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Maculating Mary: the detractors of the N-Town cycle's "Trial of Joseph and Mary".

The detractors in the "Trial of Joseph and Mary" of the N-Town cycle have not excited much critical curiosity. What little commentary we have generally echoes Rosemary Woolf's observation that while the detractors function in the play as witnesses in a medieval Church court, their character is drawn from the "stock sermon type of the backbiter," that common and uncomplicated figure distinguished by his "agile tongue and malicious delight in the spreading of rumor." (1) This familiar version of the backbiter earns an indisputable place among the horizons of expectations we must bring to the play. In this essay I attempt to expand those horizons by bringing to bear on the detractors two late medieval literary contexts whose relevance to the play has not previously been considered, in spite of the prominent role each assigns the slanderer. Within the comparatively well-defined genre of romance, detractors help the hero make his true worth known: they register the envy greatness inspires, supply contrastive narratives articulating the "what is not" so crucial to perceiving the "what is," and force the hero to re-establish publicly his claim to honor. Within a loose assortment of anti-Lollard writings, Church defenders vilify and repress Church dissenters as backbiters who threaten communal peace and safety by sowing discord. I hope to show that these two contexts share with our play a deep anxiety over the potential for speech to destroy individuals and weaken communities. By spreading malicious stories about Mary and Joseph, the detractors not only breach the bond of love and trust that unites the couple to their community, they also call into question the reliability of reputation to serve as social currency. In denying Mary's virginity, they deny a basic religious tenet and in this way undermine shared beliefs that also hold communities together.

The slanderer appears with such regularity in medieval romance that the figure could be said to form an essential structural feature of the genre. Romance's slanderers are not all alike: some are underhanded stewards, others openly scoffing damsels; some fabricate lies about the hero, others reveal an unflattering truth. But all perform a similar broad function in relation to the hero: they enhance his reputation by temporarily eclipsing it. The simplest way the slanderer does this is by demonstrating that the hero's worth is great enough to inspire envy. Like so many contemporary writings, (2) romances trace slander to envy:
   Therfore, steward, beware hereby;
   Defame him not for no envy.
   It were great reuth he shdde be spylte
   Or put to death withouten gylte.
      (Squyr of Lowe Degre, 733-36) (3)

The motive for malignancy is named, not because these romances have any interest in probing the psychology of a cartoon character like the slandering steward, but because envy and detraction traditionally constituted highly compelling evidence of their victim's superiority. (4) As signifiers of worth, envy and slander naturally make their entrance in a romance just as the hero's success at court is acclaimed:
   For pat he was so hende & gode,
   Men blisced him, bope bon and blod,
   Pat ever him gat & bate,
   Save pe steward of pat lond,
   Euer he proved wip nipe & ond
   To bring him into care.
      (Amis and Amiloun, 343-48) (5)

The detractors of the "Trial" do nothing more to convey the envy motivating their accusations than allude to Mary's exceptional holiness and chastity (43-46); (6) they need do no more, since the connection between envy and detraction was well understood.

An "enviable" position, however, is of small comfort to victims of slander whether in romance or in our play. It is apparently a convention of the former that however transparent the envy of the slanderer, however solid the reputation of the accused, the accusation is believed and the hero banished. In a study investigating 15th-century legal conditions reflected in the N-Town Cycle, Lynn Squires identifies the instance of overhasty credence in the "Trial" as a specific critique of a common legal abuse: "Numerous 15th century lawsuits were based on rumor, gossip, and imagined wrongs, often severly damaging an innocent defendant." (7) Reliance on public rumor, however, is not evidence of the system's degeneracy but of its healthy operation. The first step in bringing a culprit to justice was to establish that there was sufficient public rumor (publique fama) that the accused had committed a crime. Two witnesses were required to swear that the crime was a matter of public knowledge, and cases were excluded if the suspicion had not reached the level of widely disseminated rumor. Public opinion even played a role in determining what constituted public rumor. The rumor had to have reached the ears of "good and serious persons," and the two witnesses to the rumor's dissemination needed themselves to be of good reputation--the accused could not be tried if his fame was impugned by untrustworthy or habitual perjurers. Finally, the Church court's method of trial, compurgation, depended far less on the displaying and weighing of evidence than on the assessment of the public's opinion of the defendant: this procedure required the accused to take a formal oath testifying that he was innocent of the crime and enlist a number of compugators or oath-helpers to swear--not to the truth of the underlying facts--but to the trustworthiness of his oath. (8)

This excursion into medieval Church court practice is necessary if we are to appreciate how far the play diverges from contemporary practice. Witnesses famous for backbiting and slander would lack the credibility to accuse Mary formally; and Mary, whose reputation for being of "lyff so good and holy" is attested to by no less than the bishop himself, would not be wanting in "frendes" or "wytnesses" to clear her name. The author of the "Trial" has bracketed reality in favor of the same "hasty credence" convention operating in romance: however unreliable the slanderer, however honorable and upright the victim, the slander sticks. Let us see what this convention contributes to the making of meaning in romance, and so by analogy, what function it might have in our play.

Slanderers in romance clearly serve the exigencies of plot. By occasioning the hero's exile they get him out of the court and onto the battlefield. By forcing the hero to re-establish a ruined reputation, they give him a reason to undertake new adventures. Less obviously, their slander obscures the hero's identity. Faith Lyons observed this effect in the insulting speeches of Lynet, the scoffing maiden of Malory's "Tale of Gareth":

Lynets's function in the story goes beyond mockery. The real significance of her role is the way it underpins the hero's incognito. By her scoffing at his supposedly low origins, she perpetuated his false identity, that of Beaumains, a kitchen page. (9)

Lyons does not speculate on the reasons behind the hero's desire for anonymity other than to note an enduring fascination in romance with temporary concealment. One reason romance heroes rely so often on concealment is that a false identity, at least one that is antithetical to the hero's genuine identity, enhances the latter by providing contrast: just as Superman appears more powerful because we mistook him for mild-mannered Clark Kent, Beaumains' pedigree and valor impress all the more because his audience, internal and external, thought he was just a cowardly kitchen boy.

Narrative theory takes us a little further than Superman can in demonstrating how disguise delineates character. The meaning of a narrative is enhanced by (some would even say it is a function of) embedded stories theorists call disnarratives or virtual narratives: stories that tell what might have happened or what usually happens, but what did not happen in the main narrative. (10) Gerald Prince cites the following passage from Silas Marner as an example of a disnarrative that serves characterization: "A less truthful man may have been tempted into the subsequent creation of a vision in the form of resurgent memory; a less sane man might have believed in such a creation; but Silas was both sane and honest." (11) Slandering damsels are an important source of the disnarrated in romance. In the "Tale of Gareth," for example, Lynet provides a running commentary on what the hero might have done had he been a low-born or ill-bred coward, but what--as we witness from the main narrative--he is clearly not doing. (12) In the same way, Mary's scoffers tell us what she might have been but is not: she might have broken her vow of chastity and given in to her husband's advances; she might have been a "fresche wench" cuckolding her aged husband; her miraculous conception might have been as patent a lie as that told by the mother of the snow child. Each story of what Mary is not underscores what she is: chaste, honest, and the bearer of a child whose conception is as miraculous as the snow-baby's.

So far this comparison between the detractors of romance and those of the "Trial" reveals their corresponding functions as primarily rhetoricah they reiterate, draw attention to, or point out to the audience what is already known. But in the "Trial" the detractors also confront Mary and Joseph with the social problem of making their "true record" known, not to the audience who already knows it, but to the bishop and the couple's peers in the community. Their final prayers mark the centrality of this issue to the play:
   Honoured in hevyn be par hygh lord
   Whos endles grace is so habundaunt
   Pat he doth shewe pe trewe recorde
   Of iche wyhgt pat is his trewe servaunt.
   Forsothe, good spowse, I thank hym hyghly
   Of his good grace for oure purgacyon
   Oure clennesse is knowyn ful opynly
   Be vertu of his grett consolacion.

An unblemished reputation was the first line of defense against false accusation. It was also required for membership in the guilds. Indeed in a medieval village, where inhabitants were bound to each other by interspersed lands and self-policing systems, a sullied reputation would have made life intolerable. (13) And, as we have already seen from the legal system, the reliability of fame was at the heart of ecclesiastical legal procedure. Fama needed to be an adequate guide to--a "true record" of--one's life if the legal and social systems constructed upon it were not to be shaken and if the individuals caught up in these systems were not to suffer the penalties of exclusion and excommunication unjustly. The success of this play's detractors raises the frightening possibility that fame could be perverted by mere words. A demonstration that God can be called upon to make the truth or falsehood of one's words known absolutely dispels that fear. The instrument for this demonstration is of course the ordeal, the test of bitter waters drawn from the play's sources in the Apocryphal gospels. (14)

But the Church had put an end to ordeals like Mary and Joseph's in 1215 when the Fourth Lateran Council pronounced its official disapproval on an already rare and discredited institution. (15) In following its sources, then, the play would seem to offer only an antiquated solution to the problem of fame. But the play does not rest in the past so much as it allows the past to reanimate the present. The effect of transporting the old ordeal into a modern Church court is to reinvest oath-swearing, the court's standard method of proof, with the supernatural force of the ordeal.

The oath of the accused was at the center of an ecclesiastical trial. We have already seen evidence of its crucial role in the way that oath-helpers or compurgators were recruited to testify to their belief in the trustworthiness of the oath of the accused, not to their knowledge of the case or even to the character of the defendant. Theoretically the oath was a type of ordeal. According to Paul Hyams, it served as proof because it purported to reveal God's judgment: "By the standard theory that jurare est testem Deum invocare, those swearing understood that God and the saints on whose relics the oath was made would be their witnesses." A proof-oath was not undertaken lightly; Hyams describes it as "a moment so fraught with tension as to constitute a physical test." (16) Hyams bases his observations on practices from the tenth to the thirteenth century. But in our fifteenth-century play, the oath appears to have degenerated from a sacred and dangerous invocation to a verbal twitch. The detractors punctuate their bawdy lies with no less than fourteen versions of "my trowth I plight," thereby draining the oath of all significance.

Mary and Joseph are habitual swearers too. If we do not recognize their swearing as such, it is because the holy couple's oaths interpret literally the legal formula jurare est testem Deum invocare:
   Of god in hevyn I take wyttnes,
   Pat synful werk was nevyr my thought.
   I ama mayd yit of pure clennes,
   Lyke as I was in to pis werd brought.

   Almighty god xal be oure frende [shall]
   Whan pe trewthe is tryed owth.

   My name I hope is saff and sownde.
   God to wyttnes I am a mayd.

   I am not gylty as I fyrst tolde,
   Allmyghty God I take wytnes.

   Lord as pu art omnypotente,
   On me pu shewe pe trowth pis day.

This unusual phrasing is calculated to restore the oath to its original force, to reinvest it with the sacral power it once shared with the old ordeal. Yet to call on God as a witness in this way was not a privilege accorded just to the divinely well-connected, but a power theoretically available to any oath-swearer. Thus God's dramatic response to Mary and Joseph's call demonstrates the divine force behind the oath-swearing of every defendant to appear before the court and so reminds potential victims of false accusation that they too have a recourse by which to make their "true record" known.

While the oath suggests a supernatural solution to the problem of fame, the Church court itself supplies a social solution. R. H. Helmholz argues that the principal aim of purgation was not to try a question of fact but to make a formal and public declaration of innocence in favor of a defamed person. The accused was not acquitted but declared to be "restored to good fame" or to "pristine reputation." Purgation's power to do so lay in the highly public nature of its proceedings:

There was the initial requirement of public fame. There was the open proclamation providing for possible objections. And there, was purgation itself, made solemnly before one's neighbors and with a certain number of them joining to vouch their belief in the veracity of the oath taken by the accused. The proceedings were public not just as a guarantee against legal impropriety, but also as a way of ending the public rumor that someone had committed a crime. (17)

By offering a victim of gossip a public forum in which to clear his name, purgation in the Church court restored what conventional wisdom taught could never be, a good name. A fuller understanding of the social logic of the Church court therefore calls into question the prevailing view of the court as Mary and Joseph's adversary, a representative of the Old Law eager to take revenge on moral offenders. (18) The Bishop summons the couple to the court not to punish them but to allow them to vindicate their reputations if they have been falsely accused:
   Byd Joseph and his wyff be name
   At pe coorte to appere pis day,
   Here hem to pourge of here defame.
   Sey pat I here of hem grett schame
   And pat doth me gret hevynes.
   If pei be clene withowtyn blame
   Byd hem come hedyr and shew wyttness.

The "besy langage," "evil talys," and "villeny" swirling about Mary and Joseph in the community are the couple's real enemies, not the Church court. Public gossip can only be defeated by an equally public display of innocence. The court provides this essential publicity, the importance of which Mary acknowledges as she thanks God that "oure clennesse is knowyn ful opynly" (371, my italics).

Backbiters who injure an individual's reputation ultimately threaten a society dependant on reputation as social currency. But a variety of sources contemporary with the play portray the backbiter menacing society in a more direct way as a sower of discord. It is in this role that the Backbiter (Detractio) of the Castle of Perseverance casts himself:
   I werke bothe wrake and woo,
   And make iche man to digne. [to strike others]

   Ye bakbiterys, loke that ye do so!
   Make debate abowtyn to springe
   Betwene sister and brother!
        (780-81, 1784-86) (19)

The theme of the backbiter as source of communal division is at least as old as Paul's letter to the Ephesians listing "brawling and slander" among the breaches of the unity of the spirit (4:31). It receives its fullest and earliest treatment in English in the section on envy in the Ancrene Wisse. There the author compares a community of Christians to an army that cannot be overcome so long as its members hold firmly together. The devil, he warns, is busy day and night to separate them with anger and envy:

All his endeavor is to disunite hearts, and to take away love, which keepeth men together. For when love fails, then are they separated; and the devil immediately putteth himself between them, and slayeth on every side.... He sends a man or woman who tells to thee, and of thee, some whispered rumor which a sister ought not to report of a sister. I forbid that any of you should believe this devil's messenger.(p. 113) (20)

The higher the value a community places (or claims to place) on unity, the less likely it is to tolerate slander and gossip. An ideal of "unity, concord, and amity" is the goal of governance in a variety of fifteenth-century urban documents cited by Mervyn James; he also brings to light contemporary documents which celebrate the "unity, concord, and charity" among all who "amicably and lovingly" participate in the Corpus Christi procession and festival. (21) Such a desirable ideal naturally makes for potent ideology, so we find propagandists on both sides of the Lollard controversy raising the spectre of societal disunity to silence and discredit the opposition. Looking back at the first Lollard rebellion under the influence of the second, Adam Usk writes that the preaching of Wycliffe's followers had sown the seeds of "murder, snares, strife, variance, and discords, which last until this day, and which, I fear, will last even to the ending of the kingdom." (22) On the other side, Wycliffe summons up the threat of communal dissension to justify disendowment of the clergy: "seculer power ygove to the clergie distruyith seculer lordis, & most gendrith dyvycioun in the puple & stirith the puple to arise agen' her lordis." (23)

Given the preeminence the period assigns to unity, it is hardly surprising to find it also branding slander as a major social ill. Two excerpts from fifteenth-century poems illustrate this antipathy:
   Thys tong is instrument of dyscord,
   Causyng war and grett dystans
   Betwyne the subjecte and the lord,
   The perfytt cause of every grevans;
   Wherefore I syng withowt dysplesans:
   Off al the enmys that I can fynd
   The tong is most enmy to mankynd.

   Dysese, wharre, sorowe and debate,
   Ys causyd oft by venemys tonge;
   Haddywyst comyth euer to late [had I wist]
   Whan lewyd woordis beth owte y-spronge. (24)

Anxiety over the slanderer's activities filters down to smaller communities within communities such as the guilds, whose concern over slander would be particularly relevant to this play produced by and for guild members. Like the larger community, guilds prize peace and concord, for a guild's economic influence depended on the ability of its members to act cooperatively against other interests. (25) Guild ordinances were thus concerned with establishing solidarity and containing causes of dissension, not the least of which was slander. In the case of the carpenters, for example, an ordinance dictates that any one who "sclanders ore telles eny tale be ony of hys bredryn ... which he can make no profe by must pay a substantial fine to the fellowship. (26)

To those for whom backbiting and communal dissension were so firmly linked, it required only a small step to associate one socially destructive speech act with another and thus to portray the backbiter as spreading sedition. This representation accounts for some of Backbiter's more enigmatic lines in the CP. For example, with the boast "All things I cry again the pes / To knyhgt and knave," Backbiter brags of promoting discord not simply "among" persons of all social ranks, as Bevington's notes tell us, but between the ranks (647-48). Since rebellion threatens rulers more than the ruled, the dissension Backbiter sows is a torment especially for the aristocracy, as the Vice gleefully acknowledges in his next two lines: "Digne dukys on herdes, / In bitter balys I hem binde" (649-50). A few lines later, Backbiter identifies himself as the spirit behind the seditious talk spreading across the land:
   I am lyth of lopys thorwe every londe; [light of leaps throughout]
   Min[e] holy happys mav not ben hid. [My fortunate successes]

   I schape yone bovis to schame & schonde, [disgrace]
   All that wil bowyn whanne I hem bidde.
   To lawe of londe, in feyth, I fonde. [I offer temptation]
        (673-74, 678-80)

During the period in which CP and the "Trial" are thought to have been composed, those most frequently accused of spreading sedition were the Lollards. (27) And so it is in anti-Lollard material that we find an untapped and very rich source of allusions to backbiting and slander.

A Parliamentary statute authorizing sheriffs and other officials to arrest Lollard preachers characterizes the offenders' activities in much the same way the Backbiter of Castle characterized his own: "Which persons preach also diverse matters of slander to make discord and dissension between the various estates of the realm, both temporal and spiritual, to the commotion of the people and the great peril of the whole realm." (28) Friar Daw Topias' rambling reply to Jack Upland's attack on the friars explicitly identifies his opponent's criticism of the clergy as backbiting: "The bitternesse of zour bacbiting / brewith many bales." (29) Most of the imagery with which Topias smears the Lollard opposition is lifted straight from traditional portraits of the backbiter: their slander is the product of envy (p. 41); Lollards chase "charite" from the land (p. 40); they poison the people with "pestilence" (p. 73); they are "lyke scorpiouns," clattering before and spitting "venym" behind (p. 55). Even in writings where the announced topic is backbiting rather than Lollardy, criticism of the clergy frequently stands as one of the most prominent instances of the sin. A stanza from a fifteenth-century untitled poem typifies the practice:
   Thow that prestes be neuer so patient
   In towne, cite, or in cowrt ryall,
   Thow the religyos be neuer so obedient,
   Yeit an ill tong wyll trobull them all. (30)

In a more passionate diatribe on backbiting, a royal sermon stressing the need to confess our sins rather than to blame others swells to a rousing attack against Church critics, the "enmys within" who have turned the land "up-so-downe" and induced God to send war, sickness, ill weather, pestilence, and every other mischief betokening the imminent apocalypse. (31)

I could cite other examples, but these should be sufficient to suggest that a contemporary audience might have seen in Bakbytere and Reyse Sclaundyr's attack on Mary an allusion to the dissenters' attack on the Church. Since East Anglia was the site of the largest number of accusations of heresy in a single campaign in the fifteenth century, it is a likely place in which to find a play addressing the issue of religious dissent. (32) And in the same region, points out Gail McMurray, Mary's body was celebrated as an image for the Church itself. (33)

As we turn to the play we find several sorts of evidence for connecting backbiting and religious dissent. Before I consider this evidence however I want to address beforehand an objection my thesis may raise: while the play's attitude toward backbiting is unequivocally condemnatory, its stance toward dissent is not. The play makes no secret of the corruptibility of Den the Summoner, who urges those whom he summons not to forget their bribes: "And loke ye rynge wele in your purs / Ffor ellys your caws may spede pe wurs" (25-26). And if the long list of people Den calls to court is addressed to the audience, the play would appear to be inviting its members to identify closely with the victims of a summoner's greed. The play's other Church officials, Episcopus and the legis doctores, take up roles held in the play's source by Jewish doctors, an association that implicitly criticizes the Church by showing its court adhering to the Old Law rather than the New. But as the play expresses this criticism, it also contains it by mitigating the role of the Church in Mary and Joseph's accusation and trial. While Den is corrupt and the doctors and Bishop misguided, they are only acting in response to gossip originating outside the Church: as we have already seen, moral offenders could only be indicted if communal rumor had risen to a certain level. Moreover, by allocating to the Church alone an infallible method of establishing truth, the play portrays it as the sole hope of the falsely accused. Since accusation was largely a matter of influence in the period, (34) this is also to portray the Church as the champion of the disempowered, the very group that in East Anglia would have been most likely to make up the Lollard population. (35)

This same strategy of allowing bur containing dissent governs the play's treatment of the backbiters. Their dissent takes the form of doctrinal unorthodoxy, specifically, doubts about Mary's virginity. J. A. F. Thomson observes that hostility against invoking the Virgin and venerating her image was "in the mainstream of Lollard tradition." (36) However, the backbiters' impious inquiry into Mary's pregnancy may not be intended to reflect some specific Lollard heresy but rather to stand for any skepticism of Church teachings. There is some precedence for seeing the detractors' doubts about Mary this way. An anti-Lollard sermon believed to have been preached before Henry V at Epiphany 1413 or 1414 profiles the virgin birth as the archetypal example of an article of faith which must not be questioned. (37) Men are urged not to rely on their own wits nor to be

to inquisitif how pat itt may be pat pa virginite and pe motherhed be bothe in oure Lady, for pe cause her-of bep not of common nature bur of goddes wurchynge and is high myracle and abowen pe common cours of kynde. (222)

This warning then serves as the platform for a more general injunction to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation and every other teaching of the Church:

And farpur we must beleue pat poo pinges pat ben in pe mater of feythe determyned by Christes churche ben trewe, and suche determynacioun and ordinaunce, to obeye pem, for it is Christes commaundement. (223)

At the same time as the two detractors' skepticism about Mary's virginity stands for a panoply of doubts heretics might sow, their specific challenge is portrayed as exceptionally offensive to the Church because it "maculaits" or dishonors the Church Mary personifies. As she prays to God to "saue pi tabernacle pat is kepte clene for pe / which now am put at repref and skorn" (307-8), Mary prays both for herself as the Mother of God and for the Church whose reputation suffers when its teaching or its hierarchy is called into question.

But the play does more than just allow the dissent to be voiced and Mary to be "maculaited"; it makes the expression of this onslaught the most witty and engaging part of the play. Rosemary Woolf's deft handling of the detractors' fabliau humor cannot be improved upon, but we might ask whether the "vivacity" and "unchecked abundance" of the malicious need have "appalled" the audience. (38) Anthony Gash suggests that laughter in the Wakefield cycle and Mankind might have been used to "woo the audience's approval for controversial social comment put into the mouth of comic or 'evil' characters." (39) The detractors of the "Trial" are both comic and evil, wooing the audience to enjoy rather than abhor their comic assualt on Mary's reputation. The difference between these accusers and those of the N-Town's "Woman Taken in Adultery" is striking: whereas there we find Tartuffe-like moral hypocrites, here we are entertained by two buffoons who gesture to their bellies and comment that Mary's swelling womb "is as gret as pinne or myne" (48).

But as the play invites the audience to oppose Church doctrine--the first detractor even predicts the audience will "wurchep and speke gret fame" of Bakbytere--it deploys a potent weapon againt dissent, the representation of dissenters as backbiters who undermine communal spirit. Before they ever mention Mary or her pregnancy, Bakbytere and Reyse Sclaundyr gleefully plot the best means to sow the seeds of discord:
   First detractor:
   Within a short whyle a thynge be-felle,
   I trowe pou wylt lawgh ryght wel tolerate;
   For be trowth, ryght mekyl hate,
   If it be wyst perof wyl growe.[known]
   Second detractor:
   If I may reyse perwith debate,
   I xal not spare pe seyd to sowe. [shall]

This announcement of their motives is important, for it distinguishes the interests of this play from those of a half-dozen other N-town plays depicting doubters whose human wit is confounded by the miraculous events they witness. Those plays demonstrate the limitations of human knowledge; (40) this one emphasizes the malice and destruction behind the will to know. The backbiters nearly succeed in alienating man and wife, uncle and niece, community and individual. Their actions are played out before an audience that has itself just suffered a division of its ranks, some thirty of its members having been summoned to the court as accused moral offenders.

Mary restores the community of the audience when she asks the Bishop to allow its members to return home. Since she is herself a figure for the Church, her request as well as her speech forgiving her detractors (341-44) promotes the Church as an agent for peace and unity. Mary and Joseph's trial recalls one way it accomplished this work, for proceedings like theirs were one of the most important tools the Church employed to preserve harmony in a medieval community, a goal canon law affirmed. (41) By providing a forum in which disputants could come together and work out their differences, the courts maintained peace. "Successful purgation by a man accused of a crime," writes R. H. Helmholz, "marked not so much the proof of a fact, but the end of a quarrel." (42)

Robert Henryson complained that "fals titlaris (talebearers) now growis vp full rank (abundant)." (43) Anyone making a study of detractors in the period soon despairs of the same problem of overabundance. In this essay I have narrowed the source material to just two of many areas in an attempt to discover the artistic and social needs detractors fulfill in those contexts and so in the "Trial of Joseph and Mary." From romance I conclude that detractors supply the hero with several different means for enhancing his reputation. Although Mary's detractors strengthen her reputation for chastity by manifesting the envy superiority inspires and by supplying contrastive narratives, they also serve as a focus for contemporary anxiety that public judgment of one's self may not be a reliable index to one's true worth. Thus by occasioning a public, supernaturally sanctioned demonstration of Mary's virginity, their slanderous tales not only underline her sanctity but also give the Church an opportunity to promote itself as a haven where fame cannot be perverted by mere words. I conclude from the prevalence of backbiting imagery in anti-Lollard material that Church defenders exploit the long-held and rich association between backbiting and communal strife to portray Church dissenters as the enemies of communal solidarity and safety.

The logic underpinning the centrality of the backbiter to both public gossip and religious dissension also accounts for the intersection of these separate social issues within a single brief play. This logic dictates that both gossip and religious dissent are destructive speech acts with profound consequences for communal well-being. To interpret a neighbor's actions uncharitably is, as the adverb implies, to threaten the bond of charity that unites the accused to the community, or to breach the bond of charity that should have united accuser to accused. Thus an anonymous poet who asks why "charite is no lengere cheere (dear)" looks no further than proud men who always "deme pe worste" of others. (44) As its cognate "dissension" implies, to "dissent" from a body of doctrine and to influence others to do the same is to disrupt a social bond. Lollards disrupt the social bond of shared beliefs. In the words of Friar Topias, they "chase charity from the land." (45) Gossip and religious dissent are categorized as breaches of charity because, like the destructive talk of Reyse Sclaundyr and Bakbyter, both speech-acts rupture social bonds thought necessary to the economic, military, and spiritual well-being of a community and of its separate members. Reyse Sclaundyr's claim to "walke wyde and many way" would have been seen as a frightening comment on the times.

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(1) The English Mystery Plays (U. of California Press, 1972), p. 175. Lynn Squires emphasizes the detractors' role as witnesses in a legal system adhering to the Old Law of vengeance against moral offenders ("Law and Disorder in Ludus Coventriae," Comparative Drama 12.3 [1978]: 205-7). Martin Stevens sees the pair as "quasi-Morality characters" whose false accusations anticipate and parody accusations against Christ in the Passion plays (Four Middle English Mystery Cycles [Princeton U. Press, 1987]), pp. 249-50.

(2) Backbiting usually falls under the sin of envy in penitential and sermon manuals. See, for example, Chaucer's "Parson's Tale," 11. 491-93; John Myrc, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, EETS, o.s., 31 (London: K. Paul, 1868; rpt. New York: Kraus, 1975), 11. 1237-42; Speculum Christianiae, ed. Gustav Holmstedt, EETS, o.s., 182 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1933; rpt. New York: Kraus, 1971), p. 60. Slander and gossip are the products of envy in courtly literature as well: see Malebouche in Romance of the Rose (ed. and trans. Charles Dahlberg [Hanover: U. Press of New England, 1983]), pp. 33-35, 44; Christine de Pisan's Mirror of Honor, ed. Madeleine Cosman and trans. Charity Willard (New York: Persea Books, 1989), pp. 84-108; Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1. 666; Lydgate's "Complaint of the Black Knight" and "Flour of Courtesy," Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, EETS, o.s., 192 (London: K. Paul, 1934), pp. 382-430.

(3) Ed. Edwin J. Howard (Miami U. Press, 1962). Examples of this tendency in other romances can be found in Amis and Amiloun, ed. MacEdward Leach, EETS, o.s., 203 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1937), 1. 208; Sir Beues of Hamtoun, ed. E. Kolbing, EETS, n.s., 46, 48, and 65 (London: N. Trubner, 1885, 1886, and 1894; New York: rpt. Kraus, 1978), 11. 4303-8; Guy of Warwick, ed. Julius Zupita, EETS, n.s., 42, 49, and 59 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1883, 1887, 1891; rpt. New York: Kraus, 1966); Athelston, ed. A. M. Trounce, EETS, o.s., 224 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1951 for 1946), stanza 74; and Generydes, ed. W. A. Wright, EETS, o.s., 55 and 70 (London: N. Trubner, 1875), 11. 932-38, 1350.

(4) I offer here only a few late medieval illustrations of this very old and widespread association. John Gower's Envie in the Confessio Amantis burns within "Whan that he wot ah othere levere, / Or more vertuous than he, / Which passeth him in his degre": The English Works, vol. 2 of The Complete Works ofJohn Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), bk. I, 11. 5-8). In Chaucer's translation of The Romance of the Rose, Envy suffers "gret hevynesse" if a man "in honour rise / Or by his wit, or by prowesse" (A 261-63; see also A 74-76 and A 297-300). Chaucer's "Parson's Tale" names one form of envy as "sowre of other mannes goodnesse and of his prosperitee" (1. 490). God comforts Margery Kempe by revealing that her superior grace is the cause of all the slander she endures: "... I far liche a man pat louyth wel hys wyfe, pe mor enuye par men han to hir pe bettyr he wyul arayn hir in despite of hir enmys. & ryth so, dowtyr, xal I faryn wyth pe" (Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sanford Meech, EETS, o.s. 212 [London: Oxford U. Press, 1940; rpt. New York: Kraus, 1961]), p. 81, 11. 30-33.

(5) For this convention in other romances, see Guy of Warwick, 11. 3085 ff; Athelston, stanzas 6-12; Generydes, 927-38; and Squyr of Lo Degre, 732-41.

(6) All references to "The Trial of Joseph and Mary" are from Stephen Spector, ed., The N-town Play, EETS, s.s. 11, 12 (Oxford U. Press, 1991).

(7) "Law and Disorder," 205.

(8) R. H. Helmholz, "Crime, Compurgation and the Courts of the Medieval Church," in Canon Law and the Law of England (London: Hambledon Press 1984), pp. 131-32. See also Helmholz's introduction to Select Cases on Defamation to 1600, Publications of the Selden Society, 101 (London: Selden Society, 1985), pp. i-xxiv.

(9) "Malory's 'Tale of Gareth'" and the French Arthurian Tradition," Arthurian Studies 16 (1986): 141.

(10) Gerald Prince, "The Disnarrated," Style 22.1 (1988): 2-3.

(11) Ibid., 5.

(12) Other scoffing maidens include Helie of Le Bel Inconnu and Thomas Chestre's Lybeaus desconus, Mesdisant of Le Roman de Tristan, and Maledisant of Malory's "La Cote Mal Taile."

(13) For guilds and slander, see Charles Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City (Cambridge U. Press, 1979), p.138. For slander and village life, see Helmholz, "Crime, Compurgation," 130; and Patricia Hogan, "The Slight to Honor--Slander and Wrongful Prosecution in Five Medieval Villages," in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 13 (1992): 5-6.

(14) Woolf identifies these as the Protoevangelium and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (p. 174).

(15) Paul Hyams, "Trial by Ordeal," in On the Laws and Customs of England, ed. Morris S. Arnold, et al., Studies in Legal History (U. of North Carolina Press, 1981), p. 101.

(16) Ibid., 92-93.

(17) Helmholz, "Crime, Compurgation," 138-39.

(18) Squires, 201, 205-7.

(19) Medieval Drama, ed. David Bevington (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), pp. 799-900.

(20) This translation is from M. B. Salu, ed. and trans., Ancrene Riwle, (London: Burns and Oates, 1955), p. 113. For an edition of the original, see J. R. R. Tolkein, ed., Ancrene Wisse, EETS, o.s., 249 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1962), p. 128, 11. 10-14 and p. 131, 11. 16-17.

(21) "Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval Town," Past and Present 98 (1983): 10.

(22) Chronicon Adae de Usk, ed. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson (London: Henry Frowde, 1904), p. 141. M. E. Aston cites this passage (with a different translation) in "Lollardy and Sedition 1381-1431," Past and Present 17 (1960): 6.

(23) Ibid., 8.

(24) Early English Carols, ed. R. L. Greene (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). The first is from no. 207 (untitled), the second from "Think Before You Speak," no. 281.

(25) Phythian-Adams, 106-11.

(26) Phythian-Adams, 11. See also English Gilds, ed. Toulin Smith, EETS, o.s. 40 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1870).

(27) This is Aston's main point in "Lollardy and Sedition," 31.

(28) Aston, 5. Her source is the Rotuli Parliamentorum, ed. J. Strachy (London, 1767-77), 3:124-25.

(29) "The Reply of Friar Daw Topias," Political Poetas and Songs relating to English History, ed. Thomas Wright (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861), 11. 39-114.

(30) Greene, no. 342 (untitled).

(31) Middle English Sermons, ed. Woodburn O. Ross, EETS, o.s. 209 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1960), p. 373.

(32) Gail Gibson McMurray, Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Later Middle Ages (U. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 138.

(33) Ibid., 30.

(34) Edward Powell, Kingship, Law, and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 327.

(35) Anthony Gash, "Carnival against Lent: The Ambivalence of Medieval Drama," in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History, ed. David Aers (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), p. 95.

(36) The Later Lollards, Oxford Historical Series (Oxford U. Press, 1965), pp. 28, 41.

(37) Middle English Sermons, 222.

(38) The English Mystevy Plays, 176.

(39) "Carnival against Lent," 76.

(40) See Kathleen Ashley, "'Wyt' and 'Wysdam' in N-town Cycle," PQ 58 (1979): 123.

(41) Helmholz, "Crime, Compurgation," 141.

(42) Ibid., 141. See also J. A. Sharpe, "'Such Disagreement betyx Neighbours': Litigations and Human Relations in Early Modern England," in Disputes and Settlements, Law and Human Relations in the West, ed. John Bossy (Cambridge U. Press, 1983), pp. 176-82.

(43) Robert Henryson, "Against Hasty Credence," in Denton Fox, ed., Robert Henryson: The Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 163.

(44) "Charity is no longer dear," in Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript, EETS, o.s. 117 (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1892), pp. 701-4.

(45) "Friar Daw Topias," p. 40.
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Author:Hunt, Alison M.
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Date:Jan 1, 1994
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