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19.08.14 Coletti, The Digby Mary Magdalene Play

19.08.14 Coletti, The Digby Mary Magdalene Play

The early fifteenth-century The Digby Mary Magdalene Play deserves to be much better known. This attractive edition by Theresa Coletti, an expert on medieval English drama and the author of a monograph on the play and its contexts, [1] may--I hope--kickstart a more general interest in this remarkable work, especially by historians of both English theater and gender and sexuality. One of the only two surviving medieval English saint plays (the other is The Conversion of Saint Paul also in the Digby MS), Mary Magdalene is unlike any other Middle English--or, for that matter, early modern English--play. Extravagantly theatrical, with a cast of over fifty actors, it divides its action between thirty-seven different locations and sub-locations, including Rome, Jerusalem, Castle Magdalene, and Marseille. It is a hugely ambitious, visually spectacular, and formally complex work, and one that is deeply connected to late medieval female devotional culture. It also has an exceptional woman at its center.

Mary Magdalene was the second most popular late medieval Western European saint--male or female--after the Virgin Mary. She was also an important East Anglian saint in the later Middle Ages, celebrated in numerous local dramatic performances and depicted in church iconography, such as on the roodscreen at Ludham, Norfolk. Her post-Reformation reputation as a prostitute turned penitent, who is close to Jesus (in the gospels, he appears to her first after his resurrection, instructing her "Noli me tangere" (Do not touch me)), make her a compelling figure, with a long afterlife in popular culture, epitomized, albeit in somewhat mawkish form, in the song "I don't know how to love him," from Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970 musical Jesus Christ Superstar. But the medieval Mary Magdalene is less a fallen woman than a figure initially of female instability. The medieval play draws on, and considerably embellishes, the multiple traditions that had grown up around the saint, both Biblical and legendary, including her vita in Jacobus de Voragine's popular The Golden Legend (1270s), which is informed by the post-Biblical conflation of the woman who witnesses Christ's resurrection in all the gospels with two other Biblical figures--the unnamed sinner in Luke 7 who washes Jesus's feet and dries them with her hair at the house of Simon the Leper, and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. As Coletti notes, the play emphasizes the paradoxes of her life: the high-born daughter of a wealthy family who ends up as an ascetic in the desert, and a Biblical sinner, "famous for sexual profligacy" (through conflation with the sinner of Luke 7), who repents, and is lauded as a patron of "marital procreation, childbirth, and dynastic continuity" (4).

Coletti's introduction covers the importance of Mary Magdalene as an East Anglian and Continental European saint, the play's regional contexts (the saint's East Anglian cult can be traced back to the ninth-century), its formal characteristics and staging, and the manuscript context. The play is found only in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 133, fols. 95r-145r, a miscellany of Italian, Latin, and English scientific, astrological, and magical treatises, and premodern English plays: Mary Magdalene, the Conversion of Saint Paul, Candlemas Day and the Killing of the Children of Israel, and a substantial fragment of the morality playWisdom. Digby 133 was compiled in the early sixteenth-century (1515-1530), and owned by Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665). The East Anglian physician and alchemist Myles Blomefylde (1525-1603) wrote his name, or initials, on three of the plays. Mary Magdalene was copied by a single East Anglian scribe in the late fifteenth century. The copying is said to be careless, although the scribe describes the copy as an "oreginale" (93), a word that elsewhere in early dramatic records means "an official copy of a play" (9) [see MED original n. 1 (d)]. Although the play has no performance history, Coletti provides an excellent discussion of how it might have been staged: the "great mechanical and technical virtuosity" (15), for example, that would have been needed to effect the floating ship, or the seven devils leaving Mary's body, or the trembling idol that persuades the King of Marseille to convert, as well as its use of platea and loca staging, and the possible exploitation of cross-dressing for a variety of gendered and homoerotic theatrical effects. Coletti also considers the play's mash-up of naturalism, allegory, ritual and "dreamscapes" (17). The edition focuses strongly on East Anglian material, religious, and performance cultures as contexts for understanding Mary Magdalene's female identity and the meanings of the play itself.

In the "Language" section of the Introduction, Coletti notes the play's "exuberant linguistic variety" (9), which includes aureate language, "decorative" alliteration (10), and "dense verbal texture" (11), besides "pleyn" language (12). The play's linguistic inventiveness is sometimes comic, as in the profane mock-Latin, mock-lesson spoken by the heathen priest's clerk (sample lines: "Snyguer snagoer werwolfforum / Standgardum lamba beffetorum..." (1193-1194)). A fascinating aspect of the play's language is its use of Latinglishisms, such as inwytissymus "most wise" (285), and debonarius (447). Coletti notes the play's interest in documents and documentary culture (11-12), and in the idea of the power of the spoken word, and its insufficiency compared to divine perfection (12). Disappointingly, she does not provide any analysis of what she describes as "the play's chaotic verse form and stanzaic structure" (18-19), but refers readers to the EETS edition of the play for further details. [2] Coletti does not indicate stanzaic form by indenting lines to show the rhyme scheme, or to set off a bob-and-wheel.

This is a large-format edition, a little smaller than workbook size. The text is very clean; the apparatus is limited to on-page glosses, which are excellent, though puer (untouched) at l. 1891 needs a gloss. A short glossary at the end lists common words that have potentially obscure spellings (e.g., dew, "due," gef, "gave," levyn, "live"). All punctuation is modern. All abbreviations, whether in English or Latin, are silently expanded. Unlike Bevington's 1975 edition, Coletti does not fully normalize spelling, but she modernizes thorn and yogh, as well as East Anglian x- for sh-, and qw- as wh-, and scribal w for v, though I wonder if it might have been helpful for readers to regularize i for y, and g for j (e.g., jentyll (112)), and to regularize noun plurals (e.g., prechers forprecharsse (29). Some of the play's spellings are odd, but not unintelligible (they may be phonetic), e.g., soferyn, "sovereign," skreptour, "scripture," doth, "doubt," dowctor, "daughter," phy for fie, "trust". As Coletti notes, the scribe uses thorn and yogh interchangeably. Some of the spelling oddities may also be wordplay, e.g., soferens (864), "suffering, sufferance," beside sofereyn, "sovereign" (929, and passim), which links Christ's patient endurance to God's sovereign deity; in Giorgio Agamben's terms, Christ presents himself as "bare life," the life exposed to death in the form of sovereign violence.

There are very comprehensive Explanatory Notes at the end, noting inter alia analogies with locutions in other medieval East Anglian plays, and commenting on the neologisms, such as provostycacyon, "whom I serve in the office of provost" (163). The note on erbyre (568 and 571) might have referenced Pearl, though it's a common motif. The note on kelle (520), might have referenced OED kell, n., 1.a. A woman's hair-net, cap, or head-dress, although none of the medieval quotations in the OED suggests an association of this item of clothing with "loose women." The Textual Notes refer closely to the manuscript readings and also cross-reference two previous editions: Bevington's of 1975 and the 1982 EETS edition (BMH). [3] Coletti's notes make some corrections to BMH, e.g., at 58, the superscript n is over knett, not knottys, and she reads passon (992), where BMH read passyon. Coletti leaves the MS reading cold at 1613, where BMH emend to chelle for the rhyme, which seems right, though neither BMH nor Coletti comment on possible dialect variation. The phrase wyth yen suek (1576) is indeed weird; might yen be the prefix yen (see MED, yen, pref.), "former," so "with [my] former sickness"? Two significant omissions from the Bibliography are Stefania M. Maci's "The Role of the Metrical and Rhyme Pattern in Mary Magdalene," Linguistica e Filologia 18 (2004), 147-67, and Vincent Gillespie, "Venus in Sackcloth: The Digby Mary Magdalen and Wisdom Fragment," The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, eds. Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012), pp. 72-92.

This is an excellent edition for graduates, and advanced scholars, and even for undergraduates. It is accessible, informative, scholarly, and completely reliable.



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

2. The basic four-stress line, frequently alliterating, has an extraordinary number of stanzaic forms, that vary according to the characters, including double quatrains ababbcbc, single abab quatrains, 28-line tail rhyme stanzas (aaabcccb), 6-line, 9-line, and 10-line tail rhyme stanzas, nearly a dozen bob-and-wheel stanzas of various lengths, other stanzaic forms, and 29 unrhymed lines.

3. David Bevington (ed.), Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975); Donald C. Baker, John L. Murphy, and Louis B. Hall Jr. (eds), The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and E Museo 160, EETS 283 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).