Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter. Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. 418pp. ISBN 0 7546 0230 3.
Bernadette Andrea
University of Texas, San Antonio

Andrea, Bernadette. "Review of
Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter. Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 13.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-2/twycrev.html>.

  1. As part of Ashgate's promising new series, Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama, Twycross and Carpenter's wide-ranging study of masks in popular culture, performance, and literature from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries offers a historical perspective that corrects the lop-sided focus in literary studies on Stuart court masques. By foregrounding masks as material objects - a perspective often lost when considering the masques of the seventeenth century - Twycross and Carpenter achieve a two-fold purpose: 1) to connect such diverse activities as carnival, mumming, tournaments, disguisings, masking, mystery plays, and moralities, and 2) to distinguish between these modalities of masking, which a detailed analysis of literary, historical, and physical evidence shows cannot be reduced to the masquing that characterized the Stuart court. While Twycross and Carpenter adduce evidence from classical and continental European sources, their primary focus is on the English tradition, which they assert "needs both to be seen within, and to be distinguished from, the wider European tradition." An impressive aspect of this study involves its authors' attention to the historicity of language, whereby the central term "mask" is situated within a "slippery and shifting" semantic field and ultimately unpacked though detailed historical etymologies (2). This attention to the historicity of language provides a depth not generally seen in studies - even those with a historicist bent - of pre-modern performance. Twycross and Carpenter usefully engage significant critics and theorists of masking in the broadest sense, with E. K. Chambers's anthropological approach and Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque coming under closest scrutiny. In particular, the mass of evidence this study adduces mitigates against the anthropological thesis (influenced by J. G. Frazer's theories of ritual) that masking traditions are linked by "a single, a-historic, overarching pattern of residual pre-Christian worship" and against the Bakhtinian model of the carnivalesque as an essentially subversive expression of plebeian popular culture. Instead, Twycross and Carpenter argue that "the local and immediate meanings and functions of particular masking customs" cancel any universalist theory of the form and that the complexity of "social relations at different moments and places quickly undermines any simple model of social repression or of a straightforward opposition between popular and élite" (3). By informing their detailed historical study with such theoretical considerations, Twycross and Carpenter make an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the subsequent masque form, as well as this form's inflection in the plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, and other notable early
    modern dramatists.

  2. Twycross and Carpenter made a wise choice in dividing their study into four parts - "Popular Masking," "Courtly Masking," "Theatrical Masking," and "Theory and Practice" - as their laudable commitment to testing influential theories of masking against "the complex particularity of the evidence" necessarily tends to a dense, albeit rewarding, argument (4). The section on popular masking proceeds through chapters on early masking, carnival, and mumming, all of which pursue a contextual approach to these forms. The Anglo-Saxon mask preserved at Sutton Hoo, the pagan Roman ceremonies of Kalends, the medieval European Feast of Fools, and other folk customs such as the charivari and the Wild Man hunt confirm Twycross and Carpenter's thesis that the English case, while related to European precedents, presented particularities that must be examined on their own terms. This careful attention to masking traditions in their specific cultural and historical contexts further highlights Twycross and Carpenter's charge that Chambers's universalist model advances "an illusion" (43). Their analysis of carnival masking likewise reveals that Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque must be modified by the historical evidence that these events were rule bound, even though such "rules" included a measured amount of misrule. Again, England provides the exception to the widespread practice of carnival in continental Europe, with the English instead preferring mumming throughout the Middle Ages. Such cultural performances, Twycross and Carpenter indicate, presented a predicable pattern even as they depended on the potentially sinister unpredictability of a stranger entering a domestic space (a fascinating detail includes Mary, Queen of Scots, and her ladies cross-dressing in their aristocratic mummings [90]).

  3. The section on courtly masking proposes that these popular traditions were infused with an Italian influence from the era of Henry VIII onwards. In particular, this fusion expressed the characteristically Renaissance concerns with power and identity (or, to strike a Foucauldian note, power and knowledge). The chapter on tournaments provides a detailed analysis of the shift from group combat to individual spectacle that suggests interesting directions for research into the late medieval/ early modern construction of the masculine subject under the gaze of the increasingly important female spectator. These tournaments, moreover, show a marked attention to representations of "Others" such as Turks, Moors, and Tartars from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, though Twycross and Carpenter suggest that these performances present an "exotic familiarity" rather than proto-orientalist or racialist stereotypes (166). I would propose, however, that Twycross and Carpenter's own insistence on the elasticity of historically situated semantic fields demands that we consider the shift to such "Others" as marking the transition from medieval to early modern notions of "race."

  4. The subsequent chapters on disguisings, courtly mumming, and amorous masking dwell principally on the court of Henry VIII, where these innovations were introduced. The chapter on amorous masking, in particular, provides an interesting account of the power dynamic whereby the woman, who remained unmasked in this encounter, gained ascendancy over the masked man because she could choose to follow the fiction of the mask or ignore the mask to address "the man beneath" (184). Nonetheless, Henry VIII, as Twycross and Carpenter intriguingly indicate, strategically reversed this power dynamic to deploy amorous masking as a means to exchange women. This chapter specifically addresses the influence of Henrician masking on Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Henry VIII, and Much Ado About Nothing (subsequent chapters provide additional glosses on A Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard II). However, this study by no means limits itself to the works of Shakespeare; indeed, it emphasizes the rich fifteenth- and sixteenth-century theatrical tradition that otherwise has been overshadowed by the early modern playwrights we now consider canonical. The section on theatrical masking returns to the earlier dramatic traditions of the mystery and the morality play, though Twycross and Carpenter demonstrate that the latter tradition extended into the early seventeenth century. The principal issue for the mystery plays was the representation of the divine, which conventionally was signified by a burnished gold mask in contradistinction to the blackening of the devil. Though Twycross and Carpenter argue that "the meaning of such a blackened face depends on its context" (215) and that such blackness is not necessarily racialized (though they point out that "ethiop" is a frequent term associated with the devil in the medieval sources [202]), the evidence consistently places "black" in the negative register. In this section, Twycross and Carpenter stress that medieval acting styles were not representational, but emblematic, though in Renaissance productions a notion of the "real" face behind the mask began to emerge as a governing theme.

  5. The final section on theory and practice examines the medieval and early modern responses to masking performances alongside the physical evidence of mask construction. Both the written and material record, Twycross and Carpenter note, are partial, with the written record primarily antagonistic and the material record ephemeral. As mentioned above, the final chapter on terminology addresses the "semantic history" of masking terms (279), and should become mandatory reading for students of medieval and early modern theatre. Finally, Twycross and Carpenter's conclusions about cosmetics and masks usefully contextualize the construction of early modern femininity; their discussion of the material culture of black-face and white- face, which they argue equally served to de-naturalize the human subject, further adds to our understanding of the shifting significance of colour during this transitional period. Fully supplied with apt illustrations, and cognizant of current revivals of pre- modern theatrical traditions, Twycross and Carpenter provide us with a theoretically astute and scholarly responsible study that should be consulted, not only by those interested in the history of medieval and Tudor masks and masking, but by every student of the subsequent Stuart masque.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).