Le Jeu de Robin et Marion shows enduring gender norms

In service to the Count of Artois, Adam de la Halle about the year 1283 wrote The Play of Robin and Marion {Le Jeu de Robin et Marion}. This play is the first surviving secular musical drama in a European vernacular. Adam de la Halle composed this play within the medieval European elite, but it shows enduring, pervasive gender norms.

Consider games that Marion, Robin, and their friends play in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. First they play “Saint Coisne.” In that game, one person pretends to make solemn offerings to Saint Coisne while the others try to make the offerer laugh.[1] Marion eventually called this game a bore. Her friend Peronnelle thought it boring, too. Peronnelle teasingly said:

It’s worth nothing,
and I think it would be much nicer
that we play some other little game.
We here are two serving-girls
and you boys among yourselves are four.

{ Il ne vaut nient
Et sachiés que bien apartient
Que fachons autres festeletes
Nous sommes chi ·ii· baisseletes
Et vous estes entre vous ·iiii· }[2]

She apparently was thinking of some sort of boys-girl game such as girl chooses favorite between two supplicating courtly lover-boys. Gautier, however, offered the sort of suggestion that boys throughout the ages have appreciated:

Why don’t we fart to amuse ourselves?
I can’t think of anything more fun!

{ Faisons ·I· pet pour nous esbatre
Je n’i voi si bon }[3]

In response to that innocent suggestion, Robin, imagining himself to be defending Marion, attacked Gautier:

Outrageous, Gautier!
A fine idea of fun you have.
In front of Marion my sweetheart
you’ve spoken so very basely.
You must have a dirty sense of smell
if you really think that’s funny.
Never let it happen again!

{ fi gautier
Savés si bel esbanoiier
Que devant marote m’amie
Avés dit si grant vilenie
Dehait ait par mi le musel
A cui il plaist ne il est bel
Or ne vous aviegne jamais }

Farting is a natural bodily function that both women and men have. As a gender, men have been much more willing to talk about farting than women have. That has contributed to the social construction of men as uncivilized and dirty. Moreover, despite the now loudly trumpeted feats of Amazon women-warriors, men historically have been socially constructed as responsible for protecting and defending women, even as men themselves suffer violence and have gender-protruding mortality. These gender norms are readily evident in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.

Discussion of gender that excludes sympathetically considering men’s gender-distinctiveness silences men. For example, in a “king or queen asks questions” game, Baudon asked Robin:

Robin, when an animal is born,
how do you tell that it’s a female?

{ Robin quant une beste naist
A coi sés tu qu’ele est femele }[4]

That’s a malicious question. The answer isn’t just a matter of grammar. With all the sophistication of a court official facing questioning, Robin responded evasively:

Let’s not see.
But if you really want to know,
Your Majesty, look at the tail.
You’ll get no details from me.
Are you trying to make me ashamed?

{ Non ferai voir
Mais se vous le volez savoir
Sire rois au cul li wardés
El de mi vous n’en porterés
Me cuidiés vous chi faire honte }

Men should not be ashamed of their sexual difference. “Dicks out for Harambe” activists resolutely reject castration culture. You should, too. Teach it to adults, teach it to children: men’s penises matter!

Men suffer under the gender norm that they must fight for women. A knight amorously propositioned Marion. She firmly rejected him. Robin, apparently imagining that she had embraced the knight, declared:

Marion, you would have killed me.
But if I had come along just then,
and with me had been Gautier the Hothead
and my cousin Baudon too,
the very devil would have been in our hands.
I wouldn’t have let him leave without a fight.

{ Marote tu m’aroies mort
Mais se g’i fusse a tans venus
Ne jou ne gautiers li testus
Ne baudons mes cousins germains
Diable i eüssent mis les mains
Ja n’en fust partis sans bataille }[5]

That’s the gender norm that prompted the terrible Trojan War. If men understood that everyone, including them, is entitled to love, men wouldn’t feel compelled to fight for women’s love. The knight ultimately understood men’s gender position and appropriately withdrew:

Shepherdess, may God console you.
Certainly I’m making myself an animal
when this animal stops me here.
Goodbye, shepherdess!

{ Bergiere et diex vous consaut
Certes voirement sui je beste
Quant a ceste beste m’areste
A dieu bergiere }

Men who have confidence in their value as men aren’t afraid to say goodbye forever to a woman.

Men striving to impress women not only commit violence against men, but also attempt heroic quests and even confront wolves. When Marion saw that a wolf was stealing one of her sheep, she cried out to Robin:

Robin, run quickly, my sweet lover,
before the wolf has gulped her down!

{ Robin ceur i tost dous amis
Anchois que li leus le menguë }

Why didn’t Marion chase the wolf herself, or form an equal partnership with Robin to chase the wolf? Even worse, Marion showed no concern for Robin’s safety. Underscoring the gender injustice, Robin delightedly seized this opportunity to “prove that he’s a man”:

Gautier, lend me your heavy stick
and you’ll see that I’m a valiant young man.
Hey, wolf, wolf, wolf!
(he returns with the lamb that the wolf carried off)
Am I not more impressive than any man alive?

{ Gautier prestés moi vo machue
Si verrés ja bacheler preu
Hareu le leu le leu le leu
Sui je li plus caitis qui vive }

Men must be bold enough to value their lives even when women urge them to risk their lives. Men’s lives are equally as valuable as women’s lives.

Men must understand that their very being is a gift to women. No further gift is necessary. Nonetheless, when Robin met Marion in the meadow, he said:

I’ll sit right here by your side,
but I haven’t brought anything for you,
so I have indeed committed a grave offense.

{ Je serai chi lés ton costé
Mais je ne t’ai riens aporté
Si ai fait certes grant outrage }

Men providing goods to women has been a socially constructed gender norm right down to the present day. How many women today have asked a man out on a date and bought him dinner? Marion opens Le Jeu de Robin et Marion with her song:

Robin loves me, Robin has me,
Robin asked me, if he can have me.

Robin bought me a little jacket
made of scarlet, fine and fancy,
a blouse and a belt too —
I go for that!

{ Robins m’aime, Robins m’a,
Robins m’a demandee, si m’ara.

Robins m’acata cotele
D’escarlate bonne et bele,
Souskanie et chainturele.
A leur i va. }[6]

It’s me, me, me, me, and the stuff he gives me. Women should encourage, promote, nurture, and appreciate meninist literature criticism so as to understand how to love men more generously.

medieval manuscript, with musical notation and illuminations, for "Robins m'aime, Robins m'a"

Apart from marginalized and disparaged medieval literature of men’s sexed protest, the oppressive gender norms that men endure have scarcely ever received critical scrutiny. In a book he published in 1904, Henry Adams, descendant of two U.S. presidents and a retired professor from Harvard University, offered his analysis of Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion:

“Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion” had little or no plot. Adam strung together, on a thread of dialogue and by a group of suitable figures, a number of the favourite songs of his time, followed by the favourite games, and ending with a favourite dance, the “tresca.” Underneath it all a tone of satire made itself felt, good-natured enough, but directed wholly against the men. … The dialogue shows Marion trying constantly to control her clowns and make them decent, as Blanche of Castile had been all her life trying to control her princes, and Mary of Chartres her kings. … Marion is in her way as charming as Nicolette, but we are less interested in her charm than in her power. Always the woman appears as the practical guide; the one who keeps her head, even in love … The woman might be the good or the evil spirit, but she was always the stronger force. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period when men were at their strongest; never before or since have they shown equal energy in such varied directions, or such intelligence in the direction of their energy; yet these marvels of history, — these Plantagenets; these scholastic philosophers; these architects of Rheims and Amiens; these Innocents, and Robin Hoods and Marco Polos; these crusaders, who planted their enormous fortresses all over the Levant; these monks who made the wastes and barrens yield harvests; — all, without apparent exception, bowed down before the woman. [7]

Henry Adams had unequaled personal knowledge about gender power in the U.S. from its founding to the twentieth century. He dared to describe the real history of gender power. But he did so neither with compassion for men nor with interest in progressive change. Adams’s interpretation of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is grossly colored with contempt for men. In his view, the men of that play are “clowns” that Marion must civilize so that they become “decent.” Those truly concerned about gender equality and social justice should read Le Jeu de Robin et Marion with more appreciation for men.

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[1] On the cultural history of the “Saint Coisne” game, Hård af Segerstad (1909). Making material offerings at shrines of saints was a common medieval practice. Saint Edith troubled the bowels of a woman who stole from her altar.

[2] Adam de la Halle (Adam le Bossu), The Play of Robin and Marion {Le Jeu de Robin et Marion / Li gieus de Robin et de Marion} vv. 463-7, Old French text from Bettens (1998), English translation (modified) from Axton & Stevens (1971). Hurlbut (2000) provides an alternate Old French edition. Langlois’s edition less faithfully represents the manuscripts. On editions of the Old French text, Bettens (1998) pp. 1-2. For a musical adaptation with score, Gibbon (1928). For a review of a modern performance, Pavlovic (1986).

Subsequent quotes above from Le Jeu de Robin et Marion are similarly sourced. Those quotes are vv. 468-9 (Why don’t we fart…), 469-75 (Outrageous, Gautier…), 516-7 (Robin, when an animal is born…), 519-23 (Let’s not see…), 128-33 (Marion, you would have killed me…), 377-80 (Shepherdess, may God console you…), 582-3 (Robin, run quickly, my sweet lover…), 584-7 (Gautier, lend me your heavy stick…), 139-41 (I’ll sit right here by your side…), 1-6 (Robin loves me, Robin has me…).

[3] Farting figures in medieval challenges to gyno-idolatry. Pensom recognized that farting was part of a gender divide in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion:

women are contentedly vegetarian while the men constantly long for animal protein. The other major characteristic which marks men off from women is the preoccupation of the former with sex and bodily functions. The role of the women includes the responsibility for suppressing any mention of sex or the lower body.

Pensom (1994) p. 49. Women’s suppressive role doesn’t serve social justice.

[4] The proposal “to play as kings and queens {Jouer as rois et as roïnes}” (v. 479) refers to a game that goes back to the ancient Greek game basilinda {Βασιλινδα}. A similar game was a common amusement in France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Langlois (1907). A “questions and commands” game existed in late-eighteenth-century England (depiction in 1788). A modern version of the game is “Truth or Dare.”

[5] Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is thought to have been written in 1283, shortly after the Sicilian Verspers rebellion of 1282. The Sicilian Verspers rebellion shows a man’s sense of another man’s offense against a woman generating violence against men and then violence generally:

The city {Palermo} was then under the rule of Charles, King of Sicily, who had embarked upon an aggressive campaign of cultural assimilation among the populace. On March 30, 1282, some drunken French soldiers began molesting young Sicilian women in a crowd. One woman’s husband took revenge, killing a soldier in a knife fight; when the other soldiers attempted to revenge that death, they were slaughtered. Unstoppable, the mob then moved through the city, attacking every French man and woman. In the end, all French inhabitants of Palermo were massacred, leading to the collapse of French control in Naples and Sicily.

Lundeen (2006) p. 73.

[6] The song “Robins m’aime, Robins m’a” pre-dates Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. It’s earliest surviving instance is as a refrain in Perrin d’Angecourt’s pastourelle, “Au tens nouvel.” Saltzstein (2013) p. 124. “Robins m’aime, Robins m’a” is included in the Bamberg Codex (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Lit.115). Here’s Carol Anne Perry Lagemann’s translation and score. For another score, Gennrich (1951) p. 38. Adam de la Halle had an “illustrious posthumous reputation” as a “master of love {magister amoris}.” Saltzstein (2013) p. 147.

[7] Adams (1904) pp. 242, 245, 246. Scholars have ignored the gender reality that Adams identified. Instead, with cant claims about the feminine body, objectification, colonization, resistance, and subversion, literature teachers program students to support dominate gynocentric ideology:

Although framed by a feminine body that is strongly coded for physicality and sexuality, and ultimately delivered by a masculine speaker, the traditional shepherdess’s voice can nonetheless be seen to resist absolute “colonization” by the masculine poet. Her voice is a hint at her subjectivity, or at least its potential, within her objectified body. It is possible, therefore, to see her speech as subtly subversive of masculine discursive codes, and therefore a place of potential power. … Marion’s resistance at the level of the story and of genre hints at a scheme of resistance against traditional social order and in favor of the new world view emerging in 13th-century Arras.

Smith (2000) pp. 18, 27. Smith taught at the West Point Military Academy. One might hope that some professor at West Point teaches Du Fu’s poem, “Song of the War Carts.”

Le Jeu de Robin et Marion is more plausibly interpreted as “a desperate attempt to keep the world right-side up”:

In giving us happy, well-fed, and sexually playful shepherds, Adam shows us what his aristocratic patrons themselves most wanted to be.

Lundeen (2006) pp. 67, 73. Men should not complacently accept the men-oppressing gender norms evident in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.

[images] (1) “Robins m’aime, Robins m’a,” with musical notation and illuminations. Excerpt from folio 1 of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion in instance Bibliothèque Méjanes Ms. 166 (Rés Ms 14). (2) Performance of “Robin m’aime” from Pedro Martínez. Via YouTube. Underscoring the continuing influence of this song, here’s Laura Garzón singing this song.


Adams, Henry. 1904. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

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

Bettens, Olivier. 1998. Adam de la Halle. Li gieus de Robin et de Marion: Edité d’après le manuscrit de la Vallière (Paris BN fr. 25566). Online at virga.org.

Gennrich, Friedrich. 1951. Troubadours, Trouvères, Minne- und Meistergesang. Köln: A. Volk Verlag.

Gibbon, John Murray, trans. 1928. Adam de la Halle. The Play of Robin and Marion = Le jeu de Robin et Marion, mediaeval folk comedy opera in one act. Boston: C.C. Birchard.

Hård af Segerstad, Kerstin. 1909. ‘“Julebispen” och “Saint Coisne”.‘ Pp. 54-9 in Fataburen: Kulturhistorisk tidskrift. Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag.

Hurlbut, Jesse D. 2000. Le Jeu de Robin et Marion: Bibliothèque Méjanes Ms. 166 (Rés Ms 14). Online.

Langlois, Ernest. 1907. “Le jeu du Roi qui ne ment et le jeu du Roi et de la Reine.” Romanische Forschungen. 23 (1): 163-173.

Langlois, Ernest, ed. 1924. Adam le Bossu, trouvère artésien du XIIIe siècle: Le Jeu de Robin et Marion; suivi du Jeu du Pèlerin. Paris: H. Champion. Alternate source of Langlois’s edition of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.

Lundeen, Stephanie Thompson. 2006. “Dressing Down: Aristocratic Identity in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.” Essays in Medieval Studies. 22 (1): 67-74.

Pavlovic, Diane. 1986. “Par amour, un jeu: Li Jus de Robin & Marion.” Jeu. (41): 101-114.

Pensom, Roger. 1994. “From Lyric to Play: Thematic Structure and Social Structure in Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.” Pp. 37-52 in Pratt, Karen, ed. Shifts and Transpositions in Medieval Narrative: A Festschrift for Dr Elspeth Kennedy. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer.

Saltzstein, Jennifer. 2013. The Refrain and the Rise of the Vernacular in Medieval French Music and Poetry. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer.

Smith, Geri L. 2000. “Marion’s Merry Resistance: Implications of Theatralization in Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.” Women in French Studies. 8: 16-30.

4 thoughts on “Le Jeu de Robin et Marion shows enduring gender norms”

  1. These are thought-provoking writings. Good to always have quotations in original languages as well—beautiful work. Thank you!

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