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Killed by Words: Grotesque Verbal Violence and Tragic Atonement in French Passion Plays1 Véronique Plesch C'est la violence qui constitue le coeur véritable et l'âme secrète du sacré. Violence ¡s the heart and secret soul ofthe Sacred.2 In his classic essay Violence and the Sacred René Girard explained that the sacrificial victim "unwittingly conjures up a baleful, infectious force that his own death—or triumph—transforms into a guarantee of order and tranquillity."3 In the context of the Christian theology of redemption, Christ's sufferings are indeed directly connected to the atonement of humanity; and so it could be said that the more Christ suffers, the better the atonement . I have had the occasion to study how in French Passion plays of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the dramatic matter grows, from the earliest ones in the fourteenth century, in which a few thousand lines suffice to tell Christ's story, to the fifteenth-century cyclical monuments—not to say monsters— which were performed over several days. I have shown how in that textual expansion the sequences devoted to Christ's torments are fundamental; indeed, I have argued that they are expanded because they are important and the modalities of their expansion are rooted in their meaning.4 In this essay I would like to take a closer look at the issue of verbal violence against Christ. After all, even in the silent medium of pictorial arts, we find suggestion of words being uttered through open mouths. In depictions ofpassion scenes the degrading nature of the words is implied by the ugly and caricatured features of the henchmen, often reinforced by the offensive gestures they perform.5 On the stage, even though torture is obviously of a primarily physical nature, the playwrights always strive to include speech in scenes of torment. The reasons are 22 Véronique Plesch23 several. If left mute these scenes would no doubt be perceived as less important than spoken ones. Words can help convey to the public more information about the actions enacted on stage and thereby increase their suggestive impact. Dialogue can also indicate what gestures should be performed; stage directions are certainly insufficient means to orchestrate such complex choreographic events. But more important, the presence of verbal abuse, by literally "adding insult to injury," increases Christ's sufferings. In the Gospels we find several passages in which Christ is verbally assaulted. There is of course the Mocking, when Christ is blindfolded, hit, and then asked to "prophesy"—to guess who hit him.6 Luke reports how, before sending Christ back to Pilate, Herod clad him in a white garment "and mocked him."7 Then comes the mock ceremony of the Crowning with Thorns, also accompanied by words: "And platting a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand, and bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying: Hail, king of the Jews."8 At the Crucifixion passers-by "blasphemed him, wagging their heads, and saying: Vah, thou that destroyest the temple of God, and in three days dost rebuild it: save thy own self if thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross."9 Christ is also mocked by the chief priests, along with the scribes and ancients; and finally, before giving up the ghost, either one or both thieves "revile him."10 In the spectacular textual expansion that characterizes French passion plays, verbal violence features prominently among the means used to develop the Gospel narrative. In elaborating upon this aspect the playwrights were certainly legitimated by the Gospels: Luke (22:65) wrote that during the Mocking Christ's tormentors were "blaspheming, many other things they said against him," thus encouraging exegetes and other writers on the Passion to flesh out the account. Kurt Ruh and Frederick Pickering were among the first to elucidate how medieval writers conducted this quest for details, and how the Old Testament provided a source.11 Pickering explained how "important and revered metaphors and figures ofprophecy could be translated into 'realistic' incident" from Christ's life.12 Isaiah 1:6, for example, describes a male figure covered with wounds...


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