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Madonna, whore: Mary's sexuality in the N-Town plays.

The English compilation of biblical pageants that we call the N-Town Plays comes from a time and place of intense Marian devotion; the cult of the Virgin dominated late medieval East Anglia, "England's Nazareth." (1) N-Town mirrors East Anglia's veneration of the Virgin: the compilation includes many more Marian pageants than the York, Chester, or Towneley cycles, including two episodes from the Life of the Virgin unique in the European medieval dramatic tradition. (2) Mary steals the show: the arc of Jesus' lifetime nestles inside the larger dramatic frame of the Virgin's progress from her Immaculate Conception and birth to her death and Assumption--just as the late medieval vierge ouvrante (or cupboard Madonna) opens to reveal, inside the womb of the "Great Goddess," a tiny Trinity. (3) Furthermore, N-Town has Jesus submit to his mother's authority, vowing: "I shal yow folwe with obedience ... And owe to do yow hygh reverence" (21.274-76). God the Father and the Holy Spirit follow suit: Dominus, the three-personed God, tells Mary, "Yow to worchepe, moder, it likyth the hoi Trinyte" (41.523). N-Town might very well represent the zenith of late medieval English Mariolatry.

Yet despite this zealous Marian devotion, the N-Town Plays have long been infamous for their shockingly disrespectful treatment of the Virgin. Detractors accuse Mary of being a promiscuous adulteress: a "scowte," "quene," and "bolde bysmare" (14.182, 14.392, 14.298). Skeptics subject her to round after round of trials of virginity, including an onstage postpartum gynecological exam (15.218-21; 15.246-53). Most disturbingly of all, N-Town appears to play these insults and slanders for laughs. As A. P. Rossiter put it in 1950, Mary's persecutors inspire "indignation" and "fear," and "yet they are funny." (4) In other words, N-Town seems to invite the reader to laugh at the Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, in his influential 1966 monograph on The Play Called Corpus Christi, V. A. Kolve flat-out denied this possibility: "the audience never laughs at [Mary]," he argued, because "Mary knows she is pure, and so do we." (5) Following Kolve, medieval drama criticism has tended to interpret N-Town's seemingly blasphemous aspersions against Mary's virginity as "crude," "misogynist," "carnal," "literal," "idolatrous," and "malicious" errors (6)--arguing that because the larger framework of each pageant "neatly inverts," "trumps," and "conquers" these slurs by ultimately proving Mary's chastity, it is the responsibility of the good reader to carry out this hermeneutic process of inversion as the errors unfold. (7) As David Bevington puts it, God gets "the last laugh"--and, thanks to criticism's eschatological allegorizing, every laugh. (8) In other words, we are not supposed to take N-Town's dirty jokes about Mary seriously, and we are certainly not supposed to laugh at them.

Yet rather than simply rebounding off Mary to strike and discredit her detractors, N-Town's seemingly slanderous accusations resonate with positive theological significance. When N-Town uses pantomimes, metaphors, exegetical comparisons, and obscene insults to represent Mary as a guilty adulteress in a divine comedy (dallying with the Trinity, angels, and mankind in kaleidoscopic combinations), this is not necessarily or exclusively insulting. That Mary is understood to be an irresolvable paradox, both virgin and mother, is so well known that it is almost not worth repeating. In a late medieval context, she is both virgin and mother and Madonna and whore. Mary's promiscuity has the hermeneutic power to symbolize her marriage to the Trinity, her redemption of Eve's fall, her supersession (or cuckolding) of Judaism, and her advocacy for indiscriminate mercy--all staples of late medieval Mariology, a theological system that enables N-Town's audacious and exuberant spin on the good news (euangelion, glad tidings, gospel).

In N-Town's "Joseph's Doubt," Joseph explicitly and extensively accuses Mary of adultery. Unlike the biblical Joseph, who never gives voice to his suspicions (Matthew 1:19), N-Town's Joseph throws discretion to the winds, accusing the Virgin out loud and in no uncertain terms of sinning with "sum other man" (12.28) and/or "sum boy" (12.75). When Joseph asks Mary, "whoos childe is this?" (12.47), she answers with the names of the usual suspects: Joseph; God the Father; Jesus, Man and God, Son and Father; the Holy Ghost; the Archangel Gabriel; and all of Christendom. In a running joke, N-Town accumulates more and more candidates for Jesus' paternity, parodying the doctrine of Mary's perfect virginity by portraying her as a promiscuous adulteress in a fabliau milieu.

Joseph rejects Mary's first explanation for her pregnancy, her claim that the "Fadyr of Hevyn" is the father of her child (12.38). Incredulous, he says: "Goddys childe--thu lyist, in fay! / God dede nevyr jape so with may!" (12.43-44). Joseph dismisses the idea of God fathering a child as absurd, arguing that God has never "japed" in this way with a maiden, "japed" meaning to "trick," "to act foolishly," and "to have sexual intercourse with." (9) Joseph is right that God has never japed this way with a maiden--before. Yet it has been argued that Joseph errs not by failing to recognize Mary's exceptionalism (her exclusive status as the beloved of God), but rather by insinuating that God and Mary had sexual relations, an insinuation assumed to be polemical and slanderous. Rosemary Woolf nicely expresses this pervasive reading: she writes that Joseph errs by "taking [Mary's] words in their crudest sense, as though she were saying that the Christian God had adopted the habits of Jove." (10)

However, N-Town consistently describes God's relationship with Mary as sexual and as playful in contexts neither comic nor ironic in the slightest. In the Annunciation pageant, the Archangel Gabriel hails Mary as God's "pleynge fere" (11.315)--"fere" meaning fellow, companion, or spouse--God's playmate, in effect. (11) The Annunciation pageant ("Salutation and Conception," as Sugano entitles it) is often described as expressing "sublime theology" in a "lofty tone," standing in "stark contrast" to the "bawdy," "secular," and "crude" comedy of "Joseph's Doubt." (12) Despite the many differences between these two pageants, however, "Joseph's Doubt" and "Salutation and Conception" echo each other conceptually by describing Mary and Gods relationship in erotic terms. For example, both pageants use the word "bower" to describe Mary's body: Joseph plays on bowers double meaning simultaneously to refer both to Mary's bedchamber and her genitals; Gabriel, using the same metaphor, describes Mary as "Goddys chawmere and his bowre" (11.316). (13) Religious imagery often describes the Virgin as God's vessel--architecturally, because Mary is the Church, and literally, because Jesus lived inside Mary's womb like a monk in a cell. (14) N-Town does not confine erotic and playful descriptions of Mary's relationship with God to moments of comedy and irony. Erotic Marian imagery has its place in high as well as low contexts, if we allow for the validity of this distinction between "high" and "low" at all. By describing Mary as God's playmate, Joseph hardly insults the Virgin: rather, he participates in N-Town's larger devotional strategy.

Contrary to what we might expect, early Christian theologians like Origen and Justin Martyr agreed with the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus that certain pagan myths (like Zeus' fathering of Perseus or Apollo's of Plato) strikingly resembled Matthew's and Luke's account of the virgin birth. (15) Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew itself suggests a sexual aspect to the virgin birth: while Luke uses the abstract terms "come upon [eperchesthai]" and "overshadow [episkiazein]" to describe what the Holy Spirit does to Mary's body (1:35), Matthew writes, "What is begotten [gennethen] in her is through the Holy Spirit" (1:20). (16) The sexual connotations of this word are striking: "begat" implies that the Holy Spirit inseminated Mary. (17)

The Middle Ages built an impressive Mariological edifice on this biblical foundation. In the fourth century, Ambrose first identified Jesus and Mary as the lovers in the Song of Songs. In his extremely influential twelfth-century sermons on that text, Bernard of Clairvaux embroidered this theme:
   Happy indeed were the kisses [Jesus] pressed on [Mary's] lips when
   she was nursing and as a mother delighted in the child in her
   virgin's lap. But surely will we not deem much happier those kisses
   which in blessed greeting she receives today from the mouth of him
   who sits on the right hand of the Father, when she ascends to the
   throne of glory, singing a nuptial hymn and saying: "Let him kiss
   me with the kisses of his mouth."? (18)


Inspired by Bernard's effusions, the high and late Middle Ages enthusiastically eroticized Marys Annunciation, Nativity, and Assumption, describing them as betrothals, marriages, and consummations. (19) By the fifteenth century, conventional iconography portrayed the Godhead as an incestuous (and interspecies) marriage of God the Father, Jesus the handsome young man, the animal Spirit (usually a dove), and Mary, their beautiful bride, daughter, mother, and sister. (20)

N-Town stages this tangled erotic web most spectacularly: in the pageant of Mary's Assumption, the Trinity, a chorus of martyrs, and orders of angels sing catches from the Song of Songs, honoring Mary as God's "bride of Lebanon" (326). The martyrs sing, "Que est ista que assendit de deserto, / Deliciis affluens, innixa super dilectum suum?"("Who is this who comes up from the wilderness, / Flowing with delights, leaning on her beloved?") (41.343-44). (21) A three-personed figure, Dominus, answers by singing to Mary, "Veni tu electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum / Quia concupivit rex speciem tuam" ("Come, my chosen one, and I will set you upon my throne / Because the king has desired your beauty") (41.318-19). After summoning Mary's soul into his lap ("in sinum Dei"), Dominus calls her "my dowe, my nehebor, and my swete frende" (41.510), crowning her as his queen and consort (4.526). As Gail Gibson points out, "Christ calls Mary to him in a liturgy of holy espousal and coronation that is the final and ecstatic triumph of her creating womb," (22) a womb adoringly described by the Trinity as its "tabernacle of joye, vessel of lyf," and "hefnely temple" (41.511). This celebration of Mary's womb neatly fits Leo Steinberg's category of "genital theology," the late medieval cult of Jesus' genitals (and, by extension, Mary's) as a symbolic nucleus of the mystery of the Incarnation. (23)

In this same spirit of genital theology or, to transplant a twenty-first-century term, "sex positivity," N-Town stages the Annunciation as a pyrotechnically dazzling celebration of consummation. (24) Once the Parliament of Heaven has decided to accomplish the Incarnation, the Holy Ghost arranges the match between Jesus and Mary, telling Jesus, "I, Love, to youre lover shal yow lede" (11.182). Jesus takes on the role of the eager bridegroom, chastising the Parliament of Heaven and Gabriel for taking too long to allow him access to Mary's body, for which he yearns: "I have so grett hast to be man thore / In that mekest and purest virgyne" (11.201-2). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit gives Gabriel two "tokyns" of truth to deliver to Mary (11.208): the first token, taken from the Gospel of Luke, is the pregnancy of Mary's barren and elderly cousin Elizabeth (11.208-10); the second token, not taken from the Bible, is orgasmic pleasure.

The Holy Ghost explains: "Her body shal be so fulfylt with blys / That she shal sone thynke this sownde credyble" (11.211-12). The Holy Ghosts phrasing stresses the carnality of Marys experience: she will feel "blys" (which, as the MED notes, could have connotations of sexuality by the time of N-Town's compilation, or could also mean "pleasure" more broadly) in "her body." (25) N-Town represents this ecstatic moment with an elaborate special effect: "Here the Holy Gost discendit with thre bemys to our Lady, the Sone of the Godhed nest with thre bemys to the Holy Gost, the Fadyrgodly with thre bemys to the Sone. And so entre all thre to her bosom" (s.d. 110). (26) Mary can only describe the feeling of being simultaneously penetrated by so many celestial rays with the inexpressibility topos: "I cannot telle what joy, what blysse / Now I fele in my body!" (11.305-6). Here, Mary echoes back the emphatically carnal terms used by the Holy Ghost: she feels "blysse ... in [her] body." N-Town's most immediate source, Nicholas Loves Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, confirms that Mary's orgasmic sensation marks the exact moment of Jesus' conception: "oure lady fulfilled & enflaumede with pe holi gost, & in pe loue of god more brennyng pen she was before, felying pat she hade conceyued, kneled don & ponked god." (27)

We need not dismiss N-Town's sexualization of Jesus' conception as mere ornamental imagery having little or no bearing on theology: scholastic theologians scrutinized the literal, biological process of the virgin birth in explicitly gynecological terms. In their landmark study of medieval medicine, Danielle Jacquart and Claude Alexandre Thomasset demonstrate that medieval scientists debated whether or not conception demanded an orgasmic emission of female seed: Aristotle said no, Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna said yes. (28) By the fifteenth century, it was widely agreed that female seed contributed to conception, but also that its ejaculation signified excessive concupiscence. (29) This theory demanded that scholastic theologians explain how Jesus could have been conceived without any male contribution and yet also without any excessively concupiscent emission of matter from Mary. Responding to this necessity, Aquinas argued that the Holy Ghost rather than "the impurity of lust" drew only Mary's "purest blood" into her womb (rather than concupiscent female seed, as in a normal conception), and formed Jesus from that incorrupt matter. (30) In other words, Mary remained chastely passive and insensible while the Holy Ghost moved the necessary fluids on her behalf.

Aquinas seems to have found orgasmic emission and perfect virginity incompatible: he assumes that Mary could not have felt sexual pleasure while still maintaining her immaculate purity. Likewise, Hildegard of Bingen vociferously denies that Mary felt "the sweetness of lust" or any "human pleasure" during the conception of Jesus. (31) By way of contrast, N-Town's pageant of the "Salutation and Conception" emphasizes Mary's bodily bliss without pausing to distinguish it explicitly from "human pleasure." N-Town seems more interested in differentiating between the bliss Mary felt and the bliss felt by other, unexceptional women in terms of quality and quantity rather than kind; while Hildegard and Aquinas specify that Mary felt no sexual sensations in her body, N-Town repeatedly insists that Mary felt more and better bodily pleasure than anyone before or since (8.191; 8.204; 9.256-57).

Yet despite the discrepancy between N-Town and Hildegard and Aquinas on this question, N-Town is far from alone in its devotional focus on Mary's bodily bliss. In the second century, Justin Martyr described Mary as a second Eve: he argued that while Eve "conceived the word of the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death," the Virgin Mary obediently conceived the Word of God. (32) While musing on the parallelism of "Eva" and "Ave," Ambrose realized that the benefits of Jesus' and Mary's redemptions far exceeded the disadvantages of Adam and Eve's transgressions, their felix culpa. In the twelfth century, Eadmer of Canterbury took these ideas to another level, arguing that Mary's excellence precluded any taint of original sin: simply by coming into existence in her mothers womb at the moment of her Immaculate Conception, the Virgin's perfection redeemed the fallen world. (33) Eadmer and his many followers saw Mary's virginal perfection not only as a triumph over the serpent, Eve, and Judaism, but also as a victory over God the Father. Bernardino of Siena put it this way: "one girl, I know not by what caresses, by what promises, by what violations, seduced, deceived, and, if I may say so, wounded and ravished the divine heart and overthrew the Wisdom of God." (34) According to her most besotted devotees during this period, Mary overpowered God, undoing his laws, recreating him in her image (as Jesus), and seizing control of Doomsday by plucking her favorites (most notably criminals, artists, incontinent clerics, and transgressive lovers) out of the mouth of Hell. (35) According to this version of Mariology, the Virgin represents the triumph of humanity, love, and mercy over divine judgment.

This Mariological narrative lends itself to the genres of courtly romance and fabliaux: in the Life of the Virgin as in ribald and chivalric tales of love, amor vincit omnia. It is well established that biblical drama, and especially N-Town, situates the virgin birth and the Holy Family in a fabliau context. Criticism tends to perceive dramas combination of Mariology and fabliau as an odd juxtaposition--especially since it is often assumed that fabliaux condemn women as lecherous and treacherous daughters of Eve. Yet scholars such as Anne Ladd and Lesley Johnson have demonstrated that in the majority of fabliaux, the adulteress not only wins and escapes all punishment but also earns encomiums from her author for her ingenuity and vitality. (36) Eve seems an imperfect fit for the template of fabliau adulteress. After all, God punished Eve for her carnal appetite and seductive powers of persuasion; she got away with nothing. In its dramatization of the divine comedy, biblical theater casts Mary in the role of adulteress because Mary, true to the generic form of fabliau, came out on top.

In its Nativity pageant, N-Town dramatizes Mary's defeat of the Curse of Eve. Mary, nine months pregnant, feels a powerful craving for cherries that are out of season and out of reach. Like Eve before her, Mary is drawn to forbidden fruit. Mirroring Augustine's gloss of Eve's hunger as evidence of concupiscence, N-Town describes Mary's pregnancy as a symptom of sexual arousal. Repeatedly, Mary's detractors describe her pregnant belly (or "wombe," as they put it) as rising, standing, and swelling (12.26; 12.30; 14.80), comparing it to a glutton's belly (14.81) and an erection--telltale signs of "fals delyght" (14.301). The Nativity pageant perpetuates this pattern, characterizing pregnant Mary as prone to intense and "wylde" ("lascivious, wanton") desires (15.19; 15.37). (37) Old Joseph, frustrated by Mary's insatiability, snaps, "lete hym pluk yow cheryes begatt yow with childe" (15.39). So God, the father of Mary's child, satisfies her craving: he makes the cherry tree bloom and then bends its branches so she can eat her fill. (38)

This flips the script of Genesis: Mary hungers for forbidden fruit and God rewards and fulfills her craving. Double-edged typology cuts both ways. (39) Mary's redemption of Eve does not make her Eve's opposite, but rather her mirror image--reversed yet identical. (40) Bernardino of Siena argued that God indulged Mary where he punished Eve because Mary bewitched him with her extraordinary charisma. Like a fabliau adulteress or courtly mistress, Mary (to borrow terms from the Wife of Bath) has "sovereynetee" and "maistrie" over her lover (1038, 1040). The Virgin need not abstain to earn her perfection; she can "etyn [her] fylle" of whatever fruit she craves (15.43). Although N-Town, like many late medieval cultural artifacts, often subjects Mary to severe and paranoid limitations in order to protect her virginity from pollution (forbidding her from walking on unconsecrated earth [8.45, 94-101], for example, and supervising her with chaperones at all times [9.275]), this restrictive impulse has overshadowed an alternative tendency: the celebration of breaking, rather than obeying, the law. According to this strain of late medieval Mariology, Christianity's good news is merciful license, not strict abstinence.

N-Town demonstrates the range of Mary's license by suggesting a sexual relationship not only between Mary and God but also between Mary and Joseph. In the "Trial of Mary and Joseph," as soon as the news of Mary's pregnancy gets out, the entire village (including the local priest/ bishop) immediately assumes Joseph's paternity (14.86-88; 14.205, 218). This suspicion was far from unfamiliar to early Christians. Until the fourth century, sects of Christians (early on, the Ebionites, and later, the School of Antioch, most importantly Diodorus of Tarsus and Nestorius) believed that Jesus was the biological son of Mary and Joseph and the adopted son of God. (41) The rumor stems from roots in Matthew and Luke, who both drop plenty of troubling hints of Joseph's paternity. (42) Furthermore, many passages in the New Testament refer to Jesus' siblings, Mary and Joseph's natural children. (43) It is no wonder that until the fourth century, many (if not most) Christians--including Origen and Tertullian--subscribed to the Gospels' report that Mary lost her virginity to Joseph. (44)

The founders of the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity had to neutralize this threat. The second-century apocryphal Gospel of James made Joseph a reluctant old widower with children from a previous marriage (thus explaining away Jesus' so-called siblings), indisposed toward consummating his second late-in-life marriage. (45) Although the Gospel of James may have intended to protect Mary's chastity with these measures, it did not go far enough for Jerome, who found its depiction of Joseph as a once-fertile patriarch rather troubling. Jerome insisted that Joseph, like Mary, made a vow of perpetual virginity and dedicated his entire life to chastity. (46) Jerome's reading won: by the late Middle Ages, the traditions of Mary's perpetual virginity and Joseph's celibacy dominated Western Christian culture. Consensus characterized Joseph as a perpetual virgin and the union of Mary and Joseph as a sexless "syneisaktism" a spiritual or "white" marriage, as Dyan Elliot demonstrates. (47) In many ways, N-Town subscribes to this tradition. When Mary and Joseph wed, they both vow to "kepe ... clene" forever (10.292) and their priest/bishop declares their sexless compromise "the holyest matremony that evyr was in this werd!" (10.331).

Yet the story that Joseph provided for Mary and Jesus even though he was not Jesus' biological father seems to have amused many medieval listeners, who interpreted Joseph as "God's cuckold." (48) Medieval altarpieces, ballads, and farces mock Joseph as a figure of fun, a ridiculous old fool. (49) Though this began to change in the fifteenth century, thanks to the "top-down" efforts of theologians like Jean Gerson, the process of Joseph's sanctification took centuries to accomplish. (50) In late medieval visual artifacts, Joseph often watches from the margins while Mary and Jesus kiss, chin-chuck, feed, and pet each other. (51) In Melchior Broederlam's late fourteenth-century Dijon Altarpiece, Joseph, marginalized to the utmost edge of the frame, turns away from Mary and Jesus; their loving embrace, in turn, excludes him. In images like the late fifteenth-century Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, visual clues imply that Joseph has cuckold horns. Frequently, Joseph's carpentry tools serve as sad phallic props: as Louise Vasvari points out, the Merode Altarpiece shows Joseph impotently screwing holes in a plank of wood, unaware that in the very next room/panel, the Holy Ghost is impregnating his wife. (52) In the late fourteenth-, early fifteenth-century Holy Family attributed to the workshop of Gerard David, Joseph mimes his impotence by offering Mary and Jesus a pair of rotten pears (representing his defunct testicles), which stand in stark contrast to the ripe fruit in the hand of the baby Jesus. (53)

N-Town enthusiastically participates in this tradition of depicting Joseph as an "olde cokwold," as he himself puts it (12.55), emphasis on "olde." Indeed, N-Town seems to find it endlessly amusing to pillory Joseph for his hyperbolic decrepitude. When Joseph first enters, he declares, "For febylnesse of age, my jorney I may not spede" (10.157). This is an understatement: dialogue soon reveals that Joseph not only "may not speed," but actually lies completely prone on the boards of the stage (10.159-60). He complains, "Age and febylnesse doth me enbrase / That I may nother well goo ne stond" (10.161-62). This is especially funny considering that Joseph is competing in a fertility contest: the angel of the Lord commands that all the eligible bachelors of the House of David compete for Marys hand in marriage by bringing a "whyte yard" (10.128) or virgas (which can mean a branch, graft, or the male genitals) to the Temple and see whose yard "doth blome and bere" (10.131). N-Town's phallic symbolism is not subtle. While the other heirs of King David hurry across the platea with their impressive yards firmly in hand, Joseph lies limp as a worm.

Joseph explicitly states that he cannot sexually reproduce: "Abyl to be maryed," he says, "that is not I" (10.178). He elaborates: he is "old and also colde" (10.189)--physically incapable of generating the heat necessary to turn blood into semen. The seed of old men (as the influential late medieval medical tract De Secretis Mulierum explains) "is as thin as water" and "not fit for generation." (54) Furthermore, N-Town describes Joseph's phallic virgas as "a ded stok" (10.262). Period religious writing often calls idols dead stocks; N-Town's use of the phrase suggests that Joseph's sexuality is as useless as a false god, while Mary's sexuality, by contrast, is generative and efficacious. N-Town represents Mary as the young, beautiful, blossoming flower of Christianity and Joseph as the Old Testament--"old" taken to its comic extremity. Geriatric Joseph serves as a farcical analogue to the Christian iconographic representation of Judaism as Blind Synagoga, her eyes veiled and standard broken. Indeed, medieval depictions of Blind Synagoga sometimes replace the female allegorical figure with Moses or a decrepit man, types that are visually and typologically comparable to Joseph--a very old man with horns and a broken rod. (55)

And yet despite his hyperbolic decrepitude, Joseph wins the fertility contest in which he competes for Mary's hand in marriage. As he holds his rod up to the altar, it blooms with white "flourys fre" (10.262), signifying that the Holy Ghost sits upon it and elects Joseph as Mary's bridegroom (10.197). While it might seem that N-Town defends Mary's purity by marrying her to impotent old Joseph, this reading does not actually hold water. Rather than confirming Joseph's inability to reproduce, the miracle of the blooming rod suggests the opposite. If we extrapolate tenor from vehicle, the metaphorical miracle mimes Josephs phallus serving as a vehicle for God's seed to enter Mary's body. Although Joseph could barely stand up before approaching the altar, once he reaches it and begins to pray, he stops complaining. At the end of his prayer, we learn that he has--miraculously--managed to hold his rod aloft throughout his speech: when the rod blossoms, he exclaims, "I may not lyfte myn handys heye. / Lo, lo, lo! What se ye now?" (10.255-56). In other words, Joseph holds his rod erect until it bursts into bloom, at which point he drops his arms. This mimes the progress of sexual intercourse from erection to ejaculation. God empowers and Joseph performs. Only after this mime of assisted potency does Joseph revert to type, kvetching about his aches and pains.

This prophetic dumb show of the virgin birth undermines the doctrine of Mary's perfect virginity. At the very least, symbolic penetration by Joseph's phallus--no matter what supernatural entity contributed the seed or power of erection--contradicts our modern understanding of Mary's inviolate body. Yet N-Town seems more than capable of conceiving of Mary's virginity not as an essential fact but as a flexible abstraction. Indeed, studies in the history of sexuality agree that the medieval concept of virginity was remarkably adaptable and inclusive, embracing reformed prostitutes, widows and widowers, and monogamous spouses as well as the sexually inexperienced. (56) Thus, despite the seeming discrepancy between the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity and the miracle of the blooming rod, this mime of penetration by Joseph seems to be one of many ways that N-Town imagines the virgin birth. Indeed, N-Town phrases this scene as yet another cuckold joke at Joseph's expense, an extension of the idea that God used Joseph as his tool. While modern readers might assume that a medieval devotional text would never diverge from a strict and literal reading of the doctrine of Mary's perfect and perpetual virginity, N-Town proves this preconception wrong. Such an essentialist reading of Mary's virginity would be more characteristic of modern fundamentalism than of medieval Catholicism, which so enjoyed the glorious pleasures of glosynge, of allegorical interpretation. (57)

While scholars often remark on the homeliness that characterizes late medieval devotion, the extent to which its drama domesticates the marriage of Mary and Joseph has not been fully appreciated. In addition to portraying Mary and Josephs marriage as spiritual and pure, N-Town also, contradictorily, portrays it as worldly--even as sexually active. As Jean Gerson suggests in his Considerations sur Saint Joseph, casting Joseph in the stock role of the senex amans may render him impotent and laughable, but it hardly protects Mary from his advances. Fabliaux dwell on the rabid lustfulness of old cuckolds, a tradition that informs the portrayal of Joseph in biblical drama. In Chesters play of the Annunciation and the Nativity, Joseph says, "These [xxx.sup.tie] winters, though I would, /I might not playe noe playe" (6.135-36). (58) Because of the ambiguity of the subjunctive mood, Joseph could mean, "even if I wanted to, I could not" (purely hypothetical)--or, "though I want to, I cannot."

Although fabliau cuckolds may fail to satisfy or impregnate their wives, this does not deter them from trying. William Dunbars Middle Scots fabliau, The Tretis of the Tua Maritt Wemen and the Wedo, perhaps the most thorough and explicit British fabliau (rivaling Chaucers Miller's, Reeve's, and Merchant's Tales), repeats infelicitous sex scenes between impotent husbands and their young brides ad nauseam. (59) Dunbar's attention to detail clarifies that fabliau cuckolds do not abstain: rather, they "kiss" (94), "grip" (100), "beclip," "clap" (104), and "shove" (106) their poor wives. Likewise, the Wife of Bath confesses that although her old husbands could "unnethe" (scarcely, barely) pay the marriage debt they owed her (MED; 204-5), she made them work harder to compensate: "As help me God, I laughe when I thinke / How pitously anight I made hem swinke" (207-8). From time to time, N-Town takes up this fabliau motif, suggesting that Joseph and Mary have an active--although non-reproductive and un-orgasmic--sex life.

N-Town's play of "Joseph's Doubt" begins with Joseph banging on a locked door, shouting at Mary: "Undo youre dore, I sey yow to! / For to com in is all my thought" (12.5-6). Here we seem to have a familiar farcical episode: the locked-out husband banging on his own door, trying to get in--demonstrating his emasculating failure to control his property (house and housewife). N-Town's depiction of Mary as a locked door intertwines science and theology. De Secretis Mulierum explains that "the vulva" (which, as Jacquart and Thomasset note, "designated a rather vague semantic field") "is named from the word valva, folding door, because it is the door of the womb." (60) In the Old Testament, Ezekiel describes a gate that must remain closed: "no man shall not pass through it: because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut for the prince" (44.2-3). (61) Ambrose glossed this as a reference to Mary: "Mary," he wrote, "is the door which was closed and not to be opened." (62) In an earlier play, N-Town explicitly brings this up, parading Ezekiel out in a pageant of Old Testament prophets to foretell the coming "of a gate that sperd was trewly / And no man but a prince myght therin go" (7.47-48).

But then N-Town makes a sharp turn. After layering the image of Mary's valva on top of the locked door on which Joseph bangs, N-Town has Mary open that door and welcome Joseph home. (63) When Mary makes her entrance, she immediately says, "It is my spowse that spekyth us to! / Ondo the dore--his wyl were wrought! / Wellcome hom, myn husbond dere!" (12.7-9). Then Joseph enters Mary's gate. Although medieval imagery frequently depicts Mary as an enclosed virginal space, we must not neglect the other half of this important Marian paradox: the Virgin is also wide open. Images of the Virgin depict her with widespread knees and exposed breasts; she stands with outstretched arms in open arches and the open air. (64) The pervasive eleventh-century antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater (familiar to readers of the Prioress's Tale) describes Mary as a permeable gate to Heaven: pervia caeli porta. Typological and iconographic comparisons of Mary to a traversable portal suggest her role as Ecclesia, the figure of the welcoming Church, whose door never closes. N-Town interlaces this positive theological openness with the fabliau suggestion that Mary, after having taken a lover during Joseph's absence (the Holy Spirit), begins, or resumes, their worldly marriage upon his return. When N-Town's Ezekiel describes Mary as "a gate that sperd was trewly," he uses a word with a double meaning: "sperd" means both bolted shut and speared through. (65) Mary, paradoxically, is both.

Perhaps most surprisingly, N-Town not only represents Joseph as God's cuckold but also as his rival. In "Joseph's Doubt," Joseph says, "Here may all men this proverbe trow: / 'That many a man doth bete the bow; / Another man hath the brydde'" (12.81-83). He frames this proverb with a piece of advice: all men should trust in its truth, he says, because of what they see "here," in this play. If we follow Joseph's advice and apply the proverb to the pageant, it implies that Joseph beat the bush--in other words, Joseph did all the work--but another man got the reward (the bird). If Mary is the bush and the bird is Jesus, then beating the bush suggests the toil of matrimony: working to provide food and shelter--and laboring to pay the marriage debt. Effectively, Joseph implies that he has been attempting to impregnate Mary--to beget his own egg rather than meekly caring for God's cuckoo bird.

Following the misogynist rhetorical tradition of "advice against marriage," best represented by Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum and so often reiterated by fabliau cuckolds, N-Town's Joseph expects Mary to nag, rob, beat, and murder him (10.276-84). It is often argued that N-Town neatly inverts Joseph's misogynist expectations by proving him wrong: while Joseph expects Mary to lie and cheat, he finds, in the end, that she remains chaste and true. This would work nicely if Joseph were proven wrong. But is he? At his wedding, Joseph predicts that Mary will commit adultery. He is not the only one. The presiding Jewish priest, Ysakar, also expects disaster. (66) Ysakar warns that because Mary is young, Joseph is old, and "many man is sclepyr of tonge," Mary should avoid "evyl langage" by taking three chaperones with her to watch her at all times (10.347-48). Mary's own mother reiterates the bishop's fears, warning Mary to be "sad and sobyr and nothyng wylde" while her husband is away (10.394). These many dire warnings build suspense and finally climax when Mary fulfills them by getting pregnant, apparently breaking the rules of her interlocking vows of celibacy and marriage. This is exactly how Joseph, the bishop, and the neighborhood interpret her pregnancy. When first confronted by Mary's swollen belly and many excuses, Joseph turns to the men in the audience and warns them:
   Ya, ya, all olde men to me take tent
   And weddyth no wyff, in no kynnys wyse,
   That is a yonge wench, be myn asent,
   For doute and drede and swych servyse!
   Alas, alas, my name is shent!
   All men may me now dyspyse
   And seyn: "Olde cokwold, thi bow is bent
   Newly now after the Frensche gyse!" (12, 49-56)


Joseph prompts "all olde men" to take in the full horror of his situation and, motivated by that sight, to resolve never to marry a young woman. Misogynist diatribes of this ilk conventionally cite Mary as the exception to the rule--as the opposite of Xanthippe, Clytemnestra, Jezebel, and Eve. But in biblical drama, Joseph conventionally cites Mary as the negative exemplar, the definitive proof of the misogynist rhetorical tradition he employs: he instructs his key demographic (old men) to take his advice "for doute and drede and swych servyse" (my italics)--for dread of being served as Mary served him. (67) Specifically, Joseph accuses Mary of having cheated on him, humiliated him, and ruined his reputation. He complains that all men despise him as an "olde cokwold ... after the Frensche gyse" (12.55-56).

Is he wrong? In the N-Town plays, Joseph formally plays the thankless role of an "olde cokwold," fully immersed in the genre of fabliau ("the Frensche gyse"). N-Town mocks him mercilessly, playing his humiliation and suffering for laughs (14.258-65). Far beyond being a cuckold, Joseph is perhaps the medieval cuckold, and the Nativity the template for comic adultery: old man, young wife, superior lover, and an ingenious excuse. Chaucer's Miller's and Merchant's Tales parody the Nativity story, as do many tales from Boccaccio's Decameron, the Carajicomedia, and myriad other examples from the wider fabliau tradition. (68) Every time N-Town treats Joseph like a fool, it proves him right: he is an "olde cokwold." And who else but his wife could have made him one?

True, at the conclusion of the pageant, Joseph recants his accusations against Mary (12.183-84). After the angel's intervention, Joseph realizes that had Mary not been virtuous, "God wold not a be [her] withinne" (12.202): thus, God's election of Mary tautologically proves her virtue. However, Joseph does not learn that Mary's child is his. In a sense, the angel confirms Joseph's suspicions--that he has indeed been cuckolded, not by any normal couple but rather by God and the "Qwen of Hefne, Lady of Erth, and Empres of Helle" (11.335). The Old Law does not apply; Mary is the mother of a new testament. According to the new law, Mary can cuckold her husband and remain an immaculate virgin. Joseph learns his place: he stoops to kiss Mary's feet (12.185) and vows to "serve" her, "ryght as [her] owyn wyl is," "at foot and honde" (12.207-8).

We need not resist N-Town's insinuations of Mary's adulterousness on the grounds that adultery and Christianity (especially its Theotokos) seem incompatible. The fabliau narrative of Mary's adultery ingeniously allegorizes the complexities of Christianity's supersession of Judaism, described in the Gospels as a fulfillment (Matthew 5:17) of the unchanging, everlasting covenant between Abraham and the Chosen Seed (Luke 16:17) and, contradictorily, as an abrogation of that contract (John 14:6). According to Christian exegetes, Mary's marriage to Joseph superseded the dilemma posed by Genesis 1:38, God's commandment to increase and multiply. While Judaic theology took Genesis 1:38 to mean that God demanded and endorsed lawful sexual procreation, (69) Augustine saw sexual reproduction as ineluctably tainted by sin--as being sin itself, Eve's original transgression (Genesis 3:16). (70) Thus, as the Christians would have it, Genesis 1:38 held its Jewish captives in a terrible double bind, commanding them to sin. Cleverly, Mary managed simultaneously to obey and break this cruel law: defiantly, she made the world's first vow of celibacy; meekly, she married a prince of the House of David and perpetuated the Chosen Seed. (71) N-Town dramatizes Mary's crafty outmaneuvering of the law in fabliau terms: Mary cuckolds Judaism. She cheats with wit and discretion--like the fabliau heroines Alisoun and May (and, for that matter, their courtly counterparts, Guinevere and Isolde). N-Town represents Christianity's conflict with Judaism as a battle of the sexes: the Christian adulteress (who represents love, beauty, mercy, and license) bests the Jewish cuckold (who represents justice, punishment, and revenge).

As we know, Christianity often phrases the supersession of Judaism as a cunning trick that Jesus and Mary play on the Devil. (72) Biblical drama adapts this tradition by having Mary hoodwink Judaism, represented by Ysakar and Joseph (and, on another level, God the Father), into tolerating (and indeed celebrating) her extralegal pregnancy. Both Joseph and Ysakar immediately react to the virgin birth with judgment, wrath, and vengefulness: Ysakar puts Mary through a trial by ordeal from the Book of Numbers (14.230-45; 5:11-31) and Joseph contemplates having her stoned to death according to the rules proscribed by Leviticus (12:95-98; 20:10). Medieval drama criticism has tended to argue that Joseph and Ysakar err not by judging but rather by judging the wrong woman. This reading merely confirms the paradigm of the Old Law (as it is represented through the lens of N-Towns anti-Judaism). N-Town seems intent on preaching a different message: as Jesus says in a direct address to the audience in "Christ and the Adulteress," "Thow thu myshappe and synne ful sore ... Haske thu mercy and thu shalt have" (24.21-24). This indiscriminate mercy renders the question of innocence or guilt irrelevant. Small wonder that during late antiquity many pagans and some heretics interpreted the Gospels as a call to sexual freedom. (73) (Nor should we be surprised that Protestant reformers saw the Catholic cult of the Virgin as a hotbed of debauchery.) (74) In N-Towns Nativity pageant, Mary says, "The chylde that is born wyl preve his modyr fre" (15.180), meaning "liberated" from sin. (75) Modernity has projected its severely restrictive understanding of Mary's liberation back onto the late medieval period, tethering her hermeneutic range to the supposedly fixed fact of her literal, biological virginity. As N-Town demonstrates, the Mary of the late medieval imagination had so much more flexibility. She had an exceptional ability to break the law with grace, grace that she paid forward to her devotees, who could then sin with impunity and depend upon her promiscuous favor.

The second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mused, "Odd that the kingdom of God, the core of [Christian] teaching, is made to hang on the disgrace of a rejected woman, whose husband turned her aside." (76) This veneration of a disgraced pregnant teenager seems less odd if one considers the importance of humiliation in early Christian theology: as Tertullian liked to point out, Jesus was born from an unclean female body, suffered all the indignities of the flesh, and died humiliated on the Cross. (77) For Tertullian, true Christians distinguish themselves from heretics and heathens by not being ashamed of Jesus or Mary (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26)--no simple task, but rather a rigorous intellectual and moral exercise. Tertullian did not ask Christians to accomplish this the easy way, by denying that Jesus and Mary were scandalous, but by taking the truly radical step of embracing humiliation. Though Church doctrine increasingly purified Mary as the centuries passed (making her first perpetually virginal and then completely immaculate), N-Town restages and foregrounds her scandalousness.

In 1950, A. P. Rossiter commented that N-Town dramatizes the Life of the Virgin in the style of "the tragical farce of the servant-girl who has slipped up, and who is bullied and nagged with every shaming comment and indecent inquisition." (78) V. A. Kolve rejected this comparison: "Far from witnessing the trial of a servant girl who has slipped up, as Rossiter suggests, we are watching the trial of the Virgin, whose character and history are known to us from sources outside the play." (79) Yet by forcing N-Town's portrait of the Virgin to fit into the template of our sanitized preconceptions about her "character and history" we lose sight of N-Town's invaluably bold articulation of a late medieval system of theological hermeneutics that modernity tends to repress--one that gives the lie to our perverse notion that medieval people were sanctimonious prudes. As Steven Justice has demonstrated with his study of hagiography and Eucharistic miracles, medieval Christians strengthened their faith by means of rigorous intellectual exercises that can seem to us blasphemous. Medieval faith was not credulous, but modernity's faith in it is. (80)

In N-Town's "Joseph's Doubt," Joseph's first guess as to the cause of his wife's pregnancy is that "sum boy" must be to blame (12.75). Subsequent pageants add various anonymous locals from the village to this suspicion: "sum fresch yonge galaunt" (14.87), "a yonge man" with "chere in bedde" (14.102), and an "archere" with pleasing "bolt" (14.166-69). Nazareth's gossips assume that Mary sought out a young lover to supplement Joseph's meager installments on his marriage debt, reasoning that "a yonge man may do more chere in bedde, / To a yonge wench than may an olde" (14.102-3). N-Town's detractors are not the first to make these accusations against the Virgin. Whispers of this slur are spoken in the Bible, (81) anti-Christian polemic, (82) and in accusations made by the Church against its enemies and victims: pagans, Jews, Muslims, and heretics. (83) In late medieval England, Lollards confessed to the crime of having slandered Mary. (84) In Reading, a Lollard named Katherine Cucklewe used her last words to preach that Mary conceived Jesus in sin; Margaret Sympson, who heard and believed, took to openly promulgating Jesus' illegitimacy in the streets. (85) In 1511, Elizabeth Sampson of London confessed before the bishop Richard Fitzjames of London that she had called Mary a "brent ars Elfe," meaning a pagan idol infected by a burning venereal disease. (86) Sampson specifically directed her vitriol at several English black Madonnas (Our Lady of Walshingham, Our Lady of Willesdon, Our Lady of Crome), interpreting the statues' black surfaces as accumulated soot from the candles of countless idolaters and, figuratively, the rot of venereal disease. Playing on the double meaning of "avowtery" as adultery/idolatry (or spiritual adultery), Sampson saw Marian shrines as highly trafficked brothels and Our Lady of Walsingham as a prostitute. (87)

Scholars tend to confine the concept of Mary's adultery has often been confined to this polemical sphere, a murky nightmare-scape in which fantasy and history become hard to distinguish. Yet the polemical slanders against Mary actually and/or allegedly made by outsiders bear a strong resemblance to some of the positive claims of late medieval orthodox devotional discourse. Elizabeth Sampson's seemingly slanderous interpretation of Mary's pilgrims as her lovers strikingly resembles the twelfth-century sermons of Aelred of Rievaulx in which he advised all Christians to make Mary their courtly mistress: "The Bride of our Lord is our Lady; the Bride of our King is our Queen; so let us serve her." (88) Gary Waller catalogs myriad Marian devotees from the ninth century through the Reformation who describe themselves as the "lovers" and "slaves" of their "mistress," the Blessed Virgin, using language borrowed from courtly romances, the songs of the troubadours, and Petrarchan lyrics (47-48). (89) Medieval texts and images represent Christians as being, like the Trinity, Mary's children, lovers, and clients, suckling at her breast, nestling under her robes, and even marrying her. (90) Mary, as N-Town puts it, is "mannys frend" (14.521), which could mean "paramour" as well as "ally." (91)

Bernard of Clairvaux promised that in Paradise, Christian souls would finally share Mary's intimate kisses and caresses with the Trinity. (92) Saints and mystics saw previews of this coming attraction: in her visions, Margery Kempe takes Jesus as her "weddyd husbond" and "swete sone," kissing his mouth to solemnize their vows (196). Mary invites Margery to share in her bounty: "And than the Modyr of God ... preyed that [Margery and God] myth have mech joy togedyr" (192). Mary seems to hold the Wife of Baths philosophy on sharing spouses: "He is too greet a nigard that wil wenre [refuse] / A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne: / He shal han nevere the lasse lighte, pardee" (337-39). In this same spirit of communion, N-Town stages Mary's bodily bliss as public entertainment for all to enjoy. When Anne conceives Mary, she tells the audience that she bears "a childe that shal bere all mannys blys" (8.233); when Mary conceives Jesus, Gabriel says, "Thorwe youre body beryth the babe, our blysse shal renew" (11.337). These moments emphasize that Mary's bodily pleasures generate bliss for all humankind to share. Ravishing music and stunning special effects confirm this good news: through these spectacles, the audience participates in Mary's joys sensually as well as imaginatively, in the moment as well as in anticipation.

N-Town also invites the audience to access Mary's bliss by sensually consuming her body. Early on in the pageant of the "Trial of Mary and Joseph," Raise-Slander and Back-Biter speculate wildly about the many possible sexual scenarios that might have led to Mary's pregnancy:
   Such a yonge damesel of bewte bright
   And of schap so comely also
   Of hir tayle ofte tyme be light
   And rygh tekyl undyr thee, too! (14.94-97)


In other words, Raise-Slander supposes that because Mary is so delightful to behold, she must be promiscuous ("tekyl" literally means "ticklish" and figuratively means lascivious or loose, as does "light"). (93) Raise-Slander phrases his fantasy in the second person, specifying that Mary's light tail would be right ticklish under you. His second person address invites spectators and readers to imagine Mary tickling them--or rather us. Back-Biter responds,
   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 yonge man to have delyght! (14.90-94)


This transplantation of the Virgin Mary into Back-Biter's sexual fantasies might seem simply insulting. But devotional convention also describes Mary as delicious food. Theologically, Mary's flesh is Jesus' flesh and Jesus' flesh is the Eucharistic wafer, which Christians masticate and ingest. N-Town insistently reminds us of this equation, describing Mary as "food" (15.145) and as white "lave," bread (10.275). By calling Mary a delectable morsel, Back-Biter advertises what N-Town offers: a Mariological flavor of the much-craved Eucharist--access to the body of the Virgin, a carnal intercession. (94) N-Town invites the spectator to consume Mary's flesh: she is a feast for the senses that provides direct, easy, and blissful access to Paradise. Insults that shock us have been interpreted as being exclusively, inflexibly, and tragically blasphemous, but I suggest that N-Town stages Christianity as a promiscuously multivalent hermeneutical game.

Indeed, N-Town frames its Mariology in metatheatrical terms. In "Joseph's Doubt," when Joseph says, "It was sum boy began this game / That clothyd was clene and gay, / And ye geve hym now an aungel name!" (12.75-77), his complaint functions as a metatheatrical joke: Gabriel is "sum boy" dressed up in a fancy costume, taking on the name of an angel--an actor in a costume in a play. And so is Mary, for that matter: in medieval English theater she was probably played by attractive teenage boys in drag. (95) The word "game," which Joseph repeats in the next several lines ("Alas, alas, and welaway / That evyr this game betydde!" [12.78-79]), means joke, sport, trick, or entertainment--meanings that parallel an array of medieval labels for theater, like Indus (or game), jocus (or joke), and play. (96) In fact, N-Town explicitly describes itself as a "game": it begins by promising its audience that, "Whan that ye come, ther shal ye sene, / This game wel pleyd in good aray" ("Banns" 518-19). (97)

Joseph's rhyme scheme associates "game" with "shame" and "blame"--an association made all the clearer when reading the manuscript because the scribe has drawn brackets that delineate the rhyme scheme, visually linking rhyme to rhyme. (98) This link connecting blame, shame, and game holds true in medieval expressions of antitheatrical prejudice, which accuse theatrical plays of the shameful and blameworthy crimes of carnality, blasphemy, and idolatry. (99) In N-Town, Joseph accuses Mary of blaspheming by calling an actor an angel and by attributing her suspicious and embarrassing pregnancy to God. Joseph's opposition to the mingling of the sacred and profane (actors and angels, God and pregnancy) echoes the antitheatrical prejudice against drama's fallen, carnal imitations of the sacred. The late medieval antitheatrical diatribe "A Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge," for example, declares Christianity and theater to be incompatible: it argues that "myraclis pleyinge is of pe lustis of pe fleyssh and myrpe of pe body" and that " pe voyce of pe fleysh" cannot help but completely drown out "pe voyce of oure mayster Crist." (100)

N-Town rebuts this proto-puritanical reading of Christianity by comparing biblical drama and Mary's pregnancy, describing Jesus' Incarnation as a theatrical disguise. (101) When the Parliament of Heaven decides that only an entity who is "both God and man" can redeem humankind, Jesus says, "Lete me se how I may were that wede" (11.177-78). Later, Mary explains to Joseph that Jesus "wyll be clad in flesch and blood" (12.65). Joseph confirms this association between the Incarnation and costuming by using the word "gyse" to describe Mary's alleged affair: "Than has thu begownne a synful gyse!" he tells her (12.31)--"gyse" meaning "custom" or "business," but also "clothing" or "disguise." Mary's adultery, like N-Town, masquerades as profanity. N-Town justifies this disguise in the play of "Christ and the Doctors": Jesus explains that Mary is a trap that God lays for the Devil, blinding his knowledge of the Incarnation and gaining the advantage of surprise for Jesus' Harrowing of Hell (21.245-46). (102) In "Joseph's Doubt," Joseph chastises Mary for the "sinful guise" and "seeming evil" of her pregnancy. But N-Town demonstrates that this seeming sin is in fact sacred. By using metatheatrical terms to describe the Nativity, N-Town suggests that religious drama can likewise seem sinful and yet have special powers of redemption. This excuse, like Mary's excuse for her suspicious pregnancy, is so good that it can license and redeem almost anything--even adultery, even theater. (103)

Bowdoin College

NOTES

(1) See Gail Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 139. Gibson notes that there is some evidence that a religious guild devoted to Saint Anne, Mary's mother, might have commissioned the compilation of the N-Town manuscript, 199.

(2) All citations from N-Town refer to Douglas Sugano, ed., The N-Town Plays (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006), 379.

(3) See Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 269. See also Filippo Ross and Timothy Verdon, eds., Mary in Western Art (New York: Hudson Mills Press, 2005), 47-52.

(4) See A. P. Rossiter, English Drama From Early Times to the Elizabethans: Its Background, Origins, and Developments (London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1950), 71.

(5) See V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 139.

(6) See Richard Moll, "Staging Disorder: Charivari in the N-Town Cycle," Comparative Drama 35 (2001): 145-61 (148); Matthew J. Kinservik, "The Struggle over Mary's Body: Theological and Dramatic Resolution in the N-Town Assumption Play," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95 (1996): 190-203 (191); Emma Lipton, Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118,119, 120-21, 123, 127; William Fitzhenry, "The N-Town Plays and the Politics of Metatheater," Studies in Philology 100 (2003): 22-43 (34, 36); Lisa Lampert, Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 129, 131; Cindy L. Carlson, "Like a Virgin: Mary and her Doubters in the N-Town Cycle," in Constructions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages, ed. Cindy L. Carlson and Angela Jane Weisl (New York: St Martin's Press, 1999), 199-200.

(7) The works of Gail Gibson and Theresa Coletti are notable exceptions. Coletti "fmd[s] in the plays dramatic strategies that subsume their folkloric and fabliau impulses within a redemptive scheme large enough to embrace puns on typological exegesis and portraits of moral goodness"; in "Purity and Danger: The Paradox of Mary's Body and En-gendering of the Infancy Narrative in the English Mystery Cycles," in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 65-95 (65). I share Coletti's desire to "give ... comedy its due" (ibid.).

(8) See David Bevington, Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975), 240.

(9) All references to Middle English vocabulary derive from the online Middle English Dictionary (University of Michigan). Available at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/rn/med/. See "japen" (v), 3(a).

(10) See Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 170.

(11) See "fere" (n.l), 3 (MED).

(12) See Moll, 146-48.

(13) In '"Porta haec clausa erit': Comedy, Conception, and Ezekiel's Closed Door in the Ludus Coventriae Play of 'Joseph's Return,"' The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8 (1978): 137-57, Gail Gibson also points out the "unabashed eroticism of the word 'bower'" (142).

(14) For an instance of the image of Jesus as a recluse in Mary's womb, see Michael G. Sargent, ed., Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ: A Critical Edition Based on Cambridge University Library Additional MSS 6578 and 6686 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 34.

(15) See St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. T. B. Falls, ed. Michael Slusser (Washington, DC: Christian Heritage, 2003), 102-3; and Origen: Contra Celsum, ed. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 36, 62.

(16) Here, the references to Luke come from Joseph Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 337, and Francois Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 52; the references to Matthew come from Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 89, and Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006), 42, 45.

(17) Some New Testament scholars argue that the Greek phrase used by Matthew (and Luke) to represent God clearly suggests that an abstract power (the Holy Spirit)--rather than a palpable entity (God the Father)--impregnated Mary; see Fitzmyer, 350. According to this view, the subject of the verb "beget" is not "the [Greek neuter, Hebrew feminine] Spirit as Mary's sexual partner," but rather "God's creative intervention by the Spirit"; see Luz, 95 and Fitzmyer, 350. Yet, as Schaberg points out, this only gets God and Mary out of the frying pan: making Gods participation in Marys pregnancy too abstract allows for the possibility that Matthew and Luke suggest that God merely arranged or endorsed a natural conception between Mary and a third party (Joseph or some other man), 111-14.

(18) This is Marina Warner's translation; see Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 132. For the original Latin, see Bernard of Clairvaux, In Assumptione Beatae Mariae Virginis, Patrologia Latina Database (online), 183, col. 996. Available at <http://pld.chadwyck.com/>.

(19) Warner, 130; Rubin, 212; and Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion (London: Sheed and Ward, 1985), 249.

(20) See Newman, God and the Goddesses, 247-52 and Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3-5.

(21) Sugano's translations.

(22) Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 168.

(23) See Steinberg, 238-39, and Gary Waller, The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Literature and Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 35-36.

(24) See Veronique Mottier, Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 69-70, 120.

(25) See "blisse" (n), 2c (MED).

(26) Gibson, Theatre, 144, and Peter Meredith, "Carved and Spoken Words: the Angelic Salutation, the Mary Play and South Walsham Church, Norfolk," Leeds Studies in English 32 (2001): 369-98 (183).

(27) Love, 26.

(28) See Danielle Jacquart and Claude Alexandre Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988), 61-63. Aristotle maintained that "the female does not contribute any semen to generation" (61); by contrast, Hippocrates held that "the woman also ejaculates" (62), a position taken up by Galen (who argued that female semen "contributed" to reproduction [ibid]) and Ali ibn al-Abbas (who argued that female semen was "necessary" for reproduction [62-63]).

(29) See Jacquart and Thomasset, 69-70.

(30) See The "Summa Theologica" of St. Thomas Aquinas 3.16, 2nd ed. (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1926), 3.31.5. 66-69. Hugh of St. Victor and Hildegard of Bingen express similar ideas. Hildegard writes that the heat of Gods semen "cleansed the foam of human pleasure from [Marys] blood" and coagulated a "small clot" (embryonic Jesus) from this purified blood; see Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegards Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), 175-76.

(31) Newman, Sister of Wisdom, 174-75.

(32) See Justin Martyr, 305. N-Town's play of the Annunciation reflects the letters in Eve's name to spell out letters that signify Mary: when Gabriel first salutes the Virgin, he says, "Here, this name Eva is turnyd Ave" (11.219), a beloved medieval anagram. In Luke 1.28 in the Vulgate, Gabriels first word to Mary is "Ave" (or "Hail"), which, reversed, spells "Eva." This anagram was popularized via the ninth-century hymn Ave maris Stella.

(33) It did not go unnoticed that Eadmer of Canterbury's theory of the Immaculate Conception directly contradicted Augustine's concept of original sin as sexual in nature and sexual in its means of communication; see Virginia Nixon, Marys Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 72. For this reason, Eadmer's new theory faced enormous resistance; see Graef, 221.

(34) "Una puella, nescio quibus blanditiis, nescio quibus cautelis, nescio quibus violentiis, seduxit, decepit et, ut ita dicam, vulneravit et rapuit divinum cor, et Dei sapientiam circumvenit" (376); see S. Bernardino, Senesis Opera Omnia, vol. 2 (Florence: Quaracchi, 1950), 376; translation mine.

(35) See Sara Ritchey, Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014) and Graef, 214-20. For an in-depth study of images of the Madonna of Mercy from Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, see Tomasso Castaldi, La Madonna della Misericordia (Bologna: Mandragola, 2011). For English examples of Mary interfering with Judgment, see Anne Marshall, Medieval Wall Painting in the English Parish Church (online)--specifically wall paintings from the Church of All Saints in Lathbury, the Church of St. James the Great in South Leigh, and the Church of St. Botolph in Slapton. Available at http://www.paintedchurch.org.

(36) See Anne Ladd, "Classifications of Fabliaux by Plot Structure," in Proceedings of the International Colloquium held at the University of Glasgow, ed. Kenneth Varty (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1976), 92-107, and Lesley Johnson, "Women on Top: Antifeminism in the Fabliaux," Modern Language Review 78 (1983): 298-307.

(37) See "wilde" (adj) 1c, 2c (MED).

(38) See Sherwyn Carr, "The Middle English Nativity Cherry Tree: The Dissemination of a Popular Motif," Modern Language Quarterly 36 (1975): 133-47.

(39) See John Parker, The Aesthetics of Antichrist: From Christian Drama to Christopher Marlowe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 43-86.

(40) Peters and Newman agree that the polysemy of the Mary/Eve comparison has been sadly mistaken for a binary; see Newman, Sister of Wisdom, 167-71, and Christine Peters, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 130-32.

(41) See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 155-56, and Graef, 36.

(42) See Luke 2:41, 48; Matthew 1:1-16; and Schaberg, 43.

(43) See Matthew 1:25, 12:46; Luke 8:19-21; Mark 2:21; Galatians 1:19; Acts 1:14.

(44) See Graef, 42, and Warner, 44.

(45) See The Protoevangelium of lames and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 363, 372.

(46) See Graef, 90-91, and Jerome, "On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius," Dogmatic and Polemical Works (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1965), 39.

(47) Dyan Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medie val Wedlock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 137, 177.

(48) Newman, God and the Goddesses, 284.

(49) Pamela Sheingorn, "Fragments of the Biography of Joseph the Carpenter," in Framing the Family: Narrative and Representation in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, ed. Rosalynn Voaden and Diane Wolfthal (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005), 161-80.

(50) For an alternative timeline, see Carolyn Wilson, St. Joseph in Italian Renaissance Society and Art: New Directions and Interpretations (Philadelphia: Saint Joseph's University Press, 2001).

(51) For more images of Joseph at the margins, see Heinz Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art, An Illustrated History (New York: Continuum, 1996), 130(12), 131 (13 and especially 14), and 136 (23). See also Steinberg, 48 (fig. 59), 72 (fig. 77), 79 (fig. 84), 132 (fig. 145), and 156 (fig. 171).

(52) See Louise O. Vasvari, "Joseph on the Margin: The Merode Tryptic and Medieval Spectacle," Mediaevalia 18 (1995): 163-89 (168).

(53) See also Lucas van Leyden's Holy Family.

(54) See Helen Rodnite Lemay, ed. and trans., Womens Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus' De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 137.

(55) For Judaism as a decrepit man, see Gibson Theatre, 152, and Schreckenberg, 120 (2) and 63 (20). See also the Triptych of the Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment (1435-1486), which represents Judaism in relation to Mary as an old man who typologically suggests Moses, Zachariah, Joachim, and Joseph.

(56) See Theresa Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004), 56-58, 169-84, and Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), 124.

(57) As Chaucers Summoner famously says, "Glosynge is a glorious thing" (III.D.1793). All quotations from Chaucer are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

(58) The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Early English Text Society (London: Oxford University Press, 1974).

(59) All references to this poem come from William Dunbar, The Complete Works, ed. John Conlee (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004).

(60) See Jacquart and Thomasset, 24; De Secretis Mulierum, 66.

(61) Taken from the Rheims Douai Bible, The Bible in English, Chadwyck-Healey Literature Collections Online.

(62) See Sugano, 375 and Ambrose De Institutione Virginis, ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 217 vols. (Paris: Apud Gamier Fratres, 1880), 16:320.

(63) Gibson reads this as "a comic parody of the Virgin's Divine Conception of Christ, a parody in which Joseph unwittingly re-enacts the ... mystery of the Incarnation"; see Theatre, 142. For Gibson, the comedy "is not fabliau so much as a remarkably inventive translation of the porta clausa mystery into dramatic action" (151). I would say that it is both fabliau and theology, which overlap.

(64) For late medieval images of Mary that emphasize her openness, see The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin attributed to Lorenzo Monaco, Piero Della Francesca's Madonna del Parto and Madonna della Misericordia, The Annunciation attributed to Petrus Christus, and Durer's Life of the Virgin series. For more on the subject of Mary's widespread knees, see Madeline H. Caviness, Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 8.

(65) See "speren" (vl) and (v2) (MED).

(66) Ysakar is also referred to as a "busshopp" (10.3) and a "Crysten" (9.172, 174, 185).

(67) Joseph frames the rhetoric of advice against marriage at Mary's expense not only in N-Town but also in the York plays (13.11-64), the Towneley plays (10.161-75), and the Chester plays (6.145-52).

(68) See Laura Kendrick, Chaucerian Play: Comedy and Control in the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 16-19, and Ryan Giles, The Laughter of the Saints: Parodies of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 28-31 and 65. N-Town explicitly demonstrates the strong intertextual bond between the Christian infancy narrative and fabliaux by having detractors interpret Mary's excuse as a new spin on an old story, "The Snow Drop" (or "De l'enfant qui fu remis au soleil"); see 14.306-13.

(69) The Essenes are the much-discussed exception to this rule; see Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 3, and Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 37-40.

(70) See Augustine, De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione et de Baptismo Parvulorum, ed. C. F. Urba and J. Zycha, CSEL 60 (Viena: F. Tempsky, 1913), ii.15.

(71) See N-Town, 10.93-94 and Augustine's commentary on Psalm 76 in Expositions of the Psalms 73-98: Part III, ed. John E. Rotelle, Works of Saint Augustine (New York: New City Press, 2003), 73-109.

(72) See Parker, 169-78.

(73) I refer to the Epiphanes, the Carpocrates, and the Nicolaitans; see Brown, 61, and John Oulton and Henry Chadwick, Alexandrian Christianity, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 29, 42. These sects passed their torch to the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit and then the early modern Ranters and the Family of Love. See Robert Lerner, Heresy of the Free Spirit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); J. F. McGregor et al., "Debate: Fear, Myth, and Furor: Reappraising the Ranters," Past & Present 140 (1993): 155-210.

(74) In 1530, for example, Thomas Bilney called the black Madonna of Willeson a "stewed whore"; see Jones, 33. See also Read Me and Be Not Wroth or The Burial of the Mass, ed. Edward Arber, English Reprints (London: A. Murray, 1871), 107.

(75) "fre" (adj) la[d] and 2b (MED).

(76) See Celsus, On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 58.

(77) See Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.21.10.

(78) Rossiter, 71.

(79) Kolve, 139.

(80) Modernity forces medieval faith to play the role identified by Michel de Certeau as "the subject supposed to believe," the symbolic order's cornerstone (202). See Michel de Certeau, "What We Do When We Believe," in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 192-202.

(81) See Schaberg, 131-42.

(82) Ibid., 145-53, and Celsus, 57.

(83) See Alexandra Cuffel, Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 81-82; Hyam Maccoby, Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982), 19-38; John Tolan, Saracens: Muslims in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 93; and Merrall Price, "Re-membering the Jews: Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays," Comparative Drama 41 (2007-8): 439-63.

(84) Scholars advise that these polemical records be taken with a grain of salt. See Patrick Hornbeck, What is a Lollard? Dissent and Disbelief in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), xi-xviii, and Shannon McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 10-15.

(85) See McSheffrey, 68.

(86) Ibid., 146-47.

(87) See "Of Weddid Men and Wifis and of Here Children Also," in The Trials and Joys of Marriage, ed. Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002), 11.

(88) See Luigi Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages, trans. by Thomas Buffer (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2005), 167; see also "Sermo 2 in Nativitate," ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologia latina, vol. 195 (Paris: Apud Gamier Fratres, 1841), 323D-324A. Taking this comparison between Mary and a courtly mistress quite seriously, the fifteenth-century French court painter Jean Fouquet is rumored to have used Agnes Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII, as his model for an elegant panel painting of the bare-breasted Virgin; see Rubin, 310.

(89) See also Warner, 121-76.

(90) See Newman, God and the Goddesses, 237-38. See also Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, The Wise: A Translation of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, trans. Kathleen Kulp-Hill (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 56.

(91) "Frend" (n) 1 and 3 (MED). Women too served Mary as lovers: Margery Kempe calls Mary her "lady" and her "maystres"; see Barry Windeatt, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), 134. These terms tend to be interpreted in the context of domestic servitude, but they also resonate with courtly love.

(92) See Warner, 129-30.

(93) N-Town dwells on Mary's beauty. Her supporters and detractors draw on a shared bank of compliments to praise her beauty: she is fresh (14.91), fair (14.91,121,162,167), and bright (14.94).

(94) See Sarah Beckwith, Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 114-17.

(95) See Kate Normington, Gender and Medieval Drama (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), 55-70.

(96) See Kolve, 8-32.

(97) For more on medieval English drama as game, see Lawrence Clopper, Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

(98) See Peter Meredith and Stanley J. Kahrl, The N-Town Plays: A Facsimile of British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D VIII (Leeds: University of Leeds, 1977), xxi.

(99) Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 66-79.

(100) Anne Hudson, ed., Selections from Wycliffte Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 99. See also Clifford Davidson, ed., A Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993).

(101) See Michael O'Connell, The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 63-88.

(102) See Kinservik, 190-92.

(103) It cannot excuse everything. N-Town repeatedly emphasizes that Jews who repeatedly refuse to succumb to Mary will receive no mercy. These Jewish scapegoats function as illustrations of the draconian consequences of not joining the supposedly inclusive and merciful cult of Mary; for example, N-Town's pageant of Mary's Assumption climaxes when Belsabub and Belyal dismember an unrepentant Jewish detractor of Mary (41.476) and drag him into the pit of hell (41.486-87) to "brenne and boyle" for all eternity (41.483). For more on the intimate association of the cult of Mary with anti-Semitism, see Price, 448-52, and Adrienne Boyarin, Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010).
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