While many recent books on early English drama have focused on a single cycle or explored themes or issues in early drama more generally, Nicole R. Rice and Margaret Aziza Pappano's co-authored book, The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in Premodern England, offers a richly comparative exploration of how two particular local settings and structures shaped and were shaped by the regular performance of artisan drama in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. York and Chester's premodern biblical cycles are ripe for comparison because both cities developed sequences of scripted biblical plays for Corpus Christi, both involved artisans in the staging of the plays, and for both we have extensive records documenting the history and the civic contexts of the plays' performances. The authors examine these civic records alongside the play scripts, using the documentary evidence as a lens for their historicist readings of the plays. What emerges in this diachronic study is a compelling picture of just how much influence local contexts can exert on expressions of popular narratives. Although the authors note many similarities between the two cities and their cycles throughout the book, they also persuasively demonstrate the significant extent to which the specifics of that engagement in civic contexts varied.
Rice and Pappano's introduction offers both a justification for the book's comparative focus on drama in premodern York and Chester and also an extremely helpful overview of the particular civic and political dynamics of the artisan cultures and their dramatic productions in both settings. Despite the differing civic dynamics of York and Chester, the authors argue that both cycles "performed artisan identity: the plays became the major means for artisans to participate in civic polity, and the drama served as a vehicle through which local artisans made public claims to status" (4). To develop this argument, the authors carefully survey the complex relationships of local economies, social and political hierarchies, and craft governance and regulation. Ultimately, the introduction asserts, premodern artisans in these two cities made savvy political and social use of the drama both to assert guild identity and to advance guild interests.
The book's structure roughly reflects the narrative order of the biblical cycles, beginning with a discussion of the artisan ideologies of the "Fall of Angels" plays and concluding with a chapter on the plays of the Last Judgment. The first chapter argues that the "Fall of Angels" plays in both cycles reflect guild struggles with hierarchy. Attending to the relationship between processions and the plays in each city, the authors show that while civic processions may well have served as a means of top-down regulation or an attempt to naturalize hierarchical social order, the plays allowed the opportunity for artisanal reflection on and challenge of that order. For example, when the opening plays of the cycles represent disorder in heaven, the authors suggest, early audiences would likely have been reminded of guild struggles for precedence in play assignment, pageant order, or in professional and territorial disputes.
The second and third chapters focus largely on the York plays. In the second chapter, the authors read the York "Herod and the Magi," shared by the Goldsmiths and the Masons from 1432 until 1477, as thematizing the logic of seeking, which evokes not only the motif of the Magi's religious search but also, the authors argue, the ambiguities around and anxieties about craft searching, "the inspection of workshops and products by guild officers (searchers) for violations of quality standards or infringement of monopolies" (84). As this chapter emphasizes, while craft searchers had a regulatory function, they might either be in the service of the city or of the guilds themselves. Rice and Pappano show how the plays explore these different sets of obligations, representing both "good searchers" (the Magi, and by extension, those who prize "company") and bad searchers (those, like Herod, looking to maintain centralized power). Although this second chapter makes brief and tantalizing reference to the Chester plays of the Three Kings, it focuses almost entirely on York. The next chapter maintains this focus, looking primarily at the York Judas plays but also considering the Tudor contexts to the revisions to the Glovers' "Cain and Abel" play. The chapter opens with a brief reference to the often-noted "trade symbolism" of the plays in general, considering how many of the themes of the plays seem especially suited to their sponsoring guilds to highlight or advertise guild expertise. Yet, the true interest of the chapter is in how the sequence of plays treating Judas's betrayal of Christ thematizes tensions between masters and servants within artisan guilds. In York, they write, Judas is represented primarily as a servant who is disloyal to his master (the authors also briefly compare this representation to that of Chester, where Judas is driven by greed and represented more fully with mercantile desire for profit) and to the larger bonds of community. As with other chapters, the authors frame their literary analysis with a lengthy contextualizing discussion, here focused on the status of servants, apprentices, and masters within York's civic organization in the fifteenth century. In its final pages, the chapter turns to the sixteenth-century revisions to the Glovers' "Cain and Abel," which the authors read as revealing new anxieties and attitudes about the relationships between masters and servants as servants became more mobile and fears of vagabondage rose.
With the fourth chapter, the book brings Chester more fully back into focus and offers an assessment of the representation and participation of women in both the pageants and in the world of artisanal labor. Examining the domestic labor of Eve, the role of Noah's recalcitrant wife in the Noah plays, and the figure of the Alewife in the Last Judgment and later in the Midsummer Show, Rice and Pappano argue that the plays reflect civic anxiety about and ultimately the marginalization and regulation of female labor by the guilds in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Chester. In their relatively few depictions of women, the plays both devalue female labor and represent it as a threat to the authority of the guilds, even though much artisan labor (including the production of the plays themselves) depended on the work of women, who often provided the base materials for the crafts. Yet there are exceptions to this theme: in the final pages of the chapter, the authors identify a surprising moment of acceptance of women's work in the representation of the raucous figure of the Alewife in the early sixteenth-century Midsummer Show.
The last chapter explores how the two treatments of the Last Judgment in York and Chester reveal quite different attitudes toward the relationships among artisans, merchants, and the poor and to the civic practice of works of mercy in the changing economic systems of these two towns in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. In both settings, the artisan functions as a "mediator between the merchants and the poor" (209). In York, where the Mercers sponsored the final play, the pageant functioned in part as a celebration of the Mercers' charitable work and performed a vision of mercantile and artisan collaboration. In Chester, the Weavers' play similarly calls attention to the failures of charity, but it does so by offering a more pointedly critical picture of mercantile greed and by emphasizing the importance of collaboration among all of Chester's enfranchised citizens. Further, its performance history suggests the Weavers' particular struggles to maintain their place in Chester's civic structure as other constituencies encroached on their distinctive labor and guild identity. Ultimately, Rice and Pappano argue, "these final plays highlight the uneven incorporation of artisans into new regimes of work-based charity" (253). The book's short epilogue also focuses on civic engagements with poverty, charity, and artisanal fraternity in the latter part of the sixteenth century when the cycles ceased to be played in both York and Chester.
Appropriate to the series in which this book has been published, this is a diachronic as well as a comparative study: many of the chapters consider how the plays were affected by shifting social, economic, and religious pressures in both civic settings across the English Reformations. Although this reader occasionally wished that several of the individual chapters were even more fully comparative, the authors clearly have made an effort to draw in references to both cycles in each chapter, even if those references sometimes are quite brief. Ultimately, the comparative approach of this project is one of its greatest strengths. It is also clearly aided by the somewhat unusual collaborative nature of this project. It is rare in medieval studies, where monographs and collections of essays are the norm, to have a fully co-authored book, but this project suggests the many benefits of writing with others. Although, as their preface suggests, several sections of the book were originally individually authored by Rice or Pappano, the book as a whole is remarkably seamless: it has a single voice and advances a unified argument. The authors are to be commended for this accomplishment. It was not lost on me, as well, that the collaboration on the labor of writing is not unlike the various artisanal collaborations that the book so elegantly explores.
As this review might suggest, The Civic Cycles thinks about text largely in terms of context, an approach that has both clear benefits and drawbacks. While the book is an extremely useful introduction to the socio-historical contexts of early English drama and a masterful synthesis of documentary sources, sometimes the historical equivalences in the readings of the plays can feel a bit too tidy. In the first chapter, for instance, the authors map civic anxieties about mayoral and guild hierarchies onto the Fall of the Angels plays too neatly for this reader, reading God as a figure for the mayor and the various good and bad angels as guilds. But in general, the contexts that the book examines and its interpretations of how the plays engage those contexts are overwhelmingly nuanced, complex, and fascinating. And, drawing on these contexts, the authors powerfully show that when studied over the longue durée of their performance, we can see how these early English plays reflect, adapt to, resist, and influence their larger civic contexts. The Civic Cycles is a masterful work of documentary, literary, and critical comparison and synthesis, and will surely become required reading for scholars of premodern drama and civic life.