wine song and peace in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas

About the year 1200, shortly before the Fourth Crusade, Jean Bodel’s Play of Saint Nicolas {Jeu de Saint Nicolas} highlighted violence against men and possibilities for peace. Fairly arbitrated settlements and miraculous conversions explicitly produce peace in this play. More subtly, wine song and wine drinking unify men across religions and cultures.

Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas doesn’t establish a moral binary of good Christians and bad non-Christians. The prologue describes non-Christians attacking Christians:

There used to be a pagan king
whose country bordered on Christendom.
War raged all the time between them.
One day this pagan attacked
the Christians at the very moment
when they were least expecting it.
They were caught completely unaware,
and many of them were killed or captured.

{ Que jadis fu uns rois paiiens
Qui marchissoit as crestïens.
Chascun jour ert entr’eus la guerre;
Un jour fist li paiens requerre
Les crestïens en itel point
Que il ne se gaitoient point;
Decheü furent et souspris;
Mout en i ot et mors et pris. }[1]

Yet less than twenty-five verses after the end of this prologue, the Christians are described as attacking the non-Christians. A messenger informs the pagan king:

King, never since Noah built the ark
was such an army, such a force
known as the one which has invaded us.
Their foragers run all over the place.
Whores and scoundrels and lecherous brutes
go burning your kingdom to ashes.
King, unless you plan a defense,
the land will go to ruin and loss.

{ Rois, tes empires ne teuls os
Ne fu puis que Noeus fist l’arche,
Con est entree en ceste marche.
Par tout keuxent ja li fourrier,
Putain et ribaut et houlier
Vont le pais ardant a pourre.
Roys, s’or ne penses de rescourre,
Mis est a perte et a lagan. }

A Christian army of “whores and scoundrels and lecherous brutes {putain et ribaut et houlier}” isn’t holy. That description draws in part on historically entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. But here it’s more than merely a gender convention. In the context of explicitly contradictory identifications of the attacker, it also undermines a moral binary of good Christians and bad non-Christians.

In Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Christians and non-Christians similarly relate to sacred images. A wooden statue of Saint Nicolas has a central role. The non-Christian king, however, has his own sacred image called Tervagan. The king castigates Tervagan for the Christians’ invasion of his land:

Ah! You son of a whore, Tervagan,
have you permitted this to happen?
How I regret the gold with which
I cover your filthy face and body!
I swear, if my oracle doesn’t tell me immediately
how to destroy all the Christians,
I’ll have you burned and melted down
and handed out among my men,
since you are worth more than silver —
you’re made of the finest gold of Arabia.

{ A! fiex a putain, Tervagan,
Avés vous dont souffert tel oeuvre?
Com je plaing l’or dont je vous cuevre
Che lait visage et che lait cors!
Certes, s’or ne m’aprent mes sors
Les crestïens tous a confondre,
Je vous ferai ardoir et fondre
Et départir entre me gent.
Car vous avés passé argent:
S’estes du plus fin or d’Arrabe. }

The king treats Tervagan as some Christians treated their own holy images. Muslims typically were much more averse to sacred personal representations than were medieval Christians. Tervagan is a wholly imaginative construct that makes the African pagan king’s piety similar to Christian piety.[2]

Fighting between two non-Christian officials ends in an arbitrated peace and a wine song. In the king’s land, city magistrates appointed Connart as an official crier — a voice broadcaster of royal proclamations. Town businesspersons hired Raoul as a commercial crier — a voice advertiser. The two get into a physical fight over the boundaries of their respective jobs. A tavern-owner intervenes and establishes an occupational separation. Raoul then honors this peace by crying a sophisticated, ironically humorous wine song:

Wine newly tapped
from a full gallon and a full barrel,
smooth, tasty, full-bodied and fat,
leaps like a squirrel in the woods,
without any bite of rot or mold,
short of dregs and dry and thin,
as clear as a sinner’s tears.
It lingers on the lecher’s tongue —
other men shouldn’t taste it.

{ Le vin aforé de nouvel,
A plain lot et a plain tonnel,
Sade, bevant, et plain et gros,
Rampant comme escuireus en bos,
Sans nul mors de pourri ne d’aigre.
Seur lie court et sec et maigre,
Cler con larme de pecheour;
Croupant seur langue a lecheour;
Autre gent n’en doivent gouster. }[3]

To the tavern-patron / thieve Pincedé, Raoul continued his praise of the wine:

See how it swallows its foam,
and leaps and sparkles and cools!
Hold it on the tongue a little,
so soon you’ll sense wine beyond wine.

{ Vois con il mengüe s’escume,
Et saut et estinchele et frit!
Tien le seur le langue un petit,
Si sentiras ja outrevin. }[4]

Scholars have failed to sense anything in this beyond literal praise of wine. An editor of a scholarly edition of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas wrote about this cry for wine:

Through the years this cry gave me many difficulties, and after having in my imagination tasted and analyzed many wines, I tried to render it in modern French:

The wine is freshly tapped, a full batch and a full barrel, tasty, supple, solid and fleshy, rising like a squirrel in the woods, without any trace of mold or sourness, nourished from its dregs, full-bodied, firm and nervous, clear as a sinner’s tear, lingering on the tongue of gourmets: others must not touch it!

What oenologist could say it better than Jean Bodel?

{ Ce cri m’a donné, pendant des années, beaucoup de fil à retordre, et, après avoir, en imagination, dégusté et analysé beaucoup de vins, j’ai essayé de le rendre en français moderne:

Le vin mis en perce tout fraîchement, à plein lot et à plein tonneau, sapide, souple, solide et charnu, montant comme écureuil au bois, sans nulle trace de moisi ni d’aigre, nourri de sa lie, corsé, ferme et nerveux, limpide comme larme de pécheur, s’attardant sur la langue des gourmets: les autres ne doivent pas y toucher!

Quel œnologue dira mieux que Jehan Bodel? }[5]

Jean Bodel wrote as a witty poet, not as an oenologist. In Raoul’s wine song, Bodel used the following rhetorical devices:

  • ambiguous characterizations that could be interpreted badly: “wine newly tapped {le vin aforé de nouvel}” could mean already opened wine tapped again or more simply, stale wine
  • contradictory descriptions: “fat {gros}” versus “thin {maigre}”
  • deliberately bad promotional claims: “without any bite of rot or mold {sans nul mors de pourri ne d’aigre}” (negative imagery) and “other men shouldn’t taste it {autre gent n’en doivent gouster}” (reverse selling)
  • obscure similes: “leaps like a squirrel in the woods {rampant comme escuireus en bos}” and “as clear as a sinner’s tears {Cler con larme de pecheour}”
  • negative characterizations of customers: “lecher {lecheour}”

This wine song uses playful rhetoric similar to that of classical Arabic wine songs. Its contradictory rhetoric is similar to al-Jahiz’s essay on “Drink & Drinkers.” No evidence exists that Jean Bodel, born in the commercial city Arras in northern France, knew Arabic wine songs. Yet an Arabic scholar about the year 1200 who knew French would probably call Raoul’s poetic touting of wine a wine song.[6] Bodel’s wine song brings together in common appreciation Arabic and Christian culture at the lowest level of society. Wine songs are associated with loving, not fighting.

In the tavern, a physical fight between thieves is settled with impartial arbitration and wine. Pincedé and Cliquet fight over stakes in a dice game. They knock over tables and tear each other’s clothes. The tavern-keeper tells them to stop and establishes an arbitrator by mutual agreement. The arbitrator orders a fair division of the stakes. Then he says:

And you, Cliquet, now pour some wine
and offer Pincedé a drink.
I want you two to be in accord,
since the matter is at my judgment.

{ Et tu, Cliquet, verse vin ens.
Si donne a boire Pinchedé.
Jel voeil que soiés acordé,
Puisqu’il est en men jugement. }

Cliquet in response declares:

Pincedé, I apologize to you for it.
I give you this wine to indicate our accord.

{ Pinchedé, je le vous ament:
Par acorde le vin vous doins. }

Cliquet and Pincedé then drink in turn from the same cup. In an ironic conclusion to their fight, Pincedé says:

And I pardon you, Cliquet, for it.
I know that it was the wine that made you do it.

{ Cliquet, et je le vous pardoins;
Bien sai que vins le vous fist faire. }

These passages should be read with respect to the wine-sharing of the Christian Eucharist and with appreciation for liturgical parody. Love of Christ at least nominally inspired Crusaders to try to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Wine here is also a sign of peace among quarreling non-Christian thieves. Recognized for witty wordplay, Jean Bodel also wove allusions with great sophistication.

The statue of Saint Nicolas miraculously saved the non-Christian king’s treasure from thieves. In response to that miracle, the king converted from worshiping a medley of gods to worshiping Saint Nicolas:

Saint Nicholas, I give myself
to your protection and ask for your mercy
without deceit and without treachery.
Sir, I swear that I’m your man.
I renounce Apollo and Mahomet
and that scoundrel Tervagan.

{ Sains Nicolais, je me rent chi
En te garde et en te merchi
Sans fausseté et sans engan:
Sire, chi devieng jou vostre hom.
Si lais Apolin et Mahom
Et che pautonnier Tervagan. }

The king’s conversion isn’t actually Christian and appears to be behaviorally insignificant. Christians relate to the statue of Saint Nicolas like the king relates to Tervagan. Moreover, an emir supporting the king refers to the statue of Saint Nicolas as a “a horned Mahomet {un mahommet cornu},” where “horned” apparently refers merely to the mitre on Saint Nicolas’s head. Underscoring the behavioral commonality between Christians and non-Christians, the non-Christian thieves swear by Saint William, Saint Leonard, and even Saint Nicholas.[7]

petitioning Saint Nicolas in the medieval manuscript of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas

Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicholas isn’t a morality play. It subtly questions men killing fellow men in religiously motivated war.[8] Jean Bodel added to the literary tradition of Saint Nicolas’s icon miracle the tavern scene and the thieves, and the wine song and the wine-sealed peace. These brilliant literary innovations place Jean Bodel in league with the Archpoet in expressing humane concern for men’s lives.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Jean Bodel, The Play of Saint Nicholas {Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas}, vv. 9-16, Old French text from Warne (1951), English translation (modified) from Axton & Stevens (1971). Subsequent quotes from this play are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted.

Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas is the earliest surviving non-liturgical play in the French language. It has survived in one manuscript: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 25566. That manuscript was written about 1300 in Arras, France. Jean Bodel was born in Arras and is closely associated with Arras. On Jean Bodel and his context, Frank (1972) Ch. 10 and Symes (2007).

The Saint Nicolas in Bodel’s play is the fourth-century Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas served as Bishop of Myra, which today is in Turkey. The first written life of Saint Nicholas is a Greek text from the sixth century. The life and miracles of Saint Nicholas / Nicolas subsequently became widely distributed. The Fleury Playbook / Book of the Plays of Fleury {Livre de Jeux de Fleury}, written about 1200 in the Loire Valley of France, includes four Latin plays about miracles of Saint Nicolas. They are Three Daughters {Tres Filiae} (Saint Nicolas gives the three daughters money for dowries), Three Clerks {Tres Clerici} (Saint Nicolas resurrects three pickled clerks), The Image of Saint Nicolas {Iconia Sancti Nicholai} (an statue of Saint Nicolas guards a man’s treasure and saves it from thieves), and The Son of Getron {Filius Getronis} (Saint Nicolas helps to rescue a boy that a king kidnapped). Bodel’s play drew most directly upon Iconia Sancti Nicholai.

Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas is thought to date to about 1200, but whether the prologue was part of the original play is a matter of dispute. Some scholars believe that the prologue was added for a performance in 1288. On scholarly debate about this issue, Ramey (2002) pp. 4-6. Ramey’s suggestion seems to me worthy:

I would suggest that the prologue is authentic, and the omissions and revisions are deliberate, not to prepare the audience, but to intentionally put the audience off-guard.

Id. p. 5.

Subsequent quotes above from Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas are vv. 126-33 (King, never since Noah built the ark…), 134-43 (Ah! You son of a whore, Tervagan…), 645-52 (Wine newly tapped…), 658-61 (See how it swallows its foam…), 948-51 (And you, Cliquet, now pour some wine…), 952-3 (Pincedé, I apologize to you for it…), 958-9 (And I pardon you, Cliquet, for it…), 1461-6 (Saint Nicholas, I give myself…).

[2] Lambert (2014) makes this point strongly:

The role of Tervagant is, it seems, to be exactly mirrored by the role attributed to the figure of St Nicolas.

Id. p. 371.

[3] In the above English translation, I’ve followed the Old French as closely as possible while also trying to bring out what I perceive to be Jean Bodel’s playful rhetoric. Here’s the translation of Axton & Stevens (1971):

New wine, just freshly broached,
Wine in gallons, wine in barrels,
Smooth and tasty, pure, full-bodied,
Leaps to the head like a squirrel up a tree.
No tang of must in it, or mould —
Fresh and strong, full, rich-flavoured,
As limpid as a sinner’s tears;
It lingers on a gourmet’s tongue —
Other folk ought not to touch it!

Id. p. 99.

[4] The word mengüe is a form of the Old French verb mengier / mangier, which means “to eat.” Hence v. 658 could be translated more jarringly as “See how it eats its foam”. Here’s the translation of Axton & Stevens (1971):

Look how it swallows up its froth!
And leaps and sparkles, bubbles too!
Just hold it on the tongue a minute,
I tell you, you’ll taste a super-wine.

Id. p. 99.

[5] Henry (1986) p. 29, original in French, my English translation. Others have also interpreted Jean Bodel’s wine song as straightforward crying of wine. Translations of “lecheour” suggest how it has been interpreted. The translations are “gourmet” and “connoisseurs” in Axton & Stevens (1971), p. 99, and Mandel (1982) p. 56. The Old French word “lecheour” comes from words meaning “lick” and has as primary meanings in medieval Anglo-Norman “lecher, lecherous lover, scoundrel, and glutton.” It’s a word associated with low culture, not high culture.

A simpler wine cry occurs in the Courtois d’Arras, vv. 102-13. One of Jean Bodel’s contemporaries apparently composed Courtois d’Arras in Arras in the first quarter of the thirteenth century

[6] On the classical Arabic wine song, Kennedy (1997). I’ve suggested that Moriuht, which Warner wrote in Rouen early in the eleventh century, is similar to eminent classical Arabic literature. Troubadour song shows influence of Arabic literature. See, e.g. Alfonso X’s song about the dean of Cádiz. On medieval Europeans understanding of the Islamic world, Ninitte (2016). On other ludic elements of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Dinshaw (1980).

[7] This reference to Saint Nicholas as a horned Mohamet (v. 458) has been suppressed in translation. Lambeth (2014) p. 372. For a medieval reference to a mitre as horned, see my post on Burnel and seminal action in the Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}.

The thieves swear by Saint William, Saint Leonard, and Saint Nicholas in vv. 1115, 1134, and 1135. Lambeth observed of this cultural mixing:

This distinguishes Bodel’s work from other semi-fictionalised works in which the Saracens are more commonly depicted swearing by Apollon, Tervagant and Mahomet. There is nothing in these scenes, apart from the Emir’s initial summoning by Auberon, which identifies the pub crawlers as anything other than local Arrasians.

Id. The non-Christian king surely doesn’t reside in Arras. Describing the tavern scenes simply as set in Arras seems to me to flatten Jean Bodel’s deliberate, sophisticated cultural mixing. Symes (2007) interprets the tavern scenes as being in Arras. Overall, Lambeth (2014) shows important limitations of that interpretation. The wine song itself seems to me to belong more to the classical Arabic world than to urban Arras about the year 1200.

[8] Declaring that “critics have tended to read the Jeu as a crusade cheerleading piece,” Ramey sought to “challenge the univocal reading of the Jeu as exhortation to crusade.” Ramey (2002) pp. 10, 1. Symes (2007) and Lambeth (2014) contribute further to appreciating the cultural complexity of Bodel’s play.

[image] A man petitioning Saint Nicolas. Illumination from the first page of the manuscript of Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas. On folio 68r of Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 25566. Image via BnF Gallica.


Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Dinshaw, Carolyn L. 1980. “Dice Games and Other Games in Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas.” PMLA / Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 95 (5): 802-811.

Frank, Grace. 1972. The Medieval French Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Henry, Albert. 1986. “A propos d’un texte œnologique en ancien français.” Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres et des Sciences Morales et Politiques. 72 (1): 16-29.

Jeanroy, Alfred, ed. 1925. Jean Bodel. Le jeu de Saint Nicolas. Paris: É. Champion.

Kennedy, Philip F. 1997. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abū Nuwās and the literary tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lambert, Sarah. 2014. “Playing at crusading: cultural memory and its (re)creation in Jean Bodel’s Jeu de St Nicolas.” Journal of Medieval History. 40 (3): 361-380. Reprinted in Cassidy-Welch, Megan & Anne Lester, ed. 2015. Crusades and Memory: rethinking past and present. London: Routledge.

Mandel, Oscar, trans. 1982. Five Comedies of Medieval France. Washington D.C.: University Press of America.

Ninitte, Florence. 2016. La tradition arabo-musulmane dans le Speculum historiale et dans sa traduction française par Jean de Vignay: Enjeux d’un transfert culturel. Doctoral Dissertation. Université Catholique de Louvain.

Ramey, Lynn Tarte. 2002. “Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicolas: A Call for Non-Violent Crusade.” French Forum. 27 (3): 1-14.

Symes, Carol. 2007. A Common Stage: theater and public life in medieval Arras. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Warne, Frank Julian, ed. 1951. Jean Bodel. Le jeu de Saint Nicolas. Oxford: Blackwell.

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