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

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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. …