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"The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries: Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English

"The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries: Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English

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"The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries: Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English

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May 31, 2011


Was there more to medieval and Renaissance comedy than Chaucer and Shakespeare? Bien sûr. For a real taste of saucy early European humor, one must cross the Channel to France. There, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the sophisticated met the scatological in popular performances presented by roving troupes in public squares that skewered sex, politics, and religion. For centuries, the scripts for these outrageous, anonymously written shows were available only in French editions gathered from scattered print and manuscript sources. Now prize-winning theater historian Jody Enders brings twelve of the funniest of these farces to contemporary English-speaking audiences in "The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries. Enders's translation captures the full richness of the colorful characters, irreverent humor, and over-the-top plotlines, all in a refreshingly uncensored American vernacular.

Those who have never heard the one about the Cobbler, the Monk, the Wife, and the Gatekeeper should prepare to be shocked and entertained. "The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries is populated by hilarious characters high and low. For medievalists, theater practitioners, and classic comedy lovers alike, Enders provides a wealth of information about the plays and their history. Helpful details abound for each play about plot, character development, sets, staging, costumes, and props. This performance-friendly collection offers in-depth guidance to actors, directors, dramaturges, teachers, and their students.

"The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries puts fifteenth-century French farce in its rightful place alongside Chaucer, Shakespeare, commedia dell'arte, and Molière—not to mention Monty Python. Vive la Farce!

May 31, 2011

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"The Farce of the Fart" and Other Ribaldries - University of Pennsylvania Press



of the





Ruth Mazo Karras, SERIES EDITOR


A complete list of books in the series

is available from the publisher.



of the




Twelve Medieval French Plays

in Modern English

Edited and translated by


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright © 2011 University of Pennsylvania Press

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for purposes of review or scholarly citation, none of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher. Permission to perform these plays, in amateur or professional settings, must be obtained in writing from the publisher.

Published by

University of Pennsylvania Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

A Cataloging-in-Publication record is available from the Library of Congress

ISBN 978-0-8122-4323-9

For my students


On Abbreviations, Short Titles, Notes, and Bibliography



History, Development, and the Actors of the Basoche

Performance and Performance Records

The Question of Genre

About This Translation

Editions and Printed Sources

Critical Apparatus

Stage Directions

Prose, Verse, and Music

Repetition and Repetitiveness

Language and Style

Brief Plot Summaries


Actors’ Prologue

1.    The Farce of the Fart [Farce nouvelle et fort joyeuse du Pect]

2.    The Edict of Noée, or, Shut Up! It’s the Farce of the Rights of Women [Farce des Drois de la Porte Bodès]

3.    Confession Lessons, or, The Farce of the Lusty Husband Who Makes His Confession to a Woman, His Neighbor, Who Is Disguised as a Priest [Farce de celuy qui se confesse à sa voisine]

4.    The Farce of the Student Who Failed His Priest Exam because He Didn’t Know Who Was Buried in Grant’s Tomb [Farce du Clerc qui fut refusé à estre prestre]

5.    Blind Man’s Buff, or, The Farce of The Chokester [Farce du Goguelu]

6.    Playing Doctor, or, Taking the Plunge (The Farce of the Woman Whose Neighbor Gives Her an Enema) [Farce d’une Femme à qui son Voisin baille ung clistoire]

7.    At Cross Purposes, or, The Farce of the Three Lovers of the Cross [Farce de trois Amoureux de la Croix]

8.    Shit for Brains, or, The Party Pooper-Scooper [Farce de Tarabin-Tarabas]

9.    Monk-ey Business, or, A Marvelous New Farce for Four Actors, to Wit, the Cobbler, the Monk, the Wife, and the Gatekeeper [Le Savetier, le Moyne, la Femme, et le Portier]

10.  Getting Off on the Wrong Foot, or, Who’s Minding the Whore? for Three Actors, to Wit, the Lover Minding the Store, the Cobbler, and His Wife [Farce de Celuy qui garde les Patins]

11.  Cooch E. Whippet, or, The Farce of Martin of Cambray [Farce de Martin de Cambray]

12.  Birdbrain: A Musical Comedy? or, School Is for the Birds [Farce joyeuse de Maistre Mimin]

Appendix: Scholarly References to Copyrighted Materials




On Abbreviations, Short Titles, Notes, and Bibliography

It is my working principle that no reader of this performance-friendly anthology need read French, which is why there are no face-to-face translations. That is also why I have not signaled each and every primary source in Middle French (some of which are relatively inaccessible). When possible, I provide instead a more readily accessible source in English. Moreover, my goal of user-friendliness is why you will not see, in my Bibliography, numerous books and articles for which I have enormous respect and that I have frequently cited elsewhere, as in the mammoth bibliographies of my own books.

For ease of reading, I avoid notes whenever possible in favor of parenthetical documentation that works in concert with the Bibliography. When there is no confusion as to which work is being referenced, more often than not I do not provide a note at all. Frequently mentioned works are cited by abbreviations.

Many of the principal editions and translations on which I draw share titles that are quite similar. To facilitate consultation, I refer to them as follows:

ATF Ancien Théâtre françois. IO vols. Edited by M. Viollet le Duc. FFMA Farces françaises de la fin du moyen âge. 4 vols. Translated into modern French by André Tissier. FCMF Five Comedies of Medieval France. Translated into English by Oscar Mandel. MFP Medieval French Plays. Translated into English by Richard Axton and John Stevens. Recueil Recueil de farces françaises inédites du XV E siècle. Edited by Gustave Cohen. RF Recueil de Farces (1450–1550). 13 vols. Edited by André Tissier. SMFF Six Medieval French Farces. Translated into English by Thierry Boucquey. TFR Le Théâtre français avant la Renaissance. Edited by Édouard Fournier.

These are the abbreviations used for other frequently cited primary and secondary sources:

AG Aspects of Genre in Late Medieval French Drama. By Alan E. Knight. CE Les Caractéristiques essentielles de la farce française. By Barbara C. Bowen. CP Les Clercs du Palais (1856 and 1875 editions). By Adolphe Fabre. DBD Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends. By Jody Enders. FAH Farce: A History from Aristophanes to Woody Allen. By Albert Bermel. LD The Life of the Drama. By Eric Bentley. LM Laughing Matters . By Sara Beam. MBA Murder by Accident. By Jody Enders. MES The Medieval European Stage, 500–1550 . Ed. William Tydeman. MTOC The Medieval Theater of Cruelty. By Jody Enders. Répertoire Répertoire des farces françaises . By Bernard Faivre. ROMD Rhetoric and the Origins of Medieval Drama. By Jody Enders. SRD The Staging of Religious Drama in Europe in the Later Middle Ages. Edited by Peter Meredith and John E. Tailby. TDF Towards a Definition of Farce as Literary ‘Genre.’ By Barbara Cannings [Bowen]. TB Theatre of the Basoche . By Howard Graham Harvey.


It all began in the fall of 2007 when I could take it no longer. Was I really going to teach comparative medieval drama one more time without teaching the anonymous fifteenth-century Farce of the Fart? Was I really?

My undergraduates at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were mostly theater majors and English majors. At best, they had perhaps read Everyman and the Second Shepherds’ Play. They might even have heard vague rumblings about everybody’s beloved Shakespeare having drawn heavily on medieval traditions of farce (as M. L. Radoff had noticed as early as 1933). Sure, there were plenty of English plays available in a variety of anthologies: unfortunately, David Bevington’s marvelous Medieval Drama was out of print, but there was now Greg Walker’s Medieval Drama: An Anthology, a hefty tome of over six hundred pages. And yet, the rest of the medieval dramatic picture—that vast and vastly enjoyable repertoire of French farce—was virtually unknown in the English language. Although scores of French plays had first been edited in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by some of the greats of French theater history—Gustave Cohen, Eugénie Droz, Édouard Fournier, Emmanuel Philipot, M. Viollet le Duc, and, later, André Tissier, Bernard Faivre, and Jelle Koopmans—those painstakingly preserved farces had yet to reach the larger audiences that they so richly deserved because, for one thing, the vast majority had never been translated. What about all the English speakers out there? We weren’t going to leave all the fun to the French, were we?

I think not. So let’s start with a dozen in English.

To be fair, there have been some pioneering translations of medieval French farce—of about a dozen from the hundreds extant—most notably by Barnard and Rose Hewitt, Oscar Mandel, and Alan E. Knight. These are listed in the Bibliography, and I’ll be alluding to them briefly in About This Translation. But, for the moment, what about my pedagogical dilemma about The Farce of the Fart? I wondered: What if I just translated it myself ?

What do you know! The students liked it. So much so that, as their final project, four of them acted it out—Jeremy Cowan, Jessica Fleitman, Joey Axiaq, and Travis Wong—bringing the dialogue and the laughter to life. The next thing I knew, a graduate student, Andrew Henkes, was proposing to stage the play at our yearly Medieval Studies Conference. On 3 May 2008, the superb cast of Dakotah Brown, Michael Ruesga, Courtney Ryan, and Annika Speer acquitted themselves so well that students, colleagues, and friends inquired: What would we be doing next year? It was The Farce of Master Mimin (published here as Birdbrain), also directed by Henkes and featuring Jason Bornstein, Melani Carroll, Beth Faitro, Andrew Fromer, Jordan Holmes, and Sigmond Varga. One thing led to another, and then there were twelve. To my knowledge not a single one of the plays here assembled has ever been translated into English.

Why these plays? Why now? Humor is an important mechanism that perks us up, all the while teaching us to beware of those who would use it to keep us down. Mostly, we can laugh, we can learn something, we can do both. If nothing else, the farces demand that we take humor seriously: seriously enough to read them, act them out, watch them, and restore them to the larger conversation about the arts from which they have often been wrongfully marginalized (if not downright excluded) thanks to centuries of antitheatrical polemic. Predating the standard comic structures that we have come to know and love in Shakespeare, the commedia dell’arte, Molière, and beyond, the medieval French farce offers up a literal song and dance about what unites and divides us. From politics and religion, to learning and litigiousness, to marriage and social class, to theology and sexuality, each play satirizes social life through that most present of literary media, the theater. These plays are funny, and they have withstood the test of time, mostly by providing lots of laughter when things are tough. When it comes to human foibles, the farce is transcendent: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Walter Kerr might well have summed it up best in 1967 when he endeavored to reelevate the farce to its heights—not depths—of days of yore. Disputing the commonplace of the so-called lowly farce, he extolled its considerable virtues by comparing it instead to the noblest of tragedies:

Its purpose, of course, is to render [tragedy’s] such high aspiration absurd; but it acquires a height of its own in the process of stretching to mock. Farce is the largest comic form we know, potentially the most dimensional; it offers us the greatest spaces to be filled in. If a playwright, or a period in history, fails to fill in the spaces and chooses instead simply to reproduce the cartooned outlines in a mechanical way, that is not the form’s fault. It has matched the thrust of tragedy as best it could and left us the directions for making lunacy out of nobility; what we do with the legacy will depend upon our own capacities. (Tragedy and Comedy, 312)

Do something with the legacy we must. In fact, I keep telling my graduate students that there are umpteen dissertations just waiting to happen if only someone would turn seriously to these comedies. Perhaps they’ll listen now, if not to me then to Mikhail Bakhtin, who cautioned, in Rabelais and His World, that to ignore or to underestimate the laughing people of the Middle Ages … distorts the picture of European culture’s historic development (6). So let’s bring that picture back into the focus, shall we?

I’ve fashioned the present collection with students, theater practitioners, theater aficionados, and general readers in mind. To them, I say now: If you think that medieval literature is esoteric, inaccessible, and endlessly enmeshed in scholastic debates about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, this is not your mother’s Middle Ages. From the outset, I must state a number of issues baldly—four, to be exact.

First, a curious thing: As many of my fellow pedagogues can attest, something odd seems to happen when you teach a farce. Reading one is fine. So is seeing one. Everybody cracks up. But just try to have an intellectual discussion about one, and you suck the humor right out of the thing. The silence is deafening. Once the guffaws are over, the students have nothing more to say. Is it that the laughter is so cathartic that literary analysis just plain ruins it? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe Eric Bentley got it right when he asked: Why do we laugh at jokes? The point of a joke can be explained, but the explanation is not funny (LD, 229). I hope not, because I’ve done my best to make some of my explanations funny, walking a fine line between scholarly interpretation and pedantry. Farces are meant to be fun; so I’ve had some fun with them. This includes writing with a chattier, colloquial tone such as the one I’m using right now, which I temper a bit only in the Introduction—and only a bit.

Second, it is impossible to understand a medieval play independently of performance, my guiding principle throughout this volume. Without performance, medieval culture makes no sense. Epics and romances were declaimed by jongleurs in public squares; poetry competitions were waged and won before enthusiastic crowds; students and faculty filled the streets surrounding the Sorbonne for oral exams in theology (the quodlibet); crazed dancers processed through towns in the sexualized antics of the Feast of Fools. André Tissier is explicit: The farce is originally written for performance, not for reading (RF, 1: 55).¹ And, difficult though it might be to reconstruct the full scope of medieval playing, I have drawn on every resource I could find to help make that happen. But please be forewarned that casting a farce will prove more challenging than you might think. Although one needn’t necessarily second Susan Morrison by invoking fecopoetics as the ultimate medieval habit of thought—yuck!—the sights, sounds, and smells of the body are everywhere (Excrement in the Middle Ages, chap. 10). When the stage directions of #5, Blind Man’s Buff, call for the serving girl Thomasina to pee in a cup in one scene and for her employer to shit himself all over in another, it makes Rabelais look like child’s play.

Third, there are aspects of this repertoire that are distinctly unfunny and worthy of our serious exploration. The recurring theme of domestic violence is one of them, in which many a playwright goes so far as to make the preposterous suggestion that women were the ones who regularly brutalized their husbands. If these plays are any indication, medieval men were always trying to put women in their place and with a plethora of misogynistic literature to back them up. To evoke a signature essay by the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, that place was not exactly on top (Women on Top). The female characters, however, are having none of it; and in at least a few instances, one might even say that they emerge victorious, Pyrrhic though their victories might be.

Finally, my twelve favorite farces, all anonymous, are not exactly politically correct, hence my humble offering of an Actors’ Prologue that any company may recite prior to performance, the better to prepare its audiences. Allow me to speak plainly. I am not one of those historians who think that offensive language and content must be stricken from the record. Quite to the contrary, I firmly believe that we do a disservice to history by electing to ignore past scenarios that we now dislike and that we understand even less. I can only hope that the reader will adopt Bentley’s sensible philosophy that in farce, as in drama, one is permitted the outrage but spared the consequence (LD, 222). Otherwise, I can best characterize my approach like so: If feminists can specialize in pornography, then I think I can translate farces. My wish is that this collection will provide a lot of laughs along with a heavy dose of serious reflection—all with a spoonful of sugar to help the good and bad medicine go down. No saccharin, folks. Have the courage of your convictions and read on! But not without one last caveat and one first parody. If these plays were movies, the following rating would probably apply:


Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

May contain moderate language, minimal strong language, some explicit

nudity, intense violence, gore, or mild drug content.


Bawdy, scandalous, lewd, profane, obscene. Influential, dangerous, boisterous, subversive, even heretical.

Modern audiences are all too familiar with the arsenal of adjectives that normally apply, even if they have never encountered a farce in their lives. It’s all part and parcel of the centuries of derision and mistrust to which theater itself has been subjected by a veritable chorus of philosophers on the politics and poetics of the human condition. From Plato to Marivaux to Adam Smith to George Bernard Shaw, the farce has suffered an unusually bad rap. Shaw famously excoriated it in these terms: we find people who would not join in the laughter of a crowd of peasants at the village idiot, or tolerate the public flogging or pillorying of a criminal, booking seats to shout with laughter at a farcical comedy, which is, at bottom, the same thing—namely, the deliberate indulgence of that horrible, derisive joy in humiliation and suffering which is the beastliest element in human nature (Our Theatres in the Nineties, 2: 118).¹

It was the sort of cruel nonsense up with which he would not put. And the fact that apparent detractors like the great Jean Bouchet (1476–ca. 1559) had shared that view (possibly with an irony that has escaped us) hasn’t helped matters very much. A lawyer and a longtime watcher, reporter, and producer of theater, Bouchet had this to say in the 1530s about the lewd, wicked, and degenerate comedies featuring despicable adulteries and assaults on women: "We call them in the vulgar tongue farces and often criticise the actors of them, and it is right that those who earn their livelihood by such means should be noted rogues. Scholars should not be tempted by such knowledge" (MES, E84, 332; my emphasis).²

I couldn’t disagree more, and these dozen plays will show you why. There is indeed a great deal that we might be tempted to learn—and enjoy—from the bawdiest of dramas. If farces are all those terrible things above, they are also witty, wise, linguistically ingenious, physical, and just plain fun.

Like it or not (and most audiences like it), at some point, any fan of Shakespeare, Molière, Ionesco, or Neil Simon, any premodern, modern, or postmodern theater student, any theater historian, theatergoer, or theater practitioner must address the European Middle Ages in general and the farce in particular, if only to explain how such a vital art form emerged, developed, and prospered in the West. During an almost unparalleled heyday from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, the farce was as much a fifteenth-century genre as a Renaissance performance practice, troubling the standard historical periodization and emerging as one of the most popular literary media of all time. It was also one of the first to profit en masse from the advent of the printing press. Throughout what can only be deemed a long Middle Ages whose theatrical life extended well into the glorious Renaissance—some would say encroached upon it—the farce was a real crowd-pleaser.

What was it, then, that audiences flocked to public squares to see? And what exactly was the problem once the Middle Ages were over?

It seems that the farce answered, with hilarious stories like those that I’m about to preview, the most controversial questions of the day about law, politics, religion, economics, social stratification, and the battle of the sexes. That’s what. Relegated though such stories have been to the role of poor stepchild of their more illustrious dramatic relations like the Passion play or morality play, the medieval farce has it all:

What happens when a woman pollutes the air of her home with the stench of her farts? She drags her husband’s ass to court to get to the bottom of it, as it were (Farce of the Fart). What’s the verdict when a married couple does battle over who’s the boss at home? The wife’s in charge, of course, especially when she can produce an edict establishing women’s rights, even if its imaginary author was truly thinking No way! (Edict of Noée). What if you’re one of those gals who suspects that your husband is cheating on you? Get your BFF Colette to dress up like a priest so she can wheedle an authentic confession out of your not-so-better half; but better watch out lest you learn more than you bargain for (Confession Lessons). How about if you want an education and you’re dumb as dirt? Just try to get into the college of your choice: you’ll only make a spectacle of yourself (Student Who Failed). If two overworked servants are waiting on a nasty old blind man, is it ever okay for them to take the law into their own hands? Sure it is! Take the curmudgeon out into the woods for a little fun and games and bludgeon his sorry ass (Blind Man’s Buff). Is your dumb-ass husband getting you down? Do you need some doctoring? Get your neighbor to stick it in and say it’s an enema (Playing Doctor).


How does a girl get rich on her husband’s dime? Courtly, shmourtly. After taking money from three different suitors, she can always direct a little masquerade in their (dis)honor, the better to rebuff all three at once (At Cross Purposes). What about when everything is just plain full of shit? Concoct a farce that serves as a theatrical thesaurus, a distinctly unscholarly companion to your lowly subject (Shit for Brains). Are you sick of the lechery of your parish priest? No worries! Devise a drama that will show his true colors and provide his come-uppance (Monk-ey Business). Is your wife fooling around on you? Try catching her in the act; but, when you cast the scene of her entrapment, better make sure that everyone is only acting (Getting Off on the Wrong Foot). What about that dolt of a husband who’s always locking you up inside the house? Typecast your priest as the Devil so that, next time your hubby shouts, The Devil take you! the priest can step right up in a Devil suit. Could it be … Satan? (Cooch E. Whippet). And, finally, what do you do when schooling turns a young man into such a jargon-spouting, Latin-speaking fool that he forgets how to speak his native French? Get him back on the farm for some homespun homeschooling (Birdbrain).

That’s what.

While it would be customary to start out with a working definition of what farce is, I prefer to end where others might begin. (Any farcical resemblance to my doing things ass-backwards is purely coincidental.) It is only at the close of this Introduction that you will see a tentative sketch of the farce as literary genre; and that is because performance is paramount to all the usual, prefatory categories or heuristics. Performance (as exemplified here by space, mime, gesture, and costume) makes it difficult to treat independently such crucial access points as genre, history, authors, actors, and audience. Performance inflects all the questions that I propose to ask and answer in a version of the journalistic canon of Who? What? Where? When? Why?³ As we shall see, who the performers of farce were had a lot to do with what came to define the genre over time. To put it another way, my questions are these:

Where does farce come from? (I am tempted to respond, paraphrasing Dr. Seuss: I can’t say. But I bet it has come a long, long way.) Why did it develop in medieval France the way it did?

Who wrote the farces? Who acted in them? Who produced them? Who watched them? Who recorded their impressions about farcical texts or performances?

In the world of farce, as in the Recueil Cohen (a remarkable collection of plays from which ten of ours are drawn), the men involved in writing, producing, and performing farces were members of a boys’ club of sorts, an influential French organization of law clerks and legal apprentices known as the Basoche.⁴ It is impossible to access the history, status, and stature of the genre, impossible to reply to What is a farce? without an understanding of the Basoche in the larger medieval dramatic picture.

History, Development, and the Actors of the Basoche

According to the standard narratives, the proverbial Dark Ages were dark indeed, hosting little art worthy of admiration. Spanning some ten centuries from the fall of Rome to the discovery of the New World, the entire era was typically relegated to that depressing middle ground between the apogee of classical antiquity and the oh-so-enlightened Renaissance, whence the very meaning of the term Middle Ages (medium aevum). Stuck in the middle. Certain critical allowances have been made for the fourteenth-century miracle play (in which the Virgin Mary comes to the rescue of a large variety of sinners), for the morality play, and for the monumental mystery plays of the fifteenth century (which were performed well into the sixteenth century). But otherwise, it doesn’t seem to have mattered much that a bustling theatrical life was everywhere, drawing crowds to the Play of Adam as early as the twelfth century and ultimately, in 1515, filling an amphitheater for the Acts of the Apostles at Bourges with twenty-five to thirty thousand spectators.⁵ Nor has it mattered much that, when the printing press first came on the scene, it was plays that were printed nonstop. Postmedieval readers have found it practical to dismiss the medieval dramatic art anyway, such that the commonplaces and stereotypes persisted. Even so respectful a reader as Albert Bermel devotes a mere eight of sixty-nine pages to the Middle Ages in his admittedly rushed historical contextualization of the farce or, as he calls it, A Hurried Tour from Greece to the Twentieth Century (FAH, chap. 5). He wasn’t kidding: less than one page per century—and I am exaggerating only slightly—really does qualify as hurried.

It lies well beyond the scope of this anthology to detail, rehearse, and explain the intellectual investment in keeping the Dark Ages dark. For our present purposes, suffice it to confine ourselves to the story of the origins of medieval drama, which goes like this:

During those dim and inartistic centuries, bards and silly jugglers traipsed about their fledgling communities until, all of a sudden, liturgical drama sprang not-yet-fully formed from its mother Church. No antecedents to speak of, ex nihilo, totally unique, and hallelujah!

Not so fast.

Thanks to the paradigm-shifting work of E. K. Chambers, Karl Young, Grace Frank, and O. B. Hardison, any student of medieval art forms is cognizant of the sensible critical dogma that, at such key moments of the liturgical calendar as Easter and Christmas, religious services were becoming increasingly theatrical, for purposes, we think, of communication. It’s true that, in France, a decision had been made by the Council of Tours in 813 that actual sermons would no longer be given in a Latin impenetrable by parishioners but, rather, in the rustic Romance tongue. That rustica romana lingua was the emerging language that was to evolve into modern French (Price, French Language, 6); but adaptive measures were still needed for the Latin rituals of the liturgy itself. Within the expressive spaces of the Church, what better way to clarify the liturgy’s message than to enhance its ecclesiastical delivery by means of additional music, costume, gesture, and mime? That is just what came to pass. The musical, vestimentary, and gestural interpolations into the liturgy are known as troping; and troping has long been cited, in any serious study, as the so-called origin of medieval drama.

The canonical example is the quem quaeritis trope (also called the Visitatio sepulchri or visit to the sepulcher), which is now taken to be a kind of playlet. In that trope, the three Marys (friends of Mary, mother of Jesus) seek the body of Christ in what proves to be an empty tomb because Christ has risen. So beautiful and breathtaking is the quem quaeritis trope that Eric Auerbach situated it within "one—and always … the same—context: of one great drama whose beginning is God’s creation of the world, whose climax is Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, and whose expected conclusion will be Christ’s second coming and the Last Judgment" (Mimesis, 158; my emphasis). Also, the scholarly attention paid to that trope has gone a long way toward rectifying a modern tendency to indict the Church as the necessarily sworn enemy of all things theatrical.

The problem arises, however, in positing that the Church was the only origin of medieval drama. Nor can we accept at face value the theory that D. W. Robertson proposed in the introduction to his Preface to Chaucer (1962), revolutionary at the time. Simply put, Robertson argued, from the writings of Saint Augustine, that all of medieval literature could be understood as a manifestation of charity (caritas) versus lust (concupiscientia), an exemplary way of modeling either positive or negative behaviors to be imitated or eschewed. But no single-origin theory fits all; and to insist on a single origin is to fail to account for the richness of medieval dramatic life. To illustrate my point, I present two curious scenarios:

First, I recollect my own experience from decades ago as a spectator of a reconstructed liturgical drama at the International Congress for Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan (to which thousands of avid, mostly young medievalists make a yearly pilgrimage in the month of May). An eager student of medieval drama, I was seated behind a pillar, from which vantage point I saw … not a blasted thing. I could not help but conjecture that, if liturgical troping was the origin of medieval drama, then anybody with a lousy seat had missed it entirely. (This is akin to what I’ve long believed with regard to the dictum attributed to Gregory the Great about art being the book of the illiterate. During my many visits to medieval churches, it occurred to me that, between the bird droppings, the dim lighting, and the overall height and inaccessibility of such a sculptural book, the illiterate would have had an extremely hard time reading anything at all.)

Second, for as beloved an explanation of medieval drama’s origins that troping has come to be, there are arenas in which it just doesn’t make sense. Supposedly, after the quem quaeritis trope gave birth to liturgical drama, that newly baptized art form crept slowly, gradually, and regularly from inside the church … toward the church doors … to the top of the stairs … on down the steps … into the public squares … where, eventually … What? The resurrected Christ was sharing a playing space with an unfaithful wife receiving an enema designated The Expunger (#6, Playing Doctor)? A single derivation for the two seems implausible, although, believe it or not, it’s not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Consider this salvo launched against a tortured saint in the grim hagiographic Play of Saint Denis: Get a load o’ Lord Shitter-in-school over there… ! I’ll clean out his turdy asshole, all right!⁸ Or remember, with Jessica Milner Davis, that the Kyrie or Sanctus of the Mass itself "were often called farsae or farsurae" (Farce, 7).⁹ If anything, we ought to infer not a single-origin theory but a nexus of reciprocal influences that moves us momentously beyond any this versus that, the Church versus popular culture, the serious versus the comic.

For example, in her unique and anything-but-foolish Fools’ Plays, Heather Arden paints a nuanced portrait of the sottie (sometimes spelled sotie), a close companion of the farce. There, she takes the time to rehearse and, ultimately, to question the many theories of the origins of farce, sottie, and morality play. On one hand, Arden was skeptical of the individual genius theory that Joseph Bédier had elaborated for a glorious medieval epic like the Song of Roland; on the other hand, she found insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that the sotties developed from the dramatic tradition of Latin drama (15). She was more receptive to the idea that farce, sottie, and morality play shared a parentage with the jongleurs who were singing and reciting epics and romances in public squares (with some acrobatics thrown in for good measure). Although readily acknowledging the impact of the liturgy and of bona fide religious drama on the French comic theater, Arden simultaneously acknowledged that extraliturgical comedy played a role of its own in the evolution of so-called liturgical dramas (15–18). Specifically, she signaled the supremacy of the raucous, carnivalesque festival of the Feast of Fools (la fête des Fous), a world turned upside down that attracted the attention of none other than Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World (introd.).

Did the Christian liturgy influence the history and development of medieval drama? Absolutely. Did it influence the farce? Of course it did, if only in the sense that any play, any comedy, any satire requires an understanding of its object of imitation (even though our medieval writers likely had little or no access to Aristotle’s time-honored discussion of the same in Poetics 1448b). But it is time to bury once and for all the long-held critical view that all things noteworthily artistic from those Dark Ages perforce stemmed from religion. The Church was by no means the sole origin or, for that matter, the sole enemy of the medieval theater. We cannot move forward without paying due attention to the peerlessness of mime, costume, and gesture (all three inseparable from our treatment below of Performance and Performance Records but in need of analysis here as well).

Just because few dramas of any orthodox sort survive prior to the fourteenth-century heyday of the miracle play, that does not mean that there was no medieval drama per se. Centuries before the cinema was but a glimmer in the eye of onlookers of daguerreotypes, the medieval theater was a highly visual medium, hosting numerous practitioners of mime, dance, and slapstick, all of them proficient in the art of gesture. Naturally, those mimes hit a roadblock or two, especially since priests and bishops were not their biggest fans.¹⁰ But, throughout classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, mime evoked far more than the annoyance associated with histrionic begging for small change in tourist spots worldwide. Instead, it was a universal language, the communicative function of which was as crucial as that of any trope.

As early as the second century b.c., the acclaimed satirist Lucian of Samosata had praised pantomime as a philosophical art to be practiced by one who was retentive of memory, gifted, intelligent, keenly inventive, and above all successful in doing the right thing at the right time (The Dance, sec. 74). And the first-century rhetor and educational theorist Quintilian just as pointedly categorized gesture as body language:

[T]he hands may almost be said to speak. Do we not use them to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion or fear, question or deny? Do we not employ them to indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation, confession, penitence, measure, quantity, number and time? Have they not power to excite and prohibit, to express approval, wonder or shame? Do they not take the place of adverbs and pronouns when we point at places and things? In fact, though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the universal language of the hands. (Institutio oratoria 11.3.86–87; my emphasis)¹¹

Even though the medieval farce did not exactly keep its hands to itself, its actors did all the things above; gesture is not limited to giving someone the finger. It was a good thing, a system of communication, a literal sign language unquestionably deserving of respect and without which farce texts, translations, or performances are incomplete. We needn’t have waited for Marcel Marceau’s virtuosity, Barry Unsworth’s exquisite Morality Play, or FOX Broadcasting’s physiognomic detective drama Lie to Me to comprehend that.

And yet, here is what Allardyce Nicoll had to say in 1949 in World Drama: "If there is any dramatic continuity between the world of the Greek and Roman temples and the world dominated by the fantastic imagination of the Gothic cathedral we must look for it in the pitiful and despised gesturings of the mimes" (99; my emphasis). How times have changed! So much so that actors and directors who are reading this collection with a view toward enactment do far better to turn to Jelle Koopmans, André Tissier, or Jessica Milner Davis. Koopmans fancies that the plays of the marvelous Recueil Cohen are less literary and all the more visual (introd.); and Tissier finds that, in farce, the text seems only a support; and what one could easily read inside of a half an hour might well justify a performance of one hour—not because of any notable scenic complexity but because of how much room is left for pantomime (RF, 1: 43).¹² And their views are consistent with Davis’s clarification that, paradoxically, the crudest of all comic forms is a demanding, even a challenging style for dramatist and actor alike, all of it raising serious issues for anyone brave enough to cast a farce: From the correct reception of custard pies to the precise machinery of a complex display of fireworks . . . it is the physical skills of the actor, and the corresponding visual imagination of the dramatist, which are at a premium. Verbal and literary artifice is simply overwhelmed by physical action in farce (Farce, 17).¹³

I submit that the farce has been done a great disservice by a kind of prejudice against physical comedy, which is not unlike the prejudices faced by contemporary scholars who study the musical theater. (By the way, the French are not similarly prejudiced against physical comedy and slapstick. Witness all those bemused Americans who can’t figure out why Jerry Lewis is still so popular over there.) Nicoll was right, but for the wrong reasons. Mime is precisely where we must look for dramatic continuity, and not because it’s pitiful. Nor is the Church the only place to look for it.

In medieval France, it so happens that another strand of theatrical activity, another pervasive, spectacular ritual was equally influential (and perhaps many others besides, as yet undiscovered). It was the law, as exemplified by that most cathartic of denouements, trial and punishment (ROMD, 1–12): the law as practiced by those famous legal apprentices and theatrical fools, the Basochiens.

One of the most striking features of medieval French farce is its preponderance of legalistic scenes, whether these unfold in an official courtroom or in a domestic space in which husbands and wives negotiate and renegotiate their marital contracts. In contrast to its cousins across the English Channel, the French corpus is maniacally—and manically—juridical: full of noisy bodies and bodies of law. (Note that, to this day, the French expression chercher des noises—literally to seek noise—means to instigate legal proceedings). Lawyers are everywhere. They are onstage and behind the scenes, litigating their proverbial asses off, such that one senses a literal incarnation of another popular expression: "that trial is a farce!"

Why is that?

Theater historians have barely scratched the surface of the meaning and import of this noticeable difference between French and English drama of the Middle Ages. But one important lead is the prominence of royal court culture in England, as compared to the Basoche in France or to the learned and equally civic-minded rhetoricians or Rederijkers from the Low Countries.¹⁴ My point is that the law is more than a recurring theme: it is a genuine dramatic structure that owes its prevalence to the theatrical leadership of the Basochiens. In one of the earliest scholarly assessments of the Basoche (1856), Adolphe Fabre honorifically dubbed that organization the vulgar cradle in which comedy begins to utter its first whimpers.¹⁵ That was no mere poetic turn of phrase. Nor, in my opinion, is it mere coincidence that, in her astute volume in the Critical Idiom series, Davis devotes more time to the medieval French farce than to almost anything else in her first chapter on genre (Farce, 6–14).

In 1941, Howard Graham Harvey authored the finest introduction in any language to the Theatre of the Basoche. That society was founded in 1303 and flourished in France between 1450 and 1550, at one time, boasting as many as ten thousand members apprenticing their future legal trade (TB, 17n). As they trained to practice in Parliament, the Basochiens played their civic roles as interns of sorts under the watchful eye of prosecutors and notaries; and, from what we know, they were chatty fellows. Theory has it that their very name derived from the Greek basochein, denoting loquacity but also histrionics, theatricality, and playfulness (ROMD, 130–31). The barristers-to-be learned their profession by adjudicating minor court cases that are roughly analogous to our contemporary small claims; and, frivolous though such proceedings have appeared, they are certainly no more so than the countless civil actions that flood the American legal system on a daily basis. (Sometimes, it feels like an hourly basis.) These were the tort cases of such minor person-ages as tailors, bakers, linen suppliers, barkeeps, and deadbeat students. Add cobblers to the mix—the lowest of the low on what emerges as a veritable hierarchy of footwear specialists¹⁶—and we have the dramatis personae of any farce (below, § Question of Genre). That realization, it seems, was not lost on the Basochiens.

When the Basochiens sallied forth to play at litigation, they drew on all the thespian talent that they could muster. Forerunners they were of today’s most effective litigators along with their televised descendants, as seen in umpteen courtroom dramas from Perry Mason to the People’s Court to Judge Judy to truTV (formerly Court TV network). The Basochiens came together officially twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, with one of those sessions apparently reserved for fictional cases (causes fictives or causes grasses), a tradition as old as the mock encomium of Greco-Roman antiquity and as new as the moot courts that spring up in law schools nationwide (to say nothing of rowdy, tension-releasing, end-of-the-year revues). Inside the Palais de Justice, the novice lawyers performed their playful pieces for one another

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