19.02.03 Steenbrugge, Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England

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Susan Nakley

The Medieval Review 19.02.03

Steenbrugge, Charlotte. Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England: Performance, Authority, Devotion. Early Drama, Art, and Music. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2017. pp. xviii, 173. ISBN: 978-1-58044-278-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Susan Nakely
St. Joseph's College, New York
snakley@sjcny.edu

Charlotte Steenbrugge's Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England: Performance, Authority, and Devotion elucidates the relationship between Middle English religious drama and contemporaneous sermons, which emerge as distinct components of a vibrant, eclectic, yet somewhat punctilious religious culture. This engaging study corrects simple assumptions about causal links and lines of influence from preaching to vernacular plays. A "shared cultural background" rather than overarching ecclesiastical authority accounts for their similarities, as Steenbrugge demonstrates (vi). Stubborn assumptions have undermined appreciation of vernacular English drama as lay-authorized art. By explicating the relations between these two distinct performance genres, Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England corroborates Lawrence Clopper's description of vernacular drama as the religious space of the late medieval English laity. Steenbrugge demonstrates how Middle English plays explore moral questions rather than simply preaching doctrine, much as Clopper's Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (University of Chicago Press, 2001) argues, although Steenbrugge cites only earlier Clopper research. Several key secondary sources do seem rather dated; Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England, nevertheless, offers an important, pointed analysis from which students of medieval drama, and of later medieval English religious culture more widely, will learn.

The book contains an introduction, conclusion, and six concise yet informative chapters that model careful focus through a solid line of critical inquiry, thus producing an exemplary model for any early-career literary scholar. The first chapter queries the roles and attitudes of civic and religious authorities in staging sermons and plays. Chapter Two asks if "Middle English sermons exploit theatrical features to improve their effectiveness" (xii); meanwhile chapters three and four search for sermon-like strategies in plays. Chapter Five compares the relationship between preacher and congregation with that of actor and audience. Finally, chapter six analyzes how sermon and drama approach the sacrament of penance, as a test case. Together, these chapters show how two distinct performance genres responded to cultural and historical changes (including England's urbanization and rising lay literacy) yet maintained different purposes, served divergent needs, and were produced by particular agents. The book also admits that "despite all the advances in modern scholarship" many questions--especially uncertainties about performance context--remain (xii). As Steenbrugge notes, scholars in this field must be comfortable with outstanding questions even when we have unusually detailed historical records.

The first chapter, "Historical Connections between Sermons and Plays," contextualizes the relationship of Middle English sermons to Middle English plays among that of their continental counterparts to each other. Drawing on late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century drama critiques, including the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge,Steenbrugge finds more tension and even friction between lay and clerical camps and significantly more lay leadership in English vernacular drama than on the continent. Indeed, clerical attitudes toward English drama were suspicious and favored preaching over that other performative form of interpreting scripture, yet failed to stop cities like York from developing their Biblical cycles over centuries. Although continental performance influences English genres in some ways, England emerges as a distinguished case evidenced by its strong civic governments and lay-authorized cycles. Lay and clerical English plays, then, were largely distinct; and most clerical involvement with vernacular plays was limited and temporary. Steenbrugge attributes the "latent similarities and correspondences between preaching and religious drama" to "cross-fertilization across various literary genres," suggesting that drama may have at times achieved its didactic goals more effectively than sermons met their similar, if not identical, aims (11, 14).

The sermons Steenbrugge considers prove to be a diverse set of texts despite the fact that many appear as model sermons as opposed to transcripts of actual events. Chapter Two, "Performing Sermons," queries theatrical traits in extant Middle English sermons. Surveying late medieval and early modern sources, Steenbrugge observes great attention to orality and contrast between sermons as texts and as performances. She also disentangles often-conflated theatrical features from performative aspects of sermons, reminding us of how much medieval literature was performed orally. And she notes contrast between audiences' tastes and preachers' priorities, concerns, and consequent delivery, positing that "the average preacher aimed for a delivery that was lively enough to attract the audience's attention and goodwill but modest enough to advertise his moral standing and to underline the serious, spiritual content of the event" (28). Considering the relationship between dramatic possibility and didactic aims, this chapter describes Middle English sermons as "prescriptive, authoritative, and monologic," having a unidirectional and "restrained performativity" (38, 39).

Chapter Three, "Preaching on Stage," argues that we can locate "surprisingly few uses of the sermon as a textual genre on the fifteenth-century English stage" because English ecclesiastical legislation limited preaching to licensed preachers (43). Ultimately, we find that plays issue their moral messages and seem to have managed to teach without infringing upon preaching, a formal mode of teaching dependant on generic details including setting, theme, the speaker's authority and the use of Latin and exempla. Steenbrugge identifies a unique lay style of religious and spiritual authority wherein plays "often encourage the audience's contribution in creating meaning and ascribing value to the performance" (62). We might distinguish this as a particularly collaborative approach to exploring Biblical material.

The fourth chapter, "Performing Authority: Expositors and Preachers," examines the mediatory role of expositors and presenters in Middle English plays. Such figures are relatively rare and do not preach in a typically authoritative fashion, but rather facilitate "a more dialogic relationship with their audiences" (70). Steenbrugge explains that expositors and presenters are "pragmatic" figures that hold a qualitatively different authority: dramatic authority, which flows from "their close association with and knowledge of the play" (75). They "manage" the audience, helping members to appreciate and to process plays with a relatively light touch as opposed to a didactic hold. Steenbrugge's survey of expositors from Poeta in The Conversion of St. Paul to Contemplacio in the N-Town Passion Play II suggests that unlike spiritual authority, these figures' authority derives from the agency of the plays as coherent pieces of art themselves. A divergence between the relationship of preacher to congregation (which aims for passive, obedient reception of authoritative discourse) and that of presenter to audience (which rests upon ensuring enjoyment of dramatic art) emerges here. This chapter focuses on presenters to show how Middle English plays resist dogma and represent "a relatively open-minded and lax attitude toward certain religious differences"; the plays evince a "complex expression of religious instruction and devotion" wherein the audience participates responsibly "in the plays' religious import as well as their own piety" (82).

"Audience Interaction in Sermons and Plays," the fifth chapter, focuses acutely on audience experience of plays and sermons as well as performers' expectations of audiences' attitudes and behavior, finding additional differences between the performative genres. Steenbrugge examines opening strategies to start. Preaching manuals indicate that preachers could generally depend upon sermon audiences' silence or at least politeness. Meanwhile many plays include opening addresses that work to quiet down rowdy play audiences as well as to help audience members suspend their disbelief by blurring "the boundary between the real and play worlds" (93). Especially interesting here are Steenbrugge's observations about negative or vice characters and virtuous characters. She suggests that playwrights limited "direct interaction between virtue characters" and typically unruly audiences most likely to avoid the possibility "that uncooperative audiences might undermine the didactic import and theatrical success of the performance" (104). Vice characters tend to be readily available, allowing audiences to identify with sinfulness or human fallibility easily, whereas virtue characters sit at a remove. Audience members must strive to focus on them just as they must aspire toward virtuous behavior despite more accessible distractions. Steenbrugge observes that, "playwrights generally preferred not to adopt the authoritative, expressly didactic stance of the preacher and instead sought to teach their spectators in a more indirect fashion" (105). We also see that preachers demanded obedience from audiences that they regarded as social and educational inferiors, while actors treated their audiences as social superiors. Ultimately, audience members become "active participants in both the drama and its didacticism," and a lay, collaborative, artistic and affective Christian piety emerges (110). As Steenbrugge concludes, the drama's capacity to facilitate active, personal, interior yet public engagement with religion naturally concerned and even appeared subversive to a clergy that could not regulate it.

Chapter Six, "The Sacrament of Penance in Sermons and Plays," takes up the highly formal and deeply controversial practice of penance "as a test case to determine how the plays fit into the politics of contemporary vernacular theology" (115). Here we see that sermons present penance as a process sutured to true belief rather than to active understanding. Contrition in particular runs parallel with belief in this context, and the sermons are "emphatic on the need for contrition and carefully define its content" (119). Steenbrugge's survey of plays from the Castle of Perseveranceto N-Town's The Woman Taken in Adulterydemonstrates how the drama offers a distinctive understanding of penance. This lay approach to penance enthusiastically explores matters such as the psychology of sin, the human struggle for salvation, and divine mercy, with little interest in teaching Church doctrine. Indeed, the plays "encourage a critical stance in their audiences" and reflect a "lay understanding of devotion and religion that was at odds with ecclesiastical doctrine"; yet rather than proclaim them heterodox, Steenbrugge notes that they are "quietly subversive" and exemplified "the heterogeneity of lived devotion in late medieval England" (148). Thus Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England propels us beyond the stark poles of orthodoxy and heterodoxy that belie the vibrancy of lay-led drama toward a more nuanced and accurate view of Middle English plays as religious art.

The short conclusion reproduces and analyzes the stage plan for The Castle of Perseveranceas an emblem of how Middle English drama skillfully includes devotional and didactic concerns that resonate with sermons while ultimately subordinating those concerns to theatrical spectacle--among the drama's other entertainment-focused goals. Steenbrugge uses this as a springboard from which to reiterate and clarify some of her enlightening findings about the significant differences between continental and English drama and the didactic aims and styles of Middle English plays and sermons as distinct performative genres. So ends this slim, yet thoroughly informative and beautifully written volume. It is a necessary and welcome contribution to the field. Indeed, Steenbrugge's careful study should inspire and corroborate new studies of Middle English drama as a sophisticated and distinctive genre of devotional art.

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