John T. Sebastian

title.none: Dunlop, Late Medieval Interlude (John T. Sebastian)

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.022 08.06.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John T. Sebastian, Loyola University New Orleans,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Dunlop, Fiona S. The Late Medieval Interlude: The Drama of Youth and Aristocratic Masculinity. York, Woodbridge, Suffolk UK: York Medieval Press, 2007. Pp. viii, 141. $80.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-1-90315-321-5. ISBN-10: 1-90315-321-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.22

Dunlop, Fiona S. The Late Medieval Interlude: The Drama of Youth and Aristocratic Masculinity. York, Woodbridge, Suffolk UK: York Medieval Press, 2007. Pp. viii, 141. $80.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-1-90315-321-5. ISBN-10: 1-90315-321-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John T. Sebastian
Loyola University New Orleans

Medievalists have long been saddled with the myth that the Renaissance invented the individual. The well-worn tale of the self-conscious subject finally sloughing off the torpor of collective identity, group affiliations, and general ignorance at the end of the Middle Ages owes its own invention to early modern humanists, of course, and its longevity to nineteenth-century historians like Jacob Burckhardt, who famously reaffirmed this narrative in his Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, first published in 1860. More recently, scholars of the Middle Ages working in a variety of fields have made great strides toward divesting this myth of its historiographical and cultural purchase. Indeed, so far have we come in the re-visioning of our inherited cultural narratives that the question of which period invented the modern individual seems latterly to have been set aside in favor of a debate over whether something called the Renaissance or the Reformation or the Early Modern Period (or any designator indicating that what came before needed replacing) really did witness the kind of rupture with the past signified by the conventional terms of chronological division.

As in other disciplines, debates about the rise of the individual and periodization in general have fueled much interesting work produced in recent years by scholars of early English drama. One thinks here of Barbara D. Palmer's argument for the Towneley compilatio as a product of sixteenth-century recusant interests ("Recycling 'The Wakefield Cycle': The Records," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 41 [2002]: 88-130) or of Heather Hill-Vásquez's interpretation of elements of the Chester plays as accommodating Protestant sensibilities (Sacred Players: The Politics of Response in the Middle English Religious Drama [Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007]). Both of these studies view mainstays of "medieval" drama through unabashedly post-Reformation lenses. In The Late Medieval Interlude: The Drama of Youth and Aristocratic Masculinity, Fiona S. Dunlop joins the chorus of voices seeking to trouble the boundary between modernity and its predecessor by shifting the debate in the other direction. In this refreshing and engaging look at one of the most neglected forms of early English drama, Dunlop reclaims the interlude as unambiguously medieval in spirit, despite the seemingly modern trappings which cloak it. She focuses on five plays dated to the period from the 1490s to the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century: Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres and Nature, The Worlde and the Chylde, The Interlude of Youth, and Calisto and Melebea. For Dunlop, the protagonist of the interludes serves as a nexus, the point where often competing but decidedly medieval ideologies of age, status, and gender collide and generate the performances by means of which the young, male aristocrat asserts, reforms, and finally preserves his identity.

Dunlop opens The Late Medieval Interlude by positioning her book as both a development of and a response to Stephen Greenblatt's characterization of self-fashioning through performance as a sixteenth-century phenomenon. She acknowledges her debt to Greenblatt and other Renaissance scholars, but she simultaneously questions the presumed novelty of self-fashioning in the sixteenth century and the historiographical alienating of the Middle Ages upon which previous studies have been predicated. For Dunlop, evidence of performed selves can most certainly be found in the interludes of the fifteenth century and in the late-medieval ideologies which the interludes reproduce and challenge. Observing that the interlude was long considered "a kind of missing link or genetic freak of literary history, of interest only because it explained the origins of a more highly valued form of literature [i.e., Shakespearean drama]" (3), Dunlop parts company with those who have seen the interludes as proto- modern entertainments and instead situates these plays comfortably alongside medieval courtesy books, didactic poems, mirrors for princes, and other forms of writing that call attention to the performative nature of identity.

To make her argument, Dunlop emphasizes echoes, moments in the interludes which resound with the medieval discourses of youth, self- governance, and noble householding discernible in a variety of texts for elite readers. In so doing, she exposes the tension between the demands of youthfulness and the duties of being noble impressed upon the protagonists of the interludes and their real-world aristocratic counterparts. She begins by surveying generically disparate texts from the end of the Middle Ages that converge around a shared conception of youth as a period of natural sinfulness in the male lifecycle. To perform his nobility successfully, the young aristocrat is urged by courtesy literature and interlude alike to conscious regulation of his gestures, which left unchecked reveal the youth's natural sinfulness. By attending to his gestures, these sources counsel, the young nobleman can achieve the kind of reforming self- awareness that in turn impels the soul's conversion away from sinfulness and the aristocrat's subsequent integration into noble society.

Implicit in the idea of the performed and performing noble self is the existence of an audience that interprets, and judges, the personae adopted by male aristocrats, and it is Dunlop's analysis of the noble household as the setting within which signifiers of youth and noble masculinity take on their significations that stands out as the highpoint of the monograph. Dunlop considers different aristocratic sign systems, remarking that while gesture tends to reveal the natural self that one might wish to conceal, dress, in an era where the upwardly mobile frequently adopted the fashion of noble classes to which they did not belong by birth, tends to obscure identity. Such an understanding of the processes of noble signification and performance in turn enables, for example, Dunlop's reading of Fulgens and Lucres as a kind of treatise on the varieties of nobility and their respective merits: the self-discipline and restraint of Gaius on the one hand is matched against the conspicuous consumption and ostentation in dress and speech of Cornelius on the other. Medwall thus presents the victorious Gaius as a positive exemplum of authentic nobility borne of a virtuous nature. The noble household, moreover, is present in the interludes through the familia, the collection of servants and retainers associated with a house and its noble lord and represented in the plays by a variety of companions, including personified vices, whom the protagonists take into their service for good or ill. Dunlop shows how the engaging of servants signals a transition from youth to adulthood in the interludes, but more importantly the "link between an inability to govern oneself and an inability to govern others is made in Nature, The Worlde and the Chylde and The Interlude of Youth, where the servants whom the young men fail to govern are at one and the same time the sins to which young men are particularly prone, as a function of their physical and mental development" (82).

Dunlop is at her most insightful in unearthing the distinctly medieval ideas about youth and nobility that subtend performances of aristocratic maleness in the interludes, but she is less successful to my mind in her attempts at reading the interludes politically. I thus found her fourth and final chapter, "Interludes and the Politics of Youth," to be the least convincing part of her book. Here she argues that the interlude is "a political genre in the sense that it makes the exercise of political authority into a theme," (90) yet Dunlop goes beyond theme by trying to identify specific political contexts for individual plays. She seems motivated here in part by other scholars who have sought to elucidate seemingly topical allusions but also by an anxiety about the value of studying the interludes in the first place. An unexplained and subtle bias against drama that is merely didactic occasionally pierces the surface of her prose. In her introduction, when she argues that Nature, The Worlde and the Chylde, and Youth are "far from being clunky, didactic pieces," she is subversively invoking the patronizing rhetoric of an earlier generation of scholars whose opinions she seeks to revise (6). But she takes pains in this last chapter to redeem Nature as more than a morality, which she defines as a "relatively unsophisticated and naive drama" (92). This dismissive attitude toward moral drama reappears later in her observation that the interlude's potential for admittedly oblique topicality qualifies it as "sophisticated politically allusive drama, rather than simple moral didacticism" (105). In stressing the similarities, despite obvious surface-level differences, between the three didactic plays just mentioned on the one hand and the more overtly secular Fulgens and Lucres and Calisto and Melebea on the other, Dunlop necessarily, although unintentionally I think, alienates the non- interlude moralities in a move which seems only to reinforce the divide she so rightly and convincingly laments everywhere else in her study between a benighted Middle Ages and a more culturally evolved Renaissance.

Her political readings, moreover, require a greater stretch of the imagination than is called for earlier in the book. At one point she embarks on an overly lengthy reading of Fulgens and Lucres as being really about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and her preoccupation with noble authority. Dunlop figures Margaret as an amalgam of the best qualities of the competing forms of masculine nobility modeled by Gaius and Cornelius and as ultimately surpassing both. The play becomes a kind of justification for Margaret's own preferred means of exercising political agency. Dunlop seems to be carried away by her own speculation when she suggests that Gaius's military background may only be alluded to briefly in the play because virtue-based nobility could more readily be embraced by a woman (105)! Margaret thus becomes the justification, rather than simply a topical touchstone, for Fulgens and Lucres. Dunlop's readings of Nature and Youth as reflective of the political anxieties of particular historically identifiable households are likewise less effective than her discussions elsewhere of the discourse of youth, ideas about self-governance, or practices of noble householding, perhaps also because the connections she draws between the plays and their topical referents are so much more tenuous. Her earlier chapters are persuasive precisely because they do not depend on connecting an individual play to some prior intertext; rather, the interludes join with other medieval texts in the synchronous construction of ideas about youth, nobility, and masculinity. The simple elegance of identifying discursive resonances is ultimately more persuasive than the attempt to tie meaning to particular historical moments.

Instead of a discussion of what makes the interludes political, I would have preferred some consideration of what makes them interludes. In a bit of sleight of hand, Dunlop includes a section heading in the introduction on "the interlude as a literary genre" that unexpectedly emphasizes the interlude's historical liminality because of the form's resistance to precise definition as a genre. While the form may be indeterminate, Dunlop's appeal to the performance of identity as a unifying factor cannot alone account for her selection of the five plays she analyzes. Skelton's Magnyfycence is more than once mentioned in the monograph, yet it fails to attract Dunlop's sustained attention, perhaps because it does not adhere to her conception of the interlude as a genre, although what her precise idea of the interlude is we are left to guess. Further consideration of the formal characteristics of the interlude may yield additional insights about the ways in which these texts were performed and adapted to other contexts and occasions. Indeed Dunlop teases the reader in the conclusion by wondering if the printing of interludes in the sixteenth century might suggest other ways in which these plays were consumed in noble households. The interlude as private reading material strikes me as a potentially fruitful topic for future inquiry. One final quibble: I would have appreciated an index that did justice to the text it supplements. As it stands, the present index is unduly skimpy, needlessly lacking entries for such key terms as "familia" or even "gesture."

In short, The Late Medieval Interlude offers a clearly written and compelling analysis of an important body of early English dramatic literature. Dunlop successfully reclaims the interludes as unapologetically medieval in their outlook despite their flirting with putatively but, it turns out, not exclusively modern practices of identity-making. While Dunlop's political readings of the scripts sometimes fall a bit short, she very convincingly argues that the interludes' protagonists are "a discursive site where ideologies of conduct, moral virtue, status and politics meet, and which seem designed to provoke comment and to offer audiences the opportunities of reading their own sub-texts into them, rather than closing down meanings" (124). There is much to recommend this book, but in the end, its single greatest triumph may be its rehabilitation of an unjustly marginalized body of literature that is, as Fiona S. Dunlop ably demonstrates, richly deserving of further reading by scholars on both sides of the chronological divide.