This essay argues that late medieval religious drama belies the claim—articulated most influentially by Nicholas Watson—that fifteenth-century imaginative literature in England was dull and sterile, suffocated by the restrictions imposed by Archbishop Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions of 1407–9. Although the Constitutions were significant, they hardly affected all the writers of religious texts at this time, and an influential gloss proscribing the translation of religious language into the vernacular has been found to have been universally ignored in the fifteenth century. The writers of playtexts, with their generous use of biblical translation, often seem to be quite free of the intimidations implied by the Constitutions. Plays such as the York cycle vividly dramatized the desecration of the sacred, visualizing for audiences scenes of brutal torture, seemingly without restraint, and the plays of the Towneley manuscript also offer representations of outrageous speech and behavior. These texts contradict the opinion that late medieval writing in post-Chaucerian England was dull, mediocre, and theologically weak by design to escape the draconian prohibitions of the Constitutions. The plays are capable instead of being imaginative re-creations of the biblical stories that were rightly valued in their own time and that cannot be easily dismissed in ours.


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pp. 35-53
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