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  • Chapter 5:Dressing Down: Aristocratic Identity in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion
  • Stephanie Thompson Lundeen

Adam de la Halle's musical farce Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is ostensibly about shepherds. Perhaps the first musical comedy, as Carol Symes has argued,1 it dates from the last part of the thirteenth century, likely being first performed in 1283. The play concerns Marion, a shepherdess, and her adventures during a day of tending her sheep. These adventures include the menace of a wandering knight and the efforts of her lover Robin to protect her, but mostly they involve dancing, singing, and a picnic with a small group of friends. Bakhtinian analyses of the play, most notably by Jean Dufournet and Kenneth Varty,2 have built on the assumption of proletarian identity. A bucolic setting, simple clothing, simpler food, and of course sheep presumably mark the class of the main characters. In this view, the comic incursions of a wandering knight who is easily bested by the shepherds serve to underscore the shepherds' identity and class affiliation. The play thus seems to instantiate a Bakhtinian model of the carnivalesque with its suspended rank and temporarily reordered society.

Examining Le Jeu outside of the Bakhtinian paradigm, however, encourages a reassessment of its complex presentation of identity. I want to begin by clearing the ground—by critiquing these Bakhtinian assumptions. I shall then examine the play's construction of identity by discussing first the formal features of the play and secondly some of its thematic elements; this examination will show that the play in fact constructs an aristocratic identity. Finally, I shall briefly contextualize the play in the political events of its creation, arguing that this play presents not a carnivalesque "world upside down" but rather a desperate attempt to keep the world right-side up.

In his analysis of the play, Dufournet has argued that it invokes "un monde à l'envers [et] carnavalesque" ("a world upside-down [and] carnival-like") that [End Page 67] existed during certain feasts and festivals in the medieval calendar.3 Kenneth Varty has extended Dufournet's analysis, arguing that the play suspends real-world class and gender hierarchies, turning them on end for comic relief.4 Both analyses draw directly upon Bakhtin. In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin identified the carnival as a "second life, a second world of folk culture" that suspended rank and temporarily reordered society "on the basis of laughter" during certain liturgically mandated feasts.5 While Bakhtin located the carnivalesque world outside of church-sponsored feasts, his followers have expanded its scope to include certain activities directly under clerical supervision.

One such occasion was the widespread ritual of electing a boy bishop during the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. The boy bishop would then perform various episcopal offices, including visitations, throughout December and (in some places) into January. As Michael Milway explains, scholars previously addressing this ritual have uniformly applied the carnivalesque model, concluding that the festival "was a farce, a masquerade of sorts that placed the church in a theater of carnival."6 But Milway further shows that, in drawing these conclusions, scholars have failed to study the rituals in their entirety. Milway cites Harold Hildebrand (among others) who, having read two of the boy bishops' sermons, commented that they were "very moral and very dull." Yet Hildebrand still concluded that the "whole affair was a glorified masquerade," a holiday for the overworked choristers.7 Milway points out that such scholars have ignored the occasional election of actual bishops from powerful dynastic families at ages as young as eleven (86-87). After examining both this latter practice and the pious sermons delivered by the boy bishops, Milway concludes that the ritual was primarily devotional, not farcical (88). Moreover, in a world where a boy bishop could be older than the actual bishop, the carnivalesque "world turned upside-down, with boys on top" is a simplistic abstraction (84). Bakhtinian readings of this festival thus map a post-Romantic notion of childhood onto a medieval system that valorized not age but station and that could season worship with laughter.

In a similar vein, Hans-Jürgen Diller has recently critiqued...


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