12.09.14, Findon, Lady, Hero, Saint

Main Article Content

Theresa Coletti

The Medieval Review 12.09.14

Findon, Joanne. Lady, Hero, Saint: The Digby Play's Mary Magdalene. Studies and Texts. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2011. Pp. viii, 232. ISBN: 978-0-88844-173-7.

Reviewed by:
Theresa Coletti
University of Maryland

I once began an article by asserting that the Digby Mary Magdalene play is "awesomely eclectic." [1] Many years and approximately 150,000 of my own words later, that assertion still strikes me as an apt, if not particularly challenging, descriptor for this extraordinary late medieval East Anglian dramatic text. In Lady, Hero, Saint that eclecticism--of language, genre, dramatic form, and above all, character--is given its due. Analyzing hagiographic narrative's intertextual encounters with lyric, romance, comedy, and deployments of dramatic space, Findon argues that the Digby play constructs Mary Magdalene as a figure whose heroic identity arises from the very ambiguities and multiplicities that her character consistently evokes. "[I]ncorporating all options within herself" (10) and embodying "multiple meanings simultaneously" (13), the Digby play's Magdalene crosses gender, discursive, and other boundaries and "maps a new world of spiritual promise onto the physical space that she traverses, converts and redeems" (13).

A significant contribution of this study is its effort to take seriously the Digby Magdalene's literary dimensions, that is, the book's careful analysis of the dramatic text's many intersections with non-dramatic genres. Scholars usually approach the major specimens of East Anglian drama--the N-Town, Macro, Croxton, and Digby plays--in terms of their relationships to each other as well as to the rich traditions of Latin and vernacular religious writing that they so obviously engage. This orientation is central to my own work on the Digby Magdalene. [2] Findon's study importantly broadens our knowledge of East Anglian drama's intertextual commitments by focusing on the Digby saint play's and, indirectly, the Digby playwright's, conversation with tropes, plotlines, and conventions of secular as well as religious literature. Of particular note are Findon's suggestions regarding the Digby play's echo of and overlap with works by Chaucer and Lydgate. These writers are not commonly aligned with the extant corpus of late medieval East Anglian drama, even though Lydgate, monk of East Anglian Bury St. Edmund's, was himself the fifteenth-century's premier creator of performance pieces for court and civic cultures. [3]

The book's introduction sketches a broad canvas under the heading "Context and Intertext." Here Findon situates the Digby Magdalene in relation to fifteenth-century non-dramatic, especially East Anglian, literature and to the political and religious upheavals that troubled much of the period. Other contexts adduced to illuminate the saint play include the extant corpus of East Anglian drama, Latin homiletic and meditative texts in which Mary Magdalene figures prominently, and the valorization of female voices and feminine pieties by late medieval religious culture. All of these contribute to the Jaussian-derived "horizon of expectations" that Findon attributes to East Anglian dramatic audiences, who are here also described in terms of their social makeup, economic environment, and literate practices. The concept of reception by these audiences recurs throughout this study as an index to the general relevance of the many intertexts it proposes for the Digby saint play.

Chapter one focuses on the play's intersections with prominent images of sacred and secular lyric poetry. Reading across a wide range of Latin liturgical verse, vernacular religious lyric, and biblical and courtly poetry, Findon mines the play's rich verbal texture, specifically, its metaphors of light, gems, flowers, and plants. A close look at these metaphors reveals their frequent suspension between sacred and profane, spirit and flesh, their capacity to ally the Digby saint simultaneously, for example, with the object of carnal, courtly affections and the Virgin Mary. Some surprising allusions appear: to Chaucer's House of Fame, Legend of Good Women, and Miller's and Squire's Tales; to Christine de Pizan's Livre de la cité des dames; to Thomas Usk's Testament of Love. The fallen Digby Magdalene's awaiting of her "valentynys" and "byrd swetyng" in her "erbyre" (another loaded metaphor) prompts an excursus on Valentine conventions in secular and religious poetry (76-78). The lyric resonances of the dramatic text both evoke and undermine "conventions and stereotypes about women, femininity, and even heroism" (57), thereby helping to define the contradictory and multifaceted character of Mary Magdalene herself.

Scholars of Middle English literature have long recognized the narrative and codicological affinities of hagiography and romance. Chapter two builds on that basic understanding by exploring how this hagiographical drama incorporates two major romance motifs or "memes": "the sleeper in the garden" and "the woman cast adrift." Findon's discussion of the former leads not only to the intertexts of biblical gardens but more intriguingly to the English romances whose sleepers discover that "napping in the arbour" precipitates "a life-changing encounter with Otherworld forces" (95). The dramatic Magdalene's association with an altered state of consciousness in the garden's liminal and ambiguous space overlays the experience of her impending conversion (it is the Good Angel who appears to her in the "erbyre") with the radical transformation of the Otherworld encounter typical of romance. Because of its beneficial impact, Mary Magdalene's experience in the garden more closely resembles those of sleeping male romance counterparts like Launfal, Ywain, and Lancelot than it does those of female sleepers who meet disaster, like Heurodis in Sir Orfeo. The Digby playwright likewise revises Mary Magdalene's role as "woman cast adrift" in an empowering direction by having her drift not at all. The play draws on the standard version of the saint's life consolidated in the Legenda Aurea, which provided for Mary Magdalene, with family and friends, to be exiled from Jerusalem and cast upon the sea in a rudderless ship. But the dramatic Magdalene at once calls up and subverts the motif, familiar from saints' legends as well as romance and popularized in the Constance stories of Trivet, Gower, and Chaucer: she travels purposefully, on a mission authorized by an angelic message and on her own dime. In appropriating both of these romance motifs, then, the saint play "suggests how the gender expectations of secular romance can be turned upside down by the Christian faith" (121).

To the standard narrative of Mary Magdalene's life, the Digby playwright added original scenes that exploit the biblical saint's associations with sexuality, involving both her own reputation as a sinner and, as the legend goes, her patronage of marital procreation by the king and queen of Marseilles. In chapter three, Findon discusses how the playwright turned these important motifs into comic interludes involving "fantasy women and lustful men." Findon identifies three strategies employed by the dramatist to achieve comedic effects: 1) an appeal to the discourses and situations of the fabliau genre; 2) the deployment of juxtaposition and incongruity to set up and undermine expectations; and 3) the exploitation of master/servant relationships, perhaps inspired by the Roman playwright Terence. Of these items, the second would seem to be a characteristic of comedic representation generally and therefore an attribute of the intertextual dimensions of the other two items. On the whole, analysis of the play's comic interludes--the tavern scene, the interaction of the pagan priest and his sidekick, the exchanges of the shipmaster and his boy--draws a picture of their lively conversation with medieval comedic traditions as well some of the likely intertexts informing the play's portrait of ludic sailors and priests, such as conditions of late medieval English maritime activity or poetic critiques of lecherous clerics. Although the Digby play's comedic interludes may employ the plotlines and occasionally violent humor of the fabliaux, Findon's claim attributing these gestures to the influence of Chaucer's fabliaux (129), simply because manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales circulated in East Anglia, is a bit of a stretch. It is modern readers who have embraced the comedic Chaucer of the fabliaux; fifteenth- and sixteenth-century audiences more regularly recognized him as poet of love and purveyor of sentence.

In chapter four, Findon expands her operative conception of the Digby play's intertexts to include its manipulations of the actual and symbolic spaces of dramatic performance. This move involves not only parsing the provocative places of performance identified in the play's obvious platea and loca staging but also analyzing its deployment of different kinds of space: personal, social, public, and domestic. As Findon demonstrates, the Digby Magdalene's movement through and across the play's actual and symbolic spaces is crucial to construction of her character. The play's symbolic spaces call up differences of gender as well as authority; and Mary Magdalene's tacit negotiation and transgression of the boundaries of key concepts of identity, through the trope and materiality of space, is one means by which the heroine achieves her hybrid and evocative status as "powerful sign of transformational possibilities" (189).

Although this book's appeal to the concept of the "intertext" illuminates the saint play's dense verbal texture in new, exciting ways, the criteria for identifying what counts as intertext (and when) would benefit from more detailed explanation. In reference to specific dramatic images, intertextuality at times involves an exceptionally broad range of semiotic possibilities. For example, when in the play divinely commissioned angels assist the saint by declaring they will lead her to the king and queen of Marseilles, they script their own performance by announcing that they shall be arrayed in white mantles, a color that Mary Magdalene identifies as a "tokenyng," or sign, of meekness. The color white is, as Findon states, a "complex signifier" (172). In this instance its intertexts include the numerous white palfreys that appear as signs of the otherworld in medieval romance; Margery Kempe's long struggle for permission to dress in virginal white clothes; the white mantle in which the Virgin Mary swaddles Jesus in The Book of Margery Kempe and countless medieval Nativity images; the Incarnation for which the Virgin's white veil serves as metaphor in popular devotional texts such as the Meditations on the Life of Christ; and, again, the Marian white veil that in legend and folk tale betokened sympathetic, magical aid in conception and childbirth (172-177). Although this catalog cannot do justice to Findon's detailed exposition of the significance of "white" in all these contexts, it nevertheless suggests why a reader might seek some constraints upon or frameworks for considering these semiotic options. Within the context of the play's performance--and the generalized notion of audience reception that is this study's consistent rationale for its readings--how might we sort out these many options? One possibility for analyzing the multiplicity of the play's intertexts involves recognition of the analogous multiplicities, as Claire Sponsler long ago established, that characterized late medieval dramatic audiences and, by implication, their horizons of expectations, which were social and experiential as well as textual. [4]

I offer these methodological challenges not to chide this book’s insufficient specificity regarding the composition and expectations of dramatic audiences–these are extremely difficult to pin down--but rather to suggest other directions one might go with its findings. Lady, Hero, Saint opens many provocative interpretive doors without crossing their thresholds. This book's analysis of intertextual frames of reference makes me want to ask not only about dramatic audiences but also about dramatic authorship. The play is very late (c. 1500) and its manuscript--hastily produced under circumstances as mysterious as those of its authorship--even later, c. 1520-1530 in the judgment of its most recent editors. [5] What conditions of late medieval authorship, literary language, and hagiography produce the multivalent significance that is the core of this study? At what intersection of saints’ cults, reading practices, and authorial agency might multivalency itself emerge as valuable and deliberate? What other opportunities for thinking about such textual plenitude might be available for framing a dramatic work whose significance for late medieval English literary culture Findon's study has clearly established?

That the Digby Mary Magdalene is now the subject of two monographs bodes well, I think, for the scholarly and critical fortunes of late medieval East Anglian drama and literary culture. Although the extraordinary N-Town plays, to cite one example, still await their grand interpreter, scholarship on East Anglian drama will surely be advanced by the recent appearance of new TEAMS editions of the N-Town and Macro plays and John Lydgate’s performance pieces. A new TEAMS edition of the Digby Magdalene play is also forthcoming. In raising questions that it does not and perhaps cannot answer, Lady, Hero, Saint invitingly heralds the work that is still left to be done.



1. "The Design of the Digby Play of Mary Magdalene," Studies in Philology 76 (1979): 313-33.

2. Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

3. John Lydgate, Mummings and Entertainments, ed. Claire Sponsler (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010).

4. Claire Sponsler, "The Culture of the Spectator: Conformity and Resistance to Medieval Performances," Theatre Journal 44.1 (1992): 15-29.

5. The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and e Museo 160, ed. Donald C. Baker, John . Murphy, and Louis B. Hall Jr., EETS, o.s. 283 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. xl.

Article Details

Author Biography

Theresa Coletti

University of Maryland