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The "Fygure" of the Market: The N-Town Cycle and East Anglian Lay Piety.

The biblical narratives in the N-Town plays--as in the mystery cycles generally--refer insistently to contemporary medieval beliefs, practices and institutions both in dialogue and in stage directions. Some of these anachronisms can be attributed to a need on the part of the dramatists to adapt sacred history to a contemporary idiom, as when Joseph fears on the eve of Christ's nativity that he has offended "God in Trinyte" (15.44).(1) Others, however, clearly have a more complex function in the plays, which critics have traditionally analyzed either as reformative satire of civic or ecclesiastical authority,(2) or in purely aesthetic terms, as dramatization of the typology of sacred history.(3) Lynn Squires, for example, argues that the Trial of Mary and Joseph invites the audience to accept "Jesus' two simple laws: to love God above all else and to love thy neighbor as thyself," and in so doing to reform the common law.(4) Alison Hunt's claim that the Trial of Mary and Joseph castigates those heretics who attack the "shared beliefs that also hold communities together" assumes the same positive view of civic community and institutional authority.(5) Martin Stevens has argued that the social function of the Herod plays in N-Town and Wakefield was to "serve the purpose of urban renewal" by holding a "grotesquely exaggerated figurehead of urban political power" up to the mocking disapproval of the people.(6) Similarly, Gail McMurray Gibson sees in the plays a harmonious marriage of orthodox religious authority and civic piety, "that hybrid blend of monastic and lay spirituality that is such a signature of fifteenth-century Suffolk and Norfolk culture."(7) The few critics who have dealt at length with the N-Town plays, then, all acknowledge that anachronism creates a close link between representations of community in the plays and the developing culture of late-medieval East Anglian communities. But this link remains only tentatively explored --Gibson's is the only full-length study--and critics who do address it tend to see in the plays a rather uncomplicated reformist satire that promotes amendment of the mechanisms of institutional authority without examining the constitution of that authority in general. In this view, social protest--generally conceived as being directed at local corruption and heterodox forms of lay piety--is evoked, recognized, and then subsumed in a vision of transcendent wholeness, a sublime social body that the plays (and the Corpus Christi processions originally associated with them) work to produce? The plays, in other words, represent and finally affirm a conservative social vision, leading their audiences toward a fairly non-specific sense of "charity," "wholeness," or "renewal" that does not threaten established institutions.

As a number of recent histories have emphasized, however, English religious culture in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was a complex and heterogeneous field--one in which the various interests were highly sensitive to traditional networks of power relations (including those in which the church was involved), to their own place in those power relations, and to the radical transformations taking place in social structure. In the wake of the population collapse in the 1350s, laborers, the emergent merchant and artisan classes, women, and towns themselves, all struggled for a measure of autonomy and official recognition, often against the considerable legal, political and economic power of dioceses and monastic boroughs. And as David Aers, Lynn Staley, Sarah Beckwith and others have shown, this struggle was conducted largely at the ideological level, over all the symbols of religious and civic life--which were, as Aers suggests, "enmeshed in the deployment and daily legitimations of power."(9) Beckwith's claim that "Christ's body is less the forum for integration and social cohesion than the forum for social conflict" is symptomatic of the recent focus in historical and cultural criticism on the struggles of marginalized groups against a church that came increasingly to be seen more as a repressive economic institution than as the medium of salvation(10) These struggles are largely responsible for the growth of the non-institutional forms of lay piety that historians have seen as characteristic of fifteenth-century English popular culture: Lollardy, saints' cults, confraternities and beguinages, and the private devotions reflected in popular vernacular manuals. While it could be integrated with church authority, heterodox lay devotion was more a symptom of dissatisfaction with that authority. The conceptual vocabulary of lay devotion, with its non-institutional emphasis on private affect, could thus become an important stage for challenges to the temporal (especially economic) power of the church.

The N-Town cycle is uniquely sensitive to the discourses of popular devotion, and given the turbulent social context in which East Anglian lay piety arose, I would suggest that the plays are far less integrative and generalized in their social vision than has been assumed. Like the other cycle plays, N-Town depicts Old Testament society as contemporary English society: a world structured and sustained by the marketplace, the spectacle of the courts, and the other institutions of the "old law." What is striking about the cycle is that in its staging of the typological fulfillment of the old law--the movement from a community dependent on "mede" to one founded on the plenitude of grace--the new dispensation is expressed not in terms of an ahistorical transcendence but in the quite historically specific language of lay piety. As N-Town represents it, the old law is the marketplace and ecclesiastical court of contemporary East Anglia, where "mede" dissolves traditional social relations and hierarchies (including, most importantly, traditional religious authority).(11) The old law prefigures a new dispensation articulated in terms of contemporary forms of lay devotion that emphasized spiritual life as mystical, non-rational, and private --closed off from the affairs of the social world. Notwithstanding the complexity of the text itself, with its multiple strata of revisions, the plays in all their diversity still reflect the characteristic habits of thought or mental structures of an audience that grew increasingly disenchanted with the institutional church in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, instead turning their attention and patronage to heterodox forms of lay piety: as Ritchie Kendall has observed, "the medieval dramatist and the itinerant Lollard preacher vied for the loyalties of much the same audience."(12) For the playwrights and the audience of N-Town, the necessary answer to the profound disruption of institutional religion is not a reformed version of the institutional church but the mystical body of Christ, identified with the complex of new, non-institutional forms of lay piety that was the particular hallmark of late-medieval East Anglian religious culture.


Any discussion of the East Anglian audience of the N-Town plays is of course complicated by the relative lack of information on the cycle's origin and production history. Most modern histories of the drama agree that as a rule the cycle plays involved large-scale collaborations between civic authorities, the large and influential lay craft and religious guilds, and (to varying degrees) ecclesiastical or monastic authorities.(13) But while theories abound in the scholarship, almost no hard evidence exists about the production of the N-Town plays specifically.(14) Equally problematic in the study of the plays is the question of audience. Hardin Craig's argument that the plays originated in Lincoln has been displaced in recent years by theories favoring various other centers of learning in East Anglia, including Thetford and Bury St. Edmunds.(15) Moreover, as many critics have noted, the N-Town Proclamation seems to imply that at least an early version of the play was designed for touring; it may therefore have circulated among several different communities in East Anglia.(16)

Wherever the N-Town plays were produced, though, it is clear that--at least around the time of their compilation in the mid-fifteenth century(17)--they were being produced primarily for a wealthy and urbanized lay audience. As John Coldewey suggests, late-medieval East Anglia was a "densely packed network of towns and villages" dominated by a few large urban centers, and the acceleration of the wool and cloth trade in the fifteenth century created what he characterizes as "prosperity at almost every level of the social order."(18) The plays themselves--the central metaphors of which are those of the city and marketplace--speak to an audience thoroughly informed by the structures of commerce central to the developing urban culture of late-medieval East Anglia. As Gibson suggests, the commercial wealth of fifteenth-century East Anglia created a religious climate ideal for some of the dominant (and most controversial) metaphors of the late-medieval church, "a spiritual climate in which the merchandizing metaphors of debt and payment and the materialism of holy images and relics formed the most coherent and consoling means of religious definition."(19) However, as Gibson emphasizes, the new East Anglian wealth also produced significant economic conflicts between church and civic authorities, and a closely related movement in popular religious culture away from the institutional structures of the church.(20) The rise of the Lollards after 1382 was only the most visible manifestation of a popular discontent with ecclesiastical corruption that intensified steadily after the 1350s, in the wake of the economic and social unrest created by the plague and the Hundred Years War.(21)

These tensions worsened in the fifteenth century: the wealth of the cloth trade and the chartering of urban centers throughout the southeast greatly expanded the power and wealth of the merchant class, exacerbating long-standing conflicts between local civic and ecclesiastical authorities over matters of legal jurisdiction and land ownership.(22) In 1404, for example, the city of Norwich was granted a charter giving it legal and economic control of its own land and many of the surrounding boroughs.(23) The charter immediately brought the city into conflict with the Benedictine Cathedral Priory, which at the time dominated the local economy, owning large amounts of land and controlling tithe revenue from a network of parish churches. While it had evidently been the focus of citizens' hostility before the fifteenth century--as evidenced by a violent attack in 1272 in which part of the cathedral was burned and thirteen people were killed--the chartering of the city was the catalyst for a bitter, litigious and sometimes violent struggle for legal and economic control of various tracts of disputed territory. In the 1420s and 30s the priory, under its aggressive prior John Heverlond, apparently organized its own minority faction in the city government. Not unexpectedly, this greatly increased civic hostility toward the priory, and in 1443, in response to an unfavorable judgment in a lawsuit (brought not only by Heverlond but by the abbots of two other Norfolk monasteries), the citizens of the city finally rioted. The civic authorities later claimed that the insurrection had merely been part of the festivities of Shrove Tuesday (though Shrove Tuesday was a full month away), but a jury of townspeople apparently loyal to the priory faction reported at a 1443 inquest that a large group had armed themselves and plotted to burn the cathedral and murder the prior and monks.(24) The city was later forced to pay extensive reparations, and relations between the secular authorities and the priory remained tense.

The history of Bury St. Edmunds, another important center of trade, closely parallels that of Norwich.(25) Throughout the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, as Bury was growing into a major center of regional and overseas commerce,(26) the St. Edmundsbury abbey owned most of the town and the surrounding lands, controlling civic government and local economic activity. But as the increasingly wealthy and powerful local merchants and tradesmen began to shake off monastic regulation of economic activity, town and abbey were drawn into a two-hundred-year conflict which surpassed that of Norwich in acrimony and violence. Disputes over economic control occurred as early as 1264, when a party of wealthy citizens demanded of the abbot that he recognize them as a secular guild and grant them administrative control of the town.(27) The abbot, Simon of Luton, successfully lobbied for royal confirmation of the abbey's rights, but similar conflicts continued over the next few decades. In 1327, a large group of citizens broke into and sacked parts of the abbey, forcing abbot Richard de Draughton to relinquish all control over the town. Over the next few months, as de Draughton appealed for papal and royal assistance, angry townspeople repeatedly attacked the abbey, on occasion provoking violent response from the monks. Again, however, the abbey eventually enlisted the aid of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope John XXII (the political instability caused by the minority of' Edward III served only to intensify the conflict), forcing the town to cede administrative control and agree to pay an incredible 14,000 [pounds sterling] in damages (most of which was forgiven, apparently in exchange for greater cooperation on the part of civic authorities). In the great Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the abbey was again sacked and the prior hunted down and killed, apparently with the tacit approval of Bury's merchant guildsmen. After the eventual suppression of the 1381 uprising, an uneasy truce prevailed between town and abbey. The aldermen of the town, Robert Gottfried suggests, "concentrated on improving their de facto rather than de jure privileges," consolidating and expanding guild organizations and trade networks.(28) In the first decades of the fifteenth century, a generation after the Peasants' Revolt, the town was wealthy enough to buy the administrative privilege it had sought by force.

The cultural history of the region in which the N-Town cycle took shape, then, is dominated by the struggles of the nascent merchant class (organized into guilds) with a monastic and ecclesiastical hierarchy that they experienced as a powerful, politicized and economically repressive corporate entity. In assessing the impact of these conflicts on the spiritual life of late-medieval East Anglia, it is interesting to note that by the late fifteenth century, commentators both within and outside of the church were criticizing it precisely for its character as a political corporation rather than a spiritual institution. Gordon Left has characterized the ideal of the "apostolic church"--the ideal of an institution stripped of its political infrastructure and returned to a simple form based on Christ's life and that of the early disciples--as "the great new ecclesiological fact of the later Middle Ages."(29) From the mid-thirteenth century onward, as Left suggests, heterodox or heretical commentaries like Marsilius of Padua's Defensor Pacis (1324), the teachings of Meister Eckhart (d. 1327), William of Ockham (d. 1349), and (later and closer to East Anglian culture) Wyclif and the Lollards de-emphasized the role of the church as a mediator of the divine, emphasizing the political motives and historical origins of the church as a human institution. And what Left describes in broad terms as an intellectual movement was precisely what the populace of East Anglia experienced as political and economic reality.(30) While it is dangerous to suggest any simple causal relationship between political conflict and the striking changes in the spiritual life of late-medieval England, the church's ongoing and highly visible exercise of power evidently played an important role in the identification of that power--both in heterodox criticism and in popular sentiment--with its institutional form and rituals. And while it is difficult to assess their degree of contact with heretical doctrine, the burgesses of Norwich and Bury clearly found as a practical matter that the spiritual authority of the church was difficult to separate from the very human economic motives it represented.

There is therefore certainly warrant to suggest a relationship between the long history of conflict between secular and spiritual authority, popular dissatisfaction with church hierarchy, and the growth of the nonconformist spirituality that characterizes late-medieval religious culture. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries particularly in East Anglia were marked not only by overt conflict with church authority but by what Norman Tanner has called a general "movement away from the established structures of the Church."(31) Trade with the continent led to an influx of various models of lay piety inspired by the traditions of continental mysticism--models that were quickly adopted among the members of the disaffected Christian polity. Norwich, as Tanner and Gibson stress, was the only city in which appeared beguinages (communities of pious lay women) similar to those on the continent. Hermits and religious recluses, individuals bent on pursuing mystical contact with the divine outside the structures of both church and state, flourished in East Anglia and attracted considerable interest and patronage from citizens and civic authorities.(32)

Increasingly, East Anglians sought to experience the divine in ways other than the traditional liturgy.(33) And this sentiment manifested itself not only in the marginalized voices of women or of Lollards but in the energetic patronage of a newly self-conscious guild culture, a culture that actively promoted and appropriated the language of lay piety to stage its own ideological claims. The Alderman's guild of Bury, for example, may have sponsored mystery plays, and was a major patron of a community of Franciscans living outside the town (to the consternation of the abbey, which was energetically trying to remove the friars). The St. Nicholas guild was responsible for the care and lodging of foreign traders, but it also sponsored a school independent of abbey control.(34) As patrons and consumers, the guilds also played an important role in the dissemination of the literature associated with the lay piety movement. As Hilary Carey observes, much of this literature was copied and distributed by the nine charterhouses of the Carthusian order.(35) More reclusive and less involved in local and regional politics and commerce, the Carthusian houses did not attract the resentment of their monastic and ecclesiastical counterparts in East Anglia; indeed, Carey calls them "the last flowering of the medieval confidence in the capacity of institutions to accumulate delegated merit in the eyes of God."(36) Stimulated by lay patronage, the Carthusians made a generation of English mystics and devotional writers--Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Nicholas Love, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, and others--available to a broad spectrum of lay society, from landed gentry to the increasingly literate merchant classes. Jeremy Catto suggests that devotional manuals of the English nobility in the fourteenth century demonstrate a shift in focus from "the liturgical chanting of the psalter" to a "more individual, humanized, and intimate expression of religious sentiment."(37) Noble wills and library catalogues indicate a strong interest in mystical and devotional writers, and many of the nobility--including Edward III and Richard II --generously patronized the Carthusian houses.(38) The merchant classes were no different in their interest in and patronage of devotional literature. Gibson notes that vernacular bibles were apparently circulating among East Anglian merchants in the first years of the sixteenth century and, quite probably, earlier.(39) And even the moderately well-off tradesmen of London and East Anglia acquired texts of Rolle, Hilton and others in significant numbers.(40)

The common element in the diverse and eclectic writers who addressed the lay pious is (as in their continental counterparts) a more individualistic model of the pious life, a model based not on official church ritual but on private experience.(41) The venerable Augustinian distinction between active and contemplative life was, in these works, appropriated and adapted for the late fourteenth-century English faithful, an audience in whose eyes the politicized ritual of social life was often in radical conflict with what they saw as the true apostolic ideals of Holy Church.(42) Originally intended as a description of the highest aim of the pastoral life, the contemplative ideal became a central metaphor for the inner life of the individual, protected from and defined against the marketplace of the social world. Love in his Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a central text in late-medieval lay devotion and an important influence on many of the N-Town plays,(43) complains that church ritual itself has been reduced to empty social performance by "many men & women beringe bedes with trillyng on the fingeres, & waggyng the lippes; hot the siht cast to vanytees & the herte ... sette more vpon worldly thinges" (86).(44) Love does not, of course, deny the reality of the sacraments, but the paradigm of sacred experience for Love is not communal ritual as in the liturgy. The "actif" life, he asserts, is good--that is, it is possible to live a pious life in the social world--but "contemplatif [is] bettur" (123). And the defining experience of the contemplative life is a private mystical contact that can only be described in sensual terms, as when he describes an anonymous friend's experience of the transubstantiated body of Christ:

... in what delectable paradise is he for that tyme that thus feleth that blessede bodily presence of [Christ], in that preciouse sacrament, thorh the which he feleth him sensibly with vnspekable joy as he were joynede body to body? (154).

Though he is of course describing a sacrament, Love's representation of Christ as a bodily presence is notably free of the institutional presence of church ritual, locating sacred power not in performance but in the pure affective power of the moment.(45) The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing (c. 1380) makes the same distinction between active and contemplative lives, and he clarifies in his prologue that the contemplative ideal is to be identified with the private world of the individual Christian--man or woman, religious or secular, "I oute-take none" (18; 27.7)--and not necessarily with physical withdrawal from social life.(46) It is possible, then, for good Christians who "stonde in actyuete bi outward forme of levyng" in the social world of "Fleschely ianglers, opyn preisers & blamers ... tithing tellers, rouners & tutilers of tales, & alle maner of pinchers" to feel the "inward stering" that leads them to the sublime experience of the contemplative act (Prol.; 2.1-9). Similarly, Walter Hilton's Mixed Life offers the possibility of mediating between the radically separate spheres of "wordeli bisynesse" and the inner spiritual life of the individual, in which mystical contact with God "bi goostli occupacioun" (7) is possible: "take thise two lyues, actif and contemplatif, sithen God hath sent the bothe, and vse hem bothe, that toon with that tothir" (32).(47) The Abbey of the Holy Ghost, a devotional text at least indirectly associated with N-Town,(48) addresses itself to "all tho that ne may noghte be bodyly in religyone, that thay may be gostely," instructing its readers in what the author calls the "religeon of the herte."(49) The abbey (of course) is not a physical space but a spiritual one, founded in "mannes saule that es goddes cete" (1.323). Active and contemplative lives, then, are identified in these works with the public and private spheres as understood and experienced by the lay faithful of late-medieval England. As the Cloud-author neatly puts it, "In the lower partye of actiue liif a man is withouten himself & bineeth himself. In the higher party of actyue liif & the lower party of contemplatiue liif, a man is withinne himself & even with himself. Bot in the higher partie of contemplatiue liif, a man is aboven himself & under his God" (8; 17.34-38). In this formulation, active and contemplative are not different kinds of religious lifestyles but modes of experience defined by the subject's relationship with the public sphere ("withouten himself") and with him or herself and with God ("withinne" and "aboven himself") as experienced in a privileged inner space. And the remarkable privileging of the contemplative private sphere, the representation of sacred experience as private and immediate rather than social and mediated by ritual, occurs repeatedly throughout the corpus of lay devotional literature.(50)

Given the social and economic context in which they were written, there is plainly an important ideological dimension to the claims of lay devotional literature for the privilege of private devotion. In all these works, devout lay people--who, as I have suggested, lived in the political and economic shadow of the church--found a model of piety within which the highest form of devotion was a contemplative life based on this sort of essentially private experience and not dependent upon the institutional authority of that church. It is important, of course, not to understate the diverse contexts in which various devotional works arose. Rolle, Hilton, the Cloud-author, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich all followed private and in various ways heterodox visions, and all differ significantly on important issues like the role of the intellect and of clerical authority in distinguishing true affective experience from false. Love's Mirror, on the other hand, was approved by Arundel himself as an attack on Lollardy. But these works became significant to the developing civic culture of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries precisely because of what is common in them: the emphasis on piety as private, affective, and (particularly in the Cloud-author and Hilton) defined in opposition to the social performance of the marketplace and other forms of "wordeli bisynesse." In the vision of devotional writers, the lay pious, particularly the wealthy merchants and tradesman who comprised the guild communities, saw a displacement of the sacred from the ritual of the institutional church to the sublime experience of private devotion. And the cycle plays, as critics like Rubin and Beckwith have shown, offered a stage that could become an important vehicle for exploring--even exploiting--the political and ideological dimensions of this displacement.


As it is preserved in Cotton Vespasian D.8, the N-Town cycle is comprised of 41 plays and the Proclamation. Spector suggests that the manuscript was first compiled in the mid to late fifteenth century and continued to be revised, possibly into the sixteenth century.(51) The play, as Spector observes, incorporates a smaller cycle play, a Marian sequence, two Passion sequences, and several individual plays.(52) Not all of these discrete play sequences draw upon the same devotional literature: the Marian sequence and some revisions of other plays clearly draw on Love's Mirror and (in the Parliament of Heaven) the Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, sources not identifiable in the original cycle or the Passion sequences.(53)

As various scholars have suggested, though, the plays demonstrate a remarkable degree of aesthetic coherence.(54) This is true for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that the N-Town cycle, patchwork though it is, draws its narrative shape from the same interpretive logic as its cousins in York, Wakefield, and Chester: by contextualizing the life of Christ in the broad sweep of sacred history from the Creation and the Fall to Judgement Day, all the cycle plays in one form or another stage the typology of human history, the relation of adumbration and fulfillment between the old law and the law of charity. While Kolve's attempt to define an originary "protocycle" might be questionable, he is certainly right to say that the metaphysics of history implicit in the logic of typological interpretation underwrites all the cycle plays: "Figures and their fulfillment, the mimesis of total human time ... are the core of the Corpus Christi cycle and the source of its formal shape."(55) In a well-known study, Erich Auerbach concisely summarizes the model of sacred history bequeathed to the middle ages by St. Paul and early commentators like Tertullian: "figural prophecy implies the interpretation of one worldly event through another: the first signifies the second, the second fulfills the first. Both remain historical events; yet both, looked at in this way, have something provisional and incomplete about them; they point to one another and both point to something in the future, something still to come, which will be the actual, real and definitive event."(56) Typological interpretation presents history as an intelligible form, an architecture manifesting (albeit imperfectly) the eternal present of the divine intellect. Figures, events, and institutions of the Old Testament, while historically real, are nonetheless imperfect versions of the redeemed moral world of the new dispensation, brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ.

The N-Town plays, as various scholars have noted, place special emphasis on this intelligible pattern in sacred history. One of the plays of the Proclamation cycle, for example, is the Jesse Root (7)--unique among the surviving cycle plays--in which a personification of radix Jesse introduces the succession of kings and prophets that culminates in Christ, the "flowre" that blooms "out of that braunch in Nazareth" (7.21-22). The image of the great tree extending through time is, of course, traditional, and its staged version expresses powerfully and precisely the idea of form in human history: Solomon reminds the audience that his temple is "fygure of that mayde yynge / That xal be modyr of grett Messy" (7.43-44); Daniel likewise provides an interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the tree (from Dan. 4:10-28) as "fygure" of Christ, the "maydenys frute" who will terrify Hell (7.62-64).(57) Moreover, as Stevens points out, the play sets the stage for the ensuing pagaents--including those of the interpolated Marian and Passion sequences--which develop a pattern of images of ripeness, flowering, and fruitfulness around the figure of Mary.(58) While we cannot know if this is the work of a single author or reviser, it is at least evident that the conceptual vocabulary with which the various playwrights were working remains remarkably consistent throughout the cycle, largely because of the consistency and coherence with which the language of typological interpretation was handed down to the later Middle Ages.

Stevens analyzes the typological patterning in N-Town primarily as an example of the aesthetic coherence of the cycle as a whole. But the metaphysics of history implicit in typology are precisely what define the ideological claims of the N-Town cycle: the limitations of Old Testament civic society, sustained by the mediation of the old law, are also (by way of anachronism) the limitations of the institutional church in East Anglia. Old Testament civic society in the N-Town plays is a community dependent upon systems of exchange for the integrity of its relationship with God and of the relationships between its members. The "hoold lawe" in its various manifestations--and in its contemporary extensions, medieval civil and ecclesiastical law--codifies and institutionalizes these forms of exchange, making civic society and "civic" spirituality possible. Thus in Cain and Abel, Abel conceives of piety as a form of payment for services rendered: "For godys that fallyth bothe hym [Cain] and me; / I wolde fayn wete trewly" (3.30-31). Adam responds by laying out the law of sacrifice that defines the relationship between God and man under the old law:
   And suche good as God hath yow sent,
   The fyrst frute offyr to hym in sacryfice brent,
   Hym ever besechyng with meke entent
   In all youre werkys to save and spede.

Devotion is expressed in terms of this system of exchange, a system that is persistently referred to in Cain and Abel as "tythyng": to know God is to "wete" God, and to "wete" God is to tithe. (59) The pattern is the same in Moses, in which--as God himself says--piety is service to the law: "Hooso wyll haue frenshipp of me, / To my lawys loke thei lowte, / That thei be kept in all degre" (6.42-44). Besides preserving the relationship between God and fallen man, the old law preserves the integrity of the community: it is a form of commerce, and as such it is an essentially communal ritual. As Ysakar says in Joachim and Anna (from the Marian sequence),
   Now all the kynredys to Jerusalem must cum
   Into the temple of God, here to do sacryfyse.
   Tho that be cursyd my dygnyte is to dysspyse,
   And tho that be blyssyd here holy sacrefyse to take.

Membership in the community is defined as mutual adherence to the law of sacrifice administered by the priesthood; to be blessed is to be included in the ritual and to be cursed is to be excluded from it. The temple into which "all this countre of Galyle must come (8.42) also reflects the essentially social nature of the law of which it is an enactment: it is represented as the focal point around which the community gathers and realizes itself as a community, united in service to the "hoold lawe."

This social function of the old law is most explicit--and most explicitly identified with contemporary ecclesiastical institutions--in the Trial of Mary and Joseph. The play opens with a communal gathering similar to that in Joachim and Anna, as Den the summoner calls "all the rowte" (14.6) together to witness the "buschop come / And syt in the courte, the lawes for to doo" (14.1-2). Den's inventory of the members of the "rowte," Sawdyr Sadelere, Thom Tynkere, Perys Pottere, and so on, is of course an allegorization of the network of occupations that constitutes the East Anglian civic polity. As in Joachim and Anna, the gathering of this community suggests its integrity, but also that this integrity depends on spectacle, on the physical convocation that the law brings about. As in the Old Testament plays generally, piety in the form of service to the law is an essentially communal act, and is therefore dependent on the laws and systems of exchange which give the community structure.

The systematic use of anachronism in these plays associates the old law and its paradigm of exchange and sacrifice with medieval ecclesiastical institutions. Kolve points out that Abel in Cain and Abel recalls the consecration prayer of the liturgy in performing the sacrifice prescribed by the old law.(60) Service to this law, according to Moses, includes service to "thi gostly modyr," "Holy Cherch" (6.128). The pattern continues in the Marian sequence, where the temple, the court, and the priests and bishops who administer the old law are explicitly associated with the medieval liturgy. As Peter Meredith points out, Ysakar in Joachim and Anna anachronistically refers to "fastyng," "prayng," "alms," and "wake" as part of his role,(61) while the celebration of "Festum Encenniorum" includes such common elements of the Mass as the incensing of the altar and the antiphonal sequence beginning "Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini" (8.110).(62) Similar patterns occur in the Marriage of Mary and Joseph, which includes elements of the medieval marriage service.(63) Finally, scholars have long noted the parallels between the court in the Trial of Mary and Joseph (from the original Proclamation cycle) and the medieval ecclesiastical court.(64) The old law that the bishops Ysakar and Abysakar are constantly invoking in these plays;, then, is quite explicitly identified with the ritual of the contemporary medieval church and these forms of anachronism are clearly broader in their implications than scholars have traditionally believed. Contact with the divine in the Old Testament narratives is mediated by the law in exactly the ways that were unsatisfactory to the new religious aesthetic of the fifteenth century, and this mediation is (by way of anachronism) also attributed to the contemporary institutional church. The law of sacrifice, its agents, and the polity it structures are at times satirized as venal and corrupt, but more important, they are represented as figures of a new kind of social body, the mystical body of Christ. Correspondingly, the institutions that structure the life and spirituality of East Anglian civic culture are implicated by association with the displaced form of communal spiritual life.

Like the Mary plays and the Proclamation-cycle plays that have been allowed to remain, the interpolated Passion sequences (which pick up the New Testament narrative with the conspiracy of Annas and Caiaphas) preserve the dramatic emphasis on fulfillment, focusing on the ongoing conflict between agents of the law of sacrifice and the Christian community that has superseded them. The Scribe, Pharisee and "Accusator" of the Woman Taken in Adultery (from the Proclamation cycle) conspire together out of fear that Jesus will "breke oure lawe and make it lame" (24.44) and repeat several times that they are acting in the name of Mosaic law; Annas sounds precisely the same theme at the beginning of the Passion sequence: "The lawys of Moyses no man xal denye!" (26.168). The Passion plays, however, rewrite the relationship between the old law and the structure of civic society. Whereas in the earlier plays the ritual of the old law (anachronistically, the medieval liturgy) creates and preserves social order, in the Passion sequences this function is associated mainly with the ritual of commercial exchange. The agents of the old law are still concerned primarily with maintaining civic order: Annas, for example, says that his mandate as bishop of the "lawys of Moyses" is to "provyde pes" (26.165), and he and the other authorities are worried lest Christ "perverte the pepyl" (26.218). However, money rather than the liturgy becomes the ritual medium that maintains this peace, and the marketplace itself comes to the foreground as the emblem of civic society under the law of sacrifice. The Passion sequences do not incorporate elements of the Mass; rather, the plays focus on the intrigues of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in their efforts to sway public opinion away from Christ. In so doing, the plays make explicit both the economy on which civic order depends, and the corrupting and destabilizing effects of that economy. Confronted with the soldiers who have witnessed the resurrection, Annas says that "mede doth most in every qwest, / And mede is maystyr bothe est and west" (35.261-62); Caiaphas follows up by advising Pilate to give them "golde, feste, and food,/ And that may chaunge ther wytt" (35.267-68). Significantly, the betrayal of Jesus is explicitly represented as an absurd commodification carried out by the bishops of the old law: Annas tells Christ scornfully that "We payd to thi dyscyple for the thretty pens, / And as an ox or an hors we trewly the bowth" (29.124-25), and repeats the claim to Judas in the next play (30.31). Just as Herod is a "grotesquely exaggerated figurehead of urban political power," the contract between Judas and the bishops is a grotesquely exaggerated mirror of the cash nexus that structures social relations and maintains social order.

As in the Old Testament plays, the agents of this paradigm of social and spiritual life are explicitly associated with contemporary medieval institutions: Annas and Caiaphas are costumed, according to stage directions, as medieval bishops (26.164sd), and Rewfyn and Lyon, the two "jewgys of the lawe" (26.238) with whom they conspire, are costumed as judges of the medieval common law.(65) In the original cycle sequence and in the Marian and Passion sequences, then, contemporary ecclesiastical authorities are closely associated with models of piety and social order based on exchange: commerce defines the structure of civic society under the old law, and anachronism in the Passion sequences identifies this mercantile culture with East Anglian civic culture. In the Passion sequences, the supersession of the law of sacrifice is manifest not just in the failure of agents of the old law to comprehend Christ but in the profound complicity of Annas, Caiaphas, and their various co-conspirators in the social world ruled by "mede." This, of course, reflects quite precisely the East Anglian perception of the ritual mediation of the institutional church and the economic hegemony that underwrote it.

As it is represented in N-Town (particularly in the Passion sequence), the typological fulfillment of the old law marks the begining of an age in which "mede" and the values and social structures associated with it are no longer the mediators of spiritual life. The spiritual life that Christ inaugurates, moreover, is articulated in a conceptual vocabulary that would have been as familiar and evocative to the East Anglian audience as that of typology itself: the private, non-institutional language of contemplation as defined by the devotional literature associated with lay piety. Piety under the new dispensation of Christ expresses the central values of the new religious aesthetic of the fifteenth century in particular, the desire for the less mediate forms of sacred experience available to the subject "withinne" and "aboven himself."

The strongest indictment of the institutionalized spirituality associated with civic culture is not, I would argue, in the satire of plays like the Trial of Mary and Joseph but in Jesus' simple statement about the old law in the Last Supper: "this fygure xal sesse" (27.361). The N-Town plays represent as figural the relationship between the mercantile society of the old law and the Christian society of the new. Most important, the plays anachronistically locate contemporary church ritual in the time of symbolic exchange, "wordeli bisynesse," what the Legenda aurea calls purificatio typica and what Christ calls the "eld lawe ... vsyd for a sacryfyce" that is to be replaced by a "sacryfyce most of price" (27.370-73). The purificatio vera of Christ himself, on the other hand, implies the end of the symbolic, which the playwrights of N-Town interpret as a radical circumscription of the ritual life of the community, and indeed of human reason itself. As Kathleen Ashley has pointed out, Christ is personified in N-Town as divine "wysdam," which is understood to be primarily affective and non-rational, and which is the antithesis of human "wyt."(66) "Wyt," as plays like Christ and the Doctors emphasize, is understood to include the entire litany of contemporary medieval theoretical and practical science. The doctors whom the infant Christ repudiates in the play arrogantly proclaim themselves masters of "all maner clergyse" (21.2), including not only the trivium and quadrivium but also "grett canon and ... cevyle lawe, / Also ... scyens of polycye," in which they assert there is no one besides them "wurthe an hawe" (25-27). The "wysdam" of Christ defines the limits of "naturall wytt" (134), which by implication includes contemporary political science and canon and civil law, the institutions that sustain the Old Testament city--which is also the East Anglian city. Indeed, the speech in which Christ foretells the destruction of Jerusalem in the Last Supper is considerably amplified over the gospel accounts: with his vivid images of famine, wailing children, and the impending "vengeaunce of God" (27.1-16), he speaks rather more in the language of the Old Testament prophet than the Christ who speaks to his disciples of a new kingdom founded on "pes ... love, and reste, and charyte" (39.1-2). And insofar as the playwrights and audience understood Jerusalem to be contemporary East Anglia in more than a merely accidental sense, the overall effect of this scene is to move the moral center of contemporary spiritual life from the physical locus of the city to the individual apart from the social stage--a shift exemplified by the risen Christ and by the apostles, and one which parallels the constitutive binary of "withouten" and "withinne" that was the hallmark of lay devotional literature. Civic society--the gathering of bodies sustained by commerce and law--is fulfilled in the spiritual body of which Christ is the head (27.361), a body which, as Aquinas explains, has no physical locus: "The difference between the natural body of a man and the mystical body of the Church is that the members of a natural body all exist together [omnia simul], whereas members of the mystical body do not."(67) Indeed, in contrast to the gathering of people associated with the civic community under the old law, the disciples scatter "In Jerusalem and in Jury, / And moreovyr also in Samary, / And to the worldys ende vttyrly" (39.40-43). The same theme is developed emphatically in the interpolated Assumption of Mary, which stages the Legenda aurea's account of the miraculous convocation of the apostles at the moment of Mary's assumption: Mary fears that the apostles are "so deseverid" that they will not be able to return to her (41.145), John describes his preaching in Ephesus, "a fer contre ryth" (190), and Peter gives Mary an account of how "in dyueris contreys we prechid of youre sone and his blis" (283).

The physical exile of the members of the mystical community of Christ also implies a more intimate contact with divinity: while social ritual and civic ceremonial preserve the old law; the new is more contemplative, less institutional, oriented more toward the individual. Under the Mosaic law, "frenshipp" with God is service to a law administered by "Holy Cherch" (6.42). In the time of grace, "God throw Mary is mad mannys frend" (41.521). The two commandments of the new dispensation are not enacted in public spectacle as is the law in the Trial of Mary and Joseph; rather, Peter says, they are the "tweyn fete" that "heuery man xuld haue," "Wyche xuld bere the body gostly, most of substawns" (26.404-5). The whole institutional structure of civic society, dependent for its existence on the commerce of the liturgy and of "mede," in effect ceases to be the structuring paradigm of devotion.(68) It is displaced, as Peter's speech suggests, by a piety unmediated by the ritual associated with the church.

This theme is developed in a succession of figures who, along with Christ, speak for the new model of piety in the time of grace. Satan's engaging prologue to the Passion sequence is immediately succeeded by the prologue of John the Baptist, which is notable precisely for the absence of the colorful and urbane contemporary references of Satan. Indeed, by modern standards it seems as if John is in danger of being hopelessly upstaged: his speech is brief--a mere thirty-nine lines, as opposed to Satan's hundred and twenty-four--and he does not respond or even refer to Satan's ironic claims for the power of "dysgysyd varyauns" to "cownterfete" rank (26.65), or to his advice to ignore civil and canon law and to swear as often as possible. Instead, John admonishes his audience in more abstract terms: "sewe the patthe of hope and drede" (26.148); believe without presumption in the possibility of redemption, and fear God without despair. The two speeches are striking in the contrasting ways in which they position the audience: Satan speaks to the audience as citizens of a city, but John, like Peter, preaches redemption in terms of affective virtues that belong to the private life of every Christian soul. The contrast between Satan and John thus reflects at least indirectly the contrast between public and private life as described by Hilton and the Cloud-author, and it is worth noting that the theme of "hope and drede" was a central one in numerous other popular devotional works.(69)

Representations of the disciples in the plays following the Passion sequences, particularly in the Appearance to Thomas and Pentecost, generally emphasize the immediate and non-rational contact with the divine that was the paradigmatic experience of fifteenth-century lay piety. While civic and ecclesiastical institutions in N-Town exemplify the failures and limitations of human "wyt," Gail Gibson has pointed out that Thomas became a positive emblem in the fifteenth century by virtue of the intimate contact with Christ to which his doubt led him.(70) In his long lyric in the Appearance to Thomas, Thomas presents the bloody hand that "dede in [Christ's] hertblood wade" (38.370) as a "myrroure" authenticating the miracle of the resurrection and confirming the faith of the Christian polity (38.383). Similarly, the disciples' communion with the Holy Spirit in the play of Pentecost is represented as a non-rational mystical experience not associated with liturgical ritual. While the Chester and York treatments of the subject include common elements of the liturgy such as the hymns "Veni creator spiritus" and "Accipite spiritum sanctum" (and in the case of Chester, a recitation of the Apostles' Creed), in the N-Town Pentecost the disciples experience the Holy Spirit simply as a "swetnes, / Whiche to dyscrye fer passyth oure myght" (40.6-7). Both the "inexpressibility trope" and the description of sacred experience in sensual terms recall the mystical and devotional literature associated with lay piety, and the lack of reference to the liturgy--in contrast with the Old Testament plays--suggests that the playwright was attempting to represent a piety purified of any associations with the official Church. Again, the emphasis on physical or sensual contact with the divine unmediated by Church ritual in the Appearance to Thomas and Pentecost represents a form of piety much closer to the mystical and lay devotional models than to the liturgical.

The Mary plays and the second Passion sequence are introduced by "Contemplacio," a figure likely inspired by the contemplacio rubrics that appear in Love's Mirror to introduce devotional exercises. Unlike the other less familiar or abstract allegorical characters in the Mary sequence and elsewhere, Contemplacio never names himself; Gibson speculates that he might have been costumed as a monk to indicate his function. However the producers chose to costume him, though, Gibson is clearly right in stressing his significance in bringing the plays into closer generic alignment with other works of contemplative lay devotion.(71) Love's contemplative exercises, like those of other devotional treatises, encourage the reader to imagine scenes from the life of Christ as visual images, often considerably elaborating on the detail in the source text to generate more intense response. Insofar as the audience understood his role, then, the very presence of Contemplacio frames the Mary and Passion plays as devotional tableaux that (like the scenes in Love) structure the audience's affective response, orienting it towards the sublimity of mystical contact. And as Gibson points out, one N-Town playwright or editor greatly expanded Contemplacio's significance by writing him in at the beginning of the Parliament of Heaven, where his impassioned plea on behalf of fallen man--with the invocation "gracyous Lord, come downe!" in the final line--actually seems to move God and the Virtues to intercede (11.1-32). The very explicit claim for the power and efficacy of contemplative devotion as sacred experience, here as elsewhere quite innocent of church ritual, would clearly have resonated with an East Anglian audience already sensitized to the conceptual world of contemplative lay devotion.

Probably the most significant figure to focus the emphasis in N-Town on the contemplative nature of piety under the new dispensation is Mary herself. The interpolation of the Mary plays and the Assumption of Mary of course give the N-Town cycle as a whole a distinctive Marian emphasis; many critics have correlated this fact with the general prevalence of devotions to the Virgin in guilds, confraternities and also church ritual in East Anglia.(72) And while representations of Mary in East Anglian culture are as complex and conflicted as representations of Christ, it is nevertheless true that she emerged as a central figure in lay devotion, and she emerges rather unambiguously in N-Town as a figure expressing the values of the contemplative life. As with the other figures associated with the Christian community, various plays stress her role in the fulfillment of the structures of the old law: Solomon in the Jesse Root play identifies his temple as "fygure of that mayde yynge / That xal be modyr of grett Messy" (7.44-45); Christ in the Assumption calls her the "hefnely temple" (41.511), while the archangel Michael in the same play (as noted above) identifies her as the fulfillment of the Mosaic paradigm of "frenshipp"--the mediator who makes God "mannys frend" through grace (521).

Throughout the Marian sequence and the Assumption, this fulfillment is represented as contemplative devotion and defined in opposition to the social world. As Contemplacio asserts, she is "nevyr occapyed in thyngys veyn, / But evyr besy in holly ocupacyon" (9.296-97), the first instance of which is in the Presentation, where a three-year-old Mary miraculously recites the fifteen Gradual Psalms as she ascends the fifteen steps of the temple.(73) As Meredith and Spector both point out, the play conflates a number of accounts of this event,(74) and they do it in a way that places special emphasis on the fulfillment of the old law in terms of contemplative devotion. "Episcopus" glosses the steps as a symbolic journey "from Babylony to Hevynly Jherusalem" (9.99); the infant Mary climbs the steps, reciting the psalms as she goes, and providing for each psalm a "gostly" interpretation (9.102). The close of the age of purificatio typica could not be more emphatically staged: the "gostly" meaning of the physical steps of the temple and the Gradual Psalms is manifest both in the body of Mary, which will bear Christ, and in the inspired truth of her gloss. The glosses--which Meredith suggests were written specifically for the play--mention "propyr confession" (118) but they are above all affective virtues: "holy desyre with God to be" (103), "meke obedyence" (114), "childely fer indede / With a longyng love" (134-35; cf. John the Baptist's prologue). This is not, of course, the self-assertive learning of "clergyse" in Christ and the Doctors but the moral vision of divine illumination, a vision accessible in private reading and contemplation: as Mary says in the Marriage of Mary and Joseph, the psalms "feryth mannys herte gostly," "claryfieth the herte and charyte makyth cowthe," and teach their readers to `desyre thyngys celestly" (10.440-48). The emphasis on contemplation and affect continues throughout the Mary plays: Episcopus introduces Mary to five allegorical maidens who will attend her, including "Meditacyon" and "Fruyssyon," which Spector glosses as the "joy of communion with God" (9.198-200).(75) She also meets seven priests, who are not clergy but moral and intellectual virtues, including "Devocyon," "Deliberacyon," and "Dylexcyon" (spiritual love). Initially troubled by doubt in the Salutation and Conception, she comes to understand and believe Gabriel's message not through "clergyse" but "by inspyracyon" (11.322), and like the Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception itself is an inexpressible "joy" and "blisse" (11.305).

The link between Mary's private devotions and her privileged communion with God is constantly stressed: she tells Elizabeth that Gabriel came to her while she "sat in my lytyl hous onto God praynge" (13.68), and when we meet her in the Assumption she is "in templo orans," expressing her longing "Wyth all myn herte and my sowle" to be with God (41.101). As in the Contemplacio prologue to the Parliament of Heaven, her prayer ascends directly to the Son (now "Sapientia"), who responds immediately by sending an angel to announce her impending assumption to joy from "worldly perplexite" (112). Again, there is a powerful message here for an East Anglian audience frustrated with what they saw as a Church whose ritual was inextricably bound up in contemporary ideological conflict. In the Assumption, as elsewhere, the ritual and law of the "Episcopus Legis" remains bound to the worldly sphere, while in Mary and in the other figures who represent piety in the time of grace, affective devotion is an escape from "worldly perplexite" and a mediating link between earthly history and the eternal present of God.

N-Town is not a call to revolution or heresy. Indeed, while the doctors who assert their mastery of "grett canon and ... cevyle lawe" are repudiated, the devil is the one who encourages the audience to set the laws "at nowth" (26.94). Nor do I mean to suggest that the plays do not offer reformative criticism in some sense; the audience was certainly concerned with corruption in their civic and ecclesiastical institutions. However, the persistent anachronism in the plays does reflect the sentiments of an audience that was at the same time increasingly urbanized and increasingly dissatisfied with "official" models of piety and the power structures they too often represented. These sentiments are reflected particularly strongly in the anachronistic metaphors associated with N-Town's representation of the typology of sacred history, and this aspect of the use of anachronism is not an aesthetics of typology, nor it it social satire in the conventional sense, nor is it communal celebration. It is a witness to a new religious aesthetic, a piety that drew its defining metaphors not from the communal life of the city but from the private life of every individual subject, from the "religeon" of every "herte."

The Pennsylvania State University


(1) V.A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford U. Press, 1966), 104. This and all subsequent references to the plays are to Stephen Spector, ed., The N-Town Play, EETS s.s. 11, 12 (Oxford U. Press, 1991). I have regularized thorns and yoghs.

Portions of this essay were presented at the 29th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, May 1994.

(2) See especialy Kolve, 104-6, and Lynn Squires, "Law and Disorder in the Ludus Coventriae," Comparative Drama 12 (1978): 205 ff. Martin Stevens discusses this function of anachronism in the context of the York plays (Four Middle English Mystery Cycles [Princeton U. Press, 1987], 84-87), and has recently applied the same paradigm to the Herod plays of the N-Town and Wakefield cycles ("Herod as Carnival King" [paper presented at Penn State Center for Medieval Studies Conference, University Park, 25 March 1993]). Alison Hunt has suggested that Mary's detractors in the same play represent a criticism of the damage done to the communal life of the city by the Lollards ("Maculating Mary: The Detractors of the N-Town Cycle"s `Trial of Joseph and Mary,'" PQ 73 [1994]: 11-29).

(3) See Kolve, 108, 119-23. Daniel Poteet II argues that deliberate anachronism emphasizes the similarities in the human condition undercutting the significance of "passing time" and helping to create a "reasonable facsimilie of timeless eternity" ("Time, Eternity, and Dramatic Form in Ludus Coventriae `Passion Play I,'" Comparative Drama 8 [1974-75]: 369-85). Similarly, Stevens suggests that "anachronism is an outgrowth of typology, wherein human history is seen from the timeless perspective of God" (Mystery Cycles, 231).

(4) Squires, 211.

(5) Hunt, 12.

(6) "Herod as Carnival King." Stevens earlier applied a similar paradigm to the York cycle, concluding mat its social function was to "bring a new sense of charity to all who take part in the civic life of York" (Mystery Cycles, 87).

(7) Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1989), 127.

(8) On the Corpus Christi procession as a ritual of social wholeness, see Mervyn James, "Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval Town," Past and Present 98 (1983): 3-29. James argues that the Corpus Christi processions (with their emphasis on stability and social hierarchy) and the cycle plays (with their emphasis on the marketplace, social mobility, and satire of authority) counterbalanced each other in a ritual process the overall effect of which was "social integration" (5). Various critics have adapted James's position to discussions of individual cycle plays. Martin Stevens, for example, has argued that the N-Town and Wakefield Herod plays satirize civic corruption but that this satire takes place in the larger context of a Corpus Christi festival within which "the community renews itself and reintegrates its structure." And though he suggests that the plays do in fact represent the inauguration of a "new social and spiritual order," his argument is for local reform and not structural transformation ("Herod as Carnival King"). For criticisms of James's position, see Sarah Beckwith, Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings (London: Routledge, 1993), 22-44; Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1991), 265-66; and the discussion below. Beckwith has also argued convincingly that the York Corpus Christi cycle reflects a more profoundly conflicted social vision than has previously been recognized. See "Sacrum Signum: Sacramentality and Dissent in York's Theatre of Corpus Christi," Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages, ed. Rita Copeland (Cambridge U. Press, 1996), 264-88; and "Ritual, Theater, and Social Space in the York Corpus Christi Cycle," Bodies and Disciplines: Intersections of Literature and History in Fifteenth-Century England, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and David Wallace, Medieval Cultures 9 (U. of Minnesota Press, 1996), 63-86.

(9) David Aers and Lynn Staley, The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture (The Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1996), 16. Aers provides a valuable analysis of the various ways in which the late-medieval English church was bound up in ideological conflicts in Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 38-79.

(10) Beckwith, Christ's Body, 35. Other studies of late-medieval English culture that focus primarily on modes of resistance to church or secular authority include Anne Clark Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Cornell U. Press, 1995); Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions (The Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1994); and David Aers, Community, Gender and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360-1430 (London: Routledge, 1988). The work of Caroline Walker Bynum is seminal in this movement, especially Holy Feast and Holy Fast (U. of California Press, 1987).

(11) For an important discussion of the ways in which economic change disrupted traditional social hierarchies, see Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination, 7-11, 45. What Aers suggests about Langland's representation of the breakdown of social relations caused by Lady Mede adumbrates the social vision of N-Town. Langland is, however, much less confident than the N-Town playwrights in the legitimacy of contemplative piety with its privileged language of personal devotion.

(12) Ritchie D. Kendall, The Drama of Dissent: The Radical Poetics of Nonconformity, 1380-1590 (U. of North Carolina Press, 1986), 50.

(13) The Records of Early English Drama project has substantially advanced our understanding of the economics of the cycle plays; for good general summaries of the results of these studies see A. C. Cawley, "The Staging of Medieval Drama," in The Revels History of Drama in English, ed. A. C. Cawley et al. (London: Methuen, 1983), 1:36-42, and John C. Coldewey, "Some Economic Aspects of the Late Medieval Drama," in Contexts for Early English Drama, ed. Marianne G. Briscoe and John C. Coldewey (Indiana U. Press, 1989), 77-103.

(14) Gibson, for example, suggests that the plays were produced primarily by the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds and shown in the town and the numerous surrounding communities. See Theater of Devotion, 197-135; and Gail McMurray Gibson, "Bury St. Edmunds, Lydgate, and the N-Town Cycle," Speculum 56 (1981): 56-90.

(15) For Craig's thesis, see English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), 265-80. The case for Thetford is advanced briefly in Alan J. Fletcher, "The N-Town Plays," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge U. Press, 1994), 164-67.

(16) The "N" of "N-Town' (Proclamation 527) is generally taken to mean nomen, indicating that more than one town name was intended to be substituted. See Spector, The N-Town Play, xiii.

(17) Spector, The N-Town Play, xxxviii-ix.

(18) John C. Coldewey, "The Non-Cycle Plays and the East Anglian Tradition," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, 191-93. On the expansion of the cloth trade and the resulting prosperity in East Anglia, see Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 19-22; and Coldewey, "Some Economic Aspects," 80-81.

(19) Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 29. Similarly, Aers points out that Margery Kempe's merchandizing understanding of spirituality is symptomatic of "the market's permeation of religious consciousness" in East Anglia (Community, Gender and Individual Identity, 80). For more general discussions of the gradual integration of economic metaphors into late-medieval ecclesiology, see Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Cornell U. Press, 1978), 203-17, and Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (U. of Chicago Press, 1984), 227-29.

(20) Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 120-23.

(21) R.N. Swanson, Church and Society in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 309-12.

(22) For a ]general overview of the tensions between secular and ecclesiastical authorities over legal jurisdiction and control of economic activity, see Swanson, esp. 140-209.

(23) The conflicts surrounding the chartering of Norwich are discussed in Norman Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich, 1370-1532, PIMS Studies and Texts 66 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984), 141-67, and Philippa C. Maddern, Violence and Social Order: East Anglia 1422-1442 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), esp. 173-235.

(24) Tanner, 148-52.

(25) For a detailed discussion of the conflicts between the town and the abbey, see Robert S. Gottfried, Bury St. Edmunds and the Urban Crisis: 1290-1539 (Princeton U. Press, 1982), 215-36.

(26) Records of poll taxes and lay subsidies indicate fairly steady economic growth from the thirteenth century onward. The poll tax of 1377 :indicates that Bury was the wealthiest town in Suffolk, ranking only behind Norwich and King's Lynn in all of East Anglia. See Gottfried, 123.

(27) Ibid., 219-20.

(28) Ibid., 236.

(29) Gordon Left, "The Apostolic Ideal in Later Medieval Ecclesiology," Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 18.1 (1967): 71.

(30) On Marsilius's historical analysis of the church, see Left, "The Apostolic Ideal," 68-70; for discussions of Eckhart and Ockham's criticisms, see Gordon Left, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages: The Relation of Heterodoxy to Dissent c. 1250-c. 1450, (Manchester U. Press, 1967), 1:259-307.

(31) Tanner, 66. Swanson provides a good general discussion of the relationship between lay piety and the politics of the church (252-347).

(32) See Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 6, 22-23, and Tanner, 58-66.

(33) Margery Kempe has received a number of book-length treatments, including Staley, Dissenting Fictions, and Clarissa W. Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe (Cornell U. Press, 1983). Julian of Norwich is the focus of Aers and Staley, Powers of the Holy; the culture of Lollardy in East Anglia has been documented in detail in Shannon McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530 (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1995); Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); and Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (London: The Hambledon Press, 1984).

(34) On the activities of the various guilds of Bury, see Gottfried, 180-214.

(35) Hilary M. Carey "Devout Literate Laypeople and the Pursuit of the Mixed Life in Later Medieval England," Journal of Religious History. 14: (1987): 361-81.

(36) Ibid., 371.

(37) Jeremy Catto, "Religion and the English Nobility in the Later Fourteenth Century," in History and Imagination: Essays in Honour of H. R. Trevor-Roper, ed. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Valerie Pearl, and Blair Warden (London: Duckworth, 1981), 49.

(38) Ibid., 50-55.

(39) Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 29-30.

(40) Carey, 376-81; see also S. S. Hussey, "The Audience for the Middle English Mystics," in De Cella in Seculum: Religious and Secular Life and Devotion in Late Medieval England, ed. Michael G. Sargent (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989), 120-22.

(41) Carey, 371. For general discussions of the individualistic aspects of lay piety in mystical and devotional literature, see Swanson, 284-286 and W. A. Pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge U. Press, 1955), 252-57.

(42) For a discussion of the distinction between active and contemplative life, see Joseph E. Milosh, The Scale of Perfection and the English Mystical Tradition (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 24-50.

(43) On the popularity of Love's Mirror, see Elizabeth Salter, "The Manuscripts of Nicholas Love's Myrrour of the Blessed Lyf of Jesu Christ and Related Texts," in Middle English Prose: Essays on Bibliographical Problems, ed. A. S. G. Edwards and Derek Perarsall (New York: Garland, 1981), 115. Carey notes that works of Rolle, Hilton and Love are the three most commonly bequeathed in wills of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (370 n.60).

(44) References to Love are to page numbers in Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ed. Michael G. Sargent, Garland Medieval Texts 18 (New York: Garland, 1992), 86. I have regularized spelling.

(45) Love, as most scholars agree, was quite clearly engaged in a project intended to extend clerical authority (Aers and Staley, Powers of the Holy, 25). But as Sarah Beckwith suggests, Love's commentary throughout the Mirror suggests anxiety about the heterodox potential of scenes such as these, with their striking emphasis on affect and de-emphasis on the ritual mediation of the church (Christ's Body, 68-69).

(46) The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Phyllis Hodgson, Analecta Cartusiana 3 (Salzburg: Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universitat Salzburg, 1982). References are to chapters, followed by page and line number.

(47) Walter Hilton's Mixed Life Edited from Lambeth Palace MS 472, ed. S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson, Salzburg Studies in English Literature 92 (Salzburg: Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universitat Salzburg, 1986). References are to page numbers.

(48) The text is combined in many manuscripts with The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, a likely source for the N-Town Parliament of Heaven from the Marian sequence. See Spector, The N-Town Play, 451, and The Mary Play from the N-Town Manuscript, ed. Peter Meredith (London: Longman, 1987), 18.

(49) Yorkshire Writers': Richard Rolle of Hampole and his Followers', ed. C. Horstman, 2 vols. (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895), 1:321.

(50) The numerous recent treatments of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, for example, stress the ideological dimensions of late-medieval representations of the contemplative life. The well-known passage in The Book of Margery Kempe in which Margery envisions Christ her "weddyd husbond" in the marriage bed with her, for example, is not idiosyncratic or "hysterical" (as some critics have argued) but part of a well-established vocabulary of lay devotion (ed. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen, EETS 212 [London: Oxford U. Press, 1940], 90). Beckwith argues that Margery's commentary on Christ effectively transfers sacred authority from prayer (i.e., ritual) to meditation, and that this can be read as an act of "self-authorization" (Christ's Body, 92). Lynn Staley makes a similar case for the Long Text of Julian of Norwich's Showings, which she says "constitutes a more insidious and complicated exploration of the very issue of authority, since [Julian] maintains her right as a privately sanctioned individual to read--and broadcast as truth--the result of subjective inquiry into her own experience" (Powers of the Holy, 163).

(51) Spector, The N-Town Play, xxxvii-xli. Spector notes that the date `1468' is inscribed at the close of the Purification of Mary, which might represent an a quo for the compilation of the manuscript.

(52) Spector, The N-Town Play, 537-43. The cycle play described in the Proclamation is characterized by the thirteen-line stanzas Spector calls "proclamation thirteeners." The Marian sequence, characterized by long-lined octaves, includes plays 8-11 and 13. Passion Play I includes 26-28; Passion Play II includes 29-32 and 34. Both sequences are characterized by a mixture of long- and short-lined octaves, quatrains and couplets. Plays 19 (the Purification of Mary) and 41 (the Assumption of Mary) are interpolated; various others are heavily revised. For a detailed discussion of the composition of the manuscript, see Stephen Spector, "The Composition and Development of an Eclectic Manuscript," Leeds Studies in English 9 (1977): 62-83.

(53) For general discussions of sources of N-Town in devotional literature see Spector, The N-Town Play, xliv-xlv; see also K. S. Block, ed., Ludus Coventriae, or The Plaie Called Corpus Christi, EETS e.s. 120, (London: Oxford U. Press, 1922), xliii-lx. For discussions of the learned character of the plays, see Spector, The N-Town Play, 550-54; Stevens, Mystery Cycles, 233 ff.; Woolf, 308, and Craig, 260.

(54) See Spector, The N-Town Play, 543, 550-54. Many critics have commented on the remarkable aesthetic coherence of the N-Town cycle as a whole. For Rosemary Woolf, the text (discrepancies notwithstanding) creates a "subjective impression ... of striking imaginative unity" (The English Mystery Plays [U. of California Press, 1972], 310); Kathleen Ashley offers the consistently developed parallel between "wyt" and "wysdam" as further evidence of this unity (" `Wyt' and `Wysdam' in the N-Town Cycle," PQ 58 [1979]: 121-22); Martin Stevens argues on the basis of it that the cycle as we have it must represent the work of a single talented compiler (Mystery. Cycles, 184).

(55) Kolve, 99.

(56) Erich Auerbach, "Figura," in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, Theory and History of Literature 9 (U. of Minneapolis Press, 1984), 58.

(57) Spector provides a useful summary of the iconographic tradition of the Jesse Tree (432-33).

(58) Stevens, Mystery Cycles, 240-44.

(59) Tithing was commonly associated with the old law. Cf. de Voragine's commentary in the Legenda aurea: "Five remedies against original sin were instituted in the course of time. According to what Hugh of Saint Victor says, three of these, namely, offerings, tithing, and the killing of a sacrificial victim ... were established by the Old Law." Later in the same chapter, de Voragine stresses the distinction between the symbolic relations of the old law (identified with the logic of economic relations), and the true, immediate relations of the New Law: "as the coming of daylight dispels the darkness and at the sun's rising the night shadows vanish, so the coming of true [vera] purification put an end to symbolic purification [purificatio typica] .... That is why fathers are no longer held to payment, nor mothers to going into the Temple and being purified, nor sons to being brought back" (Legenda aurea vulgo historia lombardica dicta, ed. Th. Graesse, 3rd ed., 1890 [Osnabruck: O. Zeller, 1969], 161). I have used the English translation of William Granger Ryan (The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, 2 vols. [Princeton U. Press, 1993], 1:145).

(60) Kolve, 66.

(61) Meredith cites the Speculum Sacerdotale as a source (The Mary Play, 88).

(62) Spector, The N-Town Play, 439.

(63) Ibid., 450; cf. 10.115 ff.

(64) See Woolf, 175 ff. and Squires, 205 ff.

(65) Squires, 209.

(66) Ashley does not explore the theological contexts for the profound limitations of human reason (and institutions) and the primacy of affective devotion that N-Town stages, but these ideas had a long history in lay devotional literature and more generally in medieval theology. As the Cloud-author asserts, God "may wel be loued, bot not thought. By love may he be getyn & holden; bot bi thought neither" (6; 14.22-23). Aquinas himself, who generally emphasizes the importance of reason, nevertheless asserts that reason analyzes a thing into parts, while love apprehends truth as it is in itself--thus God "can be loved perfectly without being known perfectly" (Summa Theologiae, ed. and trans. Eric D'Arcy, vol. 19 [London: Blackfriars, 1967], la2ae, q.27.2).

(67) Summa Theologiae, ed. and trans. Liam G. Walsh O.P., vol. 49 (London: Blackfriars, 1974), 3a, q.8.3. Cf. also the Cloud of Unknowing:" ... noghwhere bodely is everywhere goostly. Loke than besily that thi goostly werk be noghwhere bodely ..." (68; 67.39-40). Spector cites Rabanus Maurus as a source for some of the lines concerning the interpretation of the host.

(68) Peter Womack makes the useful observation that in the staging of the Passion sequences, "the priestly group's scenes are all about plans, reports, jurisdictions and deals, while me actions in Christ's group are all free gifts--the man who simply hands over his ass, the washing of the disciples' feet, and so on" ("Imagining Communities: Theatres and the English Nation in the Sixteenth Century," in Culture and History 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities, and Writing, ed. David Aers [Wayne State U. Press, 1992], 91).

(69) See, for example, Margaret Connolly, ed., Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God, EETS 303 (Oxford U. Press, 1993). A popular treatise dating from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, Contemplations (like Mixed Life, the Cloud, and others) addresses itself primarily to the laity, and consists of a short exposition of "drede of God," the "biginning of wisdom" (8), and a longer exposition of the various degrees of love. Peter Meredith cites a number of other sources of the theme in popular and devotional literature (The Passion Play from the N. Town Manuscript [London: Longman, 1990], 171).

(70) Gibson, Theater of Devotion, 16-18.

(71) Ibid, 130-31.

(72) Ibid, 137-77.

(73) Psalms 119-133 in the Vulgate, commonly reproduced in manuals as a devotional exercise. See Meredith, The Mary Play, 95.

(74) Meredith, The Mary Play, 94; Spector, The N-Town Play, 441-43. The brief account in the Legenda aurea notes that the temple had fifteen steps, each corresponding to one of the Gradual Psalms, but it says simply that Mary climbed the steps herself.

(75) Spector, The N-Town Play, 444.3
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Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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