John Marlin

title.none: Hays, Joyce, et al., eds., REED: Dorset and Cornwall (Marlin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.019 00.05.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Marlin, College of St. Elizabeth,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Hays, Rosalind, C.E. McGee, Sally Joyce, Evelyn Newlyn, eds. Records of Early English Drama: Dorset and Cornwall. Records of Early English Drama. Toronto: Brepols and University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. vi, 719. $150.00. ISBN: 0-802-04379-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.19

Hays, Rosalind, C.E. McGee, Sally Joyce, Evelyn Newlyn, eds. Records of Early English Drama: Dorset and Cornwall. Records of Early English Drama. Toronto: Brepols and University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. vi, 719. $150.00. ISBN: 0-802-04379-8.

Reviewed by:

John Marlin
College of St. Elizabeth

I assume the readers of this review fall into two main classes: those who know of the Records of Early English Drama (REED ) project and have used its materials, and those who either have only a passing familiarity with it or don't know it at all. It is to this latter class that the bulk of my review is addressed.

In part that is because there is little say to the former group, save that this installment, REED 's 14th (representing its 18th and 19th collections of records), is consistent with the fine work we've come to expect from its team of researchers and editors. Once again, REED researchers have plowed through two counties and rooted through a variety of archives, from parish registers to municipal accounts to household ledgers to legal casebooks to private diaries, and have culled out hundreds of records that document (or may document) dramatic performances prior to 1642. They've compiled and recorded them here as faithful to the original documents as can be done in print, and they've provided a useful array of ancillary material on local history, institutions and topography.

This volume's only major surprise is the paucity of records found in Cornwall, a region that produced three important medieval dramatic texts (The Ordinalia , Beunans Meriasik , and The Creacion ), and that has yielded archeological and documentary evidence of what seem to be amphitheatres. The small number of documents found is not for want of trying: of record-seeking in Cornwall, the editors remark, "where documents were not conveniently located in libraries and record offices, we have learned how to simultaneously stand on a chair, hold a document in one hand at the edge of a window, and with the other hand take a photograph at the precisely calculated moment that the sun would appear briefly from clouds" (441).

Although these two collections reveal that Dorset and Cornwall yield far fewer documented instances of major dramatic activity -- the sort we associate with York, Chester, and Coventry -- they are no less valuable in that they continue to fill out this important series, which should be on standing order at every research library. To those less familiar with REED , I would like to discuss more of its nature, uses, and limitations. The title of the series may deceive some into thinking that its contents matter chiefly to those examining Corpus Christi, morality, or miracle plays. Quite to the contrary, the collection's breadth of scope, both temporal and topical, render this volume and its companions useful not only to scholars of medieval drama, but also to those working in social history, popular culture, music, dance, and civic culture. The existence and contents of this collection of primary data deserve to be widely known across the medieval studies community.

As stated in the preface, the project's aim is "to find, transcribe, and publish external evidence of dramatic, ceremonial, and minstrel activity in Great Britain before 1642," the year theatres were closed. The project began in 1975 with records surrounding, for obvious reasons, York, and has since been working its way across the rest of England, locating and transcribing any document that may mention almost anything one can reasonably construe as public performance.

This volume and its companions present an intriguing potpourri of data. There is the prologue to a school play from Dorchester in 1603 (171), a purported impersonation of the late Edward II at Corfe Castle in 1378 (169), a deposition mentioning bull-baiting in Shaftesbury, 1626 (249), a diocesan statue from Exeter in 1287 forbidding all manner of entertainments in the churchyard (463), and the fact that two pots of beer were purchased for two pence for the Bridport Town Ale in 1592-3 (148). One finds lawsuits over the public reading of libelous verses, receipts from "Robin Hood and his maidens," inventories of costumes, payments to theatre companies to perform, and payments to theatre companies not to perform.

The variety of kinds of data found here represents several aspects of this volume, and the project as a whole. First, the bulk of the data is from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, not what most would strictly call "the Middle Ages," even allowing for the growing elasticity of boundaries between epochs. Here the volume differs from some of its predecessors, especially those documenting activity around York, from which there are many more records from the 14th and 15th centuries. Still, most of the Dorset and Cornwall records refer to local events that have deep roots in medieval customs and ceremonies: Corpus Christi plays and processions, Robin Hood plays, performances by traveling minstrels, church ales, and Morris dancing. One is reminded at every page that shifts in popular culture rarely follow the shifts delineated in intellectual culture. Medieval drama studies regularly challenge traditional periodization: while the York Corpus Christi plays began in the late 14th century, they were performed well into the 16th.

Second, the samples above should demonstrate that the volume, following REED 's principles, defines "drama" quite broadly. The records include "plays, puppet shows, pageants, music, singing, dancing, juggling, [and] fooling" as well as other exhibitions and folk customs likely to have drawn a crowd (87). Documents that mention "playing" are included, even if they don't unambiguously record dramatic performance; all such ambiguous cases receive circumspect remarks in section endnotes. Perhaps a better name for the series would be "Records of Early English Public Performances," but the consequent acronym would be hardly as felicitous as the one we have.

The volume is divided into two discrete sections, one for each county's records. Along with the two collections of records, the volume includes introductions to each set, providing information on local history, customs, music, and drama. The introductions provide complete bibliographical data for each record cited, and explain the project's editorial principles. Records appear in their original languages and orthography; translations of Latin documents are provided in a separate section, and the volume provides both English and Latin glossaries of unfamiliar terms. The care taken to accurately transcribe and document records is most admirable. Each section provides several appendices covering activity on the periphery of public performances and evidence for performance not found in the records. The concluding index covers both sets of records, and allows one to search for entries on a variety of topics -- bull- baiting, guilds, the king's men, Maypoles and Robin Hood, for example -- that cut across the localities and times. We can only wish for the day when the entire series is available in searchable hypertext.

If there is one reservation I have about the REED series, and it is but a speculative one, it is that the availability and possibilities of these records might lead to an unwanted narrowing in early English drama studies. That such a large mass of performance data is now so conveniently available might cause leading scholars of the field, and their students, to emphasize working from the records as the field's prevailing orthodoxy at the expense of pursuing so many other important methods and questions. And these are questions the records either don't speak to, or speak to only indirectly, such as the relationship between English and continental drama, the influences of liturgy and theological movements, and the situation of medieval plays in social conflict or in the larger contexts of intellectual history. Such limitations are evident from the present volume: performance records cannot help us better understand The Ordinalia , for no records pertaining to it could be found. Performance records can shed much light unto critical problems surrounding early drama, but never full light, and not always the brightest. My fear of critical imbalance, however, will likely go unrealized: at the last meeting of the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society, several members discussed organizing a conference session on "What the Records Don't Tell Us."

It is an unusual event for someone to read a volume like this one straight through, as it is designed for searching, browsing, and skimming for specific information. Perhaps only other reviewers and the series' editors have done or will ever do so. Anomalous as the experience was, it was quite pleasant, and in a way I certainly didn't expect. Part of the pleasure came from seeing the thoroughness, rigor and care with which the records were collected and the astuteness with which inferences were limited by what the records did or did not reveal. But much came from reading the records themselves, as they led to a good deal of wonder, speculation, and even daydreaming. I found myself wanting to know the stories behind some of the more intriguing entries. Why, I wondered, was one company of players paid less to perform than another was paid not to? Was there a subtext -- a long simmering grudge between neighbors, perhaps, or an opportunistic barrister making the rounds -- beneath any of the libel suits over the reading or singing of scandalous verses? Is Thomas Heywood's story (505) of Spanish raiders being frightened off by sounds of a mock battle being staged in Penryn to be believed? What did the "toe develes cotes" (two devil's coats) (473) at St. Petroc's look like, and what lucky devils got to wear them?

Some of these questions I may tackle myself. Those I don't I leave to the many scholars and students who will use REED resources for years to come.