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LHMP #345 Wack 1999 Women, Work, and Plays in an English Medieval Town

Full citation: 

Wack, Mary. 1999. “Women, Work, and Plays in an English Medieval Town” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Wack, Mary. “Women, Work, and Plays in an English Medieval Town”

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This article looks at depictions of women and work in two scenes of the medieval Chester Mystery Play cycle. The plays were revised over their lifespan and these scenes were added fairly late—possibly the latter part of the 16th centuy--drawing on medieval legend rather than Biblical sources. The first of the scenes occurs in the Noah play and focuses on Noah’s wife, often played as a comic character as she first refuses to enter the Ark and then wants to divorce Noah to stay with her friends who are singing a drinking song as the waters rise. (Wack draws parallels between the scene’s “disorderly” intrusion into the structure of the play cycle with Mrs. Noah’s “disorderly disruption of divine order.”

The second scene occurs in the “harrowing of hell” play in which Christ rescues the souls trapped in hell, but in this added scene a character Mulier (Latin for “woman”), who is a brewer and tapster, is returned to hell for violations of the brewing and sales laws.

Both scenes depict tensions between social order and women’s communities, with the theme of social drinking running through them. The question is, why would such scenes be added to an existing and highly traditional text? What purpose did they serve within the 16th century context of their addition? To answer this, the article looks at women’s relationship to the production of the plays, and the model of female society (at odds with masculine authority) depicted in drinking songs.

As the various plays in the Chester cycle were performed by specific professions or guilds, changes in the plays reflected and negotiated shifts in the importance or status of various professions. At an extreme, a play might be reassigned to a different profession if the previous performers could no longer support the cost.

In contrast to the usual view of medieval drama as being a male provenance, the participation of women in producing the Chester cycle is well documented. The “wives of the town” were responsible for the Assumption play, but women were also guild members, contributing both financially (in money or kind) and in labor. There are records of women refurbishing the pageant wagons, copying the scripts, and negotiating the best seating. The participation of women in brewing crafts is well documented. But the image of women socializing with drink and song is also prominent in popular culture, with “gossips songs” being an identifiable genre. (One of which features in the Noah play.) The featured song proclaims the drinking women as forming a community in defiance of their husbands’ authority. Membership in the community might be lost if a woman failed to pay her share.

Such gatherings for ritualized social drinking were an established part of male society, reflecting strict social hierarchies in their performance. Women’s drinking communities did not have a similar official status but were a mirror, depicting a more flexible structure.

Around the time that the relevant scenes were added to the plays, Chester enacted a series of laws relating to women and the place of their work in the social structure, particular married women. Marriage affected women’s place in society, but also men’s as only married men could fully participate in civic life. One concern being addressed was the use of the same headgear by married and unmarried women, such that they couldn’t be easily distinguished by sight. A new law required that a clear distinction be made. A second law with a purported economic purpose placed restrictions on two rituals around childbirth. Childbirth itself was restricted to the presence of the mother’s immediate female relatives and the midwife, rather than being attended and celebrated by a larger community of women, with food and drink. And the “churching” ceremony when the mother returned to church after the birth was similarly restricted. While framed as reducing waste, this “privatized” the experience of birth which had previously been a communal affair that recognized and rewarded the economic importance of reproductive labor.

Another set of laws instituted during this same era standardized the price and quality of beer, and placed restrictions on its sale—including forbidding women between the age of 14 and 40 from working as tapsters (keepers of taverns), on the argument that women’s presence in taverns led to “wantonny and braules”. This was a massive change in an industry that had traditionally been very open to women (in some eras, dominated by women). Thus the moral hazard depicted by the tapster character in the Harrowing of Hell play was mirrored by a new legal hazard, especially given that the character in the play is represented by a woman. The play implicitly justified the exclusion of women from the profession as addressing sin, not as an economic power-grab by male authorities.

The rebellion of Noah’s wife speaks to the disruption of female community. After helping to build the Ark, she refuses to board it unless she can bring her “gossips”–her close female friends. She rejects Noah’s authority and even her marriage bond, telling him to leave her with her friends and get another wife. In the end she is forced on board. Left out of the Ark, the women are seen singing and drinking together as the waters rise. From one angle, the represent a female community defined by its rejection of male authority; from another angle, this specifically female group stands in for all of sinful humanity drowned in the Flood, framing sin as inherently feminine.

But even underlying the misogynistic readings of the fictional scenes, they can be seen as representing the effects of misogynistic social changes on the real women of Chester and their struggle to maintain solidarity.

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