Peter Dronke (ed. and trans.) Nine Medieval Latin Plays
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Medieval Classics 1), 1994.
Reviewed by James Whitta
Dept. of Comparative Literature
Providence, RI 02912
In 1994 Cambridge University Press launched a timely and ambitious project, the Cambridge Medieval Classics series, with the publication of Peter Dronke's Nine Medieval Latin Plays. The series (now sadly discontinued) attempted to make available to a wide readership a variety of medieval literary documents, each volume newly edited in its original language and in a modern English translation by a specialist, with careful textual commentary and introductions. Given his breadth of vision and literary eclecticism, Peter Dronke was the perfect person to inaugurate this series. It was with great anticipation that I turned to Dronke's book, and I was not disappointed.
The book is divided into three main sections: an introduction providing an overview of scholarly work on Latin drama to date and a general discussion of the historical context and condition of each manuscript; next, the texts and commentaries of four eleventh-century plays (Sponsus; Officium stelle; Tres filie; Tres clerici); and a third section containing the texts and commentaries of five twelfth-century plays (Verses pascales de tres Maries; Versus de pelegrino; Danielis ludus; Ordo Virtutum; Ludus de passione). Each play-text is framed by an introduction and a series of explanatory notes. Included are four photographs of the manuscripts of Verses pascales, 1-32 and 32-97, and Ordo Virtutum, 1-66 and 67-144, which illustrate the condition and musical notation of these two play-texts. Since all nine Latin plays were written with musical notation, Dronke includes a discussion of the music when possible. The introduction to each play contains an examination of its prosody, its "style, meaning and structure," and the state of the manuscript(s). One limitation to the volume is its lack of a concluding index.
Dronke claims in his introduction that his purpose in undertaking the volume was "to make accessible nine of the most imaginative medieval Latin religious plays composed in the eleventh century and the twelfth" (xv), claiming that "c.1050 to c.1180 [is] the period of [the] finest flowering" of Latin drama (xvii). His selection is indeed imaginative and wide-ranging, and presents to "those who read medieval literature, for love or scholarship or both" (xv) a rich assortment of important plays in fresh and superbly edited original and translated versions. He has revisited all of the relevant manuscripts of the play-texts, and has freshly edited them in the light of current scholarship, producing very accessible and readable versions with useful notes, including rationales for his editorial decisions, especially in places where he has disagreed with previous editors or offered a first edited version.
Dronke begins his introduction by positioning himself vis-à-vis two giants of medieval dramatic scholarship: Karl Young (The Drama of the Medieval Church, Oxford, 1933, 2 vols.) and Edward de Coussemaker (Drames liturgiques du moyen âge, Paris, 1860). The current volume, Dronke claims, will offer carefully edited texts in which the musical score is considered alongside its verbal text (pace Young, who ommitted discussion of the musical notation, which even a cursory glance at the ms. photographs in Dronke's volume reveals was an inherent part of the compositional and visual organization of the plays) and will offer translations of every text, with the correction of cruces when they occur and a rationale (pace Coussemaker, who both failed to translate his texts, and "when they [were] incomprehensible . . . neither emended nor discussed [them]") (xvi).
Dronke especially disputes the "evolutionary model" of Young's work, which controlled scholarly debate until O. B. Hardison offered a challenge in his Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1965). Dronke refers to the tendency of pre-Hardison scholars to consider medieval drama in the vernacular a descendant of liturgical texts, particularly Latin tropes sung in the context of the Divine Office at Eastertide. This view had it that medieval Latin drama evolved from the Quem quaeritis trope (Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? -- "Whom do you seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?") sung as the Introit to Easter Mass (or after the third lesson of the Matins of Easter morning), with a response in the voices of the three Marys: "We seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified" (Iesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae). According to Young's evolutionary model, Latin drama evolved from these "primitive" dialogic utterances to more organically integrated, plot-driven scripts. As a result of his methodology, Young misdated many of his play-texts: simpler plays were dated earlier, even if they appeared in manuscripts postdating those containing more complex plays. Dronke seeks to redate and reposition many of these plays.
He also mends the gaps in Young's collection. Most glaring for Dronke is the absence in Young of Hildegard of Bingen's remarkable allegorical play, Ordo Virtutum -- a play which has been performed frequently in all its synaesthetic glory during this nine-hundredth anniversary year of Hildegard's birth. The consequence of an omission of Hildegard, Dronke states, is that Young "[ignored] the presence and functions of allegory in plays that he did edit" (xvi). Dronke's volume magnificently makes up for this defect with a fresh and carefully annotated version of the Ordo, with the added benefit of photographs of four folio pages of the Weisbaden manuscript of the play. Finally, advanced techniques of manuscript study since Young's time (the use of ultraviolet light) have allowed Dronke to edit here complete versions for the first time of three of the nine plays: the Freisling Officium Stelle, and the companion plays from Hildesheim, Tres filie and Tres clerici (xvi).
Dronke's scholarship has always been ecphrastic in the best sense of the term: he has been a consummate painter with words, describing in historically contingent terms and almost empathically the meanings implicit in the literature under his gaze. He has always tried to reimagine original settings for his object(s) of study by marshalling the available evidence, carefully analyzing its "coloristic" properties, and recomposing a vivid and phenomenologically lucid image. One learns in reading Dronke about a range of imagined realities -- phoenixes rising from the ashes of texts inscrutable to less sympathetic eyes. In concluding his introductory essay, Dronke confronts the still-debated question of the "origins" of Latin drama with a superbly ecphrastic reading of the evidence. He pulls together strains of "popular-apocryphal traditions," hagiography and classicizing references to Latin poets found in the texts, in a careful demonstration of literary archaeology. He goes on, though, to cede the palm of interpretive meaning to an authorial "creative imagination." He then develops readings of several plays for which the reader has been primed with careful delineation of the textual and contextual evidence, often from a comparative point of view. A prime example of this is Dronke's discussion of the frightful theodicy at the end of the late eleventh-century Sponsus, in which pity for its "Foolish Virgins" is annihilated; Dronke supports his reading here by introducing parallel texts, most notably Notker Balbulus's superb ninth-century sequence, Quid tu, virgo, in which Rachel's lamentation for her martyred child finds no poetic resolution or comfort in the text. Likewise, Dronke credits the "virtuoso" technique of the playwright of the twelfth-century companion plays,"Versus paschales de tres Maries" and "Versus de pelegrino," with the introduction of lyrical dialogues between Mary and the angel in the first play and Mary Magdalen and the gardener in the second. Both texts, though illustrating liturgical contexts (the Quem quaeritis trope appears at the end of the first play and a liturgical doxology concludes the second play), have little to do with liturgical rhetoric (the second play lyrically depicts Mary Magdalen's search for the body of Christ, missing from its tomb on Easter morning, in terms of the bridal lover's search for her beloved in the Song of Songs -- her anguish is most apparent in her dialogue with the gardener, and the Song beautifully allows this emotional register to surface). In several of the plays-texts, Dronke sensitively discusses the incorporation of vernacular languages in terms of authorial imagination also: Provençal in the Sponsus from Limoges (c.1060-90), French in the Ludus Danielis from Beauvais (c.1140), German in the Ludus de passione from the Carmina Burana (c.1180), even the nonsense syllables the devil squawks in Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum (c.1150).
In short, Dronke is both philologist and critic; Nine Medieval Latin Plays combines Quellenforschung with a sympathy for recreating the imagined space left empty by textual lacunae and a dearth of historical evidence for the origins and actual performances of the plays. At the end of his introduction, Dronke exhorts scholars to an all-encompassing project of reediting the manuscripts of every extant Latin play-text:
. . . in the longer term, a wholly new corpus of medieval Latin drama is needed, with all the plays freshly edited from the manuscripts, ordered as accurately as possible by time and place, with philologically sound texts and translations that genuinely confront the problems of meaning, along with textual and explanatory notes setting out the difficulties that remain. Wherever the music survives in legible form, this should be edited with the text, in an edition as scholarly as that devoted to the words (xvi-xvii).
Although he steps back from "[laying] claim to initiating such a corpus" with Nine Medieval Latin Plays, Peter Dronke has certainly done so here, performing an invaluable service for students of Latin drama with his cogent, compact, accessible volume.
Dept. of Comparative Literature
Providence, RI 02912