Ars Memorativa, Ars Oblivionis in Middle English Religious Plays

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This paper investigates the multi-layered violence of religious representation in the late medieval York biblical plays, with a focus on the Supper at Emmaus. I read Emmaus (Y40), a play which commemorates the Crucifixion and openly encourages strong anti-Judaism, alongside scenes in an early predecessor pageant, The Crucifixion (Y35), within their contemporary devotional and mnemonic practices, i.e. the confessional Book of Margery Kempe and Thomas Bradwardine’s tract on ars memorativa. Emmaus in particular demonstrates how a fundamentally violent ars memorativa, the legacy of ancient rhetoric to the Middle Ages, also underpins the instruction of the laity in the basics of Christian faith, here with the aid of highly musical prosody and repetition, and thereby hones a biased, intolerant and violence-inured Christian collective memory. To study the York play’s position relative to late medieval mnemonic practices, I frame my analysis within memory studies, enriched with the more specific insights offered by social-psychological, neurobiological and cognitivist studies of memory.

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