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13.10.07, Sebastian, ed., Croxton Play of the Sacrament

13.10.07, Sebastian, ed., Croxton Play of the Sacrament

Having successfully used John C. Coldewey's accessible edition of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament from his Early English Drama: An Anthology in my medieval literature courses, I first questioned whether another edition of the Croxton play was necessary for classroom use (the focus of the Middle English Text Series). Of course, I have always considered the Croxton play a singular text, and it's clear that Sebastian thinks so, too. He asserts in his introduction that the play has qualities that make it appear unique when compared to the examples of early English drama which have survived. The Croxton play, however, also has proven very valuable for how it embodies and makes accessible vivid, fundamental facets of late medieval devotional beliefs and practices--especially for contemporary students.

So, while I am sold on the idea that the Croxton play deserves its own volume, I do wish this well-executed edition of the play had emphasized more specifically the play's singular usefulness for opening up to students and scholars the unique aesthetics of the early English drama which are so helpful for understanding the devotional culture of the later medieval period. Thus, it is not the oddness of the play that merits a stand-alone volume, but rather its capacity for representing a particular time period and its peoples.

Key to understanding the early English drama--and, to a large extent, the devotional beliefs and practices which informed the daily lives of late medieval peoples--is conceiving of dramatic performance and audience roles in ways which differ markedly from most contemporary notions of theater and entertainment. Medieval audience members (not that they would necessarily label themselves in this way) did not attend a performance with the notion of "the fourth wall." Nor would they have necessarily considered the event they were attending as a compartmentalized entertainment, distinctly separate from daily life and activities. Instead, the religious drama of the late medieval period, as with religious faith and the Church in the period, was highly integrative and participatory, conjoining past and present, sacred history and contemporary life (as did the cycles of the liturgical calendar), divine and human, spiritual and physical (as did the Incarnation and its embodiment in the doctrine of the Transubstantiation).

While, therefore, Sebastian does due diligence by providing in his introduction a section on staging the Croxton play, it would have been useful to students and scholars new to this drama to include in this section an attention to and explanation of the difference of dramatic performance in the period and how that difference helps reveal what life was like in the late Middle Ages. Indeed, it would have been helpful for students if a section including such a discussion had occurred earlier in the introduction.

Sebastian's introduction, however, is thorough and informative, providing important background information on host desecration stories and their obvious influence on the Croxton play; summarizing scholarly approaches to the play; attending to its East Anglian context; including a section on staging (noted above); suggesting authorial characteristics (including a rather detailed analysis of rhyme scheme and stanzaic patterns); explaining the text's manuscript history; and concluding with a section on contemporary host desecration stories which will likely appeal to contemporary students. Sebastian thus offers a fine and scholarly introduction. Yet, in accessing this volume as a text for classroom use, I wondered at times if the introduction, because it also offers significant independent analyses of the text, might discourage students from exercising their own interpretive energies.

The text of the play is crisply edited and presented in a clear format which will make it very accessible to students. The marginal glosses are not overdone and will provide for ease of reading and understanding--both for individual reading and for in-class recitation and performance. The Explanatory Notes are especially impressive and will present instructors with a ready means for encouraging student research and interpretation. Similarly, the well-constructed Textual Notes will provide a basis for helping students to understand manuscript culture. An example of a page from the manuscript would be valuable here, as well, and would help bring the text to life. Understandably, however, there may be editorial reasons for not including that in the volume. The supplemental Appendix on Music in the play is welcomed as it points to an aspect of late medieval theatricality that can be overlooked as we study these texts whose difference from contemporary notions of drama should be a part of every student's work with them.

I applaud Sebastian for recognizing the importance of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament by providing the text with a volume of its own. While I will likely continue to use Coldewey's text of the play in my courses for the next year or so, I look forward to incorporating Sebastian's edition into my courses with a special focus on his excellent explanatory notes in order to inspire further insights into this fascinating and revealing late medieval text and devotional performance document.