COMEDY OF PRAYER: THE REDEMPTION OF TERENCE
THROUGH CHRISTIAN APPROPRIATION
ike the Empire in which it took shape, Roman Christianity was an assimilatory institution, subsuming what it could not subdue. In Patristic writings one witnesses the synthesis of the Hebraic tradition and the Hellenistic culture which Rome had adopted in previous centuries. The Church Fathers experienced the ambivalence which accompanied its birth process. The founders of Roman Christianity, while anxious to emulate the apostolic renunciation of the world, recognized that certain of its elementary traditions were not to be done away with in their entirety. The literary tradition, for example, was acknowledged as a necessity as it fostered an appreciation for the power of the word, the medium of Scripture.
The dramatic arts and the theatre were products of this literary tradition, but were viewed with contempt by the Christian Fathers. The drama, they held, popularized ill-conceived, pagan ideas, and the theatre provided the venue for their propagation. The theatre was, in their eyes, the illegitimate offspring of the revered literary art and, as such, was abandoned by the early Roman Christians. The performance was formally proscribed by the Emperor Justinian, who himself married a circus performer, the Empress Theodora. The case against the classical dramatists and secular literature in general is succintly stated in Saint Augustine's Confessions. Augustine, himself a product of the Roman education system, criticizes this system's use of pagan drama as a pedagogical implement. He states:
This is the school where men are made masters of words. This is where they learn the art of persuasion, so necessary in business and debate' as much as to say that, but for a certain passage in Terence, we should never have heard of words like 'shower,' 'golden,' 'lap,' 'deception,' 'sky,' and the other words which occur in the same scene.1 The scene to which Augustine refers is Act III, Scene V of Terence's The Eunuch. Augustine provides a brief summary of the scene in which Chaerea justifies his rapacious intent toward a long abandoned virgin girl. Augustine then continues:
These words are certainly not learnt any more easily by reason of the filthy moral, but filth is committed with greater confidence as a result of learning the words. I have nothing against the words themselves. They are like choice and costly glasses, but they contain the wine of error which had already gone to the heads of the teachers who poured it for us to drink [I.16].The aim of Augustine's commentary is, of course, not to indict literacy but the use of pagan dramas as a means by which to teach the subtleties of the Latin language. Later in his Confessions, however, Augustine admits that he himself found the Scriptures to be "unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero" [III.5].
Augustine's sentiments were neither novel nor unique, nor were they ever decisively eradicated from Christianity. The task of the Christian author and scholar was not to purge the culture of the works of the classical playwrights. Christian scholars had a reverence for their learned precursors. Reluctant to dispose of the "choice and costly glasses" which were the literary legacy created by the likes of Terence, the Christian authors filled these vessels with a new wine, the wine of redemption. Terence's comedies, by virtue of their structure (and the social criticism and fatalism they conveyed) were particularly well suited to receiving of this Christian libation.
Terence was not completely popular among his contemporaries. His reliance upon and adaptations of the works of Menander and Apollodorus exposed him to the criticism and abuse of at least one "malevolent old playwright."2 In terms of themes and characters, Terence was not an innovator. Like his models and his contemporaries, Terence wrote comedies in which stock characters became embroiled in awkward social situations. The trials of domesticity were the basis of his comic plot. Terence's Comedies, in short, were not distinctive or original in their substance: the style in which the playwright constructed his plays is that which set him apart from other Roman comedians and which earned him the esteem of his Christian imitators.
Menandrean comedies provided Terence with the templates for what Terence calls the "double plot."3 Terence constructed his double plot through mimesis and mixture of Menandrean works and was criticized for doing so. In his prologue to The Lady of Andros, Terence asks that his audience "note the fault which is imputed to him."4 He continues:
Menander was the author of The Lady of Andros and of The Lady of Peninthus. Know one play and you'll know both. They are not very different in the plot, but there is a difference in the sentiment and the style. Anything that he found suitable in the latter he owns that he has transferred it to the former, making free use of it. For doing this his critics assail him and maintain that two plays ought not thus to be combined into one. Does not this use of their critical faculty show that they are no critics? In censuring the present playwright they censure Naevius, Plautus and Ennius, on whose authority the dramatist may rely, and whose freedom he is far more earnest to imitate than the murky accuracy of his critics.Terence would have us believe, then, that he was not the only playwright who combined elements from various sources. Terence engaged in this practice to an end, that being the fabrication of the duplex plot. While the practice may have been common among Roman playwrights, its product was not. According to Sander M. Goldberg, "the Roman comic tradition took a different tack" than had the Greek, with regard to plot development and it was Terence who "put plot back on the track."5
When Terence enriches stage action through that process of borrowing we call contaminatio, the additions contribute in the Menandrean fashion to the play's significance either by developing its theme (Eunuchus) or by revealing an important dimension of its characters.6Terence is distinguished from his peers not because he created the structure of the duplex plot, but because he was responsible for its subsumption into the Roman comic and, subsequently, Roman Christian literary tradition. The Terentian comedy is a critique of Roman culture in the guise of the palliata. Terence's cast of characters is the playwright's model of society, his comic lot, his model of the universe. Through his works, Terence indicts patriarchy, slavery, promiscuity, rape, sexual and class inequality, the practice of child abandonment, and the society which sanctioned them. Unlike the farcical works of Plautus, the Terentian comedy does not derive its humor from a blithe treatment of its themes. The immoderate behavior of Terence's stock characters is a device employed not to depict the irrationality of individuals, but to betray the absurd frailty of the human condition and to demonstrate the way in which cultural constructs exploit this frailty. Terence's characters have an abundance of morals and a complete lack of ethics. This lack of ethics necessitates the peripatetic resolution of the Terentian comic crisis: unable to disabuse themselves of the conventions by which they had hoped to control their world, Terence's characters must rely upon the skills of the Fates to disentangle them from the complexities of their self-created snares.
Ruse and recognition provide the infrastructure of the Terentian duplex plot. Terence's main characters, in their attempt to escape the constraints and duties dictated by tradition, make use of disguise and the elaborate schemes devised for them by their slaves. Ruse is employed to no avail, and is, in fact, that which leads to the comic crisis. The underlying message seems to be that the more one tries to escape conventional Roman morality, the more quickly one becomes enmeshed in its ligature. In each play it is the chance revelation of a minor character's true identity which allows for social complicity without discomfort. Resolution of the comic crisis occurs through the fortuitious turn of events and recognition is the axis upon which the wheel of fortune revolves.
In spite of the "malignant rumours, by which he has been mangled, to the effect that he has combined many Greek plays and written few Latin ones,"7 Terence wrote six plays within six years. It is not necessary to analyze each play individually in order to explicate Terence's craft. Terence's comedies differed from those of his contemporaries, not from one another, in their structure and style: one can know one play and know the pattern of them all.8 Terence comments on the double plot in the prologue to The Self-Tormentor (Heautontimuremos). This is the one instance in which Terence indicates his own awareness of his plot's doubleness. For this reason it may be wise to consider The Self-Tormentor as the work in which this double plot is best evinced.
The Self-Tormentor's duplex plot involves two fathers (Menedemus and Chremes), their two sons (Clinia and Clitipho), and their sons' loves (Antiphila and Bacchis). Clinia is in love with Antiphila who is mistakenly believed to be a poor foreigner. The rules of class and the authority of his father prevent Clitipho from marrying his beloved. The young man laments his situation in typical adolescens fashion, and leaves home. Menedemus sentences himself to hard labor for having alienated his son.
The Roman class structure and the rules of the pater familias were traditions which developed out of a desire to maintain social order. If these structures prevented the rise of chaos within society, they did so at the expense of the personal freedom of that society's constituents. Clinia cannot choose his own mate unless he chooses to violate the authority of his father. Menedemus cannot condone Clinia's marriage to Antiphila without violating the authority of the Roman caste system.
The relationships of Chremes, Clitipho and Bacchis are the subject of the play's subplot. The father-son bond between Chremes and Clitipho, like that of Menedemus and Clinia, is strained by the son's choice of an unsuitable lover. Like most self-proclaimed wise men, Chremes is blind to his own flaws and deaf to his own advice. When Chremes discovers that his son is involved with Bacchis (a woman who is, by Clitipho's own admission, greedy, selfish and promiscuous), he reacts with the same anger for which he had admonished Menedemus. Chremes wants his son to marry a virtuous woman of his own class.
Clitipho is frustrated by his own unwise selection of a lover. He states:
I'm the most miserable dog in the world. As for Clinia here, though he has trouble enough on his own hands, still he loves a lady brought up in virtue and modesty and ignorant of the baser trade. Mine is a wild, bold creature full of fine airs and extravagant habits, all high and mighty. What's more, my gifts to her don't go beyond saying "All right," for I have scruples about owning that I haven't a penny. [II.1.225-229]The difficulties experienced by the characters of the main plot are, then, experienced by the cast of the subplot. The repetition of the first plot in the second lends an air of universality to the issues inherent to them both: the relationships between parents and children and of all members of society are created and constrained by propriety and passion.
Clinia and Clitipho, in hopes of being joined to their respective lovers, enlist the services of Chremes' slave, Syrus. Syrus devises an elaborate scheme in which Antiphila is disguised as maidservant to Bacchis and Bacchis is made out to be Clinia's woman. Numerous misunderstandings which further strain the relationships between the fathers and their sons arise from Syrus' machinations. The slave's attempt at ruse, though it fails in itself, places Antiphila in the house of Chremes and thereby affords her recognition. Antiphila's time on stage is short but her role in The Self Tormentor is by no means a minor one. It is Antiphila who serves as the link between this play's two plots. Antiphila is spoken of as a woman whose behavior is exemplary. Her personal virtue cannot, however, compensate for the ignobility into which she was supposedly born. In reality, Antiphila is an Athenian. She was not born into poverty, but abandoned to it. Antiphila is discovered to be the daughter whom Chremes had ordered to be killed at birth. Chremes' wife, Sostrata, could not bring herself to obey her husband's mandate and gave the baby to an old Corinthian woman to be exposed. The Corinthian woman raised the child. Sostrata had left one of her rings with her child. This ring is found to be the possession of Antiphila. Sostrata realizes that Antiphila must be her daughter. When Sostrata confesses to Chremes, he says:
One thing I'm certain about, whether you deny it or not, and that is that there is no meaning or sense in anything you say or do. In this one act you show countless faults. To start with, if you had been ready to carry out my commands, you should have made away with the child, not falsely asserted its death when in fact you gave it a chance of living. But I leave that point: 'Compassion,' you say, 'a mother's affection." I admit the plea. But think how finely you provided for having your wishes carried out: why, your daughter was simply abandoned to that old woman, that's as clear as daylight, and for all your doing she might have been turned on the streets or sold as a slave. I suppose your notion was 'nothing is too bad if only she can be kept alive.' How can one deal with people who know nothing of justice, reason, right? Better or worse, helpful or hurtful - they have no eye for anything but their own caprice. [IV.i.632-644]Through Chremes' speech Terence implicates not Sostrata, but a society which through its standards and laws not only permitted, but sometimes demanded and always regulated, the killing, exposure and sale of children. Chremes was, under Roman law, entirely within his right in ordering his wife to commit infanticide. He believes that Sostrata's disobedience was motivated not by wisdom but "caprice." Throughout the play, Chremes is the parent given to emotional impulsiveness. After scolding Sostrata thoroughly, Chremes decides to reclaim Antiphila. Chremes offers no explanation for this capricious decision. He simply states:
It often happens that circumstances may forbid a man to follow his inclination. In my present situation I am eager for a daughter: at [the time of Antiphila's birth] there was nothing I desired less. (IV.i.666-667]The ironic contrasts between Chremes' lines point to the character's inner nature. Throughout the play Chremes' only claim to consistency is inconsistency.
The chance restoration of Antiphila to the natal family elevates her to the stature befitting the mate of the noble Clinia. Fortune enables Clinia to marry Antiphila and to comply with his father's wishes simultaneously. Chremes, under counsel of Menedemus, uses gentle persuasion to guide his son toward marriage.
The timely recognition of Antiphila's true identity, the result of good fortune, enables the characters in The Self Tormentor to live in happy complicity with social norms. However, as Boethius would later write, "good fortune deceives, bad fortune enlightens."9 Because they are rescued by good fortune, Terence's characters are never forced to examine the source of their distress, this source being the culture which dictates their morality.
Terence was a playwright, not a proseletyzer. He did not attempt to expose the inherent folly of Roman social practices out of any obvious metaphysical or religious fervor, nor did he raise any cry for social change. Through implementation of the double plot, Terence demonstrates that difficulty can befall anyone at any time. He also shows that human beings are more often than not enslaved by the rules and standards through which they had hoped to be made masters. The one rule Terence holds in esteem is the Greek golden mean: ironically, this is the one rule of which Terence's characters are completely ignorant.
Under this interpretation it becomes easy to see why Terence's plays were readily adapted to the theological and pedagogical concerns of the Christian writers. It would be unwise to presume that Roman audiences or early Christians interpreted Terence's works in this way. Saint Augustine certainly felt that Terence's plays taught filthy morals. Acceptance of the preceding evaluation of Terence as the social critic is not requisite to acceptance of the following evaluation of Terence as an artistic influence. If the above analysis of the Terentian comedy is accepted, however, it becomes plain that Terence, like the Christian scholars who felt his influence, found fault with the morality of pre-Christian Rome.
Terence, "the last pioneer of the ancient stage,"10 was among the first models to whom monastic Christian writers appear to turn in the Patristic era. One such writer was Ephraem of Edessa. The effect of the classical comedian upon this fourth century writer may be glimpsed in this Desert Father's use of several Terentian devices. Ephraem adapts the double plot and employs disguise in his work The Life of St. Mary the Harlot. The Desert Father also shares Terence's esteem for the golden mean: the emotional intemperateness of his orphaned virgin heroine leads her to crisis just as it led the constellation of characters who surrounded Terence's abandoned virgo figures. Ephraem's Mary is an orphan who had been entrusted to her uncle, a devout monk. Though it is implied that Mary is physically beautiful, it is her virginity which makes her truly resplendent. Mary, we are told, did not engage in the idle pastimes enjoyed by most children. She lived in a cell, learned the Scriptures, and "would ask her uncle every day to pray to God for her, that she might be caught away from evil imaginings and the diverse traps and snares of the devil."11 At the age of twenty-seven Mary is "debauched and defiled" by a traveling monk for whom Mary's beauty had proved too great a temptation. Nothing is said regarding guilt on the part of the monk, but Ephraem writes much of the guilt experienced by the monk's victim:
Weighed down with anguish she could see no harbour wherein she might tarry and take thought: swayed to and fro on shifting tides of imagination, she wept that she was no longer what she had been, and her speech was broken with wailing. 'From this time forward,' she said, 'I feel as one that has died. I have lost my days and my travail of abstinence, and my tears and prayers and vigils are brought to nothing: I have angered my God, and have destroyed myself.'12
Mary's speech is reminiscent of that of Clinia in The Self-Tormentor (lines 256-263). Ashamed of their dealings with the opposite sex and for having forgotten the warnings of their elders, Ephraem's Mary and Terence's Clinia are given to self-deprecation. They bewail their presumed errors with great intensity. Terence's adolescens and Ephraem's virgo plunge into utter despair. Clinia's self-reprobation is halted by Syrus. Mary's shame prevents her from confessing to the only two people she knows, her foster-father, Abraham, and his friend, Ephraem.
Bereft of hope, Mary leaves home and becomes a prostitute (the fate which the exposed virgin, Antiphila, escaped in The Self-Tormentor). Abraham, after two years, is informed that his foster child is leading a wanton life. He decides to disguise himself, break his monastic seclusion and travel to a brothel to retrieve Mary.
Abraham, unlike the Terentian characters, utilizes ruse and meets with success. Abraham's true identity is revealed by choice, not chance. In the privacy of Mary's room, Abraham unmasks himself and initiates a series of recognitions. Mary first recognizes the person of her earthly foster father, then the merciful nature of the heavenly father Abraham represents. Through the ministrations of Abraham, Mary is made to see that the only sin of which she is guilty is the violence she committed against herself when she gave up hope. Abraham tells his weeping niece, "it is no new thing to fall in the mire, but it is an evil thing to lie there fallen."13 Abraham is the gentle consoler of a child who had been lost both to God and himself. Abraham's guidance and Mary's penitent acts allow for her salvation, her return to her true and eternal father. In Ephraem's story it is faith, not fortune, which facilitates anagnorisis.
Almost six centuries elapsed between the time of Ephraem's death, A.D. 373, and the time at which Hrotswitha took up her pen to "glorify . . . laudable chastity of Christian virgins" in the manner of Terence.14 Within this span of years, Roman Christianity, centered upon monstic celibacy, experienced considerable expansion and evolution. In order to appreciate the significance of Hrotswitha's work it is necessary to examine the major developments which took place in the years which separated Ephraem from Hrotswitha, but which did not separate either from Terence.
The most significant of these developments were the growth of the cult of virginity and the evolution of monasticism. In tandem these fostered the persistence of sexual mores and the social practices they necessitated (a portion of Terence's "matter"), and provided for the survival of the Roman literary tradition (of which Terence's "matter" was a portion). Saint Jerome played a formative role in the growth of the Roman Church and the dramatic social changes its doctrines induced.
Jerome, Ephraem's contemporary, was a prolific writer. His most famous contribution to Latin literature in his Vulgate Bible, the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew, the New Testament, from the Greek. If the list of his works is examined, it becomes evident that Jerome had three interests: asceticism; words; women.
Jerome had a great admiration for the monastic life. He was instrumental in the establishment of five communities of ascetics (two of these being convents) and is known to have spent five years in desert hermitage under Theodosius.15 Further evidence of Jerome's devotion to monasticism can be found in his writings, most prominently in Lives of the Hermits, A.D. 390, Books of Illustrious Men, A.D. 392, and translation of the Rule of Pachomius, A.D. 404. Under the monastic auspice, Jerome was able to engage in the professions of the scholar and the scribe.
Jerome's interactions with women are curious. He had friendships with many women ("one not being discredit enough"16). These women were widows and virgins "who were ready to embrace and follow his ascetic rule."17 The women to whom Jerome seems most indebted are Marcella and Paula. These wealthy widows financed, housed and oversaw Jerome's ascetic communities.
Because he profited so vastly from his relationships with women, it might be expected that Jerome would hold females in high regard. Jerome's prime patrons and disciples were not virgins but widows. During their lives, Marcella and Paula had each known all three degrees of chastity. Born virgins, they descended to the lowest degree of chastity in their tenure as wives. In their widowhood, however, these women were elevated to the second degree of chastity. Virginity was not, it would seem, requisite to Jerome's affections: sexual abstinence was.
It is difficult to discern Jerome's true opinion of women in general. Because his case against carnal love is so overstated it seems possible that Jerome is subliminally exorcising his own passion. His regard for marital and carnal relations is exemplified by his "Letter to Eustochium," A.D. 384. The letter's intent and tone are set early in the panegyric. Praising Eustochium, Paula's virgin daughter, for taking the veil, Jerome states:
I am writing to you, Lady Eustochium (I am bound to call my Lord's bride 'Lady'), that from the very beginning of my discourse you may learn that I do not intend today to sing the praises of the virginity which you have adopted and proved to be so good. Nor shall I now reckon up the disadvantages of marriage, such as pregnancy, a crying baby, the tortures of jealousy, the cares of household management and the cutting short by death of all its fancied blessings. Married women have their due allotted place, if they live in honourable marriage and keep their bed undefiled. My purpose in this letter is to show you that you are fleeing from Sodom and that you should take warning by Lot's wife.18The remainder of Jerome's letter states that the propriety of marriage lies in its production of virgins,19 that virginity is natural and that marriage came after the Fall.20
Should a woman marry and produce female offspring, her progeny should be educated toward the maintenance of her own virginity. Jerome's Letter to Pacatula, A.D. 413, promulgates Christian education for this purpose. He recommends that a girl be taught Holy Scripture, be segregated from the company of boys, and "be protected also from the wantonness of other girls."21 Jerome thereby advocates the lifestyle of the convent, a lifestyle typified by the Terentian virgo who "dressed like women who dress for themselves."22
Saint Benedict was also a proponent of the cloistered life. The Benedictine Rule emphasized renunciation of the world and its trappings, but did not recommend retreat into the desert. His Rule called for monasticism, not hermitage. Benedict's Rule ensconced conscription to chastity and transcription of literature as means by which to ensure one's sanctity. The Benedictine Rule did not specify which works were appropriate reading material and did not forbid the transcription of pagan works. The literary canon of the monastery and the abbey was established by their individual rulers. Thus, when the authors of antiquity enjoyed a renewed popularity in the Carolingian period, monasteries and abbeys undertook the task of copying their works. The pagan playwright who held appeal for the Christian scribe was Terence.
By the tenth century the monastic tradition had become deeply entwined in politics. Medieval nobles curried favor from the Church by donating land and establishing monasteries and abbeys. Nobles were also known to turn their children over to the clerics to procure their education and to prevent decimation of their estates though its division among too many inheritors. The devout poor and the unwed offered their children as oblates as well. Like Roman literature, Christian doctrine had much to offer by way of warning against carnal relations but made few provisions for those it produced. Infanticide was banned by Christian law. A child's illegitimacy or physical deformity (believed to have been the result of what Christians held as "unnatural" or "lustful" conception) resulted in his or her virtual abandonment to the Church. Thus the population of the tenth century cloister consisted of both rich and poor, lettered and unlettered. All oblates were considered deserving of education regardless of their sex or parentage. The religious community was, in this sense, the great equalizer for its fosterlings.
The appeal which Terence's Comediesheld for the Christian scribes is somewhat attributable to the social conditions which existed both inside and outside the monastic community. The problems and passions experienced by Terence's characters seem universal and eternal. Social and sexual inequality, lust and unplanned progeny were as much a part of life in medieval Europe as they had been in ancient Greece and Rome. The monastic tradition offered one solution for all these problems.
Whether they had chosen it or been abandoned to it, life in the cloister freed its oblates from the concerns of wealth and prestige. It also prevented them from fulfilling their "lustful" desires. For those who lived outside of it, the religious community offered safe harbor for the products of carnal passion. Young oblates who learned Latin through reading Terence could take comfort from his works: these students learned that life in the natal family was filled with pitfalls, and that the separation of children from their parents was a practice as ancient as the language in which Terence wrote. Such were conditions during the time in which Hrotswitha raised her "strong voice."23 This Saxon playwright's familiarity with Terence is the result of Gandersheim's relationships with Corbey. Gerberga, the abbess at whose request Hrotswitha wrote, was "a descendant of a powerful Saxon family with a long line of ancestors stemming from Charlemagne's court as well as from imperial monastic abbeys."24 Gerberga's brothers, Thankmar and Ekbert, were monks at Corbey, a monastery which is known to have possessed a Terence manuscript; it is plausible that Gandersheim was its borrower.25 In writing her adaptation of Ephraem's Life of St. Mary the Harlot, Hrotswitha attempts to divorce the Terentian comedic form from its themes. The Saxon playwright does not seem to be aware, however, that "a new jar keeps for a long time the taste and smell of its original contents."26 Like Ephraem before her Hrotswitha includes rape in her rendition of Abraham's story.
According to Augustine, Terence taught a "filthy moral" when he included rape in his Comedies. Surely this was not Terence's intent: neither perpetrator nor victim profits from this sexual act. Terence did not punish his rapists, but neither do Ephraem or Hrotswitha. Their monks, having forced themselves upon their virgins, are simply written out of the story. One can hardly write about virginity without reference to its counterpart, and the treasure of chastity certainly seems more precious when it is threatened by theft. As it was found in Terence's works and was elementary to the plot in Ephraem's story, Hrotswitha's artistic license permits her the reference to licentiousness.
Hrotswitha turned the prose narrative of Ephraem's Life of St. Mary the Harlot into a drama. The Terentian devices of ruse and recognition are employed by the medieval playwright in much the same fashion as they were by the Desert Father. Because Hrotswitha deliberately imitates the Roman playwright, however, Abraham bears many more Terentian hallmarks than did the story written by Ephraem.
Hrotswitha's character Abraham is patterned more on the Terentian senex iratus than he is on the monk of whom Ephraem wrote. Hrotswitha's Abraham describes his misinterpretation of his dream in a manner reminiscent of Terence's Chremes:
Chremes to Menedemus: "I deserve your ridicule. It's myself I'm enraged with now. A hundred circumstances gave me the chances of seeing . . . if I hadn't been a senseless stone! What things I saw! Curse it all!"27 Abraham to Ephraem: "If I had not been so blind! I ought to have paid more heed to that terrible vision. Yes, I see now that it was sent to warn me."28
After waiting two years to discover his niece's whereabouts, Hrotswitha's Abraham "had begun to despair" [IV]. The surrender of hope is a rash act and is the very error for which Abraham later admonishes his niece. Ephraem's Abraham, it should be noted, laments the loss of his niece more than her loss of virginity, and never contemplates the surrender of despair.
In Ephraem's work, Abraham is saddened that his niece could not bring herself to turn to him and confess her fall. In The Life of St. Mary the Harlot, Abraham consoles his niece's grief. In Hrotswitha's version, this monk contributes to it:
Oh, Mary, think what you have thrown away! Think what a reward you had earned by your fasting, and prayers, and vigils. What can they avail you now! You have hurled yourself from the heavenly heights into the depths of Hell! [VII]Hrotswitha, like Ephraem, makes use of the Terentian duplex plot. Again it is the brothel scene (VI) in which this device is employed. It is not certain that Ephraem was aware of the way in which his brothel scene resembled the duplex plot of Terence. Hrotswitha, through her use of the aside, indicates that she is self-consciously imitating this Terentian structure. While in the brothel, Abraham says: "On with the mask! Chatter, make lewd jests like an idle boy" [VI]. Abraham all but says he is acting in a play within a play.
Hrotswitha's treatment of virginity and prostitution is informed by the sentiments of Saint Jerome. Hrotswitha devotes part of her play to the explanation of the significance of her Mary's name. Abraham tells his adopted daughter: "Strive to imitate the chastity of the holy Virgin whose name you bear" [II]. (In Ephraem's version no reference is made to the sigificance of Mary's nomenclature.) In addition, Hrotswitha makes a point of indicating that Mary's prostitution led to the defilement of others: as part of her penance, Hrotswitha's virgo "prays continually for the men who through her were tempted to sin, and begs that she who was their ruin may be their salvation" [IX]. These lines evince the common medieval theme that Mary, the mother of God, was charged with the duty of rectifying the Fall initiated by Eve, the mother of men (the EVA/AVE reversal).
Hrotswitha's deflowerd virgo is the figure whose situation is central to the resolution of the duplex plot. This is the role of Terence's orphaned virgo. Like Terence before her, Hrotswitha has the virgo character play a focal but almost silent role. Mary is seldom heard from and when she is, her words bespeak the deviation from moderacy which deepens her demise.
The survival of the Terentian comic tradition is seen once again in Mary of Nijmeghan. The authorship and the date of this work are uncertain, but it is attributed to Anna Bijns who dwelt at the religious community of Maestricht in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. This Dutch play has similarities to those of Terence, Ephraem and Hrotswitha. Anna's characters are given to a capriciousness which exceeds that of Terence's characters. Like Ephraem, Anna writes of her heroine as though she is an historical figure. In her use of the dramatic genre as a means by which to express her own concerns, Anna imitates Hrotswitha. There are several respects, however, in which Mary of Nijmeghan differs from its sources even as it draws from them; this can be attributed to Anna's cultural situation.
Mary of Nijmeghan was written in that period during which the Roman Catholic Church was much criticized. Anna's play addresses the issues which were to become central during the Reformation, these being the role of literacy (were the unordained capable of managing the linguistic power inherent to Scripture?) and the role of the Pope (should the clergy and congregation be bound by papal authority and, if so, to what extent?). Anna's opinions on these matters are implicitly stated through her insertion of the Rogation Day play into her works and a cameo appearance made by the Roman pontiff; the theatre and the Pope facilitate Mary's redemption.
Like those of Terence, Anna's characters are sometimes obtuse and impulsive. Sir Gilbert is the holy priest into whose charge the orphaned Mary is given. Mary lives as her uncle's maid, not as his monastic pupil. Sir Gilbert sends Mary to Nijmeghan to buy household goods. He instructs his niece to seek shelter in the home of her aunt should night fall before she can return to Gilbert's home. Gilbert is aware that his niece is a "pretty young creature, the sort [thieves] would use filthy language to."29 In sending Mary to the home of the aunt, Gilbert inadvertently subjects Mary to the ravings of one who is "more like a mad- woman or a she-devil than a Christian" . The language of the aunt is as vulgar as the behavior in which she accuses Mary of engaging. In her rage (a state of mind instigated by her political partisanship) the aunt calls Mary a "bitch" who may play the feminine game of feigning virtue should she elect to do so. The aunt accuses Mary of drunkenness, promiscuity and incest, and she implicates the female gender when she says "we are all virgins till our bellies swell" . Sir Gilbert and the aunt express their penchant for melodrama in their respective hindsight and prescience. Having sent Mary away, Gilbert says:
How is it that I am so heavy hearted? It is a strange thing, but just as the child went off, something which I do not understand came into my mind, and I thought that some mishap would come to her or to me. I wish I had kept her at home! It is madness to allow young women or girls to walk about the countryside alone, for the world is full of crime! Gilbert is correct in his ascription of corruption to the world. His own sister is guilty of the crime of unmitigated libel. Having verbally assaulted her puzzled niece, the aunt predicts Mary's imminent demise saying: "You are bringing our whole family into disgrace. You will become a byword, you wretched creature, and I cannot bear to look at you" .
Given the "madness" of her relatives, it is not surprising that Mary herself is given to immoderate emotions. Denied lodging by her aunt, Mary retreats to the woods where she bewails her condition and "often commended herself to the devil" .
The "prince of darkness," ever ready to ensnare souls, contrives to win Mary over through employing his mastery of the seven liberal arts. Speaking "charmingly and sweetly" , the devil offers Mary peerless proficiency in languages, the quadrivium and the trivium. The only craft of which Mary is forbidden knowledge is necromancy which, through a slip of the tongue, could conjure spirits who could break Mary's neck.
The devil bans another verbal construct when he entreats Mary to change her name. As in Hrotswitha's Abraham, the significance of the heroine's sin is emphasized through reference to her virgin namesake. The devil says: "Mary is not a name I like to hear: there was once a Mary who did great harm to me and my friends, so that we have always disliked the name since then" . Mary refuses to completely forsake the name of the Virgin to whom she had always turned for consolation. The devil allows Mary to "keep the first letter, the 'M'" of her name . In so doing he unwittingly allows Mary to retain a vestige of the hope of salvation epitomized by the Mother of Christ. Mary and the devil become known as Emma and Moenen to the people of Antwerp. Unlike the fallen virgins of Ephraem and Hrotswitha, Anna's Mary does not become a prostitute. Her carnal sin is not committed with mere mortals, but with the devil himself. Emma's remuneration is not material but mental. Under Moenen's tutelage, Emma becomes a Thespian.
In a brothel in Antwerp, two drinkers entreat Emma toward a display of her skill in rhetoric, an art which Emma says "is to be esteemed above them all" as it "is a gift of the Holy Spirit" . Prior to rendering her panegyric of it, Emma says that "rhetoric must be listened to and taken in" . Anna's character, then, envisions rhetoric as a performing art and implies that its power is sacred. Thus, in the setting of the brothel, Emma praises and prefigures the use of rhetoric as a persuasive device. It is the rhetoric of the Rogation Day play which will initiate the process of anagnorisis in Mary of Nijmeghan.
Anna's use of the play within her play redeems the lost soul, Emma, and the drama, which Terence had orphaned and which Christianity had once damned. Emma views the Rogation Day play when she ends her six years' absence from Nijmeghan. Rogation Day is one of three which precede the celebration of the Ascension, Christ's return to his Father. In Anna's work, the Rogation Day play serves to glorify the mercy of God incarnate in Christ who, at the behest of the Virgin, continues to bestow salvation upon unworthy human sinners. By using the play in her work Anna demonstrates that drama (performed rhetoric) and the word have the power both to corral and corrupt souls. When they emanate from the holy and the wise, words engender the power of the Logos. When their power is abused by the wicked and the mad, words endanger their hearers.
Moenen falls prey to the power of words as Emma had fallen through profanities. Gilbert, holy priest that he is, prevents Emma's death through his "prayers to that woman in white" , the Virgin. When Mary "catches contrition"  from the Rogation Day play, Moenen attempts to murder Emma. Gilbert, standing over the broken body which he recognizes as his niece, threatens to use "eight or ten lines written on a piece of paper" to bring Moenen to harm . The devil flees, saying that the evil "are less than powerless when what [they] plan is displeasing to the Almighty Lord" . Emma is restored by words to her uncle and to the Church. The task of restoring Emma to God is one which is completed only after strenuous efforts. No priest or bishop can forgive Emma's mortal sin: this is a feat of which only the "viceregent of God" is capable.
A harsh penance is prescribed by the Pope and performed by Emma. Bound in iron rings Emma enters the convent at Maestricht where she learns that "long nights are seldom welcome to those whose hearts are oppressed with grief and heaviness" . Through dreams, Emma is informed that she has been successful in her penitence. Her bonds are stricken from her and her soul is restored to her heavenly Father.
Anna's play is not classical in structure. It defies the Aristotelian unities and is rife with asides to the extent that it caricatures Terentian comedy more than it characterizes it. Perhaps it is the abundance of its sources which prevents Mary of Nijmeghan from bearing a distinct resemblance to any one of them. To fully appreciate this play it is necessary to look forward in time, not back: its characters, plots, themes and structure will enjoy revival in Marlowe's, Goethe's and Mann's works on the figure of Doctor Faustus. For the way in which she enshrines the comedy of salvific learning, Anna Bijns is to be applauded.
Terence, Ephraem, Hrotswitha and Anna bear the same relationships to the comedy as parents did to the virginal orphans of whom these authors wrote. Born of antiquity and adopted by Christianity, the drama was a "pagan foundling baby" redeemed through the indulgences proffered by Christian foster-authors. Whatever role it played, be it to provide diversion (the occupation of the meretrix) or to inspire conversion (the occupation of the Christian virgo), the comedy was beloved of an audience which itself never escaped the paternal gaze of a wholly Roman culture.
1St. Augustine, Confessions
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 37. Henceforth, citations
will be given in the body of this essay.
2Terence, The Lady of Andros, Prologue.
5Sander M. Goldberg, Understanding Terence (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 124, 126.
8Lady of Andros, Prologue.
9Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, II.VIII.
10Goldberg, p. 153
11The Desert Fathers, trans. Helen Waddell, p. 276.
14Preface to The Plays of Hrotswitha.
15F.A. Wright, Select Letters of Saint Jerome, p. viii.
16Terence, Self-Tormentor, II.iii.235.
17Wright, p. viii.
18St. Jerome, Letter XXII, 2.
19Letter XXII, 20.
20Letter XXII. 19.
21Letter CXXVIII, 4.
23Hrotswitha, Preface, p. xxvi.
24Sister Mary Marguerite Butler, Hrotswitha: The Theatricality of her Plays, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960), p. 31.
26Horace, Epistles, I.ii.69-70: "quo semel est imbuta recens, servabit odorem/ testa diu.".
29Elizabeth Alvida Petroff, Medieval Women's Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 356.
This is a chapter from the E-Book: Latin with Laughter: Terence through Time
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