Monday, May 18, 2015

Kalamazoo 2015: Human-Plant Assemblages in Cornish Ordinalia Plays

Not exactly the secret life we were
gathered to discuss!

This past Friday (15 May 2015), I took part in the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies "Secret Lives of Medieval Plants" panel organized by Rob Wakeman (University of Maryland) and Danielle Allor (Rutgers University). My fellow panelists were Allor, Haylie Swenson (George Washington University), and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia). Our charge was to resist plant blindness, the treatment of plants now and then "as passive backdrop or as sessile, stable objects" and to "examine how medieval writers, artists, thinkers, and theologians thought with and became entangled in the secret life of plants." I think we succeeded admirably: our papers built on one another without effort and (even more pleasing) without any prior coordination. Kudos to Rob and Danielle for putting together such a simpatico panel!

Rob started off the session by playing Belly's "Feed the Tree," and then I followed up with the first paper:


Before I can begin speaking to you today about human-plant assemblages in late medieval Cornwall, I have to engage in some unfortunate but necessary brush-clearing. The Middle Cornish Ordinalia plays are so little known at present that this past Monday’s Oxford Today blog entry on the dramas (“Dramatic Discovery at the Bodleian”) was received by Facebook and Twitter’s medievalist communities as though a set of exciting new texts had suddenly been uncovered. (They had not; the blog was essentially an advertisement for an Oxford alum’s forthcoming book on medieval performance sites in Cornwall.) So what are the Cornish Ordinalia? Simply put, they are a trilogy of late fourteenth or early fifteenth-century biblical dramas recorded by a pair of scribes in the mid fifteenth century Bodleian Library MS Bodley 791. These three plays—the Origo Mundi, the Passio Domini, and the Resurrectio Domini—comprise a sort of mini-cycle akin to the larger cycles of Chester and York. The plays were meant to be performed over the course of three consecutive days: the Origo and the Passio both end with a character summing up the action and encouraging the audience to return for the next day’s show. We don’t know exactly when during the festive year the plays would have been enacted, and we have only circumstantial evidence placing them in the vicinity of Glasney College in Penryn, a house of secular canons established by the Bishop of Exeter. (Said evidence consists of an extensive set of Penryn-area land grants given to various characters in the plays as rewards for good service.) The aspect of the Ordinalia which has received the greatest amount of attention from scholars has been their plen-an-gwary (or “playing place”) method of staging: Bodley 791 contains three stage plans, one for each play, depicting a circular performance area (or platea) with eight character-specific sites (or sedes) distributed around the circumference of the circle.


Looks a lot like the cross-section
of a tree trunk doesn't it?

Above is the plan for the Origo Mundi, the play I’ll be primarily discussing today: God and divine authority are located at the east-facing top of the circle in Heaven, David and secular authority are located at the bottom of the circle in the west, Satan and Hell occupy the northern edge of the circle to your left. The audience possibly sat or stood in the middle of the playing area as seen in this twenty-first century staging of the Origo at the surviving plen in St. Just:


Wish I could have been present for this!

The stage plans for the Passio and the Resurrectio make it clear that the basic east-west axis of divine and secular authority was maintained across all three days of the sequence, with the other sedes changing as necessary to suit the needs of the specific show.

Shifting our attention to the text of the Ordinalia plays—and specifically to the first play of the sequence, the Origo Mundi—gets us closer to today’s topic of medieval plants. The Origo is a series of Old Testament narratives thematically linked via Christ-centered typology: we begin with Adam (the Old Man whose fall necessitates Christ’s incarnation), then Abel (the murdered shepherd), then Noah (whose wooden ark anticipates the Cross), then Isaac (the willing sacrifice), then Moses (the giver of the Old Law that Christ will supersede with the New), then David (Christ’s kingly forebear), and finally Solomon (who builds the Temple that is both the Body of Christ à la John 2:18-22 and the type of the Church as a corporate body).

The one apparent anomaly in this list of patriarchs is Adam’s third son Seth, who features in the plot of the play between the Abel and Noah episodes. Aside from a brief appearance in the Chester Harrowing of Hell, this is Seth’s only appearance in extant insular medieval drama. His presence here signals that we are not only in the presence of Christian apocrypha, but a very specific strain at that: the Legend of the Wood of the Cross, the origin story behind the Crucifixion’s silent partner. The Origo Mundi is more or less a straightforward adaptation of the standard legend: in pain on his deathbed, Adam begs his son Seth to bring back the oil of mercy from Eden. Seth is not allowed into Paradise, but the cherubin on duty grants him three peeks inside the gate where he sees first the withered Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then a hellish serpent in the tree, and finally the swaddled Christ-child in the upper branches. The cherubin gives Seth three seeds from the tree and tells him to plant them in dead Adam’s mouth. When Moses subsequently journeys into the desert, he discovers that three wooded rods have sprouted from the grave as a sign of the Trinity:


Adam makes for good fertilizer in this branch version
of the Legend (from the Hoursof Catherine of Cleves)

Moses takes up the rods and carries them as far as the borders of the Promised Land, performing miracles with them along the way. Before he dies, he has the rods replanted on Mount Tabor, where David is directed by Gabriel to find them and honor them. David does this, bringing the rods back to Jerusalem where they grow into a mighty tree.

This is the tree under which David writes the Psalter as penance for his sin with Bathsheba, and it is this tree (and only this tree) which is judged to be sufficient to serve as the main roof beam for Solomon’s Temple. When the carpenters try to cut the tree to size, however, it changes shape three times, thwarting its incorporation into the fabric of the Temple. Solomon has it placed within the Temple in a honored spot; Maximilla, a young maiden accidentally sits on the tree, causing her robes to catch fire. She calls out to Christ to extinguish the flames, serving as both a prophet of his coming and as the first Christian martyr: the bishop first orders her stoned to death for her violation of the Old Law, and then he orders that the tree be cast into the Pool of Bethsaida. This punishment backfires: the tree spends its days blessing the waters and healing the sick. The Origo Mundi closes with the bishop’s servants carrying the tree to its new punishment as a bridge over the stream of Cedron. While the tree will make one more appearance in the Passio Domini as Christ’s Cross, its legendary history is more or less over at this point: seedling of the tree that brought humanity death, it has grown to become the tree that brings humanity salvation and life eternal. As Ambrose puts it, “mors per arborem, vita per cruces.”


The lignum vitae meets tree diagram
in the Howard Psalter (ca. 1310-20)

Robert Longsworth and Jane Bakere have both noted how the Legend of the Wood of the Cross provides the patriarchal typologies of the Origo Mundi with a unifying narrative frame. To repurpose the words of Solomon’s First Carpenter, the play, like the Temple, needs “a firm support or else the whole thing will be weak.” As the tree grows, the play comes together. Even when it’s not on stage, its ligneous presence is felt: Noah’s ark is made from “oak timbers,” after all, and Isaac carries “a bundle of firewood” up the mountain to seeming death. It’s thus no surprise that Bakere “paradoxically” identifies “the inanimate wood of the cross” as “the most powerful character in Origo Mundi.”

Coming at the Ordinalia from the perspective of critical plant studies, I would tend to concur with her assessment. However, I want to take issue with Bakere’s use of “paradoxically” and “inanimate.” The belief that plants are inanimate, insensate beings, that it’s an illogical paradox for them to possess agency on or off-stage—this is the zoocentrism Matthew Hall decries in Plants as Persons, the plant blindness called out by James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler and countered by the scientists of the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior. The typology informing the Legend of the Wood of the Cross (and thus the Origo Mundi) is more than mere metaphor: the tree is an actor, a vital participant in the multispecies assemblage enacted within the circular boundary of the plen. The Ordinalia enact a medieval natureculture, a fusion of physis (related to Greek phutón or “plant”) and tekne that treats the corpus Christi as hybrid zoophyte, a site where fleshly beings of all sorts come together in divine hypostasis.

We see the tree’s status as moral agent from the moment of its first appearance in the Origo Mundi: convinced by the serpent’s blandishments, Eve is willing to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the Cornish play develops this standard bible drama scene in a startling way, refusing to elide the physical process whereby sin enters creation. Eve peevishly tells the serpent; “If I’m going to reach the branches, you’ll have to bend them to the ground.” Not only does this line stress the tree’s arboreal materiality, its specific form of embodiment, but it also reveals the plant’s unwillingness to violate God’s commandment, its agential resistance to Eve’s disobedient act.

The tree once again behaves as tree when Moses encounters it in its incarnation as a set of sapling-esque rods. After Moses brings the rods into his tent in anticipation of Solomon’s placement of the beam into the Temple, Aaron notes that “These rods are holy since they yield so sweet a savor. It’s my belief that such a perfume could never rise from all the plants of the world in flower.” Typologically, the rods take the place of Christ in this speech: Jesus is the King of Man, and the rods are elevated above all other plants. Indeed, they have the same healing power that Christ will subsequently display in the Passio Domini: they serve as antidotes to the poisons of serpents and toads, and they cure the blind and the lame.

But the restorative power signaled by the rods’ perfume is also perfectly in line with their nature as vegetable bodies. We know that plants use a variety of volatile organic compounds or VOCs to attract pollinators and fend off herbivores; we also know that these VOCs are a means of communication between the different parts of the plant, other plants of the same species, and even plants of different species (a kind of chemical eavesdropping). The sweet savor of the blessed rods functions similarly: in its ability both to ward off predation by diabolical devourers and to attract the faithful pollinators who will spread the good news of the Flower of Jesse, this perfume of “exceeding grace” becomes a VSC or volatile spiritual compound.

As the Origo Mundi draws to a close, the tree becomes an even more unruly actant. Unable to decide where to plant the rods, David has them left “at rest in some verdant spot” under the guard of his Butler and Messenger. In a sequence that will be revisited in the Resurrectio Domini’s account of the dormant Christ’s rising from the tomb despite the watch kept upon him, the rods likewise elude the boastful sentries to “put down their roots into the earth,” where they join “together to make one.” Upon seeing the now full-grown tree, David remarks that “it is the Father himself who has planted them,” providing the scene with an incarnational quality reminiscent of Piers Plowman’s “plante of pees” and its heavy descent into the earth. David’s words reinforce our sense that the tree operates according to a nonhuman logic; it enacts the divine will humanity abandoned in Eden, a point stressed when the First Carpenter encounters the plant and can think only of its use value, its status as standing-reserve: “My God, what a beautiful tree for rafters! Big, well-rounded butt and a nicely tapered trunk, and from the top and branches I can cut me first-rate stuff like laths and corbels.

Of course, when he and his fellow carpenters attempt to transform the living tree into dead timber, their efforts are in vain. The Second Carpenter may vow that “the timber will come out neither longer nor shorter than my markings in any direction,” but this is short-sighted human presumption. First the tree proves too short for use as the Temple’s center-beam, then too long, and finally too short again. The carpenters announce to Solomon that “this particular timber is a miracle-worker,” an animate being “unhampered,” in Bakere’s words, “by the wayward desires of man”—a theological point, to be sure, but also an ecological one. Humans may cut down trees, but any woodworker can tell you the price in frustration one pays for literally going against the grain.

This is exactly what happens at the end of the Origo Mundi in the Maximilla episode. The tree begins by taking a page from the Burning Bush’s book, igniting Maximilla’s clothes as punishment for her absent-minded disrespect. It then vexes the Bishop, whose role in the play is to represent the Old Law, to serve as an anti-Judaic proxy for Solomon (a salutary reminder that the happily hybrid natureculture on display in medieval English drama is simultaneously an exclusionary natureculture that defines Jews as unnatural monstrosities). The Bishop cannot tolerate an evangelizing tree (insofar as the words its flames elicit from Maximilla’s mouth are prophetic anticipations of the New Law), and so he demands that “every inch of it” be thrown “into the pool of Bethsaida, an appropriately filthy resting place for a troublemaker.” As mentioned earlier, the tree engages in arboreal judo, transforming its disgrace into yet another opportunity for grace: a Messenger reports to the Bishop that “your disposal of the tree has accomplished nothing except to place you in a bad light … the tree has been healing the sick.” The very last action of the drama depicts the Bishop’s back-up humiliation plan: we watch as Gebal and Amalek, his Beckettesque henchmen, set out to Cedron with the tree in hand. But the play ends in mid-journey, leaving them in dendritic purgatory: “It’s not wonder I’m blue,” Gebal complains, “toting this log here, there and everywhere and nothing in it for us, not a thing. So we keep on carrying it, confound you, until our arms and legs turned to led, and we’re clean worn out.”

Although I could go on to discuss the moment in the Passio Domini where the tree bodily fuses with the crucified Christ, realizing on earth Seth’s vision of paradise, I want to close with this image of an unending Via Arborosa. The genius of the Origo Mundi for me lies in its continual emphasis on the resistant materiality of the Wood of the Cross, its radical insistence on the physicality of its radicles. While the tree is continuously entangled with humanity, repeatedly subjected to the vicissitudes of typological supersession, its matter is never ultimately superseded, never completely reduced to metaphor. Nothing else in medieval English drama comes close to the Ordinalia’s exploration of vegetable life, not even the Radix Jesse who briefly speaks during the N-Town plays. In the Origo Mundi’s careful tracing of the Wood’s history, its long-lived transcendence of human mortality, we see the lives of plants in plain view. There are no secrets here.