Article Title

Writing Before the Eye: The N-Town Woman Taken in Adultery and the Medieval Ministry Play


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

Richard Beadle has recently observed that "If any area of medieval English studies can be said to have changed out of all recognition over the past twenty years or so, it must be that of the drama."1 Certainly, twenty years ago I could have asserted the perversity of teaching a field of scholarly inquiry-the medieval English mystery play-whose very name ("mystery" play) was a modem scholarly invention perpetuating a linguistic confusion. As E. K. Chambers had nagged in 1903, the word 'mystery' "is not English at all, in a dramatic sense, and in France first appears as misterie in the charter given by Charles VI in 1402 to the Parisian confrérie de la Passion." In a note he adds: "The first English use of the term 'mystery' is in the preface to Dodsley's Select Collection of Old Plays (1744)."2 The medieval "mystery" plays, as I have more than a few times nagged to my own students, were in fact, ministerium plays, that is, plays performed by medieval craft or parish guilds. The Latin word ministerium and its vernacular Middle English forms 'myster' or 'mysterie' meant occupation, craft, or ministry. The biblical plays thus came to be called 'mysteries' in the sense of the post-Reformation Chester Banns: "by xxiiiitie occupationes-artes, craftes, or misterye-these pagiantes should be played."3

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.