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The Queen's Dumbshows

The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater

Claire Sponsler
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Queen's Dumbshows
    Book Description:

    No medieval writer reveals more about early English drama than John Lydgate, Claire Sponsler contends. Best known for his enormously long narrative poemsThe Fall of PrincesandThe Troy Book, Lydgate also wrote numerous verses related to theatrical performances and ceremonies. This rich yet understudied body of material includes mummings for London guildsmen and sheriffs, texts for wall hangings that combined pictures and poetry, a Corpus Christi procession, and entertainments for the young Henry VI and his mother.InThe Queen's Dumbshows, Sponsler reclaims these writings to reveal what they have to tell us about performance practices in the late Middle Ages. Placing theatricality at the hub of fifteenth-century British culture, she rethinks what constituted drama in the period and explores the relationship between private forms of entertainment, such as household banquets, and more overtly public forms of political theater, such as royal entries and processions. She delineates the intersection of performance with other forms of representation such as feasts, pictorial displays, and tableaux, and parses the connections between the primarily visual and aural modes of performance and the reading of literary texts written on paper or parchment. In doing so, she has written a book of signal importance to scholars of medieval literature and culture, theater history, and visual studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0947-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Theater History as a Challenge to Literary History
    (pp. 1-16)

    The standard history of medieval English literature is one in which a queen’s dumbshows would not readily find a place. That history enshrines a written (in verse) canon fashioned in the fifteenth century around the works of a group of (male) London writers who followed in Chaucer’s footsteps. According to this account, the formation of that canon began with the inner circle of Chaucer’s fellow civil servants and writers and was given a boost by the promotional efforts of England’s Lancastrian rulers and London elites, who were interested (for not entirely identical reasons) in the establishment of English as a...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Shirley’s Hand
    (pp. 17-34)

    Unlike other fifteenth-century writers of short poems, Lydgate appears not to have kept a portfolio of his shorter verses, including those for performance, or to have supervised its circulation in authorized collections.¹ In fact, the survival of Lydgate’s dramatic texts is due almost entirely to John Shirley, who included them in three anthologies he compiled between the late 1420s and the late 1440s. Whether or not Lydgate played any role in Shirley’s compilations, and there is no evidence that he did, in copying Lydgate’s performance pieces, Shirley provided crucial information about the circumstances of their original performance as well as...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Vernacular Cosmopolitanism: London Mummings and Disguisings
    (pp. 35-66)

    Only recently has Lydgate begun to be thought of as a London writer, as scholars have acknowledged the time he spent in the city, the connections he had with its residents, and the number of texts he wrote for or about it, including four mummings and disguisings apparently intended for performance in the city.¹ According to John Shirley, theMumming for the Mercerswas performed on Twelfth Night (i.e., 6 January), to entertain William Estfeld, mayor of London, who was a member of the Mercers’ Company. In it, a presenter disguised as a herald from Jupiter recounts a journey across...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Performing Pictures
    (pp. 67-96)

    Reading and hearing were close relatives in medieval culture. Even when not composed orally, poems long and short were sung or spoken aloud to listeners, while also offering themselves for silent, private reading. As with Chaucer’s invocation of an audience for theCanterbury Talesof everyone who “redith or herith,” a good deal of medieval poetry contains traces of the expectation of differing forms of reception, as scholars have noted.¹ Reading and looking were also near kin, and the metaphor of sight was used in the later medieval period to characterize a variety of kinds of understanding, including the understanding...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Performance and Gloss: The Procession of Corpus Christi
    (pp. 97-114)

    When John Shirley copied the verses now known as theProcession of Corpus Christi, he included a headnote describing them as “an ordenaunce of a precessyoun of the feste of corpus cristi made in london by daun John Lydegate.”¹ Welcome though they are as an anchor for what would otherwise be a free-floating set of verses, Shirley’s words are not without ambiguity. What he means by “ordenaunce” and “precessyoun” is not entirely certain, and his phrasing does not make clear whether it was the “precessyoun” that took place in London or the writing of the poem. Despite that cloudiness, what...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Inscription and Ceremony: The 1432 Royal Entry
    (pp. 115-146)

    On 21 February 1432, Londoners mounted a series of pageants to welcome Henry VI on his return to England after his Parisian coronation. The event was documented by John Carpenter, London’s common clerk, in a Latin letter that he subsequently entered into the city’s letter book. At some point soon after, Lydgate was commissioned to write a poem on the same event. That poem—in English, by a prestigious author, and with various rhetorical flourishes, including stanzas praising London—seems to have been requested to memorialize the occasion in a way that Carpenter’s Latin text was incapable of doing.¹ Derek...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Edible Theater
    (pp. 147-166)

    The most formally odd and thoroughly material of the theatrical spectacles to which Lydgate contributed were the subtleties for the coronation banquet of Henry VI. The feast itself was a carefully designed piece of political drama in the form of ceremonies and entertainments that ushered Henry to the throne. Its stage was the hall at Westminster and its audience important members of court, city, and church, many of whom would have seen or heard the other coronation events as well. In the banquet hall at Westminster, they not only watched and listened but also consumed three subtleties, decorative confections that...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Queen’s Dumbshows
    (pp. 167-190)

    During a Christmas season in the late 1420s, Henry and members of his house hold joined his mother Catherine of Valois at her castle at Hertford. In the course of the holiday festivities, if Shirley can be believed, they were entertained by a short performance by Lydgate. TheDisguising at Hertfordseems an odd choice for a young boy. Addressed to Henry and apparently requiring his participation, the disguising is a satire that dramatizes the complaint of a group of rustic men about their wives’ tyranny, followed by the wives’ vigorous self-defense, and then the king’s decision to grant the...

  12. CHAPTER 8 On Drama’s Trail
    (pp. 191-210)

    This book began with John Shirley and the evidence his copies—and especially their headnotes—provided about the essential questions related to theater history: authorship, patrons, locations, dates, media, and performance practices. It ends with verses that are exactly the opposite of what Shirley’s hand gave us: these verses come with no hints about authorship, patrons, or any of the other things that would allow us to say who wrote them, on what occasion, and for what audience they were performed, if indeed they were ever performed at all. While Chapter 1 delighted in a plenitude of information, the present...

    (pp. 211-216)

    Although I have argued in these chapters that Lydgate deserves attention given the important information about the histories of early theater and literature he offers—information seldom available from other sources—his greatest contribution may in the end be not the answers he provides but the questions he raises. I began this book by noting the unusual circumstances surrounding Lydgate’s writing of verses for and about performance. Those circumstances—a known scribe who copied and disseminated the performance pieces, an author who is not anonymous, information about patrons and venues—all make Lydgate an important focus of inquiry for scholars...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 217-264)
    (pp. 265-290)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 291-306)
    (pp. 307-308)