with a good scheme and the wife’s compliance, the castle can be scaled via a few ropes, a flimsy, porous vehicle of conveyance (the basket), and a few accomplices with strong arms. A hallway with a louvered roof, open at one end, is key to the operation. Meanwhile, there are the human impediments: the husband and his meddlesome mother, depicted (through the eyes of the lovers) as wicked and malevolent. She is given the derogatory term talevace (antiquated, wooden shield) to show how she is a worthless barrier to love. While the aspirant knight is seen as brave in his single-minded exploit, a positive hero in his quest, the castellan-husband is depicted as an errant knight who roams away to tourney while his rival zeroes in on his vulnerable domestic space. The mother-in-law, too, becomes an ill-fated wanderer when she makes the mistake of getting out of bed and falling into the basket. She takes the tossing she receives as a form of bewitchment and vows never again to roam at night, no matter how the blanket she shares with the wife tosses and turns. In its movements, the blanket becomes a prop that complements the basket. The old woman has to endure these unusual doings in the night, accepting the blanket so as not to suffer the basket. The tale thus plays out the classic fabliau theme: youth’s lustful vitality and ingenuity prevailing over age’s confusion and weakness.

For further discussion of this fabliau, see Nolan, pp. 311–17.

[Fols. 115va–117ra. ANL 186. Långfors, p. 284. Vising §43, §217. Nykrog, no. 24. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 13. Meter: Octosyllabic couplets. Layout: Double columns. Editions: Kennedy, pp. 199–219 (no. 11); Noomen and van der Boogard 9:263–78, 314 (no. 113); Revard 2005a, pp. 117–23. Altered Editions: Montaiglon and Raynaud, 2:183–92, 333 (see Holbrook); Short and Pearcy, pp. 15–18 (no. 12). Other MSS: None. Translations: Kennedy, pp. 199–219; Revard 2005a, pp. 117–23.]

Go To Art. 82, Le chevaler e la corbaylle