The Digby Mary Magdalene Play: Introduction


Note 1. This introduction draws occasionally from my two contributions to The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, “The Digby Plays,” and “The Digby Mary Magdalene.” Where noted, it also draws from my monograph, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints.

Note 2. For a useful discussion distinguishing the northern biblical plays known as “cycles” and East Anglian dramatic forms and traditions, including the N-Town Plays, see Sugano, “Introduction,” N-Town Plays. The foundational study of late medieval East Anglian religious drama and culture is Gibson, Theater of Devotion.

Note 3. Gibson, Theater of Devotion. For a stellar illustration of the radical cultural and historical particularities of medieval performance practices, see Carol Symes’ A Common Stage, a work on the theater of medieval Arras.

Note 4. See Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 22–99 and pp. 240–60.

Note 5. Here I adapt several paragraphs from Coletti, “Social Contexts,” pp. 287–89. On East Anglian dramatic traditions, see Beadle, “Medieval Drama of East Anglia,” and “Plays and Playing at Thetford”; Wright, “Community Theatre in Late Medieval East Anglia”; and Galloway and Watson, Records of Plays and Players in Norfolk and Suffolk. For a succinct overview of the manuscript and documentary records of East Anglian dramatic traditions, see Sugano, “Introduction,” N-Town Plays.

Note 6. See, respectively, Ritchie, “Suggested Location,” p. 52; and A. Johnston, “Wisdom and the Records,” p. 94.

Note 7. Coldewey, “Chelmsford Records”; Davidson, “Middle English Saint Play,” pp. 74–75; Bennett, “Mary Magdalene of Bishop’s Lynn”; Wickham, “Staging of Saint Plays,” pp. 113–15; and Ritchie, “Suggested Location.”

Note 8. For a sample of Middle English lives of Mary Magdalene, see Middle English Legends of Women Saints, ed. Reames, pp. 51–110. Other important vitae include those of East Anglian hagiographer Osbern Bokenham (see Legendys of Hooly Wummen, pp. 136–72) and John Mirk (see Festial, pp. 203–08). For a discussion of the English narrative vitae in relation to the Digby play, see Carter, “The Digby Mary Magdalen.”

Note 9. See Gibson and Coletti, “Lynn, Walsingham, Norwich”; and Hill, Women and Religion, pp. 1–16.

Note 10. Here I can only gesture toward the vast, recent bibliography exploring medieval Mary Magdalene in continental Europe, with some consideration of resources covering expanses of geography and genre. See Haskins, Mary Magdalen; Jansen, Making of the Magdalen; Taylor, “Apostle to the Apostles”; Loewen, “Conversion of Mary Magdalene” and “Mary Magdalene Preaches through Song.” See also the various visual, verbal, and musical archives explored in essays collected by Loewen and Waugh, Mary Magdalene in Medieval Culture.

Note 11. Medieval England does not lack testimony to Mary Magdalene’s important presence in visual culture, particularly that which still survives in parish churches; see Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 50–72. But compared to that of Western Europe, the medieval English record is thin, a finding that can be explained by complex factors, including, of course, the destruction of religious art during the English Reformation. For recent studies of continental visual traditions of representing the saint, see Erhardt, “Introduction”; Morris, “German Iconography”; and other essays collected in Erhardt and Morris, Mary Magdalene: Iconographic Studies.

Note 12. The approach suggested here affirms Gibson’s characterization of late medieval East Anglia’s simultaneous cultivation of “regional consciousness and character” and a determined embrace of economic and religious resources continental in origin; Theater of Devotion, p. 22.

Note 13. Gregory the Great, “Homily 33.”

Note 14. For discussion of the many legends and texts that contribute to the making of the late medieval Magdalene, see Critical Edition of the Legend, ed. Mycoff, pp. 4–24.

Note 15.Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, p. xl. The EETS editors Baker, Murphy, and Hall note the distance between the approximate date of the play’s language (late fifteenth century) and the likely date of its manuscript (c. 1520–30).

Note 16. For this point and observations about the play’s relationship to its sources, see Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 22–23.

Note 17. Mycoff’s examination of the textual traditions informing Jacobus’ life of the saint leads him to note the play’s many creative departures from the Legend. See Critical Edition of the Legend, pp. 40–41.

Note 18. This paragraph adapts material from Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 24–27.

Note 19. On the medieval English saint play, see Jeffrey, “English Saints’ Plays”; Grantley, “Saints’ Plays”; Davidson, “Middle English Saint Play”; and Wickham, “Staging of Saint Plays.”

Note 20. Clopper, “Communitas.” Davidson takes on Clopper’s reading of the records in “British Saint Play Records.”

Note 21. See Symes, “Medieval Archive and the History of Theatre”; Holsinger, “Cultures of Performance”; and Chaganti, “The Platea: Pre- and Postmodern.”

Note 22. Sponsler, The Queen’s Dumbshows, p. 7. See also Sponsler’s edition of these works: John Lydgate, Mummings and Entertainments.

Note 23. Sanok, Her Life Historical, pp. 145–73, 216–24. See also DiSalvo, “Unexpected Saints.”

Note 24. For an overview, see Haskins, Mary Magdalen.

Note 25. In particular, I am thinking of Brown, The Da Vinci Code; and Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. See also Coletti, “Afterword,” pp. 276–78.

Note 26. See K. King, Gospel of Mary; Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle; and Ricci, Mary Magdalene and Many Others. Thimmes (“Memory and Re-Vision”) provides an important overview of and bibliography on this development. For a collection that effectively mediates popular and scholarly perspectives, see Burstein and De Keijzer, Secrets of Mary Magdalene.

Note 27. This discussion adapts material from Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 36–37.

Note 28. Bodleian Library “MS Digby 133” is accessible online through Digital Bodleian:,t+Ms%20digby%20133,rsrs+0,rsps+10,fa+,so+ox%3Asort%5Easc,scids+,pid+,vi+.

Note 29. For a detailed discussion of the Digby manuscript, see Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. ix–xv. See also Macro Plays, ed. Eccles.

Note 30. Beadle has completely reconstructed the manuscript belonging to Cox Macro’s library, from a portion of which nineteenth-century bibliophile Hudson Gurney extracted and bound together what we now call the Macro Plays: Mankind, Wisdom, and Castle of Perseverance; see Beadle, “Macro MS 5.” Gibson’s study of the antiquarian legacy of the N-Town Plays also sheds light on contexts in which Digby 133 took shape in the seventeenth century; “Manuscript as Sacred Object,” pp. 520, 528–29n87. Her forthcoming study of the antiquarian afterlives of medieval English drama manuscripts investigates Digby 133 in greater detail.

Note 31. Beadle, “Macro MS 5”; Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, p. ix.

Note 32. The relationship between the Digby and Macro versions of Wisdom has been studied most extensively in Play of “Wisdom,” ed. Riggio, pp. 1–19.

Note 33. On the sequence in which items collected in Digby 133 entered the current manuscript volume, see Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, p. xii.

Note 34. For the Killing of the Children, see Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. 96–115.

Note 35. Here I draw upon Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, p. 98.

Note 36. For other similarities between the two plays, see Coletti, “‘Paupertas est donum Dei,’” pp. 373–75.

Note 37.Late Medieval Religious Plays, p. x. Riggio, however, states that evidence for a common hand is not conclusive; Play of “Wisdom,” p. 75.

Note 38.“Macro MS 5,” p. 36. The primary connections among the Macro plays are those linking Mankind and Wisdom. Beadle (p. 44) states that both plays were copied by the hand which he identifies as that of Monk Thomas Hyngham of Bury St. Edmunds, who also inscribed his ownership of the works on both play texts. Both the Macro miscellany as reconstructed by Beadle and MS Digby 133 in its current form include one play that does not exhibit features shared by its dramatic companions in their respective collections: Castle of Perseverance among the Macro plays and The Conversion of St. Paul among those of Digby. These two plays exhibit few or none of the codicological and internal textual features that connect the other plays in their respective manuscripts, although St. Paul does bear the autograph of its one-time owner Myles Blomefylde.

Note 39.Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. xxxvi–xl. On those dialectal features, see also Beadle, “Literary Geography,” pp. 91–94. A more recent study of the play’s language, though, identifies a mixture of dialects, especially — and unusually — present for the sake of rhyme and meter. See Maci, “Language of Mary Magdalene.”

Note 40. Beadle, “Literary Geography,” p. 101.

Note 41. For discussion of Blomefylde, see Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. xii–xv; and Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, p. 37 and the sources cited there.

Note 42. See Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. xxx–xxxiii.

Note 43. On the relationship of East Anglian drama manuscripts to private reading, see Granger, Drama and Liturgy, pp. 172–92.

Note 44.Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, p. 198.

Note 45. See the explanatory note for this line.

Note 46. Findon, Lady, Hero, Saint, p. 55.

Note 47. See Scherb, “Blasphemy and the Grotesque.”

Note 48. In a more technical vein, a recent study of dialectal variants in the Magdalene text suggests that the author or perhaps the scribe frequently employs loan words from other dialects for the sake of sustaining meter or rhyme; Maci, “Language of Mary Magdalene,” p. 135.

Note 49. Lim, “Pilate’s Special Letter,” p. 2. See also “‘Take Writing.’”

Note 50. Lim, “Pilate’s Special Letter,” p. 3.

Note 51. Ortenberg, “Le Culte de Sainte Marie Madeleine,” pp. 25–31. See also Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 54–57.

Note 52. The Campsey Ash legendary contains the only copy of La Vie seinte Audrée, an Anglo-Norman life of Æthelthryth. On the manuscript see Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, and Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drams of Saints, pp. 57–58.

Note 53. See Ortenberg, “Le Culte de Sainte Marie Madeleine,” and Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture.

Note 54. The late medieval East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk were particularly attentive to feminine religious values and ideals. East Anglia was the cultic center of devotion to the Virgin Mary in England. Across the medieval centuries, English and international pilgrims flocked to the Marian shrine at Walsingham in northwest Norfolk. East Anglia was also home to a lively cult of the Virgin Mary’s mother, Saint Anne. Feminine sacred symbols proliferated in East Anglia’s celebrated parish churches, especially through painted images on rood screens and carvings on bench ends. See Gibson and Coletti, “Lynn, Walsingham, Norwich,” pp. 311–12; Gibson, “Saint Anne and the Religion of Childbed”; Coletti, “Genealogy, Sexuality, and Sacred Power”; and Duffy, “Holy Maydens, Holy Wyfes.”

Note 55. This paragraph draws from Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, p. 229. For more on regional contexts for the play, see pp. 50–99 of that work.

Note 56.Writings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Watson and Jenkins, pp. 63, 125.

Note 56.Writings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Watson and Jenkins, pp. 63, 125.

Note 58. So argues Delaney, Impolitic Bodies; on Bokenham’s life of the saint, see pp. 53–57, 89–94.

Note 59. Bokenham, “Prolocutorye into Marye Mawdelyns lyf,” in Legendys of Hooly Wummen, p. 137, lines 5065–75. Other East Anglian noblewomen who realized their devotion to the saint in works of art include Anne Harling, Lady Scrope, who commissioned an image of Mary Magdalene for her church at East Harling, Norfolk (Sugano, “Apologies for the Magdalene,” pp. 172–74), and Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk and wife of William de la Pole, whose cadaver tomb in her chapel at Ewelme includes an image of the saint on its roof (Goodall, God’s House at Ewelme, pp. 175–91). Isabel Bourchier’s niece, Margaret of York, had herself represented as Mary Magdalene in a Flemish Deposition painting c. 1500; see Pearson, “Gendered Subject, Gendered Spectator.”

Note 60.Wisdom, in Macro Plays, ed. Eccles, p. 144, line 912, s.d.

Note 61.N-Town Play, 1:264–73, lines 141–204, s.d. Here I adopt the singular “Play” of Spector’s edition, though the N-Town manuscript’s status as compilation is now generally accepted. See N-Town Plays, ed. Sugano, pp. 1–2.

Note 62. Quotation from Godfrey, “Mary Magdalen in Performance,” p. 109.

Note 63. Here I draw from Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, p. 25.

Note 64. For detailed discussion of requirements of and possibilities for the ship in performance, see Godfrey, “Machinery of Spectacle,” pp. 155–56n6.

Note 65. In addition to sources cited in footnotes 5–7 above, see also Godfrey, “Machinery of Spectacle,” and “Mary Magdalen in Performance.”

Note 66. Godfrey, “Machinery of Spectacle,” pp. 146–47.

Note 67. This description is adapted from Scherb, Staging Faith, p. 55. Bush (“Resources of Locus and Platea Staging”) provides a good overview of such staging in relation to the Digby play.

Note 68. Scherb, Staging Faith, pp. 146–90; for his discussion of Mary Magdalene, see pp. 172–89.

Note 69. Davis, “As Above, So Below,” pp. 74, 76. Of the thirty-seven, nineteen are mentioned in the stage directions; five are mentioned in characters’ speeches; ten are mentioned in character speeches but “do not appear to exist in the physical play space” (p. 76); and three are inferred.

Note 70. Godfrey, “Mary Magdalen in Performance,” pp. 112, 116–17.

Note 71. Normington, Gender and Medieval Drama, pp. 55–70.

Note 72. On these explorations, see Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 151–89.

Note 73. On such possibilities in performance, see Evans, “Signs of the Body.” For comment on the potential impact of crossdressing on the performance of female saint plays, see Sanok, “Performing Feminine Sanctity,” pp. 286–87.

Note 74. Stokes, “Women and Performance,” p. 40.

Note 75. Rochester, “Space and Staging,” p. 44.

Note 76. Scherb, Staging Faith, pp. 176–79. On reuse of the play’s many locations in staging, see also Davis, who provides a detailed model of what this layering might look like; “As Above, So Below.”

Note 77. Findon, “Enclosure, Liberation, and Spatial Semantics.”

Note 78. For a fuller discussion of performance, embodiment, and the spiritual interests of the play, see Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, pp. 190–217.

Note 79. Reflecting on his experience acting in and directing the Digby Magdalene for Poculi Ludique Societas in 2003, Peter Cockett (“The Actor’s Carnal Eye”) speaks of the actor’s somatic and affective experience as a vehicle for spiritual knowledge. Lim’s study of the play’s relationship to late medieval documentary culture (“Pilate’s Special Letter”) argues that the play offers the experiential truth of performance as a counterweight to the instability of writing. Ehrstine analyzes the potential of mansion staging in continental performances to serve as visual, spiritual mnemonic; see “Framing the Passion.”

Note 80. Benski’s study of orthographic confusion and exchange in paleographic contexts sheds light on this manuscript quirk; “The Letters <þ> and in Later Middle English.”

Note 81.Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, p. xxxi.

Note 82.Late Medieval Religious PlaysAugust 30, 2017, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. xxxiii–xxxvi.

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The Digby Mary Magdalene Play: Introduction

The Digby Mary Magdalene — as the play is called after the Oxford University Bodleian Library manuscript (Digby 133) that preserves its unique copy — hails from East Anglia, the region of England comprising the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk and, to the south and west, parts of Essex and Cambridgeshire; in the north and east, East Anglia reaches to the North Sea.1 Excepting cycles of biblical plays performed or compiled in Chester, Coventry, York, and other northern towns, virtually the entire extant corpus of medieval English drama made its home in East Anglia.2 This region was distinguished in the late Middle Ages by its internationally linked urban centers in Norwich and Bishop’s (now King’s) Lynn, its densely populated and prosperous rural landscape, and the vibrant religious culture that permeated both, weaving together city, village, and countryside. Drama is the most social and communal of literary forms, firmly embedded in the cultural locales that produce it. Late medieval East Anglian material, textual, and visual traditions offer resources both broad and deep for exploring, to echo Gail McMurray Gibson’s phrase, its “theaters of devotion.”3

The Digby Magdalene play and its eponymous subject intersect repeatedly with these medieval East Anglian traditions. Mary Magdalene appears regularly in major devotional, hagiographic, and other dramatic texts of East Anglian auspices. She numbers among the female saints most often represented on the painted rood screens that still embellish fifteenth-century East Anglian parish churches; she was a familiar dedicatee of those churches, the guilds that they supported, and other religious foundations in the region. This proliferation of Magdalenes attests to the congruence of the saint’s medieval identities and the commitments of East Anglian religious culture.4

Despite the wealth of evidence tying the Digby play’s saintly subject to East Anglia, the play itself remains geographically unmoored, its medieval locale unmarked by any sign that it was home to one of the most eclectic and ambitious projects of the late medieval English stage. Although records of medieval performative activities in the region document local habits of staging and theatrical organization, such as theaters in the round and multi-community productions, none of these records can be linked to extant East Anglian dramatic texts.5 Paradoxically, the richest regional tradition of late medieval English theater — as represented by the corpus of extant texts — has left the fewest documentary traces of its existence beyond the manuscript page. Fortunately, in the case of the Digby Magdalene, the manuscript page offers up important information pointing to the play’s now widely accepted East Anglian attribution, information that relies on linguistic evidence and traces of ownership inscribed in Bodleian Library MS Digby 133 (see discussion of the “Manuscript” below). This lack of a documentary record of performance has not impeded medieval drama scholars from advancing informed hypotheses about the Digby play’s precise locale, auspices, and occasion. Attempting to account for the play’s panoramic scope and ambitious theatricality, one hypothesis asserts that the play must have been produced by a city “of major size and considerable dramatic experience.” Another imagines a “prosperous market town” capable of attracting the mixed audience to which the Digby Magdalene seems to appeal.6 Chelmsford, Norwich, King’s Lynn, Ipswich, and Lincoln have all been proposed as possible homes for the Digby play.7 Pending a future discovery of lost dramatic records, readers of the Digby Magdalene in search of its origins will keep coming back to both the intricacies of its manuscript text and opportunities for interpretation offered up by late medieval East Anglian culture and society.

The Digby saint play is one of many important Middle English lives of Mary Magdalene, and these other native vitae furnish crucial intertexts for her dramatic biography.8 But these insular lives also participate in broader hagiographic traditions that both understood, and so produced, Mary Magdalene as one of the most important saints — male or female — of Western Europe. Like medieval Latin clerical culture itself, medieval hagiography is an international phenomenon; its legends and images travel back and forth, accruing new meanings as they encounter and inhabit new cultural locations. The Mary Magdalene who figures so prominently in late medieval East Anglia — especially the Magdalene of the Digby play — was tied to and shaped by continental traditions that represented her across textual and visual media. East Anglian cultural and commercial exchanges with the European continent provided important conduits for such trading of hagiographical motifs and images.9 The peregrinations of Margery Kempe, medieval East Anglia’s most important Magdalene devotee and rival, underscore the easy converse of the region’s devotional and mercantile activities with interests that cross seas and traverse continents.

Beyond the late medieval East Anglian sphere, then, continental resources have much to offer a reading of the Digby Magdalene, providing insight into imaginative genealogies of representation that furnish a far-flung back story for the late medieval dramatic saint. Attending to such resources can also shed light on the East Anglian Magdalene’s departures from preoccupations of continental texts, images, and performances dedicated to her. Recent scholarship, for instance, has established the major contribution of mendicant preaching, especially by French and Italian Franciscans and Dominicans, to the saint’s multi-faceted medieval identity. Although there is no established record of medieval English fraternal investment in this cause, issues raised in continental mendicant preaching occasionally surface in the Digby Magdalene. Across northern Europe and extending to the Mediterranean region, well-documented lay and clerical patronage produced — in words, images, and sounds — creative collaborations between the beliefs and aspirations of medieval people and the sheer potential of Mary Magdalene’s labile biography to inspire unique devotional expressions.10 In visual cultures especially, the Digby saint play resonates far more with the rich continental lexicon of Magdalene imagery than it does with late medieval English visual evocations of Mary Magdalene’s spiritual biography.11 Hence, understanding the achievement of the Digby Magdalene as dramatic vita, visual spectacle, and devotional endeavor requires understanding the play’s creative negotiation of the East Anglian locales and traditions that inform it and the capacious, international archive that accrued to Mary Magdalene as a premier saint of medieval Western Christendom.12

Such negotiation of local priorities and perspectives imported from the wider world is typified in the Digby play’s certain resemblance to, and likely dependence upon, the vita of the saint made available in Jacobus de Voragine’s international bestseller, Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend (1270s). Jacobus’ achievement was to weave together in a single expansive narrative several distinct biographical strands of the saint’s life. One involved the Mary Magdalene created by Gregory the Great’s influential conflation of the woman who witnesses Christ’s resurrection in all the gospels; the sinner who anoints Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7); and Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10).13 The other strand advanced legendary accounts of Mary Magdalene’s evangelical and ascetic activities that had attained prominence as her cult developed in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.14 Although Jacobus’ vita cannot be conclusively established as a direct source for the Digby Magdalene, we might keep in mind that William Caxton’s translation of the Golden Legend first appeared in print in 1483 and was followed by nine subsequent editions up through 1527 — the very decades that span what scholars believe to be the composition of the Digby play and its eventual copying into its single extant manuscript. Evidence from testamentary bequests points to late medieval East Anglian familiarity with Jacobus’ Legenda.16 Whatever the exact relationship between the Digby Magdalene and Jacobus’ influential work, the play clearly exploits the eclecticism of his social and spiritual narrative, highlighting the paradoxical identities that it promoted — identities that became central to the saint’s broad medieval appeal.17 Thus, the play presents Mary Magdalene as the daughter of a prosperous, genteel family who ends her life as a desert contemplative. It provides for a biblical sinner, famous for sexual profligacy, to recuperate her purity and join the company of heavenly virgins. Although she occupies none of the standard socio-sexual categories available to medieval women (virgin, wife, and widow), the Digby play’s Magdalene emerges as a patron of marital procreation, childbirth, and dynastic continuity whom her devotees address in language that would seem better suited to the virgin mother of Jesus: “Heyll be thou, Mary, ower Lord is wyth thee!” (line 1939).

This complex adaptation of hagiographic narrative traditions occurs in the medium of dramatic performance, a fact that one can sometimes lose sight of when investigating the Digby play’s relationship to the dense medieval archive of Magdalene phenomena. Recognition of medieval performance practices, English and continental, will — and should — always put pressure on analytical approaches that privilege the written record. At the same time, that record furnishes our sole access to the slippery dramatic genre of the English saint play, of which Mary Magdalene and The Conversion of Saint Paul, one of the Magdalene play’s textual companions in Bodleian Library MS Digby 133, provide the only surviving Middle English witnesses.18 Consequently, the Digby saint plays have often been invoked as representative instances of a dramatic genre whose very characteristics have been hypothesized based on their own idiosyncratic example. Significant, if scattered, dramatic records in English sources refer to the mounting of ludi, miracula, plays, games, and pageants on the feast days of saints and other holy days and seasonal commemorations; such records have been taken as evidence that the saint or miracle play was the most ubiquitous and long-lived of medieval English dramatic genres.19 Lawrence Clopper has challenged this finding, arguing that claims for the widespread popularity of the saint play are, in fact, based on crucial misreadings of the terminology comprising the documentary record; he reads the term “saint play” as signifying only scripted drama.20 But alternative approaches to ritual and ceremony and to the performative nature of public life in medieval societies have recently revised our conception of what constitutes drama, theater, plays — and play — in these environments.21 We now understand that medieval performative behaviors, including those considered dramatic and theatrical, occupy a broad continuum of public actions. These insights enable us, for example, to situate John Lydgate’s mummings and entertainments in new performative as well as literary contexts; and they inform Claire Sponsler’s claim that these unusual and understudied texts of Lydgate may represent “the most important body of dramatic work by a known author in English before the sixteenth century.”22 A more capacious understanding of medieval performance practices as modes of theater also enables us to notice dramas of saints occurring in unexpected guises and in a variety of forms. As Catherine Sanok has shown, even lacking clear evidence of scripted drama, the historical record documenting public performance of female saints, in pageants and tableaux, is sufficient to suggest how such encounters may have been mobilized for social and political ends.23

Whether addressing East Anglian regional priorities or continental saints’ cults, textual sources or generic forms, these medieval critical contexts provide important analytic tools for grappling with the exuberant and unruly entity that is the Digby Magdalene. At the same time, any effort to frame the Digby play and its saintly subject must also acknowledge Mary Magdalene’s diachronic existence as a prominent focus of two millennia of scriptural commentary and, over the same period, her ubiquitous presence in verbal and visual artifacts of both learned and popular cultures, all bearing witness to the enduring appeal and provocation of her multi-faceted story.24 In medieval western Christendom, Mary Magdalene was the female saint whose popularity was second only to that of the Virgin Mary; in the modern and contemporary worlds, she at times seems on the verge of vying with the mother of Jesus for that number one spot. Some of this attention stems from the saint’s recent high profile role in sensationalized continuations of biblical story featured in films, novels, and dubious histories.25 More important, though, feminist biblical scholars — motivated in part by some of the same issues driving fascination with Mary Magdalene in popular culture — over the past few decades have turned to canonical scriptures and apocrypha such as The Gospel of Mary to recuperate Mary Magdalene’s biblical roles as Christ’s witness and first apostle. This work aims to acknowledge the Magdalene specifically and women more generally as important participants in the birth of the Christian movement.26

Although the remainder of this edition’s introduction and all of its explanatory notes focus primarily on the play as a phenomenon of late medieval dramatic and cultural history, I gesture here toward this larger panorama of Mary Magdalene studies, in cult and culture, because of the invitation to link past and present that it offers. As a prominent saint of the medieval Christian church and a modern icon of gender and religious identities, Mary Magdalene continues to command attention and to spark inquiry. The Middle English play that casts her in its starring role imaginatively engages issues and controversies that remain relevant to these current conversations.

THE MANUSCRIPT The unique text of Mary Magdalene was likely copied in the first quarter of the sixteenth century (c. 1515–30).27 It survives in Bodleian Library MS Digby 133, a manuscript that gathers together an eclectic group of texts: Latin alchemical, magical, and astrological works appear alongside the sole surviving copies of the other extant Middle English saint play, The Conversion of Saint Paul, and the biblical play known as Candlemas Day and the Killing of the Children of Israel.28 Also appearing in Digby 133 is a substantial fragment (752 of 1163 lines) of the morality play Wisdom, preserved in its entirety in what we now call the Macro manuscript (Folger Library MS V.a.354), which includes the unique texts of the East Anglian plays Mankind and Castle of Perseverance.29 The Macro manuscript and Digby 133 are commonly recognized as two of the three major compilations of East Anglian drama (the other is British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D Viii, or the N-Town Plays). It is tempting to use the term “anthology” to characterize the material witnesses represented by the Digby and Macro manuscripts. But recent research indicates that these two clusters of East Anglian dramatic texts in manuscript compilations associated, respectively, with Kenelm Digby and Cox Macro, the early modern antiquarians who lent their names to these endeavors, may not represent a discernible intention to gather together textual witnesses of medieval drama with the aim of creating, after the fact, an explicit tradition of early English dramatic performance.30 At the same time, it is intriguing to note that in the case of both Digby 133 and the Macro plays in their original manuscript context, Middle English dramatic works are preserved amongst alchemical, medical (Macro MS), and scientific (Digby 133) treatises.31 What this similarity might suggest about the motivations — if any — for bringing together dramatic texts and works of alchemical and technical knowledge must remain a matter for future investigations, as do the codicological and antiquarian implications of the fact that texts of the play Wisdom are extant in both of these early modern miscellanies.32

Despite the apparent lack of organizational purpose or theme in the current configuration of Bodleian Library MS Digby 133 and the likelihood that its dramatic works came to be assembled therein at different times and under different circumstances, the play texts themselves nonetheless exhibit relationships to one another that raise provocative questions about possible connections between their late medieval composition and production.33 For example, a passage in Mary Magdalene (lines 217–24) finds a close echo in The Killing of the Children (lines 97–104).34 Wisdom, as I have claimed elsewhere, reads and plays like an allegorical dress rehearsal for the Digby Magdalene’s biblical and hagiographical treatment of the same themes.35 Both plays present a feminine figure whose symbolic mediation of corporeal desires, spiritual longings, and relationship to Christ are informed by exegesis of the Song of Songs. Seduced by evil disguised as a gallant, both heroines are restored through contrition. The morality and the saint play also are similarly preoccupied with knowledge of self, suspicion of learning, and the mediation of active and contemplative lives, similarities that are reinforced by occasional verbal echoes between the two works.36 EETS editors Donald Baker, John Murphy, and Louis Hall posit other connections among the dramatic works of Digby 133, for example, maintaining that the scribe who copied The Killing of the Children is also responsible for the manuscript’s substantial fragment of Wisdom.37 Such internal connections of theme and verbal texture between plays whose authorship and performance are entirely undocumented also occur among the East Anglian plays assembled in the miscellany that Richard Beadle calls Macro MS 5, after the catalog number of the item when the manuscript was sold in 1820.38

I have considered these internal features of Digby 133 in some detail because, in this particular case, relationships between dramatic manuscripts of East Anglian provenance as well as between individual works within and across these rare, regional manuscripts furnish key resources for investigating Mary Magdalene. As far as contextualizing the play is concerned, though, other facets of the work’s single manuscript text are easier to pin down. That text, as I noted above, is assigned an East Anglian provenance because of linguistic features; it exhibits the identifying characteristics of the East Anglian dialect, including many inflections specific to Norfolk.39 Beadle’s map of scribal locations for Norfolk play manuscripts places the Magdalene scribe in the southeastern quadrant of the county.40 East Anglian physician and alchemist Myles Blomefylde (1525–1603), who was born in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, but long resided in Chelmsford, Essex, reinforced this regional linguistic attribution when he wrote his name or his initials on three of the plays in Digby 133: The Conversion of St. Paul, Wisdom, and Mary Magdalene.41 No one knows how Blomefylde acquired the manuscript texts destined to become a signature of East Anglian drama generally and the medieval English saint play particularly. But he was an avid book collector who seems especially to have been drawn to dramatic works: his library also included the unique copy of Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucrece (c. 1497), a play that some scholars consider the first to be assigned to a known dramatic author.

These opportunities to contextualize the Magdalene text’s medieval linguistic and cultural locations must also reckon with the challenges posed by the material artifact of the play manuscript itself. The copy of Mary Magdalene in Digby 133 is the product of a single scribe whose efforts leave much to be desired. Baker, Murphy, and Hall give a full account of these difficulties as well as a complete description of the manuscript.42 Although the scribe’s handwriting varies in size and neatness, it is generally clear. That said, the sole extant copy of Mary Magdalene may be missing as many as thirty lines. The scribe has made many mistakes — for example, omitting lines, confusing speeches and speakers, copying lines out of order and stage directions in the wrong place, as well as skipping words and letters. These features suggest that the text was copied from another manuscript in hurried circumstances or other compromised conditions or was derived from a bad exemplar; at one point the scribe may even have glossed his effort with a desperate “Jhesu mercy” (fol. 129r).

The final lines of the Magdalene play’s manuscript call attention to the complicated cultural status of the textual artifact itself. After Mary Magdalene dies and her soul is joyfully welcomed into heaven, the priest who has ministered to her utters his final speech within the world of the play (lines 2123–30). Then, stepping out of that world, he addresses the “sufferens” (or sovereigns) before whom the “sentens” has been played in “syth” (sight). He once more invokes a present audience when he asks for God’s blessing upon “tho that byn here” and extends that extra-dramatic world with his call for “clerkys” to sing “wyth voycys cler” (lines 2131–39). The text then announces its own conclusion — “Explicit oreginale de Sancta Maria Magdalena” (Here ends the original of Saint Mary Magdalene) — employing a word (“oreginale”) that elsewhere in medieval dramatic records signifies something along the lines of an official copy (see explanatory note to line 2139 s.d.). But the text gives the playwright, or more likely the scribe, the last word: “Yff ony thing amysse be, / Blame connyng, and nat me. / I desyer the redars to be my frynd, / Yff ther be ony amysse, that to amend” (lines 2140–43). Whereas the priest appeals to “sovereigns” who witness in “sight” the actions of players, thereby calling up present and contingent conditions of a performance that is “here,” the scribe expresses concern for the afterlife of his work and the contingencies of writing and reading in a future time, in which “ony thing” can go “amysse.” Standing between these phenomena is the manuscript text itself, the “oreginale” that in this instance is itself only a copy. Such are the complex mediations — of playing, writing, and reading in and across times — that medieval dramatic manuscripts themselves perform.43


In the Digby Magdalene, matters of language have to do with much more than the play’s East Anglian dialect. Rather, the play displays a deep awareness of language as both poetic and dramatic medium and as vehicle of communication in its diegetic world. Although best known for its dramatic spectacle, the play unfolds an exuberant linguistic variety, ranging from the doggerel Latin of its pagan priest, to the convoluted diction of its evil spirits, to the saint’s plain-spoken articulations of scripture. At the same time, significant moments in the play’s dramatic world often address the materiality of as well as opportunities and constraints afforded by verbal communication. This parallel attention to poetic linguistic forms and language in use would seem to belie the haste and lack of care evidenced by the manuscript itself as material witness.

The text of the Digby Magdalene, and by that I mean words on the manuscript page, offers many delights but also many frustrations; the very act of producing the text for this edition has underscored for me the complexities — and obfuscations — of its language. This edition aims to comprehend — syntactically and lexically — and to gloss every difficult word and turn of phrase. To unpack the Digby Magdalene’s linguistic challenges, I have relied heavily on the invaluable resources of the Middle English Dictionary. But even these are taxed by speeches such as Cyrus’ introduction of his daughters Mary Magdalene and Martha early in the play: “Here is a coleccyon of cyrcumstance: / To my cognysshon nevyr swych anothyr, / As be demonstracyon knett in contynens, / Save alonly my lady that was ther mother” (“Here is a group of qualities / Knit together in modest behavior, as is openly shown; / To my knowledge there was never such another, / Except for my wife, who was their mother” [lines 75–78]). The EETS editors Baker, Murphy, and Hall, whose gloss I adapt here, note the difficulties of syntax and lexical meaning in these lines.44 At later moments in the play, Mary Magdalene’s exchange with her wooer and tempter Curiosity as well as the comedic banter that the pagan priest and shipmaster pursue with their respective boys differently illustrate the play’s verbal complexities. These conversations are rich in sexual and homoerotic innuendo, lending a compelling undercurrent of masculine verbal aggression to a play devoted to the biblical woman best known for sexual profligacy. What exactly does the shipmaster’s boy mean when he laments that all his “corage is now cast” (line 1421)?45

The Digby playwright also manipulates linguistic and poetic idioms to good dramatic effect to distinguish, for example, demonic from divine diction as well as the pre- from the post-conversion speech of the king and queen of Marseilles; they introduce themselves in obscure, aureate language whose marked alliteration nearly stumbles over itself. The king is a “sofereyn semely” who “fare[s] fresly [eagerly] and fers [fiercely] to the feld” and commands “brawling breellys [rascals] and blabyr-lyppyd bycchys [thick-lipped scoundrels], / Obedyenly to obbey . . . [him] wythowt offense” (lines 929, 931, and 927–28). His queen lauds his “dilectabyll dedys [that] devydytt . . . [her] from dyversyté” (“Your admirable deeds separate [protect] me from adversity” [line 955]). Once they are received and baptized by Saint Peter in the Holy Land, though, their speech is both stripped of its ornament and, syntactically, rendered more straightforward: “Syr, the soth I shall yow seyn, / And tell yow myn intentt wythin a whyle. / Ther is a woman hyth Mary Maudleyn, / That hether [hither] hath laberyd [brought] me owt of Marcyll,” says the king to Peter (lines 1819–22). At the same time, the play’s shifting verbal idioms do not line up along an axis that differentiates the complex and sometimes convoluted diction of ethically challenged characters from the simpler speech of the avowed Christians. Restored from death to life, the queen of Marseilles recovers her verbal flourishes too, lauding Mary Magdalene as “sowlys confortacyon” and “bodyys sustynauns” that “hast wrappyd us in wele from all varyawns” (“You have wrapped [surrounded] us in well-being, protected from all change” [lines 1901–03]). Through the course of the play, the dramatic Magdalene herself speaks in a range of idioms. When she becomes an apostle to the people of Marseilles, her sermon (lines 1481–1525) offers a kind of verbal fresh air, cutting through the aureation and obscure innuendo of the dramatic language preceding her major homiletic moment with simple English vocabulary and phrases that relocate the creation narrative from the Book of Genesis to the late medieval work week: “On the Weddysday, ower lord of mythe / Made more at hys plesyng, / Fysche in flod, and fowle in flyth, / And all this was for ower hellpyng” (lines 1504–07). Yet, when dramatic circumstances call for a different kind of rhetorical self-awareness, the Digby saint rises to the occasion. For example, elevated from her wilderness retreat and led by angels to receive heavenly food “wyth reverent song” (line 2030, s.d.), Mary Magdalene responds with alliterative language far more decorative than her homiletic idiom: “But [unless] I shuld serve my Lord, I were to blame, / Wych [who] fullfyllyt me wyth so gret feliceté, / [Who] Wyth melody of angyllys shewit me gle and game, / And have fed me wyth fode of most delycyté!” (lines 2035–38).

Joanne Findon’s study of the Digby Magdalene raises the stakes on considerations of the play’s language by showing how it intersects with verbal idioms of other late medieval literary genres. Imagery from secular, especially courtly, love poetry and religious lyric, for instance, frequently echoes in the dramatic text, providing a “multivalent language” that aptly articulates the fluid, boundary-crossing identities that the dramatic saint represents.46 Findon’s capacious notion of the play’s intertexts usefully frames other important moments of verbal ingenuity, such as the often-remarked Latin liturgical parody (lines 1186–97) that signals the false faith of the people of Marseilles whom Mary Magdalene has been ordered to convert.47 Findon identifies the play’s dense verbal texture — shifting languages (Latin and vernacular), vocabularies, and levels of style — as key to the essential multivalency of the work itself. This insight helps to situate the Digby Magdalene in larger discursive fields and raises questions about the relationship of such linguistic plenitude to conditions of late medieval authorship and literary culture.48

The formal and poetic play with language in Mary Magdalene accompanies a dramatic preoccupation with the capacities of language as the medium of written and spoken communication. Tiberius Caesar, Herod, and Pilate, the boastful secular rulers who dominate the play’s early scenes, rely on both modes, but the messenger who flies from one to another is most importantly a bearer of letters (lines 133, 216 s.d., 225–26, 252, 1261–1330). Tiberius Caesar urges his followers to “[t]ake hed [heed]” that his commandments “wretyn be” (line 120), and his messenger directs Pilate to “take avysement” of the writing that he presents to him (line 254). These characters understand — and the play’s assumed audience implicitly does too — that official writing is a matter of “grett aprise [worth or value]” (line 1298). As Hyunyang Kim Lim has argued, dramatic representations of the circulation and significance of public, political writing locates the Digby play’s narrative within the larger realm of late medieval documentary culture, a culture marked by an increased use of propaganda and thus also by “anxiety about written documents and textual authority.”49

The play’s characters invest written documents with various forms of power. Whereas Pilate may assert for himself that Jesus “is resyn agayn, as before he tawth (taught)” (line 1259), his sergeants advise him that such news, as far as Herod and Tiberius Caesar are concerned, must be “taken care of [concealed] by cunning” in a “pystyll of specyallté” (lines 1262 and 1267). Hence Caesar receives a “special letter” reporting that Jesus’ dead body was stolen and carried off by his disciples (lines 1322–24), a story whose “[c]rafty . . . connyng” he is more than happy to perpetuate: “I wyll have cronekyllyd the yere and the reynne, / That nevyr shall be forgott” (lines 1327, 1329–30). But this glimpse of the instability of documentary culture, its potential for use as a “tool of oppression and bureaucratic corruption,” finds a dramatic foil in the sacred writing to which Herod’s philosophers appeal.50 Their lord is not happy to hear that “skreptour gevytt informacyon, / And doth rehersse . . . verely [truly report]” the birth of a child who shall reign and be glorified by the entire world (lines 171–74). Unfortunately for the play’s Herod, Holy Scripture resists manipulation, firm in its capacity to “verify” the truth (lines 178–79).

Through her own verbal testimony, Mary Magdalene later invokes the “pleyn” (line 1521) declaration of scripture when she preaches in Marseilles a sermon derived from Genesis 1 (lines 1481–1525). Like writing, the spoken word is invested with power. The king mocks the saint’s great “resonnys [her remarks or words]” and threatens to cut out her tongue (lines 1526 and 1528–29). Yet it is precisely Mary Magdalene’s capacity to speak her prayer to God that bests the pagan idols, whom the king repeatedly implores to “[s]peke . . . speke.” But to no avail; they are apparently rendered mute “whyle Chriseten here is” (lines 1540–46). The saint’s very audible prayer accomplishes the miracle that puts the king on the path to conversion. Even so, the Digby play also suggests that, as a mode of verbal communication, speech too has its limitations. Although divine prayers and petitions can create on stage the spectacular destruction of Marseilles’ pagan temple along with that of its priest and his boy (line 1561, s.d.), Mary Magdalene admits human speech’s inefficacy in communicating the heavenly joys she experiences in her desert retreat, where she talks only to angels (lines 2053–60). Paradoxically, the distance between human and divine that can be bridged by devout prayer does not apply to human endeavors to mingle more fluidly with and report back about experiences of the sacred. Within the world of the play, even Jesus, who would seem to transcend all communicative limits, concludes his densely metaphoric and paratactic encomium to his mother (lines 1349–63) by declaring the insufficiency of spoken and written expression in the face of perfection: “The goodnesse of my mothere no tong can expresse, / Nere no clerke of hyre, hyre joyys can wryth” (lines 1364–65).


As we have seen, the Mary Magdalene who commands the starring role in one of Middle English drama’s most ambitious theatrical projects represents the intersection of a long-lived, ubiquitous universal cult and the preoccupations and investments of a local culture. Furthermore, the Digby play takes full interpretive advantage of the sprawling biblical and legendary vita popularized by Jacobus’ Legenda aurea, finding therein a story about institutions, spiritual identities, and religious practices. The late medieval contexts that might be brought to bear upon the Digby Magdalene are as eclectic as the play itself. Prominent among them, though, are the play’s ties to a Magdalene-saturated regional culture and its conversation with contemporary spiritual and religious discourses.

The Digby saint play culminates a long tradition of medieval English Magdalene devotion extending back to the Anglo-Saxon period, when early veneration of the saint was firmly established through works such as the ninth-century Old English Martyrology and Æthelwold of Winchester’s late tenth-century Benedictional. Through its iconography and liturgy, Æthelwold’s service book associates Mary Magdalene with the Virgin Mary and, probably more important, with East Anglian Æthelthryth, the Anglo-Saxon virgin saint and founder of Ely. Running counter to the sinful biblical woman promoted by Gregory the Great’s influential life, Mary Magdalene’s assumption of virginal attributes in Æthelwold’s work would become a distinguishing feature of her early English cult.51 This East Anglian re-inscription of Mary Magdalene’s biography under the aegis of the virginal, authoritative Æthelthryth also occurs in a late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman legendary produced at or for the Augustinian priory of nuns at Campsey Ash, Suffolk. British Library MS Additional 70513 brings together lives of Anglo-Saxon virgin princesses and royal abbesses (including Æthelthryth, or Audrey in Anglo-Norman), virgins, ascetics, English male ecclesiastics — and Mary Magdalene, the single biblical saint and one of only three non-British saints appearing in the collection. Within and for this wealthy monastic community, the inclusion of the Magdalene’s vita in the Campsey Ash legendary underscores her association with the spiritual values espoused by the collection’s other exemplary female saints, virgins, and ascetics.52 Mary Magdalene keeps company with Audrey/Æthelthryth in the Campsey Ash manuscript and appears alongside Æthelthryth on decorated East Anglian rood screens because both holy women participate in a tradition of female sanctity that emphasized virginity and the spiritual authority of feminine purity. These central emphases of their early English cults contributed to East Anglian religious culture an image of feminine holiness that appealed to a broad demographic of monastic and lay patrons and audiences, enduring for centuries after Æthelwold’s Benedictional first included Mary Magdalene in its choir of virgins.53

Mary Magdalene’s cultic centers may have been located physically in Burgundy and Provence, but later medieval East Anglia emerges as a virtual hub of devotion to the saint.54 Before she ever appeared in the eponymous Digby saint play, Mary Magdalene had figured crucially in unique East Anglian devotional, hagiographical, and dramatic texts that represent some of the most significant examples of imaginative religious writing in late medieval England.55 These works feature Mary Magdalene in her many roles — witness to the Resurrection, intimate of Jesus, penitent sinner, model contemplative, apostle to the apostles as well as to Marseilles. Both the Short and Long Texts of Julian of Norwich’s Revelation invoke Mary Magdalene’s scripturally authentic witness to the Crucifixion as a touchstone for the affective yearnings that lead to Julian’s daring theological explorations.56 Margery Kempe makes the saint her alter ego, appropriating for herself the Magdalene’s closeness to Jesus, sinful past, renounced sexual nature, and reconstituted virginity.57 Osbern Bokenham accords the saint’s vita the central position in his all-woman hagiography, exploiting her symbolic complexity to argue for a female apostolate and feminine genealogy of secular rule in fifteenth-century England.58 When Bokenham’s East Anglian patron Isabel Bourchier, countess of Eu, commissioned the Augustinian friar to write a life of Mary Magdalene, she acted as did other East Anglian noble women, who variously professed their devotion to the saint.59 In the Macro and Digby morality play Wisdom, the corporeal experience of Mary Magdalene shadows that of the fallen Anima, whose spiritual state is imaged in a bodily expulsion of demons that mirrors the saint’s own purgation.60 The compiler-reviser of the N-Town Play places Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper, establishing her apostolic authority along with that of the other disciples.61 Implicitly capitalizing on textual and visual traditions attesting to late medieval East Anglia’s romance with Mary Magdalene, the Digby play, on the eve of the Reformation, also marks their culmination.


This introduction has focused thus far on the Digby play’s ties to an expansive English and continental archive documenting Mary Magdalene’s ubiquitous presence within and influence upon and across the medieval centuries. I have pursued this approach because the East Anglian dramatic text invites — and deserves — such scrutiny. Extensive explanatory notes to this edition establish in greater detail the rationale for this scrutiny by identifying, to borrow Findon’s term, the Digby Magdalene’s many intertexts. At the same time and even as a written text, the play constantly communicates to the reader awareness of the medium of its own performance. As a specimen of theatrical performance, the play’s requirements for its staging are every bit as ambitious as are the challenges and varieties of its verbal idioms.

Copious stage directions, primarily in English but occasionally in Latin, open a welcome window on possibilities for the play’s medieval performances. These “astonishing and informative” instructions for stage business orchestrate the characters’ traversing of a playing space whose geography is simultaneously domestic (Magdalene’s castle), global (Rome and Jerusalem) and sacred (heaven and hell).62 These directions also give notice that characters do not simply move across the expansive theatrical space; they also rise above and fall below it. The play is remarkably spectacular. It provides for frequent journeying of human and divine messengers, sudden appearances and disappearances of Jesus on earth and in heaven, a cloud that descends from on high to set a pagan temple on fire, and seven devils that “devoyde” (line 691, s.d.) from Mary during the feast at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A floating ship crosses the playing space with saintly and regal cargo; Jesus orders visionary appearances of Mary and attendant angels; the saint is elevated into the clouds for daily feedings with heavenly manna.63 The sheer material demands of the play — e.g., for a ship sufficiently large to bear sailors as well as a king and queen, or for a hoisting device enabling transport between heaven and earth — point to great mechanical and technical virtuosity.64 And all of these objects, spaces, and special effects are mobilized to create the multiple dramatic worlds occupied and transformed by the play’s heroine.

I stated above (pp. 1–2) that the authorship, locale, and auspices of the Digby Magdalene remain a mystery to the many scholars who nonetheless continue to investigate the mechanics as well as the theatrical potential of its staging.65 One piece of this mystery is the very fact that “no one seemed even to want to record what must have been considerable expenditures in relation to” the play’s performance. As Godfrey notes, the mechanical feats and specialized locales that the play calls for “would generate, one might think, both curiosity and provoke response sufficiently to leave evidence of itself behind.”66 Despite the archive’s muteness on this point, we can confidently observe, however, that the Digby play employs platea and loca, or place and scaffold staging. In general terms, this method requires an open area, called the platea or place, and a group of scaffolds or loca arranged around and/or within it. Whereas the platea as playing space is available for multiple and shifting significations, the loca constitute specific architectural or other designated structures; in the case of the Digby Magdalene, the tyrants’ scaffolds, Magdalene’s castle and her bower, the Jerusalem tavern, and Lazarus’ tomb constitute some of these loca. Dramatic actions on or at the loca are knit together by activities occurring on the platea, which furnishes the basic ground for the play’s staging.67 Evidence indicates that platea and loca staging, including theaters in the round, was a regular feature of late medieval East Anglian performances. In his comprehensive analysis of dramatic staging in the region, Victor Scherb connects the Digby saint play with The Castle of Perseverance and the two Passion sequences in the N-Town Play, as examples of the “large-scale play.”68 Recent studies of the scope of the Digby Magdalene indicate exactly how large that scale might have been. Matthew Evan Davis identifies the play’s requirement for over fifty characters and thirty-seven different locations.69 An analysis of the play’s dramatic action posits that at least thirty-one of the fifty-two action sequences comprising it occur on the platea, its primary space where audience members may have been invited or expected not simply to follow but to join, promenade fashion, a dramatic action kinetically dedicated to horizontal and vertical traveling.70

Who was occupying this proliferation of dramatic roles and enacting all of this movement? As for medieval English drama as a whole, it is generally assumed that the Digby Magdalene in performance — though the issue has largely eluded scholarly debate — would be the work of an all-male cast, accustomed to conventions of theatrical crossdressing that prevailed in the period.71 From Cyrus’ extolling his daughter Mary’s femininity (line 71) and Jesus’ praising that of his mother (line 1356), to the scabrous sexual innuendo that punctuates masculine rivalry in the play’s comedic master-servant scenes, to the gender-norming exemplified by the king and queen of Marseilles, the Digby Magdalene is not shy about exploring — and exploiting — gender roles for theatrical meaning and dramatic effect.72 Crossdressing on its medieval stage could lead to provocative manipulation of the gender categories and behaviors that are so often at issue in the play. For example, men playing the female roles might interject homoerotic valences into scenes of heterosexual wooing (like that occurring between Mary Magdalene and Curiosity, or the king and queen of Marseilles). Theatrical gestures highlighting the instability of gender categories seem especially apt in light of Mary Magdalene’s own association with sexual transgression.73 Still we should not entirely rule out the possibility of women performing on the Digby Magdalene’s stage. New evidence from Suffolk discovered by James Stokes, for instance, provides a portrait of women, across the social spectrum, who were involved in a range of performative activities in what he calls “pre-evangelical” England, that is, the England of the provinces where traditional cultural festivities, games, and plays endured up to the late sixteenth century.74

But if particulars of performing the Digby Magdalene on its late medieval stage must elude us, the play itself invites, indeed almost requires, that we think about how and why it may have worked in theatrical terms. Weaving together hagiographical narrative, courtly discourse, mercantile and anticlerical satire, scriptural texts, and contemplative and mystical idioms, the play unfolds on a stage in which dramatic action vacillates between naturalistic representation, allegory, ritual, parody, and dreamscapes. Its stage comprehends all the world and the supernatural realms too. As a recent study observes, in its dramatic tale of travel the play must “grapple with the challenge of how to present a geographically and temporally sprawling story in a limited performance space.”75 One way to address this challenge may have involved the re-use or resignification of loca or scaffolds. Scherb notes clusters of associations that attend various loca, allowing for memorial recapitulation of earlier scenes and actions under entirely new meanings: thus the tavern in which Mary Magdalene falls for Curiosity may give way to the bower in which she awaits her lovers; that in its turn is refigured in the hortulanus scene in which Mary encounters the risen Christ as a gardener. In this model, the resignification of dramatic loca also heralds changes in spiritual commitments associated with those spaces.76 Findon’s study of the play’s staging further attends to its “spatial semantics,” the conceptual kinds of spaces in and through which dramatic action unfolds. Thus, in addition to their sheer number and potential for doubling, the spaces of dramatic loca may be domestic or public, closed or open, fortified or vulnerable.77

Our contemporary awareness of these signifying possibilities of location and movement inscribed within the Digby text invites larger questions about how medieval performance practice, in this instance, is not simply an action done to and with the dramatic text but is instead the necessary condition for realizing the play’s complex spiritual and aesthetic vision.78 From this perspective, then, to inquire about the staging of Mary Magdalene is also to ask how a play that depicts its own spectacle as a medium of conversion can also present a Jesus who enjoins his followers to pursue a faith without corporeal signs; or it is to consider how a play so committed dramatically to interrogating sources and forms of knowledge of the sacred might also offer its own embodied project as part of that effort.79 To inquire about the staging of the Digby saint play, then, is to encounter a metatheatricality that recognizes, even celebrates, the extraordinarily good fit between the inescapable materiality of dramatic performance and the demands and opportunities of Mary Magdalene’s rich late medieval biography.


This text has been edited from the single extant copy of Mary Magdalene in Bodleian Library MS Digby 133 (fols. 95r–145r). Although I have not attempted a complete collation with prior editions, I have recorded all substantive departures from Baker, Murphy, and Hall’s Early English Text Society (EETS) edition of the play, The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and e Museo 160 (1982), which collates all previous editions. I have also consulted the text of Mary Magdalene in David Bevington’s Medieval Drama (1975), probably the version of the play best known to readers in recent decades. Bevington’s text renders a collation difficult because his edition fully normalizes spelling. I have recorded significant departures from Bevington, however, and also noted my agreement with his readings when these seem preferable to those of the EETS edition. Bevington’s text is closest to F. J. Furnivall’s first edition of the play for EETS, The Digby Plays (1896). The edition of Mary Magdalene in John Coldewey’s Early English Drama: An Anthology (1993) is largely derived from Baker, Murphy, and Hall.

This edition renders the manuscript’s Middle English text according to guidelines consistent with editorial practices of the METS series:

• Thorn (þ) is modernized as th; yogh (ȝ) as y, g, gh, and occasionally as z and s.
i/j and u/v are regularized.
• East Anglian x (xall) for the digraph [ʃ] is normalized as sh; qw (qwat) is normalized as wh. First occurrences of these practices are recorded in the textual notes.
• Scribal w for v is regularized (volunté).
• An e has been added to the (þe) used as a pronoun (thee).
• Single final e with full syllabic value is accented (degré, nessesyté).
• All Latin and English abbreviations are silently expanded.
• Modern punctuation has been added.
• Latin words and stage directions are printed in italics.
• Speech markers and setting changes are printed in boldface.

Several of the scribe’s practices deserve special mention. The scribe uses thorn and yogh interchangeably, especially in combination with the letter e, thereby creating confusion between the article þe (the) and forms of the second person pronoun þe [thee] and ȝe [ye].80 For example, see line 168, where the scribe has written the identical word to signify ye (ȝe) and the article the (þe): “Þe [ye] be þe [the] rewlar of this regyon”; or compare lines 101, “O þe [ye] good fathyr,” and 105, “ȝe [ye] shew us poyntys . . .” In such instances, my transcriptions reflect the best modern usage as determined by context.

As the EETS editors observe, the “scribe seems not to have had a very firm grip on the significance of some of the traditional abbreviation symbols.”81 Thus the scribe may write yr for ys, or us for ys. Discernible patterns of irregularity are recorded in the textual notes. Because of these scribal inconsistencies, my expansion of abbreviations occasionally differs from those of Baker, Murphy, and Hall. I have not recorded these minor differences and have sought to expand all abbreviations as consistently as possible.

In this edition, divisions in the text correspond to changes in speaker only, not stanzaic form, as in the case of the EETS edition, the only one that attempts to reconstruct the play’s chaotic verse form and stanzaic structure.82 The EETS editors posit that the confusing verse forms of the Digby text are probably a function of the play’s copying and recopying over time, compounded by scribal lapses. Whereas the scribe has bracketed stanzaic patterns only intermittently, he has otherwise attempted to assert order on the text by drawing lines between the speeches of individual speakers. This edition, then, follows the scribe’s lead in attending to organization along these lines.

The manuscript’s speech markers generally appear in the right margin, though the scribe has occasionally placed them at the left or at the top of the page, especially when a page break occurs in the middle of a speech (e.g., fol. 99v). The Digby Magdalene scribe appears to have been incapable of designating the play’s characters consistently by the same names, and of spelling or abbreviating a name in the same way twice consecutively. Speech markers in the text, therefore, are wildly inconsistent. To cite the most egregious example, Mary Magdalene is designated by speech markers as Mary Mau, Mary Magleyn, Maria, Marya, Mary, Mari Maugleyn, Mary M, M Magdleyn, Magdleyn, Mauleyn, etc. I have regularized all of these to Mary Maudleyn, the name the saint gives when asked by the King of Marseilles to identify herself (line 1675). I have regularized other names in speech markers to the form or spelling most frequently used by the scribe (e.g., Herodys rather than Herowdys). Where no one form appears with obvious frequency, I have selected the first or best spelling based on clarity. When the same character is identified by two or even three different names, I have retained all names and provided glosses where clarification is needed; for example, the shipmaster is called Nauta and Mastyr as well as Shepmaster; the character Satan is also identified as Primus and Rex Diabolus. Like other abbreviations in the text, all abbreviated speech markers have been silently expanded. When the scribe has omitted a speech marker, as occurs when a speaker is identified by a stage direction, I have supplied the speaker’s name in brackets. Because I have regularized the speech markers in this manner, I have not recorded variations with Baker, Murphy, and Hall’s EETS text, which treats the speech markers inconsistently, sometimes silently expanding and sometimes designating expansions with brackets. The list of Dramatis Personae normalizes these differences to facilitate entry to and reading of the text.

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