The Medieval Review 10.01.07

Maddox, Donals and Sara Sturm-Maddox, eds. Parisian Confraternity Drama of the Fourteenth Century: The 'Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages' . Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, TCNE 22. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. x, 258. $87 ISBN-978-2-503-52852-6. .

Reviewed by:

Susannah Crowder
John Jay College, CUNY

In Parisian Confraternity Drama of the Fourteenth Century, Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox have assembled and supplemented a group of essays originally presented in 2003 at a colloquium dedicated to the Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages (MNDpp). This sequence of Marian devotional plays survives in a single exemplum known as the Cangé manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS franais 819-820) and, as the oldest collection of French vernacular drama, the MNDpp on its own constitutes a highly significant body of evidence for the theater of the fourteenth century. Alongside the 40 plays that dramatize the miracles of the Virgin Mary, however, the Cangé manuscript also incorporates lyrical texts (rondeaux, serventois), sermons, and illuminations that celebrate the Virgin. Perhaps more remarkable, the discovery by Rudolf Glutz of regular erasures and their extensive study by Graham Runnalls in the 1970s and early 1980s has situated this complex manuscript within a precise social and cultural milieu: a confraternity of the Parisian Goldsmiths' society. Although produced at the end of the fourteenth century, the manuscript commemorates the annual meetings, or puys, of the guild between the years 1332-89. In luxury format it records the date of each meeting, the play performed, and the winning entries from an accompanying poetry competition. It also supplies an illumination for each play. Despite the richness and contextual specificity of this source material, however, the Cangé manuscript and its plays have held a dubious status within the corpus of medieval French drama; this essay collection thus represents a welcome reevaluation of this major work that makes clear its value to social and cultural historians as well as to scholars of literature, art, and theater.

Overall, the editors have done a fine job of situating the Cangé manuscript for the uninitiated and pointing to materials for further investigation. The opening essay offers a basic introduction to the broader context of the manuscript and its production, briefly addressing contemporary Marian devotion, the guild corporations, and confraternal activity. This overview underlines the ways that the MNDpp and its manuscript offer useful evidence to scholars outside the traditional scope of theater history. (The editors have also included a select bibliography of significant scholarship that supplements the citations in the footnotes of the individual essays.) In a final essay that takes a more focused perspective, Robert Clark offers a critical history of the plays as drama texts. He traces the role of the MNDpp in the process of canon formation and outlines how early characterizations of late medieval theater as "popular"--and thus as exhibiting ignorance and lack of taste--were taken up by subsequent generations to produce a narrative of decadence and decline. Taken as a pair, the essays suggest both the reasons for the manuscript's mixed scholarly reception and exciting avenues for future research.

Following the introduction, Parisian Confraternity Drama of the Fourteenth Century opens with Runnalls's groundbreaking 1970 article from Medium Aevum, in which he lays out the social context of the manuscript's production. He first provides an overview of trade guilds and confraternities in medieval France and their connections to drama before turning to the documentary evidence for the Parisian Goldsmiths' confraternity of Saint Eloi and its performances of the MNDpp. This model of scholarship is applied successfully in several essays that direct our attention to historical context and the full contents of the Cangé manuscript. Alan E. Knight compares the MNDpp's miracle of a pregnant abbess to a fifteenth-century example of the play performed in Lille for the city's annual Marian procession. He concludes that differing values in the respective communities produced dissimilar versions, with the MNDpp play demonstrating strong interest in property and social status. Two of the articles also make a compelling argument for the interdependence of the many elements that make up the Cangé manuscript. Samuel N. Rosenberg situates the serventois within the larger Occitan and Old French lyrical traditions, finding that their use of imitation functions to transform secular poetry on human love (the chants royaux) into a religious expression of spiritual love. In reclaiming these poems as items worthy of study, Rosenberg argues that they are "not mere appendages to the Cangé Miracles...they bring a long devotional performance to a close with a brief and crystalline summation of Marian faith." (111) Furthermore, the manuscript illuminations are brought into the foreground in an article by Robert Clark and Pamela Sheingorn that offers the first examination of these images since a 1933 study. Reversing its findings, Clark and Sheingorn argue that no connection exists between the illuminations and real or imagined theatrical practice and that the Cangé manuscript was not intended for devotional purposes. The images instead participate in a visual program that, along with mise-en-page, production process, and instructions for a decorator, shapes the manuscript's larger presentational function as an impressive luxury book.

The remaining essays take a more traditional literary approach to the plays, addressing source adaptation, internal themes, and their evolution over time. Kathy M. Krause examines portrayals of persecuted heroines and the Virgin in the MNDpp, comparing them to contemporaneous narrative versions in religious texts and vernacular romances. Female characters, she argues, are domesticated and normalized as part of a "broader aesthetic of naturalization" that is prompted by the dramatic form and its audience (130). Carol J. Harvey focuses on the struggle between good and evil in three of the plays, showing that Mary champions faith, hope, and justice in each and acts as the foremost mediator between heaven and earth. Olivier Collet, in an essay on connections between Gauthier de Coinci's Miracles de Nostre Dame and the MNDpp, concludes that the latter's adaptation of the MND material is ad hoc, drawing on plot and anecdotes rather than vocabulary or poetic technique. Collet also briefly takes up the rondeaux and serventois, finding that these "appendages" (75-6) show little influence from Gauthier's lyric compositions. Two of the authors take special account in their analysis of the long duration over which the plays were composed: Pierre Kunstmann traces the evolution of motifs over time through vocabulary, style, and composition, suggesting that the later plays of the MNDpp show more variation of convention. Donald Maddox makes a similar argument through his examination of the final and latest play in the collection, the Miracle de Saint Alexis, finding that it makes significant changes to the hagiographic narrative source tradition by refocusing on the saint's wife as a model of ideal womanhood.

Taken as a whole, the authors collectively argue that MNDpp and the Cangé manuscript offer uniquely rich evidence for the fourteenth century theater, confraternity celebration, and its commemoration. The essays show some division between an exclusive focus on the plays and a consideration of them within the larger context of this extraordinary manuscript and the circumstances of its production, yet this is entirely understandable given the scope of the originating conference. The most forward-looking essays suggest that fruitful avenues for future research might lie in the cross-examination of intra-textual and visual interaction, as well as in the deeper contextualization of the Cangé manuscript within the cultural milieu that produced it. Overall, the research presented in Parisian Confraternity Drama of the Fourteenth Century hews to a high standard and offers a first-rate model for the study of late medieval drama.