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6 Preaching Penance on the Stage in Late Medieval England: The Case of John the Baptist

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Chapter Summary

This essay situates Middle English biblical plays in the context of contemporary ecclesiastical legislation and religious controversy, using the pageants on the Baptism of Christ from the York Corpus Christi Play, the N-Town manuscript, and the Towneley manuscript as a case study and the same episode from various French mystères for comparative purposes. The French dramatists included preaching on penance as standard practice for this episode, and were prone to identify these sermons as such; English dramatists, on the other hand, appear to have tried to avoid staging a sermon or mentioning penance. In particular, I argue that the unwillingness by the playwrights of the York and Towneley plays to stage a sermon is due to an atmosphere of anxiety and self-censorship following Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409, which restricted preaching to specially licensed members of the clergy. The N-Town play does feature a preaching protagonist, unlike the pageants from York and Towneley. However, the truly remarkable insistence on confession in the N-Town pageant, a point of contention between the orthodox authorities and Lollards, serves to make explicit the orthodox affiliation of the play. These references thereby also make the on-stage sermon less controversial for Church authorities. Both the lack of sermons in York and Towneley, and the insistence on confession in N-Town indicate the extent to which medieval English biblical plays were affected by current controversies about who had the right to preach to the laity.



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