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Eve, gender roles, marriage


The critical drive to make fundamental, substantive distinctions between Catholic and Protestant dogma and culture has always been central to early modern English studies, but over the past fifty years a prominent contingent of literary and historical scholars has endeavored more specifically to identify and articulate significant differences between Catholic and Protestant perceptions of women and marriage. According to one familiar, now widely accepted theory advanced primarily by Miltonists, a relatively feminist and pro-marriage Protestant ethic emerged in response to the extreme, aggressively misogynistic attitudes attributed to late-medieval Catholic thought. This paper will seek to demonstrate, through a close comparative review of four English mystery play Eve portrayals (Chester, N-Town, York, and Norwich), that the supposedly “crabbed” (to use Milton’s term), male chauvinist Catholic culture actually accommodated a surprising variety of perspectives on female nature and function, many predictably and emphatically antifeminist, but others notably more tolerant and respectful, and a few even anticipating Milton’s most liberal and celebratory views. The range of outlooks observed here may be partly the result of revision, as the traditional pageants produced annually over more than a century’s span must have been altered occasionally to suit changing times and tastes (the Norwich Creation and Fall account, for instance, survives in two sharply divergent pre- and post-Reformation texts). Still, the evidence from these essentially and undeniably Catholic plays—especially from the York and Norwich examples—should probably encourage us to revise persisting reductionist views of Protestant culture as uniquely pro-marriage and Catholic as narrowly antifeminist. In any case, these dramatic Eve depictions testify to an under-acknowledged ideological diversity and complexity already present in late-medieval gender theory.