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Literature and Writing


fabliau, William Langland, Piers Plowman, English work, satyr

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Satire, in literature, prose or verse that employs wit in the form of irony, innuendo, or outright derision to expose human wickedness and folly. The term is derived from the Latin satura, meaning a “medley” or “mixture,” and is related to the Latin adjective satur,”replete.” In the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century), as a result of false etymology, the word was confused with satyr, and so took on the connotation of lasciviousness and crude mockery. In ancient times, however, it was agreed that satires were intended to tax weaknesses and to correct vice wherever found.

Medieval Satire

Satire was conspicuously present in many forms of medieval literature: the fabliau, goliardic verse, beast fables, and dream allegories such as the 13th-century Le Roman de la Rose and the 14th-century English poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, better known as Piers Plowman, which is attributed to William Langland. In the French allegory, satire is aimed at women, the clergy, impostors, and assorted professional types; in later English work, it is directed principally at hypocrisy in the church. The 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who translated part of Le Roman de la Rose, carried on its various satires. Chaucer's own masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, also uses satire extensively; for example, in their respective tales the Friar and the Summoner trade satiric stories insulting each other's religious beliefs.


Clements, Robert J., M.A., Ph.D.

Late Professor of Comparative Literature, New York Unicersity. Author of "Comparative Literature as Academic Discipline".

Article key phrases:

fabliau, William Langland, Piers Plowman, English work, satyr, derision, innuendo, satires, impostors, Friar, hypocrisy, folly, religious beliefs, prose, ancient times, clergy, word, Canterbury Tales, Renaissance, wit, masterpiece, Rose, women, century, church, verse, literature, medley, mixture, example, term

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