Shrovetide football drama

The Stage as Mirror
April 16, 1999

As a reflection of the current state of research in early drama studies, The Stage as Mirror demonstrates the continuing excellence and vitality of scholarship in this field. The rather clever title makes use of the idea that a mirror can be something that offers a likeness, a compendium of knowledge, or a model or exemplar - all notions which may be applied to the relationship between theatre and society in the Middle Ages. The collection derives from a conference on medieval theatre held at Pennsylvania State University, and begins with three wide-ranging papers on intriguing topics such as playing God (Lynette Muir) and the iconography of the embrace (Pam Sheingorn), before giving way to four case studies of urban drama and close readings of particular plays by Stephen Spector and the volume's editor, Alan Knight.

In the opening paper, Sandy Johnston considers the connections between English medieval drama and drama on the Continent in the 15th century. Some of the differences are remarkable: Johnston notes for example the almost complete lack of evidence in England for festivals of misrule and the inversion of social order at Shrovetide, compared with the Continental situation. The intuitive explanation here is to suggest that the English were far too busy playing and watching football at this time of the year to be bothering themselves with mere theatrics, although modern exponents of misrule like Vinnie Jones, Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham might indicate ways in which the two vocations can indeed be combined. In fact, there is evidence in support of an English preference for drama on the pitch rather than on the scaffold at Shrovetide, with Ronald Hutton's work on the ritual year in England (1994) demonstrating the popularity of Shrovetide football in the period.

A series of case studies of particular cities and regions constitutes the largest portion of the volume. Considering the origins of the York mystery plays, Barrie Dobson brings a historian's expertise to bear on a number of questions pertaining to the English mystery cycles, including their origins, purpose and reception. Proposing a "big bang" explanation of the York cycle's origins, Dobson suggests that the cycle was in essence a creation of the city's civic elite, a means by which it might more effectively oversee and regulate craft fraternities, as well as a way of raising money for extravagant ceremonial. While this may explain the civic elite's interest in the cycle at an early stage, one wonders what was in it for the average citizen. If we consider the dynamic operating the other way, perhaps towards a greater recognition for craft fraternities, the play cycle may be understood as a point of negotiation rather than regulation.

Gerard Nijsten's paper adopts a wider brief, offering an overview of recent research on the drama of the northern Low Countries. Nijsten surely overstates the case when he argues that through annual urban festivities like carnival, "the town council was able to control and monitor emotions and disruptive forces among the town population throughout the rest of the year". Such a view neglects the fact that symbolic reversals of status need not necessarily have operated in a critical way, and it overlooks evidence suggesting that such festive customs could play a part in social change. An alternative approach to theatre in its social context is taken by Clifford Davidson in his meticulous reconstruction of the lost Corpus Christi pageants of Coventry. Drawing upon a range of evidence, Davidson describes the likely nature of these pageants, and peppers his text with some gems of information - the discovery, for example, by enterprising antiquarian Thomas Sharp of a club and balls, the props of the medieval actor playing Pilate, in a chest in Coventry in the late 18th century.

Overall, the essays in this volume are of an extremely high standard. The addition of appendices to some of the papers, such as the translations of civic documents in Wim Husken's paper on Bruges, is an excellent aid for readers unfamiliar with the evidence, although an index would have been valuable for tracing points of comparison. The collection will be of interest to researchers working in fields like urban history and early drama studies, as well as to students looking to read up on the latest findings and methodologies in these areas.

Chris Humphrey is a British Academy research fellow, University of York.

The Stage as Mirror: Civic Theatre in Late Medieval Europe

Editor - Alan E. Knight
ISBN - 0 85991 4224
Publisher - Boydell and Brewer
Price - £35.00
Pages - 216

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