In Pure Filth, Noah D. Guynn argues that the superficial crudeness and predictability of late medieval French farce conceal finely drawn, and sometimes quite radical, perspectives on ethics, politics, and religion.
2019 | 272 pages | Cloth $69.95
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Table of Contents
A Note on Sources
Introduction. The Many Faces of Farce
Chapter 1. The Wisdom of Farts: Ethics and Politics, Farce and Festive Comedy
Chapter 2. A Justice to Come: Messianism and Eschatology in Maistre Pierre Pathelin
Chapter 3. Sacraments and Scatology, Faith and Doubt: Andrieu de La Vigne's Mystère de Saint Martin and Its Farces
Chapter 4. Making History: Misbehaved Women, Well-Behaved Women, and the Sexual Politics of Farce
Afterword. Against Protoforms
The Many Faces of Farce
Society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and . . . it's extremely shortsighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face. None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population.
In seeking to understand the culture of farce in late medieval and early modern France, we could do no better than to start with the guidon, or "heraldic flag," of the festive and theatrical society known as the Infanterie Dijonnaise, or La Mère Folle de Dijon. On one side of the guidon (Figure 1), we find Mère Folle herself, wearing robes in the signature colors of folly (red, yellow, and green), a fool's cowl (with eared hood, scalloped collar, and jingle bells), a crescent moon-shaped wimple (to evoke lunacy), a long flowing scarf, and a Carnival mask. She is surrounded by the four keepers of the winds, whose cherubic, disembodied faces peer out at her from dark, menacing clouds and whose exhalations appear to have caused her hood to blow off, her scarf to unfurl, and her mask to come undone. Seemingly unperturbed at being thus bombarded and exposed, her face retains the inscrutability of a mask, even as she dexterously uses three fols, or "bellows," to direct her own blasts of wind at the cherubs. The fols are an apt symbol for her, as they suggest a verbal-visual pun on fol/folie. They may also refer to the folliculus, or "scrotum," reminding viewers that all members of the Infanterie were men, even if their sovereign presented as a woman, with porcelain skin, narrow shoulders, and pendulous breasts.
On the reverse side of the guidon (Figure 2), we find two well-muscled acrobats, followers of Mère Folle who perform their own blustery, topsy-turvy version of foolishness. Like their commander, they wear fool's colors and eared hoods and are surrounded by the keepers of the winds. They have made no attempt to mask themselves, however, but have instead lowered their breeches to expose the lurid sight of their round, dimpled, shining ass cheeks. As if to prevent us from looking away, they contort themselves to ensure we will see as much of them as possible. The one fool holds the other upside down in his arms, and both men are twisted so that each may turn toward us while blowing a fart in his partner's face. The pleasure they derive from their antics is evident, especially for the upended fool, who smiles beatifically as he inhales deeply through a pert, upturned nose. The flatus itself is rendered visible, using the same white brushstrokes that depict the squalls emanating from the mouths of the keepers of the winds. As if in imitation of the acrobats, the cherubs cock their heads and turn their faces toward us as they offer a gusty retort.
It would be tempting to read the guidon as an expression of senseless vulgarity and escapist humor: a thumbing of the nose at moral seriousness, a mooning of the buttocks at the dark clouds of adversity, or a tooting of the sphincter at the variable winds of fortune. Indeed, even the cherubs seem to be laughing at the acrobats' absurd hijinks: their faces are lit up with simpering smiles, as if to indicate that they, too, can be lured in by fatuous (and flatulent) human games and that Mère Folle can make fools of both Lady Nature and Lady Fortune. We should not be too quick to dismiss the Infanterie as a band of rascals and wags, however, or as purveyors of vacuous jokes and gratuitous laughter. On the contrary, as Juliette Valcke has shown, their institutional mission was characterized by ethical, political, and religious depth, if not exactly gravity. Their aim was to use ludic ritual and comic theater "to establish a true moral jurisdiction over their fellow citizens" (15), to inveigh against "misconduct of all sorts" (55) and at all social levels, and to animate religious feasts by inspiring collective acts of devotion. The wind cherubs may themselves signal the spiritual inflection of the Infanterie's activities, inserting reminders of messianic revelation into popular festivity: Daniel's vision of "the four winds of the heaven" as the social agitations that herald the Apocalypse (Dan. 7:2); God's promise that the "spirit" will come "from the four winds" and enable "[the] slain" to "live again" (Ezek. 37:9); Christ's prophecy that the "Son of man" will send angels to "gather together his elect from the four winds" (Mark 13:27); and John's prediction that the angels of doom will hold back the "four winds of the earth" for the faithful (Rev. 7:1), only to unleash them afterward against the wicked (Rev. 8:5).
While modern viewers may find it difficult to understand how the Infanterie could use scatological foolishness to conjure eschatological truths, the fact is that the two registers are not as distinct as they may seem and were not necessarily in conflict in medieval and early modern culture (Morrison). If Mère Folle blurs the relationship between face and mask, reality and illusion, spirit and wind, so, too, does the Messiah, whose identity is known only to "the Father" (Mark 13:32), who is difficult to distinguish from "false prophets" with their bogus "signs and wonders" (Matt. 24:24), and whose spirit takes the form of "a mighty wind" (Acts 2:2) that "breatheth [or perhaps, breaketh] where he will" (John 3:8). Likewise, if the acrobats turn one another and the world upside down, confounding faces with buttocks, mouths with assholes, breath with flatus, they also remind us that the devout "are made a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men" (1 Cor. 4:9)—indeed, that they make themselves "fools for Christ's sake" (4:10) in order to show the world that its "wisdom . . . is foolishness with God" (3:19). Just as Christ may be confused with the Antichrist, miracles with make-believe, and the godly with the mad, so, too, may truth be found in bluff, faith in doubt, profundity in the fundament, and theological understanding in the most sordid and inane of spectacles.
These are essential insights for anyone wishing to understand the preposterous, unbridled, and scurrilous aesthetic of early French farce. Judged according to classical aesthetic standards, this would appear to be the most vulgar, primitive, and formulaic of theatrical genres. To begin with, farce characters are generally devoid of psychological complexity, are used to embody crude stereotypes, and often bear no other name than the social category to which they have been subsumed: wife, husband, priest, cobbler, miller, and so on. What's more, farce plots, rarely more than an hour long, are typically vulgar and predictable in the extreme, crafting flimsy scenarios around sexual and scatological jokes, cynical and repetitive proverbs, and unlikely forms of social inversion: wives who best (or beat) their husbands, servants their masters, tenants their landlords, and so on. Finally, farces indulge in a great deal of vulgarity, buffoonery, and mischief, apparently without concern for, and sometimes openly ridiculing, the more obviously elevated and edifying content found in morality, miracle, and mystery plays. With nearly two hundred surviving scripts and countless others lost to history, farce was plainly the most favored genre of early French comic theater. And with audiences drawn from all social ranks and milieus (from the working poor to the haute bourgeoisie, from university students to petty aristocrats, from fraternal associations to royal courts), it was the most pervasive one as well. Yet to modern audiences familiar with the moral and sentimental comedies of Corneille and Molière, and neglectful of the latter's indelible early training as a farceur (Rey-Flaud, Molière), the aesthetic and social impact of farce may seem rather limited: an hour of strutting upon the stage, a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.
This book seeks to reclaim the aesthetic and social complexities of French farce by focusing on thematic content related to ethics, politics, and religion. I argue that farce's repetitive and even obsessive focus on social clichés, moral depravity, le monde à l'envers, and le bas corporel does not make it a naïve, crude, or primitive theater or a mere diversion for the rabble. On the contrary, it is a highly intricate, deeply self-conscious cultural form that can accommodate, and indeed depends upon, multiple, conflicting modes of interpretation. In the ensuing pages, I argue that, even as farce illustrates the depravity of human behavior and constructs fictional worlds devoid of kindness, tolerance, and love, it also lends comic resonance to the most august sources of Christian moral wisdom: scripture, liturgy, theology, hagiography, and sacraments. As with other, traditional forms of religious humor—for instance, the medieval risus paschalis: burlesque homilies, lewd jokes, and theatrical entertainments that commemorated Christ's Resurrection by filling the church with levity and laughter (O'Connell)—farce parodies and ridicules, even as it revitalizes and extends, sacred texts, themes, and rites. It also embraces contradictory modes of political engagement. If, on the one hand, it finds rowdy humor in the undermining of authority, the overturning of hierarchies, and the repudiation or transgression of social norms, on the other hand, it demonstrates that inverted hierarchies are hierarchies nonetheless and that anarchic wit depends upon the inevitability of political domination in the temporal world.
Problems of interpretation in turn yield problems of classification: contradictory readings are so densely intertwined in farce that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to categorize individual works as either normative or subversive, conservative or radical, or to determine what ideological goals they would have aimed at or achieved in performance. Many farces appear simultaneously to stabilize and destabilize, affirm and oppose established values, traditions, and institutions. Even as they allow spectators to participate imaginatively in staged rebellion, they offer reminders that in real life, dissidence will provoke a coercive response unless it remains latent, silent, or invisible. The latency of resistance in farce can itself be read in contradictory ways—as an acknowledgment that the ruling classes are capable of imposing docility on subalterns, or alternatively as a reminder that subaltern resistance can never be fully eradicated and retains its power precisely because it can be so difficult to detect.
The cynicism of this political outlook (farce's apparent belief in endless antagonism and injustice) is in turn counterbalanced by a tendency in many works—including Maistre Pierre Pathelin, the undisputed, and by some accounts the only, masterpiece of the genre—to focus implicitly or explicitly on ethical, religious, and messianic themes. This includes Jesus's prophecy (in all three synoptic Gospels) that in the Kingdom of Heaven the first will be last and the last first (Matt. 19:30, 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30), as well as Mary's prophecy (in the Magnificat canticle) that at the end time her son will unseat the mighty and exalt the humble (Luke 1:52). Tellingly, even these themes can be classified in disparate ways—as licensed and innocuous forms of folk religion or as insidious and disguised forms of political agitation; as the opiate of the masses, fostering belief in a future justice that will remain perpetually on the horizon, or as the veiled expression of hidden struggles, nourishing the desire of subordinates to resist their subordination in remembrance of Christ himself. To echo Václav Havel (who knew a thing or two about creative, ludic, and veiled expressions of dissent), early French farce, like the societies that reveled in its foolish humor, is a "mysterious animal with many faces" (109), none of which can be said to be the real or authentic one, and each of which is in some sense a mask.
My goal in this book is to revalue farce and the urban popular cultures in which it flourished by scrutinizing these many faces, by probing the genre's manifest and latent forms of social and cultural mediation, and by attempting to reconstruct its often contradictory ethical, political, and religious investments. Following Pamela Allen Brown, who in turn cites Stuart Hall, I take popular culture to encompass "any text or performance that became familiar in part because it was either cheap, or free to be heard, seen, or performed oneself" (18); that was, by dint of social and stylistic accessibility, likely to "[circulate] through multiple trajectories" (18); and that is misrepresented, therefore, by "self-enclosed" critical approaches that analyze "cultural forms as if they contained within themselves, from their moment of origin, some fixed and unchanging meaning or value" (Hall 237). True, farces were sometimes staged for restrictive, elite audiences: French kings from Charles VI to Louis XIV are known to have been passionate admirers of the genre (Rousse, "Pouvoir"); and Pathelin itself may originally have been conceived for the court of René d'Anjou (Roy). Still, their usual ambit was considerably more expansive and diverse. Performances were regularly sponsored by urban institutions that were anything but static, monolithic, or acquiescent: colleges, universities, guilds, confraternities, youth associations, and the festive societies Natalie Zemon Davis has dubbed the "Abbeys of Misrule" (97-123). The occasion for a performance was often a religious festival—most famously, Carnival—that sanctioned, or at least tolerated, hierarchical inversion, social mobility, and political disruption. Finally, farces would customarily, if not exclusively, have been staged in open-air or broadly accessible spaces that could not easily restrict attendance or control audience response. Even plays that were performed behind closed doors often circulated beyond them, as witnessed by the fact that Pathelin yielded at least two popular sequels and multiple print editions that may well have been hawked by vendors in the streets (Rousse, "Pathelin" 18-19). Indeed, regardless of where they were put on (in a castle in Anjou, an assembly hall in Paris, a public square in Dijon, or a jury-rigged playing area in a small provincial town), farces were composed in an idiom that all could understand, appreciate, and share, and that was well suited to the heterogeneous, wayward, and often unruly popular audiences for which the period is known (Enders, Death 105-17; L. Muir, "France" 325-27). As we shall see, moreover, despite an apparent penchant for hackneyed themes and plots, the extant playscripts typically respond in creative, experimental, and largely untotalizable ways to the symbolic structures, subjective differences, and ideological fault lines that characterized French urban life on the threshold to modernity.
Unfortunately, farce's aesthetic and social complexities have nearly always been lost on learned scholars. From Renaissance moralists to Enlightenment philosophes, from Romantic philologists to modern theater historians, intellectuals of all stripes have heaped reproaches upon farceurs, accusing them of pandering to the rabble, degenerating public morals, and violating norms of civility and taste (Rey-Flaud, Farce 1-10). True, attitudes toward farce (and late medieval theater generally) have shifted considerably over the past thirty years or so, thanks to rigorous historical research from scholars like Jelle Koopmans, Marie Bouhaïk-Gironès, Katell Lavéant, and Sara Beam; to Jody Enders's pioneering explorations of rhetoric and law, memory and violence, imitation and enactment, performativity and ethics on the early French stage; to Koopmans's rediscovery and reedition of the Recueil de Florence, a collection of fifty-three farces that went missing in the 1920s (see A Note on Sources, above); and to Enders's deeply learned and deliciously irreverent modern English adaptations of two dozen of the best plays (the beginning of a much-anticipated series). And yet despite a profusion of scholarship that aims to bring neglected material to light and to disabuse us of centuries' worth of prejudice and misconception, we have not entirely discarded the "self-enclosed" critical perspectives that tend to bridle, diminish, and distort popular culture.
Thus, E. Bruce Hayes argues in a recent monograph that "the world of farce does not move beyond the quotidian and the domestic" (15); that it exhibits a "pervading pessimism that does not promote change, but instead scorns anything that could be construed as new or innovative" (15); and that it took a figure like Rabelais to realize the subversive potential of farce, in part by narrativizing it and removing it from the stage. Invoking Peter Burke's claim that popular culture was essentially "conservative" in nature (230), "as if people believed that the system could not change" (234), Hayes argues that "traditional farce . . . offers little in terms of 'new ways of thinking about the system'" (6, citing N. Davis 143). Farce was radicalized only when Rabelais and the "elite group of reform-minded humanists" with which he was associated (7) "recognized [its] potential to be transformed into a political weapon to be used against entrenched institutions" (6).
Of course, one might dismiss Hayes as a chauvinistic seiziémiste whose account of the conventionality and quietism of medieval farceurs enables him to exaggerate the achievements of Renaissance humanists, even as it requires him to minimize the extensive historical, cultural, and political overlap between the two. As he rightly notes, however, many card-carrying medievalists have made similar claims, arguing that if farce has an ethics and politics, they must be mechanical, instrumentalist, and conservative in nature, serving, on the one hand, to reinforce established norms through negative examples and, on the other, to attenuate, suppress, and purge disruptive impulses (Aubailly, Théâtre 181-89; Rousse, Scène 253-60; Knight, Aspects 41-67; Mazouer, Moyen Âge 347-58, Renaissance 130-44). This view is echoed, moreover, by Jessica Milner Davis in the most influential transhistorical study of the genre. For Davis, "the style of humor in farce is essentially conservative," meaning it "tends to restore conventional authority, or at least to save that authority's face, at the end of its comic upheavals" (3). If it disallows "airs and pretences," and often ridicules the wealthy and powerful, it also precludes any "preaching for a revolution" (3), calling instead for a "cheerful ending" with "no offence given or taken" (46).
And yet tenacious as this reading of farce may be, it is predicated on a rather flimsy essentialism, by which I mean it endows a historically extensive, socially pervasive, and inherently ephemeral and interactive performance tradition with a predetermined, uniform set of intentions and outcomes. Or as Havel would put it, the reading claims to know "all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population" (109) and denies to the supposedly benighted hoi polloi the capacity to imagine alternative social realities, or oppose existing ones, without a humanist intelligentsia to guide them. In reconsidering the aesthetic, intellectual, and social operations of the farce tradition, we would do well to abandon such an elitist and deterministic point of view and turn instead to materialist scholarship that problematizes the ways in which ideology acts through popular culture and is acted on by it.
A good place to begin might be Pierre Macherey's reading of Jules Verne; for here we learn that "a writer [or in our case, a playwright or performer] never reflects mechanically or rigorously the ideology which he represents, even if his sole intention is to represent it: perhaps because no ideology is sufficiently consistent to survive the test of figuration. And otherwise, his work would not be read [or, for that matter, performed]" (195). We might turn as well to Fredric Jameson's celebrated study of Jaws and the Godfather films; for Jameson (citing Macherey) shows us that "the work of art does not so much express ideology" as endow it "with aesthetic representation and figuration" and enact its "virtual unmasking" as a cultural construct liable to internal instability and interpretive difference ("Reification" 147). Even more useful for my purposes is John Fiske's analysis of Anglo-American television series; for Fiske shows us how any attempt "to produce a coherent set of meanings and social identities around an unarticulated consensus" (320) inevitably runs afoul of the "multiaccentuality of the [ideological] sign": a "polysemic potential" that enables diverse "social groups" with diverse "social interests" to enjoy the same cultural objects even as they exercise "[the] power to construct meanings, pleasures, and social identities that differ from those proposed by the structures of domination" (320; citing Volosinov 23).
In this book, I propose a similarly materialist reading of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century French farces, which I take to be the expression of collective social and cultural experiences that could not be reduced to a collective or false consciousness—and would never have found an audience if they had been. As a vibrant and ubiquitous mass medium, farce could be used to shape and reshape subjective and communal awareness, civic involvement, and large-scale structures of thought and belief. It could not, however, impose passivity and consensus on spectators, nor (to quote Fiske) could it neutralize cultural and class struggle by "reduc[ing] the multiaccentual to the uniaccentual" (320). To be sure, censors and patrons often sought to restrict theatrical content, regulate performances, and condition audience response. But there is little reason to believe that they could ever master the unpredictability and evanescence of live theater long enough to create a truly stable set of representations—or that, even if they were able to do so, such representations could be used to suppress dissent or thwart change.
In fact, recent work in theater history has made quite the opposite claim. Drawing on archival evidence that has long been neglected or misconstrued, scholars have reinterpreted medieval popular theater as a uniquely privileged but also inherently volatile medium for social interaction, contestation, and transformation. As Carol Symes argues in a study of thirteenth-century Arras, the medieval "common stage" was a literally and figuratively open-ended vehicle for urban populations to gain access to publicity, to reflect on faith and morality, and to question prevailing distributions of wealth and power. Relatively unbounded and highly representative, it can usefully be compared to Jürgen Habermas's public sphere, in that the German philosopher's notion of Öffentlichkeit, "the urban 'open realm'" (Symes, Common 127), finds a rough analogue in notions the Arrageois applied to public meeting and performance spaces: ad phalam, which Symes glosses as "out in the open" or "at the . . . display place" (145), and en plaine hale, "in the open air [literally, the marketplace] and in the presence of the assembled townspeople" (207). If Habermas denies the very possibility of a medieval public sphere on the grounds that the printing press was a prerequisite for communicative rationality, Symes counters that it not only existed but was likely to have been "larger and more buoyant" than its modern counterpart (279). After all, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have shown, modern mass media are subject to concentrated ownership, government sourcing, and profit imperatives, making it relatively easy for the public sphere to be hijacked by corporate and political interests. By contrast, Symes argues, Arras's public sphere was shaped by media "that could not be efficiently controlled—no matter how hard kings and canonists might try"; media that, in their interactive and dialogical liveness, endowed the community with forms of "meaningful exchange, social innovation, and political action" that modern consumer culture may well lack (279). This claim is certainly borne out by Symes's speculative reconstruction of a performance of Le garçon et l'aveugle, a kind of proto-farce in which "actors pretending to be con men pretending to be beggars"—and who may initially have been taken by onlookers for "beggars putting on a good show (the better to win alms), or con men whose begging and acting skills had been honed out of sheer necessity"—must stake out space for a performance in a crowded and boisterous public square (132-33). While we lack the evidence to prove that the play was staged as Symes imagines, her conclusion is certainly an apt one: by posing as social undesirables who nonetheless manage to win and hold the attention of an urban audience, street performers would have effectively demonstrated how "people without the power to assert themselves through more conventional means (violence, wealth) [could gain] other types of power through the use of public media" (130).
If we turn to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (a period for which we have a far more robust, if still uneven, record of performance conditions and practices), we soon discover that the common stage retained, and perhaps enhanced, its mediatizing and democratizing functions. For Jelle Koopmans, the profane playwrights of this era, who "invented a new tradition without knowing ancient models," can be considered "radically experimental"—indeed far more so than, say, the 1950s avant-garde, which differentiated itself from "a known and documented tradition" ("Rire" 210) even as it perpetuated many features of theatrical realism, including the proscenium stage, box sets, and a fixed system of perspective. To gain a fuller picture of the formal and ideological experimentalism of early farce—to glimpse what Koopmans calls its "unlit face" (210)—we must shift our own ossified perspectives, especially the still widely accepted "safety valve" theory, which holds that festive comedy depicts le monde à l'envers in order to confine social rebellion to the realm of make believe and to impose an aesthetics of closure that restores "everything to its proper place" at the end of the show (213; citing Mazouer, Renaissance 144).
Even a cursory examination of performance records reveals how misguided this theory is. Farceurs were regularly accused of sedition and lèse-majesté, and of performing polemical plays that sought to hinder rather than enable social integration. Those accusations seem, moreover, to have been well grounded: farce presentations led with some regularity to open confrontations with authority, eruptions of violence, and prison terms for those involved. If this, farce's dark and menacing face, has seldom been visible to modern literary critics, there are, for Koopmans, three main reasons: first, the most disruptive plays were likely never published or were suppressed after publication; second, the plays that did survive were almost certainly subject to censorship and self-censorship; and third, in reading these plays, critics have adopted taxonomic and generic modes of analysis that have tended to generalize, neutralize, or obscure subversive content, much of which is already encoded or veiled ("Rire" 211, 219-21). Divorced from historical context, the corpus of surviving farces has thus lent itself to a nostalgic, reactionary, and totalizing vision of the harmless and childish antics of the lower classes at play. Koopmans exhorts us to resist such a groundless, sentimental caricature and to embrace instead neohistoricist and microhistoricist projects of recovery: we must delve into municipal and regional archives in order to resituate farce within its original communicative settings, thereby redefining its popular character. That character is just as likely to be targeted and oppositional as conventional and quiescent, and in many instances the latter tendencies would have served to conceal and enable the former. Farceurs may have smiled broadly, but evidence suggests that they often did so through clenched or gnashing teeth. Likewise, the laughter they elicited in audiences was not always playful and harmless; on the contrary, writes Koopmans, it could be a "rire grinçant": ruminative and brooding, sometimes even threatening and cruel.
But what are we to do with the scores of published scripts that cannot be linked to a well-defined context and that have often given the impression of puerile mischief, genial resignation, and toothless wit? I believe we could read those scripts more deeply, and perceive farce's many faces more clearly, if we were to start by conceding Jody Enders's claim that early French playwrights rarely managed (or sought) to impose aesthetic coherence and fixed value systems on the common stage. Instead, they enacted a play of differences, shuttling freely "between hegemonic and populist agendas, concession and rebellion, oral and written transmission, tradition and change, illusion and reality," to the point that one pole becomes difficult to distinguish from the other (Death 5). Even the most conventional farces exhibit elements of this dialectical oscillation, which is legible in the very thematic and structural properties of the genre. Thus, the proverbial basis for many plots—à trompeur, trompeur et demi, "every deceiver will be deceived," or, more literally, "for every deceiver, a deceiver and a half"—suggests that in the hands of farceurs, reality is prone to increasingly artful forms of falsification and that the seemingly bland repetition of traditional formulas may itself constitute a tactic for pursuing social advantage, disruption, and change. After all, many farce characters use theatrical tricks to claim identities and privileges that are not their own by right, custom, or birth. Even if they are eventually exposed or unseated, moreover, it is usually by an even wilier deceiver pursuing not justice or truth but his or her own advancement. Together, then, trompeur and trompeur et demi reveal that social roles, ranks, and realities are not fixed and innate but contingent and transferable, and that the theatricality of everyday life can be used to undermine hegemonic forms of social determinism.
Naturally, we encounter more rigidly conceived characters in farce as well, characters whose truth to type seems to verify the power of social categories to absorb individuals and prescribe their destinies. And yet by giving ideology such a crude form, these characters must also have exposed it as a system of representation subject to demystification and appropriation. Many spectators would presumably have understood, whether consciously or unconsciously, that reductive stereotypes have little to do with real people but instead mark an attempt to impose ideological order through fictional means. Many others would likely have grasped the ways in which real people could in turn use typological masks—what were known in the period as faux visages (Koopmans, "Et doit")—to achieve subversive goals or avoid pernicious outcomes. Indeed, theater archives lend credence to such a claim: forensic records reveal that farceurs were immensely skilled at exploiting the genre's conventions, as well as the ambiguities of identity and intention inherent in theatrical performance, to surreptitiously convey seditious messages, to guarantee themselves plausible deniability in case of detection, and to undermine the efficiency of political domination by ruling elites (Bouhaïk-Gironès, "Procès").
Evidence such as this surely confirms Paul Zumthor's claim (which Enders is fond of citing) that "of all the arts, theater is, without a doubt, the most receptive to changes in the social structure, and the most revelatory of those changes" (Essai 447, qtd. in Enders, Death 5). As Enders rightly notes, however, "it is not so easy to figure out just what theater was . . . revealing . . . in a given time and place" (Death 5); nor can we readily discern all the manifest and latent meanings a play and its players would have communicated to an assembled audience and the various subgroups it encompassed. Much like the tricksters they played, farceurs were careful to hide their faces in a regression of masks, and seem to have been especially skilled at concealing acts of rebellion within gestures of concession. We must therefore train ourselves to think of all faces in farce as faux visages. By endowing social identities and relations with aesthetic form, these false faces illustrate the paradoxical power of concealment and latency. Or to quote a description of les Gens (the People) in Métier, Marchandise, le Berger, le Temps et les Gens, a fifteenth-century farce morale, "Ilz vous montrent leur faulx visage / Car ilz parlent mal en deriere" ("They show you their false face because they speak ill behind it"; qtd. in Koopmans, "Et doit" 280).
Taking my cue from characters like les Gens, Mère Folle, and her acrobatic fools, I argue in this book that much of the richness of the extant farce corpus lies in its use of familiar and shared, but also elusive and multiaccentual, cultural codes to mediate, negotiate, and reflect upon the ethical, political, and religious complexities of late medieval and early modern urban life. My ambition is to recover some of this richness by exploring the many intriguing ways in which character types, crude jokes, and conventional plotlines were imbued with social, ideological, and even metaphysical significance. My approach diverges sharply, however, from current trends in medieval theater history. Trained in literary criticism and cultural and critical theories, I have focused less on original archival research than on published playscripts in modern critical editions. As Koopmans notes, it is rare that we can "faire le pont" between these two forms of evidence ("Rire" 217); and indeed, I am often obliged to adopt speculative methods in this book as I turn to plays for which we lack solid information regarding date, provenance, authorship, audience, or performance practice. I aim to show, however, that a materialist, socioaesthetic analysis of farce can be considerably advanced by focusing on literary modes of social description, representation, and critique, especially parody and satire; by attending to the semantic ambiguities inherent in playscripts and their intertextual (and especially scriptural) references; and by using poststructuralist, anthropological, feminist, and queer theories of ethics and politics, domination and resistance, subjectivity and subjection, faith and doubt to conjecture about possible relationships between theatrical spectacles and the social and ideological worlds in which they emerged. As I argue in the following four chapters, those relationships are neither static nor neutral but are instead profoundly equivocal, highly charged, and largely ungeneralizable.
Chapter 1 draws on Michel de Certeau's theory of everyday consumption and James C. Scott's theory of the "infrapolitics" of subordinate groups to argue that, even when farceurs purvey seemingly compliant or hegemonic forms of comic representation, they also establish a dialectical relationship with them, exposing contingencies, weaknesses, and opportunities at the heart of the ideological field. Thus, whereas many scholars have argued that farce uses satirical depictions of inversion, deviance, and revolt to ensure moral rectification and political acquiescence, I insist that those depictions mediate oppositional struggles without resolving them and thwart attempts to achieve social catharsis. This denial of closure invites a hermeneutic stance I call "plural reading": states of interpretive undecidability that elicit participatory engagement and oscillate between the enforcement and disruption of ingrained systems of value. In keeping with this focus on hermeneutic practice, the chapter is devoted in large part to historical performance as it can be reconstructed from institutional records, eyewitness testimonies, and the like. I do, however, present readings of three plays: the Norman farce Le gentilhomme et Naudet; Pierre Gringore's four-part Parisian Carnival play Le jeu du Prince des Sotz et de Mere Sotte; and the Reformation-era Rouennais morality play Le Ministre de l'Eglise, which, while not technically a farce, aptly illustrates how the multiaccentuality of comic theater can fuel ethical inquiry, political opposition, and religious innovation.
Chapter 2 turns to Maistre Pierre Pathelin and argues that this celebrated courtroom drama, in which a devilish shepherd tactically relinquishes human speech and agency in order to triumph over his exploitative employer and shyster lawyer, is not the immoral or amoral masterpiece it is often made out to be. Rather, Pathelin makes deft use of social parody to expose the injustices of mercantile capitalism, and of scriptural parody to elaborate an ethical and political eschatology that is known (like the eschaton itself) only as prophetic expectation. I argue that contemporary audiences would have been deeply attuned to the operations of parodic repetition in the play and would have construed it less as profane desecration than as productive engagement with sacred beliefs. Among other things, sacred parody transforms a notion of otherworldly justice that inures us to present injustice into an opportunity to critique and resist bourgeois hegemony in Christ's name. The chapter concludes with readings of Pathelin's little-known sequels, Le nouveau Pathelin and Le testament Pathelin, which echo the original by using liturgical parody to put pressure on religious conventions and moral norms.
Chapter 3 is also devoted to the sacred-profane dialectic and focuses on Andrieu de La Vigne's Le mystère de saint Martin, a three-day-long saint's play that was staged in the Burgundian city of Seurre in 1496 and included two shockingly irreverent farces: Le meunier dont le Diable emporte l'âme en enfer and L'aveugle et le boiteux. My claim is that these farces point to lay misgivings regarding clerical sanctity and sacramental efficacy even as they show us that it was in the very nature of late medieval belief systems to confuse orthodox rituals and theologies with their apparent contradiction, to sacralize the filth that official religion strives to preclude, and to affirm the power of the liturgy by contemplating its performative failures. While little attention has been paid to Christian content in farce, many plays focus on theological doctrine, devotional practices, and clerical life, especially those that were inserted like forcemeat (farcir, "to stuff") into mystery play productions. This chapter attempts to provide a richer perspective on religion in farce by examining burlesque sendups of Penance, Eucharist, and hagiography in Le meunier and L'aveugle and the ways in which they establish a dialogical relationship between mystery and farce, and thereby present alternatives to, and suggest alternative meanings within, familiar rituals and codes.
My final chapter is devoted to la farce des femmes and offers a queer reading of the classic "woman on top" theme, which served both as a normative charivari (affirming male headship through fanciful inversions of sexual hierarchy) and as a projection of revenge fantasies (including women's own and those of various "feminized" subalterns). Although feminists have long argued for an inherent ambivalence in fictions of female insubordination, scholars of farce have tended to view those fictions as ridiculous contrivances that clarify hierarchies by reversing them. My claim is that farce's gendered fantasies are far queerer than this reading allows. They often entail games of cross-dressing and rest upon a fluid conception of sexual difference that lends itself to a variety of appropriations. I seek to queer la farce des femmes by demonstrating how female characters work to disclose the tenuous relations, cultural anxieties, and ideological fissures at the heart of the heterosocial regime, whether they submit to its dictates or repudiate them. To make my case, I examine two plays: Serre Porte et Fin Verjus, in which a shrewish housewife surrenders power to her husband only on the condition that he obey her by donning her dress and exacting revenge on their shared enemy; and Le poulier à six personnages, in which a milleress rescues her husband from eviction and debt using paradoxical gestures of submission that enable her to subordinate men and emancipate women across the social spectrum. Drawing on Mary Hartman's "subversive" history of the household and Jack Halberstam's queer account of "shadow feminism," I argue that these plays manifest the ability of well-behaved women to acquire room for maneuver, to raise political voices, and to enact historical agency even in circumstances of apparent ideological overdetermination.
Before moving on, I should say a few words about the structural and intellectual design of this book. First, I should admit to, and perhaps apologize for, my proclivity for long chapters. This proclivity is rather clearly at odds with the formal economy of farce itself and entails what may initially appear to be unlikely departures into unrelated (and unfunny) domains: nominalist philosophy, sacramental theology, female clergie, marital debt theory, historical demography, law enforcement, foster parentage, and so on. I hope to have made the relevance of these deviations evident to my readers, to have kept my through line well in sight, and to have compensated for my rather unbounded sense of intellectual terrain by carefully subdividing my chapters into sections. Second, I should acknowledge that most of the plays studied here are little known even to specialists and therefore require detailed exposition. To that end, I have organized many of my readings seriatim in order to give a sense of the temporal unfolding of plot in performance. Finally, I should grant that while I have worked assiduously to avoid the kind of decontextualized analysis Koopmans critiques, I have nonetheless conceived this book as a study in genre and have therefore sought to identify broad continuities within the farce repertory. In an attempt to mitigate the essentializing tendencies of literary taxonomies, I supply geographical and chronological signposting wherever I can. I am assisted in this task by the brilliant historical lexicographer Yan Greub, whose diatopic study Les mots régionaux dans les farces françaises has enabled scholars to attribute specific plays to specific regions with far greater certainty than in the past. I also rely on the work of theater historians who have studied the manuscript and print sources for farce, gleaning from them precious clues regarding provenance and dating. Most crucial for my purposes is Koopmans's new edition of the Recueil de Florence, which has enabled numerous historical discoveries and conjectures. Perhaps most enticing among these is Koopmans's speculation that the plays contained in the Recueil may have been assembled by Pierre Gringore and the theater troupe of which he was a member, that the troupe may have sold their repertory to a publisher early on in the reign of Francis I, and that the reason for the sale may have been the king's vigorous persecution of satirical actors and political dissidents (22-23). The volatile, contested nature of farce performance, which is the subject of Chapter 1, may thus be legible in the history of the books that have preserved farce scripts for posterity.