The Queen's Dumbshows explores the importance of John Lydgate's mummings and entertainments for literary and theatrical history, rethinking what constitutes "drama" in late medieval England and what role it played in public life.
2014 | 320 pages | Cloth $69.95
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Theater History as a Challenge to Literary History
Chapter 1. Shirley's Hand
Chapter 2. Vernacular Cosmopolitanism: London Mummings and Disguisings
Chapter 3. Performing Pictures
Chapter 4. Performance and Gloss: The Procession of Corpus Christi
Chapter 5. Inscription and Ceremony: The 1432 Royal Entry
Chapter 6. Edible Theater
Chapter 7. The Queen's Dumbshows
Chapter 8. On Drama's Trail
Theater History as a Challenge to Literary History
The standard history of medieval English literature is one in which a queen's dumbshows would not readily find a place. That history enshrines a written (in verse) canon fashioned in the fifteenth century around the works of a group of (male) London writers who followed in Chaucer's footsteps. According to this account, the formation of that canon began with the inner circle of Chaucer's fellow civil servants and writers and was given a boost by the promotional efforts of England's Lancastrian rulers and London elites, who were interested (for not entirely identical reasons) in the establishment of English as a prestige language in the years after Chaucer's death. The works that resulted were disseminated through William Caxton's press and put to use by the Tudors for their program of nationalist propaganda, going on to shape the contours of early English literary history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In calling this book The Queen's Dumbshows, I aim to underscore the fact that durable though this history has proven, it tells only part of the story of literature and culture in the years before and around the invention of the printing press. As recent work has begun to show and as evidence from the period demonstrates, this literary history rests on a blinkered view of the generic, regional, and thematic scope of imaginative writings in Middle English. From within a modern classification scheme that defines the literary as written poetic texts, many Middle English texts look distinctly nonliterary: that is, they took the form of collaboratively produced performances, visual representations, or mixed-media productions, rather than single-authored poems. Additionally, because their audiences and, in some instances, authors included women or males who were not elite, they were not always noted by those with the power to record and transmit literary works; when they entered the written record, they often did so in a scattered and fragmentary fashion. Their circulation in provincial communities in northern and southeastern England also often put many texts in Middle English beyond the purview of scribes and book-sellers in the metropolis. Finally, since their themes were often religious rather than secular, many of these works, including a great deal of Lollard writings, did not mesh with postmedieval understandings of literariness and thus were excluded from the literary history of the period.
Chief among the excluded texts are the dramatic performances that were part of the seasonal calendar of religious and governmental ritual, performances that included unscripted entertainments such as mimed and improvised dumbshows and mummings that were created and performed on the periphery of London-centric poetic literary production. Often anonymous, nearly always ephemeral, and typically collaborative, those performances—and especially play-texts related to them—have survived only haphazardly and in numbers that belie their popularity. We know of those performances chiefly through brief mentions in various kinds of public records, including chronicles, legislation against disturbances associated with them, and expenditure accounts by guilds and households. Those records offer tantalizing glimpses of a wider world of public and private ceremonies, plays, and dramatic enactments beyond that revealed in the handful of surviving scripts (such as those of the biblical cycle plays) or the few examples of morality and miracle plays (including the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, the Digby Mary Magdalene, and Mankind).
Acquiring access to that wider world while grappling with the theoretical and practical complexities posed by the spotty archive of medieval performances has motivated some of the best recent work in early theater studies. As a result of such archival projects as the Records of Early English Drama (REED), which was begun in the 1970s at the University of Toronto, scholars of early drama now have at their fingertips detailed information about performances that never took, or did not survive in, the form of a play-script. With help from REED and similar archival work in European countries, we can now balance the paucity of surviving scripts of plays with the abundance of records documenting public and private, indoor and outdoor, performances on a variety of occasions and for a range of audiences throughout the year. Even if most of those records (with the exception of records from England) are still unpublished, scholars increasingly turn to local and other archives for the traces of dramatic activity that can be found in legal documents, account books, chronicles, and other similar sources. Thanks to such archival work, we know, for instance, that a confraternity in the Hanseatic town of Lübeck put on a carnival play that enacted a recent incendiary political event, the rout by Frisian farmers in February 1500 of a band of mercenaries hired by King Johan of Denmark to subdue the rebellious farmers. No text of the Lübeck play exists today, but accounts kept by the confraternity record the performance. Similarly, we know that a passion play was performed at Chelles, outside Paris, in May 1395, not because a play-text survives but because a legal document was issued by King Charles IV three months later granting clemency to the assailant in a crime committed following the play. If we were going strictly by texts of plays, we would never know about the existence of these and any number of other scriptless early performances.
Although painstaking archival recovery work over several decades has greatly expanded information about early performances, its implications for theater and literary studies have not yet been fully digested. As Carol Symes has noted, as evidence for actual performances, much of the written record for early drama is problematic: not all performances were recorded, those that were may not have hewed closely to written scripts, and some texts were made after (sometimes long after) the performances they commemorate. The survival rate for texts of medieval plays is low, given their often ephemeral nature as prompt sheets or players' texts, even lower than for other medieval manuscripts. Moreover, it is not always certain that a surviving script for a play represents the record of an actual performance. At the same time, references to performances in legal records and other such documents do not always provide enough information to indicate what sort of performance is being described, much less what dialogue or action it included, how long it was, what its costuming and stage properties were, who created and performed it, who watched, and what those watching thought about it.
The written record of medieval performances may pose difficulties of interpretation, but many theater scholars nonetheless recognize the need to wrestle with its evidentiary complexities and have begun to do just that. At a minimum, most historians of drama are now aware that surviving play-texts represent only a small portion of the rich performance cultures of late medieval England and Europe. Among literary scholars, however, that same written record of performances—beyond the handful of well-known play-texts such as the biblical cycle plays and a few famous noncycle dramas—remains for the most part unrecognized and unexplored. That situation is, in my view, unfortunate and works to the detriment of the discipline, whose field of inquiry is too narrowly corralled by the shutting out of the full range of evidence that might be drawn on to construct a genuinely representative textual history.
Hans-Robert Jauss famously offered literary history as a challenge to literary theory, and it is my claim in this book that theater history provides a similar provocation to literary history. It does so, first and foremost, by calling attention to the large number of texts that have been excluded from the London-based, secular, and Chaucer-centered canon of medieval English literature that most modern readers almost exclusively associate with the literary activity of the period. As theater history shows, those texts represent only a slim segment of the corpus of imaginative writings in Middle English. Beyond them lie many other works that were widely heard and seen—in mimetic performances, viva voce recitations, processional tableaux, wall hangings, or on the page of manuscript books. Ralph Hanna III's assertion that within the "prenational literary culture" of late medieval England there were "plural literary canons," dependent on many variables, such as geography, gender, and political affiliation, has not received enough attention, but its accuracy is affirmed by the example of vernacular dramas. In the variety of their venues, audience, and forms, performative works offer an important corrective to a view of medieval literature that has been shaped more by modern categories and preferences than by the tastes and expectations of those who actually created and encountered them.
While canon broadening is one salutary outcome of integrating drama into medieval literary history, attending to theater history also has conceptual and theoretical benefits, particularly in its call for a rethinking of the development of vernacular literature in England. Debates about vernacular culture and its contestation have made us aware of the effects of the rapid rise of vernacular literatures across medieval Europe, which brought with it new subject matters, new styles, and new genres, even as Latin continued as the touchstone language of the learned and, despite its qualified embrace of mother tongues as a means of reaching the laity, the church. Literary scholars have charted the uneven impacts of vernacularity across Europe and the corresponding erosion of Latin as a spoken and written language, demonstrating the ways it brought greater freedom of expression, reached broader audiences, and intersected with growing literacy.
For England, such work has been essential in mapping the contours of medieval Anglophone literary history and especially in charting the increasing dominance of English poetry in the later medieval period. What theater history can add to the discussion is the recognition that English poetry's rise to prominence was less an inevitable outcome and more the result of successful competition between different cultural forms vying for position. That competition was between Latin and English but also, and perhaps more important, between poetry and drama. This point has been convincingly made by Seth Lerer in regard to Chaucer's antitheatricality, which Lerer argues is the necessary stance of a vernacular poet attempting to achieve for his writings the same prestige that accrued to theatrical and ceremonial culture in fourteenth-century England. While focused just on Chaucer, Lerer's claim fits within other important discussions of English vernacular public culture by Anne Middleton and David Lawton, among others, which I consider more fully later in this book, particularly in terms of what such scholars say about the conflict between poetry and performance as forms of cultural prestige in late medieval England.
At some level, the contest was between writing and speaking, a contest that theater history can be helpful in examining. That is because poetry and even other genres such as chronicles that at first glance would seem confined to the written page and to silent reading could be and were publicly performed. As scholars of textuality and orality have noted, reading and performing overlapped to a large degree. "Hearing the text aloud in a performance—even if the sole performer was the reader himself—was therefore the rule rather than the exception," and thus medieval writing "was understood to represent sounds needing hearing," Michael Clanchy observes. Material philology's notion of orature, a recent coinage that links features of the oral tradition with literary forms, offers an opening for theater history and its analysis of precisely that intersection. Active listening, the aurality of literature, and performative reading are topics to which theater history, with its concentration on live performance and mimetic action, can make valuable contributions, as scholars such as Joyce Coleman, Jessica Brantley, and Robert Clark and Pamela Sheingorn have shown. In particular, the dramatic record makes clear that a poetic text could reach its publics by many routes, that it probably varied on each performance occasion, and that it could exist simultaneously in different media—as image, written text, mimetic enactment, and so on.
Another useful feature of theater history is that it also points to the important impact of religion and, in so doing, undermines the tendency to construct a medieval literary history composed almost exclusively of secular texts. In a study of the dispersion of stories about Mary Magdalene across diverse genres and media, Theresa Coletti uses the Digby Mary Magdalene, the extraordinary East Anglian play on the life of that saint, to argue for the importance of religious texts to medieval literary history. A similar claim has been made by scholars of Lollardy, who have pointed to the proliferation of Middle English religious writings and the Lollard emphasis on lay literacy as formative features of late medieval literary culture. In a broader sweep, Nicholas Watson's examination of vernacular theology and the church's long compromise with the mother tongue provides a backdrop for the aesthetic impact of religious writings on Middle English literature and makes a case for their inclusion in the literary canon. Religious texts were written by women and, more frequently, read by them; expanding the literary canon to include those texts reshapes the standard male-centered literary history and more accurately recognizes what was being written and read, and by whom, in the late medieval period. Because many Middle English religious plays, such as the Digby Mary Magdalene and the biblical cycle plays, were performed outside London, they expand the canon geographically as well, by taking in regional literary and performance cultures, and thus better embrace the entirety of writings produced in late medieval England.
In these and other ways, theater history can be a provocation to literary history, if we allow it to. Although disciplinary divisions too often erect barriers between those who study medieval literature and those who study drama, I believe that there is much to gain from stepping over those obstacles. Among other advantages, paying attention to the history of medieval drama constructively places emphasis on the overlap between the private reading of written texts and the public viewing of spectacles and performances. It also makes it harder to ignore the role of women and those who were not elite as patrons and audiences for literary works. And it urges the adoption of a methodological model of intertwined performance and textuality attuned to the persistent blurring of genres that characterizes so many of the cultural products of premodern England and Europe.
Last, theater history points to the advantages of a methodological approach to the study of medieval literature that embraces a material philology. As Stephen Nichols and Siegfried Wenzel observe, manuscripts "furnish material contexts" that can yield information about "the text's audience, its purpose, and even the intention an individual scribe may have had in producing" a particular copy. While the materiality of the text has by no means been ignored by literary scholarship and is particularly evident in studies that engage with book history, scholars of medieval drama have embraced materiality more energetically and with potentially wider-ranging consequences. Coming as perhaps a logical next step after the last decades' turn to the archives and the search for traces of dramatic activity in account books, legal documents, and other records, inquiry has increasingly focused on the manuscript environments of early plays, as scholars have looked at the physical evidence provided by the codices into which dramatic texts were copied. For Middle English drama, this work has led to reassessments of the dates and performance histories of the extant play-texts and has shown under what circumstances the manuscripts in which they appear were created. Examining the manuscript environments of early plays has also brought a heightened awareness of the complex relations between live performance and written script, including that audiences of dramatic enactments were also readers of play-texts and that literature gained an audience precisely through performances that brought it to the eyes and ears of readers.
It would be possible to use any number of medieval dramatic works from across Europe to illustrate this challenge to literary history, including the great biblical cycle plays, saints' dramas, and miracle and conversion plays, but fifteenth-century England's best-known and most prolific writer offers a particularly apt example.
John Lydgate, remembered today for such magisterial narrative poems as the Fall of Princes, the Troy Book, and the Siege of Thebes, not only helped create the conventional history of English literature grounded in Chaucer but also has long claimed a privileged place within it. Lydgate praised Chaucer as a poetic master and deliberately shaped his own writing in imitation of Chaucerian texts, adopting Chaucerian themes and even imagining himself as a participant in the Canterbury pilgrimage. His voluminous writings, with their distinctively elaborate—and, to modern readers, often off-putting—and syntactically convoluted aureate style, earned Lydgate his status as the favorite writer of court, monastery, and city.
Less frequently noticed is that Lydgate was also the author of a wide range of dramatic entertainments that were no less influential in shaping theater history. The mummings and other performance pieces he wrote in a flush of activity in the late 1420s and early 1430s form possibly the most important body of dramatic work by a known author in English before the sixteenth century. Yet Lydgate is largely absent from accounts of early performance. He makes virtually no appearance in anthologies of medieval drama, much less in anthologies of major plays from the Greeks to the present. Histories of the theater ignore his dramatic works and, until recently, there have been no editions, no modern performances, and relatively few critical studies devoted to them.
One reason for this neglect is that Lydgate's performance pieces do not look particularly dramatic, at least to modern eyes, and they cannot be readily classified as plays. Henry Noble MacCracken, for instance, printed a number of Lydgate's dramatic pieces but treated them as poetic works included in his two-volume edition of Lydgate's minor poems, not as plays. Lawrence Clopper speaks for many drama specialists when he judges Lydgate's mummings and disguisings to have been presentational rather than mimetic, and Seth Lerer similarly argues that Lydgate's poetic preference is for works that favor philosophical monologue and thus move away from "forensic, dramatic, and dialectical forms of expression." When subjected to scholarly analysis, Lydgate's performance pieces have typically been examined from the perspective of literary rather than theatrical history. John Shirley, the fifteenth-century scribe who copied and preserved many of Lydgate's performance pieces, uses a variety of terms to describe them but never once calls them plays. The difficulty of nomenclature is echoed in modern criticism, which offers no term fully adequate for capturing the nature of the works in question.
The apparent lack of theatricality in Lydgate's dramatic works is compounded by the typical ways in which early drama was transmitted scribally. As was the case for music, a system of recording that could capture features of performance was slow to develop in medieval Europe, and plays did not always retain markers of performance, such as speech tags and stage directions, when they were copied into manuscripts. This is especially the situation with texts associated with public spectacles and ceremonies, which were usually occasional and ephemeral in nature: they often entered the written record as eyewitness accounts or commemorative texts (for example, in chronicles), not in the form of play-texts.
It may be that the impulse to downplay the dramatic aspects of Lydgate's performance pieces and to merge them with his nondramatic poetry is correct. Yet doing so overlooks what their seeming insufficiencies reveal about our historical narratives for medieval English theater and, to return to my opening point, obscures how theater history encourages a rethinking of literary history. If early English literary history has been too narrowly constructed, early theater history has suffered the opposite fate of being unable to identify and corral the performances that form its corpus. A browser in any research library can readily find the standard texts of Middle English literature, tidily arranged side by side on a compact number of bookshelves, but locating medieval theatrical works calls for a more determined and inquisitive bushwhacking through the stacks.
The first attempts to describe a body of texts that could be identified as medieval plays began as early as the surviving manuscripts of what are taken as the quintessential examples of English medieval plays—the cycle plays in the York, Chester, Towneley, and N-Town manuscripts—manuscripts that for the most part are Tudor, not medieval, artifacts. Compiled for a variety of reasons, what is perhaps most remarkable about the cycle collections is that they survived the Reformation's dismantling of the traditional religious culture of which the cycles were a prominent example. While deliberate destruction took place, as Eamon Duffy and other scholars have shown, records and artifacts of medieval performances may also have fallen victim to neglect, carelessness, and changing tastes, as much as to ideological and political forces. Well before Shakespeare's time, medieval performances were already disappearing or going underground, becoming faint memories of old practices. With demise came the impulse to categorize what in its heyday had been a rich variety of performances that shaded into other cultural forms, including music, dance, and poetry. Joseph Dodson's collection of Old Plays had an early and formative role in the classifying of pre-Shakespearean drama as a genre, and by the nineteenth century, scholars had identified bodies of premodern dramatic texts from all the European countries, as part of an attempt to construct national histories based on distinctive past folkloric practices; by that point, medieval drama scholarship had also been established as a specific disciplinary field. The result of this disciplinary legacy is that medieval drama has long been subordinated to literary history, its texts usually deemed deficient, especially from the perspective of formalist criticism. Any attempt to examine Lydgate's performance pieces is inevitably haunted by those inherited assumptions about medieval drama.
The marginalization of medieval drama within English literary history is in many ways the result of a contest between literary and theatrical cultures during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a contest that was won by the upstart genre of vernacular poetry. As Lerer has argued in regard to Chaucer's self-identification as a poet and as Robert Epstein has observed about aristocratic resistance to drama, Middle English literature was shaped in opposition to drama. What Lerer and Epstein describe is competition between forms of cultural production, a battle that, thanks to the growing dominance of writing and printing, would be won by literature. Vernacular literature's ascendance in England did not come about easily or inevitably; it was instead produced by a struggle against the period's most popular cultural form, drama.
Chaucer may have defined himself against theatrical culture, even as he smuggled its features into his poetry, but Lydgate joined traditions of performance with an emerging literary culture. His long poems and his short mummings and entertainments share a similar style and content and speak to the same concerns. They also address a similar audience, having been commissioned largely by elites from the overlapping spheres of city, court, and monastery. In Lydgate, the cultures of ceremony and writing meet. His willingness to produce works for both silent reading and public performance, his tendency to employ a common style for both, and his penchant for drawing on the same sources and themes in his literary and dramatic texts all point to a convergence between drama and literature not just in his writings but in late medieval culture more broadly. In so doing, it moves drama to a more central position in relation to English literary history, a position where, as Coletti has noted in a discussion of Middle English dramatic texts as a form of vernacular theological writing, drama's "material and discursive intersections with other late medieval cultural texts and practices" become evident.
The chapters that follow explore the importance of Lydgate's dramas to literary and theater history alike. They do so by bringing Lydgate's performance pieces into dialogue with late medieval English literary culture, considering its intersections with vernacularity, the materiality of its textual production and consumption, and its competition with other cultural forms. They also consider what Lydgate's performance pieces reveal about early drama, particularly the forms they took, how they were commissioned and performed, and where and why they were recorded and preserved in written documents.
In pursuing such subjects, this book joins ongoing discussions of the relation between surviving evidence and live performances or, as theater historians would describe it, between the archive and the repertoire. Medieval performances themselves have vanished, leaving our only access to them the relatively few documentary and material remains of medieval dramatic culture that have survived (a handful of play-texts, a much larger body of references to performances, and the occasional account, material object, or visual image). To treat any of this evidence as a window onto early performances or to regard it as a straightforward and factual account of what actually was enacted would be to misunderstand both early performances and the archival traces through which they survive. Dominick LaCapra's admonition that we not fall for "archival fetishism" and instead remember that written documents are never neutral or unmotivated and, as a consequence, have to be read critically is particularly germane to considerations of the relation of documents to practices. The archive is always political, in the broadest sense of that term, with its own agendas, strategies, and biases that shape what is recorded, how, and for which purposes.
Recent trends in theater history have highlighted the documentary practices through which dramatic texts have been preserved and disseminated, while also stressing the need to grapple with the cultural meanings of performances. In the case of Lydgate, such trends ask for a rethinking of what constitutes "drama" in late medieval England, what role it played in public life, and how it intersected with other cultural activity, including politics, commerce, religion, and literature. Drawing on a broad array of critical work on public culture, performance, and textuality, this book pursues a cultural history of early English theater that situates theatricality at the hub of public culture. The relationship between overtly public forms of political theater, such as royal entries and processions, and more private ones, such as household banquets and mummings, is one of my concerns. Another is the intersection of performance with other kinds of representation, such as feasts, pictorial displays, and tableaux. I also consider the neglected role of women within ceremonials, the social and ideological uses to which performances could be put, and, finally, what Lydgate can teach us about how early plays came to be preserved in manuscript form. The intersection of the primarily visual and aural modes of performance with the reading of literary texts written on paper or parchment forms another strain in my study.
Unlike the so-called Carthusian Miscellany, whose scribe(s) used a variety of visual tactics to create a performative context for its written texts, as Jessica Brantley has shown, the scribes and compilers who copied Lydgate's performance pieces seldom sought to preserve or invoke recollection of the original performative or ceremonial context, instead converting spectacle into poetry. Their efforts were aided by the nature of Lydgate's texts, which were, as Maura Nolan has argued, consciously poetic; that is, one of Lydgate's goals was to elevate public spectacle and private ceremony into literary art. His performance pieces "exist at the intersection of genres and of media—not quite 'poetry' nor yet 'drama.'" Those patrons who commissioned his works for performance were hiring him to do just that, to add new poetic scope to what had in many cases been performances shaped chiefly by gesture or visual appeal or aurality, but which now began to incorporate written texts of increasing length and elaborateness.
The scribal tendency to turn theatrical texts into literary ones has two implications. On one hand, it tells us something important about relations between performance and written text in the fifteenth century at a key moment in both literary and theatrical history, suggesting a relative valuation of the two (with poetry coming out on top). On the other hand, for scholars whose chief access to performances that were by nature fleeting is through written texts, it offers a cautionary reminder about the difficulties of identifying a play from its written artifacts. Both of these implications are woven through this book's investigation of literary and theatrical cultures in the late Middle Ages and to the writing of literary and theatrical histories of Middle English.
My decision to concentrate on one writer from late medieval England reflects my own perspective as a scholar who works primarily in the area of Middle English literature and culture, but the topics I take up in this book could be profitably explored through an examination of other medieval writers of plays—in some cases, earlier and non-English speaking—such as Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Jean Bodel, about whom we know enough to situate their works within the cultural milieu in which they wrote and to understand how the plays they created were performed and entered the written record.
Lydgate is particularly useful for this investigation, in which I aim to contribute broadly to knowledge about the literary and theatrical cultures of the medieval period and, more pointedly, to English literary and theatrical history. His particular appeal for my inquiry comes from the extraordinary fact—rarely encountered within the corpus of medieval literature or drama—that most of his shorter poems and performance pieces have been preserved by a scribe whose identity we know. Chapter 1 of this book, "Shirley's Hand," investigates the evidence offered by the surviving copies of Lydgate's dramatic works. Nearly all of Lydgate's performance pieces are available to us today thanks to John Shirley, who included them in three anthologies he compiled between the late 1420s and the late 1440s. Shirley's copies point to the complex processes that a visual and aural form like medieval drama underwent as it entered the written record and pose questions about the nature of the textual evidence for drama before print: what do manuscripts tell us about early performances; should the canon of early theater be expanded to include texts that do not look like plays but may have been part of some sort of public performance; and how did drama merge—both in practice and in the documents that record that practice—with the large repertoire of creative activities produced within a broadly performative culture?
Subsequent chapters explore the place, form, and functions of drama as evidenced by Lydgate's writings, taking up such topics as the cultural meanings of performances, the tendency toward genre and media blurring, the effect of visual display and spectacle, the relation of commemorative poems to the performances they record and the larger issue of performative reading, the ephemeral quality of performance texts, gender and drama, and the question of authorship and attribution of medieval plays. Chapter 2 examines the mummings Lydgate wrote for the entertainment of London guildsmen during their holiday revels, considering especially how in them Lydgate creates a kind of vernacular cosmopolitanism. Chapter 3 turns to the poems Lydgate wrote for visual display, poems that confront us with an insistent blurring of representational forms that leaves us wondering what difference, if any, it made that a story was read from a manuscript page, viewed on a wall hanging, or listened to in a performance. Chapter 4 focuses on a rare example of a Corpus Christi performance in London, while Chapter 5 examines the poem Lydgate was commissioned to write to commemorate Henry VI's royal entry into London on 21 February 1432. Chapter 6 explores the verses Lydgate wrote to accompany the subtleties for Henry VI's coronation banquet, and Chapter 7, from which this book takes its name, "The Queen's Dumbshows," looks at the three mummings Lydgate wrote in the 1420s for Catherine and her son, the child who would become Henry VI.
The final chapter turns to an anonymous Christmas mumming as a way of giving prominence to the issues of auspice, provenance, performance practice, inscription, and authorship that are fundamental to the study of medieval performances. There is no definitive evidence that Lydgate wrote this mumming and no definitive evidence that that is what it was. But to make the case for his authorship and for possible performance before Henry VI throws into relief key questions about the relationship of the archive to the repertoire of medieval dramas. How were dramatic texts transmitted? How did the material conditions of textual dissemination—the copying and circulation of texts in manuscript form—shape literary and theatrical history? What features of a text matter in deciding whether it should be called a play or a poem?
In taking up these and other questions, my study joins and expands on other recent reassessments of Lydgate's contributions to English literature. Within the last decade, there has been a surge of interest in Lydgate, which has built on often strong but too often sparse earlier work on his poetry and career, such as the valuable studies by Lois Ebin, Alain Renoir, and, most thoroughly, Derek Pearsall. Gathering momentum in a series of compelling articles by scholars of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Middle English poetry, this renewed interest in Lydgate built to a 2005 monograph by Maura Nolan, a collection of essays edited by Larry Scanlon and James Simpson in 2006, a 2007 study by Robert Meyer-Lee assessing Lydgate's place in early English literature, and another collection edited by Lisa Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown a year later. Much of this new scholarship has been deliberately revisionist in nature and has had as its explicit and salutary goal the reassessment of the quality of Lydgate's writing as well as its significance.
The story I tell in the following chapters often develops from and meshes with the work of these revisionist scholars, but it also takes a somewhat different approach, coming to different conclusions. I share the perspective that runs through the essays in Scanlon and Simpson's collection, a perspective that takes a fresh look at Lydgate's writings with the aim of moving beyond the prevalent understanding of Lydgate as a derivative, aesthetically deficient, and thus insignificant writer despite the volume of his output. The insistence of the scholars in Scanlon and Simpson's collection on viewing Lydgate as a major writer who wrote "within and across different literary systems" and "from very different historical situations" informs my own understanding of his work. Meyer-Lee offers a similar reassessment of Lydgate's aureate poetics and, by extension, the value of fifteenth-century poetry, insisting that to understand fifteenth-century poetry, we need to understand Lydgate's influence, a perspective I extend to fifteenth-century performance. I also share the emphasis found in Cooper and Denny-Brown's collection on the importance of connections between material culture and literary discourses; as they note in their introduction, Lydgate's own alertness to the material world has often played a role in his marginalization as a writer, and critical assessments of his work, even in recent years, have tended not to consider the place of materiality in his work, addressing instead "the politics and public sensibility of his poetics." Finally, along with Nolan, I look most closely at Lydgate's public poetry, examining his engagement with ceremonial culture. Indebted though I am to many of its findings, where I differ from all of this scholarship is in stressing physical forms and their locations, as well actual impacts and effects on audiences and readers. Whereas Nolan, for example, focuses on the literary and the symbolic in her analysis of the works Lydgate wrote for public consumption, I point up the materiality of both performances and their written residue and consider how those performances and written texts acquired meaning for those who watched or read them. My contribution, broadly construed, is thus to attend to what we might call situatedness—whether that situatedness is understood as a text's positioning between poets and artisans who together create a drama, its location in an actual performance space such as a city street, its emplacement on a tableau or painted cloth, or its inscription into a chronicle—and to put the lens on audiences and readers as much as on authors and texts. That means readers of this book will not find lengthy discussions of Lydgate as a writer or extensive close readings of his poetic texts, but instead analysis of the processes by which his work was embodied in particular performances and then circulated in various media, including as verses written in manuscripts. In taking that approach, my analysis shows itself to be materially grounded, and the arguments in this book have benefited from the on-the-ground archival work and manuscript research that went into my edition of Lydgate's mummings and entertainments, as well as a series of essays in which some of the ideas in this book had their first airing.
That Lydgate was involved in making dumbshows for the queen of England is, I argue in this book, an astonishing fact—at least as viewed from within the standard literary history—that ought to realign our understanding not just of his writings but also of the interdependence of poetry and performance, of reading and spectating, of textuality and orality, and of permanence and ephemerality. It is astonishing—just try to imagine Chaucer doing the same—that between the time when Lydgate wrote his monumental poems, Troy Book and Fall of Princes, for Henry V and the duke of Humphrey, he also participated in the creation of fleeting holiday entertainments for Queen Catherine of Valois, by that time the widowed mother of the boy who would soon become Henry VI. When Lydgate turned his hand to verses for mummings and a disguising for her pleasure (and perhaps in at least one case, and quite pointedly, her edification), he extended the service he had long offered to the ruling men of England to a woman, thus reminding us that women could be patrons and recipients of poetry and performance alike. He also made clear that a poet's work in Lancastrian England could encompass the craft of play-designing and that the aureate style and classical content of his major poetic works could be readily translated into brief, live performances.
Lydgate's dramatic writings may seem, and indeed are, sparse and spotty in comparison with the bulk of his corpus, but they are just as important for literary history as his longer, better-studied works are. They tell us about patronage and the commissioning of performances, about tastes and values, about how word and sound and image interacted, about collaborations between writers and artists, about the mixing of genres and media, and about the evidence offered and concealed by scribes and manuscripts. They tell us, in short, about late medieval culture and the central role of performance in it and, in so doing, expand and complicate our understanding of premodern literary and theatrical history.
By looking at the queen's dumbshows and other short poetic texts that Lydgate wrote for public or private performance, we can also better see Lydgate's contributions to literary history. Those contributions include not just the fulfillment of a Chaucer-inspired "Lancastrian project of promoting an English vernacular tradition of high literary status," as Scanlon and Simpson describe it, but also the embrace of poetic forms, material contexts, and mixed audiences that create and reveal the intersection of—to use, for the sake of convenience, two words that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries refuse to stay separate—literature and theater. Written in some sort of uneasy relation to mostly elite patrons;, inserted into collaboratively assembled live performances and written documents;, and looked at, listened to, and read by audiences both intended and not, Lydgate's dumbshows and the other performance pieces discussed in the following pages shed light on the complex ways in which late medieval poetry and performance fueled each other and, in so doing, ask us to rethink how we understand both of them.