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|Title:||The Social and Political Context of the Towneley Cycle|
|Authors:||DeWelles, Theodore R.|
Quehen, A.H. de
|Abstract:||<p>Modern scholarship has long ignored the fact that medieval religious drama, especially the mystery plays, contains a great deal of highly specific social and political commentary. This dissertation attempts to discover, by analyzing a number of plays in the Towneley cycle, what the particular topics are which make up that commentary, how relevant they are to the concerns and problems of late medieval English society and in what manner they are articulated dramatically by the Towneley playwrights themselves, particularly the Wakefield Master.</p> <p>The first two chapters of this study establish the topical and intellectual background that will form the basis for te later discussion of three of the Wakefield Master's most important works--the Mactacio Abel, Processus Noe Cum Filiis and Prima Pastorum. Chapter One, paying special attention to conditions and attitudes at work in late fourteenth and fifteenth-century Yorkshire, examines various events ( the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt) and developments (the growing prosperity and enterprise of the lower classes) which made so many late medieval Englishmen economically aggressive individualistic, materialistic and self-assertive, and which promoted so many values antagonistic to the traditional social assumptions of the age.</p> <p>Chapter Two studies some of these assumptions in detail--the belief that society was a heirarchical and corporate organism whose members had to work in unison, that labor was a selfless act designed to benefit the community more than the individual, that rebellion was always unjustifiable, that worldliness endangered the soul, that excessive self-reliance led to spiritual alientaion and ruin--and, furthermore, shows how these assumptions increasingly found their way into the writings of such men as Gower, Langland, Chaucer and Lydgate. The repeated reaffitmation of traditional social ideals by these and other orthodox writers indicates that there existed a fairly large body of opinion opposed to the changes that had plagued English society since 1350.</p> <p>The Wakefield Master was among those alarmed by the current trend toward materialism, individualism and rebellion. In the Mactacio Abel and Processus Noe he both attacks the new attitudes of his age and defends the older values of charity, cooperation and obedience. The Wakefield Cain, for instance, is portrayed as a hard working, enterprising, and prosperous yeoman farmer whose immoderate devotion to a specious, mercantile philosophy and to an especially reckless brand of self-centeredness causes him to be banished from the community of men and the presence of God. Noah, on the other hand, is characterized as an ideal medieval laborer, a man whose humility, charity and commitment to communal endeavor stand in sharp contrast to Cain's greed and selfishness and whose conception of work as an act of worship differs substantially from Cain's rather blasphemous and mundane approach. Cain's personality reflects the sordid realities of late medieval social and economic life: acquisitiveness, defiance, industriousness, self-absorption; Noah's stands for the forgotten ideals of partnership and prayer, ideals that needed constant reassertion in a world grown crass and uncaring.</p> <p>In Chapter Four certain intellectual traditions such as egalitarianism, communism and the Golden Age are discussed in terms of their possible influence on the apocalyptic and millenarian aspirations of the late medieval peasantry, aspirations that were partly responsible for the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Since the Prima Pastorum exploits both primitivistic and messianic traditions, it is argued here that the play may be critical of the late medieval peasantry's revolutionary urges. In other words, it is maintained that the Prima Pastorum attacks its age's infatuation with apocalyptic visions and Utopian fantasies of social reform and argues instead for a return to the simple virtues of charity, faith and humility as symbolized by Christ, the true Messiah.</p> <p>The Magnus Herodes (Chapter Five), on the other hand, denounces the lawless activities of the English nobility and questions the system that did so much to encourage aristocratic violence in general--bastard feudalism. Herod and his soldiers are thus examined in their role as fifteenth-century knights whose disruptive and bloody behaviour was not that far removed from what was happening in northern England--particularly Yorkshire--at the time.</p> <p>Finally, Chapter Six analyzes the whole Towneley Passion sequence and concludes that it is dominated by one major political issue--Lollardy. An examination of orthodox and heterodox controversial literature reveals that the prejudices and assumptions of both the anti-heretical party and the heretlcs themselves have been exploited by the dramatists in such a way as to make it appear as though Christ himself is a fifteenth-century schismatic. Virtually all the charges that the Jews bring against Christ in these plays--treason, magic, false prophecy, lying, deceit, demagogy--are identical to those which were commonly levelled against Lollards in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Such a bold form of characterization has a definite purpose. The playwrights, in depicting Jesus as a man falsely charged with and condemned for heresy, want to caution their contemporaries against the indiscriminate and irrational pursuit of apostasy--something which had become a real problem in late medieval England.</p>|
|Appears in Collections:||Open Access Dissertations and Theses|
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