Academic journal article Medium Aevum

At Play in the Tavern: Signs, Coins, and Bodies in the Middle Ages

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

At Play in the Tavern: Signs, Coins, and Bodies in the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Andrew Cowell, At Play in the Tavern: Signs, Coins, and Bodies in the Middle Ages (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999). 279 pp. ISBN 0-472-- 11007-1. $47.50.

This book is about the tavern and its associated thematics in a group of twelfth- and thirteenth-century `comico-realist' texts, not just in the wellknown Arras dramas of Le Jeu de saint Nicolas, Courtois dArras, and Le Jeu de la feuillie but also in a selection of fabliaux, in the poetry of the Goliards, and in Rutebeuf's poems of misfortune, the only work specifically excluded being the Roman de Renart. More originally, Cowell seeks to consider the tavern as a crucial locale for the development of the medieval notions of profit and play, and the extent to which the two concepts together formed the basis of a new sign theory reflecting the participation of new voices in the discourses of medieval culture. Though Cowell's investigations, heavily grounded in critical theory as they are, may seem from time to time opaque and even rebarbative in their expression, the persistent reader will nevertheless be rewarded by some valuable insights and unusual juxtapositions which shed new light on the literature of the tavern. Its poetics provided an escape from ecclesiastical models of literary and economic exchange, he argues, ultimately to represent an ethic in which notions of profit and market interact with and contribute to the decline of semiotic authority as represented by the spiritual community of the Church.

Chapter i shows how the characteristic tavern activities of play (dicing, gambling), gratuity (eating, drinking, sexual pleasure), and profit contrast with ecclesiastical concepts of equality, unity, and charity. There are some interesting pages here: on the conflict of Church and tavern in Jean le Marchant's miracle tale for instance, or those on profit-seeking and usury that inform the subsequent discussion. The rest of the book explores ways in which different texts appropriate this image of the tavern, beginning, in chapter ii, with church attitudes to profit and usury and an examination of Jean Bodel's play, which refigures the tavern as an emblem of positive economic and linguistic profit in the context of the Arras market place in which it was probably performed. …

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