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This essay examines medieval women dramatists, from Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim in tenth-century Germany, through Hildegard of Bingen and her Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) in the twelfth century, to Katherine Sutton, Abbess of Barking in the late fourteenth century, who composed liturgical dramas for Holy Week. The essay locates these women dramatists within the wider context of medieval convent performances in England and Europe, and shows that religious women were not only authors but also actors, directors, and costume makers; their convents provided the play space, while laywomen sometimes also contributed. Niebrzydowski also explores the often speculative or conjectural evidence for womenߣs participation in drama outside the convents. Although there is only one definitive English example of women as associated with a Corpus Christi production, a lost Chester pageant of ߢour Lady thassumpcionߣ, other fragmentary evidence suggests lay womenߣs involvement in a range of dramatic forms from saintsߣ lives, interludes, and morality plays to processions and pageants.
The quotation used as the title of this essay, taken from the prologue to Book 2 of Troilus and Criseyde (completed by early 1387 at the latest), indicates that Chaucer was very aware that language, and its cultural capital, was subject to change over time. This essay examines the cultural appropriation and adaptation of Chaucer's version of Troilus and Criseyde's doomed romance in an anonymous, late sixteenth-century, Welsh-language play, Troelus a Chresyd.
The Welsh play is a synthesis of Books 1–4 of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and the conclusion of The Testament of Cresseid by Scottish poet Robert Henryson (c. 1475). Troelus a Chresyd is an act of translatio, not only from page to stage but also from English into Welsh, the ‘Matter of Troy’ being employed to engage with matters of early modern Wales. Structured in five ‘books’, the action of the play moves as follows:
Book 1: Calchas decides to leave Troy; Priam calls a council to decide whether or not to return Helen; an explanation is given of who Chresyd is before she is called to be judged by Priam as a traitor's daughter (a trial that is not in Chaucer's poem); Hector defends Chresyd; and at this point in the play Troelus falls in love. What follows is a translation of Chaucer's Canticus Troili, further lamentation from Troelus in his love-sick state, and Pandarus’ relief that it is his niece, Chresyd, who is the object of Troelus’ devotion.
Book 2 : Missing its first two lines, Book 2 commences with a translation of the proem of Chaucer's Book 2, Pandarus’ visit to Chresyd's house to persuade her of Troelus’ love and worthiness (a very close translation from Chaucer), closing with Chresyd's concern that she ‘does not know what to believe in this false world’ Ni wyddis i bwy koelir | yn y byd anghowir (stanza 78). The remainder of Book 2 has been left blank.
Book 3 : Again, a section is missing that may well have contained a translation of the prologue of Chaucer's Book 3. Chresyd visits Troelus at Pandarus’ house, and the Chorus narrates their love scene that takes place ‘offstage’ (unlike in Chaucer). The lovers speak an aubade (as in Chaucer's poem), Pandarus advises Troilus to take care to maintain his happiness, and the book concludes with Troilus’ paean to love.
Margery Kempe’s Book has survived in one manuscript copy, now London, British Library, MS Additional 61825, made around 1450, of a text dating from the 1430s. Although its author is named as ‘Mar. Kempe of Lynne’ (243/19), the Book was not written by the illiterate Margery but recorded by amanuenses. The Book records Margery’s life from the vantage point of her mature years: in her sixties Margery, born around 1373, recalls selected events from her twenties, and particularly the travel at home and overseas that she undertook predominantly in her middle age. A chronology can be derived from the text but its organising principle is not a sequential temporal arrangement as ‘the Book is composed of remembered events; the movement of Margery’s mind provides the narrative motion’. Its purpose is to record Margery’s attempt to follow her vocation and record her experiences as a middle-class housewife struggling towards sainthood. Margery’s faith (in Christ and herself) is tested by a cacophony of ‘the barbs and rack of baleful words, curses, sneers, and accusations of hypocrisy, played over and again in an unending martyrdom at the hands of everyday life and her community’.Because it was recorded by amanuenses – and here we must assume middle-aged male scribes; firstly her son, and then two unnamed priests (the latter of whom may have been her confessor, Robert Spryngolde) – Margery’s life story is problematic in terms of authorship. A. C. Spearing argues that The Book of Margery Kempe should be read as The Book of Robert Spryngolde about Margery Kempe because it describes events at which Margery was not present, and contains many constructions that belong to prose, not speech; ‘it is time to read The Book of Margery Kempe not as the speech from which it originated but as the written text into which that speech has been shaped’.
As stated by Carol Meale in an earlier essay in this volume, the complex textual and historical production of Margery’s Book is not to be oversimplified. Precisely who was responsible for the shaping of the Book has been the subject of much debate. Kim M. Phillips acknowledges that scribes ‘played an important role in shaping it and on occasion wrote in their own voice’.
In The Merchant’s Tale Januarie stipulates that his ideal bride will be no more than twenty years old, and that he especially ‘wol no woman of thritty yeer of age; / It is but bene-straw and greet forage’ (Merchant’s Tale, 1421–2). Januarie wants an heir and his dismissal of a more mature woman as an unsuitable spouse is based upon a perceived connection between a woman’s age, fecundity and sexual attraction. The Middle English Dictionary defines benestraw as ‘the refuse of broad bean plants (the stalks and empty pods)’ and ‘forage’ as dry fodder fit only for animal consumption. According to Januarie, by thirty a woman is an ‘oold wyf’ (1416) and his insulting comparison of her to ‘bene-straw’ suggests that she has become an infertile husk, a mummifying memory of her former youthful bloom, a delicacy now only to horses and cattle.
Infertility is only one facet of the insult that Januarie hurls at the older woman. Not only does she lack the sexual allure of youth but also she may turn into a shrew, as acid-tongued as the caustic lye made by mixing the ashes from burning ‘benestraw’ with water. Further, Januarie perceives the older woman to be too worldly-wise (1423) and hence intractable – so set in her ways that she cannot be moulded by her husband’s guidance as a young wife would and should be (1429– 30). The irony of Januarie’s insult is never lost on female readers since it is made by a sixty-year-old with ‘slake skyn aboute his nekke’ (1849), and whose sexual performance is ‘nat … worth a bene’ (1854) (or possibly benestraw?) to his young wife. Nor can readers easily overlook his failure to recognise the double standard at work here – he is very conscious of age withering a woman’s physical charm and allure yet believes himself impervious to the ageing process, ‘I feel me nowhere hoor but on myn heed’ (1464). Januarie’s definition of when a woman is old and his attitude towards women’s ageing, stemming as it does from his characterisation as a mal-marié senex amans of fabliau tradition, is, nonetheless, a useful starting point for an examination of women’s middle age in the Middle Ages.
The Weddyng of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell, hereafter Dame Ragnell, dates from around the middle of the fifteenth century and is a text that excites divided opinion among eminent Arthurian scholars, especially in relation to its comedy. Stephen H. A. Shepherd, himself a supporter of the Dame Ragnell poet's comedic abilities, provides an overview of this ambivalence; P. J. C. Field describes the verse as doggerel yet notes that its rhythms have a cheerful effect, while Donald B. Sands classifies the poem as a burlesque with deliberate humorous effects that is, nonetheless, the product of an indifferent artist. A more recent contribution to this debate is that of Rebecca A. Davis, who views the author as ‘a mischievous poet’ who works with ‘motifs of exaggeration and deliberate ineptitude’. Shepherd detects some agreement between critics that the poem is interesting, ‘perhaps not the least reason for which is that it is an analogue to the Wife of Bath's Tale or that it shows some interesting connections with Malory’, although not all are convinced by Field's argument that Sir Thomas Malory is the author of Dame Ragnell.
The eponymous heroine of Dame Ragnell is a relative of the ‘loathly lady’, the literary type of the old hag who transforms into a young and beautiful woman when given sovereignty over the knight for whom an encounter with her proves educative. Her antecedents in early Irish literature have been well established. The continued appeal of the ‘loathly lady’ during the later medieval period and beyond is evinced by her appearance in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, Gower's Tale of Florent from the Confessio Amantis, the mid-sixteenth-century ballad The Marriage of Sir Gawain and the later Sir Henry. Since G. H. Maynadier's study of 1901, critics have examined the close textual links between Dame Ragnell, Chaucer and Gower, whose many correspondences have caused Davis to observe of Dame Ragnell:
It is clear that the poet had prior traditions and texts in mind when he composed. He did not merely lift elements from his sources, but adapted the material to his own purposes, shaping familiar material into some form of parody.
NO DISCUSSION of eroticism in late medieval literature would be complete without consideration of the Wife of Bath, who readily embraces the subject of sex. Her comparison of sex with her first three husbands with that with her fifth, Jankyn, in which she identifies a difference not just in the quantity but in the quality, is especially memorable. Although he demanded payment of the marital debt less frequently than his predecessors, Jankyn is the one of whom the Wife of Bath admits, ‘I loved hym best’. Her discussion of her sex life reverberates in a culture in which the pursuit of eros or passionate, sensual love was disapproved of by the Church. This essay explores what the Wife of Bath reveals about the importance of eroticism within the marriage bed, and examines the definition of its most satisfying expression suggested in her fond memory of how Jankyn ‘so wel koude … me glose’ (Prologue to The Wife of Bath's Tale, 509).
According to the Church, sex, lawful only within marriage, was not simply a matter of anywhere, anytime. If when one had it was important, why one had it was crucial, and pleasure was not an approved motivation. To have intercourse to procreate and/or pay the marital debt was sinless; to have coitus to avoid sexual incontinence was a venial sin while it was a mortal sin to have sex for pleasure.
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