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  • Theatrical History in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament
  • Michael Jones

According to one early, and somewhat dyspeptic, twentieth-century critic, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament “has absolutely nothing to recommend it. It is without dignity, pathos or dramatic power, and its incongruous humour is of the lowest kind.” 1 Late twentieth-century commentators, employing a different set of critical coordinates, have been more charitable. While it is true that the play may never appeal to any genteel canons of taste, some contemporary medievalists have found that it can give purchase on such matters as historicism, periodization, the body and punishment, and medieval anti-Judaism. 2 In short, some have found that it has much to recommend it—provided one’s critical coordinates are the appropriate ones. This essay will touch on some of the more recent readings en route to its claim that the historical palimpsest that is the Croxton Play of the Sacrament is a pivotal document in the history of anti-Judaism and the history of drama in England and, furthermore, a fulcrum for many of the debates current in contemporary Medieval studies. As the play seems to generate certain readings, or to choose the critical coordinates by which it is read, it might be possible to view it as a kind of meta-text for this generation of methodologically self-conscious medievalists.

In 1926, in the century’s first extended study of the Play of the Sacrament, a Ms. F. E. Barnes wrote: “It is a cosmopolitan product—this Croxton play—drawing freely from the history, lore, and literature of the Middle Ages.” 3 In recent years, the play has been the focus of renewed attention and most commentators have apparently proceeded from a different premise. Nearly all of the discussions have been resolutely etiological in purpose and emphasis: invariably seeking to account for the play’s curious farrago of doctrinal argument, sanguinary stage effects, and anti-Judaic legend by invoking a purely doctrinal framework, reconstructing a context of late Medieval religious controversy and anti-Lollard propaganda, and annexing it to one particular time and place on the basis of the existence of one or two place names in the manuscript. 4 This essay will concern itself more with function [End Page 223] than with origin, and more with reception than with production. That is to say, the essay is concerned with the function of theatricality within the play and within its original cultural, civic context of somewhere around the 1480s and, as it survives only in a sixteenth-century manuscript, the function the document might be said to have in the religious controversy of the 1530s. 5 In fact, if the play’s origin can be tied to a particular time (the 1480s) and a particular community (Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk) as some scholars have maintained, then its very existence in sixteenth-century manuscript is evidence of an original recontextualization that this essay seeks to emulate. As some Tudor correspondents wrote of the early to mid-sixteenth century, “many of the popish ceremonies were still tolerated, but [] new significations were put on them.” 6 Much the same might be said for fifteenth-century plays. 7

More recent work suggests that attempts to establish the play as a work of considerable artistic achievement on the one hand, or as a piece of crude propaganda in a historically specific polemic on the other, fail to do justice to the radical eclecticism noted all those years ago by Ms. Barnes. 8 It should be no surprise if a play which tropes on that most overdetermined cluster in late Medieval England—Jews and the corpus—should be somewhat overdetermined itself. Besides, the play as play demonstrates the same transgression of boundaries—generic, cultural, historical—as it thematizes in its own plot. To which genre can it be said to belong? Is it medieval or early Modern? Philo- or anti-Judaic? Catholic or Reformist?

Such a creative elision of boundaries seems to be enlisted in the service of what we might call stigmatization. This designation can bear both its literal and metaphorical senses: the branding of the body with infamy using the manifold tools of torture, and the...

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