Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mary of Nijmeghen

Anna Bijns' (attributed) play, Mary of Nijmeghen (trans. Eric Colledge), read it over a week ago and am still dwelling on it. I'm wholly sympathetic with the devil, and what a fine time we would have had if I'd been lucky enough to be in Emma's shoes. O, Emma, Emma, what a life you could have led, if only...

  • Where it Began

Emma's aunt, when the girl is alone and in need of shelter: You have been busy sitting somewhere in a corner drinking your fill. Niece, there are Tom and Dick and Harry who all know how to walk you country girls down into the cornfields, and when you play games in the evenings, Betty will always find a Jack to treat her. Yes, niece, you know all about it, for where you live there are plenty of lively lads.

Emma, wounded by her aunt's attack: Why do you talk like this, Aunt?

Emma's aunt, merciless: Ah, you two-faced thing! Even if we must not say the truth, you have danced many a measure for which the piper was not paid in money. You may play this game for a long time yet: we are all virgins till our bellies swell.

Emma, quite rightly, because she's innocent of her aunt's accusations: It wounds me to the heart that you should say such shameful things which I do not deserve.

Emma's aunt, who will not let up, although her language for modern readers is great fun!: I have talked to people who will swear that they have seen you doing things with your own uncle so shameless that it would be disgraceful for me to repeat them. You are bringing our whole family into disgrace. You will become a byword, you wretched creature, and I cannot bear to look at you.

Emma's aunt goes on with more colorfully, worded vitriolic, and our author explains the aunt's outrage as she had a bad day. Finally Emma is driven away to sit outside of town in "great sorrow," where she calls for help, equally from God or the devil, "Come now to me and help me to lament, God or the devil, it is all the same to me," and "I would as gladly entrust myself to the devil as to God, for I sit here half mad."

From our first meeting with the devil we see he's a clever guy and likable! With sweet words, he soothes our Emma, "Pretty child...I shall avenge you, as any decent fellow would." "Pretty child, do not fear any harm or sorry. I shall do you no injury nor trouble you." With promises, he wins her over,

The Devil: If you would give your love to me, I would teach you the arts as no one else could: the seven liberal arts, rhetoric, music, logic, grammar, geometry, arithmetic and alchemy, all of which are most important arts. There is no woman upon earth so proficient in them as I shall make you.

Emma accuses him: You are the devil out of hell.

But the Devil knows the promise that stirs a young girl's heart: Whoever I am, I shall always be good to you.

What's more, he is, and we know he will be! If, at this point in the play, you're not in love with the devil, then his cleverness will surely win you over later. When he meets Emma, her name is Mary, but naturally the devil cannot tolerate this name! He urges her to take another, though Mary is reluctant. Finally, he convinces her to give up all but the letter "M" and so she becomes Emma to the Devil. They travel to Antwerp, as the Devil promised her they would, where they enter the "The Tree for a pint of Rumney," apparently to Emma's delight, because after the Devil describes what they'll find within, "all the spendthrifts who waste their lives, all the daughters of joy and the whores who gamble with their lives," Emma's response is, "That is the life I love to see; nothing pleases me more."

For seven years, they live the high life, Emma singing her songs of rhetoric to their drinking companions and the Devil plying his clever trade. Among his accomplishments, his devilry, is this jewel,

The Devil: ...And now I am beginning to teach people how to find hidden treasure; and only yesterday it cost one of them his life. I told him where there was a treasure hidden and growing mouldy, in a stable, underneath a beam on which the whole weight of the stable was resting. I told him that he would have to dig deep into the ground, and he would find pound upon pound of the hidden treasure. At once he started to dig there, but as soon as he had dug so far that he undermined the beam and the posts supporting it, the beam fell to the ground and crushed this poor idiot under it!

Who doesn't admire a clever fellow...and conscientious, too, for when Emma takes a fancy to visit her family (and we can't understand why after her aunt's tirade, nor why she'd leave the good life), he sends Emma to pay the bill before they leave, "Do that, my darling, pay everything they ask, down to the last halfpenny."

In Nijmeghen, the Devil and Emma come upon a "pageant on wheels," but the Devil is worried the message of the play will lure Emma away from their good life. He says, "It is all a lot of nonsense. Do you really want to listen to such drivel? We had far better go look for a roast and some wine."

Now here is the point where I'm wholly on the side of the Devil, and where I, unlike our fatuous Emma, would have quite gaily walked away from the moral-play and gone with the Devil for roast and wine! Knowing the outcome of the play, I'm even more of the mind to skip away with the Devil right here and now.

Here's how it goes on. "Emma, listening to the play, began to reflect with sorrowful heart upon her sinful life..." How is the Devil, who has wined and dined and loved and fulfilled every promise to Emma, supposed to react when Emma betrays him for God? Like any jilted lover would, of course!

The Devil: eyes grow fiery with rage! This girl is getting a bellyful of repentance. Let us go off to some pleasant part of the town and drink a pot of wine.

Notice he's still trying to save their relationship, poor demon, but Emma, ungrateful girl that she is now revealed to be--probably a family trait--refuses and says, "Leave me alone, and get away from me, you evil, cruel devil!" It's really only after Emma's heartless betrayal that the Devil becomes angry, but it's obviously a painful and regrettable condition for our lover.

The Devil: Lucifer's liver and lungs and spleen, help me! Now may I well curse and shoot flames from my eyes and howl, for all my plans are going astray.

He flies Emma up into the air above the town and drops her, where she plummets to the street and is seen by her uncle. Now, this uncle was, indirectly, the cause of her woes at the beginning, because he was the one who sent her off to Nijmeghen in the first place to "buy there the things which they needed," and told her to solicit the aunt for a place to sleep if she were in town too late.

Once the uncle determined that the fallen woman is actually his niece, he bemoans his suffering in looking for her the past seven years. Notice his belated realization of his niece's fall from grace, dramatic and not much to his credit, because the Devil has to fly her over the rooftops and practically drop her on the uncle's head to get him to notice.

There's no confusion here, either, with the prodigal son story. No fattened calves are killed once the Devil's been sent packing and Emma firmly back in her uncle's control. Rather, her return to the straight and narrow consists of a series of visits to priests who "however learned, however experienced, however holy or devout, once he had understood the case, dared [not] in any way be so bold as to absolve her or impose on her any penance for her sins, which were so dreadful and so unnatural..." Apparently, consorting with the Devil is too heinous a crime, even for penance.

They finally end up in front of the pope in one of the best lines of the play, over which I chuckle with glee. The pope asks, "But how could you have commerce with the devil when you knew who he was?" And Emma replies, "Father, it was the good times..." *cackle! cackle! cackle!*

The end is sad and regrettable, and I mourn for the good, old days with the Devil. She receives her penance,

The Pope: ...Look there, at those three iron rings. The biggest of them you must lock round her neck, and the other two, without further delay, fasten tight and firm round her arms; and she must wear the rings until they wear through or fall off of their own accord.

With her uncle's aid, Emma becomes a nun in a convent of converted sinners, and "he took his leave of her and travelled to his own territory, where he lived for another twenty-four years." The author seems to think that the uncle's subsequent, yearly visits to Emma are a sign of devotion--Pfft. I couldn't help but remember the Devil's attentive and amorous devotion in contrast.

The play doesn't say how long she lived " holy a life and performed such great penances that the merciful Christ forgave her all her sins, sending His angel to her...who took off her rings," but she only lives two years after being freed. I'm a little sickened by her profuse thanks to God for removing the rings, considering that He (via the pope) put the rings on her in the first place.

The moral of the story (admittedly my version) is beware the wiles of the Devil and good times because God will put iron rings around your neck and arms if you happen to stray from your lover.

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