Printer Friendly

Backbiter and the Rhetoric of Detraction.

This essay will look at the development of one proto-Vice figure, Back-biter, as he appears in two East Anglian playtexts from the fifteenth century,(1) The Castle of Perseverance and the N-Town "Trial of Joseph and Mary" share this character, and although his roles in the two plays are not the same, his functions derive from the same potentialities--potentialities enlivened by rhetoric. This examination will begin by discussing the earlier Castle of Perseverance and follow with a discussion of the N-Town "Trial" play in an effort to show the impact of the dissident quality of Backbiter's rhetoric--indeed, Backbiter as rhetoric--upon the operations of the plays.

Although his role in The Castle of Perseverance (circa 1425) has not seemed significant to many previous students of the morality tradition, Backbiter (also referred to as Detractio in the speech-headings and as Flibbertigibbet at lines 775, 1724, and 1733) occupies a complex position in this early English play.(2) Backbiter is not simply a "bad" figure in the play who leads Mankind away from the path of righteousness and into sin in the same way that the Bad Angel and Covetousness do; on the contrary, this messenger of the World, the relative brevity of his appearances notwithstanding, manages to "serve" Mankind by bringing him to Covetousness--and hence sin--and to subvert the authority of his evil superiors by pitting them against each other, pulling it all off without suffering punishment. Backbiter crosses--transgresses--boundaries between what is ostensibly good and evil in the play and renders those boundaries susceptible to ambivalence in the process. More is at stake here than comic appeal. The medium Backbiter uses and, indeed, embodies allegorically and dramatically, to transgress these boundaries is language. An examination of Backbiter's language in The Castle of Perseverance demonstrates the extent to which he represents the coalescence of rhetorical views on detraction and the uses of rhetoric in general in order to present the audience with a conception of evil that is at once highly rhetoricized and markedly ambivalent and, further, the extent to which this rhetorical ambivalence is an index of Backbiter's moral positioning as a representative of evil in the play who suffers no retribution for his wrongdoing.(3) A discussion of some of the rhetorical background behind Backbiter will be followed by a consideration of his allegorical and rhetorical representation in the play as evidenced by his relationship with the audience, with Mankind, and with the "bad" figures.(4)

The first thing that needs to be established by way of background is a sense of the parts of rhetoric as they would have been understood by an educated medieval English audience. Two classical texts, the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero's De inventione, are especially good sources to draw upon for this summary because they were widely known in England during the medieval period.(5) An excerpt from De inventione, for example, provides such an encapsulation of rhetoric:
 partes autem eae quas plerique dixerunt, inventio, dispositio, elocutio,
 memoria, pronuntiatio. Inventio est excogitatio rerum verarum aut veri
 similium quae causam probabilem reddant; dispositio est rerum inventarum in
 ordinem distributio; elocutio est idoneorum verborum ad inventionem
 accomodatio; memoria est firma animi rerum ac verborum perceptio;
 pronuntiatio est ex rerum et verborum dignitate vocis et corporis

 [The parts of it, as most authorities have stated, are Invention,
 Arrangement, Expression, Memory, Delivery. Invention is the discovery of
 valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one's cause plausible.
 Arrangement is the distribution of arguments thus discovered in the proper
 order. Expression is the fitting of the proper language to the invented
 matter. Memory is the firm mental grasp of matter and words. Delivery is
 the control of voice and body in a manner suitable to the dignity of the
 subject matter and the style.](6)

All the main parts of rhetoric as they were understood by medieval English rhetoricians are described in this passage.(7) Used as a template for constructing eloquent expressions designed to persuade an audience, this rhetorical framework is general enough to be deployed in a wide range of situations. Such general applicability did not go unexamined, as a look at an explicitly Christian conception of rhetoric will show.

Another element of the rhetorical background behind Backbiter lies in Augustine's De doctrina Christiana.(8) This important work was widely copied throughout the Middle Ages and would almost certainly have been available to the author of The Castle of Perseverance.(9) This "metarhetoric" as James J. Murphy calls it, draws on the Roman rhetorical tradition set out in De inventione and Rhetorica ad Herennium and places that tradition into an overtly Christian context.(10) It is at the beginning of Book IV of this "defense of Ciceronian rhetoric"(11) that Augustine, writing about the reasons for cultivating rhetorical competence, mentions the general applicability of the discipline that is a key to understanding Backbiter's representation:
 Cum ergo sit in medio posita facultas eloquii, quae ad persuadenda seu
 praua seu recta ualet plurimum, cur non bonorum studio comparatur, ut
 militet ueritati, si eam mali ad obtinendas peruersas uanasque causas in
 usus iniquitatis et erroris usurpant? (12)

 [The power of eloquence--so very effective in convincing us of either wrong
 or right--lies open to all. Why, then, do not the good zealously procure it
 that it may serve truth, if the wicked, in order to gain unjustifiable and
 groundless cases, apply it to the advantages of injustice and error?](13)

The interesting thing about this excerpt is the anxiety it communicates over the ambivalence of rhetoric itself. Couched in this call to rhetorical arms is a recognition that the art of eloquence can be plied for good or evil ends, and that its effectiveness is not diminished in either case. Rhetoric, for Augustine, is both a useful tool and a dangerous weapon. This observation, itself a small part of the argument of Book IV, is important because it firmly establishes an attitude towards rhetorical practice that ascribes a polymorphous quality to language, one that is just as susceptible to deployment as a web of shifting sites of evil as it is of acting as a stable expression of Christian theology.(14)

This concept of rhetorical ambivalence is linked to the last important element behind Backbiter's representation: the tradition of the "sins of the tongue" of which backbiting or detractio forms a part.(15) Every bit as technically complex as the Ciceronian rhetorical framework known to medieval rhetoricians, these sins of the tongue are likened to a tree by the author of The Book of Vices and Virtues and are further subdivided into ten "branches":
 But we wole sette ten chef braunches pat comep of pis tree of wikkede
 tonge: ydel, auauntyng, losengerie, apeyre a man bihynde hym, pat is
 bakbityng, lesynges, forswerynges, stryuynges, grucchynges, rebellynges,
 blasphemye, pat is speke euele of God.(16)

What this system looks like is a detailed framework for the identification and classification of evil uses of rhetoric. It can be read as an attempt to delimit the ambivalent quality of rhetoric by mapping the various kinds of "deviation from discipline" that evil eloquence constitutes. This is not to say that it comprises a kind of anti-rhetoric that is in binary opposition to the Ciceronian tradition as it was understood in the Middle Ages. Rather, it inheres within the very heart of the ambivalence of that tradition; it is rhetoric used for evil ends. Backbiter, in name and in representation, comes directly from this complex conceptual web, and it is to him that this essay now turns.

Backbiter enacts this conceptual web of rhetoric not just in his speeches but in his name, or, rather, names, as well. When this dramatized allegorical and rhetorical abstraction first appears in The Castle of Perseverance at line 647 as the World's "messenger" he tells the audience his name is "Bacbytere" (659). This is significant because his name indicates that he is a performer of actions as well as a dramatized representation of an abstraction, that is backbiting.(17) His name tells the audience that he stands for sins of the tongue and that he commits them as well. This appears to be straightforward enough until one notices that in the Latin speech headings that are used throughout The Castle of Perseverance Backbiter is referred to as "Detraccio" (e.g. 647 s.h.). Detractio, or detraction, is a rhetorical abstraction within the framework of the sins of the tongue (and, by implication, within the framework of Ciceronian rhetoric), and can be translated into English as "backbiting." Although it is true that this designation would not be available to an audience viewing a performance of the play and that the Latin speech headings are a convention of the manuscript, it is nevertheless the case that at some level of textual production someone saw Backbiter as susceptible of being read both as a dramatized perpetrator of sins of the tongue and as a rhetoricized abstraction, and registered that reading consistently in the form of the Latin speech heading. To complicate matters even further, he is also referred to by a third name at lines 775, 1724, and 1733: "Flypergebet" or "Flibbertigibbet" in modern English. One of the meanings for this Middle English word, an "onomatapoeic representation of unmeaning chatter,' is a" chattering or gossiping person" (OED).(18) Thus, Backbiter's names classify him not only as a performer of verbal action and as a representative of ordered rhetorical abstraction, but also as the embodiment of rhetorical action that deviates from discipline and means--in a loaded sense--nothing.(19) The most important point to take from these observations is that these three names are not entirely synonyms for each other and that they work to represent Backbiter in a shifting and non-symmetrical fashion that highlights his simultaneous inherence within superficially differentiated sites of rhetorical power. All of this ambivalence takes place at the level of Backbiter's name; it is in his speeches that this polymorphous figure appears at his most rhetorically and morally ambivalent.

Backbiter's opening lines, delivered directly to the audience, function dramatically as a means of identifying and contextualizing him as a physical presence in a production of a play and as a means of attracting the attention of the audience. However, a closer examination with some of the rhetorical background outlined above kept in mind reveals a complexity that extends beyond dramatic utility:
 All pyngys I crye agayn pe pes
 To knyt and knaue, pis is my kende.
 Za, dyngne dukys on her des
 In byttyr balys I hem bynde.
 Cryinge and care, chydynge and ches
 And sad sorwe to hem I sende,
 Za, lowde lesyngys lacchyd in les,
 Of talys vntrewe is al my mende.
 Mannys bane abowtyn I bere.
 I wyl pat ze wetyn, all po pat ben here,
 For I am knowyn fer and nere
 I am pe Werldys messengere,
 My name is Bacbytere. (647-59)

This introduction operates at a number of levels. Backbiter's opening assertion that he cries "agayn pe pes" (647) functions not only as a boisterous line that can be delivered loudly and thus serve as a dramaturgical call to attention, but also as an example of one of the five subdivisions of the sin of the tongue known as "vaunting," that is, the boasting of accomplishments where people "blepely rehersen here deedes and here douztenesses."(20) This boasting is maintained with Backbiter's claim to bind "dyngne dukys on her des" (649) in "byttyr balys" (650) and in his insistence that he is "knowyn fer and nere" (657), and all of this is marshaled by way of an introduction to the audience.(21) This is not the only sin of the tongue mentioned in this opening speech: the sin of "lesynge"(22) (lying) is mentioned five times at lines 653-54, 662,670, 680, and 685; the sin of "losengerie"(23) (flattery) is evoked at line 669; "stryuyng"(24) (strife) surfaces at lines 675 and 689; and, not surprisingly, backbiting is referred to at line 664 in Backbiter's assertion that it is his nature to "speke fayre beforn and fowle behynde." This is a veritable tour de force of sins of the tongue to pack into a speech of only fifty-one lines, and Backbiter embodies them all for the audience.

The opening speech at line 647 is not the only point in The Castle of Perseverance where Backbiter is obviously addressing the audience.(25) The boasting lines he delivers as he leaves the Bad Angel also employ the sins of the tongue as a structural framework but add an element not present in his first speech:
 I make men masyd and mad
 And euery man to kyllyn odyr
 Wyth a sory chere.
 I am glad, be Seynt Jamys of Galys,
 Of schrewdnes to tellyn talys
 Bopyn in Ingelond and in Walys,
 And feyth I haue many a fere. (1739-45)

Backbiter employs rhetorical strategies that move him closer in moral proximity to the audience here. Swearing by "Seynt Jamys of Galys" (1742) may be a sin of the tongue,(26) but it is also the everyday language of the audience and implicitly moves Backbiter closer to them. The references to "Ingelond" and "Walys" (1744) and to having "many a fere" (1745) or companion in those regions also moves Backbiter closer to the audience by identifying them as friends of his and thus as verbal sinners in their own right. This "friendly" tone is maintained in subsequent addresses to the audience, as at line 1778-79 where he exclaims "Za, for God, pis was wel goo,/pus to werke wyth bakbytynge" or at line 1823: "Now, be God, pis is good game!" The fact that Backbiter is plying his craft on the other representatives of evil in the play highlights the moral ambivalence that this language communicates and makes the audience complicit in that ambivalence. He confides in them: "[i]f I had lost my name,/I vow to God it were gret del" (1825-26) and in so doing draws the audience into his efforts to cause internal conflict among the other evil figures. He tells the audience he makes "euery man to kyllyn odor" (1739) and still manages to laugh with them. It is his rhetorical representation that allows him to speak "fayre" and "fowle" (664) simultaneously.(27)

The impact of these speeches upon the audience is powerful. On the one hand, Backbiter's deployment of dearly identifiable sins of the tongue signals his innate evil and provides the audience with a dramatized example of rhetoric used for sinful ends. He is certainly honest enough about his intent towards the audience: "I schape zone boyis to schame and schonde" (677). He cannot help appearing to be evil when viewed from this perspective. On the other hand, this perspective cannot hold. The problem lies in Backbiter's "honesty" that is, his rhetorical clarity. The audience can recognize the sins of the tongue in Backbiter's speech, thereby identifying an "evil" use of rhetoric, and still lend credence to the statement. Thus, Backbiter can claim to be "Mannys bane" (655) as part of a boast that is identifiably a sin of the tongue, and the audience can understand that while believing Backbiter to be "Mannys bane" indeed. This is the case because the inherently ambivalent faculta eloquii (the faculties of eloquence), to use Augustine's words quoted above, are available to Backbiter even through the sins of the tongue.(28) Inventio, the discovery of plausible arguments to render oneself believable in the terms prescribed by Ciceronian rhetoric, is satisfied. Elocutio, or expression, is also answered in the fitting of the language of the sins of the tongue to Backbiter's self-representation. Dispositio (arrangement) is discovered in the inclusion of various sins of the tongue in a speech ostensibly designed to rhetorically represent the allegorical expression of a single sin of the tongue.(29) Memoria and pronuntiatio, or memory and delivery, are largely dependent upon the actor playing the role of Backbiter but can be assumed to be fulfilled. The audience recognizes Backbiter as evil language personified and mobilized and still believes him, finally, because his lines constitute a good argument on terms that are not easily rejected. Ambivalence washes over Backbiter's rhetorical and moral representation for the audience at precisely the moment that recognition and belief coincide.(30)

The relationship between Backbiter and Mankind requires some examination as well. Although Backbiter and Mankind do not interact to a great extent at the level of language, it is interesting to note the terms on which such interaction as does occur is based. Backbiter's declaration to Mankind upon being assigned to him by the World provides a case in point:
 Bakbytynge and Detracion
 Schal goo wyth De fro toun to toun.
 Haue don, Mankynde, and cum doun.
 I am Dyne owyn page.
 I schal bere De wyttnesse wyth my myth
 Whanne my lord De Werlde it behyth. (777-82)

Backbiter refers to himself by two of his names as abstractions here. This may or may not be an intentional shift in representation on the part of the playwright, but, in any case, this shift implicitly--rhetorically--relocates the agency of commission of sins of the tongue outside of Backbiter the rhetorical and rhetoricized performer. Mankind is not served by a sinner but by sinning in the abstract sense, and the implied distance between those two distinctions may serve to convince Mankind of the trustworthiness of Backbiter. Lines such as "I am Dyne owyn page" (780) and "I schal bere De wyttnesse wyth my myth" (781) would tend to confirm such a reading with their emphasis on dependability and service. Backbiter's rhetorical and moral ambivalence re-surfaces in the last line, though, when he qualifies his offer to bear witness by implying that he will only do so when commanded by the World. The offer, in effect, turns in on itself; Backbiter uses the powers of rhetoric to shape an offer to deploy the powers of rhetoric for Mankind that only thinly--if at all--veils from Mankind the full extent of its ambivalent relationship with evil. Mankind is not threatened directly, but he is implicitly warned of the powers that Backbiter offers to marshal for him. An example of the kind of lines that Backbiter delivers concerning Mankind when they are not together is most telling: "[f] or whanne Mankynde is clopyd clere,/panne schal I techyn hym pe wey/To pe dedly synnys seuene" (692-94). His delivery of Mankind into the hands of Covetousness at lines 815-27 fulfills this rhetorically enacted sin of the tongue, that is, boasting, with a representative dramatic movement from the scaffold of the World to that of Covetousness. It is in that shift between rhetorical enactment and physical action that Backbiter's ambivalence seizes most forcefully upon Mankind.

Backbiter's relationship with the other representatives of evil in The Castle of Perseverance constitutes another site where rhetorical and thus moral ambivalence is enacted. At first sight, his encounters with them seem innocuous enough, as his meeting with Covetousness at lines 815-27 or his response to the Bad Angel's command at lines 1736-7 suggests. Backbiter plays his part as a messenger dramatically and rhetorically in both cases, and his language is conventional rather than sinful. This relationship, however, does not remain stable. His response to Belial's command to "telle [him] pe sothe" (1753)--a likely indication that he has obvious reasons to suspect that Backbiter might not tell the "sothe"--is deceptive in its subtlety:
 Teneful talys I may pe sey,
 To pe no good, as I gesse:
 Mankynd is gon now awey
 Into pe Castel of Goodnesse. (1754-56)

It is true that the Bad Angel has sent Backbiter to deliver this message to the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and that Backbiter is not the originator of the message; but Backbiter is the agent by which the message is delivered and it is this fact that is most significant from a rhetorical perspective. Disturbing news is a subdivision of idle language and is thus classified as a sin of the tongue.(31) Pronuntiatio (delivery) is emphasized in these lines and their delivery has an immediate effect upon Belial. The "friendly" ambivalence that Backbiter enacts in his lines directed to the audience as he leaves the Bad Angel at line 1738 can be read as driving Backbiter's commission of a verbal sin at the expense of one of his own allies at lines 1754-65. Backbiter's exclamation at lines 1778-9 that "for God, pis was wel goo,/pus to werke wyth bakbytynge" is further evidence that the delivery of the news is meant to be read as the commission of a sin of the tongue and that Backbiter views the other representatives of evil in the play as legitimate targets.

The effectiveness of Backbiter's pronuntiatio only intensifies when he delivers the same message to Flesh, who is expecting to hear "[f]ul glad tydynge" (1797):
 Za, for God, owt I crye
 On pi too sonys and pi dowtyr zynge:
 Glotoun, Slawthe, and Lechery
 Hath put me in gret mornynge.
 Pey let Mankynd gon up hye
 Into zene castel at hys lykynge,
 Perin for to leue and dye,
 Wyth po ladys to make endynge,
 Po flourys fayre and fresche.
 He is in pe Castel of Perseuerauns
 And put hys body to penauns.
 Of hard happe is now pi chauns,
 Syr kynge, Mankyndys Flesche. (1799-1811)

Backbiter uses the form of a single sin of the tongue, the delivery of disturbing news, to contain other verbal sins that strengthen the force of what can appropriately be called his argument. His "crye" against Gluttony, Sloth and Lechery (1799-1801) is pure backbiting while the details of Mankind's salvation at lines 1805-07 can be read as striving. Backbiter's assertion that the loss of Mankind has caused him to be in "gret mornynge" (1802) implicitly absolves him from any share of the blame for Mankind's loss and functions as a species of vaunting, namely, the disparagement of others (Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery). The last two lines of the speech constitute a variety of backbiting that puts a situation in the worst light possible.(32) Backbiter's attitude towards using these sins of the tongue against his superiors is best summed up in his own words: "Now, be God, pis is good game" (1823). Once again Backbiter's rhetorical deployment is highly complex and highly effective.

The message Backbiter delivers to his own master, the World, is at once shorter and more pointedly inflammatory than the previous two speeches. His response to a question of tidings is especially interesting:
 Nopynge goode, pat schalt pou wete.
 Mankynd, Syr Werld, hath pe forsake.
 Wyth Schryfte and Penauns he is smete
 And to zene castel he hath hym take
 Amonge zene ladys whyt as lake.
 Lo, Syr Werld, ze moun agryse
 pat ze be seruyd on pis wyse.
 Go pley zou wyth Syr Coyeytyse
 Tyl hys crowne crake. (1844-52)

The same sins of the tongue employed in the message delivered to the Flesh are combined with an admonition at line 1849 and an imperative at lines 1851-52. This is certainly not the way that a servant is supposed to speak to a master and as such portrays Backbiter at the height of his rhetorically derived power. The emphasis placed on dispositio here in placing the imperative at the end of the message urges the World into action. Backbiter has no more lines after this point and there is no linguistic or dramaturgical evidence in the text to support his appearance throughout the rest of the play. He rhetorically transgresses the boundary between servants and masters and then leaves, seemingly without punishment.

Interestingly, all three receivers of Backbiter's messages are convinced by his arguments and all three respond by flying into a rage and beating the underlings they hold responsible for the loss of Mankind.(33) Although there is some evidence that at least the Devil has some awareness of Backbiter's facility as a perpetrator of sins of the tongue--note his demand that Backbiter tell him the truth at line 1753--all three of the principal figures of evil are taken in by the ambivalent nature of his message. After all, Backbiter is telling the truth as he was instructed to by the Bad Angel, and the eloquence with which he tells that truth simultaneously inheres within both the tradition of sins of the tongue and Ciceronian rhetoric, inextricably bound up together as this study has shown those two superficially differentiated constructs to be. Enacting rhetorical ambivalence becomes the means of enacting moral ambivalence at this point in the play, as Backbiter--a rhetorically constituted site of evil as active nothingness--turns the full weight of the ambivalence of evil thus constituted upon evil itself and in the process embodies ambivalence to an even greater extent. Rhetoric is not unidirectional even in the hands of its abusers and evil, the essential nothingness, turns in upon itself.(34)

As outlined above, each message Backbiter delivers to the evil figures gains in rhetorical pitch and momentum, and Backbiter's enthusiasm as expressed in the verbal sin of vaunting gains proportionately in each address to the audience that follows a message. Compare his assertion that he has "many a fere" (1745) to the advice he offers for the improvement of would-be backbiters at lines 1780-88, and finally to the sinful yet accurate acknowledgment of his power in the following lines: "I Bakbyter, wyth fals fame/Do brekyn and brestyn hodys of stele" (1829-30). Apart from their function as a means of communicating to the audience the ambivalence inherent in evil turning upon evil, these addresses serve to map the expansion of Backbiter's rhetorical means until he reaches what may be the fullest expression of rhetorical and moral ambivalence in the play: the point at which he disappears from the text and thus steps outside of the rhetorical and moral consequences of any of his actions.

The representation of Backbiter in The Castle of Perseverance is far too complicated to be summarized either as an expression of unmitigated evil rigidly fixed in a binary opposition to good or as a series of subversions that deconstruct the play and its intent. Rather, Backbiter constitutes and is constituted by an Augustinian conception of evil that is inextricably bound up with ambivalence and, in turn, with the ambivalent nature of rhetoric. The essence, or, rather, non-essence, of Backbiter resides in this complex web of interrelations, and it is there that one must look in order to examine this all too frequently ignored figure as part of an examination of the development of the Vice figure in early English drama. When he next appears in the N-Town plays, he entangles not just the other inhabitants of the drama in that ambivalent web of interrelations, but also the audience.

Alison M. Hunt's observation that the detractors Backbiter and Raise Slander from the N-Town "Trial of Joseph and Mary" have not "excited much critical curiosity" is largely an accurate one.(35) Attempts at dealing with these two figures are generally cursory--Hunt's article on them represents a substantial increase in the amount of specific attention they have received--and do not involve much examination of their function in the play. Indeed, Hunt's own assertion that the detractors have some relation to "a deep anxiety over the potential of speech to destroy individuals and weaken communities" suggests where such an examination ought to begin and refer back to: the use of and attitudes toward language.(36) The insertion of Backbiter and Raise Slander, two abstractions made concrete through allegorical representation, into this apocryphal biblical play(37) from the fifteenth century constitutes more than the deployment of stock types to entertain an "unregenerate" audience;(38) rather, they operate as rhetorically constituted and enacted agents of mouvance that draw the attention of the audience(39) and demand interpretation.(40) Allegory and rhetoric are inextricably bound up together in the detractors to force the audience into a moral interpretive action that extends beyond the historical (biblical) confines of the play and into the world of the audience who are responsible for their interpretations.(41) An examination of the position the detractors occupy as allegorical figures in this play will be followed by a discussion of their rhetorical strategies as they are directed outward at the audience and inward to the inhabitants of the play in order to establish the extent to which they function as compelling rhetorical invitations to interpretive action.

That allegory, as a trope, "says one thing and means another"(42) seems, on the surface, to be a fairly general assessment of its workings. However, consideration of Backbiter and Raise Slander in the "Trial of Joseph and Mary" pushes that deceptively simple assessment to a depth that reaches to the core of their complex representation and to a fuller understanding of allegory itself. First, it is bound up with rhetoric: allegory, or permutatio as it is called in the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium is one of the "exornationes verborum" [figures of diction] listed under the category of elocutio and defined as "language [that] departs from the ordinary meaning of words and is, with a certain grace, applied in another sense."(43) Thus, the boundaries between allegory and rhetoric were at least partly blurred at a conceptual level for fifteenth-century England.(44) Allegory is constituted by rhetoric and can be read by an audience as a meaning-bearing component of the text itself.

Indeed, allegory in the "Trial of Joseph and Mary" demands interpretation. The detractors, as dramatically realized embodiments of abstractions, sharply disrupt the temporal and semantic framework of the biblical narrative that the "Trial" rests on. Simply put, historical figures such as Joseph and Mary and the socially realistic bishop and doctors of law don't mean in the same way that dramatized abstractions do, and the audience must engage in an act of interpretation in order to digest the disruption. This is important for two reasons. First of all, the disruption itself focuses attention on the detractors and intensifies interest on the part of the audience.(45) This is crucial for much more than reasons of entertainment when moral interpretation is a requirement of the text, as it is in the "Trial of Joseph and Mary."(46) Second, the audience is simultaneously forced to think in terms of particularity and abstraction while forming any interpretation and consequently to consider the moral implications of that interpretation in a historical, contemporary, and universal sense.(47) "Temporality, ... always a rhetorical [and thus allegorical] issue, ... becomes also a hermeneutical issue"(48) and one that the audience must address to derive meaning from the "Trial" The very presence of the detractors has to be accounted for; the structure of their representation demands as much.

The audience is introduced to the detractors immediately and the means by which this introduction is effected immediately situates all concerned in an interpretively problematic position:
 A, a, serys, God saue zow all!
 Here is a fayr pepyl, in good fay.
 Good serys, telle me what men me calle;
 I trow ze kannot be pis day.
 Zitt I walke wyde and many way,
 But zet per I come I do no good:
 To reyse slaw[n]dyr is al my lay.
 Bakbytere is my brother of blood. (34-41)(49)

Raise Slander addresses the audience directly and the effect of this rhetorical strategy is more significant than it may first appear. The temporal continuity of the historical/biblical narrative framework is disrupted and the audience is forced into contemporaneity with Raise Slander and with the historical world in which the trial takes place. In addition, the reverse is also the case from the moment Raise Slander says "A, a, serys, God saue zow all" (34), and the audience must consider that the events of the play will involve them and have an impact on their lives. The rhetorical technique of direct address renders interpretation necessary right from the beginning of the play. In fact, this opening speech can be read as an exordium (introduction), one of the six parts of a debate, that Raise Slander uses so that "the hearer's mind is prepared for attention."(50) Raise Slander continues to force interpretation by using the figure of ratiocinatio (reasoning by question and answer)(51) to engage the audience: "Good serys, telle me what men me calle" (36). The act of interpreting is required by the question itself, but Raise Slander extends the query to ratiocinatio by asserting that wherever he goes he does "no good" (39), that his practice is to "reyse slaw[n] dyr" (40), and that "Bakbytere" is his "brother of blood" (41). The audience is not directly given Raise Slander's name in answer to his question; rather, he must be interpreted through his actions--and his actions are the use of words--in order to be identified. The audience must interpret him through rhetoric--indeed, as rhetoric--to accommodate the words he directs at them. The temporal and narrative disruption that Raise Slander constitutes is furthered by this rhetorical strategy because the audience is forced to interpret Raise Slander by general rhetorical actions rather than by temporally or spatially specific identifiers; his allegorical status is highlighted by his rhetoric. This is borne out by his mention of "Bakbytere" at line 41; the audience has to come to some interpretive conclusions to make sense of a name that sounds like the personification of an abstract concept. When Raise Slander is finally named at line 66, it can come as little surprise to an audience that has to have already taken up some kind of interpretive position to hear him at all.

If the introduction of the detractors forces the audience into an interpretive position, their rhetoric in the rest of the "Trial of Joseph and Mary" brings on a kind of interpretive crisis. Having been established as realized disruptions that "spyllyth all game" (62) and "reyse perwith debate" (72), they act as orators before the audience and continue to use inventio to set up the narratio or statement of facts(52) of their debate:
 [RAISE SLANDER]: Syr, in pe tempyl a mayd per was
 Calde Mayd Mary, pe trewth to tell.
 Sche semyd so holy withinne pat plas,
 Men seyd sche was fedde with holy aungell.
 Sche made a vow with man nevyr to melle,
 But to leve chast and clene virgine.
 Howevyr it be, here wombe doth swelle
 And is as gret as pinne or myne! (74-81)

Of course the fifteenth-century English audience knows who Mary is and how she came to be pregnant. However, these facts are still open to debate (at least potentially) because of the two debaters who bring it up. As demonstrated above, the detractors disrupt temporal and narrative boundaries by using rhetoric to bring the audience into contemporaneity with them. The audience must interpret the detractors in order to understand their presence; it then follows that they must interpret their arguments in order to continue to understand their presence. In short, the audience is forced into the position of a jury that must listen to evidence and take interpretive action. The overall effect of this is to make the audience interpret for themselves how it is that Mary's "wombe doth swelle." An interpretive crisis is set up where the audience must share worlds with the detractors and consider a major tenet of Christianity from a perspective where the implied sarcasm of "Howevyr it be, here wombe doth swelle" has the ring of common sense about it--regardless of the fact that such "common sense" is blasphemy when correctly interpreted and that sarcasm is classed as a species of "ydele wordes."(53) Hence the crisis.

This crisis is only furthered when Backbiter and Raise Slander move from implication to argument:
 [BACKBITER]: Za, pat old shrewe Joseph, my trowth I plyght,
 Was so anameryd upon pat mayd
 Pat of hyre bewte whan he had syght,
 He sesyd nat tyll [he] had here asayd!

 [RAISE SLANDER]: A, nay, nay, wel wers she hath hym payd:
 Sum fresch zonge galaunt she loveth wel more
 Pat his leggys to here hath leyd!
 And pat doth greve pe old man sore. (82-89)

The audience can recognize this as pure detraction as put forth by "mysseyers" as they "controuen and fynden bi lesynges to brynge a-noper man bi euele wise in-to a gret blame."(54) However, it is also divisio (the clarifying of arguments to support a position)(55) enacted openly. The detractors reach the arguments that "common sense" dictates and the audience must reach those arguments with them. The detractors may be recognizably evil, but they also arrive at "plausible" arguments to explain Mary's pregnancy; the important thing to note is that the plausibility inheres just as much within the world of the audience as it does within the world of the play. Indeed, these are seemingly effective arguments (from a rhetorical perspective) within the forced contemporaneity of the "Trial" The sense of an interpretive crisis deepens.

Not content to leave their arguments at the level of divisio, the detractors make their next rhetorical move against Mary and increase the interpretive tension in the process:
 [BACKBITER]: Be my trewth, al may wel be,
 For fresch and fayr she is to syght.
 And such a mursel, as semyth me,
 Wolde cause a zonge man to haue delyght.

 [RAISE SLANDER]: Such a zonge damesel of bewte bryght,
 And of schap so comely also,
 Of her tayle ofte-tyme be lyght
 And rygh tekyl vndyr pe too. (90-97)

Once again, these lines can be recognized as a species of "ydele wordes," that is, "iapes and knakkes ful of filpe and of lesynges."(56) The overt sexual innuendo as applied to Mary (and to women generally) identifies them as such. On the other hand, they also constitute effectively applied instances of confirmatio or proof(57) that lend support to the detractors' arguments. The audience cannot easily dismiss them because they draw on (potentially) commonly held generalizations for their strength. The assertion that a "zonge man" would be lustful and "haue delyght" in Mary can be a convincing (if stereotypical) generalization for both the "evil-minded" and the theologically "correct" members of the interpretive community, as can the misogynist claim that a "zonge damesel" can be "lyght" of her "tayle"(58) Backbiter and Raise Slander continue to bolster their proofs with indirect appeals to a general bias in the audience--the argumentum ad populum--by stressing that Joseph must "faderyn anothyr mannys chylde" (100) and by using sententia (maxims)(59) to maintain that "A zonge man may do more chere in bedde/To a zonge wench pan may an olde" (102-03). That these instances of confirmatio are sinful is obvious to the correct interpreter, but they require an effort of interpretation on the part of the original audience who may have seen some truth in them. Once again, the detractors function in such a way as to force the audience to engage in interpretation and to reject "common sense" to be in agreement with Church doctrine.

It is at this point in the "Trial of Joseph and Mary" that the Bishop and Doctors of Law appear and the Bishop Abizachar condemns the proofs of the detractors as "schame" (106), "velany" (110), and a "fals cry" (112). This is important not only because it reinforces the interpretation of the detractors' arguments as "synnes of De tonge"(60) but also because the audience is required to interpret the detractors' rhetoric in a contemporaneity that directly connects biblical figures and themselves. The allegorical and rhetorical function of the detractors is now complete in the sense that the audience must take interpretive action in a context where biblical figures must also interpret the arguments. The audience is inside the biblical moment and has to make sense of it.

This is also the point in the play where the detractors' rhetorical strategies begin to be explicitly directed to other inhabitants of the play-world rather than to the audience:
 EPISCOPUS: I charge zow sese of zoure fals cry,
 For sche is sybbe of myn owyn blood.

 [BACKBITER]: Syb of pi kyn pow pat she be,
 All gret with chylde hire wombe doth swelle!
 Do calle here hedyr, piself xal se
 Pat it is trewthe pat I pe telle. (112-17)

This is an interesting response from Backbiter; it is a direct answer to Abizachar's protestation that the detractors' proofs are a "fals cry" that functions as a dangerously convincing refutatio (refutation). The innuendo ad hominem (suspicion directed at the man that is implied in "Syb of pi kyn pow pat she be" suggests that Abizachar cannot be trusted to judge the case reasonably because he is Mary's relative and is picked up on throughout the rest of the debate as a key feature of the detractors' refutatio.(61) As such it is hard to ignore and the audience is yet again forced into taking an interpretive stance in reaction to what appears to be a seductively (if theologically incorrect) reasonable refutation. Backbiter's insistence on the fact of Mary's pregnancy and the invitation to prove it ocularly would seem to lend support to the "common sense" of the detractors' arguments: Mary is pregnant, it shows, and a man must have gotten her that way. In fact, the detractors' refutation is so convincing that even the Doctors of Law come to believe them. The second Doctor accuses Joseph: "pis woman pu hast pus betrayd" (220). Later, the first Doctor chastises Mary: "To us pi wombe pe doth accuse" (303). The cumulative effect of these accusations is to force a interpretive crisis on the audience who must decide whether or not words that seem reasonable are ultimately convincing.

Although the ultimate proof of the innocence of Joseph comes not from words but from the seemingly infallible "botel of Goddys vengeauns" (234), the detractors continue their refutatio unabated and continue to require the audience to make a choice based on their rhetoric. Perhaps the most striking instance of their refutation takes the form of a sarcastic mock-divisio to explain Mary's pregnancy:
 [RAISE SLANDER]: In feyth, I suppose pat pis woman slepte
 Withowtyn all coverte whyll pat it dede snowe;
 And a flake perof in to byre mowthe crepte,
 And perof pe chylde in byre wombe doth growe. (306-09)

This sarcastically offered "plausible" argument is complex in its interpretive demands. On the surface, Raise Slander is referring to the tradition of the "snow baby" that is "[derived] from Latin poems of the tenth to the twelfth century and later fabliaux"(62) in order to foster an obvious sense of implausibility concerning Mary's innocence. Cruel as his attack is, Raise Slander's refutation through implied comparison of Mary's claims to a fiction once again appeals to "common sense" However, the refutation also ironically functions as a near-analogy for the conception as represented in medieval art where the Christ Child enters Mary through her ear.(63) Either way, Raise Slander's lines force the audience to take interpretive action concerning Mary and to interpret her innocence--and the potential limits of rhetoric--for themselves.

The weight of the responsibility for that action sits heavily on the shoulders of the audience at this point in the play. As mentioned above, the Doctors of Law are persuaded by the rhetoric of Backbiter and Raise Slander. This means that figures who (at least at the level of visual identification) stand in for legal and religious authority offer the audience a hermeneutic example that runs counter to the "correct" interpretation.(64) The innocent Mary and Joseph have no verbal defense and the audience must rely heavily on their prior knowledge of these two in order to make that theologically "correct" interpretation. It is at this moment in the "Trial" that the thrust of the drama takes on a catechetical import and the audience must interpret, and judge, ultimately not with the fates of Joseph and Mary in their hands but with the soundness of their own beliefs (and, as the fifteenth-century Church would have construed it, their souls) in the balance.

The "botel of Goddys vengeauns" (234) thus comes into play as an aid to Church-sanctioned interpretation at a critical juncture in the drama. This test, from Numbers 5:11-31, shifts the burden of proof away from language and onto the codified ritual of biblical law. What this means for the audience is that they get an official visual reinforcement of the appropriately religious judgment they are expected to make. It also communicates a potential anxiety over the "common sense" rhetoric of the detractors; their arguments are too potentially persuasive to be left unmitigated in their effects on audience members unable to resist their rhetorical sophistication. The "botel" functions at once to reaffirm the power of God and to underscore the dangers of speech used for evil ends.

The "Trial of Joseph and Mary" ends with at least one of the detractors (Raise Slander) drinking from the "botel" and repenting his "cursyd and fals langage" (367); the correct interpretation is firmly established by non-verbal means. However, this does not nullify the important function of the detractors as agents of interpretive crisis for the audience. They serve, through a mouvance between allegory and rhetoric, to bring the audience into a living contemporaneity with Christian history and doctrine so that the weight of decision, of interpretation falls on the shoulders of each individual who must separate the truth from the "ydele wordes."

Interestingly enough, there are no lines to definitely indicate that Backbiter is repentant along with Raise Slander at the end of the play. There are no indications that he drinks from the "botel" and no lines to confirm that he is sorry for his language. Just as he does in The Castle of Perseverance, Backbiter slips out of hearing and possibly out of view when retribution is at hand. Unlike the audience of the "Trial," nothing of moral value comes of the judgments he passes on Joseph and Mary. In fact, he is "nothing" in the Augustinian sense, and just as he does in The Castle, he confirms his "nothingness" by his silence. His lack of substance stands outside of the temporally and spatially specific world of the audience and confirms his constitution in the ambivalence of rhetoric. His silence is not an indication that he won't be heard again.


(1) Earlier versions of this material were presented at the 32nd and 33rd International Congresses on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University on 9 May 1997 and 9 May 1998. I would like to thank both Fifteenth-Century Studies and the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, the sponsors of the sessions in which my findings were presented.

(2) All line numbers refer to The Macro Plays: The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom, Mankind, ed. Mark Eccles, EETS, o.s. 262 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). In fact, Backbiter's 155 lines comprise about 4.25% of the play, and this may provide a partial explanation for his being almost entirely overlooked by scholars working on The Castle of Perseverance and on the development of the Vice figure. Covetousness, for example, is identified as the primary Vice of the play in Bernard Spivak's Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 143. Backbiter is correctly identified as a forerunner of the Vice in Peter Happe's "The Vice: A Checklist and An Annotated Bibliography," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 22 (1979): 17-35, but loses this distinction to Pride and Wrath in Nan Morelli-White's "Evolution of the Vice Character from Medieval Through Restoration Drama," (PhD diss., Florida State University, 1990), passim.

(3) It should be pointed out that work has been done on the language in The Castle of Perseverance and that some of it does attempt to read the play through medieval rhetorical traditions. See Michael R. Kelly,"Fifteenth-Century Flamboyant Style and The Castle of Perseverance," Comparative Drama 6 (1972): 14-27, for an attempt to contextualize the play as an expression of medieval rhetorical principles, and Michael T. Peterson, "Fragmina Verborum: The Vices' Use of Language in the Macro Plays," Florilegium 9 (1987): 155-67, and Joerg O. Fichte, "The Presentation of Sin as Verbal Action in the Moral Interludes," Anglia 103 (1985): 26-47, for two especially pertinent examples that unfortunately fail to deal with Backbiter or with rhetorical ambivalence. For a recent discussion of the influence of rhetoric on medieval drama in general (drawing primarily on French texts) see Jody Enders, Rhetoric and the Origins of Medieval Drama (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992). Such an application of rhetorical principles to medieval dramatic texts is supported in Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948), trans. Willard R. Trask (1953; reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 71, where Curtius asserts that antiquity (and, as inheritor of the ancient tradition, the Medieval period) "had rhetoric for a general theory of literature."

(4) I hesitate to refer to the other representatives of evil in the play as Vice figures not only because their primary significance as allegorical representations of theological concepts (for example, Pride and Wrath) or abstractions (the World and Flesh) is lost in such a naming or because there is no extant evidence of any figures being referred to as Vices in English plays before the early sixteenth century, but also because it is Backbiter who most accurately conforms to the identifiable characteristics of the named Vice figures that appear in extant plays towards the end of the 1520s. See Happe, 17-23, for a brief discussion of the evidence relating to the evolution of the Vice figure and for a listing of these Vices, named and unnamed, and compare David Bevington, From "Mankind" to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama in Tudor England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962) esp. 121-23 for a more detailed examination of the development of the Vice tradition.

(5) Compare Elza C. Tiner, "Classical Invention in the York Trial Plays," Florilegium 8 (1986): 199-211, esp. 200; see also James J. Murphy, "Rhetoric" in Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, ed. F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg, (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 629-31 for an assertion of the importance of these works to the study of rhetoric in the Latin Middle Ages as a whole. My focus throughout this article will primarily center on stylistic rhetoric as derived from Cicero and Ciceronian texts because, in the words of Wilbur S. Howell, "[b]etween the eighth and the fifteenth centuries, stylistic rhetoric appears to have attracted more favor in England than did the full Ciceronian formula ..." See his landmark study, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (1956; reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), 119.

(6) Cicero, de Inventione, de Optimo Genere Oratorum, Topica, ed. and trans. H. M. Hubbell, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1960), 18-21.

(7) Of course, each of these parts can be further subdivided; see, for example, Book IV of [Cicero], Rhetorica ad Herennium, ed. and trans. Harry Caplan, Loeb Classical Library (1954; reprint, London: Heinemann, 1989), 228-411, where elocutio (style or expression) is divided into forty-five figures of speech and nineteen figures of thought. Note Murphy in Medieval Latin, 630, where he points out that this section was so popular that "book IV containing the figures was frequently circulated in the Middle Ages as a separate publication."

(8) Cf. Peterson, 157-59, where rhetoric in the Macro Plays is also read from an Augustinian perspective, albeit with an interpretation that sees Augustine as rejecting rhetorical study.

(9) See Eccles, xi, for an analysis that establishes the play as East Anglian in origin, and James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from St. Augustine to the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 47ff. for evidence of the importance and dissemination of De doctrina Christiana in the Middle Ages.

(10) See Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages, 287, for his view regarding De doctrina Christiana as a metarhetoric that assumes a knowledge of Ciceronian rhetorical theories. Note also Murphy, Rhetoric, 109, for evidence of the dissemination of De inventione and Rhetorica ad Herennium throughout European libraries in the fourteenth century; and R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), 396 for more detailed evidence.

(11) Murphy, Rhetoric, 286.

(12) St. Augustine, De doctrina Christiana, ed. Joseph Martin, in Aurelii Augustini Opera (Turnholt: Brepols, 1962), IV. ii. 14-18.

(13) St. Augustine, Christian Instruction, trans. John J. Gavigan, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 2 (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 169.

(14) I do not mean to imply here that Augustine sees the evil use of rhetoric in an anachronistically postmodern sense as fractured loci of power but neither do I intend to suggest a straightforwardly lateral binary model. See St. Augustine, De libero arbitrio, ed. W. M. Green, in Aurelii Augustini Opera (Turnholt: Brepols, 1970), I. ii. 3 where his own words explain his view best: "male facere nihil est nisi a disciplinara deviare" [to do evil is nothing but to deviate from discipline] (translation mine). "Nihil" [nothing] is a loaded term here; compare Augustine's discussion of evil as nothingness or an absence of good in City of God, Loeb Classical Library, 7 vols. with English trans. by Philip Levine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), XIV. 13. That is, evil is essentially an absence, a void, but this absence does not preclude activity for Augustine. Evil can have no substance for him and still be a dangerously effective series of actions, or, I would add, words. In fact, it is precisely this ambivalent quality of evil that links it to rhetoric most effectively and renders eloquence adaptable to a representation and furtherance of that "empty action" that Augustine sees as evil.

(15) See The Book of the Vices and Virtues, ed. W. Nelson Francis, EETS, o.s. 217 (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 54-68 for a listing of these sins in the Midland dialect that can be dated roughly from the fourteenth century. This book is but one of nine extant English translations of the French original, the Somme le Roi of Lorens d'Orleans, and is cited here due to its temporal and linguistic proximity to The Castle of Perseverance. Compare G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961), esp. 450-58 for a discussion of the wide dissemination of the concept of the sins of the tongue with a special emphasis on backbiting, and Edwin D. Craun, Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997) for a full-length study of the tradition and an extensive bibliography of manuscript sources, editions, and secondary sources.

(16) Vices, 55. These ten "branches" are then subdivided further into a series of kinds (from two to seven in number depending on the "branch" being discussed) that detail the "sins of the tongue" quite specifically.

(17) Backbiter is referred to in English as "Bakbytynge" only three times: once by the World at line 773, once by the Good Angel at line 794 and, interestingly, once by Backbiter himself at line 777 where he refers to himself in the third person as "Bakbytynge and Detraction" thereby using two of his names at once in the abstract and adding to the ambivalence surrounding the allegorical representation of this figure at the level of naming.

(18) However, the Oxford English Dictionary begins its listing of occurrences of this word in documents starting in the year 1549. Compare the Middle English Dictionary, where the word is defined as "a chatterer"; The Castle of Perseverance is quoted as evidence of usage.

(19) That is, nothing in the Augustinian sense of the term where evil is the absence of goodness and discipline is equated with God.

(20) Vices, 56.

(21) It is true that Backbiter's boasting here also places him firmly within a tradition deriving from the cycle plays of "bad" figures using elaborate and boastful language. See Alexandra F. Johnston, "At the still point of the turning world: Augustinian roots of medieval dramaturgy," European Medieval Drama 2 (1998): 5-25, for the argument that this boasting tradition is linked to Augustinian notions of sound as inherently worldly and therefore removed from the tranquillity and silence of God. It also ties in--perhaps most pointedly in Backbiter's case--to the Augustinian anxiety over the susceptibility of rhetoric to evil use and the ambivalent characterization of evil as a substanceless activity.

(22) Vices, 60.

(23) Ibid., 57.

(24) Ibid., 63.

(25) About 84 of Backbiter's lines (54.2%) seem to be directed at the audience.

(26) Vices, 61.

(27) See Peterson, 165, n. 2, for a reading that links the folk tradition and notions of the carnivalesque to the relationships between Vice figures and the audience. Compare Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. H. Isowolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) for a full discussion of these ideas. The main problem with placing too much emphasis on the folk tradition and concept of the carnivalesque that Bakhtin outlines lies in the fact that most of the book draws on reported rather than documented traditions that are in danger of being culturally and temporally inappropriate to a study of early English drama.

(28) De doctrina, IV. ii. 14.

(29) Cicero, 18-19.

(30) It is perhaps the reception of this ambivalence by the audience that has caused scholars such as Peterson, 157 to register a "critical anxiety concerning the Vices ... ability to verbally subvert the medium of conflict, the medium used to assert doctrine, and thus undermine the homiletic project" of morality plays. Couched in this anxiety is an assumption that a conception of evil as active and yet essentially nothing cannot be represented in morality plays outside the terms of absolute subversion of the genre. I would argue that it is the very ambivalence of such a conception of evil and its expression through the essentially ambivalent medium of rhetoric that allows for this representation.

(31) Vices, 55.

(32) Ibid., 57, 60.

(33) Compare ll. 1769ff. where the Devil beats Pride, Envy, and Wrath; 1822ff. where Flesh beats Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery; and 1863ff. where the World beats Covetousness.

(34) See City of God, IV. 13.

(35) Cf. "Maculating Mary: The Detractors of the N-Town Cycle's `Trial of Joseph and Mary," Philological Quarterly 73 (1994): 11-29, esp. 11. Hunt also correctly asserts that most previous mention of the detractors tends to read them as stock "types" with little real significance or as functional manifestations of a largely unexamined tradition linked to jesters and the later Vice figures. See Spivack, 180-81; Thomas L. Watson, "The Detractor-Backbiter: Iago and the Tradition," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 5 (1964): 546-54; Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (London: Routledge, 1972), 174-76; Stanley J. Kahrl, Traditions of Medieval English Drama (London: Hutchinson, 1974), 78-79, 93, 111; Richard Axton, European Drama of the Early Middle Ages (London: Hutchinson, 1974), 175; Lynn Squires, "Law and Disorder in Ludus Coventriae," Comparative Drama 12 (1978): 200-13; Janet Cowen, "Heven and Erthe in Lytyl Space" in Aspects of Early English Drama, ed. Paula Neuss (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983), 62-77, esp. 75; Martin Stevens, Four Middle English Mystery Cycles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) 200, 249-50; Hans-Jurgen Diller, The Middle English Mystery Play (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 148-51; Theresa Coletti, "Purity and Danger: The Paradox of Mary's Body and the En-gendering of the Infancy Narrative in the English Mystery Cycles," in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 65-95, esp. 72; Elizabeth A. Witt, Contrary Marys in Medieval English and French Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 1995), 64, 85. Oddly, Hunt recognizes this lack of detailed analysis of the detractors and then goes on to study the romance traditions she posits as contexts for them without ever really engaging with the problem of the detractors themselves.

(36) Hunt, "Maculating Mary," 11.

(37) See the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in Evangelia Apocrypha, ed. C. von Tischendorf (Leipzig: Hildesheim G. Olms, 1966).

(38) Kahrl, Traditions of Medieval English Drama, 111.

(39) Although I am aware of recent scholarship that suggests that the N-Town Plays as represented in Cotton MS Vespasian D.viii are more a compilation for reading than a book of plays to be performed as a cycle, I use the term "audience" to identify the interpretive community of the N-Town Plays throughout this article. This is merely in deference to the fact that they are plays and to avoid the awkward phrase "reader/audience." See Alan J. Fletcher, "The N-Town Plays," The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 163-88 for a discussion of the plays as a compilation.

(40) I am using mouvance in the extended sense employed by Enders, 3 n.4 to indicate an instability between genres--namely, the fifteenth-century English forms of morality play, with its allegorized Vice figures, and the biblical drama that the N-Town plays conform to (with a number of interesting differences, the inclusion of the detractors being only one)--and I want to retain her linking of this instability with the performative aspects of rhetoric. See Paul Zumthor, Essai de poetique medievale (Paris: Seuil, 1972), 65-72 for his concept of mouvance as an instability between oral and written.

(41) Cf. De doctrina, III. xxvii for an emphasis on the responsibility of readers for their hermeneutic actions.

(42) Rita Copeland and Stephen Melville, "Allegory and Allegoresis, Rhetoric and Hermeneutics," Exemplaria 3 (1991): 159-87, esp. 178-79. Copeland and Melville take their definition from allos agoreuein "speaking otherwise" and then go on to examine the postmodern difficulty with allegory as a concept through the lens of medieval allegorical theory.

(43) "... ab usitata verborum potestate recedatur atque in aliam rationem cum quadam venustate oratio conferatur." Cf. ad Herennium, 332-33. Murphy notes that a "later tradition assigned [these special figures of diction] the title of tropi, or tropes." Cf. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages, 20.

(44) Certainly it may be argued that allegory is not exclusively a trope but can also refer to a genre or an interpretive category (see Copeland and Melville, 159-84, for a discussion of allegory and allegoresis that usefully problematizes attempts at radically distinguishing the two). Alastair Fowler, in Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 191-95, discusses allegory in the middle ages as a genre that comes out of its existence as a trope and as an interpretive category. Nevertheless, I would argue that the rhetoricity of allegory inheres in all its manifestations.

(45) Cf. Wolfgang Iser: "Thus, by reading, we uncover the unformulated part of the text, and this very indeterminacy [disruption] is the force that drives us to work out a configurative meaning while at the same time giving us the necessary degree of freedom to do so." See "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (New York: Longman, 1988), 211-28, esp. 222.

(46) The most obvious support for this assertion lies in the fact that the play is a dramatized trial, the outcome of which the audience already knows along with the innocence of those on trial. This supposes moral interpretation as a condition of understanding. In addition, the medieval hermeneutical tradition, with its emphasis on Christian morality, also suggests that the original readers/audiences of this play would have responded to it at a moral level. Cf. Copeland and Melville, 158-87.

(47) Of course, all of these senses would have been conceived of in Christian terms by a majority of the interpretive community in fifteenth-century England.

(48) Copeland and Melville, "Allegory and Allegoresis" 164.

(49) The N-Town Play, 2 vols., ed. Stephen Spector, EETS, s.s. 11 and 12 (London: Oxford University Press, 1991) is the most recent edition of Cotton MS Vespasian D.viii (the unique fifteenth-century manuscript that contains the plays). All subsequent references will be from this edition given with line numbers in parentheses. Spector departs from earlier editorial practice and follows the Latin headings of the manuscript in renaming the play "The Trial of Mary and Joseph."

(50) ad Herennium, 9. Exordium falls under the rhetorical canon of inventio or invention and constitutes the beginning of an argument.

(51) Ibid., 284.

(52) Ibid., 8.

(53) Vices, 56.

(54) Ibid., 59.

(55) ad Herennium, 6.

(56) Vices, 56.

(57) ad Herennium, 8.

(58) Cf. Proverbs 7:1-27 and Ecclesiasticus 25:23-36 for just two biblical sources for antifeminist thought known to medieval England. Saint Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum was another very popular source and can be found in English translation in The Principal Works of St. Jerome, trans. W. H. Fremantle, Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 350-86.

(59) ad Herennium, 288.

(60) Vices, 54.

(61) ad Herennium, 8, 19.

(62) Spector, 2:469.

(63) Cf. Gaff McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 137-77 where she discusses the cult of the Virgin in East Anglia and representations of the Annunciation and Conception that show the Christ Child entering Mary through her ear. This would suggest that the original readers/audiences of the "Trial" may have had some knowledge of this tradition of representation.

(64) Of course, it may be argued that the Bishop and Doctors of Law represent the "old law" of Judaism for the fifteenth-century audience and that as such they misinterpret the situation on that basis, but this does not change the fact that they would have to be costumed in a way that would visually signify authority for fifteenth-century English audience in order to be correctly interpreted themselves.

DOUGLAS W. HAYES University of Toronto
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Next Article:Marlowe's Travesty of Virgil: Dido and Elizabethan Dreams of Empire.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters