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The Seven Sages of Scotland: The Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, Saturday 22 July 2023

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2024

Meg Twycross
Affiliation:
Lancaster University
Sarah Carpenter
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
Elisabeth Dutton
Affiliation:
Université de Fribourg, Switzerland
Gordon L. Kipling
Affiliation:
University of California, Los Angeles
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Summary

The Book of the Seven Sages of Rome seems on the face of it an unlikely text to interest those who work on medieval theatre. But this engaging performance raised a number of fascinating questions about the methods and purposes of theatrical presentation of medieval material to modern audiences. It also proved a stimulating demonstration of the inherent theatricality of expert storytelling and its ability to mediate complex points of view to live audiences.

The Middle English and Middle Scots versions of the work generally known as The Seven Sages of Rome have a profound temporal and geographical hinterland. The framed story collection derives from the East with versions of 100 or more tales included in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, and Syriac re-tellings. In the Middle Ages the work was translated and reworked in most of the languages of Europe, proving hugely popular. Its frame narrative tells the story of an Emperor, who on the death of his wife entrusts the education of his only son to seven Sages, away from the court. Some years later, the Emperor marries a second young wife who persuades him to bring the young man back to court where, when he rejects her advances, she falsely accuses him of rape and urges her husband to put him to death. This results in an extended storytelling contest: each day, one of the Sages tells a story, generally hinging on the untrustworthiness of women, that persuades the Emperor to doubt his wife and postpone the execution of his son; each night the Empress tells a counter tale that questions who and how one should believe, urging the young man's death. The situation is finally resolved when the son, who has remained silent throughout, finally tells a tale of his own that convinces the Emperor of his innocence, and the Empress is executed.

The blatant misogyny of many of the tales, along with the bare and undeveloped literary style of their re-tellings, have probably contributed to the lack of modern interest in the work. But this production, which dovetails with a research project on the Seven Sages at the University of St Andrews, succeeded in developing a suggestive performance that engaged with the first, and looked beyond the second.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2024

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