Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Laity, the Church and the Mystery Plays: A Drama of Belonging

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Laity, the Church and the Mystery Plays: A Drama of Belonging

Article excerpt

Tony Corbett, The Laity, the Church and the Mystery Plays: A Drama of Belonging (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009). 256 pp. ISBN 978-1-84682-153-0. euro65.00.

Tony Corbett's work follows on from several notable studies of the influence of lay spirituality on the mystery plays, including those by Stanley (1985), Clopper (1989), MacMurray Gibson (1989), Dillen (1990), and Nisse (2005). Its central concern is to show that the biblical play 'cycles' - with the exception perhaps of N-Town - were 'firmly liturgical, but Liturgical in a slightly subversive manner' that 'attempted to construct a spiritual model in which the laity has access to God without the mediation of the priesthood' (p. 242). Reflecting views espoused by late medieval mystics and in some gender Lollard writings, the book attempts to situate the plays as primarily orthodox but ever-so-slightly subversive expressions of lay spirituality, created by and for the guilds and their communities (Corbett's operantes), at the expense of the church hierarchy.

The opening chapters discuss context, relying heavily on Dix (1982) and de Lubac (1944), bringing in various bits of early Christian and medieval theology alongside studies such as Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars (1992). They include a rather random survey of medieval heretical movements alongside the Church's official response, followed by a discussion of authorship, the guilds, and their religious auspices (chapters 2 and 3). The work only gets down to discussing play texts on p. 106, looking at expressions of the Decalogue for evidence of 'catechesis'. Corbett's criticism of Travis's 1982 work on the Chester cycle is telling: 'One of the problems ... is that almost any ... apparatus based upon orthodox Christianity cannot avoid reflecting the spirit ... and indeed, the wording, of the creeds ... To attach significance to the detection of such sources or formulations is therefore unsafe' (pp. 135f.). A similar criticism could be made of many of Corbett's own attempts to identify a common thread. His guarded approach to the apparent presence of 'subversive' elements often renders his argument rather toothless. To suggest generalized Christian doctrine may be 'pro-clerical' or 'anti-clerical' is one thing, but the identification of any 'a-clerical' dogma in the plays proves elusive. The suggestion, for example, that the 'Christ and the Doctors' story represents a challenge to the clergy by an outsider (the young Christ) is an interesting one, but one virtually implicit in the story and only as 'subversive' as its exemplars. …

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