French Forum 27.3 (2002) 1-14
On August 20, 1191, Richard the Lionhearted, the remaining leader of the Third Crusade, ordered that 3000 Muslim men, women and children prisoners of war be taken outside the city walls of Acre and executed. Saladin's army tried to halt the slaughter, but despite repeated assaults, the carnage continued. Richard had ostensibly ordered the massacre because Saladin had not sent enough money to ransom the prisoners. But logistically, it was time for Richard's armies to move, and taking that many civilian prisoners with them would have been virtually impossible. Christian sources indicated that the killings might have been reprisals for the huge losses suffered by the Crusaders at the Battle of Acre. Perhaps the massacre galvanized the Muslim army. Saladin and his men held firm until Richard was forced to return to England to deal with domestic matters, including the usurpation of royal power by his brother, John. The Third Crusade ended with an incredible loss of life on both sides of the conflict, and the ultimate goal of regaining Jerusalem by the Christians was not met. To add insult to injury, Richard was captured by Leopold of Austria in 1192 on his way back to England, then seized by the emperor Henry VI and eventually redeemed with a huge ransom. The goal of this article is to reinsert the Jeu de Saint Nicolas into its cultural context of crusade debate. In doing so, it will challenge the univocal reading of the Jeu as exhortation to crusade, showing that moments of tension within the play indicate anything but a party-line call to crusade.
The Jeu de Saint Nicolas is a vernacular mystery play written by Jean Bodel and believed to have been performed in Arras around 1200, less than 10 years after the disastrous Third Crusade. The play tells the story of a Muslim king whose lands are invaded by Christians. His men rout the Christians, killing all except for a bourgeois "prudhom" who is found praying to a statue of Saint Nicholas. The Prudhomme tells the king of Saint Nicholas' reputation for guarding wealth, so the king decides to test the statue and the Prudhomme. The Prudhomme may live if the statue safeguards the king's treasury. Word of the test spreads to a tavern, where thieves are drinking and gambling; they soon make off with the treasury. Saint Nicholas appears to the robbers, who return the wealth in fear. A general conversion of Muslims to Christianity ensues, and the Prudhomme is released.
The play has been generally received as an exhortation to Christians to participate in the Fourth Crusade. While the centrality of the crusade has not been questioned, critics tend to disagree as to the nature of the crusade Bodel advocates. H. Rey-Flaud and Patrick Vincent have described the play as a representation of crusading zeal. In viewing the play, the audience would have been moved to join the Fourth Crusade. For Vincent, the character uns crestïens, nouviaus chevaliers is the classic epic hero. This "new Christian knight" embodies the willingness to die for a just cause, and his fervor might be one shared by potential new crusaders in the audience. Other critics have noted that Jean Bodel was writing in Arras, a bourgeois town that had an unusually strong economy for the period. Jean Claude Aubailly postulates that the crusade is an internal one, with the tavern scene central to encouraging man to turn away from the pursuit of profit. Bodel would be admonishing his audience not to follow the incorrect path of the thieves. Also recognizing the importance of the tavern scene, Carolyn Dinshaw reads the entire play as an allegory of crusade through a gaming motif. Dinshaw's reading thus combines the economic and the epic for a reading that would epitomize medieval Arras. Critics sharply diverge in their discussion of whether the epic element is more important than the presence of the tavern crowd. Insisting upon the importance of the fighters over the concerns of the bourgeois, Jean Dufournet finds the conversion of the Saracens ultimately due to the martyrdom of the knights. Without crusaders, there would be no spreading of...