Reversing Discipline: The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge Lollard Exegesis, Lollard Exegesis, and the Failure of Representation
The Tretise offers a critique of the Corpus Christi plays within the immediate Wycliffite context of controversies over the meaning of the literal sense of Scripture, biblical translation, and early nationalist discourses. The first part of the Tretise attempts a cautious balance between the ideal of literal English Bible study inspired by grace alone and the authority and methodology of the church, in which the author seeks to subject the performance of miracles in the flesh to the ascetic ideal of “disciplining of oure fleyssh.” Miracle plays “reverse discipline” because they present a version of the literal sense of Scripture that for the Lollard author can only remain embodied and carnal, foreclosing the textual discipline of exegesis. In the second part of the Tretise, a second author launches a recuperative interpretation of the first, shifting the emphasis from the discipline of exegesis to examining the scriptural grounding of drama as a social practice. He uses Paul’s exegesis of the “playing” of Isaac and IshMAEl (Gal. 4:24-31) to align the plays with the Old Law itself. The miracle plays are seen to turn Christians into phantasmatic “Jews” by enacting what must necessarily be interpreted, by presenting allegory in signs removed from the things they signify. This author’s exhortation to “play” as David before the ark of God must be understood as a call to read the text of Scripture as text. By the Tretise’s account, the civic ideology which produces the Corpus Christi plays naturalizes as an illusory communal body a fragile, unstable people always in danger of “reversing Christ” and regressing into its heathen origins.