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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.2 (2002) 269-303

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Performing Feminine Sanctity in Late Medieval England:
Parish Guilds, Saints' Plays, and the Second Nun's Tale

Catherine Sanok
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

"In this yere was the pley of seynt Katerine." So reads the entry for 1393 in the Chronicle of Londoncontained in British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A.xvi, the first of the Chronicle's two references to St. Katherine pageants. It is a tantalizing record for the scholar of medieval drama or vernacular hagiography, pointing to a public representation of the saint, but in its formulaic syntax omitting reference to the civic institutions, urban geography, and theatrical conventions that informed the performance. 1 Unfortunately, in this it is representative of the historical record of saints' plays and pageants, a tradition amply documented, but in so fragmentary and incidental a way as to make clear only its prevalence. 2 The problem is compounded by the even sparser textual tradition, witnessed only by the Digby manuscript plays of Mary Magdalene and the Conversion of St. Paul. The archival and textual limits on how well we can understand hagiographic drama are especially frustrating now, in the wake of increasing critical interest in virgin martyr narratives and the role of gender in communal performance. 3 Plays like the London St. Katherineraise fundamental questions about the practice of devotion in the late medieval city: How did the performance of female sanctity intersect with the civic ideologies and social tensions explored by scholars of the Corpus Christi plays? How might we understand the public representation of feminine sanctity and its relation to the space of the late medieval town? What is the relation between the mimesis of saints' legends as urban drama and the mimesis of saints' legends as ethical practice; that is, between the communal performance and the exemplarity of female saints' legends?

We do not have enough information about the performance of virgin martyr legends as community drama to answer these questions confidently. But the silences of the historical record are themselves telling, of [End Page 269] course. Indeed, when another St. Katherine pageant was presented in London, some hundred years later on the occasion of Catherine of Aragon's procession into the city in anticipation of her marriage to the young Prince Arthur, it is given a far more expansive account in the Chronicle. How Catherine was "receyved w[ith] moost Triumphe of the Mayre and the Citezeins" and honored with an elaborate pageant is recorded in ample and specific detail in the Chronicle, which provides not only information about the geography, staging, audience, and participating institutions, but even the script of the pageant itself, which began with a tableau of St. Katherine and St. Ursula, attended by "dyuers living virgins," on London bridge.

As we will see, the speeches of these two virgin martyrs, preoccupied as they are with the relation between exemplarity, political policy, and genealogy, demonstrate how hagiographic pageantry might represent not only the spiritual meaning of sacred narrative, but the ideological meaning of the city, its institutions, and its political elite. This performance is a useful point of entry for a discussion of saints' plays that surface more cryptically in the archival record—not because it presents the full articulation of that tradition, however, but something more like its antithesis. This essay explores the possibility that the historical record fairly represents the political authority, and hence historical legibility, of both the fourteenth- and the early-sixteenth-century pageants; that is, we might know so little about most saints' plays because—perhaps only implicitly, even inadvertently—they challenged political and ecclesiastic institutions in ways that made their textual inscription more difficult and less likely.

To explore this hypothesis, this essay investigates some of the likely social and dramatic contexts omitted by the 1393 chronicle entry, in order to understand their relation to other late medieval institutions and ideological priorities. I address three particular contexts: the parish guilds that sponsored...