The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence

The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence

The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence

The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence


Why did medieval dramatists include so many scenes of torture in their plays? Exploring the cultural connections among rhetoric, law, drama, literary creation, and violence, Jody Enders addresses an issue that has long troubled students of the Middle Ages. According to Enders, theories of rhetoric and law of the time reveal that the ideology of torture was a widely accepted means for exploiting such essential elements of the stage and stagecraft as dramatic verisimilitude, pity, fear, and catharsis in order to fabricate truth.


Strange things happen when the discussion turns to violence. And because this is a book about violence, torture, medieval drama, and the dark side of rhetoric, some prefatory remarks may prove appropriate.

Over the past several years, as I have presented various stages of this project in various public forums, I have never known whether colleagues were going to break into amused guffaws or gasp in horror. Sometimes, in a phenomenon that is endemic to performance, the way an audience responds and the way I choose to present the material become part of the Q and A. If audiences titter, it is because I have smiled during the presentation. If audiences are mortified, it is because I have stressed the horror of the real events to which dramatic scenes of torture allude. If audiences are put off, it is because I have been too preachy. If they are angry, it is because I have trivialized the real suffering that medieval plays represent by proposing a "mere verbal" connection with the rhetorical tradition.

Similarly, if an audience member laughs when I am stressing horror, that person is accused of being morally defective. If another audience member deems problematic the pleasure it is possible to take in one's work--even when that work treats a horrific subject--then it is I who become morally defective. If someone else finds that my judgment has been too pronounced, the presence of evaluative standards becomes an invitation to dismiss the argument on the grounds that twentieth-century morality is no way to approach the Middle Ages. And yet someone else deems that any verdict I may have rendered is not strong enough--indeed, that the moral obligation to distance oneself from the horrors of torture is so urgent that to fail to do so is to be complicit.

I thus acknowledge the problematic place of the personal in literary theory... the better, I hope, to move beyond it. All the responses cited above (each of which I have seen) can be reduced to two polarized and polarizing stances. The first is "How can one fail to take a position?" It operates under the assumption that the absence of a critical stand against torture is tantamount to silent approval or consent. The second is "How dare one take a position?" It operates . . .

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