Claire Sponsler’s admirable new book is a corrective to the vision of John Lydgate as a writer of court, monastery, and city that puts his dramatic entertainments at the center of inquiry. This focus is an alternative to the centrality of urban religious drama in recent medieval criticism and to the frequent omission of Lydgate from histories of early theatre, but Sponsler also has a more ambitious agenda. “Attending to theater history,” she argues, calls for a “rethinking of the development of vernacular literature in England” (4) and acknowledging a “conflict between poetry and performance as forms of cultural prestige in late medieval England” (5). The “London-based, secular, and Chaucer-centered canon,” she claims, represents “only a slim segment of the corpus of imaginative writings in Middle English” and does not account for the “many other works that were widely heard and seen—in mimetic performances, viva voce recitations, processional tableaux, wall hangings, or on the page of manuscript books” (4). Through analysis of Lydgate’s mixed-media productions, Sponsler puts “theatricality” rather than poetry “at the hub of public culture” (11).
The Records of Early English Drama (REED) project has for decades encouraged and facilitated the expansion of archival work on the drama beyond the play texts themselves to consider a range of records documenting performance. Building on the research for her recent TEAMS edition of Lydgate’s mummings and entertainments, Sponsler employs a dazzling array of records and also theorizes the ways that “the materiality of both performances and their [End Page 381] written residue” (15) shapes drama studies. Ultimately, Sponsler uses the archive to produce not a history of performance but a cultural history of the meanings of performance. As Sponsler notes, Lydgate’s dramatic works are by a known author and a known compiler, John Shirley, who often added rubrics that spoke to details of performance, audience, and occasion, providing a unique and underutilized resource for studying early English theatre.
In her first chapter, Sponsler observes that Shirley did not include markers of performance within the body of the text (such as costumes, gestures, staging), tending to emphasize the “literariness” of Lydgate’s dramatic works, rather than their theatricality, perhaps converting them into texts for private reading that could have been produced specifically for the Beauchamp household in the 1420s. She notes that the mise-en-page of Lydgate’s plays and poems in Shirley’s anthology are the same, suggesting the “flexibility of texts in this period” (25) and the fact that “the generic definition of a play was in flux throughout the premodern period” (30). While the book begins by emphasizing the unique archive of Lydgate’s performance pieces, the last chapter, “On Drama’s Trail,” by contrast, addresses the practical difficulties of drama research through a case study of A Mumming of Seven Philosophers, a moralistic poem contained in a miscellany (Cambridge, Trinity College Library MA R.3.19) along with selections from several works known to be by Lydgate. Through a study of scribal hand, language, style, thematic content, and records of court entertainments, Sponsler makes a tentative case for attributing this poem to Lydgate and for locating the performance venue in the court of Henry VI. Her larger purpose is to demonstrate the simultaneously essential and inconclusive nature of documentary research on the drama.
The penultimate titular chapter is characteristic of the book’s movement among astute detailed readings of Lydgate’s texts, contextual documents, and large claims about dramatic history. For example, Sponsler quotes from the Parliamentary statute of 1427–28 stating that anyone marrying the dowager queen Catherine without the king’s permission would forfeit his land and possessions during his lifetime. This statute also established that the infant king could only give permission to marry his mother after he came of age. Similarly, at the end of the “Hertford Mumming,” the King defers judgment on a complaint brought by a group of rustic husbands against the tyranny of their wives. Just...