Article Title

Re-membering the Jews: Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays


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

It has become almost a critical commonplace that the miracles of the Virgin Mary common to later medieval sermons, exempla, and dramatic texts are marked by the occasional but regular appearance of Jews as a group, functioning as a convenient if overdetermined scapegoat upon whom the vices of avarice, malice, stubbornness, infidelity, and disbelief can be projected. These works are generally agreed to be anti-Semitic in the sense that their response to Jews derives from and depends upon a constellation of myths about Jews and Judaism rather than reflecting either historical or theological reality.1 Less attention, however, has been paid to the concomitant role of Jews as the recipients of Mary’s embodied and indeed, one might say, Old Testament wrath, effected dramatically upon the non-Christian flesh of the offender. The didactically theatrical nature of the punishment can be illustrated by the fact that the motif is particularly clear in medieval dramatic texts, and perhaps especially so in the N-Town Cycle, with its unique focus on the Virgin Mary. The popularity of this motif in cycle drama written and performed in England, from which Jews had been collectively expelled centuries earlier, suggests that this violence is not really about an external Jewish threat to Christianity, but iterates the ambiguity of Mary’s own paradoxical body, and its vexed and highly symbolic position in medieval Christendom. The cultural work of these dramas is only further complicated by the peculiarly embodied nature of theatrical performance, wherein nothing is truly what it appears to be.


1 Gavin Langmuir usefully defines anti-Semitism, as distinguished from anti-Judaism, as “all instances in which people, because they are labeled Jews, are feared as symbols of subhumanity and hated for threatening characteristics they do not in fact possess” (Toward a Definition of Antisemitism [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990], 302). Langmuir’s work is a crucial starting point for study of medieval anti-Semitism, but see also Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Louise O. Fradenburg, “Criticism, Anti-Semitism, and the Prioress’s Tale,” Exemplaria 1 (1989) : 69–115; and Steven Kruger, The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

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