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13.07.11, Parsons and Jongenelen, eds., Comic Drama in the Low Countries

13.07.11, Parsons and Jongenelen, eds., Comic Drama in the Low Countries

The collection of late medieval Dutch dramatic works selected, translated, and commented on by Ben Parson and Bas Jongenelen in Comic Drama in the Low Countries c. 1450–1560: A Critical Anthology offers a much needed overview of a corpus of monologues and farces that attained great popularity in pre- and post-Reformation Netherlands. Introduced by a very informative essay on the main themes, settings and protagonists of these dramatic works, the volume contains the original Dutch texts with facing English translations, making a representative collection of fifteenth- and sixteenth century comedic works from the Low Countries accessible to a wide scholarly and student audience. The effort of the translators--not a minor one given the farcical content and often scurrilous language of these comedies--is therefore worthy of being commended and certainly constitutes a starting point for more extensive inquiries and comparisons between Dutch drama and that composed in other European languages.

The notion of an Erasmian humanistic community, usually associated with the use of a koiné such as Latin, or now English, is captured in the comments of the editors who tend to stress not only the peculiar, local aspects of these vernacular plays but also their transnational and pan-European traits. In this way they highlight the interplay and influence that a number of the works considered share with other genres, including the French fabliau, the Spanish "vagrancy literature", or the Italian medieval novella. Common themes are also evidenced as fundamental elements of a shared culture. As Parson and Jongenelen point out, references to carnival (208, 177), to misogyny (166, 188), to anticlericalism (255), to morality and estates satire (164–165), to Reformation matters (252–253) along with the explicitly vulgar sexual or scatological puns apparently very much enjoyed by urban bourgeois audiences, place the dramatic material presented in the foreground of literary analyses of medieval drama at large.

Along with the common traits, the editors present poignant readings of the singular environments in which late medieval Dutch drama originated, and of the peculiar features thanks to which they attained great diffusion and success. Comic drama in the Low Countries represented a blueprint of the social, religious, economic elements characterizing the institutions which produced them, the "organizations known as rederijkers-kamers, or 'chambers of rhetoric'" (2), that is lay confraternities whose preeminence in the culture of the late medieval Low Countries was undisputed. These rederijkers/rhetoricians were enthusiastic producers and consumers of dramatic spectacles between the middle of the fifteenth to the middle of the sixteenth centuries. Factores or makers, "who might even write for several confraternities at once" (12), were commissioned to compose these comic dramas to enunciate the rederijkers' urban culture on the occasion of festivities of various kinds.

The editors organize their anthology in two parts, one dedicated to dramatic monologues and the other to farces. Each poetic composition is preceded by excellent introductions helping the reader who might be unfamiliar with the genre or with late medieval and early modern Dutch culture grasp the meaning and specific traits of the texts. The general introduction sums up the thematic threads linking the works included in the collection by providing detailed background on their political and culture contexts, including a discussion of the possible occasions of performance--such as Christmas, Easter or Corpus Christi, saint's days, and Carnival--as well as specially scheduled "lavish dramatic contests" (17). Parson and Jongenelen also analyze the range of devotional and instructive purposes fulfilled by these dramas. The most typical expressions of the chambers' intent were the so-called zinnespelen or "plays of judgement", that is "allegorical morality plays of the kind that occur in several medieval European literatures" (8). As with contemporary parallels in other languages and from other regions, Dutch comedic drama , both in its monologic and dialogic form, intertwines elements pertaining to the instructive and moral with features that seem entirely (and often grossly) comic and farcical. By enabling further investigation of such trans-regional parallels in vernacular staged comedies, this anthology thus represents an important contribution to the broader study of drama in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe.

The work of the editors is detailed and informative, and their translations are accurate but still idiomatic. The only shortcoming I was able to detect is the lack of a glossary. Terms like chape, raad, esbattement and klutch, just to mention a few, are explained once but then used freely and repeatedly throughout the anthology and I must confess I had some difficulties remembering which was what. Apart from this, I found this anthology to be soundly researched and interestingly collated to give a sense of the relevance of the various forms that comic drama took in the late medieval and early modern Netherlands.