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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 333-334
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The title The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature is somewhat misleading for theatre scholars. "Medieval English Literary History" would be much more appealing and appropriate, as this comprehensive collection of essays by leading scholars in the field offers a variety of perspectives and histories of texts that far exceed literature. The thirty-one essays are divided into five sections that are arranged thematically and chronologically, each briefly introduced by the general editor, covering the span of time between 1066 (the death of Harold I) and 1547 (the death of Henry VIII). They are "After the Norman Conquest," "Writing in the British Isles," "Institutional Productions," "After the Black Death," and "Before the Reformation." Only two essays are devoted exclusively to theatre and drama: Lawrence M. Clopper's "English Drama: From Ungodly ludi to Sacred Play" and John Watkins's "The Allegorical Theatre: Morality, Interludes, and Protestant Drama." Yet theatre researchers are likely to find many of the other essays very useful and illuminating because the cultural history they depict has obvious implications for the study of theatre and performance.
For example, Steven Justice's chapter "Lollardy" provides a much-needed and contextualized background of the ideology and doctrines of the movement and its significant figures succeeding John Wyclif. The textual analyses and references Justice offers about such subjects as the Lollard negative approach to images on the one hand and debate with the orthodoxy about vernacularizing the Bible on the other explore cultural issues that are closely related to the drama and performance of the cycle plays. Similarly, David Lawton's "Englishing the Bible, 1066-1549" raises theological, etymological, and theoretical questions about the history and difficulties of translating the Bible into English and gradually making it available to the laity. These concise yet meticulous surveys of such central theological and social processes, which inevitably had influence on the writing and creation of the religious theatre in the vernacular, offer the reader an excellent starting point for investigating such subjects.
Alternatively, from the point of view of medieval performance studies, of which theatre is but one branch, essays such as Marjorie Curry Woods and Rita Copeland's "Classroom and Confession," Nicholas Watson's "The Middle English Mystics," and Julia Boffey's "Middle English Lives" are extremely relevant. In all three essays, literary texts are points of departure for a critical analysis and history of social and cultural performative phenomena. In his discussion of medieval mysticism, Watson questions what has become the canon of Middle English mystics and calls for a redefinition of the term mysticism itself, in order to locate such texts as Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love, Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe, and a few others in their historical and contextual moments rather than assuming "that mystical experience is a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon" (543). By offering a contextual reading of the five late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century texts canonized as mystical in relation to other literary vernacular products of the period (such as those written by Chaucer, Langland, and Lollards, since they are "involved in the same socio-political discussion" ), Watson offers a glance into significant theological concepts of image-writing, spirituality, abstraction, and representation—all central to medieval aesthetics and concepts of performance. Similarly illuminating is Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's essay "National, World and Women's History." Their "particular concern is the textual communities of religious women" (92), and they introduce to the canon textual and performative territories previously under-researched.
Obviously, many of the essays are concerned primarily with literature, focusing on key authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, or William Caxton; dominant genres such as the romance and alliterative poetry; interrelations between literature and law; and medieval methods of writing history. But all the essays successfully summarize and update the themes they discuss in relation to the larger social and cultural changes...