Legal and Social Discourse of Matrimony in Selected N-Town Cycle Plays
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The Marriage of Mary and Joseph, Joseph’s Doubt and The Trial of Mary and Joseph are fifteenth-century pageants from the cycle known as The N-Town Plays (or Ludus Coventriae). The first centres on legal and social controversies surrounding the upcoming marriage of Joseph and Mary. The second revolves around Mary’s supposed adultery whereas in the third Mary is publicly accused of breaking marriage vows and Joseph of harbouring the alleged offender. The purpose of this paper is to analyze, first of all, why the marriage of Mary and Joseph is regarded as legally valid, even though it does not fulfil the requirement of marital intercourse or social obligation of giving birth. Secondly, the argument will move on to the possible reasons behind such a nigh sacrilegious representation of the Holy Couple and the undermining of its pure character with legal objections and subsequent accusations of lewd conduct. Lastly, the paper will provide an explanation as to why this borderline heretical dramatization was accepted by both society and the Ecclesia. Additionally, it will elucidate the medieval society’s tendency to equate the nature of earthly verdicts with divine law and the influence of this tendency on the plays’ reception. The method of analysis will be based chiefly on a comparison of all three plays with the codes of medieval canon law, such as Gratian’s Decretum, works of Doctors of the Church, late medieval marriage treatises composed by bishops and theologians and additional twentieth-century studies.
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