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1 COMPARATIVE ? ama Volume 27Winter 1993-94Number 4 Writing Before the Eye: The N-Town Woman Taken in Adultery and the Medieval Ministry Play Gail McMurray Gibson Richard Beadle has recently observed that "If any area of medieval English studies can be said to have changed out of all recognition over the past twenty years or so, it must be that of the drama."1 Certainly, twenty years ago I could have asserted the perversity of teaching a field of scholarly inquiry—the medieval English mystery play—whose very name ("mystery" play) was a modern scholarly invention perpetuating a linguistic confusion . As E. K. Chambers had nagged in 1903, the word 'mystery ' "is not English at all, in a dramatic sense, and in France first appears as misterie in the charter given by Charles VI in 1402 to the Parisian confrérie de la Passion." In a note he adds: "The first English use of the term 'mystery' is in the preface to Dodsley's Select Collection ofOld Plays (1744)."2 The medieval "mystery" plays, as I have more than a few times nagged to my own students, were in fact, ministerium plays, that is, plays performed by medieval craft or parish guilds. The Latin word ministerium and its vernacular Middle English forms 'myster' or 'mysterie' meant occupation, craft, or ministry. The biblical plays thus came to be called 'mysteries' in the sense of the post399 400Comparative Drama Reformation Chester Banns: "by xxiiii"e occupationes—artes, craftes, or misterye—these pagiantes should be played."3 But all medievalists must eventually learn to accept linguistic confusion as evidence of divine providence—which, as medieval theologians and exegetes knew, loves nothing so much as a good Latin pun. So it is that after twenty years I have come to realize that though, linguistically speaking, the field of my scholarship should be "the ministry play," the biblical drama of the streets of England was indeed a mystery—that is, a mysterium—and have come to see that it was an art form of signs and actions curiously antithetical to ministry. I have even come to see that E. K. Chambers was wrong in saying that there is no medieval English use of the word mysterium for this drama; John Lydgate 's banns for a London Corpus Christi procession quite explicitly call those pageants "mysteries grounded in scripture": This hye feste nowe for to magnefye, Feste of festes moost hevenly and devyne, In goostly gladnesse to governe vs and guye, By which al grace doothe vppon vs shyne; For now this day al derkenesse tenlumyne; In youre presence fette out of fygure, Shal beo declared by many unknouthe signe Gracyous misteryes grounded in scripture.4 Nor was Chambers correct in insisting that even the French use of "mystery" in a dramatic sense was an afterthought; as early as 1372 the French soldier, diplomat, and scholar Phillipe de Mézières wrote a play of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple—written in Latin, though to be played, as he explains , either in Latin or in the vernacular as one wills—and in his lengthy, self-conscious prologue explained that since the play is to be in honor of Mary whose human life "reveals what is deep and hidden," its actions in fleshly acts and signs are means by which the mind, released from the weight of the flesh, may be enabled to arrive at knowledge of the invisible and visible elements of God's mysteries [misteriorum Dei] as it were through visible things, signs, and works, in accord with apostolic teaching.5 The Latin word mysterium, from Greek mysterion, originally signaled the secret initiations into epiphanies showing the riddles of life and of death in the cult religions of the Graeco-Roman world. According to Hippolytus, the climax of the famous Eleusinian mystery cult observed near Athens was a single harvested Gail McMurray Gibson401 head of grain revered in profound simplicity and silence.6 But the esoteric Greek word mysterion and then the Latin vulgate's mysterium (and finally 'mystery') entered the mainstream of Western tradition because of its surprising use, especially by the apostle Paul, in the New Testament. In...


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