The Girl Who Wanted to Fly | La pucele qui vouloit voler
Introduction to the Text
Fabliaux are a genre of short tales in verse from late medieval France, which were written and performed by jongleurs, a type of minstrel. Joseph Bédier provides the classic definition of the genre as “contes à rire en vers” [stories in verse to laugh at]. The typical form of the fabliau is octosyllabic rhymed couplets, the most common verse form in medieval French literature. Fabliaux are often obscene, full of scatological and sexual humor; many feature rapes and other forms of sexual violence that can be quite graphic and disturbing. They also often express strong anticlerical and anti-nobility sentiments.
“La pucele qui voloit voler” (“The girl who wanted to fly”) is highly representative of the genre in themes, plot, style, and characters. In this poem, a beautiful and courtly maiden (la pucele) is pursued by a group of suitors, all of whom she rejects. One day, she announces that she would like to be able to fly. Several young men construct wings for her, which do not work. One day, a cleric (li clers) convinces her that she needs a beak and a tail to fly, as all birds possess these things. He offers to make them for her, to which she readily assents. The two close themselves in a room and the clerk begins to kiss her “more than thirty times,” explaining that he is fashioning the beak. Then, he begins work on the tail, at which the lady expresses pleasure. Both the beak and the tail exemplify the use of euphemism and misnaming common in fabliaux. Norris J. Lacy writes that, in fabliaux, the “refusal to call things by their ordinary names will lead directly to the precise result, usually sexual intercourse, that the euphemisms were designed to preclude” (44). “La pucele” is no exception. When the lady in this tale learns that the clerk won’t complete her tail in less than a year, she keeps the clerk with her so she can achieve her goal of flying. Naturally, the lady becomes pregnant; she then complains that the clerk tricked her. He explains to her, however, that her pregnancy is entirely natural. It was her wish to fly that was unnatural. The lesson of the tale, then, is that people who have excessive or outrageous desires will pay the consequences.
Introduction to the Manuscript
“La pucele” exists in three different manuscripts, each of which is a compilation of fabliaux and similar short verse tales. Each version of the tale is largely the same, but with some differences in details. The manuscripts are Bern, Burgerbibliothek 354, folio 43ra-44ra (Witness B); Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1593, folio 187rb-188ra (Witness E); and Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 25545, folio 4vb-5vb (Witness I). This edition follows the witness naming conventions found in the Nouveau Recueil Complet des Fabliaux (NRCF). The longest of the three manuscripts is I, which has a 26 verse epilogue, compared to 7 verses in B and 9 in E. Each text shows evidence of divergences from what we assume the original text might have looked like. The critical text, which we have drawn from the NRCF, tracks most closely with B, despite some omissions in B.
Of the three manuscripts, B is the most legible and most well-preserved, despite some holes in the parchment. E is nearly as legible as B. I is the least well-preserved, showing signs of multiple repairs to the manuscript, irregularly lined columns, and multiple illegible sections due to faded or scraped ink. B has red and blue initials and rubrics in a pale red. E has spaces reserved for miniatures and other decorations that were never completed. I uses red ink for majuscules and rubrics.
In all three manuscripts, the fabliau’s author is unnamed. The text is also difficult to date or locate with any precision. Each manuscript is believed to be from the late 13th or early 14thcentury. I has been dated most precisely as between the end of 1316 and April 3, 1317. As a result, the original date for “La pucele” is suspected to be sometime in the mid- to late 13th century.
About this Edition
The critical text and manuscript transcriptions are drawn from the NRCF (pp. 155–170). The translation is a new, diplomatic translation by Michael Widner that attempts to follow the critical text as faithfully as possible. All variants are linked to show where they share lines and where they diverge. Digital facsimiles of the manuscripts in which each variant appears are also included in the appropriate locations. All introductory and other contextualizing information for this edition were also written by Michael Widner.
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Noomen, Willem and Nico van den Boogaard. Nouveau Recueil Complet des Fabliaux, vol. 6., 1991, pp. 155–170.
Lacy, Norris J. Reading Fabliaux. Routledge, 2013.
“The Girl Who Wanted to Fly,” in The Fabliaux: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Nathaniel E. Dubin. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013, pp. 339–344.
“La pucele qui voloit voler.” ARLIMA, https://www.arlima.net/mp/pucele_qui_voloit_voler.html
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———. “No Laughing Matter: Fraud, the Fabliau and Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale.” Neophilologus 96.1 (2012): 121-136.
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