Article Title

Law, Farce, and Counter-Kingship in the Semur Fall of Lucifer


Nicole R. Rice


In this essay I offer a new reading of the fall of Lucifer, the opening episode of the Passion de Semur, a fifteenth-century Burgundian mystère extant in a single copy dated 1488. This two-day religious play, dramatizing Lucifer’s fall through Christ’s resurrection, is a composite work augmented in several stages. The first third of the play bears the mark of a learned reviser, as Graham Runnalls has shown. Building upon the work of Runnalls and Lynn Muir, I analyze Semur’s distinctive Lucifer episode in relation to a particular learned, performative milieu: the world of legal culture and festive performance in late fifteenth-century Burgundy. The Lucifer episode, in which this slippery figure makes specious arguments, dallies with allegorical characters, and is crowned “king of the world,” creates a parodic spectacle that recalls the traditions of local festive societies and associations of law clerks (basoche societies), which mounted comic plays and yearly elected a “king” in public ceremonies. The Passion de Semur, and the Lucifer sequence in particular, foreground a set of vocational identifications and performative practices prominent in Burgundian civic life. The Lucifer sequence highlights the cultural importance of the basoche societies while obliquely referencing the threats of censorship and repression under which they operated during the fifteenth century. By inserting basoche performance into salvation history, Semur’s version of Lucifer’s fall creates an ambiguous play within a play. Like Lucifer, who is both brilliant and diabolical, the basoche emerges as a powerful and potentially threatening cultural institution, a persistent double to official law and order.

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