Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Pilgrims and Prostitutes: Costume and Identity Construction in Twelfth-Century Liturgical Drama

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Pilgrims and Prostitutes: Costume and Identity Construction in Twelfth-Century Liturgical Drama

Article excerpt

Compiled sometime in the last quarter of the twelfth century at the Benedictine monastery at St.-Benoit-sur-Loire, the Fleury Playbook contains the record of a highly unusual theatrical event. (1) It is found in the Raising of Lazarus, a play that scholars believe may have originated at Fleury. (2) The action begins conventionally enough with Christ and his disciples dining at the house of Simon. But not long after the play begins, Mary Magdalen enters the scene "in habitu ... meretricio," or, "costumed like a streetwalker." (3) The dignified Latin of the original text does not seem to capture fully the shocking quality of the staged performance it describes, that of a pious cleric entering the church dressed like a prostitute. One might reasonably ask what the assembled congregation would have made of such a spectacle. Or for that matter, what the monk-actors could have been thinking by presenting it. The mystery deepens when we consider the monks' peculiar staging choice in the context of the heretofore established costuming techniques prescribed for liturgical dramas. For at least two centuries, in tropes such as the visitatio sepulchri, Mary Magdalen and other female characters had simply been represented through the artistic draping of priestly vestments near to hand. (4) But the phrase "habitu meretricio" would seem to indicate clothing not likely to be found in the sacristy, and therein lies the shock value of the diclascalia. But in addition to appearing somewhat bizarre to the modern eye, they also document a contemporary costuming revolution: they are the first known examples in medieval theater of a prescribed costume that was not a liturgical vestment.

The monks of Fleury did not restrict their costuming innovation to Lazarus alone. In another of the Playbooks scripts, Peregrini, a male character appears "ad modern Peregrini"--in the manner of a pilgrim--a outfit that includes a tunic, a hat, a staff, and significantly, a leather purse or wallet. (5) Representing a pilgrim with that particular accessory is another innovation attributable to the monks of St.-Benoit-sur-Loire. (6) With its appearance in the didascalia, the mystery of the Fleury costuming practices grows not only deeper, but darker--for the researcher is confronted with the intriguing and disturbing fact that, in the long history of medieval liturgical theater, the first two characters ever represented through secular costume are a prostitute and a man with a wallet.

Why nonliturgical costuming arose when it did, and why the practice was inaugurated in such a seemingly unexpected fashion, is the subject of this essay. The tendency among medieval theater scholars has been to situate the Fleury plays within a progressivist narrative that charts successive attempts toward "realism" Dunbar Ogden labels the Fleury innovations "realistic touches" Similarly, Theodore Komisarjevsky speaks of "more realism in the matter of costumes" as the Middle Ages progressed. Karl Young writes of other plays in which liturgical vestments were "supplemented by realistic or symbolic objects" and about how in one case "realism is increased when the angels are provided with wings." (7) But that interpretation attributes modern aesthetic sensibilities to medieval dramatists and denies the highly symbolic nature of medieval theater. A desire for realism is not a suitable explanation of a choice by medieval monks suddenly to incorporate individualized costuming into their theatrical presentations. Fleury's revolutionary theatrical conventions must have arisen from conditions and concepts unique to twelfth-century France. I argue that the Fleury monks' choice to forego universalizing liturgical vestments in favor of particularized secular garments reflected a contemporary fascination with identity construction. I further contend that the characters of the pilgrim and the prostitute served as gendered role models for contemporary audiences in their construction of new social identities. …

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