Repetition and Redemption: On Saint Pierre et le Jongleur
The thirteenth-century fabliau Saint Pierre et le Jongleur offers a parody of the central plot of the Harrowing of Hell, in which a contest between two adversaries determines the fate of the souls in hell. In the case of the fabliau, the adversaries are St Peter and a recently dead but still dissolute jongleur, the latter temporarily deputized by Lucifer to supervise the underworld. Their contest takes the form of a dice game, and the poem closely narrates round after round of increasing stakes. This contest, linked either to chance or to cheating (the poem refuses to affirm either), departs from more austere exchanges in traditional versions of the Harrowing of Hell, such as those found in the Gospel of Nicodemus, the mystery plays, and in PPl. Such versions, punctuated by psalmodic questions and answers (‘quis est iste rex gloriae?’), offer the sense of a story foretold, its outcome reassuringly structured by prophecy and promised fulfilment. By replacing the often stately exchange between Christ and Satan with a possibly erratic, uncontrollable game of dice, Saint Pierre et le Jongleur offers the possibility of disrupting the kind of narrative tradition secured by prophecy. It aligns poetry with the possibilities of performance (the jongleur, after all, is a performer), and with the chance of producing new endings, unchecked by prophecy, poetic balance, or narrative tradition. The essay further suggests that the fabliau reveals this risk of the new in the source material it parodies: the compulsion to re-tell the Harrowing of Hell, turning point of salvation history, is connected both to the return to the past the episode explores and to the uncertainty (‘quis este?’) it briefly permits.