Academic journal article Comparative Drama

From Many Lives a Single Play: The Case of Saint Margaret and the Dragon

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

From Many Lives a Single Play: The Case of Saint Margaret and the Dragon

Article excerpt

Antoine DuVerdier's 1585 Bibliotheque includes the first modern reference to a mystery play dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch, with this notice: "La Vie de sainte MARGUERITE, Vierge & Martyre, fille de Theodosien, a quarante-quatre Personnages; imprimee a Paris, in-80, par Alain Lotrian" (The life of saint MARGARET, virgin and martyr, daughter of Theodosian, with 44 Roles; printed in Paris, in-80, by Alain Lotrian). (1) Pierre-Francois Godard de Beauchampss Recherches sur les theatres en France also refers to the same edition. (2) Unfortunately, the Lotrian volume appears to have gone missing after that citation because subsequent cataloguers either did not include it or could not find it. Fortunately, a nineteenth-century scholar, Aristide Joly, did locate such a text, the Vie de madame sainte Marguerite, vierge et martyre par personnages. (3) It survives in a single printed copy in the Rare Books collection of the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF Res. YF 4690). It is not the Lotrian edition identified by DuVerdier, which is presumed to have been published in 1540, but a second edition without a frontispiece, publisher, or date. (4)

While this is the only known performance remnant that references Saint Margaret in French medieval theater, the Vie par personnages issues from a long hagiographic tradition in which the saints martyrdom was venerated and popularized in various formats. According to that tradition, Margaret is born to pagan parents but left with a nurse who raises her in the Christian faith. Watching sheep one day, she is observed by Olybrius, a pagan prefect who desires her. Brought before him, Margaret declares her faith in Jesus, refusing to adore pagan gods and to submit to Olybrius. After being tortured, she is cast into prison, where a dragon swallows her. Margaret uses her cross to free herself only to face a black devil in the shape of a man. Belzebub wants to know how she has managed to kill his brother, the dragon Ruffon. Margaret grasps the devil, standing on his neck until he explains who he is and admits defeat. A dove descends from heaven to assure Margaret of her place there. With that assurance, Margaret continues to rebuke Olybrius despite being beaten bloody, burned, placed in a vat of boiling water, and hung by her hair. Finally, she is beheaded at Olybrius's orders and her soul is carried to heaven by angels. An observer, a priest named Theotimus, vows to write her story.

Margaret's legend originated in ninth-century Greece, then traveled to Europe where Latin and vernacular versions ensured its subsequent success as her relics appeared in Italy, and churches were dedicated to her in Liege, Bath, and Montefiascone, among other sites. Saint Margaret would become one of the most iconic legends embraced by Catholic believers, despite the fact that medieval Church leaders and religious writers, including the Legenda aurea's author Jacques de Voragine, doubted the veracity of the Saint Margaret legend, citing its apocryphal or fantastic elements. (5) Ultimately, while Saint Margaret was venerated in liturgies, hagiographic literature, and iconography from the Middle Ages until the modern era, the Roman Catholic Church deleted Saint Margaret's feast day from its calendars in 1969, citing the likelihood that she had probably never existed. (6) The intention of the present study is to illustrate how the Vie parpersonnages conforms to and differs from hagiographic texts dedicated to Saint Margaret. Specifically, this analysis will underscore the fact that the performance remnant relied on authoritative texts structurally while contemporizing and humanizing its martyred heroine in support of a performance event for a fifteenth-century audience.

The Mystery Play Tradition

While the Vie par personnages is the only known copy of a French mystery play featuring Saint Margaret, it survives as part of a dynamic cultural phenomenon from late medieval France. …

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