Wednesday, October 30, 2013
LN 1106 (IASH conference room)
Reception to follow
Theresa Coletti, Distinguished Scholar-Teacher
Department of English
University of Maryland
“Sex and the City: Sacred and Social Epistemologies in the Chester Slaughter of the Innocents”
The biblical story of the Slaughter of Innocents recounted in Matthew’s gospel provided late medieval English urban communities the opportunity to gaze upon a symbolic image of social and political relationships in which they might discern their own likeness. Vernacular dramas on the Slaughter appropriate themes and tropes associated with medieval interpretations and celebrations of the Innocents’ feast to critique social and material categories of late medieval urban life. This paper examines the Slaughter of the Innocents in the Chester mystery cycle, the most provocative of the English plays on this subject. In the Chester Slaughter, dramatic reflexivity involves an elaborate comic subplot in which mothers of the Innocents struggle verbally and physically with soldiers of Herod seeking to murder their children. In one such contest, a mulier attempts to thwart the soldier who threatens to attack her child if it has a “pintell” (penis); the woman insists that the child has “two holes under the tayle.” Her challenge puts into play a series of substitutions that focus on questions of social and sexual identity, exposing their intersections with power and knowledge. Analyzing the web of social and symbolic relationships signified by the mulier’s act, this paper contends that the challenge of counting holes under the tail encodes an anxious critique of the major categories of difference on which civic authority and social structure were based.