Clifford Davidson

title.none: Hindley, ed., Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe (Davidson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.013 01.01.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Clifford Davidson, Western Michigan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Hindley, Alan. Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 1. Turnhout: Brepols, under the auspices of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Hull, 2000. Pp. vi, 294. 50 EUR. ISBN: 2-503-50767-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.13

Hindley, Alan. Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 1. Turnhout: Brepols, under the auspices of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Hull, 2000. Pp. vi, 294. 50 EUR. ISBN: 2-503-50767-0.

Reviewed by:

Clifford Davidson
Western Michigan University

As Alan Hindley's introduction indicates, the core of this book is a set of four papers (Lynette Muir's "European Communities and Medieval Drama", Graham Runnalls's "Drama and Community in Late Medieval Paris", Frederick Langley's "Community Drama and Community Politics in Thirteenth-Century Arras: Adam de la Halle's Jeu de la Feuillee ", and Wim Husken's "Cornelis Everaert and the Community of Late Medieval Bruges") presented on the topic "Drama and Community in the Middle Ages" at the University of Hull's Centre for Medieval Studies. Muir's article sweeps incisively over a broad spectrum of Continental dramas with her usual grace and assurance, while Runnalls focuses very specifically on one major community and its plays. The latter should be required reading for students of English drama with an interest in the suppression of the plays in the sixteenth century, for, among other matters, he provides an important discussion of the 1548 decree of the Parlement of Paris that suppressed the Mystere de la Passion Nostre Sauveur and "other sacred mystery plays". (23) Langley treats a most puzzling work by Adam de la Halle and explores what can be known about the people from the community of Arras who are named in the play. And Husken calls attention to a playwright of Bruges--once a great commercial center but by Everaert's time losing its position to Antwerp--and sees his work as representative of popular devotion in the community and of the social and domestic relations that characterized it. It was later, in January 1560, that the theater of Rhetoricians was given a fatal blow with the denial of their educational function by the Calvinist clergy. But before the demise of the tradition, as Husken notes, "hundreds of plays had been composed by authors such as Cornelis Everaert in Bruges, the great majority of which reflected the religious and social preoccupations of the community". (125)

To these papers a dozen further articles are added. These do not add up to a comprehensive survey of drama in Northern Europe, for there is no attention to the far North or to any lands formerly in the Eastern bloc. Scandinavia, for example, only gets mentioned in the fine article "Performing Medieval Irish Communities" by Alan Fletcher, and this is too bad, since, as Terry Gunnell has shown, a rich and not unsimilar tradition of performance also existed from Iceland in the West to the Swedish territories in the east. And students of early drama and ceremony in Poland have been intrigued by medieval traditions of performance--e.g., the Palmesel procession on Palm Sunday--that have continued even into modern times.

But one should not complain, since the additional articles on France and the Low Countries as well as on England and Germany are on the whole rewarding and illuminating. Alan Hindley's "Acting Companies in Late Medieval France: Triboulet and His Troupe", provides information of considerable interest concerning the rise of professional acting troupes. Implied is the need for sustained effort in collecting records from the French-speaking part of Europe--that is, an equivalent for this language region of the Records of Early English Drama project. On the other hand, Robert L. A. Clark's "Community versus Subject in Late Medieval French Confraternity Drama and Ritual" turns to an anthropological model associated with the name of Victor Turner for a synchronic analysis of the miracle plays. This is a fruitful approach, but a little vitiated here by attempting to bring in other theoretical approaches instead of thoroughly working through the implications of Turner's anthropology.

In contrast, Alan E. Knight's "Processional Theatre and the Rituals of Social Unity in Lille" is based on a sociological approach following the astute observations of Mervyn James in an article in Past and Present nearly twenty years ago which suggested theater's "role in maintaining that creative tension between social wholeness and social differentiation, which is to say, in fostering a sense of community". (99) Knight's discovery of the processional Lille plays, in an illustrated manuscript in a Wolfenbuttel manuscript containing seventy-two dramas, has been one of the really important finds of the latter part of the twentieth century. It would be good to know more of the community tensions and divisiveness that, driven by Calvinism (if my understanding is correct), led to the suppression of these plays in 1565 by the Catholic authorities. The differing social and performance contexts prevailing in the Low Countries are also taken up, especially with reference to the dramatic records from cities of Ypres and Haarlem, by Elsa Strietman in "A Tale of Two Cities: Drama and the Community in the Low Countries". A very interesting conclusion concerning Ypres is that, at least in 1529, "plays were not something that other people did and which you went to see: there can hardly have been a functionary or a craft or a group that was not in some way involved in the preparations and the actual festivities". (135)

Such civic involvement was the case in English cities such as York, Coventry, and Chester and also in German-speaking regions such as the South Tyrol area, now part of Italy, where records discussed by John Tailby include cast lists that even specify women playing the female roles. Tailby's "Drama and Community in South Tyrol" is a fascinating discussion of records which document many other aspects of community production such as (to give one example among a great many) the involvement of stonemasons in raising the image of Christ on Ascension Day at Bozen (Bolzano) in the first decade of the sixteenth century. This proves the point that not only were artisans the actors in the plays--e.g., Hans Strauss the hatter playing the unpopular role of Judas at Hall/Tirol north of the border in present-day Austria--but also the available technology possessed by various members of the community, whether they had access to lifting machinery or possessed the skills of the painter or carpenter, was crucial to the development of the vernacular religious drama. Less well handled but still of considerable interest is Konrad Schoell's "Individual and Social Affiliation in the Nuremberg Shrovetide Plays," which gives special attention to the Carnival plays of Hans Sachs.

Of the articles on the English plays, the most disappointing is Chris Humphrey's "Festive Drama and Community Politics in Late Medieval Coventry." Humphrey's category of 'misrule' is entirely too broad with some practices such a boy bishop ceremonies--normally fairly tame affairs, hardly involving the inversion of the Continental Feast of Fools--mentioned but left unexamined. The focus on "vegetation-gathering" deals, I suspect, with too many variant practices and festivals. In the conflicts and litigation of 1480-81 that Humphrey cites, such "vegetation-gathering" of whatever kind may well have involved older North European customs that were colliding with evolving property rights and laws of trespass. But there is much more room for exploration. One might wonder, at least as a hypothesis to be examined, whether the organization of civic processions and entertainments at Midsummer at Coventry and elsewhere could have been an official attempt to subvert the traditional revelry of St. John, revelry of the kind still to be witnessed in Scandinavia at the time of this festival. And is there a connection with the "green man" mask often seen in woodcarving and sculpture in churches? Such a figure appears on a misericord in the Hospital of St. John the Baptist (now in Holy Trinity Church) in Coventry, and there was another on an exterior roof boss (replaced in the nineteenth century) on the gatehouse of St. Mary's Hall in this city. Perhaps too some of the festive customs involved indecorous behavior, though of different sorts indulged in by some of the Irish performers described by Fletcher.

A different kind of indecorousness is written into the York plays on the Passion in which, as Elza Tiner had previously noted in her "English Law in the York Trial Plays" (Early Drama, Art, and Music Review 18 [1996]: 103-112), legal abuses characterize the trial of Jesus and his sentencing to death by the cross. But Pamela M. King adds something more in her detailed discussion in her article "Contemporary Cultural Models for the Trial Plays in the York Cycle." She places these plays against a background of the trial of Archbishop Scrope, who was tried in a kangaroo court in 1405 on orders from King Henry IV to convict, sentenced, and executed for his opposition to the abuses of the Lancastrian regime, including his defense of merchants who had been oppressed by the crown. Scrope was closely allied with the York guilds, and after his death his supporters, in spite of their submission to the king, regarded him as a saint and sought his canonization. His image as a saint stands to this day in a clerestory window of c.1420 in the choir of the Minster, and he is also depicted in two York books of hours (York Minster, Add. MS. 2, fols. 100v and 202v, and Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. liturg.f.2, fol. 146v).

The importance of not judging medieval play production by modern standards of performance is stressed by Phillip Butterworth, whose "Prompting in Full view of the Audience: A Medieval Staging Convention" makes a case for accepting Richard's description of the role of the prompter or "Ordinary" in the Cornish plays. Verification for the practice is found in iconography and in the battle of the Moors and Christians still being performed in present-day in Spain. A recent demonstration by Butterworth of this kind of prompting at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo was surprisingly convincing. The Cornish plays are of course themselves a mystery, since, aside from Camborne as the probable home of St. Meriasek , we do not even know in what community or communities they were performed. If we did not have the playtexts of the Ordinalia and the Creacion of the World , we would not know from the extant dramatic records of Cornwall that they had ever existed.

The period of the suppression of community drama in England is surveyed by Alexandra F. Johnston in "English Community Drama in Crisis: 1535-80". Johnston has at her command the immense archive of material, not all of it yet published, collected by the Records of Early English Drama project, and she projects a detailed picture of this kind of community theater and entertainment under pressure from Protestant clergy and national policy as well as, during Mary"s reign, Roman Catholic authorities who objected to Protestant polemic as it was presented on stage. We tend to forget that Protestantism, whether the more pure Calvinism of the Continent or the special English kind (supposedly more broad-minded), was remarkably intolerant. Beza, for example, was said to have commented that liberty of conscience is "thoroughly diabolical". Much community theater either served to raise money for the support of churches or was religious in its subject matter. The suppression of the latter kind of community theater on account of mnemonic and devotional aspects which were deemed unsatisfactory to Protestant sensibilities was part of a larger pattern of cultural change in England that was at times similar to and at other times different from the Continent.

In the larger picture, the suppression of the religious stage was part and parcel of the suppression of all visual ways of seeing and remembering the events of sacred history. But as part of the change, communities could be fractured, with the more 'godly' not only taking a stand against plays and entertainment but also seeing themselves as individuals--even as pre-destined saints--set apart from their neighbors (see, for example, the survey of Robert Whiting, The Blind Devotion of the People [1989], which focuses on southwest England). As architectural historians know, financial support for churches and church fabric plummeted, with almost no church building taking place after the 1530s or even much repair being done, even when utterly necessary. Peter Clark has pointed out that the center of English parish communal activity moved from the church to the alehouse.

The great cycles at Coventry, York, and Chester were not the only plays laid aside as victims to iconoclasm and the attack on 'superstitious' remnants of popery. While we should not be nostalgic for a false notion of 'merry England', something of the communal spirit needed to achieve the cooperation required for community drama large and small went missing by the end of the sixteenth century. If religious art in England was under attack in the later years of Henry VIII and had an abrupt cessation in England with Edward VI, a weak rebirth under Mary, and a definitive death under Elizabeth I, the community drama which had arisen in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would have a slow and sometimes painful period of dying after 1535. By the time of the Armada crisis of 1588, nine years had already passed since the last performance of the mysteries at Coventry.

The volume closes with Jane Oakshott's "York Mystery Plays 1998: The Rebuilding of Dramatic Community", which describes the successful attempt to involve York's still existing (the earliest traceable to 1357), reorganized, and new guilds in the presentation in the city streets of a selection from the York plays. The results were nothing like the 1951 revival of the York plays under the direction of E. Martin Browne on a fixed stage in the ruins of St. Mary"s Abbey. In 1998, the plays were returned to wagon staging, guild responsibility, and, in some cases, the direct involvement of the guilds in the plays as actors. The plays ended with the Company of Merchant Adventurers' (formerly Mercers') pageant of the Last Judgment, originally the most lavish in the cycle and a spectacle that, as in earlier times, "provided an awe-inspiring finale to an impressive day". (274)

Unfortunately, Drama and Community lacks an index, which would have been highly desirable in a book such as this.