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The Play of Wisdom and the Abbey of St. Edmund Gail McMurray Gibson English literature has a venerable tradition of poems inspired by piles of old stones. But medieval drama historians too must be moved to curiosity by the ruins and ciphers that remain to hint at the lost coherence of a past we want to know. Indeed, such clues point us at a past we must know, for medieval theater in its time performed functions as immediate and practical— as grounded in human need, festival, and community—as medieval Christendom itself. The registers of dialogue that survive can only become resonant when they are reunited with the spectacle that made them art and with the contractual purpose and con­ text that made them exist at all. The drama historian’s search for the coordinates of time and place, for dramatic provenance and motive, is neither empty academic exercise nor gossip but is, I believe, central to the assumption that to know the medieval theater means to know it as fully as we can in its human par­ ticularity. This article begins with a play in search of a place, the fifteenth-century morality play called Wisdom—and with a pile of old stones. These stones, these ruins (fig. 1) must stand for a monastic house that for over five hundred years was one of the great cul­ tural centers of England, where learned Benedictine monks copied manuscripts and wrote sermons and saints’ lives, super­ vised their vast estates, quarreled with the grasping merchants GAIL McMURRAY GIBSON is MacArthur Associate Professor of English at Davidson College. Her previous publications include several articles on medieval drama in various journals. This article and Professor David Bevington’s which follows it in this issue of Comparative Drama were written for a conference at Trinity College, Hartford, Con­ necticut, on 13-14 April 1984. The conference was organized by Professor Milla Riggio of Trinity College as part of the Trinity Medieval Festival, and was funded in part by a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council. 117 118 Comparative Drama and shopkeepers of their town, socialized with visiting prelates and princes, watched the pilgrims milling about in the mona­ stery yard, and also, I believe, helped create one of the most diverse and important English dramatic traditions of the fifteenth century, a tradition that now lies hidden in a rubble of half-clues and riddles. 1 We must begin with the clues of the complete medieval copy of the play of Wisdom, a text in the collection of East Anglian plays we call the Macro Plays manuscript. On folio 121 of that manuscript, at the end of the text of Wisdom, there is a single Latin inscription: “O liber si quis cui constas forte queretur/ hynghamque monacho dices super omnia consto” (“O book, if anyone shall perhaps ask to whom you belong, you will say, I belong above everything to Hyngham, a monk”2). As long ago as 1912, Walter Kay Smart suggested that this Hyngham was Richard Hengham or Hyngham, a Bene­ dictine monk and Doctor of Canon Law who was abbot of Bury St. Edmunds from 1474 to 1479.3 Although, as Richard Beadle cautions in a forthcoming article in English Language Notes, any of the half dozen or so monk Hynghams who are known to have lived in East Anglia in the second half of the fifteenth century “might have been the Hingham of the Macro Plays,”4 the likeliest candidate, as D. C. Baker and J. L. Murphy con­ firmed in an important article in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama in 1967,5 is Richard Hyngham of Bury. u i u v id his uuuul m a t mi/ m a n u a liip t with Bury St. Edmunds. There is the explicit evidence, first of all, of another inscription on folio 105, in a later, perhaps early sixteenth-century hand, beginning “In the name of God amen I Rychard Cake of Bury. . . .” The second link to Bury St. Edmunds lies in the evidence or quite remarkable coincidence that the earliest recorded owners of the two manuscripts that contain texts of Wisdom were both natives of...


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