12.06.33, Davidson, ed., The York Corpus Christi Plays

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Christina M. Fitzgerald

The Medieval Review 12.06.33

Davidson, Clifford. The York Corpus Christi Plays. Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2011. Pp. ix, 604. ISBN: 978-1-58044-162-9.

Reviewed by:
Christina M. Fitzgerald
University of Toledo

The publication of a major work of Middle English literature in the TEAMS Middle English Texts series is always an occasion for celebration, and Clifford Davidson's massive, detailed, and erudite edition of The York Corpus Christi Plays is no exception. Presented in lightly regularized Middle English, with marginal glosses, occasional footnotes, and a glossary, this edition strikes a happy medium between Richard Beadle and Pamela King's selections of the cycle in modernized spelling for Oxford World's Classics (2009) and Beadle's recently revamped scholarly edition for the Early English Text Society (EETS SS 23-24, 2009-11).

What Davidson's edition obviously offers over Beadle and King, its main competition, is a complete text of the surviving plays, in Middle English, which is still suitable for student and classroom uses (with some caveats, below). Beyond that, choices Davidson has made in the presentation of the text also give it an edge over the highly useful Beadle and King edition. For instance, Davidson presents the plays as a continuous text, with introductions to each episode relegated to the explanatory notes in the back, much in the manner that editions of The Canterbury Tales are presented. This presentation underscores the plays as parts belonging to a greater whole, rather than as individual texts in a collection or anthology of disparate elements. Although students will have to turn to the back of the book for more information about each particular episode and its sources and analogues, this treatment may help them conceive of the cycle as a single, if changeable, event, with a unity of its own. Additionally, Davidson provides the common, modern, editorial names by which we know these episodes--for example, "The Building of Noah's Ark" or "The Second Trial Before Pilate"--in square brackets before each play, along with their conventional numbering. Only those titles found in the "Register" (the surviving official copy of the plays, made some time between 1463 and 1477) are presented without brackets, and these also stand out by being in Latin: for example, "Crucifixio Christi." All of these titles provide the running heads in the edition, as well. The running heads from the manuscript (generally the guilds responsible for presenting the plays at the time of the recording of the Register) are presented as bold headings at the start of each play, although not in the running heads of the edition. Still, the continuous presentation of the plays, the subordination of modern titles through their bracketing, and the elevation of the guild ascriptions present the text in a manner that is more true to its original form (allowing for the necessary conventions of modern play editing) and demonstrate in a small way the interpenetration of civic and devotional interests in the cycle's performance and preservation.

Davidson's brief introductions and detailed notes for each play in the Explanatory Notes section provide context and background similar to that provided by Beadle and King, including sources and analogues, pertinent biblical passages, verse form, guild assignment and other relevant information about the occupation(s) involved, typological significance, and extra-textual documentary information about the play. Since this is an original spelling edition, Davidson also includes Textual Notes (a feature not included in every TEAMS edition), where Beadle and King understandably do not. Where Davidson particularly differs from Beadle and King is in the inclusion in his Explanatory Notes of more analogues from outside literature and drama, especially from extant visual and material arts, an area of scholarship for which Davidson is particularly noted. He also tends to provide more information from the documentary sources and less formalist literary analysis than Beadle and King. Furthermore, he often uses the Explanatory Notes to address in detail interpretive cruxes raised by either the text or the text and documentary sources combined. In short, Davidson's notes are more thorough and detailed than Beadle and King in bringing the larger contexts of the plays to bear on the play texts themselves, all of which will be particularly useful to the advanced classroom.

Like Beadle and King, Davidson concludes his general introduction with a section on the suppression of the plays in the sixteenth century and their revival and subsequent performances in the twentieth and twenty- first centuries. Davidson gives slightly more room for this than Beadle and King, and the print edition includes a photograph of one such performance. The inclusion of such discussion is welcome, as it demonstrates the plays' continued vitality in the present day. But Davidson clearly takes issue with productions that are too modern, as he devotes half a paragraph and a long footnote to a sharp criticism of Handmade Performance's postmodern production of the "Last Judgment" in Toronto in 1998. If Davidson found it so unsuccessful, why mention it at all? Such a critical and argumentative stance, especially against a production that is now over a decade old and which most readers will not have seen, seems out of place in an introduction in a student text and belongs more properly in a review of the production itself.

Certain aspects of Davidson's edition make it better for the more advanced student, and less helpful for the undergraduate or even beginning graduate classroom. The glossing, for instance, sometimes seems too light, particularly considering that Latin character names are never glossed at all, nor included in the glossary in the back. We might expect Latinity of the graduate student specializing in medieval literature, but what of the undergraduate or the non-medievalist graduate student with an interest in theater and drama? And given that the Middle English is generally glossed enough, not glossing the Latin rubrics seems an odd oversight. Furthermore, although the Explanatory Notes sometimes provide more detailed explanation of Middle English words and phrases with dense layers of meaning, there is nothing in the main text to signal the need to turn to the notes at that moment, and, at times, no provisional gloss is provided. For instance, for a student to know what "sudary" means (Play 38, "The Resurrection," l. 243), he or she must turn to the notes or the glossary; not even a basic meaning is glossed in the margin. (To be fair, much of this last point is directed at TEAMS editorial practices rather than Davidson's work. The web edition provides hyperlinks to the notes, so why does the print edition not provide some similar signal?)

Beyond the glossing, there are other ways in which Davidson's edition might be too advanced for many students, or at least might be assigned only with caution. In the second paragraph of Davidson's introduction, he tackles and undoes "the popular view that would take York as typical of an entire genre of early civic drama" (1). While it is important to acknowledge now out-of-date theories that the student might encounter in other reading, it seems premature to do so on the first page of the introduction. A student encountering these plays for the first time might be better informed first by what the York plays are, rather than what they are not. Such assumption of knowledge continues throughout the text. For instance, he refers repeatedly to the "city Corporation" without explicitly defining what that is and whom it consisted of. Instructors might direct students to start their introductory reading with the second and third sections of the introduction, "From Whence Did They Come?" and "Wagon Stages," which more directly address the "what" and the "why" of the York plays in concrete detail, and then direct them to return to the opening paragraphs. Still, much might be over the heads of students truly new to the plays, and so I would supplement Davidson's introduction with Beadle and King's, which makes many fewer assumptions and sketches the basic facts (as we more or less currently know them) from the opening paragraphs. Or I might assign the York chapter from the second edition of the Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (2008).

Similarly, a paragraph explaining the differences between the plays in the Register and those listed and described in the Ordo paginarum comes somewhat early in the introduction and is likely to overwhelm the novice student. In fact, I wish an edition and/or translation of the Ordo were included here, although I realize the 600-page text is already extraordinarily long in its physical form. (Could the Ordo have been included as a web-only text on the TEAMS web site, where all of their printed texts are also available?) Certainly such a document, perhaps along with the Mercers' Indenture, also described in the introduction and in the head note to the Mercers' "Doomsday" play, would have been more immediately useful to the majority of instructors and students than the appendix article by Paul A. Johnston, Jr., "Notes on the Dialect of the York Corpus Christi Plays." I do not say this to criticize Johnston's article itself, which strikes me as useful and important (although I am not expert enough in Middle English dialect studies to judge it fully), particularly on issues of delineating the work of different authors and redactors of the plays, in showing the extra- regional influences of York's literary culture, and discussing the evidence of a nascent literary standard in late Middle English. Rather, I question the placement of this specialized article in a student edition of the text.

Another element that seems out of place: the aforementioned polemical tendency of Davidson's introduction and notes, a quality that is especially odd in a genre that should be synthetic and summative. Davidson not only favors his preferred approaches and methods for understanding the plays (which is understandable), but he also takes vague aim at or suppresses the influence of others. For example, he invokes the term "ideology," but does so only to refer to it as a term used by "some scholars," and to dismiss in it in a footnote as "a rather rubbery concept" (8, n. 49). Who these scholars are is never mentioned, but perhaps among them are the influential and important scholars who have been left out of this volume's bibliography, including Sarah Beckwith, Claire Sponsler, and Kathleen Ashley, all of whom invoke "ideology." Also strangely absent from the volume's bibliography is V. A. Kolve's groundbreaking The Play Called Corpus Christi. Although there is much that is now out of date in Kolve's book, there is also still much that is influential and edifying, especially for the student new to the strange mix of tones in medieval drama. Davidson includes other works with dated claims, such as Alan Justice's "Trade Symbolism in the York Cycle," and relies on other works from the same era as Kolve's, so "datedness" cannot be the only thing keeping Kolve out. Davidson's implicit dismissal of Kolve's work may go hand in hand with his explicit and rather caustic dismissal of Martin Stevens' view of the plays as participating in the carnivalesque (10, n. 56), for in the explanatory notes, Davidson frequently downplays the potential for dark humor, ironic identification with "evil" characters, or disruptive play and game in the cycle. For example, in his note to l. 355 in the "The Trial Before Cayphas and Anna," he dryly explains the phrase "play popse" as "a 'common game' in which a person is blindfolded, then is to guess who hit him" (453). He then cites contemporary references gathered by G. R. Owst in Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (454), but stops there. To me, this calls very obviously for citation of Kolve's still-influential argument about the recurring figure of "game" and its meaning in drama of Christ's passion, and his reading of this particular moment and phrase. It is not as if Davidson consistently refrains from citing interpretative arguments; in fact, when it comes to interpretation of the violence in the plays, Davidson generally cites either Hans-Jürgen Diller's "The Torturers in the English Mystery Plays" or, more frequently, his own History, Religion, and Violence. [1]

Davidson's implicit argument with those critics who would see complex or even contradictory social, aesthetic, or psychological meaning beyond the theological in York's treatment of the Passion comes to a head in the notes for the "Crucifixio Christi," where he devotes nearly a third of a page to the lines "to this werke us muste take heede / So that oure wirkyng be noght wronge" (470, notes to ll. 25- 26). He begins with yet another veiled reference to the interpretations he wants to refute: "This statement has been taken as a sign that the soldiers are good workmen who are anxious to do a good job, just as craftsmen in this city of York are expected to do quality work" (470). The cagey use of the passive voice ("has been taken") allows him to avoid citing the critics he takes issue with--perhaps Kolve again (who argues that the torturers are "concerned with the job at hand, one that exercises their highest ingenuity"), or maybe Ashley (who argues that tremendous contradictions arise "out of the plays' representation of the world of work, its workplace politics and its ethic of diligence and ingenuity"). [2] Davidson argues instead that the soldiers are "sadistic bullies" who are certainly not to be sympathized or identified with (470). But is this necessarily an either/or issue? Couldn't the soldiers be both concerned with their "work" (as the York guildsmen would be) and sadistic bullies, thus producing a play--and a cycle--that's "good to think with", about the meaning and consequences of one's work? [3]

None of this negates the immense erudition and scholarship that Davidson brings to his introduction, text, and notes, but instructors looking to assign this text should know that Davidson mutes important voices in the scholarship of these plays. The absence of these works from the text proper might, in turn, leave students ill-informed regarding the plays' critical history and perhaps prevent them from coming to their own conclusions about the plays' interpretations. Although a note at the beginning of the bibliography in the volume refers readers to a longer bibliography on the web (which includes all of the slighted scholars mentioned above), how many readers will follow that URL? The inexperienced student is likely to see the works that have been excluded from the print edition as somehow less significant. Given that this is the only student edition of the entire York cycle in Middle English, the gaps in the criticism in the edition itself may be particularly misleading.

To conclude, I would recommend this edition for adoption as the main text in a doctoral-level course, where students would be most capable of handling its assumptions of knowledge and of taking on its critical predilections (which the instructor can also supplement easily). But I would hesitate to assign it in generalist master's-level courses or upper-division undergraduate courses, where students might be overwhelmed by its apparatus and misled by parts of its notes and bibliography. Instead, I will probably continue to use Beadle and King and turn to Davidson's edition online as a supplemental text, either for the detailed notes on sources, analogues, theology, and iconography, or for the plays not included in Beadle and King, or both.



1. Hans-Jürgen Diller, "The Torturers in the English Mystery Plays," in Evil on the Medieval Stage, ed. Meg Twycross (Lancaster: Medieval English Theatre, 1992), 57-65; Clifford Davidson History, Religion, and Violence: Cultural Contexts for Medieval and Renaissance English Drama (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

2. V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 190; Kathleen Ashley, in "Sponsorship, Reflexivity and Resistance: Cultural Readings of the York Cycle Plays," in The Performance of Middle English Culture: Essays on Chaucer and the Drama in Honor of Martin Stevens, ed. James J. Paxson, Lawrence M. Clopper, and Sylvia Tomasch (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998), 9-24, at 20.

3. Ashley quoting Lévi-Strauss, ibid., 21.

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Author Biography

Christina M. Fitzgerald

University of Toledo