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Wool-Gathering: Magical Economies in the Second Shepherds' Play.

It seems fair to say that critics and teachers of literary surveys have found The Second Shepherds' Play the most appealing play in the Towneley anthology, and the number of times it has been reprinted, taught, and performed puts it in modern popularity well beyond any other medieval play based on salvation history. Sometimes indeed this view rises to paeans of praise elevating this one (alternate) play into a representation of medieval "mystery" plays as such, a token for that branch of English drama, garnering value that can seem to approach Marx's "fetishism of the commodity" that effaces wider contexts on which a thing's representative value depends (Marx, to be sure, is thinking of money, but the elevation of certain pieces of medieval literature to superstar status invites attention to modern economies of literary prestige as well). (1) It is "the finest example in English of a medieval mystery play," says the Norton Anthology, 5th ed. (1986), in which anthology it was in fact the only cycle play until the 6th edition of 1996 (when the Chester Noah's Flood was added, perhaps as background to Chaucer's Miller's Tale). (2) Cast as a work of "genius" for unifying "comedy, including broad farce, with religion in ways that make them enhance one another," (3) the play has been granted an almost Shakespearean rank of character portrayal--Mak "resembles Falstaff" in his pathetic efforts to retain some dignity, says Norton 5--and, at least eventually, dramatic unity. (4) The subplot of Mak's sheep rustling and concealment of the stolen animal in Gill's cradle, which in 1948 A. C. Baugh thought "hopelessly out of proportion to the proper matter of the play" (although Baugh's 1954 anthology for students, eight years before any Norton, was the first student anthology to include the play), is now routinely seen as elegantly paralleling the Incarnation, tying up loose threads. (5) "No one will fail to observe the parallelism between the stolen sheep, ludicrously disguised as Mak's latest heir, lying in the cradle, and the real Lamb of God, born in a stable among beasts," the editor of Norton 5 asserts, adding more reflectively, "a complex of relationships based upon this relationship suggests itself."

Suspending a narrow and post-medieval (even post-1950s) focus on self-sufficient formal unity allows us to consider this play not only in terms of the period's highly structured religious patterns and ideas--on which much foundational criticism of cycle drama's narrative structures has focused until recent years--but also its economic and social "complex of relationships," which have their own structures, ones centrally important to this play. Such consideration is certainly not unusual in current studies of medieval English drama in general, where staging and manuscript production have been major focuses for critical studies from at least the 1970s, punctuated, for example, in 1974 by Alan Nelson's understated but acute survey of evidence of the staging of Corpus Christi drama, which challenged both the general views of "processional" production of English cycle drama and, more fundamentally, the tendency of studies of the plays' religious structures and import to ignore or minimize social settings and the material conditions of production. (6) There is no doubt that critical forays linking medieval English plays to their local social and economic circumstances are flourishing, as in the study by Nicole Rice and Margaret Pappano of York and Chester civic and guild culture as the background, respectively, to the two cycles of plays that are securely linked to those two local contexts. (7) But cases like the collection of plays once considered the "Wakefield Cycle" may benefit from and in fact require a wider context, in part because these cannot be so narrowly located. Often called now simply the plays collected in the Towneley manuscript, thanks to incisive criticism by Barbara Palmer, Garrett Epp, Theresa Coletti, Gail McMurray Gibson and others, the plays in this collection can no longer simply be presumed to display a Wakefield "cycle," if one ever existed. (8)

Partly for this reason Martin Stevens' passing observations on a few basic socioeconomic issues defining some of the "Wakefield" plays, in Stevens' 1987 study of "four English mystery cycles," have long remained seminal, although he was committed to the view of a "Wakefield cycle": in the conflict between the sheep-keeping Abel and the plowman Cain in the Mactatio Abel, for instance, Stevens mentions a "socioeconomic situation of moment in late-fifteenth-century Yorkshire: the festering rivalry between the tenant farmer and the sheep raiser," and he goes on to describe Cain's anger as reflecting "a social dislocation," in which the "plowman had become in many ways a symbol of agrarian poverty, and... Cain, when he vents his ire at Abel, is surely speaking with an economic resentment that his 'men' in the audience shared." (9) Following that line, Lisa Kiser (2009) more recently and capaciously argues that the Second Shepherds' Play offers a meditation on the social alienation produced by what she too explains by invoking the wool economy's disruption of agrarian labor, a march toward pastoral modes of production that Kiser relates to the rapidly increasing enclosures of fields by lords in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and beyond. (10) For Kiser, "the playwright clearly sympathizes with the shepherds' destabilized and confusing new labor identities in the face of ecological and economic change," reflections especially on the alienation of formerly communally bonded workers now set against one another in an atmosphere that devalues their labor as they devalue one another. (11)

Kiser's study shows how productive such wider, more modal considerations can be, provided careful and precise enough attention to the play is inspired by this. But her assumptions about particular social destabilizing forces refracted through the play merit revisiting, in order to expand further our appreciation of the play's strands of meaning as well as the general period and region it sprang from. There is no doubt that in some regions the transformation on which Kiser focuses was a dramatic change. Although she does not consider any reasons in turn for the change she makes a causal force for the play's "gravest reflections" on "environmental and socio-economic analyses," (12) economic historians have shown that the shift from plowland to sheep fields was likely the result of lords seeking lower costs rather than higher profits, replacing labor-intensive agrarian production with sheep tending in response to the sudden drop in population and rising wages after the Black Death. Whatever the motives, in the midlands especially "at least half a million acres of land which had been in arable production before the Black Death may have been converted to permanent grassland thereafter." (13) In the north, however, as shown below, this circumstance was less novel; enclosure and a shift to pastoral economy had advanced much earlier than in the west and south, and the northern connection to the larger wool economy was both more settled and indeed drifting into economic stagnation through the fifteenth century, while the "south" of London and environs was recovering and finding new markets and means of production. More important than the precise timing of such transitions, however, the play does not flag the alienation and put-upon condition of the shepherds as anything new, mixing temporalities as well as emphasized or invisible aspects of the economic world it unfolds. All these must be carefully sorted out in order to appreciate the "complex of relationships" embodied in and by the Second Shepherds' Tale.

The speeches and focuses of the Second Shepherds' Play clearly suggest economic fault lines and class struggle, but of a complex and evolving kind, since the same shepherds who seem at first far from power spend the rest of the play establishing and confirming their power over the still more hapless Mak and Gil. Its "genius" (to use the Norton editor's word) is in using formal symmetry, craftily woven ironies, and sheer festive play-acting to produce an effect of continual change while drawing attention away from quotidian labor. To investigate further its engagements with the economic and the social therefore requires considering not only its demonstration of alienated shepherds caught in static isolation, but also its contemplation of dynamism and its energies of transformation. This includes but goes beyond a play's basic requirement of action. The nature of the play as play is, to be sure, foregrounded by Mak's plot; indeed, we might consider the lamb caper as not only an ironic parallel to the Incarnation but also as a climactic reaffirmation of Mak's role as wolf in sheep's clothing, a vagabond dressed as a lord's "man," and beyond that, as a parallel to the production of either civic or professional drama. As critics have emphasized, we know almost nothing about the life of the plays before being collected in the Towneley manuscript in the mid-sixteenth century apart from the fact that local allusions in some of the plays (and the mention of "Wakefield" written twice in the manuscript) support the view that several of the plays, including the Second Shepherds' Play, were from the Wakefield region. On the one hand, if we assume the play was a civic production of some kind, in Mak we might imagine a town guild member dressing up as a sheep rustler who in turn disguises himself as a powerfully connected figure, then a loyal shepherd, then a doting father protecting his lightly sleeping newborn. If, on the other, we assume the play was for a traveling professional company in the area, we might assume that spectators would witness in Mak a professional actor drawing money from civic audiences by making them watch a professional thief in action.

Either way, we may consider how the play's weaving of obligatory duties and self-interested schemes into symmetrical, ordered designs and the punishment of transgressions parallels but also mocks the unifying structures of civic duties at Wakefield as at other boroughs, expressed in the command in Wakefield that town guildsmen assemble and "give forth" plays as they seemingly did annually (if apparently not always enthusiastically) for decades during the later fifteenth and first half of the sixteenth centuries, although the only authentic order for this, with a steep penalty for no-shows, survives from 1556:
Item a payne [penalty] is sett that everye crafte and occupacion doo
bringe furthe /theire  pagyauntes of Corpus Christi daye. as hathe bene
heretofore vsed. and to /gyve furthe the speches of the same, in Easter
holydayes in payne of /everye  one not so doynge to forfett /xl s (14)

There is "payne" in late fifteenth-century civic duties, and "payne" in the hard lives of the shepherds of the plays, but both ordinance and play emphasize the greater social and cosmic unity and order resulting from the right pains, and the pains inflicted on the right people, a matter to return to later. At the same time, in spite of the grim civic warning to assemble and read "the speches" of the plays or face a 40 shilling penalty, the play suggests a certain amount of fun in taking the wrong pains. Its seeming harmony and completeness, like the circle Mak draws or the beautiful song that the angel sings and the shepherds all admire, turn everyday labor into either a madcap caper or some higher artistic or religious form. Labor vanishes; metatheatricality rules. Although the three shepherds and later Gill all emphasize their hard-working lives, in front of us they do little more than sleep and complain. (15) The major exceptions are Gill's grim complaints about spinning, and her happier idea of transforming the stolen wether into a baby (a scheme in which she takes pride, "This is a good gyse... / Yit a woman avyse / Helpys at the last" [491-94]), followed by the shepherds' final chase, house-search, and punishment of Mak. Beyond that, the action of the play is all Mak. It is Mak, idler and thief, who brings a whirlwind of action to the play, putting on a London accent, slipping away from where he has been wedged among the sleepy shepherds in order to cast a spell on them then steal a sheep, run home, run back to the sleeping group, and run back again to prime Gill for their confrontation, before dodging around his room keeping the shepherds from peeking at the "baby." If this was written for a particular actor (as seems true for the First Shepherds' Play, where one of the actors of the shepherds seems to have been very tall, "gentill John Home... with the greatt shank" [813-15]), he was mercurially lively.

How can we fit such dynamism and metatheatricality into the play's economic and social concerns, pervasive as those manifestly are, rather than looking past or through the play's energy and fascination with impersonation and transformation in order to isolate the playwright's "gravest reflections"? Other plays in the Towneley compilation emphasize everyday discontents and minor social rituals more on their "own" terms, without so obviously sublimating those into meditations on dynamic transformation, even without much action. The short Salutation of Elizabeth, where the pregnant Elizabeth greets the pregnant Mary, proceeds as if an exchange of socially formal greetings ("How standys it with hym and hir?") before shifting into the Ave Maria; nothing else happens. (16) The First Shepherds' Play focuses on the shepherds' eating and drinking and competitive singing, before an angel arrives and announces for the first time the birth of Jesus. There is plenty of formal art in those (in the sense of valuing the features of everyday greetings, and a drinking contest), but their emphasis on earthly, daily, social life and its structures seems far more sustained than in the Second Shepherds' Play, where even everyday life involves magic and disguise--and even a hanging offence receives a final punishment that appears far less serious than what everyone in the play expects to occur. To quote Norton 5 again, the shepherds show "charity" in choosing "only the mildest of punishments" (a charity that, for Norton 5, is rewarded by their encounter with the Christ Child, "the embodiment of charity"). (17) I will return to that punishment, for I think it more serious than most critics seem to. But there is an even greater oddness in the play's emphasis on magic and form at the cost of omitting the pains of work and labor, since these are features the playwright is otherwise extremely good at conveying. If there is any doubt, consider the Mactatio Abel where Cain rages at the taxes and tithes he pays as a plowman, and compare that to the complaint by the first shepherd Coll in the Second Shepherds' Play against being "hamyd, / Fortaxed and ramyd" by "thyse gentlery-men" (23-26).

It is soon after Coil's brief Cain-like complaint in the abstract that Mak, as if conjured by Coil's complaint against taxes and "gentlery-men," appears. In some ways this is the first magical demonstration of the play. And Mak's mercurial role, however it originated, is crucial to the play's social and economic vision. Stevens observes that "the Wakefield author was not particularly interested in the commerce of the region, but he did make his cycle a mirror of the mean-spiritedness of both lords and vassals." (18) Lordship and vassalage indeed dominated in the fundamentally agrarian northern counties, as in the manorial lands of Wakefield. Mak immediately gestures toward but slides between such relationships. Part of his stratagem in doing so is to insist on the connections of the shepherds' lives and region to distant rather than local powers and systems. This too may have broad metonymic reach. The town of Wakefield itself, for instance, was not a chartered borough but part of the lord's holdings, belonging to the immediate family members of the king, and delegated to the dukedom of York from 1385 until 1460, when, with the death in battle, in fact at Wakefield itself, of Richard, third duke of York and descendent of Edward III by both parents, the Wakefield manor passed to Richard's son, who (after some strife) became King Edward IV. After Edward's on-and-off reign among a still-living Henry VI and rebellious Lancastrians trying to retake the throne, Wakefield manor along with the crown went to Edward's younger brother Richard of York (Richard III) in 1483, who, we recall, was very popular in the North. The Wakefield manorial lands along with much else were fully merged into the king's property at the triumph of Henry VII in 1485, probably close to the time when most of the plays collected in the Towneley manuscript were written.

Richard, third duke of York, presided at the Wakefield manorial court in 1435, one of his very many estates (he was one of the richest nobles in the kingdom), where he judged local debts, land transfers, and petty violations in brewing, trespassing, and illicit ale markets, before he was caught up in national politics that started the Wars of the Roses. (19) The importance of any of this high politics to a local northern set of plays is that, on the one hand, Mak is the only direct, though spectral, representation of contemporary London and Westminster power in any of the Towneley plays, but on the other hand, the economic and political control of London and the king's agents or purported agents was widely significant in the fifteenth-century Yorkshire wool trade. Surprisingly for this region of wide manorial and ecclesiastical estates, however, none of the shepherds in the play definitively presents himself as a tenant or servant of any larger entities, manor or abbey. It is true that the third shepherd, Daw, presents himself as one of "sich seruandys" who "ar oft weytt and wery / When master-men wynkys" (222, 226-27), working while the "master-men" sleep; but he seems to be the servant, or sometime servant, of the other two. He addresses them both as "master" (210, 235), and they call him "boy" (252, 257), a term that "more often than not" means someone young, but also a servant of any age. (20) He mentions his wages as if paid by some absent masters (they "pay vs full lately" [234]), but he is also the only one who offers money to the "baby" in Mak's house: "Let me gyf youre barne / Bot vi pence" (836-37).

Here we need not look for Shakespearean character cohesion. Daw may at various moments embody servant status in general, at others, peer shepherd status (he seems to josh roughly and familiarly with his "masters" the other shepherds, but that's true for other rowdy servants, as with Cain's Garcio in the Mactatio Abel). He and the other shepherds speak of "oure catell" (197), "my shepe" (70), and though this is an easy way to consider sheep in your charge (Mak discusses "thare shepe" [613, 615]), Daw is happy to put the sheep into the wheat of some nearby manor or, more likely, abbey that morning, "when thay rang lawdys" (260), an offense of trespassing prosecuted in local Wakefield legal records. (21) The others greet that information approvingly. Is this a further sign that they are free peasants, or just free in their outlook? They seem slaves to the weather and their wives and royal taxes rather than local masters, apart from Daw, whose dual masters they awkwardly seem to be.

Even waged and legally "free" figures could earn income only by selling wool, often to clothiers, numbers of whom appear in the later Middle Ages, operating on a small scale throughout Yorkshire by the fifteenth century. (22) Although no clothier as such appears in any of the Towneley plays, if the Second Shepherds' Play makes nothing else clear, it shows how pervasive, powerful, but diffused and protean the wool economy itself was. In itself this is far from new. Wool production and the wool trade dominated England's economic policies, forces, and stratagems from the thirteenth century on; taxes on it constituted the main source of royal income and were particularly crucial during the wars with France and Scotland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the heyday of English wool production in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, western Yorkshire wool was thicker and considered finer than anywhere in England, and of its lambs, wethers produced the thickest and finest wool; in flocks dedicated to wool production the majority of sheep were wethers. (23) Before the Black Death, because of the quality of English wool yet the relative scarcity of craftsmen processing it into clothing, continental clothiers with more advanced guild structures and laborers (especially the Flemish) imported English and especially Yorkshire wool then sold back to England the finished clothing. To resist this, in the early 1330s Edward III allowed Flemish weavers to settle in England to carry out the production of continental forms of clothing there, with results that are still being reassessed (possibly including the expansion of the continental putting-out system of production, thus "the associated rise of the clothier"). (24) Nor was this the only vector for connections between the northern wool and wider and often distant powers. In the early fourteenth-century period, Italian merchant groups made "forward contracts" with numbers of the great English wool-producers, especially the Cistercian abbeys of western Yorkshire, giving the monasteries money up front for the right to buy wool for a series of successive years at a set price. These were "forward," not "future" contracts, since they are not standardized but individually tailored, but they constitute some of the most sophisticated financial instruments of the period. (25) If the wool price sank, the monasteries would make more than they would have had they sold the wool on the market. If the wool price rose, or many sheep died (as happened in the murrain epidemics of the early fourteenth century) the monasteries had to cover the amount promised, buying other wool at a higher price than they would sell it to the Italians. Some monasteries caught in this bind went bankrupt; and with the population collapse of the Black Death, wool production dramatically fell. The English merchant company that had put itself in charge of farming English wool for export went bankrupt too, before being reconstituted under Crown supervision. In fact, after these losses in the demographic crises of mid-century, the Crown applied itself to recovering the wool market for more efficiently centralized purposes, including inviting to England Flemish weavers and tightening royal control in general over the wool market. Royal officials (under the Exchequer's direction) managed the customs directly, put high customs on exports, and scrupulously administered the ports, purging the customs of absentee office holders and aggressively persecuting smuggling. Royal revenues from wool expanded dramatically, and for the next two centuries income to the king and immediate family members was significantly based on customs from the wool trade. (26)

There are no signs that these steps, or many of the varying arrangements by large international or English mercantile groups, helped smaller wool producers, those whose wool was labeled "collecta" in the price lists (that is, gathered from many separate small operations, where it would be put in 3 pound "nails," and those into "sacks" of some 350 pounds). (27) By the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the northern wool economy had slumped. Where northern wool had earlier fetched the highest prices in Europe, by the mid-fifteenth century its industry was eclipsed by cheaper and lower-quality wool and clothing not only from Flanders but also from the midlands and south of England. In those regions, wool production and trade continued to recover. But "the one major exception to the post-1350 expansion of seigniorial sheep farming was the north of England," Bruce Campbell shows. "The imposition of direct taxes on wool and establishment of the Staple of Calais evidently had a disproportionately adverse effect upon wool producers in the north and from the second quarter of the fourteenth century sheep numbers progressively dwindled... By the time of the Dissolution there were almost twice as many cattle as sheep on the estates of Fountains Abbey, the greatest of the northern Cistercian houses. From c. 1450 a clear spatial dichotomy is apparent between a cattle-dominated north of England and an increasingly sheep-dominated south." (28) The spread of new fulling mills (pressing woolen cloth by mechanism in pools with clay-like fuller's earth), machines that began to replace the direct stamping by bare feet in tubs or pools, ones often filled with ammonia-rich urine to clean, shrink, and felt it, operations carried out by "naked men who immersed themselves in the foul liquid," is most visible in the western midlands, whereas more traditional methods persisted in Yorkshire. (29) The expansion of industry reverberated out from the increasingly sheep-dominated southern areas of wool production, rather than the more established but declining wool producers of the north.

As well as mock vassal to some fictional "southern" potentate, Mak's active mediating role serves as an illicit coordinator of the shepherds' and his own household's wool production. He is the only figure in the play who enacts at least some of the transformations that the wool economy requires. In this sense, his role loosely parallels that of a clothier. These early capitalists (as economic historians often consider them) emerged in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as individual organizers of spinners, fullers, dyers, shearers, and other workers of the wool economy. (30) The word "clothier" is first attested in English in the A text of Piers Plowman (c. 1369), that poem from the London and East Anglian region in which Dame Study declares that wisdom and wit are no longer valued unless they are "cardit wi[??] coueitise as cloperis don here wolle." (31) By about the same period Wakefield had its growing numbers of clothiers, though far from the booming southern wool regions and no longer distinguished for particularly fine wool, and visible more as scattered impressarios than large operators. (32) According to John Lee, "the typical figure in the West Riding industry... was the small independent clothier." (33) In late fourteenth-century Wakefield, the widow of a clothier set up the largest clothing manufacturing operation in town, producing roughly 50 "whole cloths of assize" per year while the town's entire production was only 175 cloths. (34) By 1533,542 clothiers are listed from the West Riding, and this is only a partial number since the document listing them is incomplete. (35) The geographic historian John Leland noted in 1535 of Wakefield that "al the hole profite of the toun stondeth by course drapery." (36)

Some of this wool and woolen clothing would be for local consumption, but much would contribute to the quantities sent to wider domestic markets and ports for overseas trade, conveyed in chains of pack horses carrying 350-pound wool sacks out of the rural areas to York or, increasingly, to London. The ubiquity of such pack horses "in trains of twenty to forty animals," still used in Yorkshire and Lancashire through the nineteenth century, is indicated by the numbers of surviving narrow bridges from the fourteenth century, with very low or no parapets to accommodate the width of the laden horses. (37) Waterways were also used to move both wool and grain out of those counties, not only for domestic markets but also for royal purveyance, an issue discussed below. (38)

The ongoing extraction of wool from northern pastures--albeit under increasing competitive pressures from other English sources and amid a deteriorating climate and nearly unchanging number of population--was centered by the fifteenth century not on local lords dominating local vassals but on large and changing markets, often enabled by small clothiers as much as by the more traditional large religious institutions producing wool, both working under the expanding systems of royal bureaucracy. Taxes and other demands by Westminster were on the rise throughout this period. Even if small holders did not pay aulnage, the domestic wool customs, they would pay the lay subsidy at regular intervals, a tax on the value of moveable wealth, including livestock. That Coll, "fortaxed," seems to pay one or another kinds of tax suggests, like other evidence, that he is relatively well off (but then so even is Daw, who not only offers 6 d. to Mak's baby but also a tennis ball to the Christ Child: tennis balls were among the luxury goods of the period). (39) Coil's irritation may help explain the unreliability of lay subsidy records for reconstructing economic history, not necessarily because of criminal evasion but because of the tendency to underestimate value, to talk to the tax collector "in maner of mone," as Coll says he is (68-69). His "mone" and such indirect methods of resistance are his only recourse. Those in rural society usually had less access to collective bargaining with taxers of the lay subsidy than was common in urban settings. (40) As a corollary, outright rebellion against enclosures or other pressures on small farmers was relatively uncommon in the north, a contrast to the rebellions against enclosure that sprang up in late fourteenth-century Coventry or, more dramatically, Norwich, where in "Kett's rebellion" of 1527 the issue was less against enclosure as such than lords use of "foldcourse," the right to pasture their sheep on particular lands whether the flock owners owned the lands or not. (41) The relative absence of rebellion in the north may reflect not contentment but an enduring lack of control over the wool market, lacking even the collective power of urban, communal connections that spurred political actions in Coventry and Norwich. Communities that saw the most recent and significant changes and growth in the woolen industry in the mid- and later fifteenth century were likeliest to organize their expressions of discontent, a matter not only of literary "mone" but direct resistance.

Beyond the demands that the north faced from taxes and from larger market forces there was purveyance, requisitions of wagons or other goods by the king or other (supposedly commissioned) lords at prices that the takers determined. This was a grievance of even older duration, though kept lively throughout the fifteenth century. Complaints against purveyance were common in the first half of the fourteenth century, at the beginning of the Hundred Years' War when the demands were most novel, and before the statute of 1362 against any lord other than the king using purveyance; yet petitions in Parliament against purveyance appear again in 1422, 1434, 1445, and 1449-50, denouncing those who had somehow legitimately purchased but illicitly used royal writs to claim this power. One petition from the Commons in Parliament in 1449 protests against the king's selling letters patent allowing impressments of carts by various tavern keepers and victuallers supposedly for transporting food and drink for the Crown but actually serving as a trick for self-enrichment: "to take horsys and cartys for cariage for the king oure soveraigne lord, and for the quene, more for theire sotel and singuler lucre and availe, than for eny true service of the kyng oure soveraigne lord, or the quene; by colour of which lettres patentes, they daily taken horsys and cartys that noo nede is." (42) The complaint is not far from that by Coll:
Ther shall com a swane
As prowde as a po;
He must borow my wane,
My ploghe also;
Then I am full fane
To graunt or he go. ...
I were better be hangyd
Then oones say hym nay.

Such an interloper, Coll says, can "make purveance / With boste and bragance, / And all is thrugh mantenance / Of men that are gretter" (49-52).

Records of purveyance in the first half of the fourteenth century are, as it happens, particularly well preserved for the counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, in accounts showing how northern goods taken by the Crown and others "were moved to progressively larger centres, eventually by river." (43) In London, the year 1450 saw a pointed resurgence of complaints against this in the rebellion of Jack Cade, the Kentish "captain" who took over London with his mass of followers, denouncing taxes ("the grete extorcion of grene wex") and unauthorized purveyance by officials "takyng whete and other Grayne, Beeff, Moton, and other vitaill, the whiche is vnportable to the said Commons, with oute breff provision of our soueraigne lorde." (44) Cade's uprising contrasts the relative absence of rebellion in the north, but Cade and his group saw at least one northern landowner as the worthiest antagonist to "southern" taxes, purveyances, and other governmental exploitations. Among the demands Cade and his "true commons" offered was a demand for the restoration to royal favor of Richard, third duke of York, "a nobill persone, the trewe blode of the Reame," the holder of Wakefield manor who was father to Edward IV (older brother to Richard III), though never king himself. Well before the rise of King Richard III, this Richard, third duke of York, was perceived to be a more "nobill persone" than the king's London agents, or at least viewed as a likely supporter of Cade's fight against royal bureaucracy. (45) The Second Shepherds' Play's spectral embodiment of delegated London power, and indeed of nearly all threats to the shepherds' world by wider structures of power, is Mak. If the shepherds' complaints are tired rehearsals of well-worn "mones," in Mak is a glimpse of something both dynamic and new, equally in what he presents himself as and in his adroit manipulation of such roles. His mock-London connection is immediately visible in his cloak, his chlamys, in which he arrives as if in livery of some higher "southern" lord, which the shepherds pull from him (273 s.d., 290 s.d.). He adopts and continues to threaten them in a "London" dialect, one of the few examples after Chaucer's Reeve's Tale of literary dialectical imitation before Shakespeare, with for Mak is mainly signified by his effete palatalizing of the firstperson pronoun: "Ich shall make complaynt, / And make you all to thwang /At a worde" (306-8). But Mak is a feckless rather than menacing version of such fraudulent purveyance. His repetitive and increasingly vague claims defeat his efforts at impersonation, serving to reassure the audience that his embodiment of such threats is only a paper tiger:
Ich be a yoman,
I tell you, of the kyng,
The self and the same,
Sond from a greatt lordyng
And sich.
Fy on you! Goyth hence
Out of my presence!
I must haue reuerence.
Why, who be ich?

Coll merely replies, "Why make ye it so qwaynt?" (300). The familiar is swiftly restored by this foray into and naming of the exotic.

Yet just as the economic and political power of the south continued to shape and control the slumping northern wool economy in inchoately commercialized fifteenth-century Yorkshire, so Mak's magical snatching and theatrical remaking of the fat wether is not simply a parallel to the Incarnation, it is also a murky allegory or a true dream (like Daw's dream of Mak's theft) of the northern economy, whose "qwaynt" elements, stripped of their enchanting power, are made intelligible and manageable. As soon becomes clear, Mak is a wholly independent operator of his small and dubious concern. This is his real vulnerability; he has no community, even of fellow shepherds. The shepherds can with little effort track down and recover for themselves Mak's extracted wooly resource; they readily unmask (and literally sniff out) his fraudulent imitation and invasion of local husbandry, finding the stolen wether tucked in near Gill, who is constantly spinning. That job is traditional for women, of course, but unusually, Gill implies she does this for pay, when she declares that she will not waste time or money to answer the door: "I am sett for to spyn; /I hope not I myght / Ryse a penny to wyn, /I shrew them on hight!" (430-33). In one sense the most active person in the entire play, her profile displays a function that is "by far the most labour intensive in cloth production... 'the most sweated of all trades.'" (46) As she snarls, "Why, who wanders, who wakys? / Who commys, who gose? / Who brewys, who bakys?" (599-601). Mak's cock eyed representation of the high politics and economic control of the north by London is thus brought under the same roof as Gill's grumpy representation of the wool industry's economic base. The arduous work of spinners, sometimes so poor that they were supplied spinning wheels by the clothiers they worked for, is basic for the entire wool economy, although least well-remunerated. As the second shepherd declares with a proverbial flair in Mak's cottage, when the sheep trick is uncovered, "Ill spon weft, iwys, / Ay commys foull owte" (848-49). As that proverb acknowledges, connections that are hard to see between one end of an economy and its ultimate consequences ultimately drive the wider situation, a perception apt for a play in which the "top" and "base" of Yorkshire's economic world frenetically intersect in the cottage and set the stage for a yet more miraculous process of transformation of a "Lamb" in the angelic announcement of the Incarnation.

Movement and stasis, novelty and tedious permanence, fold past, present, and future together throughout the Second Shepherds' Play, yielding repetitions even amid the most explicitly novel events. "Forsothe, allredy / It semys to be told / Full oft," the third shepherd says about the Nativity that they witness (1082-84). The innovations Mak embodies are merged with the tired "mone" of the shepherds, those initial laments that are as ritually established as the liturgy that fills the play's final scenes. Whatever the play's initial venue, its story weaves seemingly timeless structures into the present world, with material and social immediacy: the reference to the actors of the First Shepherds' Play as the godparents of Mak's and Gill's new "baby" ("Parkyn, and Gybon Waller... / And gentill Iohn Horne... With the greatt shank" [812-15]); the mention of the crooked thorn and Horbury, three miles from Wakefield (657); the assertion of the "real" disguised lamb's pungent smell; and finally, and in some ways most immediate, the tossing of Mak in a blanket, a "canvas."

Scholars have often pondered the meanings of Mak being "cast... in canvas" (906): this action may be a gesture of dishonor or of charity, a means of inducing a woman's childbearing labor, or a sign of sifting the chaff from the wheat, all apt for a religious or social parable. (47) Canvas, I might add, was also used for wrapping wool for transport, as revealed in a protest by merchants in 1361 against Parliament's efforts to impose customs not only on wool being exported but on the "canevas" in which such wool was packed. (48) Perhaps there is an indication of Mak being painfully forced to become the exportable commodity he has tried to steal. Whatever this "mildest of punishments" means in knitting up the play's themes, it seems clear that it is also a directly physical, and potentially uncomfortable, trial for the actor. Casting Mak in canvas is the physically riskiest stage business of any fifteenth-century drama, rivaled only by the discomfort of the York Crucifixion. (49) Not all productions of The Second Shepherds' Play attempt it. Yet in that action, the distant networks and meanings that Mak embodies in the Second Shepherds' Play are made all the more part of the play's present realization. However whimsical or charitable the punishment of Mak, the actor will feel his role, whereby every production gives bodily reality to the specter of distant forces impinging on any given house in the play's economically complex universe. In this enigmatic final burst of energy, the play both invokes and resists abstracting processes like those of commodification. As Marx's term "fetish" suggests, all commodification involves a kind of magic, a "transubstantiation" repeated in every exchange that fascinated Marx, who found it more "troublesome" than "the transition from necessity to freedom for the Hegelian 'concept,' the casting of his shell for a lobster, or the putting-off of the old Adam for Saint Jerome" (he has in mind Jerome's dream of being accused by God as more a "Ciceronian" than a "Christian"). (50) The exchange value of money, as Marx says, does not smell ("non olet"), (51) whereas the transactions and metamorphoses in the play remind us of the aroma of a wether and the weight of a human body, while nonetheless showing the circulation by invisible strands of power, labor, and creative energy through such bodies and objects. In a stroke of true genius, whether the playwright's or some original, daring actor's, the Second Shepherds' Play allows the audience to watch Mak, specter of a specter, feel something real, right then and there, reminding viewers of the palpability as well as the more abstract complexes of material and social relationships that he in particular is made to carry. The audience may then go home to count their sheep or their taxes, or manage others doing so and punish others not, before gathering more wool for its ongoing transformations.


(1.) Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Book 1, Part 1, chapter 1, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin 1990), 125-77.

(2.) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Ed., gen. ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Norton, 1987), 315; The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, gen. ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Norton, 1996), 318-19. Citations of the Second Shepherds' Play are from Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley, eds., The Towneley Plays, 2 vols., Early English Text Society, select series 13 and 14 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

(3.) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Ed., 316.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) A. C. Baugh, et al., A Literary History of England (New York: Routledge, 1938), 273; A. C. Baugh and George McClelland, eds., English Literature: A Period Anthology (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1954), vol. 1, pp. 147-58. By then, Baugh (or McClelland) were declaring the Second Shepherds' Play "the masterpiece of medieval drama" (81), a sign of things to come.

(6.) Alan Nelson, The Medieval English Stage: Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). The shift of attention to historical realia that this study marks is clear, even though many particular elements of Nelson's arguments have been contested, as in the case of Wakefield where some records about the town's "cycle" taken to be authentic were in fact forged in the early twentieth century. For an early collection of criticisms of both kinds, though an assertion of the significance of Nelson's study, see the review by Alexandra Johnston, University of Toronto Quarterly, 44 (1975): 235-38.

(7.) Nicole R. Rice and Margaret Aziza Pappano, The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in Premodern England (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015).

(8.) Barbara D. Palmer, "'Towneley Plays' or 'Wakefield Cycle' Revisted," Comparative Drama, 21, no. 4 (1987-88): 318-48; Garrett P. J. Epp, "The Towneley Plays, or, The Hazards of Cycling," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 32 (1993): 121-50; Theresa Coletti and Gail McMurray Gibson, "The Tudor Origins of Medieval Drama," in A Companion to Tudor Literature, ed. Kent Cartwright (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 228-45.

(9.) Martin Stevens, Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 129.

(10.) Lisa J. Kiser, "Mak's Heirs: Sheep and Humans in the Pastoral Ecology of the Towneley First and Second Shepherds' Plays," JEGP, 108 (2009): 336-59.

(11.) Ibid., 359.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Stephen Broadberry, Bruce M. S. Campbell, Alexander Klein, Mark Overton, and Bas van Leeuwen, English Economic Growth, 1270-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 60.

(14.) From Arthur C. Cawley and Jean Forrester, "References to the Corpus Christi Play in the Wakefield Burgess Court Rolls: The Originals Rediscovered," Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 19 (1988): 85-104 (87-88).

(15.) Kiser, aptly pointing to many mentions of their labor, contests a long tradition of critical views asserting that the shepherds are inactive or slothful (Kiser, "Mak's Heirs," 348 and n. 22). My point concerns their lack of activity in the action of the play, not considered as "real" shepherds whose lives we could continue following and to which indeed they make mention.

(16.) For some of what that play "does," see Andrew Galloway, "Imagining the Literary in Medieval English," in Imagining Medieval English: Concepts of Language, 500-1500, ed. Tim Machan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 210-37.

(17.) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Ed., 316.

(18.) Stevens, Four Middle English Mystery Cycles, 127.

(19.) The Court Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield, from October 1433 to September 1436, ed. and calendared by C. M. Fraser, The Wakefield Court Rolls Series of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society 15 (Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 2011), 136-38. Richard of York's rare appearance in 1435 as head of Wakefield's tiny manorial court occurred just before the first major transformation of his life: in May 1436, he was abruptly named "lieutenant general" of France because of the death of John, duke of Bedford, who had controlled both England and English interests in France during Henry VI's minority; Bedford's death occurred just as English control of the war was upended by the Treaty of Arras of 1435, in which the Burgundians shifted allegiance from England to France. Richard's difficult task in France, as the Hundred Years' War ground to its profitless conclusion, seems to have been inadequately supported by the home government and may have begun to foster his discontent with the king, although Richard's challenges to Henry VI did not directly emerge until 1450, in the context of Cade's Revolt, the English failure in Normandy, and the imprisonment and death of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, whose death left Richard (with direct royal ancestry on both sides) the obvious successor to the throne. In any case the initial commission to France, pulling Richard from Wakefield and other sleepy manorial courts onto a national and international stage, marks the start of his growing power, influence, criticism of royal policy, and ambitions for himself and his York heirs. See P. A. Johnson, Richard, Duke of York, 1411-1460 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), esp. 28-50, 78-106.

(20.) Middle English Dictionary, online, n. boie 1.

(21.) See Stevens' and Cawley's note, Towneley Plays, vol. 2, p. 499, at line 259.

(22.) John S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2016), 132.

(23.) Bruce M, S. Campbell, English Seigniorial Agriculture, 1250-1450 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 155.

(24.) Lee, The Medieval Clothier, 15-17.

(25.) Adrian R. Bell, Chris Brooks, and Paul R. Dryburgh, The English Wool Market, c. 1230-1327 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(26.) See W. M. Ormrod, "The English Crown and the Customs, 1349-63," The Economic History Review, 40 (1987): 27-40.

(27.) For searching scrutinies of the documents presenting such information see especially the essays by John H. Munro collected in Textiles, Towns and Trade: Essays in the Economic History of Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries (Aldershot, Hampshire: Variorum, 1994).

(28.) Campbell, English Seigniorial Agriculture, 163-64.

(29.) On fulling, though focused especially on Suffolk, see Nicholas R. Amor, From Wool to Cloth: The Triumph of the Suffolk Clothier (Bungay, Suffolk: RefineCatch Limited, 2016), 147-61 (quotation at 147-48). On the geography of the spread, see R. A. Pelham, Fulling Mills: A Study in the Application of Water Power to the Woolen Industry, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings 5 (London: n.d.), esp. 1-8, 15, who notes the continued but increasingly isolated tradition in Yorkshire of using urine. An undated photograph of fullers using their bare feet to full wool in tubs is in Pelham, Fulling Mills, plate 1.

(30.) Lee, The Medieval Clothier, 24-30, considers the tradition of economic historians who have considered clothiers "early capitalists," and generally concurs with this view, although emphasizing that their economic practices were not necessarily widely influential.

(31.) Quoted from William Langland, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (Longman: London, 1995), A.11.17-18. The first line appears in the later B and C texts with "kemben" (combed) for "don," a more precisely informed verb that probably reflects the original reading of the A text as well.

(32.) See J. Munro, "Wool-Price Schedules and the Qualities of English Wools in the Later Middle Ages, c. 1270-1499," essay III in Textiles, Towns and Trade; 157-58; and Munro, "The 1357 Wool-Price Schedule and the Decline of Yorkshire Wool Values," ibid., essay IV, pp. 211-19.

(33.) Lee, The Medieval Clothier, 132.

(34.) J. W Walker, Wakefield: Its History and People (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co., 1934), 335. Though tainted by proof that Walker forged several entries concerning the "cycle plays" of Wakefield into the Court Rolls, his study includes much valuable (and verifiable) information.

(35.) Lee, The Medieval Clothier, 132.

(36.) Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., The Itinerary of John Leland In or About the Years 1535-1543, vol. 1 (London: George Bell, 1907), 42.

(37.) See Margaret Slack, The Bridges of Lancashire and Yorkshire (London: Robert Hale, 1986), 13-35, esp. 22-23; and Martin Cook, Medieval Bridges (Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications, 1998), 14-18, 36-38. The fourteenth-century Wakefield Bridge, built with a chantry, is discussed in Cook (41-42) with and a photograph of its nineteenth-century reproduction. An unidentified fourteenth-century pack-horse bridge in Lancashire is displayed on the Lancashire Archaeological Society website,

(38.) Paul Hindle, "Sources for the English Medieval Road System," in Roadworks: Medieval Britain, Medieval Roads, eds. Valerie Allen and Ruth Evans (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2016), 33-49.

(39.) On tennis balls, see Winifred A. Harwood, "Commodities: Luxury Goods, Spices and Wax," in English Inland Trade, 1430-1540: Southampton and Its Region, ed. Michael Hicks (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2015), 133-46 (at 133).

(40.) See J. F. Hadwin, "The Medieval Lay Subsidies and Economic History," The Economic History Review, n.s. 36 (1983): 200-217.

(41.) See Samuel K. Cohn, Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 104; Diarmaid MacCulloch, "Rett's Rebellion in Context," Past & Present, 84 (1979): 36-59.

(42.) Henry VI: November 1449, article 59, in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, eds. Chris Given-Wilson, Paul Brand, Seymour Phillips, Mark Ormrod, Geoffrey Martin, Anne Curry, and Rosemary Horrox (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), British History Online [accessed 15 September 2018].

(43.) Hindle, "Sources for the English Medieval Road System," 36.

(44.) I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 191.

(45.) Ibid. Richard of York's own connection to Cade's Revolt is murky and was probably opportunistic rather than planned, but he certainly fed suspicions when he arrived in London in November 1450, four months after the Revolt, carrying a drawn sword, demanding justice, and helping a large force he had gathered from nearby counties, overtly to offer his fidelity to the king but soon sparking riots against the king and Richard's Lancastrian rivals, the Beauforts (ibid., 146-51, Johnson, Richard, Duke of York, 88-91). As it happens, Richard somehow brought with him 999 sheep and 80 cattle to feed his growing entourage in this elaborately postured arrival to London, a provision that, as Johnson argues, was probably intended to keep his followers from pillaging London (Johnson, Richard, Duke of York, 89), but that also likely burnished Richard's popular image as a generous traditional feudal lord from the agrarian counties confronting corrupt and unjust London and Westminister royal power, thus inverting the image that Mak presents to the northern shepherds.

(46.) Amor, From Wool to Cloth, 124-25.

(47.) For these views, see the summary of scholarship on this line in The Towneley Plays, eds. Stevens and Cawley, vol. 2, p. 509, note to line 906. The idea of "charity" is from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Ed., 316.

(48.) The Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1 (London: Dawsons, 1810, rept. 1963), 368.

(49.) On this dimension of the York Crucifixion, see Sharon Aronson-Lehavi, Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

(50.) Marx, Capital, book 1, chap. 3, p. 197.

(51.) Ibid., 205.


Amor, Nicholas R. From Wool to Cloth: The Triumph of the Suffolk Clothier. Bungay, Suffolk: RefmeCatch Limited, 2016.

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