- Madonna, Whore:Mary’s Sexuality in the N-Town Plays
The English compilation of biblical pageants that we call the N-Town Plays comes from a time and place of intense Marian devotion; the cult of the Virgin dominated late medieval East Anglia, “England’s Nazareth.”1 N-Town mirrors East Anglia’s veneration of the Virgin: the compilation includes many more Marian pageants than the York, Chester, or Towneley cycles, including two episodes from the Life of the Virgin unique in the European medieval dramatic tradition.2 Mary steals the show: the arc of Jesus’ lifetime nestles inside the larger dramatic frame of the Virgin’s progress from her Immaculate Conception and birth to her death and Assumption—just as the late medieval vierge ouvrante (or cupboard Madonna) opens to reveal, inside the womb of the “Great Goddess,” a tiny Trinity.3 Furthermore, N-Town has Jesus submit to his mother’s authority, vowing: “I shal yow folwe with obedyence…And owe to do yow hygh reverence” (21.274–76). God the Father and the Holy Spirit follow suit: Dominus, the three-personed God, tells Mary, “Yow to worchepe, moder, it likyth the hol Trinyte” (41.523). N-Town might very well represent the zenith of late medieval English Mariolatry. [End Page 191]
Yet despite this zealous Marian devotion, the N-Town Plays have long been infamous for their shockingly disrespectful treatment of the Virgin. Detractors accuse Mary of being a promiscuous adulteress: a “scowte,” “quene,” and “bolde bysmare” (14.182, 14.392, 14.298). Skeptics subject her to round after round of trials of virginity, including an onstage postpartum gynecological exam (15.218–21; 15.246–53). Most disturbingly of all, N-Town appears to play these insults and slanders for laughs. As A. P. Rossiter put it in 1950, Mary’s persecutors inspire “indignation” and “fear,” and “yet they are funny.”4 In other words, N-Town seems to invite the reader to laugh at the Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, in his influential 1966 monograph on The Play Called Corpus Christi, V. A. Kolve flat-out denied this possibility: “the audience never laughs at [Mary],” he argued, because “Mary knows she is pure, and so do we.”5 Following Kolve, medieval drama criticism has tended to interpret N-Town’s seemingly blasphemous aspersions against Mary’s virginity as “crude,” “misogynist,” “carnal,” “literal,” “idolatrous,” and “malicious” errors6—arguing that because the larger framework of each pageant “neatly inverts,” “trumps,” and “conquers” these slurs by ultimately proving Mary’s chastity, it is the responsibility of the good reader to carry out this hermeneutic process of inversion as the errors unfold.7 As David Bevington puts it, God gets “the last laugh”—and, thanks to criticism’s eschatological allegorizing, every laugh.8 In other words, we are not supposed to take N-Town’s dirty jokes about Mary seriously, and we are certainly not supposed to laugh at them.
Yet rather than simply rebounding off Mary to strike and discredit her detractors, N-Town’s seemingly slanderous accusations resonate with positive theological significance. When N-Town uses pantomimes, metaphors, exegetical comparisons, and obscene insults to represent Mary as a guilty adulteress in a divine comedy (dallying with the Trinity, angels, and mankind in kaleidoscopic combinations), this is not necessarily or exclusively insulting. That Mary is understood to be an irresolvable paradox, both virgin and mother, is so well known that it is almost not worth repeating. In a late medieval context, she is both virgin and mother and Madonna and whore. Mary’s promiscuity has the hermeneutic power to symbolize her marriage to the Trinity, her redemption of Eve’s fall, her supersession (or cuckolding) of Judaism, and her advocacy for [End Page 192] indiscriminate mercy—all staples of late medieval Mariology, a theological system that enables N-Town’s audacious and exuberant spin on the good news (euangélion, glad tidings, gospel).
In N-Town’s “Joseph’s Doubt,” Joseph explicitly and extensively accuses Mary of adultery. Unlike the biblical Joseph, who never gives voice to his suspicions (Matthew 1:19), N-Town’s Joseph throws discretion to the winds, accusing the Virgin out loud...