Teaching and Performing The N-Town Plays as Bricolage
Douglas Sugano, Whitworth University
Leah Haught, University of West Georgia,
Jamie Friedman, Linfield College
Douglas Sugano, Whitworth University
My TEAMS edition of the N-Town Plays came out ten years ago, in 2007. Earlier this year, I was approached by Gale Sigal to contribute an essay on how the N-Town Plays could be used in medieval studies courses. I immediately thought about my most recent experiences teaching N-Town in my upper-division medieval literature course—and I thought about making the article more collaborative, including my students’ reflections about their experiences reading, researching, and finally performing scenes from the N-Town Plays for a campus event. Pleased with the (now) former students’ short essays, I thought about expanding the collaboration to include colleagues, Leah Haught and Jamie Friedman, who have presented on or taught N-Town recently. After discussing the project with me and having read drafts of my (and the students’) contributions, Leah and Jamie agreed to share their insights into N-Town. What began as students’ and teachers’ reflections on N-Town turned into a sophisticated inquiry into medieval and postmodern intertextuality, modes of cultural performance, and what happens when (as Jamie puts it below) “pre-modern meets postmodern.” This collaboration attempts to address how to read and to teach the N-Town Plays in our postmodern moment. Why should anyone read the N-Town Plays? We believe that N-Town allows our students and all of us to enter substantive arguments about performative authority, about gender construction, and about the power of truth telling in medieval times and now.
“For a play to live fully it must move from the flat plane of the printed page to a three-dimensional world . . . . Seldom is any student equipped both to set an imaginary stage and to people it with creatures of his imagination who can give life to the lines he reads. When that imaginative task involves the creation of a stage and sets such as a student has never seen, then the teacher’s task seems nearly insuperable.”1
“ . . .[T]o understand English medieval literary culture . . . is to understand primarily its self-conscious articulation of its modes of making and its media of transmission. The idea of the anthology controls much of the English medieval notion of the literary . . .2
“I have browth you newe namys, and wyl ye se why?” (Satan, 26.109)3
The first epigram captures what I find most exciting about teaching drama, particularly medieval drama. Part of the joy is simply watching students embody a text which has been lying fallow for hundreds of years. My upper-division Chaucer/Middle English Literature class performed parts of three N-Town Plays in late November 2015 as sort of a pre-Advent celebration in the Whitworth University student union during lunch. Because my students were reciting the lines in largely unadulterated Middle English, we all felt compelled to translate the contexts and situations (read “pander”) to the student audience the best we could. One former student, Catherine, remembered her performance this way:
The performances created a fun, albeit a little embarrassing, way to study the text. Performing those three scenes allowed us to step into history, to take on the role of a medieval actor taking on the role of Joseph, Mary, Lucifer. But what was really rewarding about the exercise was that degree of separation: we were trying to emulate the medieval actors, not necessarily the actual characters of Joseph, Mary, and Lucifer as we are familiar with them. We spoke Middle English like they did (well, to the best of our ability) and we followed their stage directions. While my sister watched the plays looking for the story, we performed the plays looking for the heart of them, diving into the context of them.”4
What is delightful about Catherine’s description is that it follows Stanley Kahrl’s experiential pattern almost exactly. My task, of teaching these five-hundred-year-old N-Town Plays, became less “insuperable” because the students were able to “set an imaginary stage . . . people it . . . and give life to the lines she read” (Kahrl, 306). The issue becomes, rather, how we can teach students to create a stage and experiences which they may have never seen. Perhaps we can only reach the students through their own postmodern experiences and texts.
The last epigram comes from one of my favorite speeches in all drama, from the prologue to the N-Town Passion Play 1. In this speech, Satan appears before the crowd, declaring himself “Lord Lucifer . . . and gret Duke of Helle” (26.1-2); recounts his fall from heaven; complains about a rebel named Jesus; entices the audience with his expensive, contraband, stylish attire; and finally proclaims that he will rename the seven deadly sins (pride becomes honesty, etc.), while giving everyone in the audience new identities. While all of his banter is entertaining enough, the late fifteenth-century backdrop is the War of the Roses, and East Anglian war lords pressing unwitting recruits into illegal armies. In essence, if the audience accepts Satan’s sense of style (his livery) and the way he has renamed the seven deadly sins (accepting their new identities), he has successfully recruited the whole audience into his demonic band of spiritual rebels. This long speech is, of course, followed by John the Baptist’s prologue, in which he attempts to reorient (sanctify) the audience; but the damage is done. Satan knows that he always/already has his fallen army. This opening to Passion Play 1 is just an introduction to the delicious self-consciousness found in various sections of the N-Town Plays. We, and our students, see examples of this rhetorical self-consciousness at play all around us now, in the form of tantalizing ads and “alternate truths.”
The N-Town Plays should appeal to our postmodern sensibilities. I can think of three ways in which the N-Town Plays are more self-conscious and varied than the other English plays: 1) The manuscript is more of a miscellany and may have been a traveling text; 2) This textual corpus, with all of its fissures and eclectic pieces concerned with women’s bodies, particularly Jesus’s, the Virgin Mary’s and Mary Magdalene’s; 3) Through both obvious and veiled references, the plays directly engage the fifteenth-century politics of Lollardy and the Wars of the Roses.
I have been struck with the N-Town Plays’ postmodern features, similar to what we’ve discovered about The Canterbury Tales. About them, Gareth Evans notes:
The work is again a ‘book-in-a-box,’ but instead of being completely unbound, the reader is presented with a text formed of twenty-seven pamphlets, which, apart from the first and last, are to be read in any order, with the purpose being that multiple narratives can be produced using the same constituent parts. . . . we are left with a multiplicity of texts, without any concept of a stable text which each copy ‘should’ resemble.5
The N-Town Plays is not as “jumbled” a text as The Canterbury Tales, but, despite its “cyclic” form, comprises material from at least five different playbooks: an older play cycle, The Mary Play, Passion Play 1, Passion Play 2, and The Assumption Play. Even though the N-Town Banns mimics the episodic structure of other English play cycles, it is clear that the N-Town Compiler failed to make the Banns accurately reflect both the content and the structure of the playbooks he put into the anthology. It’s not, necessarily, that the N-Town Plays is an unstable text (in the same way that we are uncertain about the order of The Canterbury Tales), but there are fissures in the manuscript that offer us options, the option not to perform the whole cycle, to perform its constituent parts. For example, at the end of The Visit to Elizabeth, there is an alternate ending, perhaps to be played if the play (The Visit to Elizabeth? The larger Mary Play?) were to end here and not continue to The Trial of Joseph and Mary, the ensuing play. Similar alternate lines appear at the end of Play 36, The Announcement to the Marys: this latter example may mark the ending of Passion Play 2, should it not continue into The Appearance to Mary Magdalene, as it stands in the manuscript.
It is clear, however, that this manuscript served several functions in its lifetime. Even though the compiler attempted to “stabilize” the anthology by revising the banns, it is clear that the even these revisions could not account for everything in the manuscript. We don’t know if the compiler ceased thinking of the anthology as a working theatrical collection. We conjecture that N-Town as a travelling text which accrued all of the newer booklets (Mary Play, Passion Play 1 and Passion Play 2, and the Assumption Play) at some date after 1468, the only date in the manuscript. It is likely, then, that these other playbooks were added anywhere between 1468 and 1520. We know that in this fifty-year period that, at very least, different plays in the book were performed separately. Theatrical revisions in the compiler’s and other revisers’ hands appear in: The Betrothal of Mary, the Parliament of Heaven, the Marriage of Joseph and Mary, The Nativity, The Shepherds, The Magi, The Baptism, Passion Play 1 and Passion Play 2.6 It is not only the Banns and its obvious revision which make N-Town literarily self-conscious, but all of added playbooks (and the compensations for those emendations) and these later theatrical revisions repurposed the devotional closet drama which the compiler may have thought he was making.
In some regard, the rich diversity and the eclecticism of the N-Town Plays make them easier to teach. As they are already a dramatic anthology, we as medievalists shouldn’t feel as guilty teaching one play at a time, as we might feel bad teaching only The Second Shepherd’s Play or The Chester Noah Play—because we have not sufficiently recognized the “whole” cycle; or all of the guilds, or because we haven’t properly contextualized all the records we have from York or Chester before we’ve taught these plays. In a way, we’re lucky that we currently have no dramatic records regarding N-Town. No records, no history.
The theatrical variety from N-Town is clear as well. Some plays require an open playing space, few props or sets, and five players; the Mary Play calls for a large indoor space (a cathedral?) with several loci, choral music, and a somewhat larger cast; the Passion Plays mention a large outdoor space with several scaffolds, angel machinery, a hell mouth, and a cast of three or four dozen; the Assumption Play calls for special effects such as a moving cloud, magically transported apostles, angel machinery (to translate Mary), an organ, a chorus, and a cast of about eighteen.7 These dramaturgical differences point to another important distinction of N-Town: the plays were likely performed by many different types of agencies or religious organizations, not just craft guilds as in York or Chester.
So, for Joseph’s Doubts, in which a naïve Joseph returns home to a pregnant Mary, I suggested that the students use Southern/rural American accents for rehearsal. I often use this technique in my Shakespeare class as well because it accomplishes a host of tasks: students slow their speech; they pay more attention to the words and cadences; and they end up using pronunciation which is probably closer to early modern (or even Middle) English. Of course, we were aiming for comic effect in our rehearsals, but for the most part, the American context and accent communicates the folksy and rural humor of the N-Town Plays. Even when they reverted to Middle English for the actual performance, the exercise had served its purpose—and, for the performance, they had learned important lessons about speaking and meaning the lines. One of the actors, Hanna Martin, reflected on that performance:
Flash forward a few months, and I am performing as Joseph. I have a tangle of white ribbons rubber-banded to my ears as a beard, and I am draped in an old sheet with a trekking pole as my staff. I shout my doubts about Mary’s purity in front of a quickly growing audience, and I am comfortable speaking Middle English. Though in no way do I look the part of a medieval actor, I feel that I am speaking clearly, pronouncing perfectly, and communicating well. . . .I was asked to don the robe and staff of old Joseph for the sake of reenactment. It was the first time I had played such a part since doing so in a childhood nativity reenactment.8
Hanna’s experience echoes Kahrl’s pedagogical description. In her experience acting, because of the ribbons, the old sheet, and the trekking pole, Hanna’s experience leaps from two to three dimensions. Even though she was, at first, cowed by the strangeness of Middle English, she gradually came to take on aspects of the language, and eventually felt comfortable becoming a flesh-and-blood representation of Joseph.
Another actor, Christopher Pieper, shares his experience, which again, compares with Hanna’s, but this time, the experience acting launches a new set of realizations about N-Town:
Those nativity scenes contain numerous memories, but I had assumed that the power of such a role lost its intrigue and inner impact with age. As an adult, however, incredulously repeating my lines to Jesus’ mother, Mary, touched me with an entirely new potency. I embodied Joseph’s disbelief, “Goddys childe—thu lyist, in fay!” and therefore recognized how Mary’s claim of virgin conception might have sounded to a faithful man: “God dede nevyr jape so with may!” Despite the humor we actors added to the scene, my reenactment of Joseph made his biblical moment my own. Suddenly, I realized as never before what emotions Joseph must have felt. I have no doubt that it was the same for players in the fifteenth century. They were wrestling with a difficult faith by enacting it. Indeed, the enactment was itself a practice of their faithfulness, an attempt to understand more fully.9
I appreciate the way Christopher internalizes his performance. Rather than making my pedagogical task “insuperable,” his experience acting exceeded what I expected— a performance in passable Middle English which a twenty-first century audience would find both entertaining and thought-provoking. I am drawn to his two comments, one about “Goddys childe,” and the other about how he “embodied Joseph’s disbelief.” As Kahrl noted, our hope is for students to “give life to the lines” they read. While all drama is a physical re-enactment of something and while all English cycle plays are enactments of sacred stories, there are layers of poignancy to the embodiments in N-Town. Christopher also observes about another N-Town Play, Passion Play 2:
I remember how striking it was to realize that the local smiths were likely those who contributed . . . the nails used when they “pullen hym [Jesus] down and leyn hym along the cross, and after that, naylyn hym theron” (3). Those four players, representing the four Jews who nailed Jesus to the cross, might be from the local town, as well as neighboring towns. In a single dramatic act, it is possible that four players enact the sinfulness of four towns, slaying the N-Town Jesus with local nails against a local carpenter’s cross. It is hard to imagine intimately enough how powerful such an event would be—to be, for example, the woodworker whose crossbeam holds Jesus up before the crowd.10
What allowed Christopher to arrive at this “imaginary stage” is both his embodiment of a character, his understanding of the local contributions to the theatrical depiction, but also the depths of brokenness portrayed on stage, on the page, but also in the piecemeal manuscript itself. Christopher’s comments demonstrate that he understands the “self-conscious articulation of its modes of making and its media of transmission,” as Leher puts it. I couldn’t ask for a richer pedagogical goal. In other words, the doubts and quandaries presented by East Anglian culture and the N-Town manuscript itself contribute to the mystical readings and performances of the learning experience.
In some regard, in N-Town, there is a direct relationship between chasms of understanding and breaks in the manuscript itself. Burt Kimmelman, referencing Karma Lochrie, calls this “the textual aporeia that is the essence of what she calls the fissured text, a text corresponding to the fissured body.”11 It may be coincidental or endemic to late medieval literature, but the textual fissures in the N-Town manuscript often occur close to depictions of bodily fissures. The Mary Play, which regards Mary’s total, physical devotion to God, was incorporated into the larger book; the ending “seam” at the end of the Mary booklet (the alternate ending to The Visit to Elizabeth) recites the macaronic “Magnificat” in both Latin and English—signifying a momentous fissure between an old dispensation (with Elizabeth’s birth of John the Baptist) and the new dispensation in Mary’s womb (13.82-126). The macaronic texts are smaller linguistic fissures which suggest changing attitudes in the church regarding the use of the vernacular.
Another fissured example in the manuscript is an interpolated quire O in Passion Play 1 (an interpolated play), in which Jesus casts the “sefne develys” out of Mary Magdalene, out of “hir bodily bowre” (27.174, 177)—in essence, those devils are expelled from the Magdalene’s body, another fissure. There is another metaphorical inversion of the bodily fissure, at the end of the interpolated Assumption of Mary Play (another interpolated play), demons appear from hell (read geological fissure) to drag away the rulers who tried to kill Mary; Mary’s proper spirit enters her deceased, broken body (in a fissure, no doubt)—“Hic vadit anima in corpus Marie” (41.477-521, s.d.); and she ascends into heaven. Even if the occurrence of the textual and symbolic fissures is coincidental, the compiler or revisers thought these symbolic miracles important enough to remake and to re-dramatize these respective scenes.
The compiler, who added the Mary Play, had another reason for bringing that particular playbook in the manuscript. It is no surprise to find that both the Mary Play and the Passion Plays reflect orthodox Catholicism of the fifteenth century. But they are also reacting to local and active Lollard groups in Norfolk and Suffolk. Of the Conception of Mary, William F. Bennett observes that “The tract places the kind of story the play tells squarely in the context of anti-Lollard propaganda, and describes the repressive function the genre usually serves.12 One of the major sources for both the Mary Play and the Passion Plays, Nicolas Love’s Mirrour of the Blessed Lyf of Christ, is a well-known anti-Lollard tract.13 There is little doubt that these N-Town playbooks served the same immediate repressive role. Another former student, Dani, a double major in History and English, brought a sophisticated double vision to her analysis of their performance of a few Mary plays:
Because I had had prior experiences with morality plays like N-Town, I was able to analyze their role in history as a type of propaganda – had I not had this experience prior to writing this paper, I would not have known to explore this as an avenue of research. Even more, my experience with N-Town provided me with the ability to analyze the different levels of influence that literature can have on different social levels of a community. N-Town reached portions of medieval society that were not reached by literature like The Canterbury Tales, and thus was a very effective propaganda tool for the medieval church. It is because of this connection to various communities that N-Town remains important in a post-modern world, especially to scholars of medieval history.14
Dani’s point recalls Bennett’s, but it is important to note that she came to her realization, partly through her research partly through the experience of performing the text.
Toward the end of Passion Play 1, there is a climactic stage direction (one of the longest in the play) in which ten men in full battle gear come to arrest Jesus in the garden (28.80 s.d.). Peter Meredith notes: “Lanterns, torches, weapons, swords, staves, and clubs are all mentioned in the gospels. White arneys and breganderys is an accurate description of the kind of mixed armour often worn in the fifteenth century; a combination of flexible body armour (breganderys) and pieces of rigid shell armour (white arneys).15 It is noteworthy that this stage direction is based on the Gospel accounts, The Northern Passion, but also contemporary fifteenth-century experiences.16 It is likely that the N-Town playwright’s sense of verisimilitude did not include trying to costume his actors in first-century, Middle Eastern military gear. So, in a way, it would be “natural” for the men coming to arrest Jesus to appear as fifteenth-century soldiers. It is likely that the Passion Plays were performed during or just after the end of the War of the Roses. And, even though there were no major battles in East Anglia during that time, the area was known for considerable civil and martial unrest.17 The detail and contemporary nature of the soldiers’ equipment in the stage direction bring immediacy to Jesus’s arrest, if not direct political commentary on the War of the Roses.
Some teachers attempt to teach the English cycle plays synchronically, as if nothing of historical importance happened between biblical times and the late Middle Ages. Or, they may try to teach those plays as if they were just catechism, reflecting only the Church’s teaching. The N-Town Plays allow us, rather, force us to avoid both of those approaches. All of “fissures” in the manuscript; all of the changes in the text draw our eyes (and ears?) to the problems in the play. It is through the physical embodiment of the performance that we can begin to comprehend the anomalies in the characters, the playing spaces, and the text. And it is through the rhetorical and dramaturgical aporeia that we both see and feel the postmodernity and the bricolage beauty of these plays. I close with two former students’—Isabella Santos’ and Dana Comi’s—reflections on the Mary Play:
I found Mary’s role as a vessel of affective spirituality especially compelling and quite evident when we acted out sections of the Mary Play’s [sic] in our university’s student union building. While speaking Middle English to an audience of young adults certainly has a comedic quality to it, there was a profound seriousness in physically emulating the postures of Middle English drama, which revealed the Marian character’s unique ability to purvey spirituality to the broader community. While God on high commands his angels to “Descende, I sey” (12.137) to communicate “such as my wyl is” (12.139), Mary is a far more accessible form of holiness. Her saintly qualities are evident by her abilities to perform miracles and carry God’s son, but her reality as a woman appeals to the largely female audience that the plays would have been seen by. The female audience likely would have either revered her holiness, or been empowered by the educated, virtuous woman who bore the Savior. Mary as an agent of affective spirituality is further emphasized by God’s physical distance from the audience: he was probably in a structure elevated above the audience, accentuating the fact that God, in his perfection, is removed from humanity. However, Mary is before the community, emulating admirable piety, devotion, and near-perfection while physically nearly level with those watching the play.18
Isabella’s acting experience parallels Hanna’s, but heads in another direction, this time, attempting to understand Mary’s role first as a woman and then, on the other hand, as a female audience member encountering medieval female spirituality. Isabella is trying to imagine, not only what it was like to play Mary, but she’s also considering what it would take to begin to believe the message that Mary both conveys and incarnates. Dana Comi finds Mary’s rhetoric the focal point of the Mary Play:
At her presentation at the temple, Mary is characterized as quasi-divine, the intercessor between humankind and God. Additionally, she is able to conduct direct translations of The Psalms from the Latin verse of the Vulgate Bible, an act that would normally be condemned by the clerical authority of the Church. While it was initially easy for me to focus on the pragmatic impossibility of the narrative, I realized that Mary’s ability to perform vernacular translations serves as a radical departure from acceptable behavior during this time, especially for women. Instead of receiving scriptural interpretation from the male clergy within the space of the church, Mary interacts and experiences the text firsthand, directly. This direct experience with scripture is then embodied when she carries the Word in her womb. She is able to have an unmediated experience with texts, ultimately positioning textual (and therefore scriptural) interpretation as domestic, personal, individualized, and vernacular. Given that Mary is the divine mediatrix, her individual interpretation is praised as miraculous, rather than subversive. Given that much of my research in the class concerned gendered spaces, vernacular interpretation, and feminist figures, Mary served as a crucial figure that exemplified the reclaiming of textual auctoritee through non-exegetical readings. I came to see Mary with the same awe as her father Joachym, as a “mervelyous thynge” (9.162). The lore surrounding Mary constitutes her as a radical character within the N-Town Plays, but also contributed to the affective spirituality movements of the eleventh and twelfth centuries as an important symbol. My work in researching Mary allowed me to view the rhetorical choices of Prudence in the “Tale of Melibee” and the “Tale of the Wyf of Bath,” along with Margery Kempe and Margery Baxter, as radical divergences from Augustinian, male-controlled scriptural interpretation. While each woman is successful to varying degrees, tenuously holding auctoritee for only particular instances, I found Mary’s influence to be one of the more powerful takeaways from my readings and from the course in general. My research in This course sparked my interest in public, spatial, and feminist rhetorics, which I continue to pursue in my graduate work. Regardless of the differences between N-Town Mary and the biblical Mary, there is no mistaking her rhetorical force.19
In bringing together the performance, the historical matrices for the plays, all of the student-performers have made sense of the complex layers and parts of the N-Town Plays, so much so that they find parallels with our own world. The N-Town Plays provide us with a framework which contains irregular fissures, which are meaningful in and of themselves because they highlight significant issues of the fifteenth and the twenty-first centuries. This fifteenth-century patchwork anthology presents us with an alien world which also feels, through performance and analysis, like our world in more than a few ways.
Fragments, Framing Devices, and Female Literacy: Teaching the N-Town Marian Material
Leah Haught, University of West Georgia
While they might need to be reminded of the fact that Protestantism was not yet an established form of Christianity, many of my students, regardless of the specifics of their own religious backgrounds, feel fairly comfortable discussing what they know about the Virgin Mary. Her reputation as the “new Eve” frequently precedes her, and so it comes as a bit of a surprise to most students that the doctrine that Christ was born through a virgin birth was not established until the Second Council of Constantinople in 381. As the human mother of God as man, Mary’s body is always physical as well as spiritual, and medieval authors were well aware of this, implicitly if not explicitly. Thus exposing students to a variety of Marian materials quickly challenges their ability to dismiss the Middle Ages as a “dark” era in which people accepted a single, universally “endorsed” church doctrine without question because they were incapable of thinking for themselves. Literary characterizations of Mary forefront not only the plurality of possible responses to complex theological topics like the interplay between divinity and humanity, but also the social construction of identities and institutions commonly promoted as inherently stable, such as gender roles and marriage. The overlapping paradoxes associated with Mary continuously mark her as a palimpsest of sorts, capable of supporting a wide variety of medieval cultural aspirations, many of which are contradictory and even unorthodox in nature. I would like to briefly consider the productive possibilities associated with teaching the models of female piety and literacy advanced by depictions of or reactions to Mary in two distinct yet related modes of medieval cultural performance: the N-Town Marian material and The Canterbury Tales.
First, for the sake of context, I would ask students to read excerpts from the Gospels that highlight some of the ambiguities to which I just alluded, including the conflicting genealogies of Jesus suggested by the books of Matthew and Luke, as well as early theologians’ attempts to reconcile these genealogies with Paul’s assertion that Christ is “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3-4), and that he is “born of a woman” but not of a virgin specifically (Galatians 4:4). I would also want us to look at the ways in which these competing traditions are represented visually, both in terms of genealogical charts and pictorial representations of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship. The goal here would be twofold: first, to get students to recognize that biblical exegesis has a long history of uncertainty regarding how best to understand Mary’s salvific import; and second, to get students to appreciate that deliberate acts of interpretation are involved in every depiction of Mary that we encounter. No matter how Mary’s role is depicted—celebrated, downplayed, etc.—that depiction is the result of choices made by the person or people responsible for the text in question, and those choices are, in turn, like the ones we make daily in our own lives, the products of the time, place, and context in which they are or were made. With this knowledge in mind, students should be better prepared to think critically about the interplay between form, content, and interpretation, both within the N-Town Plays and The Canterbury Tales as unique compilations of heterogeneous material, and across the two texts as similarly piecemeal anthologies that explore the sacred alongside the profane in highly performative, socially meaningful ways.
As many scholars have noted, the N-Town plays include more Marian material than any of the other English mystery cycles, including several episodes that do not appear elsewhere. The first of these unique episodes details Mary’s Immaculate Conception and the last the preservation of her body’s sanctity through its Assumption.20 Thus the narrative of Mary’s life literally envelops the narrative of her son’s in much the same way that her body encases and nourishes his human form in utero. Yet while the larger arc of her life certainly contributes to N-Town’s interest in redemptive history, specific moments from her life speak to late fifteenth-century anxieties about religious and civic authority as much as, if not more than, they do theological concerns. The very first time we encounter Mary herself, for example, is as a three-year-old being brought to the Temple to fulfill her parents’ vow that their first-born child, the miraculous offspring of a barren womb, would be a “servaunt of God” 1(9.21).21
Claiming that she is unworthy of being God’s wife, Mary nevertheless vows to be “Goddys chast servaunt whil lyff is in me” (9.36). Although her eloquence and wisdom belie her age—as her father suggests, she sounds more like a twenty-year-old than a toddler here (9.43)—her reluctance to leave her parents—she asks for their blessing (9.69) and embraces them both (s.d.77) before vowing to “pray for yow and wepe / To God with al myn hert specyaly” (9.82-83)—also depicts her as a child overwhelmed by the very human emotions of love and loss. Further developing this connection between parent and child, Anne refuses to leave until she sees Mary safely within the Temple, for she would not “for al erthe se her fal” (9.93). This liminal status of being more than a child but less than an adult, with all the complex emotional baggage it evokes, is one that college students are particularly well positioned to identify with, I think, and this possibility of affective connection is one way I would encourage students to explore the popularity of the cycle plays. The subsequent miracle of Mary ascending the steps of the Temple unaided is firmly couched within a recognizably domestic scene that almost certainly would have made the form of contemplative piety she goes on to model all the more accessible, reminding us that Mary is situated in the physical world alongside the spiritual one in much the same way that the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue situates pilgrimage as a natural, seasonal activity as well as a pious one.
The fact that Mary glosses each Gradual Psalm in English before any Latin is provided further promotes the accessible or knowable alongside the divine or mysterious. She initiates her physical and rhetorical separation from her parents, for example, by ascending the first of fifteen steps while reciting the following quatrain:
The fyrst degré gostly applyed:
It is holy desyre with God to be.
In trobyl to God I have cryed
And in sped that Lord hath herde me. (9.102-05)
Mary’s recitation is immediately followed by the communal chanting, most likely led by Episcopus, of the first verse of the Latin psalm: “Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamaui, et exaudiuit me” (“In my trouble I cried to the Lord, and he heard me”).22 This call and response-style interaction over Vulgate Psalm 119:1 highlights her deep commitment to and understanding of the scripture at hand. In addition to being depicted as an exemplary student, then, Mary is also essentially functioning as preacher, drawing, as Frank Napolitano puts it, a “general spiritual lesson that the audience should take from the lines” in a manner that emulates popular devotional treatises like the Lay Folk’s Mass Book.23 In this way, she models active, personal interaction with the psalms instead of a passive absorption of them, ultimately seeming to privilege interpretation and multilingualism over acceptance and ecclesiastical exclusivity. Thus a close reading of Mary’s characterization within the earliest plays in which she appears raises important questions about the contexts, methodologies, and motivations that best support meaningful learning—not to mention how we might define what learning is meaningful and who should have access to it.
The subject of precisely who should be able to interact directly with scripture and in what language was, of course, one of the most significant debates of late medieval England, and one with which Chaucer was well aware. Indeed, his decision to include religious narratives among those told by both genders as part of a vernacular storytelling competition designed to promote “sentence” and “solaas” (I.798)24 —phrasing that, coincidently, calls to mind Contemplacio’s wish that the Mary Play “may profite and plese eche persone present” (8.6)—situates those tales as forms of public performance capable of destabilizing the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy, public and private, and masculine and feminine devotional practices. Having students compare the different styles and subject matters employed by different pilgrim-narrators should make this clear to them.
Chaucer’s decision to assign a miracle of the Virgin narrative and a virgin martyr narrative to female speakers—the Prioress and the Second Nun respectively—strikes me as worth exploring with students in some detail. As female religious figures committed to lives of celibacy, service, and contemplation, both women have much in common with Mary, including the unique pressures of trying to live up to an allusive gendered ideal within the structure of the church itself, which makes their Marian devotion seem both expected and especially fraught. In addition to telling a tale about a martyred boy whose relationship with Mary is central both before and after his murder by Jews, the Prioress also directly addresses Mary throughout the Prologue to her Tale, asking her to “Gydeth my song that I shal of yow seye” (VII.487). This prayer ultimately casts Mary as a figure with whom the Prioress wants to identify but cannot fully, because, unlike Mary, she is not given the opportunity to bear a child while remaining an exemplary servant of God, unless we consider her Tale itself, centered as it is on the brief life and violent death of the only son of a grieving mother, to be her divine “offspring.” While acknowledging that the Prioress’s so-called “progeny” is produced through a very different form of “labor” than Mary’s, I would want my students to think through some of the disturbing implications suggested by such a connection. What might this Tale’s anti-Semitism suggest about the ways in which Mary’s exceptionalism is understood by female religious figures?
The Second Nun also prefaces her Tale—a version of the St. Cecilia legend—with an Invocation to Mary (VIII.29-84), which identifies Mary as a model of female authority whose performance of sacred speech is directly related to her ability to birth the Word as flesh. This connection between Mary and the divine Word is important given the sustained interest of both the Prologue and the Tale in the possibilities associated with public performances of female spiritual authority; the Second Nun imitates St. Cecilia’s public preaching by offering her own sermon on the dangers of Idleness in her Prologue (VIII.191-99 and 1-28), for example. Thus the question of which of Cecilia’s other behaviors—her non-traditional, one might even say Marian, interpretation of marriage vows, her confrontation with the civic authority, etc.—the Second Nun might also endorse through imitation haunts how we might read this narrative rendering of Cecilia’s piety.
The connections discussed thus far between female piety and female literacy as they are conceptualized within the N-Town Marian material and the Canterbury Tales are but a few of the many possible ways to explore both texts as heterogeneous compilations capable of speaking powerfully to the performative nature of medieval culture. I know, for example, I would want to examine in some detail the tension between marriage as a religious and as a cultural practice, especially insofar as sexuality and sexual politics are concerned, within the “Marriage of Mary and Joseph” and “Trial of Mary and Joseph” plays, as well as the so-called “marriage group” of the Canterbury Tales. As Emma Lipton reminds us, “the relative merits of virginity and marriage” are at stake in the N-Town’s depiction of the Holy couple.25 Both Mary and Joseph resist the idea of marriage at first; Mary because she has already dedicated her life to being God’s “clene” servant, and Joseph because he is old and infirm, which in his mind means he will be duped by a young wife in much the same way the Merchant’s January, the Miller’s John, and the Wife of Bath’s unnamed husbands one through three are. Within the context of female piety is important to note that Mary does not immediately submit to the will of the bishop. Instead, she insists upon maintaining her virginity, a fact that she emphasizes while giving her consent to marry later on:
And, jentyll spowse, as ye an seyd,
Lete me levyn as a clene mayd.
I shal be trewe, be not dysmayd,
Both terme, tyme, and tyde. (10.327-30)
By including the standard marriage liturgy of the late fifteenth century, the play suggests that their subsequent chaste union is “normal” as opposed to exceptional in many ways.
Mary and Joseph’s marriage is both legal—confirmed through mutual consent—and officially sanctioned since it occurs at a temple with priest present. It is hard to imagine either of Chaucer’s Allisons or May endorsing this particular view of marriage, however. And while their reasons for objecting to such unions might be considered scandalous, their objections would also align them with church practice in interesting ways, because the latter did not tend to actively promote chaste marriage, choosing instead to emphasize sexual intercourse within marriage and abstinence as fundamental to clerical identities. If, as Mary and Joseph’s union suggests, marriage can purely spiritual and not concerned with consummation, then what exactly is the difference between them and the clergy? Then again, if virginity is deemed superior to marriage, why does Temple law dictate that virgins marry at fourteen? Addressing questions along these lines should help students tease out the distinct yet related histories of marriage as a theological and as a social construct.
Additional topics I would want to discuss would include the relationship between officially sanctioned and communal or popular forms of devotion; I am particularly interested in how the emphasis on dialogue and lay piety enacted in private spaces, such as Mary’s conversation with Gabriel ahead of the Conception (11.217-92) and her performance with Elizabeth of a dual-language Magnificat (13.81-130), might offer new insights into Chaucer’s depiction of church hierarchy and authority throughout the Tales. The correlation between men cross-dressing as female characters on stage and Chaucer ventriloquizing female personas in his poem is worth contemplating as well.26 By pursuing these and other threads of conversation with our students, it is my hope that we will be able to get them to not only acknowledge how the N-Town Marian materials and the Canterbury Tales can be seen as being in meaningful conversation with each other, but also why these types of intertextual, intergeneric conversations are important in the first place. Put another way, reading one of the most well-known and commonly taught texts of the English Middle Ages alongside one of the least studied and, I would guess, least taught of the English cycle plays will help give students a sense of both the diversity and overlap among the anxieties, aspirations, and forms of writing in late medieval England.
(Post)Modern N-Town and the Urgencies of the Now
Jamie Friedman, Linfield College
When I was in graduate school, the first great disciplinary debate I encountered would turn out to be the most important one for my teaching and research. The argument, still salient in various modes of medieval studies today, debates whether the medieval past is another country, with a culture, categories of being, ways of knowing so radically different from the contemporary moment that framing studies of medieval texts with current theories constitutes a violent misrecognition of the text frequently labeled “anachronism.” On the other hand are historians who call for a simultaneity between “an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world.”27 This historiographic approach assumes that modern questions can, in fact, serve as illuminating modes of inquiry about the medieval past while allowing that past to anachronistically, and productively, interrogate the present. Among many other scholars on this debate, Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities Pre- and Postmodern articulated one of the most influential responses to these questions. She demonstrates the possibility, the inevitability, and even the ethical necessity of affective communities touching across times within a critical framework that insists on demonstrating the relevance of the medieval to contemporary cultural theory. As it did for many medievalists at the turn of the new millennium (Getting Medieval was published in 1999), Dinshaw’s work suggested to me that it was not only possible, but urgently necessary to resist a reductive medievalism that reproduced our most exclusionary and totalizing social fantasies while representing a Middle Ages “taken to be completely other [that turns] out to be only a refraction of the present.”28 Within this conversation about the place of contemporary theoretical approaches to the medieval past, the text of the N-Town Plays provides a helpful medieval exemplar, especially for readers who are interested in destabilizing reductive claims about medieval drama, its forms, and the potentially competing ideologies that drama can animate. As many N-Town critics have noted, and as Sugano has well-outlined above, the play texts refuse easy (and by easy, we might read modern) notions of a unified author, provenance, and performative or devotional context.29 Further, in the essay above, Haught demonstrates the relevant and contemporary questions about women’s agency and authority the play texts raise and perhaps refuse ultimately to settle. Scholars simply have more questions than answers about not just who wrote the texts, but how they were compiled, how they were played (if at all), and how the compilation was understood to function for its audience. Given these questions, Sugano suggests that readers might better understand N-Town as “an incomplete, eclectic, regional anthology that is the collaborative product of scribes, playwrights, revisers, actors, readers, and producers.”30 Put another way, while the York or Chester cycles evince a literal performative mobility (upon wagons, through their respective towns), N-Town’s mobility is authorial, geographic, codicological, and thus deeply hermeneutic. In light of these questions, these hermeneutic mobilities, Sugano suggests that N-Town might be “perfectly suited to postmodern sensibilities,”31 and it is here, where the postmodern meets the premodern, that I’d like to think about what teaching N-Town means in our current moment.
It is arguably N-Town’s connection to truth-telling, within its postmodern shaped form, to which students in this particular political moment may respond most intensely. The current crisis of the American political landscape around the proliferation of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and the longstanding joke about “truthiness” (where truth is removed from objective, verifiable fact and emanates instead from one’s feeling about what is true) has led many to call this moment “post-factual,” which we might understand as the demise of the absolute claims of knowledge. Further, this malleability of truth claims, a kind of proliferation of truths to support any, even opposing, narratives about “what happened” or “what is true,” is often located as an historically unique outgrowth of an increasingly mainstream postmodernism that has cleared the way for the dismissal of inconvenient truths as “fake news” or, even worse, a kind of amorphous relativism. That is, when students hear “postmodern,” they likely may hear “post-truth” or “any truth at all.”
However, this conflation of alternative fact or post-truth and postmodernist critique of truth claims represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the context of postmodern critiques. Postmodernism has always insisted specifically upon “incredulity towards metanarratives,” where metanarratives represent truth claims in the service of dominant ideologies.32 For Lyotard, the resistance to metanarratives and the truths they tell recognizes that truths are told in the service of power, and insists upon recognizing the stake that maintaining ideological and institutional power has in what kinds of truths are given voice. In quite the opposite vein, those advocating for “alternative truths” insist on the ability to fashion truth in the service of maintaining power. In that respect – the strongman attempting to use falsehoods to reify his own power – these alternative truths are not postmodern at all, but rather reproduce a longstanding tradition in which the powerful fabricate truths to maintain their own authority. Put more simply, alternative truthers insist upon power to create truths, while postmodernism insists that no power, and no truth told to maintain that power, is absolute. Postmodernism dismantles power; those espousing “alternative facts” reinforce it.
Here again, N-Town is particularly instructive; the plays serve as a corrective to students’ modern misrecognition of postmodern truth via the plays’ own insistence upon showing precisely the plasticity of truth in the service of the powerful. For example, in the post-resurrection exchange between Pilate and Roman soldiers who have witnessed Christ’s resurrection, Pilate offers to bribe the soldiers to change their stories. Annas, a Jewish leader and part of Pilate’s “councell,” claims that the fact of Christ’s resurrection is “fers and felle – / Combros it is therewith to melle”; that is, this truth is “treacherous” and “cumbersome” to the machinery of civic and religious authority.33 Here Annas suggests that the juridical punishment meted out upon Christ’s body – torture and death – requires permanent death as the sign of the permanence of that corporeally enacted authority.
Initially, the soldiers’ rhetoric insists upon their motivation not just to report what they have seen, but to “telle the trewth ryght as it lay.”34 In fact, the soldiers reference the urgency of their mission specifically as one of “trewth”-telling five times in ninety lines,35 suggesting not only that truth exists, but that it motivates both correct rhetoric and the soldiers’ future movement around Christendom. In this scene, “trewth” is both knowable and existentially animating, both for the resurrected Christ, and for these new believers. Yet, after Annas (correctly, it turns out) claims that “mede is mayster, both est and west,”36 the soldiers quickly comply, turning their insistence upon truth-telling to the rhetorically succinct “Now we have golde;/ No talys shul be tolde.”37 Further, the scene shows Pilate actively authoring this post-truth narrative when he urges the soliders, “A bettyr sawe that ye say:/ Sey ther he was cawth away/ With his dyscyplis be nyght;/ Sey he was with his dyscyplis fett.”38 Pilate’s repeated injunction to “say” that Jesus’ disciples have stolen his body casts him as the attempted author of a counter-resurrection narrative, or as a director of an alternative dramatic action, of a new speech that only benefits the maintenance of his own power. Taken together, these scenes suggest that the N-Town author is deeply aware of the same connection between power and truth-creation that postmodernism names as the foundation of knowledge itself. In this scene the currency of power, “mede,” authors the “truths” of the tale that the soldiers will tell, now explicitly linked to the needs of the powerful.
While the text doesn’t recuperate the author-function from Pilate in this play, in the Assumption of Mary play, the text metes out a more particular punishment to a character who similarly attempts to authorize a narrative. After Mary’s death, Episcopus charges three Princeps to abscond with Mary’s body in similar fashion as Pilate has directed about Christ; Episcopus demands that they “brynge me that bychyd body, I red!”39 As before, the mobility of the sacred body, whether via narrative creation (“Say that…”) or via intended action registers the efficacy, the reach, of Pilate’s and Espiscopus’ authority. In this sense again, the plays are clearly aware that one function of power is authorizing narrative truths about sacred bodies, bodies which seem to be the materials across which alternative sets of truths are written. That Jesus’ body does serve as the locus of narrative destabilizing truths is shown in the multiple times Jesus is called “blasphemer,” a “tretour,” a false simulator and necromancer.40 That is, the conflict among the powerful seems to be one of deciding who gets to read or interpret Christ’s, and later, Mary’s, body, its own connections of truth or falsehood tied repeatedly to how well Christ does or does not reinforce the metanarratives legitimizing the powerful.
In the face of Pilate’s, Episcopus’, and other “alternative truthers” insistence on their ability to fashion truth, ex nihilo, in the service of maintaining their power, N-Town advocates for a hermeneutic of suspicion toward what counts as fact in the service of authority. Like postmodernist claims, N-Town destabilizes power and diffuses it across Christ’s body, across Mary’s body (as Haught’s essay above demonstrates), across the proliferating and local knowledges of testifying disciples, and ultimately across the bodies of those witnessing, and reading, its text, both then and now. Like postmodernism, N-Town does not refuse claims to absolute truth as much as it insists upon questioning the powerful who author those truths, while simultaneously asking modern readers to question the role of the author herself. The net effect of these proliferating knowledges throws auctoritee back upon itself, refusing it a stable ground from which to pronounce, arguing that truth claims are situated in an authority that is, itself, inherently (and infinitely) questionable.
Certainly, the N-Town plays help students to enter into the argument, outlined above, that runs throughout any interpretive decisions contemporary readers make about historical texts. Here, students encounter the interpretive limitations of a flattened vision of authorship and textual meaning when applied across times, and even more importantly, also encounter what a medieval text might have in common with a postmodern insistence upon a diffuse, mobile text with an author and her intentions for performance, devotion, and authority tantalizingly out of reach. Reading N-Town can be productive for students in that it provides a helpful corrective to the notion that contemporary interpretive politics are recent phenomena anachronistically applied, while also helping students explore how previous times have negotiated seemingly “modern” questions of authority, interpretation, embodiment, and rhetorical representations of “trewth.” In this post-factual cultural moment, N-Town provides prescient and relevant permission, or caution, for students to remember that truth claims are always negotiated from within their own relation to power structures that readers, and citizens, have a hermeneutic – and potentially urgent – obligation to query.
3The N-Town Plays, ed. Douglas Sugano (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007), 208. All subsequent references to the play text in this collective essay will be from this edition, unless stated otherwise.
16 The Northern Passion. Frances Foster, Wilhelm Heuser, eds. (London: Early English Text Society, 1913-1916).
20 Material unique to N-Town that also influences the depiction of Mary includes the story of Joachim and Anne (8), the Presentation of Mary in the Temple (9), the Parliament of Heaven (11), the Trial of Mary and Joseph (14—also unique among continental religious plays), the scene of Mary and the cherry tree in the Nativity (15), and the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary during her Assumption (41).
23 Frank Napolitano, “N-Town Presentation of Mary and Rhetorical Knowledge,” Studies in Philology, 110.1 (2013): 1-17, at 4. Psalters were used a lot by aristocratic women and children in particular to increase literacy and devotion according to Miri Rubin. See Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009), especially chapter 13.
26 With few exceptions (as dancers in Salome’s seduction in a public performance sponsored by the guild of St. John the Baptist at Baston or the Chester play of the Assumption), women’s contributions to medieval drama were behind the scenes or as audience members, not as actors. Cross-dressing male actors both confirm the importance of female figures within salvation history, then, and limits women’s ability to publicly participate in the performance of this history. In short, it registers the instability of the gender binary it is trying to promote. As a male author writing female characters, Chaucer himself can be thought of as cross-dressing a way. The reference to the narrator as being a “sone of Eve” (VIII.62) as opposed to a daughter within the “Second Nun’s Prologue” makes this especially clear, though I think the Wife’s embodiment of many of the misogynist stereotypes against which she is railing is another example worth exploring.
27 Donna J. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge P: 1991), 187. Emphasis hers.
28 Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 19. Dinshaw has continued working out this temporal collapse, or an exploration of nonlinear time, as her primary historiography, in later work, including especially How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, (Durham: Duke UP, 2012), see 4-7.
29 See also Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theatre of Devotion. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989),107-35; Douglas Sugano, “’This Game Wel Pleyd in Good A-Ray’: The N-Town Playbooks and East Anglian Games,” in Comparative Drama, 28.2 (Summer 1994): 221; Douglas Sugano, Introduction to The N-Town Plays, ed. Douglas Sugano (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute P, 2007), 1-22.
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