09.04.03, Fitzgerald, The Drama of Masculinity

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Roger A. Ladd

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.003


Fitzgerald, Christina M. The Drama of Masculinity and Medieval English Guild Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2007. Pp. 214. ISBN: 978-1-40397-277-4.

Reviewed by:
Roger A. Ladd
University of North Carolina at Pembroke

There has recently been increased interest in the roles of guilds in cultural production during the later Middle Ages, which has coincided with increased attention to guilds on the part of many economic historians. Christina M. Fitzgerald's The Drama of Masculinity and Medieval English Guild Culture is a welcome addition to the literature side of this growing body of scholarship, and this book shows the potential for literary scholars to build on influential historical scholarship in interesting ways. The book's overall thesis is that the two English dramatic cycles closely tied to particular places, those of York and Chester, actually belong to a different genre from the other less localized cycles, Towneley and N-Town. She labels this new genre the "drama of masculinity," and the bulk of the book undertakes a close reading of the two cycles, arguing that they address the "contingent, shifting, performative nature of masculinity" within the male-dominated urban guild environment (164). In support of this overall reading of the two cycles, she also dedicates an early chapter to a description of that social world, with particular attention to the tension between guildsmen's professional and domestic responsibilities. Fitzgerald's methodology is unabashedly New Historicist with a touch of poststructuralist feminism, complete with a reference to Clifford Geertz's "thick description" (9), Michel Foucault's "docile bodies" (12), and an nuanced adaptation of Judith Butler's theories of gender performativity to a medieval context.

Like any adapted dissertation (Fitzgerald acknowledges her work with V. A. Kolve at UCLA), this book starts with a somewhat theorized introduction, laying out her methodology and the larger context for her work. This chapter has effectively made the transition to introducing a scholarly book, and Fitzgerald situates her work amidst recent scholarship on medieval drama, particularly books by Larry Clopper and Sarah Beckwith. She also positions herself theoretically, and it is here that this chapter does reveal some limitations. While her materialist approach makes a great deal of sense for this material, and she executes it well throughout the study, her handling of gender theory is too much exiled to the endnotes. Fitzgerald writes an excellent endnote, and her notes on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler (166-67n.) both cover a great deal of ground, but readers who see her title and expect a sustained overview of how contemporary gender theory has been applied to medieval culture will be disappointed. She works well with gender theory, and particularly with sophisticated work by other medieval literary scholars like Beckwith and Ruth Evans, but it is a pity that the theoretical portion of the Introduction does not address gender more directly.

The other greatest limitation of this study comes in Chapter 1, which provides an overview of "Men in the Household, Guild, and City" (13). The book certainly needs such an overview, and in many respects this chapter is well-researched. Fitzgerald provides her reader with an articulate and largely nuanced understanding of how the social structure of the late-medieval city created and the cycle plays deployed a "double bind of normative masculine identity in late medieval English guild culture, caught between duties: domestic and civic, homosocial and familial" (39). This chapter is, however, far too dependent on the work of Heather Swanson, particularly Swanson's book Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England and article "The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in Late Medieval English Towns." [1] Both of these historical works have had genuine influence, and bring a necessary corrective to earlier tendencies to take at face value the idealizing tendencies of medieval guild ordinances and civic records in general. Fitzgerald relies so heavily on Swanson's work, however, that any reader who might be skeptical of Swanson's historiography will necessarily transfer that skepticism to Fitzgerald's entire project. Gervase Rosser's mixed review of Swanson's book in The Economic History Review, for example, questions Swanson's totalizing impulse in her thesis that guilds were entirely a form of social control, [2] but Fitzgerald takes Swanson's thesis at face value throughout The Drama of Masculinity. This is not to say that Fitzgerald's historical research is flawed, as it is not: many scholars think highly of Swanson's work, and Fitzgerald does also lean on a number of the most influential historians of medieval society and gender in recent decades, including J. M. Bennett, P. J. P. Goldberg, Barbara Hanawalt, and Martha C. Howell. Still, Swanson's vision of the guilds of York predominates in Chapter 1, and requires far more defense than Fitzgerald provides. It is also unexpected that in a book focusing so much on York, Fitzgerald never cites Jenny Kermode's work.

Once The Drama of Masculinity gets to its main project, it starts to hit its stride more consistently. While the nature of literary study is such that not all readers will agree with Fitzgerald's close readings, she presents many valuable insights about the relationships portrayed in the York and Chester cycles. As one example, her suggestion that since female characters might well have been played by apprentices, and that therefore the male-female relationships in the plays would also have an element of an apprentice-master relationship (see, e.g., pp. 44ff), suggests a valuable way in which to think about economic relationships beyond the literal plots of the plays. She also refers effectively throughout to the use of economic language in the plays, and how it might relate to the social and economic realities of the late-medieval urban contexts of the plays. A closer look at how much of that language is in the Biblical and extra-Biblical sources for the plays might have been useful, but on the whole her conclusions seem reasonable enough. The close-reading portion of the book takes up three chapters, with one dedicated to the depiction of domestic relationships early in the cycles, another dedicated to homosocial and public relationships primarily in the New Testament sections of the plays, and a final chapter looking at Christ as a masculine role model in the cycles. The three chapters are not even in length, as Chapters 2 and 3 cover much more ground in the cycles than does Chapter 4, but all of them meticulously attend to textual details, and consistently apply the historical understanding established in Chapter 1.

In Chapter 2, Fitzgerald focuses on the plays about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, the troubles of Joseph, and the Chester "Massacre of the Innocents." The York "Massacre of the Innocents" is saved for Chapter 3. All of these plays within the cycles focus on family relationships, and Fitzgerald effectively connects them to the social world of the medieval cities of York and Chester. As an example of how her approach bears fruit, her reading of York's "Joseph's Troubles about Mary" puts Joseph's commitment to raise Mary' child as his own in the context of urban apprenticeship, where artisans routinely raised other families' children in their own households (81ff.). She similarly brings in cultural connections with each of the plays discussed; the strongest section is probably the one dedicated to the Noah story, where she argues for the York play of "The Building of the Ark" as a model of idealized apprenticeship, with God in the role of Noah's master and teacher (64ff.).

Chapter 3 then looks at the public relationships of guildsmen, and seeks for resonances in the cycle plays. This chapter focuses more heavily on Chester than York, though a few sections are more oriented towards the latter. As most of her historical context is from better- documented York, this focus on Chester sometimes requires the reader to accept a lot of "mays" and "ifs." Fitzgerald looks at the Chester "Fall of Lucifer" as "a lesson about the consequences of disobedience to authority" (99) aimed as much at its performers, the Tanners, as at the general audience. Her model of the play text as a form of social control, requiring guilds annually to perform and pay for their own subordination, is particularly interesting, though it would be stronger if we had a clearer idea of just who wrote these plays. Later sections on the Shepherds' plays and those about the Magi add to this sense of public relationships being worked out on stage, and lead to her discussion of the York "Slaughter of the Innocents." Her decision to put the Chester and York plays on this subject in different chapters works well, both in that these plays really do fit better that way, but also to correct the overall tendency in a study of this nature to blur the distinctions between the York and Chester cycles. Later sections in this chapter on plays about Christ's ministry, the disciples, and the events leading to the Passion then contribute to Fitzgerald's sense of how the plays enact and question the various homosocial bondings within larger guild culture.

With her final chapter, Fitzgerald then focuses on the figure of Christ, arguing that the cycles present him as a role model of a specifically guild masculinity: "a model of self-sacrifice, of self- erasure, of absence--in other words, of compliance with normative ideals of masculinity--in the name of fortitude" (150). She contrasts this depiction of Christ with the "feminized" (146) Christ of affective piety, and is quite emphatic that she does not see the depiction of the Passion in the Chester and York cycles as "affective devotion to Christ's sufferings" (146). She makes a reasonable case that the nature of performance would have emphasized Christ's masculinity as a series of men played him in the plays (150). Her analysis of ideal masculinity in terms of sacrifice and silence is one of the more interesting parts of the book, and it is a pity that this chapter is by far the shortest of the three dedicated to the actual cycles. This chapter might also have benefitted from more contextualization within contemporary gender theory, to allow her to draw her conclusions further. She does good work at adapting gender studies scholars like Sedgwick and Butler to a medieval context, and it would be worth seeing her take her thinking further.

On the whole this book is well-researched, meticulously grounded in the literary texts, and well-argued. Fitzgerald is surely correct that we can profitably examine the York and Chester cycles in terms of their performance of gender, and that they reveal real tensions between different aspects of masculine identity for the guildsmen who supported and performed the plays. As one would expect in any large study dedicated to a pair of very large works, however, she does tend to imply that her approach to these texts is the best one, but she works hard to avoid a completely totalizing reading. There are plays in both cycles that she does not discuss, and related issues that she might have explored further in a longer study, but she has made a significant contribution to the study of these cycles.

---------------- Notes:

1. Heather Swanson, Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Heather Swanson, "The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in Late Medieval English Towns," Past and Present 121 (1988): 29-48.

2. Gervase Rosser, Review of Medieval Artisans: An Urban Class in Late Medieval England, by Heather Swanson, The Economic History Review n. s. 43.4 (1990): 740-741.

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Author Biography

Roger A. Ladd

University of North Carolina at Pembroke