Research

My main research interest is medieval English drama, but I have done research on early modern theatre, medieval Dutch and French drama, and non-dramatic medieval literature.

My new project will look at sceptical readings of medieval English literature. Despite recent work highlighting the fluid boundaries between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the Middle Ages, scholars of medieval literature still work within a framework that assumes an unquestioningly faithful, Christian author and audience (readers, listeners, spectators), a framework that results in conventionally devotional interpretations. Close attention to the surviving texts, both faith-based and secular, has the potential to disrupt this influential misconception and to demonstrate how heterogeneous the Middle Ages really were. Indeed, many medieval texts explicitly or implicitly acknowledge and play with religious doubts in the audience. In 1321, for instance, Landgraf Friedrich the Joyful was said to have suffered a stroke out of anger at Christ’s lack of mercy after watching a play on the parable of the Ten Virgins. It would be easy to dismiss such an interpretation as mistaken, but the harsh treatment of the foolish virgins in surviving plays does invite debate and even unease, contrary to the story’s allegorical intent. By concentrating predominantly on conventional and conformist interpretations of such texts, we risk losing sight of their multifaceted nature as well as underestimating the diversified nature of the audience. Work by several scholars has utterly refuted the notion that ‘unbelief, in the sense of cynicism, atheism, irreligion and so forth, was ‘impossible’ in the pre-modern period’ (Arnold, 2005; see also Justice, 2008) and has shown that various levels of doubt, incredulity, and scepticism were extremely common; this is something we need to bear in mind when reading texts of the time. Employing modern theories and work that have demonstrated the importance of the audience in hermeneutical processes and building upon advances by historians in our understanding of religious scepticism in the Middle Ages, I intend to approach Old and Middle English literature from an innovative angle, focusing on how contemporary evidence of doubts concerning God and religion can help us establish valid yet ground-breaking new insights into medieval English literature and society.

Until recently, I was working as a Marie Curie Research Fellow, funded by the European Commission Research Executive Agency, exploring the relationship between medieval English drama and sermons in order to offer a more accurate insight into the problem of possible cross-fertilisation of these two performative and didactic genres, as well as into the importance of drama in late medieval devotion. This research addresses the interrelation between sermons and vernacular drama in late medieval England from a variety of angles in order to provide a thorough, innovative, and comprehensive study. I investigate how sermons and plays were used as media for public learning, how they combine this didactic aim with literary exigencies, and how the plays in particular acquired and reflected a position of authority and whether this brought them in conflict with sermons, the official channel of ecclesiastical instruction. The project is divided into four main research areas, namely historical connections between these two genres, the function of performativity of plays and sermons, the representation of religious authority figures on the stage, and the position of the plays within the wider politics of vernacular theology. The research will provide a nuanced perception of the literary and religious landscapes in which these plays and sermons flourished, sharpen our awareness of their status and role in society, and offer a careful analysis of their performative, dramatic qualities.

My PhD dissertation assessed the importance of negative characters, and especially of the Vice and the sinnekens, for our understanding of medieval and sixteenth-century Dutch and English drama by charting diachronic developments and through synchronic comparisons. The analysis of the functions as well as theatrical and meta-theatrical aspects of these characters reveals how these plays were conditioned by their literary and social setting. It sheds invaluable light on the subtly divergent appreciation of the concept of drama in these two regions and on their different use of drama as a didactic tool. In a wider perspective, I also investigated how the plays and their negative characters reflect the changes in the intellectual and religious climate of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This research has been published as a monograph, Staging Vice: A Study of Dramatic Traditions in Medieval and Sixteenth-Century England and the Low Countries, by Rodopi as part of the Ludus – Medieval and early Renaissance Theatre and Drama series.