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  • Chapter 13 The Claude la Gente Episode in La Vigne’s Mystère de Saint Martin:The Law Perverted, a Bourgeois Heroine, and Testimony from beyond the Grave
  • Martin W. Walsh

Medieval French saints plays are full of surprises. Seldom are their playwrights content to confine themselves to the established events of a particular saint’s legend, and frequently they interpolate new material, often only loosely connected to the saint in question. In the three-day-long Mystère de Saint Martin written by royal poet and diplomat Andrieu de la Vigne for the Burgundian town of Seurre in 1496, there is a 420-verse passage that amounts to a stand-alone one-act play, which we might entitle “The Widow and the Usurer” or “The Claude la Gente Episode.”1 The events described are unique to this Mystère. The situation is introduced at the end of the morning session of the third and final day of the play—legal action is to be taken against the widow, Claude la Gente, by one Pierre Le Sourd over possession of Claude’s vineyard and attached house. At the beginning of the afternoon session, the story continues and concludes.

One of the most important saints of western Christendom Martin of Tours (c. 336–397) owes much of his prestige and popularity to the vita penned by his younger contemporary, Sulpicius Severus. The career of this Roman cavalry officer turned ascetic monk, who later became Bishop of Tours and “Apostle of the Gauls,” had an enduring impact. Sulpicius’s Vita Martini, moreover, influenced the visual arts throughout the Middle Ages, establishing especially the icon of Martin’s charity (the saint’s sharing of his rider’s cloak with a naked beggar), which was depicted in all artistic media and at all levels of culture from the elite to the popular. The saint’s posthumous miracles were widely collected, and Martin also entered the literature and folklore of most European vernaculars. Medieval Martin dramas can be found in Spanish and Italian, with four examples in French. La Vigne’s Mystère is the most extensive of the surviving Martin plays, and while it dramatizes most of the chapters of Sulpicius’s work roughly in order, it expands on them greatly and also, in many areas, freely invents. [End Page 193]

As a rare, early example of courtroom drama, the excerpt here under examination displays several unusual features. It has a haut bourgeois female protagonist who is far from a damsel in distress. In fact, unable to counter the legal wiles of the usurer Le Sourd in court, Claude demands a trial by combat in which she will defend herself. But Claude also solicits the aid of St. Martin, and a second unusual feature emerges: Martin’s solution to the legal dilemma is to resurrect Claude’s dead husband to testify to the truth of the situation. The usurer’s fraud is exposed, and Claude retains her vineyard. The larger play then resumes with the incident of Bishop Martin comforted by angels prior to his (second) miraculous Mass.

The source for this rather uncommon episode is unknown. There is nothing remotely resembling it in the Vita Martini, in Gregory of Tours’s five books of Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin some three hundred years later, or in the influential Golden Legend of the thirteenth century. The modern editor of the Mystère, André Duplat, has identified an analogous but quite different episode of a resurrection for legal purposes in the Old French Vie de Monseigneur Saint Martin (c. 1240) by Péan Gatineau.2 In Pavia (this would have been in Martin’s youth), the innkeeper Meinarz is framed for murder and condemned to death. Martin resuscitates the victim, who then identifies the true culprit, a jealous neighbor innkeeper, and Meinarz is freed. While the idea of resurrection to procure legal testimony is similar, the characters of the usurer and widow and their property dispute are unique to the Mystère and more than likely the playwright’s own invention.3

Let us now proceed beat by beat through the playlet, dividing it into a prologue and four scenes.

Prologue (lines 8835–93...


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