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Urban Theatre in the Low Countries 1400-1625.

Elsa Strietman and Peter Happe, eds. Urban Theatre in the Low Countries 1400-1625.

Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2007. xii + 317 pp. index. illus. map. chron. gloss. bibl. [euro]70.74. ISBN: 978-2-503-51700-1.

For decades, the world of the urban drama and poetry companies in the Low Countries known as the chambers of rhetoric was the scholarly preserve of Dutch and Belgian literary scholars alone. As some of late medieval and early modern Europe's most vibrant urban confraternities, their relative neglect by other scholars, historians especially, was a surprise. Over the last decade, this inattention has been corrected. A new wave of articles, dissertations, and books has given us a fuller portrait of these civic rhetoricians as the vanguard of a civic consciousness in the realms of politics, moral sentiment, cultural appetite, and religious commitment. Elsa Streitman and Peter Happe's edited volume is yet another welcome addition to this surge of publications on the chambers of rhetoric, their public performances, and their literary texts. It offers twelve essays by historians, literary scholars, and theater historians that range from considerations of some of the earliest rhetoricians' text to contemporary efforts in the Netherlands today to revive their art form. The quality is high and the selection diverse, but given some of the essays' very specialized topics, the book functions better for scholars looking to deepen their knowledge of the rhetoricians than as a general introduction to their world. That said, the book has several strong features: it reminds scholars that for all the recent interest in the theroricians' civic sensibility and lay organization, they were first and foremost producers of drama and literary verse, and attention to their literary output is paramount. The book also brings much needed attention to the French-speaking chambers of the southern Low Countries, whose extant literary output is smaller and for whom less work has been done. Finally, the book is admirably interdisciplinary, and blends essays whose focus runs the gamut from formal textual analysis to the place of rhetoricians in urban public life and in the Reformation.

The first two essays consider early rhetorician texts: the fourteenth-century Maastricht Passion Play written in the Ripuarian dialect and the fifteenth-century Bliscapen texts on the Joys of Mary. Carla Dauven-van Knippenberg offers a technical analysis of the Maastricht play. She notes that the text is the clear forerunner of the later Dutch corpus, though its devotional quality makes its concrete links to the world of urban theater unclear. It is the topic of performance itself that centers W. M. H. Hummelen's consideration of the first and last sections of the seven-part Joys of Mary cycle, performances of which began annually after 1448 in Brussels. Hummelen focuses on the pausa and silete notations in the written texts, arguing they suggest musical intermezzi. His essay points to the not yet fully understood bridge between the surviving rhetorician texts and the different media that were part of their public performance on the streets of cities of the Low Countries. Five essays follow that tackle the two most fully treated themes in the historiography of rhetorician studies: the place of the rhetoricians in the early Reformation in the Low Countries and the general literary antecedents and tropes rhetoricians embraced. Gary Waite confirms that between 1520 and 1555 the rhetoricians often seized upon Reformation ideas, but as subjects of Habsburg Spanish rule, they did so gingerly, opting for more subtle spiritualist messages than outright anticlerical outbursts. Wim Husken's essay demonstrates that even the term heresy (ketterye) in rhetorician texts had a plastic meaning: wielded by both Catholic and Protestant or Protestant-leaning writers, the label of heresy was used more elastically than one would suppose. Three subsequent essays offer rich considerations of the rhetoricians' formal literary techniques and influences, from consideration of the role of allegory in the morality plays (spele van sinnen) and the impact of classical exempla to the various interpretations of Ovid's famed story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Bart Ramakers's study of the function of allegory in rhetorician drama confronts both its strategic value in performance and its semiotic value in argument while Elsa Streitman explores why classical gods and goddesses were so popular as didactic figures, and traces how classical love stories resurfaced in the rhetoricians' hands as moral exempla. One of these, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, is the subject of Peter Happe's comparison of its adaptation at the hands of two Dutch texts and its better-known placement in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The final set of essays tackle the rhetoricians as public performers, as in Alan Knight's detailed overview of Lille's annual Procession Nostre Dame, during which local chambers of rhetoric mounted tableaux vivants, and Lynnette Muir's valuable appraisal of the frequency of the appearance of chambers of rhetoric in the civic ritual of French-speaking cities of the southern Low Countries. Meg Twycross offers a lively case study of Louvain's procession of Our Lady Sedes Sapientiate and its processional floats dedicated to worthy women of the Old Testament, from Sarah to the mother of the Maccabbees. A final essay by Femke Kramer canvasses the revival of early modern rhetorician drama by theater companies in the Netherlands today, a reminder that the renewed attention to the chambers of rhetoric is thankfully not limited to the scholar's den.

Elsa Streitman and Peter Happe preface this diverse set of essays with an introduction that not only highlights the contribution of each author but also offers newcomers a fine introduction to the rhetoricians and their chambers. Their volume is strong in specifics and wide in turf covered, and will gain the attention of scholars needing to deepen their grasp of these lay confraternities. Perhaps the book's greatest value is its accessibility in English, opening up to readers the rich landscape of these civic poets, dramatists, and public performers whose texts and public life ought to be better known outside of Belgium and the Netherlands.


California State University, San Marcos
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Author:Arnade, Peter
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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