2016 Bevington Award for Best New Book

David Bevington Award
Award Year: 

Winner: Rice, Nicole R., and Margaret Aziza Pappano. The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in Premodern England. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015.

We confess to opening Nicole Rice and Margaret Pappano’s book with a measure of trepidation, for the title contains that word, you know, the one which, thanks to Barbara Palmer and Garrett Epp, we’re all a bit wary of using. Because the authors focus exclusively upon York and Chester, where there is clear documentary evidence for cyclical performance on a regular basis, we breathe a deep sigh of relief all ‘round. The word "cycles" is, after all, entirely appropriate here. Relief turns to delight as we discover that Rice and Pappano have moved the study of these plays forward in several significant ways, coining the useful term ‘artisanal drama’. For Rice and Pappano, the critical relationship in these plays is that between the individual plays and the civic politics of their sponsoring guilds. For them, the relevance of civic and guild records does not stop with their description of the sponsorship of plays or the hiring of musicians for guild feasts, but extends to the whole civic life of the guild members.

Rice and Pappano argue that the content of individual plays in both York and Chester (though very differently in the two cities) is intricately bound up with the professional and artisanal lives of the craft guild members who were responsible for their production. They give five extensive examples. The first links the York and Chester plays of the Fall of Lucifer and the Angels to a continuing dispute over precedence in the torch-bearing liturgical procession of Corpus Christi. The civic dispute, like that of the Tanners’ plays, focused on a self-reflexive struggle for light and social precedence (that is, the guild’s position relative to the host in the procession). Secondly, the frequent appearance of the verb "search" in the plays of Herod and the Magi evokes the concept of ‘serching’ (inspection) within the guilds, in which the guilds’ ambiguous reactions to such oversight is mirrored in the plays’ presentation of positive (Magi) and negative (Herod) "searching." Third, two sets of plays, the Judas sequence and the Cain and Abel plays, are informed by guild regulations enforcing the distinctions between free craft masters on the one side and unfree servants, apprentices, and foreigners on the other. Fourth, they set the plays of the Expulsion from the Garden, Noah’s Ark, and the Harrowing of Hell against guild records defining the critical distinction between craftwork and unskilled labour, as well as by the difference between men’s and women’s work. Fifth, they place the Last Judgment plays in the context of local guild politics and of the guilds’ civic position as charitable organizations.

Rice and Pappano have built the structure of their argument on the work of the scholars who are principally responsible for the changes in our understanding of the field; it is also heartening to see that they have incorporated the work of a number of younger scholars who have been nurtured on this new understanding. Rice and Pappano’s principal point is that while archival study has focused for the past quarter century on the records of the plays themselves, we cannot ignore civic and guild records which do not pertain directly to the plays, for they provide a context for the composition and performance of these plays. They also provide a useful answer to the niggling question of where the field of early English drama goes once the REED project is completed. The answer is simple: there is still much to do with documentary materials that do not directly speak to the composition and performance of the plays, but instead provide vital context to their production.

Award Committee: James Stokes, Gordon Kipling, and David Klausner (chair). Awards announcement and presentation took place during the MRDS business meeting in May at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.