The rhetoric of counsel and miracles in Middle English Biblical drama

Date of Completion

January 2009


Literature, Medieval|Theater|Literature, English




Biblical plays were widely popular in England from the late fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Medieval playwrights, as inheritors of the Ciceronian and Augustinian rhetorical traditions, were conscious of their responsibility to conciliate, teach, and move an audience toward pious living. The playwrights fulfilled these responsibilities by drawing upon numerous devotional, patristic, and secular traditions. The resulting plays were dynamic, multivalent texts that encouraged all social and religious classes to explore their faith publicly. This dissertation argues that the playwrights explore epistemological quandaries of faith by juxtaposing two forms of rhetoric used by the plays' holy characters: the verbal rhetoric of counsel and the fantastic visual rhetoric of miracles. By defining counsel as public or private advice concerning everyday matters of faith, I address a gap in medieval scholarship, which largely has limited studies of counsel to political and courtly discourse and thus painted an incomplete picture of counsel's functions in late medieval English literature. ^ Counsel in medieval drama frequently addresses the epistemological issues surrounding mankind's ability to gain knowledge through verbal discourse. By viewing counsel in this light we can begin to recognize medieval drama's contribution to the history of rhetoric as a venue for meta-rhetorical investigation of the relationship between rhetoric and epistemology. Scholars have noted that the plays frequently reflect upon the differences between the miraculous biblical past and the quotidian realities of late-medieval England. I contend that the dramatists juxtapose the rhetoric of counsel and miracles in order to tease out various levels of certainty associated with these modes of persuasion. The plays highlight the prevalence of verbal rhetoric in the audience's lives and temper—through visual effects, staging, and comedic motifs—the rhetorical effectiveness of spectacular miracles in the drama. While venerating a miraculous scriptural past, the playwrights nevertheless substitute the rhetorical process of counsel for miraculous certainty as the primary means through which average human beings can promote and sustain their faith. ^