Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

Ruth Niesse, Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005). x + 226 pp. ISBN 0-268-03602-0. $23.00.

As an investigation into the politics of exegesis, Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England takes a seemingly disparate set of late medieval plays - including elements of performance in Chaucer's Miller's Tale - and examines them through the surprisingly unified theme of interpretative subversion. In her work, Ruth Niesse offers an assured and rewarding set of readings on subversive exegesis in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, relevant to students and scholars of late medieval drama, civic administration, sacred and lay theology and spirituality, anti-Semitism, and apocalypticism. Each chapter examines how a particular text or set of texts challenged contemporary arguments about interpretative legitimacy by knowingly or unknowingly supporting a potentially subversive line.

In the book's least persuasive chapter, Niesse attempts to demonstrate similarities between the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge and Chaucer's Miller's Tale, pointing out that - along with the Cloud of Unknowing - they bear witness to the impossibility of physically reproducing the layers of meaning generated by biblical exegesis. Her argument in this opening chapter revolves around the identification of the Miller with the peasants and artisans of the 1381 uprising (noted by Paul Olsen, Lee Patterson, and others) and more recent studies of the Tale's parody of late medieval gender-shifting typology (Sandra Prior, R. E. Kaske, and others). In the chapters that follow, Niesse demonstrates how the mystery cycles respond either to the legacy of Wyclif or else to the anxiety caused by female mysticism. In the case of York she shows how the Entry into Jerusalem and the fudgment pageants 'articulate a program of self-legitimation' (p. 24), while the Dream of Pilate's Wife and the Fall of Lucifer demonstrate the corruption of exegetical power in the mouths of tyrants and the dangers of civic authority gone bad. She follows on to discuss echoes of Bridgettine mysticism in the N-Town Mary Play, astutely describing the portrayal of the character of the Virgin as the 'birth of the lay woman author' (p. 74).

In chapter 4, Niesse changes tack, reading the Wakefield Master's pageants in the Towneley cycle as a response to the civic authority-building of York. …

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