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Mary's Obedience and Power in the Trial of Mary and Joseph Cindy L. Carlson The N-town cycle has long been recognized as concerning itself with the centrality and glory of the Virgin Mary and the conflicts between man's and God's justice. These two subjects have been treated together only seldom and never at great length. The iconography of Mary in this cycle play has been examined by Theresa Coletti,1 the issues oflaw andjustice by Lynn Squires and Robert Potter.2 Most of the treatment of legal matters has centered on the trial of Jesus where human law is quite thoroughly perverted by its adepts in order to perform the judicial murder of Jesus. But this trial has misled modern readers to view human law in the cycle as hypocritical and hateful. The examinations of Mary, however, show a human law capable ofjustice as well as of perversion. The presence ofjudges able to discern the humility of Mary and to see God's power surrounding her, particularly in the Trial ofMary and Joseph (Play 14), allows for justice to be done. Mary's own humility can purify the workings of the corrupted and corruptible human law. Modern feminists, in examining the lives of women in earlier times and the literature about them, have noted for us the variations in women's political power and the restraints on their ability to speak publicly.3 Particularly for the Renaissance, literary historians have studied Shakespeare's heroines and Queen Elizabeth in terms of modern feminism's concern with political power and personal rights.4 But in earlier periods, a concentration on political and publicly exercised power and speech may lead us to miss concerns about power that are not precisely our own.5 Even though Mary has very few individual legal rights, she is a figure of imposing power during her submission to judicial examination .6 In her humility, Mary responds with a perfect obedience to the demands the powerful make of her, yet she embodies power —she gives birth to Jesus—and she models a powerful humility and virginal integrity.7 She has experienced a spiritual conversion 348 Cindy Carlson349 and understanding that have focused her aspirations on a power and reward far beyond the worldly political power of institutions that are under the uncertain dominion of fortune. In this essay, I want to read the Mary pageants of the N-town cycle in light of fifteenth-century theories of legality and justice —especially those of Sir John Fortescue.8 After an examination of Fortescue's commonplaces concerning justice and the law administered by human beings in the first part ofthis essay, I will turn, in the second part, to the overwhelming example of Mary as a participant in human trials that ultimately reach just results. Mary's trials subject her and the legal system in which she is involved to judgment. Both are validated not through an analysis of rights and their protection but through an examination of essences and sources and an exploration of protected relationships . Questions of jurisdictional impositions of power are less important than demonstrations ofobedience, circumspection, and self-control—both in Mary and in the functionaries of the court. I To a thoughtful lawyer and politician of the fifteenth century as also to the thoughtful compiler of the N-town cycle, the various laws administered by various jurisdictions posed a serious threat to the dignity of law. Surely law is, or ought to be, one thing, even if it is administered by various human agencies. Fortescue in his treatise on the law of nature admits that the civil and ecclesiastical legal systems fall short ofthe universality desirable in the law. In De Natura Legis Naturae, Fortescue sees the natural law as prior to and forming the foundation for human civil law (Works, I, 200). In the absence of any acknowledged and specific human civii law, the law of nature is sufficient to decide controversies and disputes. While the law of nature is unitary and immutable, its effects can vary according to the various human circumstances to which it is applied. That law is the same when it decrees the innocent man to enjoy...


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pp. 348-362
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