contributor.author: Douglas W. Hayes

title.none: Edminster, The Preaching Fox (Douglas W. Hayes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0611.013 06.11.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Douglas W. Hayes, Winona State University, dhayes@winona.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Edminster, Warren. The Preaching Fox: Festive Subversion in the Plays of the Wakefield Master. Series: Studies in Medieval History and Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xiii, 230. $75.00 (hb) 0-415-97242-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.11.13

Edminster, Warren. The Preaching Fox: Festive Subversion in the Plays of the Wakefield Master. Series: Studies in Medieval History and Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xiii, 230. $75.00 (hb) 0-415-97242-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Douglas W. Hayes
Winona State University
dhayes@winona.edu

The title of this book had me worried. As someone working in early English drama for the past decade and a half, my introduction to the field included the work of scholars such as Barbara Palmer, Garrett Epp, Alexandra Johnston, and others who convincingly--devastatingly, from the perspective of those who sought to maintain it--called into doubt the tradition that the Towneley plays (Huntingdon Library MS HM1) constitute a coherent medieval Corpus Christi cycle of mystery plays performed at Wakefield and given shape in part by an anonymous author scholars have called the Wakefield Master. Although the evidence contradicting this tradition, much of it based on extant records, is very persuasive, the error has been difficult to correct. Witness the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Towneley Second Shepherd's Play is "part of the cycle believed to have been performed at Wakefield in Yorkshire" and "the sophisticated dramatic intelligence at work in this and several other of the Wakefield plays belonged undoubtedly to one individual [...] [whose] identity is not known, but because of his achievement scholars refer to him as the Wakefield Master" (David/Simpson 407). Anyone working in early English drama who has tried to correct this misconceived certainty in a classroom full of undergraduates and who has written to Norton with a plea that the editors look at scholarship on the Towneley plays produced since at least 1983, as so many of us have, will attest to the tenacity of the erroneous tradition.

Edminster is aware of the problem. Having cited Barbara Palmer's 2002 article "Recycling the 'Wakefield Cycle': The Records," he responds to the detailed challenge to the Wakefield tradition she offers, "This ongoing debate shows little sign of being resolved quickly. In this study, I do not assume a Wakefield provenance for the entire manuscript, nor do I assume that the plays in the manuscript represent a cycle. After much soul-searching, however, I continue the tradition of calling our author the Wakefield Master for two reasons. First, the evidence in the manuscript that ties the plays to Wakefield comes from the plays attributed to this author; therefore, if the manuscript is a compilatio from several locations, the probability that the Master's plays are from Wakefield remains high. Second, there is, as yet, no acceptable replacement name for the Wakefield Master, and the appellation remains a convenient reference which I therefore use" (xii).

Unfortunately, the implications of deferring to traditional notions of authorship and the convenience of the appellation are such that Edminster's work here can seem outdated for readers who don't push past his terms. In his recent review of an essay collection published in 2004 containing two essays on the Towneley plays, Gordon Kipling underscores the importance of using the language of more recent scholarship. "[T]he real watershed year occurred in 2002. In that year, Barbara Palmer conclusively demolished the Wakefield cycle, reducing it to an anthology like the N-Town Plays; Garrett Epp dismissed the 'Wakefield Master' [...] Whole new vistas opened up: if the Towneley plays were not a cycle located at Wakefield, what were they? [...] [C]onfident references to the 'Corpus Christi' play and the 'cycle drama' now [look] like a relic from the last century rather than a prophetic forerunner of the new" (Kipling 226).

As Kipling's review suggests, there is more at stake here than academic fashion; scholarship on the Towneley plays has been significantly reassessed and redrawn in recent years, and Edminster's reliance on the implied authorial intention of a "Wakefield Master" necessarily distances his study from that recent scholarship.

Potentially problematic terms aside, the primary focus of the book lies in an identification and analysis of the subversively festive elements of the plays. Using Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of festive subversion and the carnivalesque, Edminster situates the social critique of the plays both in Lollardy and in the festive culture that allowed for the free expression of this otherwise harshly repressed critique. Once again, Edminster is aware of the oft-noted problem in over-relying on Bakhtin, asserting that "Bakhtin's ideas are not always appropriate to the study of English drama" (xii). Nevertheless, he is able to view these plays through the lens of Bakhtinian theories of the carnivalesque in ways that significantly advance our understanding of some of the stranger aspects of the dramas.

Chapter One, "Subversion and the Festive Instinct," sets up a critical history of the Towneley plays and demonstrates that subversive ideas, many of them associated with Lollardy, are given expression within the plays. Having claimed that "resentment towards the established social order and the ecclesiastical structure of the Church was both wide and deep in the English population, that open expression of this discontent was likely to be harshly repressed, and that covert expression of these ideas was therefore commonplace," he notes that "Herod's offer to reward the advisor who advocates the slaughter of the innocents by making him a pope, for example, connects this dramatic archetype of abusive worldly power with the medieval papacy" (3).

Chapter Two, "Typical Festive Elements in the Plays," identifies Bakhtinian concepts of the carnivalesque such as invocations, mock kings, the usurpation of authority, reversals, forms of burlesque, fools, feasting, beatings, and profanity in the plays. Chapter Three, "The Overthrow of Religious Obligation," continues in this vein by demonstrating the extent to which the Mactacio Abel, under cover of its festive occasion, with Cain "as a festive Lord of Misrule is able to project many of the repressed views of the audience, while Abel, as the typological representative of the priesthood, comes off as a bit of a killjoy" (49).

Chapter Four, "The Shrewish Bride of Christ," links the Processus Noe, via the festive tradition of ritualized dunking, to an "enhanced typology" that reads "Uxor's rebellion as symbolic of ecclesiastical rebellion" (76). So, Noah's Wife, in her shrewish behavior and reluctance to board the ark, is "an accurate symbol of the medieval Church, and Noah's violence an apt vision of divine retribution" (76). Chapters Five and Six, "Foolish Shepherds and Priestly Folly" and "Stripping Away the Wolf-Skin of False Shepherds," read the Prima Pastorum through the lens of Yuletide feasting, parody, and playing the fool and the Secunda Pastorum through the Bakhtinian overthrow of conventional authority. Chapters Seven and Eight, "Raging Kings and Clergy" and "Christ as a Comic Figure," examine Herod's portrayal as akin to that of a festive Lord of Misrule and Christ's Passion as reflective of a "distinctly festive interpretation" [where] [c]haracters rant, bluster, threaten, and make game references" (173).

In his conclusion, "A Festive Flavor," Edminster asserts that "one of the most telling marks of the plays is that they are consistently built around topics friendly to or resonant of festive topics" (197). It is a mark of the quality of Edminster's detailed analysis that by the end of the book the reader is inclined to agree with him, the problems of his reliance on a "Wakefield Master" and the dangers of over-applying Bakhtin to the English context aside. Routledge's Medieval History and Culture Series, of which this book forms a part, is meant to highlight new directions for Medieval Studies produced by scholars in the early stages of their careers. Whether or not Edminster's work constitutes a new direction for studies on the Towneley plays is a question left open in part by his reliance on the language of directions already taken, but the book provides sensitive and thoughtful readings of some of the most interesting and interestingly problematic plays in early English drama, and, as such, has real value.

Works Cited

David, Alfred and James Simpson. "Introduction to the Second Shepherd's Play," Stephen Greenblatt et al., eds. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006, 407-08.

Kipling, Gordon. Review of Barbara L. Guisick and Edelgard E. Dubruck, eds., New Approaches to European Theater of the Middle Ages: An Ontology in European Medieval Drama 8 (2004): 225- 30.

Palmer, Barbara. "Recycling the 'Wakefield Cycle': The Records," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 41 (2002): 88-130.