Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Mary Magdalene as New Custance? "The Woman Cast Adrift" in the Digby Mary Magdalene Play (1)

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Mary Magdalene as New Custance? "The Woman Cast Adrift" in the Digby Mary Magdalene Play (1)

Article excerpt

A woman floats helplessly on the sea, alone or with a few companions, driven by wind and waves across the ocean in a boat without pilot, oar, or rudder. Whether by luck or by the grace of God, she arrives in a foreign land, inhere her experiences change both her life and the lives of others.

SUCH A SCENARIO FIGURES in a number of medieval folk tales, romances, and saints' lives. I would argue that it also appears in the late medieval Digby Mary Magdalene play. If this is the case, how might the play's East Anglian audience have read this motif of "the woman cast adrift" in the context of a dramatic performance which situates its heroic version of Mary Magdalene within a larger discourse about women's speech, action, and personal power--a discourse which certainly included romance?

Hans Robert Jauss argues that there is a "system of expectations that arises for each work in the historical moment of its appearance, from a pre--understanding of the genre, [and] from the form and themes of already familiar works" (22) that influences any given audience's reception of a given text. Further, he claims, "The psychic process in the reception of a text is, in the primary horizon of aesthetic experience, by no means only an arbitrary series of merely subjective impressions, but rather the carrying out of specific instructions in a process of directed perception, which can be comprehended according to its constitutive motivations and triggering signals" (23). Although Jauss is referring to written texts here, the same principles can be assumed to govern an audiences reception of a performance text within the "horizon of expectations" (23) furnished by other familiar stories, both oral and written. It follows that the audience of late medieval drama brought their knowledge of numerous other genres to their reception of any given dramatic performance. In late medieval England, such texts would have included everything from saints' lives and religious treatises to secular romance, lyric, chronicle, and fabliau. No study has yet explored the ways in which an audience familiar with both saints' lives and romances might have understood the Digby version of Mary Magdalene within the play's complex dialectic of sacred and secular elements. This essay seeks to initiate such a discussion.

Current scholarship has demonstrated the ways in which many Middle English romances are modeled on or echo saints' lives (Hopkins, Crane) and, conversely, how saints' lives employ folk motifs in their narrative structures (Elliott, Pinto-Mathieu, Thompson). Thompson's thorough study of narrative strategies in the South English Legendary demonstrates in great detail the extent to which the narrative conventions of romance, and indeed a romance sensibility, had thoroughly permeated the South English Legendary's versions of many of its saints' legends by the late thirteenth century. It is now clear that the boundary between saints' legends and romance was highly permeable. V A. Kolve has noted the connections between Chaucer's Custance and traditions about Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, the "woman cast adrift;' and the image of the rudderless ship (Kolve 311-12). Similarly, medieval drama also borrowed from other genres--saints' lives, certainly, but also from more secular genres such as fabliau and romance. Monica Brzezinski Potkay has demonstrated the importance of fabliau elements in Corpus Christi drama (103-23). It makes sense, therefore, to look more closely at the connections between religious drama and romance to understand how the play's audience would have received and understood the Digby play's Mary Magdalene.

Recent studies have shown that the late medieval English audience was familiar with a wide range of literature and had a keen appetite for both religious works and romances. By the fourteenth century the audience for such texts included significant numbers of what Riddy calls the "bourgeois-gentry"--an increasingly literate sector of society ("Middle English Romance" 235-38). …

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