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Article Title

Madonna, Whore: Mary’s Sexuality in the N-Town Plays

Abstract

Although the N-Town manuscript venerates the Virgin Mary, it expresses itsdevotion in ways that have shocked and flummoxed modern readers. This is hardlysurprising considering the content in question. In N-Town, Mary is insulted withobscenities: she is called “that bitched body,” “thatfise” (or fart), “bolde bysmare,”“scowte,” and “quene” (meaning slut or whore). Her detractors interpret her as a lyingadulteress. As such, Mary is attacked, harassed, and mocked. Criticism has coped withthis seemingly blasphemous content by inverting it, turning the slanderous jokes hurled at Mary back upon her detractors. Thanks to these efforts, criticism of Marian drama hasmirrored its object by keeping Mary miraculously pure. Yet N-Town’s sexual comedyresists inversion: Mary’s promiscuity can function as more than mere blasphemy,polemic, or misogyny. N-Townconstructs Mary as paradoxically both virgin andmother—and, additionally, as virgin and whore. As the fabliau adulteress in a divine comedy, Mary’s promiscuity can have positive theological significance, representing herintimacy with the Trinity, her typological connection to the open-armed Church, herredemption of Eve and fallen sexuality, her supersession (or cuckolding) of Judaism, andher advocacy of mercy. By purifying Marian drama of sexual content, criticism has bereftN-Town’s Incarnational aesthetic of its carnality, stripping Mary of what we might callher late medieval “sex positive” significance.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.

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