A response to: Alexandra Johnston. Review of Thomas Meacham, The Performance Tradition of the Medieval English University: The Works of Thomas Chaundler. Speculum 97/2 (2022): 541–43; doi: 10.1086/719138.

A response to: Alexandra Johnston. Review of Thomas Meacham, The Performance Tradition of the Medieval English University: The Works of Thomas Chaundler. Speculum 97/2 (2022): 541–43; doi: 10.1086/719138.

Author’s Response (Thomas Meacham, Lake Superior State University)

Alexandra Johnston has chosen to frame much of her review and discussion of my book as it relates to (or, in some cases, challenges the editorial practices of) the Records of Early English Drama (REED), for which she serves as founder and senior consultant, rather than to provide an unbiased appraisal or accurate representation of its contents. The problem with accuracy begins in the first sentence of her review in which she misquotes the central theory of my book calling it “performance ideations” rather than “performative ideations,” an error she repeats two more times. I am grateful to the staff of Speculum, who has corrected these errors in the electronic version. These errors are not merely typographical, but indicative of Johnston’s omission and/or misrepresentation of its theoretical underpinnings, by which fails to position my book within the larger field of medieval performance.

To be clear, REED is a valuable project and resource for students and scholars alike.  I do not wish to disparage REED, which is, incidentally, only mentioned on four pages of my book (endnotes notwithstanding). However, REED’s editorial practices and its focus on “drama” precludes it from exploring, for instance, the many ways performance found expression in the medieval universities.  The field called medieval drama as recently as the 1980s has developed into a much broader field called medieval performance. Both the term “performative” and the inclusion of a range of styles of performance in my book indicate its participation in the current definition of the field.

Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as my book demonstrates, students and masters wrote and performed debate dialogues, lyrical dialogues, flytings, letters, disputations, and commendatio speeches. These non-traditional performance texts were a part of the pedagogical, ceremonial, devotional, and recreative life of medieval English university students for more than a hundred years before the Tudor period. These kinds of performance texts have been overlooked, in part, due to narrow definitions of “dramatic activity,” which do not consider the range of texts that were performed at the medieval university.

I never claim, as Johnston suggests, that “all the verbal celebrations, debates, and letters discussed in the four chapters of the book (that are of uncertain date) can be as early as the composition of the Planctus Universitatis Oxoniensis.” A significant portion of the evidence dates from the fifteenth century as illustrated in my table, Performative Oxford Letters and Related Material, found in Appendix 5 of my book (unacknowledged by Johnston).  The dating of manuscripts as part of my investigation is generally quite conservative. When required, I provide a more detailed codicological discussion as in the case of All Souls College MS 182, which comprises Appendix 3 (also unacknowledged by Johnston).

Johnston also claims that I am incorrect for suggesting REED does not seem to acknowledge evidence of English university drama before the Tudor period.  This again represents the limitations (and biases) of narrowly defining dramatic activity.  Even though the REED volumes (i.e., Cambridge and Oxford) mention the existence of “ceremonial customs” in the fifteenth century such as disguisings and the Boy Bishop, they do not view these and other such performance practices as constitutive of “drama.” It is for this reason that the editor of the Cambridge REED volume Alan Nelson states without qualification that “university drama in England is essentially a post-medieval phenomenon.”[i] This restricted view of what may be considered “drama” or “dramatic activity” is witnessed in his editorial practices. [ii] Nelson states in the Cambridge REED Editorial Procedures, for instance, that he intentionally does not include disputation and commencement exercises even though, as he acknowledges, they were “frequently treated as entertainment for the benefit of visiting dignitaries.”[iii] The reason for their omission is that they do not seem to resemble “drama” in the traditional sense. As Nelson states, “all such ceremonies have been excluded except when drama or secular music was directly involved.”[iv]

My research began with an investigation into the performance potential of Thomas Chaundler’s neglected play, Liber apologeticus de omni statu humanae naturae (a defense of human nature in every state), and concomitant works.  For many scholars, Liber apologeticus does not seem to be “inherently dramatic” or have the potential to be performed that would qualify the play as a legitimate work of drama. With its long speeches, glossed margins, and unusual structure, the play is most often viewed as a “closet drama” (i.e., something to be read and not performed) without cultural relevance. Although Johnston states in her review, “I believe that, of all the separate entries in Trinity College MS R.14.5, the Liber apologetics [sic] is a play and was performed although we don’t know where or when,” the Oxford REED volume clearly indicates otherwise.  Liber apologeticus appears only once in the Oxford REED volume, under Appendix 6.3 “Plays Written at Oxford, But Probably Not Performed,” and is absent from the volume’s discussion and chronology of “Drama, Music, and Ceremonial Customs” at the colleges and university.[v]

My book focuses on the works of Thomas Chaundler, which are not from a single manuscript as Johnston’s review suggests. Chaundler gifted two manuscripts (Trinity College MS R.14.5 and New College MS 288) to his patron, Bishop Thomas Bekynton, circa 1457–61 and 1462 respectively.  The Trinity College MS contains, in addition to the play and fifteen semi-grisaille illustrations, several texts: Libellus de laudibus duarum civitatum, Wellie scilicet ac Bathonie, sediumque Episcopalium in eisdem (A little work about the praises of two cities, namely Wells and Bath, and the episcopal see), a debate dialogue concerning the relative merits of Bath and Wells; four letters from Thomas Chaundler to Thomas Bekynton; and an allegorical poem, De judico Solis in conviviis Saturni (On the Judgment of Sol at the Feasts of Saturn, ca. 1350), by Simon of Couvin about the devastating effects of the plague, beginning in the year 1345.  From the New College MS, which is completely omitted in Johnston’s review, I discuss the performative aspects of Chaundler’s Collocutiones and Allocutiones (“conversations” that discuss the virtues of William of Wykeham) as well as the four illustrations (depicting academic life in New College, Oxford, Winchester College, and Wells Cathedral, as well as a portrait of prominent Wykehamists).

Chaundler’s works Liber apologeticus, Libellus de laudibus, Collocutiones, and Allocutiones are the culmination of many different types of medieval university performance practices that have a range of recreative and didactic purposes.  When these works are viewed in tandem with other non-traditional performance texts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (e.g., debate dialogues, lyrical dialogues, flytings, letters, and commendatio speeches), a new paradigm for medieval university dramatic activity emerges. I discovered that the performance of each text is principally through the exploration of ideas and “movements of the mind” that are meant to prompt (virtuous) action and/or promote greater fraternity in the viewing audience in addition to those reading and/or performing the text. This form of mimesis, or what I refer to as “performative ideation,” is an imitation of ideas through performance that can effectuate changes in behavior by appealing to the emotions that these ideas evoke.

Johnston gives an inadequate chapter summary. She states, “The book has four chapters. The first and second are largely about the Liber apologeticus” without any further details about the first two. When summarizing chapter three, Johnston frames the chapter as a broad discussion of the debate tradition, then dismisses the performance potential of these debates and omits the text which is the focus of the chapter, Libellus de laudibus, entirely. Likewise, when discussing chapter four, Johnston does not mention that I am offering new evidence about the medieval Christmas King tradition, the performance of letters, and their important relationship to the works of Thomas Chaundler.

The following chapter descriptions from pages 4–6 of my book provide a comprehensive overview:

In chapter 1, I compare some of the dramaturgical tactics used in Planctus Universitatis Oxoniensis to those of Liber apologeticus. In particular, I discuss the ways in which the play engages the audience through scholastic pedagogical practices and moves them through the performance of affective lamentation. This is a form of performative ideation in which audience members experience the epistemologies of dangerous lay activities (such as prostitution and excessive drinking) in addition to the consequences of an untamed “freedom of will,” so that they might imitate the kinds of shared, fraternal virtues that are necessary to uphold the moral integrity of the clerical identity. Additionally, I show that Chaundler envisioned this as part of a new Wykehamist ideal to replenish the numbers of the “clerical army” at a time when there was a laicization of university careers.

In chapter 2, I explore how Liber apologeticus could have been used by Bekynton (and potential readers) as a performative devotional text. The play incorporates, for instance, liturgical passages from the Office of the Dead and provides a ductus or path for contemplation. As part of the Office’s liturgy, Job makes a spiritual journey from despair and anger to hope and redemption. This part was performed by the celebrant “in character” or non in propria persona and became the voice of the one dying or already dead (and in purgatory). Yet such performative enactments of Job were not limited to priests but could be performed (as part of the lay Book of Hours) by anyone. Chaundler incorporates this transformational journey of Job into the trials of the play’s protagonist, Man, and the potential readers (in addition to Bekynton) are invited to participate in this journey. In this form of performative ideation, the performer’s ontology is transformed “by means of performance,” as he (or she) considers the implications of his or her mortality. The illustrations and poem by Simon of Couvin also provide a unique kind of ductus for the contemplation of death and their performative readings are likewise considered.

In chapter 3, I examine the performance of the Libellus de laudibus that has been erroneously viewed as a protohumanist debate dialogue. Instead, I argue that the Libellus de laudibus should be considered a medieval altercatio with pedagogical and performative antecedents dating back to the Carolingian period. Chaundler uses humanist texts in the Libellus de laudibus as an idiom for civic contention that is deprivileged through medieval use of invective and sacred authorities. These important medieval traditions and/or antecedents are disavowed, however, when the Libellus de laudibus is viewed only in terms of its contributions to the studia humanitatis or “new learning.”

In chapter 4, I provide new evidence about the medieval Christmas King tradition at Oxford that influenced the composition of Liber apologeticus, Libellus de laudibus, Collocutiones, and Allocutiones. These dialogic, epideictic, and epistolary forms of entertainment were presented on behalf of the Christmas King to provide “honest solace” for the students while they were resident during the long Christmas vacation. Students were able to examine and critique the ideas and operations of “good governance” by inhabiting royal and ecclesiastical personas that were conceptually constituted, through performative ideation, in relation to a presumptive clerical or monastic identity. In addition, I show how the study and application of the ars dictaminis (art of letter and prose composition) tradition might offer an important medieval pedagogical link to both the Christmas King tradition and the texts of the Chaundler MSS.

Ultimately, I argue that Chaundler’s works, Liber apologeticus, Libellus de laudibus, Collocutiones, and Allocutiones, are the culmination of, and not a departure from, a rather substantial medieval tradition of ecclesiastical and pedagogical practices and aesthetics. Through the performance of these practices, academic and ecclesiastical identities are formed and transformed.

[i] Alan Nelson, “The Universities,” in Contexts for Early English Drama, ed. Marianne Briscoe and John Coldewey (Indianapolis, 1989), 137.

[ii] Regarding REED’s methodology, see Theresa Coletti, “Reading REED: History and the Records of Early English Drama,” in Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 13801530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley, 1990), 248–84.

[iii] Alan Nelson, ed., Records of Early English Drama: Cambridge, 2 vols. (Toronto, 1989), 2:810.

[iv] Ibid., 811.

[v] John R. Elliott Jr. et al., eds., Records of Early English Drama: Oxford, 2 vols. (Toronto and London, 2004), 2:837 and 602–25.

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