History and definition of the genre
The fabliau is defined as a short narrative in (usually octosyllabic) verse, between 300 and 400 lines long, its content often comic or satiric. In France, it flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries; in England, it was popular in the 14th century. Fabliau is often compared to the later short story; Douglas Bush, longtime professor at Harvard University, called it "a short story broader than it is long."
The fabliau is remarkable in that it seems to have no direct literary predecessor in the West, but was brought from the East by returning crusaders in the 12th century. The closest literary genre is the fable as found in Aesop "and its eastern origins or parallels," but it is less moral and less didactic than the fable. Indeed, the word is a northern French diminutive from fable.." In terms of morality it is suggested to be closer to the novel than to the parable: "the story is the first thing, the moral the second, and the latter is never suffered to interfere with the former." Still, according to Robert Lewis, "some two-thirds of the French fabliaux have an explicit moral attached to them."
The earliest known fabliau is the anonymous Richeut (c. 1159–1175); one of the earliest known writers of fabliaux is Rutebeuf, "the prototype of the jongleur of medieval literature."
The genre has been quite influential: passages in longer medieval poems such as Le Roman de Renart as well as tales found in collections like Giovanni Boccaccio's Decamerone and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have their origin in one or several fabliaux. Additionally, the medieval church also found use for the fabliau form. Noting its popularity, the church turned to their own form of minstrelsy similar to the fabliau that espoused "worthy thoughts" rather than the "ribaldry" a more typical fabliau would couch its moral in.
When the fabliau gradually disappeared, at the beginning of the 16th century, it was replaced by the prose short story, which was greatly influenced by its predecessor. Famous French writers such as Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, and Voltaire owe much to the tradition of the fabliau.