Jean Bodel Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.