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Art. 84, La gagure, ou L’esquier e la chaunbrere: 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).

Like an earlier Harley fabliau, The Knight and the Basket (art. 82), this one has a dual internal title — The Squire and the Chambermaid or The Chambermaid and the Squire — which reflects how power shifts as the plot progresses. Among scholars, this fabliau (known only in the Harley manuscript) is called The Wager. There are four protagonists: a knight, his wife, and their two young relatives. The knight’s brother serves him as squire, and the lady’s female cousin serves her as chambermaid or lady-in-waiting. An unseemly rivalry exists between the married pair, for the wife thinks her family is loftier than her husband’s. Her conviction of social superiority, expressed as disdain for the family to which she is married, motivates the wager and the fabliau plot that ensues.

The lady has passed her proud attitude to her young cousin, for when the squire professes love, the chambermaid runs to her lady and tells her about this insult. Coaching the girl, the lady tells her to set up a test: the squire should willingly kiss her cul before she grants him her love. The word cul, “ass, asshole, buttocks,” is, like coun and vit, a vulgar name for a nether body part, and thereby a staple of fabliau vocabulary and plotting (compare arts. 75a, 87). The test itself is a parody of the acts of self-abasement that a lady in romance can reasonably require of a knight who truly loves her, like Gwenivere telling Lancelot to “do his worst” in a tournament. This particular gesture, in its display of vulgarity and debasement, is also meant to symbolize “the superiority of an upper-class lady’s family over that of her lower-class husband” (Muscatine, p. 45). The anticipated encounter then becomes a wager between the knight and his wife, who will observe their relatives from a window. The husband is convinced that his brother will never perform such a low, peasant deed.

Thus the encounter is set up as a bet between the contentious and voyeuristic older couple, and also as an initiation in “love” between the youngsters. From the window the elder pair shout and encourage their protegés as if at a sports event. The win goes to the knight: his squire proves his social worth by reconfiguring the asked-for gesture. Rather than kiss the maiden’s behind, he connects more natural body parts of his own and hers, showing everyone his true lineage and breeding. The blunt action quells the lady’s disdain for her husband’s family, and the knight has the squire honorably marry the chambermaid—thus expanding the family alliance and solidifying his own domestic peace with his now more compliant wife.

For further discussion of this fabliau, see Cooke, p. 151; Pearcy 1978, pp. 76–83; Muscatine, pp. 30, 120; Nolan, pp. 316–19; and Revard 2000a, p. 263, and 2005a, p. 124.

[Fol. 118rb–vb. ANL 187. Nykrog, no. 73. Långfors, p. 419. Vising §221. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 13. Meter: Octosyllabic couplets. Layout: Double columns. Editions: Kennedy, pp. 230–37 (no. 13); Noomen and van der Boogard 10:1–10, 339 (no. 114); Revard 2005a, pp. 124–27. Altered Editions: Montaiglon and Raynaud, 2:193–96, 336 (see Holbrook); Short and Pearcy, pp. 30–31 (no. 16). Other MSS: None. Translations: Kennedy, pp. 230–37; Revard 2005a, pp. 124–27.]

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