The Hierosphthitic Topos, or the Fate of Fergus: Notes on the N-Town Assumption


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Asked to identify the fate of Fergus, many students of medieval drama would be apt to cite the fate of the York play, known variously as the portacio, "the arrest [arrêt] of the Virgin's funeral," or simply."Fergus" after the Jew who attacked the bier being carried by the apostles. Although the York records are not altogether straightforward, certainly the guild charged with performing this play was, at various times, discharged of its duties. In 1431 crowd control was raised as an objection to the play, but reformist ideas were also afloat, for another argument against the play was that the death and funeral of Mary had no basis in scripture. Although the special pleading of the goldsmiths in 1431 makes their evidence suspect, fifty years later the guild assigned to produce Fergus still wanted to be quit of their responsibility. They succeeded, a success that probably accounts for the ultimate loss of the text.1 The loss is unfortunate because we would like to know more about the York play. Was Fergus indeed beaten in the play as the documentary evidence suggests? Certainly there is no such beating in the typical apocryphal sources; neither does any such action occur in the only extant English play preserving the arrest of the funeral, the N-town Assumption. There the fate of the attacking Jew corresponds to the details of the apocryphal texts: the hands by which he intended to overthrow the bier of the Virgin Mary are instead fixed to it. It is this fate that one critic has referred to as "the strange miracle of Fergus's hand."2 In fact it is not so strange at all: such miracles are a commonplace of shrine literature.

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