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Reviewed by:
  • Urban Theatre in the Low Countries 1400-1625
  • Peter Arnade
Elsa Strietman and Peter Happé , eds. Urban Theatre in the Low Countries 1400–1625. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2007. xii + 317 pp. index. illus. map. chron. gloss. bibl. €70.74. ISBN: 978–2–503–51700–1.

For decades, the world of the urban drama and poetry companies in the Low Countries known as the chambers of rhetoric was the scholarly preserve of Dutch and Belgian literary scholars alone. As some of late medieval and early modern Europe's most vibrant urban confraternities, their relative neglect by other scholars, historians especially, was a surprise. Over the last decade, this inattention has been corrected. A new wave of articles, dissertations, and books has given us a fuller portrait of these civic rhetoricians as the vanguard of a civic consciousness in the realms of politics, moral sentiment, cultural appetite, and religious commitment. Elsa Streitman and Peter Happé's edited volume is yet another welcome addition to this surge of publications on the chambers of rhetoric, their public performances, and their literary texts. It offers twelve essays by historians, literary scholars, and theater historians that range from considerations of some of the earliest rhetoricians' text to contemporary efforts in the Netherlands today to revive their art form. The quality is high and the selection diverse, but given some of the essays' very specialized topics, the book functions better for scholars looking to deepen their knowledge of the rhetoricians than as a general introduction to their world. That said, the book has several strong features: it reminds scholars that for all the recent interest in the rhetoricians' civic sensibility and lay organization, they were first and foremost producers of drama and literary verse, and attention to their literary output is paramount. The book also brings much needed attention to the French-speaking chambers of the southern Low Countries, whose extant literary output is smaller and for whom less work has been done. Finally, the book is admirably interdisciplinary, and blends essays whose focus runs the gamut from formal textual analysis to the place of rhetoricians in urban public life and in the Reformation.

The first two essays consider early rhetorician texts: the fourteenth-century Maastricht Passion Play written in the Ripuarian dialect and the fifteenth-century Bliscapen texts on the Joys of Mary. Carla Dauven-van Knippenberg offers a technical analysis of the Maastricht play. She notes that the text is the clear forerunner of the later Dutch corpus, though its devotional quality makes its concrete links to the world of urban theater unclear. It is the topic of performance itself that centers W. M. H. Hummelen's consideration of the first and last sections of the seven-part Joys of Mary cycle, performances of which began annually after 1448 in Brussels. Hummelen focuses on the pausa and silete notations in the written texts, arguing they suggest musical intermezzi. His essay points to the not yet fully understood bridge between the surviving rhetorician texts and the different media that were part of their public performance on the streets of cities of the Low Countries. Five essays follow that tackle the two most fully treated themes in the historiography of rhetorician studies: the place of the rhetoricians in the early Reformation in the Low Countries and the general literary antecedents and tropes [End Page 975] rhetoricians embraced. Gary Waite confirms that between 1520 and 1555 the rhetoricians often seized upon Reformation ideas, but as subjects of Habsburg Spanish rule, they did so gingerly, opting for more subtle spiritualist messages than outright anticlerical outbursts. Wim Hüsken's essay demonstrates that even the term heresy (ketterye) in rhetorician texts had a plastic meaning: wielded by both Catholic and Protestant or Protestant-leaning writers, the label of heresy was used more elastically than one would suppose. Three subsequent essays offer rich considerations of the rhetoricians' formal literary techniques and influences, from consideration of the role of allegory in the morality plays (spele van sinnen) and the impact of classical exempla to the various interpretations of Ovid's famed story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Bart Ramakers's study of the function...


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pp. 975-976
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Archived 2009
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