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  • Law, Farce, and Counter-Kingship in the Semur Fall of Lucifer
  • Nicole R. Rice (bio)

Introduction: Lucifer and the World of the Basoche

In this essay I offer a new reading of the fall of Lucifer, the opening episode of the Passion de Semur, a fifteenth-century Burgundian mystère extant in a single copy dated 1488. This two-day religious play, which dramatizes Lucifer’s fall through Christ’s resurrection, is a composite work, augmented in several stages, perhaps over more than a century. Graham Runnalls has meticulously reconstructed the work’s textual evolution, from a “traditional simple Passion Play” to a more extensive drama featuring Old Testament episodes and a host of new comic and grotesque characters.1 The entire first section of the play (lines 1–3419), from the angelic fall to John the Baptist’s appearance, was probably added during a second stage of revision.2 This added section features allegorical characters and episodes such as the traditional debate between Ecclesia and Synagoga and the trial of heaven preceding Christ’s incarnation, as well as a greatly expanded cast of devils.3

Such an extensive expansion may have involved several different revisers, yet, Runnalls notes, “all the modifications in Stage II reflect a tendency towards the learned, the literate and the scholarly: the use of Latin lines, the introduction of allegorical characters, the dramatization of a wide range of apocryphal sources, long speeches including didactic sermons, complex versification—all of these features are of a piece, stylistically.”4 Building on these observations as well as suggestive remarks made by the play’s editor, Lynette Muir, I analyze Semur’s distinctive Lucifer episode in relation to a learned, literate, and performative milieu: the world of legal [End Page 163] culture and festive performance in late fifteenth-century Burgundy. The Lucifer episode, in which this slippery figure makes elaborately specious arguments, dallies with dubious allegorical characters, and is crowned “king of the world,” creates a parodic spectacle that recalls the traditions of local festive societies and associations of law clerks (basoche societies), which shared many performative practices, including mounting comic plays and yearly electing their “kings” in public ceremonies. While the auspices for the Semur play are unknown, and we cannot link the drama to any one such fraternity, the prominence of mock legal discourse combined with particular parodic action shows the influence of basoche culture on the play’s reviser. I contend that the Passion de Semur, and the Lucifer sequence in particular, not only feature the “mixture of the grotesque and the sublime” that is typical of the mystères, but more specifically foreground a set of vocational identifications and performative practices prominent in Burgundian civic life.5 The Lucifer sequence highlights the cultural importance of the basoche societies while obliquely referencing the threats of censorship and repression under which they operated during the fifteenth century. While recent criticism of the Passion de Semur has highlighted its ties to contemporary piety, I look closely at the Lucifer episode in relation to secular performance traditions to show how religious drama might have promoted the interests of particular urban groups and performed political commentary.6

While the identities of the play’s reviser(s) are unknown, the author of the fall of Lucifer segment was clearly learned in rhetoric and legal terminology. Jody Enders argues, “Medieval students’ extensive training in disputation would have impressed upon them the dramatic potential of the rhetoric of judgment in a wide variety of contexts.”7 It is in the tradition of the clerks of the royal courts, or basochiens, of Paris and other grandes villes, including Dijon in Burgundy, that we find most vividly what Marie Bouhaïk-Gironès calls “the intimate link between judicial practice and theatrical practice during this period.”8 Originating in Paris, societies of law clerks, essentially “legal apprentices,” formed during the Middle Ages for purposes of vocational improvement and common amusement.9 In order to practice their skills at legal argumentation, the basochiens were [End Page 164] first granted a particular jurisdiction by King Philippe le Bel to hear civil suits brought by one clerk against another and to hear cases among certain members of the...


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