2019 Bevington Award for Best New Book

David Bevington Award
Award Year: 

Winner: Crowder, Susannah. Performing Women: Gender, Self, and Representation in Late Medieval Metz. Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018.

The winner of the David Bevington prize for best monograph in medieval and early modern drama is Susannah Crowder's book, Performing Women: Gender, Self, and Representation in late Medieval Metz. This beautifully written book is based on meticulous research and a masterful presentation of its wide-ranging documentation that includes chronicles, charters, account books, seals, archaeological evidence, literary texts, et cetera. In Crowder's thick description, one gets the impression that no stone of medieval Metz—literally and figuratively—has been left unturned. And, while her focus is primarily on Metz and certain female elites of this prosperous medieval town, she places these local practices in several broader contexts. Thus, she reaches back to Carolingian times to give a longer view when discussing patterns of female donation at St-Arnoul, and she also looks beyond the confines of Metz to establish political and sociological points of contact in the region and beyond, especially with the powerful Duchy of Burgundy.

The "performing women" of her title, although certainly well known in medieval Metz, are for the most part rather obscure today, the best known to scholars of medieval drama being the "Catherine actor" who played the title role in the Jeu de Sainte Catherine. For several of these women, Crowder constructs a relatively complete "biography" from the archival material. For others, where only sketchy details are known, her dialogic approach allows her to bring them into sharper view. For example, her focus on and broadening of the concept of performance allows a fuller appreciation not only of the actor who played the lead in the Jeu de Sainte Catherine but also of Claude, one of the many women who took up the persona of Joan "la Pucelle." Like the Catherine actor, Claude was able to take on this persona without denying or losing her first identity. Crowder shows how in each case traditional history has obscured the ramifications of these women’s participation in a rich cultural dynamic of performance. The Catherine actor’s career is also carefully analyzed in conjunction with the life of the play’s patrician sponsor, Catherine Baudoche, whose act of patronage is shown to be part of a complex and extensive set of cultural practices or performances. Crowder then turns to Catherine Baudoche’s step-mother, Catherine Gronnaix, showing how the latter, through performances of many types, carried out a program that surpassed that of her step-daughter.

Perhaps the book’s most valuable and original theoretical contribution is its expansion of the concept of performance, especially female performance. Among the various types of performance analyzed by Crowder are: practices surrounding hospitality; donations to religious foundations to enhance their liturgy and fabric; participation in feudal rituals; self-representation on seals; etc. Several of these practices are legal, documentary, or ritual performances that served to memorialize and perpetuate the actions of the performing subject. In this perspective, actions that might first appear to be disparate take on a striking degree of coherence, allowing us to see how these medieval women purposefully used performance to write themselves and their families into the history of their community. Crowder’s book resurrects these women’s performances and brings them alive for the reader, creating a rich and nuanced tapestry of the performance culture of late medieval Metz. Hers is an extraordinary performance in its own right, and the Society is delighted to bestow the Bevington prize on Performing Women.

Honorable Mention: Bloom, Gina. Gaming the Stage: Playable Media and the Rise of English Commercial Theater. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018.

Bloom's Gaming the Stage is a study in four chapters concerning the conceptual and practical relationship between games and theatre. This relationship, which Bloom advocates is predominately based on the shared interactivity of the practices, is evident not only in Latin terms such as ludus, which can mean either, or the presence of specific games in the Early Modern commercial theatre, but also stretches into the modern gaming sphere and its lexicon. As such, the book "investigates how the pervasive gaming culture of early modern London eased the transition to a commercial theater, and, in turn, how this history of commercial theater speaks back to pervasive gaming culture today" (3). Bloom provides an engaging material history of games such as chess, backgammon and cards, framing them usefully in relation to knowledge and audiences—with cards being a game of imperfect knowledge, whose spectators had to anticipate potential outcomes, and chess being a game of perfect knowledge, with those likewise looking on having a clearer sense of how the game was progressing. Bloom is particularly interested in how these games are integrated into plays such as Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, or Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess, in order to engage the embodied knowledge of spectators. Paying more attention to the "phenomenological" as opposed to the "symbolic" meaning of games, Bloom provides an important intervention on how we understand everyday practices within the sphere of the theatrical. Her literary analysis is perceptive and convincing, with the study covering an important shift in the history of English performance practices—the move to paying for viewing plays.

Award Committee: Sarah Jane Brazil, Suzanne Westfall, and Robert Clark (chair). Awards announcement and presentation took place during the annual MRDS business meeting in May 2019, at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.