03.09.22, Cowell, At Play in the Tavern: Signs, Coins, and Bodies in the Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Martha Bayless

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.022


Cowell, Andrew. At Play in the Tavern: Signs, Coins, and Bodies in the Middle Ages. Stylus: Studies in Medieval Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp. 270.
Reviewed by:
Martha Bayless
University of Oregon

In this stimulating but densely argued analysis, Andrew Cowell explores the semiotic interrelations of taverns, literature, and the profit economy. His analysis focuses on a historical shift, the development of the tavern as a commercial facility and the emergence of coinage as a central force in the medieval economy. The increasing importance of the marketplace, Cowell argues, was accompanied by an essential change in sign theory, in which "Romanesque" models were replaced by a new profit-oriented system. Cowell discusses the twin manifestations of these forces, profit and play, in medieval "comico-realism," the genre that examines these elements most explicitly. The texts under discussion include Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, Courtois d'Arras, the poetry of Rutebeuf, and shorter works in French and Latin. These are set into the larger context of twelfth- and thirteenth-century culture, where, according to Cowell, the rise of profit in the economic and linguistic realms produced "a true crisis of the sign and of society" (104). Cowell's mode of analysis, focused on semiotics and the ways in which texts reflect linguistic and semiotic capabilities, has many affinities with the work of Howard Bloch, and those who have found Bloch's works useful will find Cowell's analysis equally valuable.

Cowell's central thesis relates slippages in the economic system, such as the variable value of coins and the profit-oriented efforts of tavern-keepers, gamblers, and other fraudsters, to linguistic slippages such as those produced by drunkards, liars, and jongleurs. He argues that "language, ethics, and economics are all understood and represented in terms of a single, Neoplatonic sign theory" (90) which is disrupted as the desire for profit begins to take hold in medieval culture. Although all contemporary literature, in his view, expresses these developments, they are most explicit in the burgeoning literature of the tavern, the "locus of semiotic superabundance" (99). Much of the book thus involves close readings of prominent tavern texts and analysis of their semiotic systems in light of these arguments.

In view of the wide net Cowell casts in examining culture, it is a little disappointing that he does not explore historical developments in greater detail; the development of taverns occupies a brief section of less than a dozen pages, and developments in coinage and the money economy are mentioned here and there in passing. The book is hence an exploration of these ideas as they appear in literature. If the development of profit-oriented sign theory did indeed constitute "a true crisis of the sign and of society," one would expect to find it reflected in the wider culture. Other critics may want to take Cowell's ideas to their logical next step and explore the ways in which ideas of profit and semiotics were played out in the real-life institutions of which this literature is a more or less faithful reflection. One of the virtues of this book is that it may raise these issues to historians and those in the larger field of cultural studies.

Cowell's discussion of tavern literature is detailed and nuanced. There is always risk in making metaphors central to one's argument, however, and Cowell's analysis is not always unproblematic in this regard. He argues, for instance, that in the tavern, words, often drunken and garbled or deceitful, correspond to the money used by the tavern-keeper or the various tavern gamblers and sharp dealers. As Cowell puts it, "they [words and money] both become fertile producers of surplus value and sense -- profit" (83). The ways in which language and money function as two related kinds of signs -- two halves of the same coin, one might say -- is unquestionably intriguing. But can the lies of the deceitful and the babbling of drunkards really be characterized as "surplus sense"? Is it really possible to have a surplus of sense, or would it be more precise to say that language becomes nonsensical when its meaning is disrupted? In a related example, Cowell argues that the jongleur is portrayed as "a linguistic speculator or gambler who uses language in tricky or deceitful ways to produce excess sense..." (83). Is it accurate to call deceit a problem of "excess sense"? Or is Cowell merely straining to draw analogies between language and money? Similarly, in Chapter 3 Cowell discusses the image of the lecher in the tavern, linking the lecher's "unnatural" sexual desire to "unnatural economic profit" (112). But are these two really equivalent? The desire for more money, after all, is a desire for more power over the medium of exchange; the desire for sex is not a semiotic desire. Indeed, if the desire for sex consumes money, as it does in the prostitution Cowell associates with the tavern, it consumes money rather than generating a profit. Thus lechery might be regarded as an opposite rather than an analogue of profiteering. Cowell might usefully have examined these potential contradictions.

Cowell also draws attention to contemporaneous developments in medieval literature: an increasing emphasis on literal readings rather than figural or allegorical interpretation. He sees this as opening the door to a dangerous "divorce of literature from the normative influence of religious inspiration" and "dislocation of linguistic propriety" (102). In this instance, then, the more abstract and symbolic the signified, the more it relates to God, and the more concrete and fixed the signified, the more divorced it is from immanent truth. The problem is, of course, that the symbolic can be interpreted in more than one way, and some of those ways may not be properly orthodox; hence abstract signs are vulnerable to their own dangerous slippage. One wishes Cowell had discussed the relation of this problem to his argument that fixed meanings and monetary values are the proper ones, and variable values deceitful and improper, or to his argument that the problem is the tavern's substitution of carnal for divine signs (23).

The issues Cowell explores are so complex that readers have come to expect difficult prose in their discussion; but the complexity of the ideas themselves is such that there is all the more reason to make the explication as clear as possible. Unfortunately, Cowell is not always as clear as the complexity of the ideas demands. A rigorous editor might have pruned some of the thornier passages and cut down on the repetition. A good deal of the prose is descriptive rather than explanatory. Statements such as "The living out of these moral transgressions against proper corporeal economy becomes coterminous with the structure of the poem itself and its creation" (112) may exclude readers who like their analysis as clear as possible. Since Cowell has many thought-provoking things to say, it is all the more unfortunate that his book will not appeal to everyone who might benefit from considering its ideas.

The most problematic section of the book is Cowell's brief discussion of Goliardic Latin texts, in which his translations seems to be subject to their own form of slippage. He translates "ubi nummus est pincerna" (123) as "where a penny is worth a pitcher" (rather than "where a coin is the barmaid"), "dispersis" (24) as "shiftless" (rather than "wandering"), "sine meta" (124) as "without purpose" (rather than "without limit"), "absque pare" (116) as "without getting enough" (rather than "without equal"), "Vagorum...consortio" (119) as "the company of uncertainty" (rather than "the company of Vagantes [the fictional order of wanderers]") and "decies" and "undecies" (124) etc., as "tenth" and "eleventh" (rather than "ten times" and "eleven times," etc. -- a translation which would have supported Cowell's point about excessive drinking). Nearly every Latin translation has similar problems: "ignotus" is translated as "fool," (124), "ex hac bibunt libertini" as "to sate the thirst of all and sundry" (123), "non curamus quid sit humus" as "we care not for the world," (123), among others. As a whole, Cowell's examination of the Goliardic corpus certainly corroborates his assertion that in these texts "the 'proper' rules of language and meaning are broken, meanings being shifted, negated, or ignored" (123). On a more elementary level, the book could also have undergone more thorough proofreading, which might have caught such slippages as "in media res" (106) and those undergraduate favorites, "It's" for possessive "Its" (42) and "heros" for "heroes" (179 n. 119).

These difficulties aside, At Play in the Tavern is a thought-provoking examination of a complex set of cultural developments and practices, and the author is to be praised for undertaking such a demanding analysis. It is an original and wide-ranging contribution to the study of semiotics in medieval culture, and its failings should not blind us to the value of its contribution to the ongoing discussion of this important field.

Article Details

Author Biography

Martha Bayless

University of Oregon