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Performing Orthodox Heresy: Mary, Antinomianism, and the Transgressive Female Body in N-Town's "The Trial of Mary and Joseph".

As SHOULD BE ANTICIPATED, the late medieval N-Town play cycle is obsessed with the Virgin Mary. Also known as the Ludus Coventriae cycle, N-Town is composed of a series of mystery plays concerned with biblical history from the creation of the world through to Judgment, and the "Mary plays," as they are often called, dramatize key events in her life, from her conception through her own miraculous pregnancy and the growing circle of believers who recognize that pregnancy as the ushering in of a new era of belief. The concerns that arise in the plays--Mary's will, Mary's body, Mary's purity--are the same concerns that continue to resonate with scholars, believers, and even the creators of modern popular culture. In the 1998 song "Mary" written by the folk songwriter Patty Griffin, for example, the narrator comments on the person of Mary, the woman whose body is marked by myriad conflicting symbols. Griffin sings, "Mary, you're covered in roses. / You're covered in ashes. / You're covered in rain. / You're covered in babies, / Covered in slashes, / Covered in wilderness. /You're covered in stains." (1) The use of the word "covered" here would imply that each item saturates Mary, leaving room for no other, but Griffin maps a multitude of competing objects onto Mary's body, ending with the significant "stains." "Stains" seems most apt to represent the very multitude of attributes Griffin--and countless others--have attempted to impose onto Mary over the centuries. Though the lyrics of Griffin's song do not question Mary's chastity or honesty, others throughout history and literature express incredulity towards Mary, if only until they come to feel they understand her. Given the way her body is "covered" by so many competing markers, this confusion and disbelief should not be surprising.

In her seminal work Drama and Resistance, Claire Sponsler is concerned with the place and problems of bodies in the world and on the stage, and although she does not comment directly on the Mary of medieval drama in that work, her articulation of the forces that form and shape "the body" as well as those that govern the proper behavior of women provide a theoretical underpinning to Griffin's lyrics--and, of course, the focus of this analysis. As it would seem odd here to treat Claire formally by referencing her by her last name--given that she was my teacher and mentor at the University of Iowa and that her scholarly work and personal kindness impacted me so greatly--I will take the liberty here of informality. Thus, in Drama and Resistance, Claire writes,
[B]oth self and body are imprinted by material and discursive forces
that give them their being and their meaning. The body acts as the
screen on which the self reads external events and situations; it is
the place where the self acquires a sense of its boundaries and its
connections with outside forces. The individual self gains its
awareness of identity first from the body, and it is also through the
body that the self is constituted as a social being. It is therefore
not surprising that all cultures seek control of the body. The
centrality of the body to both self and the social was an accepted
tenet of medieval thought. (2)

In the N-Town cycle--and especially in the plays leading up to and culminating with "The Trial of Mary and Joseph"--Mary's body is "imprinted" in exactly the way Claire describes here, and Mary's sense of self shifts and grows as the plays progress. Mary's "self" is saturated with meanings both religious and secular, and those meanings have profound implications not only for Mary herself, but for those engaging with this drama cycle in the fifteenth century and beyond. Those around Mary attempt to interpret her and control her, but these attempts are futile; Mary's body is the site of entirely new meanings, and the framework to understand them does not yet exist for most who encounter her. However, as the plays progress, the "screen" of Mary's body displays the markers of a new, Christian mode of belief, and it is through her body that the community comes to enlightenment. The paradox of Mary is not entirely resolved, however, and rather than fading back into the community, the myriad, conflicting meanings that saturate Mary indicate that she occupies a contentious and unique position: that of the only nonheretical antinomian in Christianity.

A discussion of the Virgin Mary in medieval cycle plays might at first glance seem fundamentally antithetical to a discussion of antinomianism, a tricky and subtle heresy whose followers eschewed external constraint in favor of guidance by an interiorized Christ. Still, although the undercurrent of fear aroused by antinomianism in England was not to come to a head for centuries, anxiety about antinomianism is nearly as old as Christianity itself. The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary definition of "antinomian" is "one who maintains that the moral law is not binding upon Christians, under the 'law of grace.'" It is not simply that antinomians wish to put particular emphasis on the fact that works cannot save, that adherence to the "moral law" governing action does not lead to salvation; rather, they argue that the law--as external constraint on behavior--is superseded in favor of guidance by Christ. Antinomian John Traske addresses this issue when he postulates, "And does not that obedience, which flows from an inward principle of Love, far transcend that, which is forced by fear?" (3) He thus argues that an internalized reliance on Christ brings forth more valuable fruit than actions dictated by an external law. This does, of course, depend on the believer being rightly aligned with Christ; only those actions truly inspired by internalized Christian principles would supersede those dictated by law, and knowing whether one is guided by Christ or some other force--selfish desires, the devil, wayward logic--is a thorny problem that lies at the center of antinomianism.

The general perception of antinomians is one of anarchists, although as David R. Como contends, in spite of the charge of "lawlessness" often levied against them, all antinomian authors stress that the true believer will commit good works not done "out of external compulsion, but by virtue of a new, internalized principle that flowed from true belief." (4) Right action flows from right belief, or, as Como later terms it, "Freedom from the Law meant righteousness in the spirit." (5) It is important to note that Como is writing here about post-Reformation English antinomians, not about pre-Reformation English Catholic belief; still, it is clear within the framework of the N-Town play under direct scrutiny here--"The Trial of Mary and Joseph"' (6)--that Mary is imbued with an agency that mystifies her detractors and that this agency springs from her unique position as the mother of Christ, who resides inside her womb throughout the play.

Mary literalizes what, for antinomian believers, is purely theoretical: the internalized Christ guides her. In enacting a moment of confident defiance against both ecclesiastical and civil law during her trial--and doing so on a stage in full view of an "audience" in the play and an audience on the ground--Mary briefly becomes a radical, an antinomian who is not held by outward constraints on action but is guided entirely by the Christ child within her. This is, in essence, the central tenet of antinomian belief: to eschew "man-mediated" constraints on action in favor of guidance by the immediately present voice of Christ. For most of the play, however, Mary's interiority is hidden, and the source that guides her actions is obscured, a serious problem for those trying to interpret her actions and understand the contradictions she embodies.

Theater has been well established as a liminal space wherein challenges to norms of body and authority can be tested, and in the case of Mary, that test comes in the form of intense pressure on this notion of inward and outward alliance. As Claire terms it, "[I]dentity--whether onstage or off--[is] the performance of the self through the medium of the socially interpreted body." (7) The "audience" within the play and the audience watching the play both see Mary challenge the notion that exteriority equals internal truth. In this, Mary's experience in the plays stands in direct contrast to the general wisdom expressed in physiognomic treatises in the late medieval period, which asserted, as Claire terms it, that "physiognomy represented a way of calculating the invisible through the visible, of seeing the inner through the outer and hence of identifying the true self through the external signs of the body." (8) In John Metham's fifteenth-century Physiognomy, for example, Metham asserts, "By these tokens of the face ... you may know the truth." (9) Mary in N-town provides a model for viewers that troubles this notion; her truth is evidenced both by and not by her pregnant belly and her skin after the tests of the trial. In the paradox of Mary's bodily signs also lies the crux of the antinomian problem: an individual's interiority is not knowable by outward signs, and so their access to unmediated truth through the internalization of Christ can never be verified. Any heretical or anarchistic potential a medieval audience member might see in her performance is thus at least partially diffused by the fact that she is utterly unique; she literally embodies Christ in a way no other can do, and thus her antinomian moment is equally paradoxical in that it is a moment both of heresy and orthodoxy.

Appearing about one-third of the way through the play cycle, N-town's "The Trial of Mary and Joseph" dramatizes a public trial that sees Mary and Joseph asked to prove their innocence--of fornication, adultery, or both--by drinking a potion that marks the guilty party's body with splotches. This play represents the culmination of a series of interpretations and misinterpretations surrounding Mary's body and the Christ child within; these acts of misreading serve several functions, chiefly to throw into sharp relief the contrast between the unique purity of Mary and the seeming pollution of her human body as read by all of those outside the ever-expanding circle of new, Christian belief. They also serve a basic dramatic function by heightening the audience's sense of involvement and suspense in the narrative; those watching the play know Mary is innocent, and so can feel a sense of self-satisfaction that they are interpreting her correctly, but still must witness a process of trial and judgment. Because she is in the privileged--and utterly unique--position of embodying Christ, Mary is allowed a certain level of (seemingly) transgressive agency; in the hands of another, this agency could have destructive potential. Indeed, one of the greatest fears concerning antinomianism was that its believers would spread anarchy and sedition through their claim to unmediated truth--"truth" which might contradict what had been established by the church and the crown. This fear is very real and yet unwarranted in Mary's case, as she is truly aligned with truth in a way other antinomians can never "prove" to be. Though others see her as lawless for a brief moment, Mary is in fact governed by the new law of Christ, a law that will confound those whose understanding is obscured by an adherence to an outmoded mode of interpretation.

The N-Town plays that concern Mary are riddled with many moments of false interpretation that signal the danger of misreading a body, and particularly a female body. Even the audience members are implicated in the system of interpretation; as Mary is portrayed on stage by a physical body, the body of the actor and the Virgin collapse, and the result is displayed for the audience's analysis and potential confusion. Mary's body was often held up for scrutiny and analysis in the visual mediums of painting, sculpture, and stained glass, and as Gail McMurry Gibson points out, it was the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which "first produced images of the Annunciation with the conceived Lord already visibly present to the human worshipper on fecundating beams of light sent from God's hands, or, less problematic theologically, images of the homunculus Christ visible within the windowed reliquary of Mary's womb." (10) Mary's body is often depicted as "open," then, to reveal the Christ child within; she literalizes antinomianism in her embodiment of his body, a body that can be observed and verified. Still, Mary's person is fraught with contradiction: she is the virgin who is impregnated, the lawbreaker who is pure in the eyes of the law, the antinomian whose antinomianism is both paradoxical and orthodox. As Theresa Coletti succinctly terms it, "Mary's body is an ambiguous site of purity and pollution." (11) Her position in the society of the play is similarly ambiguous, and until the detractors--and the audience--can reconcile Mary's contradictory states and come to an understanding of the Christian liberty she represents, her body remains a confounding and dangerous object. Although the situation in "The Trial" is often farcical, the stakes of this misinterpretation could not be higher. A woman "possessed of and by a transgressive body" (12) like Mary threatens the underpinnings of a society governed by reasonable ecclesiastical and civil laws. As Claire contends, any social space where women appear is "highly theatrical, requiring a nuanced, self-aware, and highly guarded performance. ... [in which] the natural female body has to be constantly monitored and regulated ... to hem its potential transgressiveness." (13) Every action and word on the part of Mary makes clear that self-awareness; the fact that she is truly guided by Christ means that she will triumph over her detractors in the end, but the precarious position she occupies for most of the plays speaks to both a deep anxiety regarding female bodies and behavior and an intense suspicion of those who would claim access to the unmediated truth of God. Seen from this perspective, Mary is patient zero for the contagious spread of a new faith, and were she any other than the Virgin Mary, her story's end would no doubt be painfully violent.

Mary's work spreading a new faith begins with her husband. Quite literally, Joseph has not penetrated Mary's body, and he does not have privileged access to the kind of inspiration that Mary willingly accepts. When confronted with the seemingly clear evidence of Mary's pregnant body, Joseph is at a loss as to how to interpret that body. Although Joseph returns from a nine-month absence to find Mary, who has supposedly remained virginal, large with child, Mary, secure in the new knowledge she now possesses, remains calm in the face of Joseph's dismay. When Joseph first encounters Mary in "Joseph's Doubt"--a play that almost immediately precedes "The Trial of Mary and Joseph"--he cannot see her face because it is radiating a bright light; he exclaims, "My marvelous wife, surely! Your face I cannot see / But [is] like the sun with his beams when he is most bright" (12.15-16). (14) Yet, even this evidence is not enough to sway Joseph from accusing Mary of adultery. He has no framework to interpret her shining face or her pregnant/virginal body, and so his thoughts immediately turn to the most logical explanation: she has been unfaithful. Before he comes to this conclusion, however, Mary tells Joseph, "Husband, as it pleases our Lord, that grace of him grew. / Who that ever beholdeth me, verily, / They shall be greatly stirred to virtue" (12.17-19; my emphasis). (15) Mary's face serves as a physical marker of her new status, her virtuous position in the new law of her unborn child, Christ. Those who behold Mary and understand the true nature of what she represents will be "stirred to virtue," will embrace the new law and abandon the law that cannot save. Here, however, Joseph grossly misinterprets the brightness of her face and the "evidence" of her belly. He is obsessed with the carnal fact of her pregnancy and cannot move past this evidence of her adultery until visited by an angel at the end of the play. As Gibson asserts, "Mary's swollen womb is clear evidence of 'synful gyse' to Joseph ...; for the audience, just as surely, pregnancy makes of Mary the promised living Temple." (16) Mary's body symbolizes two seemingly contradictory things, but ultimately her embodiment of Christ overrides the physical "evidence" of impurity.

Once Joseph is inevitably convinced both of Mary's chastity and of the importance of the child she carries, he joins Mary in her new interpretive mode and can be assured that his--and his wife's--actions are in accordance with God's will, even when they seem to contradict established secular and religious law. His subsequent proclamations of his own ignorance serve to underscore the new knowledge he has just acquired; at one point, he exclaims, "A mercy, mercy, my gentle mate / Mercy, I have said all amiss!" (12.182-83). (17) "Mercy" is certainly what Joseph has acquired both intellectually and spiritually; the new law under Christ will be the law of mercy, not of works. As Kathleen M. Ashley notes, "A recurring concern in this cycle is learning itself. Above all, Christ is the personification of Wisdom in this cycle, and all human knowledge must be measured against that divine standard." (18) By desiring mercy, Joseph also desires knowledge, which he gains through participation in his wife's new mode of understanding. Ashley continues, "Man's wit is not just his intellective faculty but that faculty by which he judges right from wrong, recognizes the truth of God, and decides to obey it." (19) Mary possesses the greatest amount of "wit" in the play through the embodied Christ, and this puts her into danger; by breaking from the norms of the society around her, Mary risks falling victim to the punishments those norms prescribe, the consequences of an outmoded law that has been superseded by the in-utero Christ in reality but not yet in practice.

In their trial, Mary and Joseph are called to task for the seeming incompatibility of their behavior with the old law by which their actions are judged. When they enter, Mary and Joseph immediately become the most complex characters in a world that is otherwise nearly two dimensional in its structure; they are surrounded by stock figures like Backbiter and Raise Slander, sarcastic gossipers whose accusations of infidelity might be reasonable for any other female character, but not Mary. Though Mary appears at the trial as merely a pregnant woman, the audience--and, through trial, the other figures in the play--soon realize her extraordinary otherness and the way she will imbue her world with a new sense of Christian belief. (20)

Primus Detractor is the first to call attention to Mary's "sinful" state as--falsely--evidenced by her belly; he says,
Sir, in the temple a maid there was
Called Maid Mary, the truth to tell.
She seemed so holy within that place,
Men said she was nurtured by holy angels.
She made a vow never to have sex with a man
But to live as a chaste and clean virgin.
However it be, her womb doth swell
And is as great as yours or mine! (14.74-81). (21)

Primus Detractor is correct in noting that there is a significant difference between the Mary of the temple and the new Mary; Mary is still obeying God's law, but the law has changed. In the Temple, Mary was under the law of action; for Mary, this actually meant a law of inaction, but her adherence to a rule of chastity illustrated an adherence to that law. The new Mary is still virginal, but her significance as a figure no longer depends on what she does; it is the miraculous child Mary carries--and the new law that this child embodies--that gives Mary her new power. Mary is large with child, but in the process of obtaining that child she is also filled with right knowledge that moves her to right action without the need for outmoded, external rules. However, from Primus Detractor's perspective, a chaste woman cannot become pregnant; Mary is pregnant, and therefore she must not be chaste. As both virginal and maternal, however, Mary breaks free from the constraints of the "reason" used by those around her who are obsessed with the law and ignorant of the grace that guides Mary and Joseph's actions. It is significant also that Primus Detractor compares Mary's body to "yours or mine"; he falsely assumes that Mary is just another woman, and that her body can be "read" like anyone else's. For anyone else but Mary, the evidence of the burgeoning belly would indeed be damning, but for this moment, physiognomy fails Primus Detractor and the others, as Mary's internal truth cannot be measured by externals.

The play continues with an increasingly heightened focus on every aspect of Mary's physicality. Secundus Detractor comments on Mary's attractiveness by declaring, "By my troth, all may be well, For fresh and fair she is to see. / And such a morsel, as seems to me, / Would cause a young man to have delight" (14.90-93). (22) Primus Detractor responds, "Such a young damsel of beauty bright, / And of shape so comely also, / She may be promiscuous / And easily swept off her feet" (14.94-97). (23) Mary is beautiful and shapely, and the detractors enjoy gossiping about her, an act inappropriate for speaking of the mother of God, but which serves to confirm that the detractors are farcical figures obsessed with outward "truth" and prone to grave misinterpretations that have dangerous potential. Speaking to Episcopus, Secundus Detractor asserts, "Though she is your blood relative / All great with child her womb doth swell! / Do call her here, you shall see / That it is truth that I tell to you" (14.114-117; my emphasis). (24) The detractor incites Episcopus to "try" Mary, to expose her to ridicule and potential violence, and declares that her "truth" is self-evident. Mary's swollen body colors the false interpretations made by those around her; as Coletti terms it, Mary's "protestations of cleanness offer discursive counterpoint to the spectacle of a swelling womb, which seems more than sufficient testimony that Mary is anything but pure." (25) Unlike Mary and Joseph, those who stand in judgment in the play do not have access to divine intervention through angels or the Holy Spirit; they must rely on their imperfect senses, senses which are colored by the interpretive framework in which they are entrenched.

The trial Mary and Joseph must endure displays the continued obsession the play shows with bodies and their ability to reveal internal truths; Episcopus presents a bottle and says,
Here is the bottle of God's vengeance.
This drink shall now be your purgation.
This [has] such virtue by God's ordinance
That what man drink of this potion
And goes in a certain procession
Here in this place all around this altar
If he be guilty, some mark
Plain in his face shall show it out. (14.234-41) (26)

This drink literally "writes" guilt on the drinker's face and body; ordained by God, this trial is seemingly infallible. After Joseph has drunk and been proven innocent, Primus Doctor Legis echoes earlier exhortations against Mary when he says,
[That] you are with child we see in sight;
To us your womb accuses you!
There was never a woman yet in such plight
That could exonerate herself of having known a man sexually.
(14.302-5) (27)

It is indeed "to them" that Mary's belly accuses her; to the audience outside the play, her belly is evidence only of her holiness and divine privilege, and the simple fact of there being no precedent--"never" a woman in the same position who was not guilty--does not prove the detractors' case. Mary's body is beyond the interpretive prowess of this court. (28) "The Trial" dramatizes the slipping and shifting of right interpretive modes; a new law of mercy now threatens to replace the old order, and as Mary embodies this new law, her position is a threatening one.

Though confused by the initial evidence Mary's body represents, Episcopus does understand that something radical has shifted. When first confronted with Mary's pregnant body, Episcopus says, "How have you changed your holy thought?" (14.204). (29) The audience knows that it is Mary's pregnancy--the act that seems to transgress the laws against adultery--that has changed Mary's "holy thought," that has realigned her spiritual disposition into accordance with the Christ child inside her, and through him, a new law Episcopus can sense that something is different about Mary, but he initially attributes this to a departure from her former holiness. Mary's "holy thought" has been altered in the same way her body has been altered, but not in the way Episcopus assumes. In fact, Mary's "holy thought" is in some ways unchanged; she is still obedient to God and seeks His help and guidance. Her trust in Him is unshaken; while being bombarded with the words of her detractors, Mary calmly asserts, "Almighty God shall be our friend / When the truth is found out" (14.180-81). (30) The detractors scoff at her, saying, "Yes, this is the excuse of every whore / [Even] when her own sin defames her!" (14.182-83). (31) Proclaiming one's innocence and swearing that God will exonerate you is a common gambit for the accused, the detractor is saying, but what he or she doesn't understand is that Mary is one for whom this will actually come to fruition. Mary's mind and soul, like her body, cannot be properly read by comparison with other minds, souls, and bodies.

To "prove" her physical integrity, Mary must submit to a test designed under the old law; she must drink the potion that will reveal her guilt or innocence. If Mary is defiled, the potion will prove it. This is ironic in that physical proof up to this point has failed the detractors; Mary's swollen belly seems to be proof of her transgression, but it actually proves something antithetical to sin. The potion, however, gains its power by "God's ordinance," and is thus still useful as a tool in this liminal space between the old and new laws. Although Christ serves as Mary's guide here, he has not yet come to supersede the law. In fact, the issue of Christ's relationship to the law--specifically after crucifixion--is the central controversy at the center of the antinomian crisis. Christ says, "Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil," (32) and yet his coming does negate much of the Mosaic Law for most Christians. Antinomians take this move one step further, arguing for the negation of the entire Mosaic Law. In "The Trial," Mary, who has Christ inside her, needs neither outward constraint nor the approval of others to "fulfill" the law; as what I'm terming an "orthodox antinomian," Mary exists in a new reality governed by the new law of Christ, and can thus confidently act accordingly. Mary stands as an example of the way in which piety is increasingly becoming a personal, inner experience in the fifteenth century, but her inner experience is an extreme one--an antinomian one. Reliant on her inner guide--which in this case is the infallible Christ--Mary is able to enact a more authentic spirituality that truly connects her with God, as opposed to an old and seemingly outmoded spirituality that potentially alienates its followers from true communion with the divine.

Aesthetically, it is necessary for the audience of a play to have a visual test for Mary and Joseph's guilt, and "The Trial" provides that. Though the audience knows Mary is innocent of fornication, for the purposes of the play they must rely on their sight, like the detractors, to witness proof of her innocence. The audience members are part of the rabble; Mary is on display in a double sense, both within and outside of the play. Of course, the audience's privileged position as fifteenth-century Catholics means that they arrive at the play secure in the knowledge that Mary and Joseph are telling the truth; no matter the appearance of sin or the strength of the arguments against them, Mary and Joseph will be exonerated. Lest they forget this fact for a moment, however, the audience is reminded at the beginning of the play that what they will hear from the detractors will be slander. Primus Detractor boasts that "to raise slander is my way of life" (14.40) (33) and asserts that, were his brother Bakbytere with him, they would raise more slander "within an hour throughout this town / Than ever there was this thousand years" (14.46-48). (34) The trial-by-ordeal via which Mary and Joseph are judged is converted in "The Trial" to accommodate an ecclesiastical, medieval context that highlights the key issues at stake here: interpretation, justice, and mercy. Keith Thomas has shown how trials-by-potion like the one here also reference the occasional use of the Mass as a kind of "poison ordeal." As Thomas explains, "The suspected party would be required to communicate, on the assumption that he would be damned if guilty or dishonest." (35) Mary and Joseph don't face immediate death by poisoning if they fail the drinking test, but the stakes are in every sense higher than the death of a single dishonest individual. Mary's unblemished face in particular represents an entirely new system of interpretation, a mode that can't be understood by those around her, and if that face were to bear the marks of sin, then the supersession of the old law by Christ would be jeopardized.

In the moment of Mary's speech--which is made doubly transgressive by the fact that she is confident and defiant--Mary embodies antinomianism. Mary's forceful language at the trial only serves to underscore her new state of being. She says,
I never trespassed with an earthly person.
Therefore I hope through God's dispensation
Here to be purged before your sight
From all sin clean, like my husband.
Take me the bottle of your hand,
Here shall I drink before your face.
About this altar than shall I proceed
Seven times to go, by God's grace. (14.290-97) (36)

Mary's wish that through God's dispensation she will be purged of sin is startlingly apt; God sends Mary the Christ child, and through this she is both purged of sin and provided the means for the rest of humanity to be purged as well. Primus Detractor and the other "backbiters" can't at first participate in this communal spirit, as they don't know the truth that lies within Mary. Once Primus Detractor is "converted" through the physical evidence of Mary's chastity, he can participate in the community of charity and mercy under the new law. Primus Detractor echoes Joseph in "Joseph's Doubt" when he cries, "Mercy, good Mary, I do me repent / Of my cursed and false language!" (14.366-67). (37) He asks Mary to have mercy on him and, as such, begins to participate in the merciful law that characterizes God's new covenant with humanity through Christ. Mary is literally merciful in that she contains within her body that ultimate symbol of mercy, Christ. Given the power that this incarnation brings, Mary can serve as the voice of the new law, as the example of the strength that God's new salvific plan will give to humanity. This moment of speech is arguably Mary's most clear embodiment of antinomianism, for it is a radical act that requires eschewing conventional wisdom in favor of a new truth, one that will upend ecclesiastical and civil law. Even the act of speech is utterly transgressive here. As Claire notes, "Open female mouths ... carry a double threat, as late medieval court cases involving improper female speech make clear. They breach corporeal boundaries, making the woman's body dangerously open, while also disrupting social relations by launching the dangerously open body into the social realm." (38) The question that shakes the foundations of the play's world is this: why would meek, hitherto spotless Mary seemingly transgress the bonds of marriage and most definitely transgress the rules governing female speech and decorum? The answer is Christ; Mary has thus shifted the rule by which she acts and speaks from external rules and laws to guidance that originates solely from the Christ child within her womb.

By acquiescing to the demands of the court and aligning herself with their law, Mary models right action that flows equally from her own inherent nature and the Christ child she carries--and realigns the spirituality of her whole community. (39) Inside the world of her trial, Mary is both orthodox and heretical; both "truths" cover her body, and it is not until the moment of her exoneration via the potion that the "real" Mary comes into sharp focus. Before that moment, Mary's outlines are blurred; now, after she has drunk, she can be correctly interpreted and categorized. Though her moment of righteous defiance is an antinomian one in that it is enacted based on an alignment with an internal Christ, the denouement that follows serves to reposition belief and action according to the new Christian law, which in turn means that Mary's "heresy" is no longer useful and would, in fact, be dangerous. The internalized Christ that guided her can now become the touchstone for a new law that will guide all believers, and as her moment of seeming heresy passes, the new law she embodies becomes orthodoxy. Once she is beyond her trial, her body-as-screen can now display right belief and right action to the community of believers watching and participating in her; she is folded back into a society that expects strict self-governance and "bodily self-regulation" (40) from women, and her dangerous potential diminishes--until, of course, her next performance.

Delta State University


This essay is dedicated to the memory of Claire Sponsler, who was an impeccable scholar, a passionate teacher, and a supremely kind human being. The idea for this essay was first developed in a seminar with Claire, and her feedback helped shape this exploration into its final form. She will continue to be much missed.

(1) Patty Griffin, vocal performance of "Mary," by Patty Griffin, released June 23, 1998, on Flaming Red, Fontana A&M, 1998, MP3.

(2) Claire Sponsler, Drama and Resistance: Bodies, Goods, and Theatricality in Late Medieval England, Medieval Cultures 10 (U. of Minnesota Press, 1997), xii.

(3) John Traske, The True Gospel Vindicated, From the Reproach of a New Gospel (London: 1636), 15-16. "And doth not that obedience, which floweth from an inward principle of Love, farre transcend that, which is forced by feare."

(4) David R. Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford U. Press, 2004), 36.

(5) Ibid., 404.

(6) Although the issues that arise from "The Trial" are central to late medieval Catholic piety, the subject itself is dramatized only in this play cycle, and although the play was most likely interpolated into the cycle by a later scribe, the Marian emphasis and general themes of the play fall in line with the rest of N-Town. For the most generally accepted discussion of the structure and composition of N-Town, see Stephen Spector, "The Composition and Development of an Eclectic Manuscript: Cotton Vespasian D VIII," Leeds Studies in English 9 (1977): 62-83. For further, general discussion of "The Trial of Mary and Joseph," see Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (U. of California Press, 1972); Peter Meredith, ed., The Mary Play: From the N-town Manuscript, (London: Longman, 1987); Dr. Joannes Vriend, The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Medieval Drama of England, (Purmerend: J. Muusses, 1928); and Hardin Craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955).

(7) Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, xvi.

(8) Ibid., xii.

(9) John Metham, Physiognomy, qtd. in Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, xiii. As qtd. by Claire, the text reads, "Be thyse tokynnys off the face ... ye may knowe the trwth."

(10) Gail McMurry Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (U. of Chicago Press, 1989), 7.

(11) Theresa Coletti, "Purity and Danger: The Paradox of Mary's Body and the En-gendering of the Infancy Narrative in the English Mystery Cycles," in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sara Stanburg (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 68.

(12) Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, 62.

(13) Ibid., 63.

(14) All quotations from the N-Town cycle are taken from The N-Town Play: Cotton MS Vespasian D. 8., ed. Stephen Spector, 2 vols. EETS s.s. (Oxford U. Press, 1991) 11,12. The original text of this quote is: "Me mervelylyth wyff, surely! zoure face I cannot se / But as [THORN]e sonne with his bemys quan he is most bryth."

(15) "Husbond, it is as it plesyth oure Lord, [THORN]at grace of hym grew. / Who [THORN]at evyr beholdyth me, veryly, / They xal be grettly steryd to vertu."

(16) Gail McMurray Gibson, '"Porta haec clausa erit': Comedy, Conception, and Ezekiel's Closed Door in the Ludas Coventriae Play of 'Joseph's Return,'" Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8 (1978): 144.

(17) "A mercy, mercy, my jentyl mate, / Mercy, I have seyd al amys!"

(18) Kathleen M. Ashley, "'Wyt' and 'Wysdam' in N-town Cycle," Philological Quarterly 58 (1979): 123.

(19) Ibid., 128.

(20) For a further discussion of the detractors, see also Alison M. Hunt, "Maculating Mary: The Detractors of the N-Town Cycle's 'Trial of Joseph and Mary,'" Philological Quarterly 73.1 (1994): 11-29. Hunt points out that the detractors serve a basic function in the play by increasing Mary's reputation "by temporarily eclipsing it" (12). Through the trial, Mary's absolute uniqueness becomes clear to the wider community and is confirmed for the audience.

(21) "Syr, in [THORN]e tempyl a mayd [THORN]er was / Calde Mayd Mary, [THORN]e trewth to tell. / Sche semyd so holy withinne [THORN]at plas, / Men seyd sche was fedde with holy aungell. / Sche made a vow with man nevyr to melle, / But to leve chast and clene virgine. / Howevyr it be, here wombe doth swelle / And is as gret as [THORN]inne or myne!"

(22) "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 3onge man to haue delight."

(23) "Such a 3onge damesel of bewte bryght, / And of schap so comely also, / Of hire tayle ofte-tyme be lyght / And rygh tekyl vndyr [THORN]e too."

(24) "Syb of [THORN]i kyn [THORN]ow [THORN]at she be, / All gret with chylde hire wombe doth swelle! / Do calle here hedyr, [THORN]iself xal se / [THORN]at it is trewthe [THORN]at I [THORN]e telle."

(25) Coletti, "Purity and Danger," 69.

(26) "Here is [thorn]e botel of Goddys vengeauns. / This drynk xal be now [thorn]i purgacyon. / [thorn]is [hath] suche vertue by Goddys ordenauncs / bat what man drynk of [THORN]is potacyon / And goth serteyn in processyon / Here in bis place [thorn]is awtere abowth, / If he be gylty, sum maculacion / Pleyn in his face xal shewe it owth."

(27) "[thorn]u art with chylde we se in syght; / To us [thorn]i wombe be doth accuse! / [thorn]er was nevyr woman zitt in such plyght / [thorn]at from mankynde hyre kowde excuse."

(28) See 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, for a further discussion of Mary's body as a site of conflicting meaning with regard to religious law. As Kinservik argues, Mary's "obviously pregnant body ... contains the conflict of Mosaic law with the new Word. Having exempted Mary from the carnal imperative of the marriage law, the judges are now faced with a visible, public challenge to their compromised law" (195).

(29) "How hast [THORN]a chaungyd [THORN]in holy thought?"

(30) "Almyghty God xal be oure frende / Whan [THORN]e trewthe is tryed owth."

(31) "za, on [thorn]is wyse excusyth here every scowte / Whan here owyn synne hem doth defame!"

(32) Matthew 5:17. All biblical quotations taken from the The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy (Oxford U. Press, 1994).

(33) "to reyse slawndyr is al my lay."

(34) "within an howre thoreouth this town / Than evyr [THORN]er was [THORN]is thowsand 3ere."

(35) Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Penguin, 1971), 50.

(36) "I trespacyd nevyr with erthely wyght. / [THORN]erof I hope [THORN]urowe Goddys sonde / Here to be purgyd before zoure syght / From all synne clene, lyke as myn husbonde. / Take me [THORN]e botel out of zoure honde, / Here xal I drynke beforn zoure face. / Abowth [THORN]is awtere than xal I fonde / Vij tymes to go, by Godys grace."

(37) "Mercy, good Mary, I do me repent / Of my cursyd and fals language!"

(38) Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, 63.

(39) The episode under scrutiny here--the public accusation, interrogation, and potential reprobation of Mary and Joseph for Mary's pregnancy--is taken from the apocryphal New Testament books Pseudo-Matthew and Protevangelium and only appears in medieval English literature in one other place: John Lydgate's poem "Life of Our Lady." In Lydgate's treatment of the episode, he likens Mary to "a mirror of all holiness / The will of God, entirely did obey / With all her heart, and all her business / And with all this, filled with meekness" (1376-80). Mary is completely obedient to God's will, and in that, she reflects him; indeed, God is also "reflected" in the child the Virgin carries with her. When she speaks, Mary almost primarily addresses God; she reminds him "you know every heart" (1536) and asks him "if I have my virginity / Conserved whole, this is my plea /... / Make openly a demonstration" (1600-1; 1605). Mary may seem meeker here than in N-Town, but with these words, she is challenging God, reminding him of his duty to exonerate her openly, which, of course, he does. For the text of Lydgate's poem, see A Critical Edition of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, ed. Joseph A. Lauritis, Ralph A. Klinefelter, and Vernon F. Gallagher (Duquesne U. Press, 1961).

(40) Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, 63.
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Author:Coleman, Judith
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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