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  • Re-membering the Jews:Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays
  • Merrall Llewelyn Price

It has become almost a critical commonplace that the miracles of the Virgin Mary common to later medieval sermons, exempla, and dramatic texts are marked by the occasional but regular appearance of Jews as a group, functioning as a convenient if overdetermined scapegoat upon whom the vices of avarice, malice, stubbornness, infidelity, and disbelief can be projected. These works are generally agreed to be anti-Semitic in the sense that their response to Jews derives from and depends upon a constellation of myths about Jews and Judaism rather than reflecting either historical or theological reality.1 Less attention, however, has been paid to the concomitant role of Jews as the recipients of Mary's embodied and indeed, one might say, Old Testament wrath, effected dramatically upon the non-Christian flesh of the offender. The didactically theatrical nature of the punishment can be illustrated by the fact that the motif is particularly clear in medieval dramatic texts, and perhaps especially so in the N-Town Cycle, with its unique focus on the Virgin Mary. The popularity of this motif in cycle drama written and performed in England, from which Jews had been collectively expelled centuries earlier, suggests that this violence is not really about an external Jewish threat to Christianity, but iterates the ambiguity of Mary's own paradoxical body, and its vexed and highly symbolic position in medieval Christendom. The cultural work of these dramas is only further complicated by the peculiarly embodied nature of theatrical performance, wherein nothing is truly what it appears to be.

The somatic nature of divine vengeance has been explored by Ann Nichols, who coined the term "hierosphthitic" to refer to accounts of physical withering or crippling as divine punishment for touching a holy [End Page 439] object with sacrilegious hands.2 Punishment for such desecration is swift and often mortal. Although Nichols does not pursue the issue of anti-Semitism at this point, she is interested in occurrences of the topos that involve the Virgin, and, not surprisingly, the doubter in each of her Marian examples is Jewish. Nichols goes on to point out that, unlike other occasions of the hierosphthitic topos, those involving the Virgin are "typically corrective" rather than vengeful—in other words, the offender usually repents and is restored, rather than suffering permanently or being stricken dead.3 While she may be correct in terms of raw numbers, as I shall show later, there are certainly many cases of Marian miracles in which the offender's punishment is both nasty and permanent. Furthermore, even in those cases where punishment is followed either by healing and baptism of the offender or the communal baptism of his or her co-religionists, these "corrective" punishments function to eliminate Jews—as St. Vincent Ferrer is said to have declared, "Christians must not kill Jews with knives, but with words."4 The "corrective" nature of such tales, then, should not be interpreted as showing them to be significantly less anti-Semitic than their more bloodthirsty counterparts.

Those anti-Semitic Marian miracles that feature in the cycles of mystery plays relaying salvation history to late medieval audiences are conversionary in nature—the offender is healed upon repentance and acceptance of the truth of Christianity. These events are depicted as occurring during Mary's life and around her dormition, and they refer almost exclusively to doubters laying unholy hands or words upon the inviolate body and reputation of the Virgin. Several such stories feature in the N-Town Cycle, with an invariable outcome in which the offender, a Jew who prefers evidence to faith, is first stricken in the member that is the source of the offense and then repents, accepting Mary's claim to be a virgin and consequently the validity of Christianity, and is healed as a result, becoming a conversionary force in his or her community.

One such miracle is in the N-Town "Nativity," and features the two Jewish midwives, Salome and Zelomy, who arrive too late to attend the birth of Jesus. The drama is based on the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James, itself a text very much...


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