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The Queen's Dumbshows

John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater

By Claire Sponsler

Publication Year: 2014

No medieval writer reveals more about early English drama than John Lydgate, Claire Sponsler contends. Best known for his enormously long narrative poems The Fall of Princes and The Troy Book, Lydgate also wrote numerous verses related to theatrical performances and ceremonies. This rich yet understudied body of material includes mummings for London guildsmen and sheriffs, texts for wall hangings that combined pictures and poetry, a Corpus Christi procession, and entertainments for the young Henry VI and his mother.

In The Queen's Dumbshows, Sponsler reclaims these writings to reveal what they have to tell us about performance practices in the late Middle Ages. Placing theatricality at the hub of fifteenth-century British culture, she rethinks what constituted drama in the period and explores the relationship between private forms of entertainment, such as household banquets, and more overtly public forms of political theater, such as royal entries and processions. She delineates the intersection of performance with other forms of representation such as feasts, pictorial displays, and tableaux, and parses the connections between the primarily visual and aural modes of performance and the reading of literary texts written on paper or parchment. In doing so, she has written a book of signal importance to scholars of medieval literature and culture, theater history, and visual studies.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Theater History as a Challenge to Literary History

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pp. 1-16

The standard history of medieval English literature is one in which a queen’s dumbshows would not readily find a place. That history enshrines a written (in verse) canon fashioned in the fifteenth century around the works of a group of (male) London writers who followed in Chaucer’s footsteps. According to this account, the formation of that canon began with the inner circle...

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Chapter 1. Shirley’s Hand

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pp. 17-34

Unlike other fifteenth-century writers of short poems, Lydgate appears not to have kept a portfolio of his shorter verses, including those for performance, or to have supervised its circulation in authorized collections.1 In fact, the survival of Lydgate’s dramatic texts is due almost entirely to John Shirley, who included them in three anthologies he compiled between the late 1420s...

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Chapter 2. Vernacular Cosmopolitanism: London Mummings and Disguisings

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pp. 35-66

Only recently has Lydgate begun to be thought of as a London writer, as scholars have acknowledged the time he spent in the city, the connections he had with its residents, and the number of texts he wrote for or about it, including four mummings and disguisings apparently intended for performance in the...

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Chapter 3. Performing Pictures

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pp. 67-96

Reading and hearing were close relatives in medieval culture. Even when not composed orally, poems long and short were sung or spoken aloud to listeners, while also offering themselves for silent, private reading. As with Chaucer’s invocation of an audience for the Canterbury Tales of everyone who “redith or herith,” a good deal of medieval poetry contains traces of the...

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Chapter 4. Performance and Gloss: The Procession of Corpus Christi

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pp. 97-114

When John Shirley copied the verses now known as the Procession of Corpus Christi, he included a headnote describing them as “an ordenaunce of a precessyoun of the feste of corpus cristi made in london by daun John Lydegate.”1 Welcome though they are as an anchor for what would otherwise be a free-floating set of verses, Shirley’s words are not without ambiguity. What...

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Chapter 5. Inscription and Ceremony: The 1432 Royal Entry

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pp. 115-146

On 21 February 1432, Londoners mounted a series of pageants to welcome Henry VI on his return to En gland after his Parisian coronation. The event was documented by John Carpenter, London’s common clerk, in a Latin letter that he subsequently entered into the city’s letter book. At some point soon after, Lydgate was commissioned to write a poem on the same...

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Chapter 6. Edible Theater

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pp. 147-166

The most formally odd and thoroughly material of the theatrical spectacles to which Lydgate contributed were the subtleties for the coronation banquet of Henry VI. The feast itself was a carefully designed piece of political drama in the form of ceremonies and entertainments that ushered Henry to the throne. Its stage was the hall at Westminster and its audience important members of...

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Chapter 7. The Queen’s Dumbshows

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pp. 167-190

During a Christmas season in the late 1420s, Henry and members of his house hold joined his mother Catherine of Valois at her castle at Hertford. In the course of the holiday festivities, if Shirley can be believed, they were entertained by a short performance by Lydgate. The Disguising at Hertford seems an odd choice for a young boy. Addressed to Henry and apparently...

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Chapter 8. On Drama’s Trail

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pp. 191-210

This book began with John Shirley and the evidence his copies—and especially their headnotes—provided about the essential questions related to theater history: authorship, patrons, locations, dates, media, and performance practices. It ends with verses that are exactly the opposite of what Shirley’s hand gave us: these verses come with no hints about authorship, patrons, or...

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pp. 211-216

Although I have argued in these chapters that Lydgate deserves attention given the important information about the histories of early theater and literature he offers—information seldom available from other sources—his greatest contribution may in the end be not the answers he provides but the questions he raises. I began this book by noting the unusual circumstances...


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pp. 217-264

Works Cited

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pp. 265-290


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pp. 291-306

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pp. 307-308

Much of the research for this book took place at library desks, under the circles of light cast by reading room lamps. That should not be surprising, given that for the drama of a period that long predates the existence of technologies that now make it possible to capture and preserve with some degree of verisimilitude the look and sound of live performances, the chief traces of...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209471
E-ISBN-10: 0812209478
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245950

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 7 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English drama -- To 1500 -- History and criticism.
  • Lydgate, John, 1370?-1451? -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
  • Theater -- England -- History -- Medieval, 500-1500.
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