Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Translation, Theft, and 'Li Jeus De Saint Nicolai.' (by Jehan Bodel)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Translation, Theft, and 'Li Jeus De Saint Nicolai.' (by Jehan Bodel)

Article excerpt

Jehan Bodel's radically secular play, Li Jeus de Saint Nicolai, opens with a 114-line prologue recited by a Preacher.(1) The predominantly spiritual ideology that informs this prologue is in no way remarkable: all but a handful of its lines narrate a saint's miraculous intervention as it might be found in a standard saint's life or vie.

A series of three framing passages suggests that Bodel's early thirteenth-century audience was meant to read the Preacher's account as traditional. In these passages, which stand apart from the prologue's narrative line, the Preacher asserts the validity of his source, which he calls a "vie," and his own fidelity to that source. In the first passage he introduces the narrative by advising an audience, whom he politely--and traditionally--addresses as "seigneur et dames" (1),(2) that they should be satisfied with the truth that can be found in the vie: Che nous content li voir disant Qu'en sa vie trouvons lisant....[7-8]

What the Preacher seems to advocate here is passive reading and quiet spirituality, that is, an unquestioning acceptance of a truth affirmed by the time-founded authority of religious and narrative tradition.

The attitude is reiterated midway through the prologue when the Preacher apologizes for his limited knowledge and justifies his refusal to amplify on that knowledge by again citing the authority of his written source. Three thieves have gone to sleep he knows not where, Ne sai out, en un abitacle. Mais pour abregier le miracle, M'en passe outre, selonc l'escrit. [59-61]

What the source does not say, the Preacher will not speculate upon. Truth depends upon the written source. It lies in a preexistent text which an intelligent person would accept without question.

Finally, when the Preacher has ended his narration, he repeats that his story is faithful to the vie of the saint whose festival his distinguished audience celebrates that evening: Signeur, che trouvons en le vie Del saint dont anuit est la veille. [104-5] Again the emphasis is on rediscovery, on finding that which already exists. On this the evening before Saint Nicholas's Day, we are to reexperience the past that has been recorded in his vie.

While a vie that was Bodel's specific source for his story has not been found--assuming for the sake of argument the rather dubious possibility that such a source really existed--the general tenor of the Preacher's argument presents what was surely a widely accepted belief. Medieval saints' lives record significant historical events. They tend not to be concerned with the mundane aspects of worldly life except insofar as they illuminate the saint's concern for the poor or the unfortunate (as in many Nicholas stories), the saint's own predilection for a simple life (as in the eleventh-century Vie de Saint Alexis ), or the saint's ascent from sin (as in Augustine's Confessions). In sticking to the bare facts of hagiographic history, the narration that is the focus of the Preacher's prologue is the typical vie that it purports to be.

Immediately following this final assertion of the speaker's limited narrative responsibility, however, the prologue offers a set of transitional comments that seem markedly at odds with what has been the Preacher's stance of conservative, tradition-bound self-effacement: Pour che n'aies pas grant merveille Se vous vees aucun affaire; Car canques vous nous verres faire Sera essamples sans douter Del miracle representer Ensi con je devise l'ai. Del miracle saint Nicolai Est chis jeus fais et estores. Or nous faites pais, si l'orres. [106-14]

The voice the Preacher adopts here shows an awareness of not only the prescribed historical text but also the details of the imminent literary performance. This voice is strongly the playwright's. Bodel's Preacher warns his audience not to be greatly astonished if the play which they see does not fully correspond to the story he has just recounted. …

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