- The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in Premodern England eds. by Nicole R. Rice and Margaret Aziza Pappano
The Civic Cycles offers a fresh and valuable perspective on the role, identity and self-representation of medieval artisan guilds within both the York and Chester play cycles and the two cities' civic structures. The book's introduction, co-written by the authors, offers a clear and succinct overview of how the medieval cycles functioned as displays of civic honour, local pride, and religious feeling. This is approached through what Rice and Pappano see as 'the crucial lens for comparative analysis of the cycles' (p. 4) — the exploration of artisan identity. Introduced here, and explored much more fully in the ensuing chapters, is a study of the artisan guilds' place within the civic hierarchy, their relations with other guilds and civic governance, and the way in which the cycle pageants 'not only represented but also performed artisan identity' (p. 4). Rice and Pappano claim — justifiably — that this [End Page 250] 'offers a new perspective on the relation between continuity and change in social, dramatic and religious practice' (p. 5).
Although discussion is weighted towards the political and religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, the book's five chapters range across the entire performance history of the cycles rather than focusing on one particular period — an uncommon approach, but a welcome one. In a pleasing symmetry with the cycles themselves, the study begins with the fall of the angels, moving through the arc of salvation history to Doomsday. Chapter 1, 'New Beginnings', explores the 'light imagery' (p. 41) pervading the York Fall of the Angels and Chester Fall of Lucifer in the context of the feasts of Corpus Christi and Pentecost. Following Sarah Beckwith, Erik Paul Weissengruber and others to 'articulate an expanded understanding of […] "artisanal ideology"' (p. 42), the pageants are examined in relation to the Corpus Christi religious procession, its engrained hierarchy of guilds and civic governance, and the tensions attendant on this hierarchy. Rice and Pappano then break new ground by suggesting that '[b]oth pageants are engaged in a process of reform and renovation, seeking to find new modes of organisation and expressions of ceremonial relations' (p. 73).
Chapter 2, 'Whom Seek Ye, Sirs?', covers the 'artisan concerns' (p. 83) of York's Herod and the Magi. The play's 'seeking' for Christ is linked to 'the multifaceted role of the craft searcher' (p. 85), a guild officer appointed to the 'inspection of workshops and products […] for violations of quality standards or infringement of monopolies' (p. 84). The concept of the pageant's dramatic seeking as a representation of craft searching is thoroughly explored, judiciously evidenced with material from guild and civic records (as throughout the book), and convincingly presented.
Continuing the discussion of power relations and tensions introduced in Chapter 1 and inherent in the role of Chapter 2's craft searcher, the third and fourth chapters ('Fair Trade' and 'Spinsters, Labourers and Alewives: Women's Work in Chester') examine the 'threefold nexus of identity and power encompassing merchants, artisans, and servants/journeymen/apprentices' (p. 123) before turning to the discrepancy between the perception of women's work and men's. Chapter 3 is centred on the York Judas plays and their 'process of differentiating servants and masters and work toward subordinating the servant in the hierarchical […] social body, simultaneously Corpus Christi, a divine body of Christian fellowship' (p. 159). Chapter 4 looks back to the Adam and Eve and Noah plays before introducing the Alewife figure of Chester's Harrowing of Hell in terms of work as punishment for sin, good- and poor-quality work, and the regulation of women's labour by men.
With Chapter 5 the book, like the play cycle, comes full circle, exploring the Doomsday and Last Judgement pageants as performances of civic charity. Refreshingly, a case is...