Jean Bodel Essay - Critical Essays

Bodel, Jean


Jean Bodel 1167?—1210

(Also known as Jehan Bodel) French poet and dramatist.

Bodel is one of the best known and most respected Medieval French poets and dramatists. A resident of the city of Arras, known for its literary activity during the Middle Ages, Bodel wrote epic poems, fables, pastourelles, and plays. His best known work, Le Jeu de Saint Nicholas, is considered the first miracle play in France and is regarded by many critics as a work far ahead of its time stylistically.

Biographical Information

More is known about Bodel than is known about most medieval writers, primarily because of his autobiographical poem, Les Congés (Leave-Takings; 1202) and because of his significant role in Arras's literary scene. Scholars believe that Bodel was born in Arras in about 1167. He served in public office there and was, as a professional trouvere (a composer of narrative works), a member of the Confrerie de la Ste. Chandelle. Based on the evidence in Les Congés, literary historians have determined that Bodel was a religious man and was well liked by his peers. He was forced to abandon his plan to participate in the Fourth Crusade of 1202 when he contracted leprosy. He subsequently entered a leper colony in Arras, where he died in the winter of 1209-1210.

Major Works

In addition to Le Jeu de Saint Nicholas, Bodel is believed to have written five pastourelles, nine fables, an epic poem, and Les Congés. Scholars believe that Bodel was interested in invigorating the epic poem as a genre. His Chanson des Saisnes (Song of the Saxons), written around 1199, follows the adventures of Charlemagne's war against the Saxons. Les Conges consists of 441 octosyllabic verses addressed to his friends. The poem thanks those he has known for their friendship, entreats them to help him financially so that he can maintain a position in a leper colony, and explains his views on God and on his own illness. Bodel is best known, however, as a dramatist and the author of the miracle play Le Jeu de Saint Nicholas. Scholars believe that Bodel wrote it for St. Nicholas's Day on 6 December 1200 and that he drew his inspiration from the Latin version of the story of St. Nicholas's appearance to robbers who were persuaded to return what they had stolen. However, Bodel transformed the story by setting part of it in the land of the Crusades and part of it in a local French tavern. In addition to creating the first known miracle play in France, Bodel foreshadowed later literary developments through his sophisticated use of characterization and local color, and appealed to the local population with the play's humorous tavern scenes.

Critical Reception

Although some scholarship has focused upon Les Conges and Chanson des Saisnes, most scholars have focused exclusively on Le Jeu de St. Nicholas, which first gained widespread attention in the eighteenth century. Critics have been puzzled over the incongruities in the play. Bodel's juxtaposition, for instance, of the Crusade in Northern Africa with the tavern scenes in Arras—the former serious and the latter comic—has confounded critics in their attempts to discern the point of the play. Scholarship has fragmented into two camps, one emphasizing the weight of the Crusade scenes and the other the importance of the tavern scenes. Early scholars, discounting the significance of the tavern scenes, interpreted the play as a teaching device stressing the importance of Christian obedience and encouraging support of the Crusades. This interpretation held until twentieth-century scholars began to rethink the significance of the tavern scenes, which comprise the bulk of the play. But the behavior of the three thieves, with their cons to trick one another and the tavern keeper out of the bar bill, does not conform with the idea of Christian piety. Some modern scholars now argue that the purpose of the play was simply to entertain and that by including the Crusade scenes, Bodel was merely conforming to the stylistic conventions of the time. Emphasis on the comic scenes has led some scholars to analyze the role of games and gambling in the play. P. R. Vincent has urged scholars to reinterpret Le Jeu, placing less importance on its disparate elements and focusing more on its unity. Charles Foulon, F. W. Marshall, and Albert Henry have all echoed Vincent's theory of unity, each focusing their investigations on different stylistic and structural elements of the play.

Principal Works

Chanson des Saisnes [Song of the Saxons] (epic) c. 1199

Le Jeu de Saint Nicholas [The Play of Saint Nicholas] (play) 1200

Les Congés [Leave-Takings] (poem) 1202


Grace Frank (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Wine Reckonings in Bodel's Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. L, No. 1, January, 1935, pp. 9-13.

[In the following essay, Frank considers the humor and trickery in the tavern scenes from Jeu de Saint Nicolas.]

Schulze, Guesnon and Jeanroy have all tried to solve the reckonings of the tavern-keeper in the Jeu de S. Nicolas, but with results none too satisfactory even to themselves.1 As Jeanroy says, these accounts are "volontairement boîteux, et c'est en cela précisément que doit consister le comique de la scène." If we are to share in this fun, however, it seems worth while attempting to discover just wherein these accounts do limp. Moreover, it appears from looking into them that Bodel is not only satirizing the mathematics of publicans, as Jeanroy suggests, but is also playing upon the Pathelinian theme of the cheater cheated, or, he robs best who robs last.

The first scene to involve a discussion of the host's wine-prices begins at line 251. Li Tavreniers offers his wine at the tariff of the town (258) and Auberon, the King's messenger, drinks une pinte (262). When Auberon comes to pay for his pint, he asks the price and is told that it costs a denier, but that if he will drink another pint, he may have the second for a maille (i. e., half a denier), that is, the two pints for 1 ½d. Take your choice, says the host in effect, "pay a denier or drink again" (274-7).

Now it is clear from these lines that the host is reckoning his wine at one denier the pint (with a reduced rate for two pints)2 and that, accordingly, when he adds "c'est a douze deniers sans faille" (276), he means that 12 pints of his wine are worth 12 deniers. But what is this measure of 12 pints? Jeanroy (note to 1. 707) asks the question without answering it, and Guesnon, confusing the issue by assuming that the measure must contain 4 lots, confesses he does not know. The measure, however, is most probably that mentioned in line 1038, the broc (Picard, broche) which Cotgrave defines as "a steane, great flagon, tankard or pot; holding (most commonly) twelve Parisian pints."3

Auberon, in the scene just discussed, demurs at the host's price. He is willing to pay the maille at once and later, on his return, to drink another pint and pay the denier then. But the host does not trust him and demands at least "trois partis" forthwith in payment of the wine already drunk. Guesnon and Schulze correctly interpret these "trois partis" as equal to half of 1½ d., that is ¾ d. (or 1½ mailles, the parti being worth ½ maille). Jeanroy, misled by the reckoning of 1. 680 f., somehow reached the conclusion that the parti was there equivalent to a demi-denier, but in this later reckoning, as in 1. 817, the "trois partis" are still equivalent to % d. and, as we shall see, it is for quite another reason that the account of 1. 680 f. is in error.

While Auberon is disputing with the host, Cliquet appears (290), eager for a little game of dice. Auberon and Cliquet shake for the drinks and the former wins, thereby shifting the burden of the debt to the latter. For the rest of the play it is Cliquet, a thief, who owes the "trois partis" for the messenger's drink. Cliquet remains at the inn and presently welcomes there a second thief, Pincedé, inviting his companion to drink and calling to the tavern-boy, Caignet, to draw the wine for them:

Bevons un denier, toute voie.
Saque nous demi lot, Caignet!

Evidently, for Cliquet a demi lot of wine may be had for a denier. But, as we have seen above, the host's regular price for his wine was 1 d. a pinte. The demi lot ought therefore to be the equivalent of a pint. I think it was. Guesnon, however, assumed, as we have seen,4 that in...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)

Patrick R. Vincent (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Critics of the Jeu," in The "Jeu de Saint Nicolas" of Jean Bodel of Arras: A Literary Analysis, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1954, pp. 3-14.

[In the excerpt below, Vincent provides an overview of critical scholarship on Jeu de Saint Nicolas, arguing that critics have focused on small aspects of the play at the expense of viewing it as a whole.]

The Jeu de saint Nicolas,1 composed by Jean Bodel,2 jongleur and poet of Arras, between the years 1199 and 1201, and therefore by many years the first vernacular French miracle play extant,3 was brought to the notice of the modern world from the sheltered...

(The entire section is 4908 words.)

F. W. Marshall (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Rhyme Schemes of the Jeu de Saint Nicolas as an Indication of Staging," in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. I, No. 3, September-December, 1964, pp. 226-56.

[In the following excerpt, Marshall uses the various rhyme schemes employed in Jeu de Saint Nicolas as a basis for analyzing the play's meaning, structure, and stage layout.]

The literary merits of the Jeu de St. Nicolas have been only slowly recognized, due for the most part to three interrelated stumbling-blocks to appreciation of the play—the difficuties of the language, the apparent disunity arising from the juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible elements and the...

(The entire section is 9040 words.)

Nigel Wilkins (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Yet More Concerning the Tavern Bills in Jean Bodel's Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, Max Niemeyer Verlag Tübingen, 1966, pp. 339-44.

[In the essay below, Wilkins argues for a reinterpretation of the tavern scenes in Jeu de Saint Nicolas.]

It might well be imagined that by now the topic of Bodel's tavern reckonings had been completely exhausted; as L. Foulet wrote in 1944-451: "On a tourné et retourné ces comptes plus d'une fois sans parvenir à y voir très clair. Sont-ils "volontairement boiteux" (Jeanroy), ou y a-t-il quelque chose qui nous échappe dans ces "additions" si souvent reprises et si souvent...

(The entire section is 2275 words.)

Howard S. Robertson (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Structure and Comedy in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIV, No. 4, July, 1976, pp. 551-63.

[In the essay below, Robertson refutes earlier interpretations of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, contending that the focus of the play is its comic scenes, not religion or the crusades.]

This paper will present some obtrusive aspects of the structure of the Jeu de Saint Nicolas determined from a detailed analysis of the play. The distribution of the alternating serious and comic scenes (according to their subject matter and setting) reveals that comedy is the central interest of the play, while the so-called serious epic and...

(The entire section is 4601 words.)

Bethany A. Schroeder (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Function of the Prologue in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Romance Notes, Vol. X, No. 1, Autumn, 1968, pp. 168-73.

[In the essay below, Schroeder contends that the prologue of Jeu de Saint Nicolas serves to heighten the humor of the play.]

A recent article on Jean Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas1 suggests that the primacy of the comic in the play forces a re-examination of the function of the so-called "serious" scenes. However, no account is taken of the Prologue and its possible relationship to the Jeu itself. The present paper will attempt to determine its function within the framework of this essentially comic play....

(The entire section is 1641 words.)

Walter H. Lemke, Jr. (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Angel in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Romance Notes, Vol. XI, No. 2, Winter, 1969, pp. 420-26.

[In the following essay, Lemke argues that Bodel created the role of the angel to facilitate the shift between humorous and religious scenes in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas.]

The majority of critics either disregards completely the character of the Angel in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas by Jean Bodel or mentions fleetingly the lyrical quality of his verses, without attempting a more detailed analysis on any level. The role and function of this figure are somehow forgotten or overlooked—perhaps because he has so few lines—in discussions pertaining to the...

(The entire section is 2023 words.)

Tony Hunt (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "A Note on the Ideology of Bodel's Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Studi Francesi, No. 58, April, 1976, pp. 67-72.

[In the following essay, Hunt reevaluates Bodel's intent in writing Jeu de Saint Nicolas.]

Whilst the multiformity of Bodel's dramatized miracle has always secured recognition, the idea of a unified point of view informing its apparently incongruous components has been less easily accepted. Robertson has detected a comic intention throughout,1 whilst Payen has emphasized the crusading appeal.2 Adler sees in the play the pursuit of an ideal social harmony based on by which the miracle becomes >,3 whilst Heitmann...

(The entire section is 3155 words.)

Christine Horton (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Role of the Emir d'outre l'Arbre Sec in Jean Bodel's Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January-April, 1977, pp. 3-31.

[In the following essay, Horton considers the role of the Emir d'outre l'Arbre Sec in maintaining structural coherence in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas.]

Because of a rubricator's error in the unique manuscript of Jean Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas, editors of the work have in effect been faced with the problem of deciding whether the one pagan leader who resists conversion at the end of the play is the Emir d'Orkenie or the Emir d'outre l'Arbre Sec. The most recent editor, A. Henry, is...

(The entire section is 12341 words.)

Carolyn L. Dinshaw (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Dice Games and Other Games in Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in PMLA, Vol. 95, No. 5, October, 1980, pp. 802-11.

[In the essay below, Dinshaw considers the role of games in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, arguing that the metaphor of the game works on many levels in the play.]

Much of the scholarship on Jean Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas has concerned the rules and results of the dice games played by the three rogues, Pincedé, Cliquet, and Rasoir, in the tavern. Intent on explicating the action of these obscure passages, scholars have generated a series of proposed and rejected explanations, in which the literary aspect of the text has been second in...

(The entire section is 6821 words.)

Joseph A. Dane (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Mythic Parody in Jean Bodel's Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 119-23.

[In the following essay, Dane centers on the function of Auberon, a pagan messenger, and concludes that in Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Bodel is parodying the "structure of an aetiological myth."]

In Jean Bodel's Jeu de Saint Nicolas (1200), a mysterious pagan messenger named Auberon functions as a link between the various stage loci of the play—the pagan court, the land outrerner of the pagan allies, and the tavern.1 Early in the play Auberon is given the mission of going to the pagan land outremer...

(The entire section is 1644 words.)

Joseph A. Dane (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Res / Verba: Ambivalence in Jeu de Saint Nicolas," in Res / Verba: A Study in Medieval French Drama, E. J. Brill, 1985, pp. 47-91.

[In the following excerpt, Dane analyzes the structure of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas and places it within the context of French literature, arguing that the meaning of the play is ambivalent.]

No other twelfth- or thirteenth-century French play is as complex in its action and as difficult to interpret as Jean Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas (1200)1. As in the case with many of the fourteenth-century Miracles de Notre Dame, it is difficult to assess just what Jean expected his audience to take...

(The entire section is 12192 words.)

David Raybin (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Court and the Tavern: Bourgeois Discourse in Li Jeus de Saint Nicolai," in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 19, 1988, pp. 177-92.

[In the essay below, Raybin argues that Bodel creates two distinct settings in Jeu de Saint Nicolas and, by juxtaposing them, creates a new form of discourse.]

If there is one point on which readers of Jehan Bodel's late twelfth-century play, Li Jeus de Saint Nicolai (1191-1202), traditionally have agreed, it is on the logical incongruity of Bodel's inserting the scenes of his contemporary Arras in the midst of an African land and ostensibly Saracen setting. In the nineteenth century, Bodel (d....

(The entire section is 8840 words.)

Further Reading

Comfort, William Wistar. "The Literary Role of the Saracens in the French Epic." PMLA LV, No. 3 (September 1940): 628-59.

Uses Bodel's Chanson des Saisnes and Le Jeu de Saint Nicholas as examples of the depiction of Saracens in the literature of Medieval France.

Frank, Grace. "The Beginnings of the Miracle Play in France: Le Jeu de S. Nicolas by Jean Bodel." In The Medieval French Drama, pp. 93-105. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

Remarks on the merits of Le Jeu de Saint Nicholas and its place in the history of French drama.

Marshall, F. W. "The Staging of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas: An Analysis of...

(The entire section is 225 words.)