This book opens by providing an alternative answer to the question addressed
by St Augustine in his Confessions: ‘what was God doing before he created
the world?’ It argues that the saint’s visceral longing to physically
resurrect a figure from the Hebrew past, to have Moses before him, to ‘clasp
him and . . . beg him to explain to me the creation’, holds much in common
with lay performances of religious plays in England’s civic centres between
the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Examining the York Fall of the
Angels Barker’s pageant, the chapter demonstrates how, like Augustine,
medieval dramatists needed to negotiate various models of time and eternity.
Noting that contesting figurations of time are drawn into relief at moments
of transition and in extra-Biblical episodes of conflict between men and
women, the introduction grounds this reading within recent research into
gender and Jewish studies. This analysis introduces the three questions
which inform this study’s central theme of conflict: first, what happens
when moments in time are not universally experienced in the same way;
second, what tensions emerge when Bible times are introduced to a medieval
present; third, how do subjective experiences of time shape the conflicts
the plays stage between Bible figures?
Linear time and Jewish conversion in the N-Town plays
Chapter 1 foregrounds the key issues of this study through a close
examination of an event frequently treated in medieval and modern
chronologies as a point of transition. Christ’s virgin conception formed the
basis of medieval dramatisations of Joseph’s doubts about Mary. The N-Town
manuscript plays amplify these doubts further than the other surviving
pageants, confronting Mary with a string of sceptical characters who demand
she repeatedly prove her purity. This chapter, however, draws attention to
the play’s emphasis on Joseph’s elderly, decrepit body, arguing that it
casts him as representative of a law which offers little scope for
comprehending the virgin pregnancy. While Mary reconciles her virgin,
pregnant state through her typological (mis)reading of the book of Isaiah,
Joseph, as the first Jew to encounter this ‘new’ law, inhabits a different
time-frame. Interrogating how the Holy Couple’s conflict is embodied in the
N-Town Joseph’s Doubt, the chapter examines the play’s utilisation of
medieval anti-Semitic tropes to navigate typological models which
re-fashioned the past through appropriating it. It finds that medieval
scholarly questions about when ‘Christian’ time began also posed a practical
problem for those representing biblical texts in drama.
This chapter asks what happens when dramatic personae recognise that they
occupy a time of theological transition and take steps to prevent it.
Engaging with Michel Serres’ model of folded, topological time, it examines
how the Towneley Herod the Great amplifies the ways in which its bible
source brings together multiple events from Hebrew and Christian scripture
in processes of prophecy and validation. Evaluating how Herod and the
Bethlehem mothers attempt to exert agency over time, the chapter finds in
the play evidence of a complex medieval understanding of the ways in which
religious and scriptural time works. This produces a new reading of the
favourite tyrant of medieval drama. Terrified of both past and future (or,
rather, what past Hebrew ‘prophecies’ tell him about the future), Herod
enacts a devastating act of violence in an attempt to tear his own pages out
of history. However, as this chapter shows, Herod’s temporal machinations,
along with the mothers’ resistance, have the effect of binding moments in
Christian and Hebrew history securely together.
This book produces an important re-theorisation of the ways gender, time and
Judaism have been considered in late medieval biblical drama. It employs
theories of gender, performance, antisemitism, queer theory and periodisation to
complicate readings of early theatre’s biblical matriarchs and patriarchs. It
argues that the conflicts staged by these plays provide crucial evidence of the
ways late medieval lay producers, performers and audiences were themselves
encouraged to question, experience, manipulate and understand time.
Interrogating medieval models of supersession and typology alongside more
contemporary models of ‘queer’ and topological time, this book charts the
conflicts staged between dramatic personae in plays that represent theological
transitions or ruptures, such as the Incarnation, Flood, Nativity and Bethlehem
slaughter. While these plays reflect a Christian preoccupation with what it
asserted was a ‘superseded’ Jewish past, this book asks how these models are
subverted when placed in dialogue with characters who experience alternative
readings of time.
Queering the Nativity in the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Play
This chapter examines what happens when the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Play
deliberately complicates the timeline of its biblical source and uses this
play as a starting-point for a critical re-evaluation of current work on
queer temporalities. Moving away from models of queer time which hinge on
the presupposition of a normative, or homogenous, way of experiencing time,
it suggests instead that a narrower idea of temporal queerness be deployed
which constitutes the interruption of time directed towards (heterosexual)
procreation. In so doing, it examines the Towneley Play’s delayed and
inverted nativity in which a woman appears to give ‘birth’ to a sheep and in
which the promised house full of children is curiously missing.
Shortly before Edward I’s 1290 expulsion of England’s Jews, Bishop of Hereford Richard Swinfield rebuked his flock for accepting invitations to a Jewish wedding. Chapter 2 seeks to discover, within texts preserved by Harley 2253, such trace as Hereford’s expelled minority may have left in the cultural imaginary of this borderlands region. Recent scholarship has established that Jews constitute an ‘absent presence’ central to both Christian devotion and conceptions of Englishness. Hereford has a unique profile as a frontier Jewish community, while the Harley manuscript straddles the historical watershed of 1290. This codex has not yet received Jewish studies-based inquiry. But understudied texts near its centre provide material: Anglo-Norman biblical paraphrases that feature the Levites (or priestly class of the Hebrews), and devotional travelogues attuned to the location of biblical and post-biblical Jews. Exploration of these Old Testament stories and Holy Land itineraries, wherein ancient ‘Hebreus’ and latter-day ‘Gyiws’ figure, suggests that Harley departs from period norms. Its texts (and additions) reveal a provincial copyist who is stuck in the distant past, yet perspicacious about Jews’ historical present. Jews have long been absent, but Harley 2253’s fellow clerkly traveller proves disarmingly cognizant of the challenges facing Levitican ‘captives among us’.
Scholars equate medieval culture with death culture, but such conceptions derive from obsessions that developed in the wake of the Black Death. Texts that dance with death (or relocate us spiritually by means of it) are never far away in the Harley miscellany’s fifteen quires. But neither do we encounter quite so morbid an obsession with coming ‘endyngs’ as haunt later imaginations. After providing a primer on medieval death, ‘Dying with Harley 2253’ asks whether this compilation may, in its late-added final quire, function as a proto-Ars moriendi. Pre-eminent among plague-inspired genres, these multi-media ‘craft of dying’ handbooks served increasingly to script late medieval end-of-life experiences. But whatever genuflections its closing quire’s Anglo-Norman devotions and Latin treatises may perform, our manuscript’s earlier English pieces are not so easily overwritten. These lyric meditations propose death-facing trajectories and afterlife orientations that refuse to be theologically gainsaid. Harley 2253 archives multiple kinds of dying, and models plural approaches to the locational crisis (‘Wher next shal Y fare?’) that mortality produces. Appreciation of the sublime extremities to which medieval lyric delivers its audience helps demonstrate how contemporary encounters with lyric form—often just as death-bent—owe debts to early exemplars, the eschatologies of which underlie their own.
Ye goon to … Hereford? Regional devotion and England’s other St Thomas
The Epilogue reviews how—after much anarchic pulling apart—the Harley miscellany comes together as a literary-cartographic compilation. Sacred space manifests here as a Hereford-centred ecclesiastical regionalism. Harley 2253 is famous for other genres, but saints’ lives govern its undertaking. Its saintly roster proves diverse (biblical/medieval; foreign/domestic; political/parodic), but committed to locally grounded sanctity. Providing a focal point for ‘Ye Goon to … Hereford?’ is St Thomas Cantilupe, a Hereford bishop (canonized 1320) whose cathedral shrine competed on even footing, for a while, with the royal-associated cult of Archbishop Thomas Becket, whose Canterbury shrine dominates English literary history (via Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and cultural geography. Cantilupe’s fortunes recall those of the Harley manuscript within literary studies; both acquire meaning via their regionalist character. Reading Harley 2253 and Hereford Cathedral together challenges the dominance of Becket, Chaucer, and Canterbury Cathedral. To seek St Thomas of Hereford in the Harley manuscript is to borrow trouble codicologically—he won’t be found, any more than Becket’s shrine is reached by Chaucer’s Pilgrims. But pursuing his absent presence, in a book that privileges sanctified geography by planting local saints at threshold locations, does move us towards Hereford Cathedral, where a famous mappamundi awaits those approaching Cantilupe’s shrine.
Chapter 1 proposes that the once-canonical ‘Harley Lyrics’ require literary-geographical re-contextualization. These poems’ backwater status is not native, but a consequence of the peripheral location assigned them by metropolitan narratives preoccupied with formal-genealogical influence. Harley 2253 was produced for a gentry household near Ludlow, Herefordshire, by a copyist using exemplars from across England and beyond (Paris, Avignon, Ireland). By attending to lyric transmission, and through readings of genre and geography, ‘Harley Lyrics and Hereford clerics’ demonstrates how, notwithstanding the provincial gentry setting of their copying, these adaptable poems align formally and socially with another textual community. This underlying context lies in the well-travelled secular clerks and episcopal officials of Hereford Diocese. The collective experience of such men was defined by unusually pronounced mobility, cohort solidarity, and district boosterism. But if these clerical lives, given incessant travel, are defined by spatial dislocation, so too are the Harley Lyrics preoccupied with geographical displacement. Waxing nostalgic for a ‘hom’ located vaguely ‘by west’, they idealize the figure of a beloved ‘levedi’ [lady] or ‘lef in lond’ [love in land]) who is brought into being through passionate poetic longing. Such (imported) conventions bespeak the cosmopolitanism of the Harley Lyrics, while underlining their regional orientation.
This study brings emergent methodologies of literary geography to bear upon the unique contents—or more to the point, the moving, artful, frequently audacious contents—of a codex known as London, British Library MS Harley 2253. The Harley manuscript was produced in provincial Herefordshire, in England’s Welsh Marches, by a scribe whose literary generation was wiped out in the Black Death of 1348–1351. It contains a diverse set of writings: love-lyrics and devotional texts, political songs and fabliaux, saints’ lives, courtesy literature, bible narratives, travelogues, and more. These works alternate between languages (Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin), but have been placed in mutually illuminating conversation. Following an Introduction that explores how this fragmentary miscellany keeps being sutured into ‘whole’-ness by commentary upon it, individual chapters examine different genres, topics, and social groupings. Readers from literary history, medieval studies, cultural geography, gender studies, Jewish studies, book history, and more, will profit from the encounter. Harley 2253 is famous as medieval books go, thanks to its celebrated roster of lyrics, fabliaux, and political songs, and owing to the scarcity of material extant from this ‘in-between’ period in insular literary history. England’s post-Conquest/pre-plague era remains dimly known. Despite such potential, there has never been a monograph published on Harley 2253. Harley Manuscript Geographies orients readers to this compelling material by describing the phenomenon of the medieval miscellany in textual and codicological terms. But another task it performs is to lay out grounds for approaching this compilation via the interpretive lens that cultural geography provides.