[This chapter is the fourth of five chapters in my new book Aesthetic Contemplation: Participatory Theology in Middle English Literature. The book examines a set of Middle English works that are not usually studied together (theological prose, meditative poetry, and drama) to suggest that thinking about these works together as “contemplative” works can allow them to talk to each other in new and generative ways. In particular, I find in all of these works of all of these different forms a pronounced interest in theorizing how the literary field can be marshaled in the service of a reader or audience’s experience of likeness with God—riffing on the idea from Genesis that vir est imago Dei. Moreover, I find that these works pursue this rendering of likeness between man and God often via meditations on the difference between human temporality and divine eternity, and that this difference has consequences in how the works understand and deploy the vernacular. In this particular chapter (which is excerpted from a slightly larger version), these meditations on contemplation, form, time/eternity, and vernacularity rely heavily on the play’s awareness of the importance of sociality and collectivity in the work of spiritual devotion.] There’s Something about Mary:
Feeling God in Time, Language, and the Social World
The N-Town play cycle (c. 1468) contains a sequence of plays about Mary, all of which seem to have been composed by a single playwright. The Mary Sequence, in fact, is so coherent that, in this essay, I will treat these plays as a single work, which I will call simply the Mary. To situate the Mary in his cultural context, I will review the devotional history of the geographical area that generated it. Gail McMurray Gibsonhas demonstrated that medieval East Anglia—where the Mary is composed—is a region of unusually intense worship of the Virgin Mary.1 Gibson suggests that the focus on Mary originates in a regional interest in what she calls an “incarnational aesthetic”: a hyper-focus on representations of the mystery of the incarnation of the Word in flesh.2 So prominent, indeed, is the incarnational Marian plot within the N-Town manuscript that Martin Stevens calls it an “underplot” of the whole play cycle, a thread of narrative attention that is almost as important as the life of Jesus himself.3 In being structured this way, the N-Town cycle, Gibson asserts, is a product of this larger cultural environment, obsessed with the circumstances by which Mary becomes the vehicle for the incarnate Word.4
In a play sequence focused on Mary, one would expect that the core participatory dynamic for an audience would be to feel implicated in the events of Mary’s life by a kind of imitatio Mariae.5 But imitatio as it is usually conceived in scholarship is not the driving force of this play sequence’s theory of worship and contemplation of the divine incarnation. Imitatio, as a practice,is meant to foster a sense of familiarity and empathy with Mary in the imitant, but the Mary playdoes not sculpt an audience member’s emotions into alignment with Mary’s own per se.6 Instead, the Mary’s focus on Mary is designed to make her—borrowing language from the Cloud-author—“gropable” as a cornerstone of contemplation, and as a path toward recognizing one’s own innate likeness to God, one’s always already present ability to hold God inside oneself. The plays encourage the audience to meditate more deeply on the mystery of the incarnation, to participate in the paradoxical temporal truth that Mary makes manifest in having been the mother of God. The Mary’s representations of Mary, as we will see, deploy aesthetic devices in order to cultivate a sensory and pointedly vernacular contemplative understanding of her as the vessel that brings an eternal God into the human world of time and space. The Mary will embody the kind of “crowded now” that Carolyn Dinshaw has described, showing how an audience both can and must feel the presence of the eternal in the everyday.7
The Mary signals itself fully as a work of contemplation by introducing an emcee character named Contemplacio early on, who will shepherd the attention and understanding of the audience throughout the Mary8--through Contemplacio’s presence, the audience understands that this play is designed to foster contemplative participation in God’s mysteries.9 The fact that Contemplacio is made the expositor of the plays, that is, signals metacritically to the audience that the play is designed not just to explain but indeed to embody the work of spiritual contemplation, and that the audience, guided by Contemplacion himself, is meant to participate actively in that contemplative work.
As quickly becomes clear in the play, the true role of Contemplacio in his shepherding of his audience through the process of contemplation is to quicken the audience’s awareness of the mysteriousness of the historical act of God’s enfolding his eternal being into humanity’s time-bound existence. That awareness will not only be awakened and cultivated by Contemplacio himself, but will indeed be deepened and textured by programmatic, local formal and stylistic choices that the playwright makes in his conspicuously “contemplative” dramatic poem. In Mary, staged, physical, dramatic tropes intersect with textual, verbal, and poetic tropes to create a sensible drama of contemplation for its assembled viewers.10 In this aesthetic investigation of the compatibility of time and eternity, the Mary enables viewers to feel eternity, or at least a linguistic simulacrum of it, in themselves. In so doing, the Mary creates a linguistic mirror, in which viewers can perceive their own innate likeness to the eternal Jesus, as well as to Jesus as he was on earth—not just His participation in their humanity, but also their participation in his eternity.11 The Forms of Mary’s Temporality I: the Theatricality of Time
Contemplacio, the Expositor:
This understanding of participation is introduced and shaped by the play’s expositor figure, Contemplacio. Contemplacio appears at the very beginning of the Mary, immediately thematizing and calling specific attention to the “crowded now” of the plays, when he asks Christ to save the assembled audience, the “congregacyon,” from “perellys [perils] past, present, and future.” (MP, 2)12 No matter when in historical time humanity has sinned or will sin—be it past, present, or future—Christ can redeem all of those times of sin by virtue of his incarnation as the historical and mortal Jesus. Indeed, as the actions of the play sequences will show, he always already is redeeming humanity by that incarnation.13
When Contemplacio next addresses the audience, his attention to temporality becomes metacritical, commenting quietly on how the plays themselves might contribute to our contemplative understanding of Christ’s time-bending incarnation: Contemplacio carefully sculpts his audience’s awareness not just of how Christ can protect humanity in a transhistorical way, but of how the plays themselves can manipulate an audience’s experience of temporality locally, enabling that audience to witness the past as present, to skip over certain parts of the past, and to zero in on the parts of the past that, in the present, are of the most immediate moral value:
Sovereynes, ye han sen shewyd yow before,
Of Joachym and Anne, here botherys holy metynge.
How Our Lady was conseyvid and how she was bore,
We passe ovyr that, breffnes of tyme consyderynge;
And how Our Lady in here tendyr age and yyng
Into the temple was offryd, and so forth, proced. (MP, 254-6)
[Sovereigns, you have seen shown before of Joachim and Anne, and of their holy meeting together, how Our Lady was conceived and how she was born. We pass over that, considering the briefness of time, and proceed forth to how Our Lady in her tender and young age was offered into the temple.]
Contemplacio begins with a synoptic address, reminding the audience of “what [they] han sen shewyd” already, earlier in the play. From there, his shepherding of his audience’s attention shifts to highlight further how freely the play manipulates time. The third line of Contemplacio’s first stanza informs the audience that the plays will “pass over” how Mary was conceived and born, “breffnes of tyme consyderynge,” (MP, 257) thus demonstrating to the audience that his dramatic representation can subject time itself to condensation and exclusion. Contemplacio thus performs his ability—and the ability of the human power that he embodies, the power of contemplation itself—to contract and expand time, coursing easily and freely over history, while remaining in the present.
But in so doing, Contemplacio also implicitly articulates a theory of how and why the dramatic mode is a useful means for enacting contemplations on God’s humanity: just as Christ, by virtue of his dual nature as divine and human, can occupy all temporalities—including the present—simultaneously, so the plays, by virtue of their ability to function on both a diegetic and extradiegetic level, can occupy multiple temporalities simultaneously. Contemplacio can show us the life of Mary in history while speaking to us in the present tense of our own moment of viewership. He highlights, then, through the liminality of performance itself, how Mary herself hovers between the now of the viewer and the then of the narrated action. As Contemplacio stages his ability to manipulate time through dramatic narration, he reminds viewers that the “now” of Mary’s life is still coterminous with the “now” of the enacted plays.
Contemplacio quickly deploys a flurry of deictic language, to underscore the miraculous way in which the play can make Mary’s “here and now” contemporaneous and collocal with the “here and now” of fifteenth-century England: “As a childe of thre yere age here she xal appere/ To alle pepyl that ben here present.” (MP, 262-3) [She shall appear here as a child of three years of age to all people who are present here.] After foregrounding how he ruptures and alters the temporality of the historical past in its present theatrical re-presentation, Contemplacio enfolds that recognition—the recognition that temporality is being shaped by dramatic intervention—back on itself, insisting through his deictic language that Mary will “ben here present,” will be in the spatial (“here”) and temporal (“present”) moment of the audience members. Contemplacio, by foregrounding his dramatic power to bend and shape temporality at will, ultimately to bring distant history into the here and now, stages a tension between temporal rupture and temporal synthesis, thus urging his viewers to meditate on time’s plasticity and susceptibility to modulation—their awareness that time is not always entirely linear, laminar, or singular. Contemplacio, then, models dramatically for his audience the kinds of temporal plasticities that are involved in the divine incarnation, enabling the audience to feel through dramatic form a simulacrum of what it is to be in many times at once—that is, of what it is to occupy temporality the way that God does.
Amplifying these meditations on temporal plasticity and multiplicity, and on how dramatic staging may be the best way to realize those meditations in aesthetic form, Contemplacio next appears to remind viewers how and why the plays make the elisions and accelerations that they do in their own chronology:
“Lo, sofreynes, here ye haue seyn
In the temple of Oure Ladyes presentacyon;
She was nevyr occapyed in thynges veyn,
But evyr besy in holy ocupacyon.
And we beseche yow of youre pacyens
That we pace these materys so lythly away;
If thei xulde be do with good prevydens,
Eche on wolde suffice for an hool day.
Now xal we procede to here dissponsacyon,
Tyme sufficyth not to make pawsacyon.” (MP, 577-586)
[Lo, sovereigns, you have seen here in the temple about Our Lady’s presentation; she was never occupied in vain things, but always busy in holy occupation. And we beseech you for your patience, as we pass so lightly over these matters; if they should be done with good providence, each one would take up an entire day. Now shall we proceed to their dispensation. Time suffers us not to make a pause.]
Part of Contemplacio’s explanation for the lurching chronology of his play is purely practical. If the plays were to account for every moment in Mary’s life, they would take an unsustainably long time to be staged; for this reason, they “pace.” In its apologia for zooming past the details of Mary’s youth, the play simultaneously acknowledges its own limitations as a rendering of real historical time and reasserts its power over the audience’s experience of that time. Though time “sufficyth not to make pawsacyon,” the plays can make a virtue of necessity, using these moments of acceleration as moments of theological punctuation, in which dramatic power over time is asserted and demonstrated: the plays show themselves capable of shaping time itself to their expository needs, with Contemplacio acting as the facilitator of that temporal shaping. In effect, Contemplacio’s occupatio heightens the viewing audience’s awareness of the aesthetic meditations on time that the Mary produces and enacts. It reminds viewers, indeed, that temporality itself is part of what it under formal examination in the plays.14 Contemplacio, that is, serves a metatheatrical role that is simultaneously a theological role, noting how the performance of drama, by compressing and expanding time, can render aesthetically available the mystery of the embodied God, who embodies all-time in the here-and-now. Drama, he reminds us, can contain multitudinous temporalities. And, by participating in the spectacle, viewers, too, can contain them; thereby, viewers can feel their own likeness to God.
Critically important in how Contemplacio is able to do this simultaneous work of sensitizing viewers to time as a theme and teaching them about divine temporality is his own temporal liminality within the play. Although he does not directly participate in the diegetic action of the play, he does identify with the “we” of the players of the play as the plays progress, highlighting that he is a participant in the play’s action, or at least in collusion with their playing. In the “Presentation of Mary at the Temple,” Contemplacio says, “That holy matere we wole declare,” (MP 9, 14) thus, by the “we,” identifying himself as a player, rather than simply a witness to, the unfolding Marian drama. Toward the end of the same play, he says to the assembled audience, “And we beseche yow of youre pacyens/ That we pace these materys so lythly away…Now shal we procede to her (Mary’s) dissponsacyon…” (9, 298-299, 302), again indicating by his use of “we” that he is a player, or at least in business with the players of the play.
But, at the same time as he clearly identifies with the “we” of the players, he ruptures the boundary between the players and the audience, in order to make direct addresses and exhortations to his viewers as if he himself were among them. At the beginning of “Parliament of Heaven: Salutation and Conception,” he identifies with the audience, crying out in desperation to God,
[Come visit us in this time of need! Have compassion on your anxious creations!...
Man is covered in sin—I cry to your sight: Gracious Lord, gracious Lord, gracious Lord, come down!]
Here, Contemplacio hovers between the there and then of Biblical time and the here and now of medieval England, reminding viewers that they need God’s presence in the world—the ongoing truth of his incarnation as Christ—in this very moment, in the here and now. This hovering is literalized in the fact that, indeed, it is pursuant to Contemplacio’s begging the skies for divine intercession that the human, mortal actor playing the role of Jesus would indeed appear on stage—here and now—before the audience’s eyes. In his toggling between identifying with the “we” of the players and the “we” of the audience that is begging for God to come to them, Contemplacio forces the audience to remember that the far-distant historical life of Mary is, in fact, not distinct from but coterminous with the current day of medieval England.15 Contemplacio’s address serves to alienate the audience from the experience of history as history and instead encourages them to experience history as simply a deeper layer of the here and now.
Casting, The Puella Senex:
Deepening Contemplacio’s dramatic exploration of temporal layering and multiplicity, the Mary’snext move in establishing itself as a participatory resource for contemplating the mystical truth of God’s incarnation in time is to demonstrate how Mary’s own innate character makes her a uniquely suitable vehicle for the burden of the incarnation. Quite early on, Mary is established as a wise, old-souled little girl who encapsulates, at once, transhistorical wisdom and youthful physicality. The audience meets her at the tender age of three. Even at this young age, she seems to possess advanced spiritual awareness, and a truly astonishing level of rhetorical polish. She tells her parents,
Fadyr and modyr, if it plesynge to you be,
Ye han mad your avow, so sothly wole I,
To be Goddys wyff, I was nevyr worthy.
I am the sympelest that evyr was born of body.
I have herd yow sey, God xulde haue a modyr swete;
That I may leve to se hire, God graunt me for his mercy,
And abyl me to ley my handys vndyr hire fayr fete! (MP, 287-293)
[Father and mother, if it is pleasing to you, you have made your vow, and I will, too, truly, to be God’s wife, I was never worthy. I am the simplest that ever was born of body. I have heard you say that God should have a sweet mother; that I may live to see her, God grant me, in his mercy, and make me able to lay my hands under her fair feet!]
Mary’s meekness, her obedience, and her devoutness, joined with her self-possession and willingness to consecrate her body to God at a very young age are designed to strike the audience as unusually mature. Flagging the surprise and admiration the audience is meant to feel, Mary’s father in the story, Joachym, responds to her proclamation, “Iwys, dowtere, it is wel seyd./ Ye answere and ye were twenty yere olde!” (MP, 294-5) [Indeed, daughter, it is well said. You answer as if you were twenty years old!] Joachym’s reply models astonishment at Mary’s preternatural maturity for the audience. Programmed into the play through its diegetic characters, then, are normative responses to the miraculousness and strangeness of Mary’s situation. Those normative responses train the audience’s attention squarely on how Mary, though young, seems to violate standard understandings of wisdom as being acquired only over the course of time.
As if Joachym’s overt protestations of Mary’s unusual maturity were not enough to alert the audience to the miraculousness of Mary’s youthful wisdom, the play then takes pains to show Mary expounding upon the fifteen degrees of holiness to a priest at the nearby temple—further embodying the preternatural depth of her understanding. She goes through all fifteen of them without missing a beat, causing the priest, at the end, to echo Joachym’s previous comment: “A gracious Lord, this is a merveylous thynge/ that we se here all in syght;/ A babe of thre yer age so ynge/ To come up these greyces so vpryght.” (MP, 445-8) [Ah, gracious Lord, this is a marvelous thing that we see here all in sight, a babe of three years of age so young to come up with these graces so upright!] Joachym and the priest together cue the audience in how to understand Mary, highlighting her miraculous wisdom and maturity. The onstage actors not only sculpt the ideal affective response to Mary—wonder and amazement—but they also carefully train the audience’s attention on the specific theological aspect of Mary’s character that the play will give the most attention to: her time-bending ability to hold eternal wisdom in her timebound, mortal body.
The specific literary trope that Joachym and the priest evoke is how Mary embodies the trope of the puella senex, an old-souled and wise little girl. Through the attitudinal modeling of Joachym and the priest, the Mary makes sure the viewing audience understands her in those terms: as a “babe” who marvelously speaks the wisdom of the ages. Mary’s freighting with the puella senex trope is central to the theological ambitions of the play sequence overall and to its evolvingstrategies for staging those ambitions aesthetically. The exclamations about Mary’s freakish maturity alert the audience to the paradoxical reality of her being physically youthful while also somehow possessing knowledge and understanding that vastly outstrip one’s chronological age.
In terms of staging, the puella senex trope may have been more than a verbally represented trope: it may have involved a casting choice. We do not know who would have played the character of the three-year-old Mary, but it was likely a young child. Casting a small child in the role of Mary would further force viewers to recognize and internalize that the wisdom of Mary and her being, as it were, spiritually pre-pregnant with divine knowledge long before she is physically pregnant with Christ, is a miracle that constantly reenacts itself in the hearts and minds of faithful Christians. Any little child who was cast in the role of Mary, and who spouted the fifteen articles of faith as Mary, would have brought home for the audience the ever-present and astonishing truth of the Marian miracle.16 Analogically, this imagination and/or casting of her as a wise little girl prefigures the mystical truth that she will become pregnant with the incarnated God—that she will bodily contain Jesus. The puella senex characterization, that is, prefigures how, despite her youth, she will be able to contain within herself the transtemporal wisdom—the sapientia incarnate—of the Trinity.
Props, the Flowering Branch:
The emphasis on how Mary embodies at once youth and age—how she herself embodies the multiplicity of temporalities of newness and ancientness, youth and age, naivete and wisdom—quickly takes concrete form by the introduction of a physical prop into the action of the play. When it comes time, according to local law, for Mary to marry, her potential suitors are presented, and are requested to bring dead branches with them. Joseph brings such a branch, withered and dry like Joseph’s own old body. But, to everyone’s surprise, the prop branch bursts again into flower as he approaches Mary. On a typological level, this reflowering branch is a reference to Jacob’s blessing to Joseph at the end of Genesis, but it also serves a purpose in the play’s representation of Mary’s role in the drama of human salvation.17 Though Joseph is old, the image suggests, he will have a chance at new life through his relationship with Mary.
By extension, the reflowering stalk prop in Joseph’s hand, of course, functions as a metonym for the much larger reflowering that Mary will bring about for all humanity: she brings about the possibility of resurrection and renewal. Quite literally, she brings the possibility of bringing dead things back to life, drawing the damned up from hell, and helping souls attain their eternal place beside God, ever-living. She promises, in effect, the reversal of God’s decision, upon the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, to make man mortal, subject to linear time ending inevitably in death. The blossoming branch does not just symbolize how Joseph, though old and withered, must enter into a marriage; it also serves as an imagistic promise about the nature of his wife’s participation in human history and of her effect on the trajectory of time: she will make the dead arise again to life.18 The reflowering branch stage prop suggests that Mary can reverse the order of real, historical time by bringing Jesus into the world, that she can bring a new and ongoing life to humanity. Witnessing the dead branch burst into flower reminds the audience visually of the salvation from death for all people that Mary ushers into the world.
Staging, the Temple:
The final theatrical device that the play uses to establish Mary’s physicality as the key to the contemplative problem of time and eternity becoming miraculously interpenetrating in the incarnation is theatrical enshrinement. As Seeta Chaganti has demonstrated, the N-Town’s Assumption Play “uses staging conventions and visual gestures toward liturgical practice to present Mary as an enclosed object in a number of different ways. The stage direction ‘in templo’, for instance…dictates our initial perception of Mary as being inside an enclosed and sacred space.”19 In Chaganti’s reading, this stage direction signals that the play seeks to force viewers to be aware of Mary simultaneously as a container—of Christ—and as miraculously also an object of containment. In this container/contained dialectic, Mary takes on the status of a reliquary object.20 In this taking on of reliquary status, Mary’s body again visually enacts it simultaneous participation in a concrete moment in the past and in the ongoing veneration of the life of Christ in the present: she is figured a moveable object not only through space, but through history. Moreover, the particular stage direction that signals Mary’s enclosure within a shrine serves a secondary purpose: by signaling her as moving “in templo,” that is, “in the temple,” the play gently evokes its own overarching contemplative impetus. Contemplation, after all, derives from the word “temple”: the act of contemplation denotes a being-with the sacred and enclosed space of a temple. Thus, when Mary is enclosed “in a temple” onstage, the contemplative dynamics of the play are rendered visually and concretely, so that the witnessing audience could grasp that she is, indeed, not only the object of “contemplation” but also its subject—she is both what we are supposed to contemplate in our own practices and also a participant herself in the ongoing drama of Christ’s incarnation.
The Forms of Mary’s Temporality II: The Poetics of Time
Building on these theatrical modes of rendering Mary’s miraculous temporality, through the puella senex trope, the prop of the reborn flower, casting choices, and the situating of Mary in the temple, the Mary plays also devise powerful linguistic and poetic bulwarks for these theatrical explorations. Namely, they turn to explore poetically just how God, an eternal, timeless being, can be contained in temporality and in Mary’s body.21 They do so through a set of interrelated poetic forms: acrostics, anaphora, and linguistic code-switching. Each of these poetic forms allows the play to aestheticize the dense temporality of the incarnation, and to create a participatory enactment of it for its audience, so that they feel, through language, the compatibility of time and eternity in themselves—a linguistic mirror of the divine presence. As they do so, they will implicitly develop a theory of why and how the vernacular English language is an important tool for promoting contemplation in an audience.
MARIA: the Temporalities of Mary’s Acrostic
As Mary nears adulthood, the play presents an acrostic on Mary’s name in Latin: MARIA. This acrostic urges a participatory meditation on the nature of Christ’s paradoxical temporality—eternal, yet mortal, and therefore time-bound—in relation to Mary herself. It urges readers and viewers of the play to understand Mary’s name not just as a flat or static signifier, but as a bearer of complexly layered meaning that relates to her character’s suitedness for being the vector of the eternal God into the mortal world. It does so by elaborating each letter of her name with one of a set of five phrases, each of which contains a description of some aspect of her moral character.
“M-mayde most mercyfull and mekest in mende
A-averte of the anguysch that Adam began;
R-regina of region, reyneng withowtyn ende;
I-innocent be influens of Jesses kende;
A-aduocat most autentyk, your antecer, Anna.” (MP, 546-550)
In addition to their thematic specification her moral character as being above reproach, these five phrasal descriptors place Mary at five different historical moments: the “current” moment of her maidenhood, the historical banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, her eternal dominion over all things in heaven as its queen, her innocence at the moment of her birth that originates many generations back in her lineage, and her role as a perpetual, transtemporal “advocate” for all Christians living on earth at all times. Through this acrostic, then, “Mary” becomes at once a reified, nearly allegorical and transhistorical being and a set of particular historical instantiations. The “MARIA” acrostic thus performs, in itself, the work of exegetical reading through the strategy of performative contemplation, since the historical, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical levels of meaning are rendered available in one dramatic move. The acrostic simultaneously allows five separate significations to exist for Mary, five different modes of being and times of life that her name embodies, across the four different modes of contemplative reading. She is shown to be united, every-steady in being always “MARIA,” but multiplicitous in her temporal instantiations. The acrostic shows in linguistic and poetic form, that is, the possibility that she, though “meke” and “innocent,” can contain a wealth of meaning and power because she exists across different temporal states. In this, the acrostic pre-figures the plenitude that she will later contain when she becomes pregnant with Jesus.22
Because Mary’s acrostic determines her multiplicity-within-singleness through clausal exposition, the MARIA acrostic produces an aesthetic of multiple temporalities at the same time as it evokes them thematically. When thought of simply as “Maria,” Mary’s name seems fixed and relatively bounded, the term by which her particular personhood is signaled. But, when the play analyzes her name into a concatenation of five clauses, it reminds the audience that her name—the word itself—is not static, but that it exists in time and is thus subject to change and variation. Each clause draws out from a single letter an alliterative idea, so that the individual letter is temporally dilated, extended through time by the action of syntactic elaboration. MARIA is a rendering of “Mary” that stages—visually and syntactically as well as thematically—her temporal dilation in and across different times.
But, at the same time, because of the alliterativeness of each clause, there is a way in which the sonic and rhythmical patterning causes the ear to return repeatedly to a single sound—the m, the a, the r, the i, or the a—in each elaborated line. Thus, the MARIA acrostic allows a reader both to feel how MARIA is not a wooden, unchanging, figural name, but a real-time nexus of meanings and capacities, which are elaborated through syntax and through time while simultaneously reminding a reader sonically that, despite MARIA’s incontestable existence in time, some essential aspect of her being is steadyand invariant within the line of verse. The acrostic, that is, figures temporality through its syntactic elaboration of Mary’s name and figures self-sameness or perpetual presence through its use of alliteration. What the acrostic achieves then is a poetic meditation—a meditation in this case born of sound, rhythm, and syntax—on how variation and steadiness can coexist. The acrostic aesthetically enables contemplation on how progressive motion through time can be compatible with a self-sameness, a dwelling in the present moment. In this duality of progress or change and steadiness or sameness, the acrostic figures the paradox of Jesus’ incarnation into the body of Mary. The mystery of the incarnation of the eternal, self-same presence of God in the time-bound womb of Mary is thus analogically rendered in the acrostic of her name. The acrostic becomes a powerful instantiation of the play’s aesthetic rendering of the mystery of God’s incarnation in time.
This local poetic aestheticizing of the compatibility between time and eternity creates a linguistic simulacrum of the paradox of the incarnation in the senses of the viewers. That is, their participation in the plays’ poetic and linguistic experimentation enables them, with the English language as their mirror, to see and feel in themselves how eternity could be compressed into time, how divinity could exist in a human body. The plays’ formal meditations on eternity-in-time allow viewers to experience the miraculousness of their own eternal salvation, via the incarnation of Christ in MARIA.
This acrostic also works to aestheticize the compatibility of time and eternity by implicitly claiming the vernacular language as the language of the everyday and Latin as the eternal language of the Bible. Indeed, since the five-lettered version of Mary’s name—MARIA—is Latin, but the glosses provided on each letter are exclusively in English, the passage enacts an interlinguistic meditation on time and eternity as well. In this meditation, Latin is cast as the static, unchanging, permanent feature of the acrostic, while English is shown to be extensible into time. Latin, thus, is cast aesthetically by the play as the linguistic embodiment of eternity, while the vernacular is cast as the embodiment of time. It is through the code-switching that this acrostic subtly enacts that we begin to discern what will be a dominant contemplative aesthetic toward the end of the play, in which Latinity and vernacularity are shown at once to be different and compatible, the one embodying something divine and eternal, the other embodying something human and temporal.
By forcing readers to slow down and to process Mary’s name not as “Mary,” but instead as a massively dilated acrostic on the Latin name “Maria,” this entire scene relies upon the strategic deployment of deliberately difficult and non-standard English usage. In drawing English clauses out of the Latin spelling of Mary’s name, and in compressing so many alliterative English elements into individual lines, the passage creates a hyperornamented and knotty passage, not a clear and simple one. The passage functions, then, by challenging its audience in their facilities with the English vernacular, not by gratifying them. It engages an audience’s active participation, that is, by frustrating the audience’s ability to read easily and fluently. For the Mary playwright, juxtaposition with Latin and hyper-alliterative chains are useful in part because they make English—in all its quotidian familiarity—less familiar, less readily comprehensible, and therefore more useful as a contemplative tool.
Retroactively, this moment of frustrated linguistic fluency sheds light on an earlier and smaller-scale pun on Mary’s mother’s name. Early on, when they introduce Mary’s parents Anne and Joachym, the plays reveal that “Anne” is not simply an inert name, but that it specifically means “grace.” “Anne” becomes a signal of something about Anne’s character, a sign of who she is in her essential being, rather than an arbitrary signifier. The plays soon take the familiar nomen-est-omen logic further, developing it from a relatively straightforward etymological attribution of character into a meditative node for the viewing audience, when a pastor speaks to Anne and her husband Joachym about their infertility problem. The pastor explains that misery is often followed by the improvements of one’s fortune. As the pastor puts it, after serious adversity, “evyr grete grace growyth.” (MP, 143) On one level, of course, this is simply gnomic wisdom, to the effect that grace follows sorrow. But shimmering under the surface of the gnomic platitude is a pun. Given our knowledge, delivered earlier in the play, that Anne means grace, and that “Grace” is thus substitutable for “Anne,” the phrase “grace grows great” means not just that good things come to those who have suffered, but also, leveraging secondary vernacular meaning for the phrase “grete grace growyth,” “Anne becomes pregnant.” “Evyr gret grace growyth” refers to Anne’s becoming pregnant—her “growing great”—and to suggest that that pregnancy happens in perpetuity—“evyr,” recalling the “comfortabyll” aesthetic and lexical choices that Julian makes in her Revelations. The vernacular pun at work here is aesthetically undergirded and highlighted by the disfluent collocation of three consecutive alliterating elements—“grete”, “grace,” and “growyth”—so that the reader, upon encountering this passage, is urged to slow down and consider the secondary meanings that may be present in the text. Punning, like the MARIA acrostic, works to make English less familiar, but more powerful in embodying theological truths through the cultivation of strategically disfluent contemplative experiences. Thus, just as Nicholas Love’s Marian meditations rely on English’s “kyndeliness” to create hyperornamented and difficult passages, the Mary leverages fluency precisely to frustrate it, creating strategically disfluent situations that promote contemplative understanding. But again, unlike Love, this frustration of disfluent expectations in the play works specifically to aestheticize the mind-bending temporalities of Mary, just as do the play’s core theatrical choices.
Saluting Mary’s Temporality:
The play’s drive to demonstrate through linguistically disfluent poetic devices how Mary ontologically challenges the linear order of time changes form later in Gabriel’s salutation to her, this time with a poetic twist that emphasizes recursivity, return, and renewal even more powerfully than does the acrostic. Gabriel creates a pun on Eve’s name to stage how Mary comes to right the wrong that Eve’s sin brought into the world:
Gabriel : “Heyl, ful of grace, God is with the!
Amonge all women blyssyd art thu.
Here this name, Eva, is turned Ave,
That is to say: withowte sorwe ar ye nowe… (MP, 1280-3)
I comende me onto yow, thu trone of the Trinitye!
O, mekest mayde, now the modyr of Jhesu!
Qwen of hefne, lady of erth, and empres of helle be;
Throu your body beryth the babe oure blysse xal renew. (MP, 1396-1400)
And as I began, I ende, with an Ave new. (MP, 1402)
[Gabriel: “Hail, full of grace, God is with thee! Among all women, thou art blessed. Here, this name Eva is turned Ave, that is to say, ‘now you are without sorrow’…I commend myself to you, throne of the Trinity, oh meekest maid, now mother of Jesus! Be queen of heaven, lady of earth, and empress of hell, succor to all the sinful who will sue to you. Through your body bear the babe who shall renew our bliss…And as I began, I ende, with an Ave new.]
This trope of reversing “Eva” to produce “Ave” serves to render recursivity as a way of understanding how Mary’s pregnancy actually reverses or undoes historical time at a very large scale.23 In that sense, the passage here works in a manner analogous to the reflowering branch image during Joseph’s courting of Mary, though here it works by wordplay, rather than by material props. Here, by showing how Mary’s salutation—“ave”—is “Eva” inverted or “turned”, Gabriel poetically renders the idea that Mary turns time around, returns to the lapsarian moment and heals that breach. Capping off this theological point, Gabriel himself performs a circularity in his narrative, saying in the final line of this section, “And as I began, I ende, with an Ave new.” As he began, with “hayl,” so he ends, with “Ave.” Mary renews what Eve destroyed; the branch of humanity that Eve had made barren, Mary makes reflower.24
But there is, of course, a further disfluent slippage in Gabriel’s insistence that he ends as he had begun: “hayl” and “ave,” though they have the same meaning, are words drawn from different languages. To grasp the recursiveness of Gabriel’s utterance fully, then an audience member must mentally overlay Latin on English, first recognizing that “hayl” and “ave” mean the same thing, and are thus substitutable terms, and second recognizing that Gabriel has shifted languages from the vernacular, everyday language of English—“hayl”—to the Biblical language of God—“ave.” Thus, even though the two words mean the same thing, they dial into the Mary narrative in importantly different ways: the first renders her participation in the temporal world; the second renders her participation in the eternal world of salvation. By experiencing this bilingual aria to Mary, viewers are invited, in their own internal process of linguistic code-switching, to remember that they, too, although temporal beings, are invited into the eternal salvation of heaven, precisely because of the Virgin Mary.
Singing in Time, Singing in Eternity: the Magnificat
This tension between English and Latin then sets up the dramatic and poetic climax both of the Mary’s aesthetic contemplation of the nature of the divine incarnation into Mary’s body and thereby into time and of the play’s explorations of different ways of talking about God. These climaxes arise during her dialogue with her cousin, Elizabeth, during their pregnancies with Jesus and John, respectively. During their conversation, Mary speaks the truth of mankind’s salvation by Jesus in Latin, and Elizabeth then speaks the same narrative, but in English.25
This scene takes the vernacular as a linguistic figure for temporality: English is the language of everyday life, the day-to-day lived experiences of all the audience witnesses to the play, while Latin is the eternal language of the Church. The linguistic dialectic that the two women create demonstrates how two structures—one “eternal,” and the other “temporal”—can be compatible, equivalent, and, most important, mutually comprehensible, while also remaining ontologically distinct.26
This linguistic exchange between Mary and Elizabeth begins with Mary’s announcement that she will “begynne” a “holy psalme” (MP, 1492). She proclaims, following the words of the Magnificat:27 “Magnificat anima mea dominum/ Ex exultauit spiritus meus: in deo salutari meo.” (MP, 1493-4) To Mary’s enactment of the Latin Magnificat, Elizabeth responds first by recognizing in Mary’s switch into Latin that she is pregnant with God’s son: “Be the Holy Gost with joye Goddys son is in the cum.” (MP, 1495) That is, Mary’s switch into Latin psalm provokes Elizabeth fully to register and acknowledge the mystery of the incarnation. Once she has done so, she begins to translate Mary’s Latin into English: “That thi spirite so injouyid the helth of thi God so.” (MP, 1496) Elizabeth acts as a vernacularizing conduit for Mary’s divinely-inspired Latinity, rendering available in English what Mary sings in Latin to an English-speaking audience of the plays.
Of course, the Magnificat was one of the few Latin texts that many Latin-illiterate play-goers would have perhaps understood but at least recognized, but this does not by any means make Elizabeth’s Englishings otiose. Quite the contrary, that the intercharacter translations from English to Latin take place through a highly familiar psalm serves to draw the audience deeper into the drama—a drama now both linguistic and aesthetic. It serves to situate them within the coming cascade of code-switching, to position them, as it were, on the threshold of vernacular temporality and Latinate supratemporality. It positions them, that is, on the threshold that separates the quotidian, temporal world of Englishness from the Adamic, transhistorical world of Latinity, but that also simultaneously joins those two worlds together.28 The code-switching, then, is another means by which the plays urge viewers to understand that they, too, although bound to temporal existence, contain the seed of God’s eternal salvation within them.
But, as they continue, Elizabeth’s Englishings of Mary’s Latin prove to be more than straightforward, word-by-word translations: her English renderings add important exegetical information to Mary’s Latin utterances. When Mary says, “Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est/ Et sanctum nomen eius,” Elizabeth answers, “For grett thyngyes he made and also myghtyest/ And right holy is the name of hym in us.” (MP, 1503-4) By switching from the first person singular, “mihi,” to the plural “us,” Elizabeth performs substantial exegetical work on Mary’s pregnancy. She reminds her English-speaking audience that God, who makes great and mighty things, incarnates his name in both Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of Jesus and John, respectively. But, of course, since Elizabeth and Mary are on stage before an audience—an audience that Contemplacio has already disabused of the idea that an ineradicable ontological wall separates the viewers from the characters of the play—the “us” again functions to remind the audience that they, too, contain God’s name incarnated within them, both as the eternal Latin words of the Magnificat and as the deeply felt and quotidian English meaning of those words. Elizabeth’s switch to the English first person plural, like Contemplacio’s time-shepherding gestures, draws viewers into the action and implicating them in the mystery of divine incarnation. Through Elizabeth’s disfluent Englishings, the mysteries that seem to pertain only to Mary are made to extend, albeit in a less physical and less literal way, to all of mankind. Through the formal and linguistic structures of the acrostic, the puns, and code-switching, the Mary of the N-Town manuscript stages how it is possible for temporality to approximate and even encompass eternity, how it is possible for temporal language to encapsulate eternal truths, how—most crucially—it is possible for the Word to become flesh as the living human Jesus, and how the audience can participate in that miracle aesthetically. When we, as viewers of the Marian drama, feel the Latin Magnificat drawn into English, we feel a linguistic reflex of Jesus’ birth into time, and into the world.