Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends / Edition 1

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Part of every legend is true. Or so argues Jody Enders in this fascinating look at early French drama and the way it compels us to consider where the stage ends and where real life begins. This ambitious and bracing study explores fourteen tales of the theater that are at turns dark and dangerous, sexy and scandalous, humorous and frightening—stories that are nurtured by the confusion between truth and fiction, and imitation and enactment, until it becomes impossible to tell whether life is imitating art, or art is imitating life.

Was a convicted criminal executed on stage during a beheading scene? Was an unfortunate actor driven insane while playing a madman? Did a theatrical enactment of a crucifixion result in a real one? Did an androgynous young man seduce a priest when portraying a female saint? Enders answers these and other questions while presenting a treasure trove of tales that have long seemed true but are actually medieval urban legends. On topics ranging through politics, religion, marriage, class, and law, these tales, Enders argues, do the cultural work of all urban legends: they disclose the hopes, fears, and anxieties of their tellers. Each one represents a medieval meditation created or dramatized by the theater with its power to blur the line between fiction and reality, engaging anyone who watches, performs, or is represented by it. Each one also raises pressing questions about the medieval and modern world on the eve of the Reformation, when Europe had never engaged more anxiously and fervently in the great debate about what was real, what was pretend, and what was pretense.

Written with elegance and flair, and meticulously researched, Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends will interest scholars of medieval and Renaissance literature, history, theater, performance studies, and anyone curious about urban legends.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226207889
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 354
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jody Enders is a professor of French and dramatic art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Rhetoric and the Origins of Medieval Drama and The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence.

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Read an Excerpt

Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends

Copyright © 2002 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20788-9

Chapter One
Lusting after Saints

TRUTH, n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance. -Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Of all the things that might have run through the young girl's mind when she agreed to play Saint Catherine of Siena in the city of Metz in the mid-sixteenth century, finding a husband was probably not high on the list. She was, after all, performing at a convent-a proper training ground for young wives because of its spirituality, not its theatricality. A spinster of the ripe old age of eighteen would likely have been hoping to marry-but the stage was not the normal venue in which a well-brought-up young lady would attract a husband. Yet that is exactly what happened, if we believe the chroniclers of Metz.

By the account of Philippe de Vigneulles, the eighteen-year-old girl was a superb actress, and a certain Henry de la Tour, in attendance that day, a great catch. The lass did such a brilliant job of representing Catherine's martyrdom that the audience wept while Henry fell madly in love:

In the aforesaid year [1468], there was performed and played in Metz the play of Milady Saint Catherine of Siena, true sister of the Order of Jacobins. And this play was put on in the courtyard of the [convent of the] Great Preachers over the three feasts of Pentecost.... And the role of Saint Catherine was played by a young girl of approximately eighteen years of age, who was the daughter of Dediet the glazier [of Four du Cloistre]; and she acquitted herself marvelously well in her role, to the taste and pleasure of everyone there. Moreover, this said girl had 2300 lines of dialogue; and nevertheless, she had every line at the tip of her tongue. And this girl spoke so spiritedly and piteously that she prompted many people to weep; and she was pleasing to everybody. And on account of this, the girl was very well married to a gentleman, mercenary of Metz, by the name of Henry de la Tour, who fell in love with her on account of the great pleasure he had taken there.

This narrative teems with what Dickson and Goulden call the "semblance of seemingly supportive specific detail," which would tend to reinforce either its historical veracity or its potential status as an urban legend. For example, Philippe is clearly referring to a specific version of the Play of Saint Catherine, because only someone extremely familiar with the text could have warranted that the young lady had memorized a full twenty-three hundred lines of dialogue. Henry, armed with his gentlemanly aristocratic particles, had a military record to boot, a combination that might well have enhanced his desirability to the opposite sex or to their families. Most intriguing, the normally bellicose Henry had more than war on his mind that day when he felt such "great pleasure" as a result of the theater that he sought to make it last by marrying both it and her: a girl who played martyrdom so well that we don't even need to know her first name. For Henry, for the chroniclers, and for later disseminators and readers, it was presumably more than enough to know that "Catherine" wound up as Madame de la Tour. She had fulfilled one of her social roles by finding a husband attracted to her plight.

So far, so good. Whatever it was that seduced Henry-the beauty of the cloistered setting, the possibility of spiritual edification, the poetry of a dramatized saint's life, the surprise at seeing a young woman on stage at a time when it was less common for women to be there, or perhaps some sort of subconscious recognition that martyrdom was the ideal calling-card for a future wife-the story goes that Henry was completely taken. Who wouldn't want such a wife? No matter how astute medieval historians' insights into the spiritual bond of marriage, an eighteen-year-old who knew how to play a saint might prove equally saintly in the kitchen or, better yet, in the bedroom. Here was no unnamed shrew of a wife from the Farce of the Wash-tub, henpecking her poor husband into doing all the household chores. Here was no late-night manipulator crying crocodile tears in bed in order to obtain pretty new clothes from the ensnared spouse in the Fifteen Joys of Marriage. Here was no threat of cuckoldry -and Henry had doubtless seen plenty of that on stage, not only in farces but in religious theater's giggly renditions of Christ's earthly father, Joseph. Instead, the young girl was the picture of submission, piety, and martyrdom, willing to accept suffering rather than to renounce her belief in Jesus Christ. For any red-blooded medieval man desirous of a gloriously subservient spouse, this girl was the "real thing." For any man of Metz, she was a martyr in a city that had already exalted martyrdom, as when its good-hearted men sacrificed themselves during the siege of 1324: "Our noble men are martyrs true;/And God has raised them up to Him." Under the circumstances, how could Henry have helped falling in love? He too was playing the ultimate part in a theatrical experience that had traditionally encouraged active audience participation. It had done so as early as the thirteenth-century Herod, when actors invited "the people standing around" to come and adore the Christ child. Whether or not Henry's especially enthusiastic participation coincided with the original intentions of the nuns who had lent their dwelling for the spectacle of a saint's life remains to be seen. For the moment, it simply sounds as though the couple lived happily ever after. It sounds as though John Elliott might have been right to conclude from his own reading of the tale that "some medieval reports, like many modern reviews, tell us little more about dramatic interpretation than the fact that the reviewer was smitten by the actress." But the story of "Catherine" and Henry (who is not the reviewer, but one of the subjects) tells us a good deal more.

As we shall see, our first story takes us straight to the heart of theater phenomenology. We might be inclined, for instance, to accept Bruce Wilshire's contention that theater's realities don't matter because they are idealized, symbolic communications: "Actual persons and things are used in the production but their real factual reality is bracketed out so that what they are as types and essences can be revealed" (RPI, 137). Our chroniclers were not so kind as to provide the full name of the actress who played Catherine of Siena, but if the story is true, it was not an essence who walked down the aisle with Henry de la Tour. Insistently human, insistently real, it was a woman who was wed to a man. So, was she or wasn't she?

At first blush, we seem happily to find confirmation in another chronicle of Metz by Jacomin Husson, who tenders this substantially shorter testimony:

Item, in the aforesaid year, the Play of Saint Catherine of Siena was performed over the three feasts of Pentecost.... A young girl of approximately eighteen years of age played Saint Catherine and acquitted herself marvelously well in her role and in her performance; and she had 2,300 lines of dialogue; and she was most pleasing to many people; and, on this account, she was married to a mercenary by the name of Henry de la Tour, who fell in love with her on account of the great pleasure he had taken there.

Our two chroniclers thus agree on a number of details, including the play's timing with Pentecost, the age of "Catherine," the version of the play performed, the success of the performance, and the actress's subsequent marriage. They also agree on the play's sponsor, a woman devoted in her own way to religious life: "The arrangements for the performance of the play were made by Lady Catherine Baudoiche, at her own cost and expense." For his own part, Petit de Julleville was thrilled by this compelling piece of evidence attesting to the early presence of both a female actress and a female patron, noting of the latter that it was "rather rare" to see a play "performed in a monastery" and a "pious lady who bore the costs of the performance." As for "Catherine," he thought incorrectly that it was "absolutely unheard of" to find an actress on stage in 1468, since we must normally wait until the 1530s for the thespian advent of women in such cities as Valenciennes and Grenoble (LM, 2:32). Jacomin Husson even bears him out here by arming that when another Play of Saint Catherine was performed on Metz's Place en Change on 15 June 1434, the title role went to a man. However, when it comes to the other details about the performance, our commentators diverge-and the devil is in those details. They are so confusing that we don't always know where to turn or-to borrow the French expression more appropriate to our subject-"to which saint to turn" (à quel saint se vouer). Henry de la Tour, of course, knows very well where to turn in order to make sure that another proverb does not apply in his case: "the lady is interested in someone else" (elle est voüée à un autre Saint).

In this story of heads turned, there are both technical and spiritual uncertainties: the date of the coup de foudre; the identity, status, and character of the real "Catherine"; the physical circumstances of the production; and, above all, the moral (or morals) to be drawn from the story (or stories).

First of all, Petit de Julleville (with Huguenin) places the young actress's tour de force in 1468, while Jacomin's "aforesaid year" is 1448, twenty years earlier. It seems unreasonable to posit two separate performances of the Play of Saint Catherine spaced twenty years apart and in which Henry would have had his coup de foudre twice! That would oblige us to envisage a distinctly unmedieval scenario in which he swoons over "Catherine" all over again and maybe decides to renew his vows with his wife. Therefore, whatever we may think about cultural difference, it is sensible to assume that Henry and his bride had no hand in the accounts. Surely they would not have forgotten the date of their coup de foudre-unless Henry was the sort to forget his anniversary. Nor do we know exactly when they married or if a brief courtship followed the Play of Saint Catherine. Nor does it seem very likely that, if Henry and his nubile bride had married in 1448 (or sometime thereafter), she would have taken to the stage twenty years later to reimpersonate (while pushing forty) the life of a saint whose extraordinary conversion was said to have taken place at a very young age and who died at the age of thirty-three.

It helps a bit to know that there was a Henry de la Tour among the "noble lords" in attendance at Metz's ill-fated Passion play of 1437 in which two priests almost died. In that case, he was either eleven years older in 1448 (for Jacomin Husson) or thirty-one years older in 1468 (for Petit de Julleville citing Huguenin). Or he was not the same Henry de la Tour. Or there were two Henrys, junior and senior. If we make certain assumptions about a man's marriageable age or mortality in the fifteenth century and imagine that, in 1437, the gentlemanly Henry had reached the age of sixteen, then he took his eighteen-year old bride either in 1448 at the age of twenty-seven, or else in 1468 at the more decrepit age of forty-seven. The problem is that the Huguenin edition of the Chroniques de Metz tells us that in 1433 there was a gentleman mercenary named Henry de la Tour seeking financial damages from the city of Metz in connection with his recent service-and that he already had a wife and children. If his wife died in the intervening fifteen or thirty-five years, the chronicle does not say. But either she did and Henry took a new bride or she did not, and the story of Henry smitten by a saint is just that-a story-because he couldn't have two wives at once. It is also plausible that the litigious Henry was not the same Henry de la Tour, even though both are listed as gentleman mercenaries.

What is so charming about the story is that it works under any of those circumstances, and it works in the way that legends work. If we believe Jacomin Husson, Henry married "Catherine" at the perfectly reasonable age of twenty-seven or so. If we believe Petit de Julleville, he married her at the more advanced age of forty-seven or so, still a reasonable age at which a man with enough of a career to sport the moniker "gentleman mercenary" might take a young bride. Certainly no modern arms need be twisted into accepting the possibility that older men marry younger women, especially when some kind of stardom is involved. By the same token, any postmodernist would pounce on what appears to be an early enactment of Wilshire's appealing motto that "art is like a vow which we make to each other. In artistic activity we are vowing to each other that it is valuable to do what we are doing" (RPI, 220). What could be more valuable than a saintly play inspiring a saintly Christian marriage? As Dickson and Goulden remind us, the truth has never gotten "in the way of a good story," and the tale of Henry and "Catherine" was one good story.

Furthermore, if Henry's existence looks relatively clear, the identities of the two women in our story are rather more ambiguous. Concerning the young actress, we know only that she was the daughter of Dediet, the glazier of Four du Cloistre and, for Jacomin Husson, the daughter of nobody in particular. It would certainly be nice to know a bit more about the young actress, such as how she came to be assigned the saint's role. But the only real Catherine who commands the attention of our commentators is Catherine Baudoiche.

We seem to know that, in honor of her saintly namesake, Catherine Baudoiche assumed the responsibility and costs for a performance in honor of Saint Catherine: "And this lady was laid to rest at the aforesaid [convent of the] Great Preachers inside the chapel which she had founded and had built and which is situated at the entrance of this church and founded in the name of Saint Catherine." This is not a lyric poem like "Belle Doette," in which an imaginary maiden builds an abbey after the death of her ami. This is a real historical gure who lived and died a life of sufficient social importance to have been buried at the very site where she had practiced her devotion. Petit de Julleville may well have found it unusual that Catherine Baudoiche had had the funds and the inclination to put on a show at her cloister with a secular actress. Or perhaps the daughter of Dediet was one of the young ladies given over to the place for a religious education-a fate not inconsistent with that of a glazier's daughter. Perhaps the girl was the very model of piety that Henry saw before him, although one must recognize that theatrical expertise would scarcely have enhanced a nice girl's reputation. Perhaps, like the lead character in the miracle play, The Nun who Left her Abbey, or in Georges Brassens's much later "Légende de la nonne," she was a novice who abandoned her calling when seduced by the charms of a man. Her presence on stage might thus have heralded such a spiritual downfall. Indeed, we do not know if she fell or not-for anyone but Henry. Our narrators imply only that Henry and his actress-wife lived happily ever after, or as the French say, "they got married and had lots of children."

Did they? And what about Catherine Baudoiche? Was there a happy ending for her as well? Did any of the principals get what they bargained for? Surprisingly, the story contains as many seeds of doubt about a happily-ever-after as it does premonitions for future unhappiness.

If we believe our story, then something very real happened that day (whichever day it was) when Catherine Baudoiche's choice to honor Saint Catherine theatrically turned out to be performative-but probably not in the way that she had planned. She must have begun her theatrical project with the most edifying of intentions, a motive that typically justified numerous communal decisions to move forward with the mounting of a play. For example, in April 1434 the chaplain Jean de Poys of Draguignan helped to subsidize a Passion play "for the honor of God, in memory of his Passion, and for the edification of Christians." The citizens of Montélimar found great merit in the Play of Saint Catherine itself when, on 15 May 1453, they sought permission to stage it "for the edification, honor, utility, and profit of the city." On one hand, it is doubtful that Catherine Baudoiche would have deemed matchmaking to be part and parcel of such a spiritual mission. She was a "pious lady," not a matchmaker. On the other hand, if the unnamed actress (novice or not) was not quite firm enough in her faith, then maybe the opportunity of playing Catherine would cement it. The histories of both the stage and the saints had previously hosted such miraculous, theatrical conversions. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends by JODY ENDERS Copyright © 2002 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Medieval Urban Legends?
Part I: Telling the Difference
1. Lusting after Saints
2. Queer Attractions
3. Of Madness and Method Acting
4. Two Priests and the Hand of God
5. Dying to Play
6. The Eel of Melun
7. The Devil Who Wasn't There
Part II: Make-Believe
8. The Laughter of the Children
9. Burnt Theatrical Offerings
10. Theater's Living Dead
11. The Mysterious Quarry
12. Seeing Is Believing
13. The Suicide of Despair
14. Death by Drama
Epilogue: The Moment of Truth
Appendix: Original Documents in French and Latin
Works Cited

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