On 7 November 2014, I had the privilege of taking part in the University of British Columbia's 42nd annual Medieval Workshop. Organized by Vin Nardizzi and his Oecologies collaborators, the workshop focused (unsurprisingly) on "Medieval and Renaissance Oecologies." My paper was part of the wonderful "Hedges" session, chaired by Eve Preus; my co-speakers were Katie Davison and Claire Duncan. Thanks are also due to Joshua Eyler, whose 11 May 2014 Kalamazoo paper on "The View from Zacchaeus's Sycamore: Perspectives on Disability in the Medieval English Biblical Plays" inspired this talk, and to Jonathan Hsy, who walked me through Disability Studies 101.
And, yes, I did wear my own vegetal prosthesis behind one ear while speaking:
[I opened with an abbreviated overview of my book project on vegetal bodies in early English drama; since a version of this has appeared on the blog before, I'm cutting it and beginning instead with the new material.]
My talk today builds on The Play of the Sacrament's interest in processed, crafted plant matter (fragmented vegetable bodies instead of whole ones). I'm looking here at those plants which function as prosthetics for humans, vegetable compensations for human impairment. For example, there's the flowering wand from N-Town's Marriage of Mary and Joseph, the stick that simultaneously testifies to Joseph's age-imposed impotence (he must carry a rigid wand as a staff because his legs—and the genitals those legs euphemistically denote—don't function "normally"; he enters the play in a supine position: as his kinsman asks him, "What ys the case that ye lye here on this ground?") and to his spiritual potency (when the dead wand orgasmically flowers, we understand that Joseph is suitable to be Jesus's earthly father; the stick takes the place of the penis that, for the stake of Mary's virginity, cannot be allowed to function).
Similar prosthetics abound in the cycle plays. Noah's ark might count as one, a wooden supplement compensating for humanity's aquatic deficiencies: Noah and his family can't swim for forty days and forty nights, so God teaches them to build a wooden fish to do the swimming for them. But perhaps that example stretches the boundaries of the category "prosthetic." We could turn instead to the ubiquitous crutches used by the blind and lame beggars we encounter in the cycles' Ministry plays, to Caecus, the man blind since birth who figures in both the Chester Glovers' play of The Blind Chelidonian and Lazarus and the York Skinners' Entry into Jerusalem, and to Claudus, the lame man who also appears in the Skinners' play.
While Caecus's staff is never explicitly mentioned in the play-texts (he gets around in Chester with the help of a Puer and in York with the assistance of a charitable Pauper—human prosthetics?), iconography would seem to mandate that he carry some form of wooden support. Above is a bas-de-page illustration from folio 218v of the Smithfield Decretals: even though the blind man in this image has a human helper similar to those assisting the plays' Caecus, he nonetheless bears a staff as well. As for the Skinners' Claudus, the representative of those who cannot "welde ther lymmes withouten strife," he does have a prosthetic called out in the script: Jesus commands him to "ryse, and caste the cruccys good space / Her in the felde." In all of these examples, "dead" wood counters human impairment: the hierarchy of human over plant is seemingly maintained (even if the human is dangerously dependent on the plant prior to Christ's intervention). But it's interesting to note that Claudus describes his healing in terms of the non-human: "For I was halte, both kyme and lame, / And I suffered tene and sorrowes inowe. / Ay-lastand lord, loued be thi name, / I am als light as birde on howe." Tekne gives way to physis here; Claudus likens himself to an animal on a living tree, replicates the dependency of his disabled days but this time with the quick branch of the tree replacing the dead branch of the crutch. We're back with Joseph and his quick wand here, the staff or crutch that nonetheless miraculously flowers.
We're also with another pair of impaired humans augmented by living plant matter: Zacchaeus and his sycamore tree (seen above in an historiated initial "D" from a twelfth-century German manuscript) and Chris and his cross. Zacchaeus is the easy case of this duo: his impairment in the Skinners' Entry into Jerusalem combines elements of both Caecus and Claudus. He cannot see Christ enter Jerusalem because, as he notes, "I am lawe, and of men high / Full is the gate." His vision is impaired even as his soul is impaired by his status as "prince ... of publicans." At the same time, his correct desire to look on Christ grants him upright stature identical to that of the healed Claudus. In place of "rise, and caste the cruccys good space / Her in the felde," we have Zacchaeus's vow "Therfore yone tre I will go too / And in it clyme." Zacchaeus does not cast his wooden prosthetic away (he can't: it's a living tree, rooted in the earth). But physical healing is not the point in this scene anyway. Instead, it's a scene of spiritual healing, the sort that counts the most. When Zacchaeus publicly courts humiliation from the crowd ("I lette noght for this thrang, / Her to say sone / Me schamys with synne") and makes restitution to all the poor people he has "begylyd" through usury by giving away "Halue my god," his heart grows three sizes that day (so to speak). He "falls" from the tree (an action ripe with typological echoes of Eden) only to "rise" to Heaven.
All of these instances fit perfectly into the "religious model" of disability studies outlined by Edward Wheatley, the approach to medieval disability that focuses on impairments as signs and products of human sin, as opportunities for the manifestation of God's power and thus for the conversion of onlookers, the correction of the broader spiritual impairment imposed on humanity by original sin. (I'm very aware of the internecine struggle within disability studies over terminology, definitions, and models, so consider my use of Wheatley's term here as sufficiently "hedged" about.) This is paradigmatically so in the case of Chester's Caecus: the restoration of his sight is paired with Christ's resurrection of Lazarus, the divine victory over the greatest of human impairments—death. The healing scene is also part and parcel of a play deeply invested in a thematics of light/darkness, sight/blindness, openness/concealment; Caecus's physical enlightenment follows his spiritual illumination in choosing to pursue Christ's miraculous assistance.
At the same time, the scene is linked to the bodily imperatives at the heart of the Corpus Christi feast's fusion of the mystical body of the Church and the body politic of Chester. Prior to his healing, Caecus is a stranger (in the medieval legal sense of the term) to the civic franchise enjoyed by his neighbors. As his parents note to the dubious Pharisees, Caecus "blynd was borne" and thus "could never bye nor sell"—a line I've linked elsewhere to Peter Travis's obversation that "To be a foreigner and to be physically incomplete were similar conditions of existence." Disability was apparently grounds for denial of apprenticeship (the Coventry Weavers' 1452-53 ordinances specify that entry to the guild is only possible if the applicant possesses "all his ryght lymes") and thus denial of the freedom of the city and full citizenship. After his healing, Caecus speaks of honoring Christ "with heart free," an indication that he is now able to participate fully in both the corpus Christi of the Eucharist/Church and the corporation of Chester.
Yet there's still that pesky, ineradicable non-human element lurking in all of these cases: Caecus's self-comparison to a bird, Zacchaeus's apostrophe to the living tree ("A, nobill tree, thou secomoure, / I blisse hym that the on the erthe broght"), and, typologically anticipated by Zacchaeus's willingness to climb "the tree of silly fruit" (Augustine's symbolically rich but etymologically inaccurate translation of Greek sykomoros into Latin), the Cross of Christ. The York Shermen's play of The Road to Cavalry repeatedly characterizes the Cross as a prosthetic designed "To bere this cursed knave" to humiliation and death. Through the Incarnation, Christ mimetically takes on the impairments and infirmities of sinful humanity—he becomes disabled. In his Passion, the height of his experience of mortal embodiment, he needs the support of the wooden Cross to act, to carry out his victory over disability and death. Like Zacchaeus, he must climb the tree of silly fruit, the tree of human folly.
And, just like Zacchaeus's "nobill" sycamore and Joseph's flowering wand, the Cross is anything but dead wood. (As we seen in the above page from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, it was customary to depict the Cross as green, i.e., living, wood.) This is where the playwrights' and spectators' familiarity with the widespread Legend of the Wood of the Cross comes into play. They would know that the Cross was born from three seeds of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the instrument of humanity's damnation. They would know that, planted in dead Adam's mouth by his son Seth, these seeds would sprout into a mighty, three-stemmed tree, a Trinitarian tree that Moses would uproot and bear with him, still living, throughout the entire Exodus, healing the sick and the infirm with its sweet odors—a tree that David would transplant to his palace so that he might one day sit under it and penitently write the Psalms. The people of York would also know that Solomon had his father's tree cut down to serve as a beam for the ceiling of the Temple, that—and this is crucial—the tree would resist this human appropriation, changing its shape and size repeatedly so that it never fit the spot intended for it by Solomon. The tree had its own agenda, its own agency. Finally, the citizens would know how the tree suffered its own anticipatory version of Christ's Passion, how it was tossed into a lake to drown and then shamed by being used as a footbridge for men and animals.
The Shermen's play alludes to all of this "history" when the Third Soldier enters with the Cross and tells everyone that he's had it made from wood "that laye ouere the lake— / Men called it the Kyngis Tree," a reference backward to David and Solomon but also forward to Christ. We also have the soldiers' insistence that the Cross has been "boorede, / Full euen at ilke an ende," an all-too-human attempt to control the wooden flesh (pith) of the Cross that will apparently be undone in the following play, the Pinners' Crucifixion. There the soldiers discover that the borings have not been made properly, that the measurements were apparently wrong. I've argued in other conference presentations that the soldiers' initial efforts were not incorrect, that we in fact have here a reenactment of the Cross's Temple hijinks, its alteration of its dimensions to thwart human attempts at control, attempts to sideline the divine will. (Christ must suffer fully to redeem Creation, so the Cross acts in support of that agenda, forcing the soldiers to make do with ropes and hurt Jesus even more severely.)
The Cross thus epitomizes the early English drama motif of the wood that acts contrary to expected human wisdom (the common sense or worldly ideology that old men are impotent, that adults shouldn't climb trees or give away half of their riches to paupers, that dead matter can be shaped and controlled by human artistry). The non-human participates in the production of human community, but in ways that go against the grain of the audience's quotidian expectations. This is the literal vision imparted in the plays by the Via Dolorosa sections: the Cross will bear Christ, will serve as his non-human prosthetic. But first Christ must bear the Cross, must serve as its human prosthetic.
Before the Passion, wood carries humans: in arks, as crutches and staves. During and after the Passion (and even in Isaac's typological preenactment of Christ's sacrifice), humans carry wood. We see this at the end of the Chester Cooks' play, their Harrowing of Hell. There the archangel Michael is leading the biblical patriarchs (including Seth, Chester's most explicit allusion to the Legend of the Wood of the Cross) out of Hell and into Paradise. As Adam and Eve and the others reverse the Fall and return home to Eden, they encounter a stranger: Dismas, the good thief of Luke 23:39-43, who comes on stage with a cross on his back—what he calls "a tokeninge ... to Michaell angell for to bringe, / that I might have entree." As a term from law, entree signifies "The taking possession of lands or tenements by entering the same." The play's word choice thus echoes its source in The Stanzaic Life of Christ where Dismas refers to his cruciform warrant from Christ. We can see how the plant-centered Legend of the Wood of the Cross serves the civic ideology at the heart of Corpus Christi here, how the Cross is a prosthetic enabling Dismas to achieve the freedom of Christ's city, the New Jerusalem. But, given the Cross's legendary history, it's also worth noting that Dismas's entree to Paradise is simultaneously the tree's much-delayed return to its roots. At long last, the tree can cast aside its (human) crutches and rise, bearing the fruit of salvation in its restored branches.