The "Fygure" of the Market: The N-Town Cycle and East Anglian Lay Piety

By Fewer, Colin | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The "Fygure" of the Market: The N-Town Cycle and East Anglian Lay Piety


Fewer, Colin, Philological Quarterly


The biblical narratives in the N-Town plays--as in the mystery cycles generally--refer insistently to contemporary medieval beliefs, practices and institutions both in dialogue and in stage directions. Some of these anachronisms can be attributed to a need on the part of the dramatists to adapt sacred history to a contemporary idiom, as when Joseph fears on the eve of Christ's nativity that he has offended "God in Trinyte" (15.44).(1) Others, however, clearly have a more complex function in the plays, which critics have traditionally analyzed either as reformative satire of civic or ecclesiastical authority,(2) or in purely aesthetic terms, as dramatization of the typology of sacred history.(3) Lynn Squires, for example, argues that the Trial of Mary and Joseph invites the audience to accept "Jesus' two simple laws: to love God above all else and to love thy neighbor as thyself," and in so doing to reform the common law.(4) Alison Hunt's claim that the Trial of Mary and Joseph castigates those heretics who attack the "shared beliefs that also hold communities together" assumes the same positive view of civic community and institutional authority.(5) Martin Stevens has argued that the social function of the Herod plays in N-Town and Wakefield was to "serve the purpose of urban renewal" by holding a "grotesquely exaggerated figurehead of urban political power" up to the mocking disapproval of the people.(6) Similarly, Gail McMurray Gibson sees in the plays a harmonious marriage of orthodox religious authority and civic piety, "that hybrid blend of monastic and lay spirituality that is such a signature of fifteenth-century Suffolk and Norfolk culture."(7) The few critics who have dealt at length with the N-Town plays, then, all acknowledge that anachronism creates a close link between representations of community in the plays and the developing culture of late-medieval East Anglian communities. But this link remains only tentatively explored --Gibson's is the only full-length study--and critics who do address it tend to see in the plays a rather uncomplicated reformist satire that promotes amendment of the mechanisms of institutional authority without examining the constitution of that authority in general. In this view, social protest--generally conceived as being directed at local corruption and heterodox forms of lay piety--is evoked, recognized, and then subsumed in a vision of transcendent wholeness, a sublime social body that the plays (and the Corpus Christi processions originally associated with them) work to produce? The plays, in other words, represent and finally affirm a conservative social vision, leading their audiences toward a fairly non-specific sense of "charity," "wholeness," or "renewal" that does not threaten established institutions.

As a number of recent histories have emphasized, however, English religious culture in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was a complex and heterogeneous field--one in which the various interests were highly sensitive to traditional networks of power relations (including those in which the church was involved), to their own place in those power relations, and to the radical transformations taking place in social structure. In the wake of the population collapse in the 1350s, laborers, the emergent merchant and artisan classes, women, and towns themselves, all struggled for a measure of autonomy and official recognition, often against the considerable legal, political and economic power of dioceses and monastic boroughs. And as David Aers, Lynn Staley, Sarah Beckwith and others have shown, this struggle was conducted largely at the ideological level, over all the symbols of religious and civic life--which were, as Aers suggests, "enmeshed in the deployment and daily legitimations of power."(9) Beckwith's claim that "Christ's body is less the forum for integration and social cohesion than the forum for social conflict" is symptomatic of the recent focus in historical and cultural criticism on the struggles of marginalized groups against a church that came increasingly to be seen more as a repressive economic institution than as the medium of salvation(10) These struggles are largely responsible for the growth of the non-institutional forms of lay piety that historians have seen as characteristic of fifteenth-century English popular culture: Lollardy, saints' cults, confraternities and beguinages, and the private devotions reflected in popular vernacular manuals. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The "Fygure" of the Market: The N-Town Cycle and East Anglian Lay Piety
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.