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The Hierosphthitic Topos, or the Fate of Fergus: Notes on the N-Town Assumption Ann Eljenholm Nichols Asked to identify the fate of Fergus, many students of medieval drama would be apt to cite die fate of the York play, known variously as the portado, "the arrest [arrêt] of the Virgin's funeral," or simply "Fergus" after the Jew who attacked the bier being carried by the apostles. Although the York records are not altogether straightforward, certainly die guild charged with performing this play was, at various times, discharged of its duties. In 1431 crowd control was raised as an objection to the play, but reformist ideas were also afloat, for another argument against the play was that the death and funeral of Mary had no basis in scripture. Although die special pleading of die goldsmitiis in 1431 makes their evidence suspect, fifty years later the guild assigned to produce Fergus still wanted to be quit of their responsibility. They succeeded, a success tiiat probably accounts for the ultimate loss of the text.l The loss is unfortunate because we would like to know more about the York play. Was Fergus indeed beaten in the play as the documentary evidence suggests? Certainly there is no such beating in the typical apocryphal sources; neither does any such action occur in the only extant English play preserving the arrest of the funeral, the N-town Assumption. There the fate of the attacking Jew corresponds to the details of the apocryphal texts: the hands by which he intended to overthrow the bier of the Virgin Mary are instead fixed to it. It is this fate diat one critic has referred to as "die strange miracle of Fergus's hand."2 In fact it is not so strange at all: such miracles are a commonplace of shrine literature. Ademar de Chabannes (988-1034) in his account of Otto's discovery of Charlemagne's tomb related the story of Canon Adalbert, who was not content to wonder at the majesty of the 29 30The Hierosphthitic Topos Emperor found sitting on his golden throne, his body intact. Perhaps Adalbert was proud of his unusual height ("enormi et procero corpore"), for he measured his leg against Charlemagne 's. What he experienced, however, was more than discomfiture at finding his leg smaller: his leg was immediately broken—"ipsum ejus crus protinus divina virtute confractum est."3 With this story Ademar has provided a clear definition of hierosphthitic punishment.4 A sacred object (Charlemagne's intact body) is touched for unholy reasons. Straightaway (protinus ) a blow is struck by divine force (divina virtute). In the most extreme form the violator is punished with death. The biblical archetype ocurs in 2 Samuel (2 Kings) when Uzzah is struck dead for touching the Ark of die Covenant: "Iratusque est indignatione Dominus contra Ozan, et percussit eum super temeritate; qui mortuus est ibi iuxta arcam Dei" ("the indignation of the Lord was enkindled against Oza, and he struck him for his temerity; and he died diere before the ark of God" [2 Sam. 6.7]). In a well-known medieval case, a soldier is struck dead when he throws a stone at a statue of the Virgin.5 In less extreme forms, the unseen sacred force withers or paralyzes the body members that violate the holy place or person. For example, in the N-town Birth of Christ when the midwife Salome examines Mary "with hand towchynge," her hand immediately withers ("aresceit manus eius").6 Motive is not always material. Uzzah only wanted to steady the Ark being rocked by the movement of the oxen ("quoniam calcitrabant boves" [2 Sam. 6.6]), yet he is struck dead. In the Golden Legend, the soldiers who came to remove Andrew from his three-day ordeal on the cross meant to relieve him of suffering, yet they were unable to touch him, their arms falling powerless.7 Similarly the hermit priest, running to Mary Magdalene's grotto and wanting to confirm his vision of her being lifted by angels, found that on reaching "within a stone's throw of die spot, all his members were paralyzed. He was able to use them to withdraw...


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