The Play of Adam Analysis
|📌Published:||29 April 2021|
The Play of Adam is a 12th-century work depicting the Bible verses Genesis 2:4-3:24, or the story of Adam and Eve. The play follows God’s creation of mankind, and Adam and Eve’s ultimate Fall from the Garden of Eden after eating the fruit of knowledge against God’s orders. However, this piece of theatre was written approximately 2500 years after Genesis, and thus portrays a narrative that is more heavily influenced by medieval society (and therefore the Church). This is demonstrated in the play’s differing depictions and details of Adam, Eve, and the relationship between the two of them, as their portrayals were shaped by social norms for men and women at the time. While the Play of Adam most certainly sheds insight into the gendered attitudes and expectations for men and women in the Middle Ages, it also unearths some of the era’s heterosyncracies—or, as defined by Karma Lochrie, moments and behaviors that suggest heteronormativity and heterosexuality during these times were not as rigid as people today might think.
Lines 298-296 of the Play of Adam narrate Eve eating the forbidden fruit, then convincing Adam to, and the consequent guilt that follows. One of the staunchest differences between this scene and the actual text of Genesis is the role of Eve in persuading Adam to eat the fruit; Genesis simply states that Eve “gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6). In the play, Eve first attempts to convince Adam by saying “you’ll be a coward if you don’t [eat it],” to which Adam replies “All right, I’ll take it” (ll. 297-298, p. 17). Here, Eve emasculates Adam into disobeying God’s orders, using medieval male stereotypes like strength and heroicness to seemingly manipulate him. After Eve takes the first bite, she exclaims “I feel like God omnipotent... Eat, Adam, now!” and hands him the apple (ll. 307-310, p. 17). Both of these persuasion techniques from Eve demonstrate societal standards and stigmas for women in the Middle Ages. While, on the one hand, Eve is depicted as a seductress who corrupts Adam into betraying God, she is also portrayed as power-hungry and selfish, thus demonstrating the moral inferiority of women. This idea of moral inferiority is further emphasized after Adam eats the forbidden fruit and immediately recognizes his mistake and cries out “Alas, what sin have I achieved?” (l 314, p. 18). The fact that Adam instantly understood he had sinned illustrates how men have the capacity for reason and are morally superior compared to women. Moreover, the (at the time) modern attitudes and influences shaped the play’s adaptation of Adam and Eve by incorporating gendered expectations into the performance. This is mostly because the church had recently reversed a ban on theatre because religious leaders realized they could use stories like the Play of Adam to educate the public about religious practices, and to convey expected behaviors and cultural beliefs. Therefore, one of the main functions of the play was to inform the audience about appropriate behaviors and stereotypes assigned to Christian men and women, which explains some of the differences between the Bible’s story and this performance.
While the play does emphasize expected standards for men and women, some aspects reveal how the concepts of heterosexuality (or romantic/sexual attraction to the opposite sex) and heteronormativity (or the belief that heterosexuality is the preferred/default sexual orientation) were more malleable than suspected. In her book, Karma Lochrie explores this idea, labeling these aberrations as “heterosyncracies,” and stating that “the word [heterosyncracies] opposes a unified, monolithic, and presumptive understanding of heterosexuality in favor of a more idiosyncratic, diversified, and even perverse take” (p. 80). Before exploring heterosyncracies, it is important to address another main argument of Lochrie’s, which is that “heterosexuality as a norm did not exist before the twentieth century” (p. 74). Even though it is true that the term heteronormativity was not coined until the 1900s, this does not mean that heteronormativity as a concept did not exist before then; in fact, it is nearly impossible to argue that heterosexuality was not the norm in the Middle Ages, since homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death in many cases.
Nonetheless, there were most certainly some discrepancies in the understanding and practice of heterosexuality during medieval times, as demonstrated in some parts of the Play of Adam. One example of a heterosyncracie is the fact that Adam, the man, is the one being seduced. While Eve’s seduction was most likely the manifestation of a stereotype that women can be over-sexual (and therefore sinful), other works of the time imply that men are the ones supposed to do the seducing, not women. In The Art of Courtly Love, Capellanus explains that “just as a skillful fisherman tries to attract fishes by his bait… so the man who is a captive of love tries to attract another person by his allurements,” or that men are the ones expected to be seductive (Capellanus, p. 31). Because The Art of Courtly Love was commissioned by Countess Marie to classify the “rules of love,” one can assume that the guidelines set out in this book were accurate representations of how men and women were supposed to act. Moreover, the classification of man as the seductor blurs the idea of seduction being an inherently feminine or masculine act in the Middle Ages, demonstrating one way in which heterosexual norms were oftentimes contradictory or idiosyncratic.
Another heterosyncracie in the Play of Adam is seen just before Adam eats the fruit of knowledge. His final line before taking a bite is “I’ll trust you. You’re my partner here” (l 312, p. 17). Even though this line is most likely meant to illustrate why men should not trust women—as Adam ultimately blames Eve for making him eat the fruit—and is stated before Adam epitomizes the moral superiority of men, the phrase still defies the assumed norms of the time. Here, Adam acknowledges Eve, his wife, as his equal, which goes against social (and even legal) guidelines of the Middle Ages. As Jacques de Vitry states in one of his sermons, husbands are expected to “take precedence over his wife, in ruling over her,” which shows how wives were not viewed as their husbands’ equals (de Vitry, p. 145). De Vitry goes further, saying that “hers [i.e., woman] is a slippery and weak sex,” and thus asserts that women are inferior to men not only morally, but physically and mentally (de Vitry, p. 146). At the time, Jacques de Vitry was a famous theologian, and later Bishop of Acre, whose sermons were incredibly popular and disseminated through the Christian West; so, the messages in his sermons aligned with religious attitudes on the relationship between men and women at the time. Therefore, de Vitry’s sentiments further exemplify how Adam’s proclamation was an anomaly in typical medieval heterosexual relationships.
While women were most certainly seen as subordinate to men, the institution of marriage in medieval France was not one of love, but one whose sole “purpose was childbirth (for women)” (3/1/21, PPT, slide 6). Moreover, women were regarded simply as vehicles for men to disperse their superior seeds, and whose task was “being obedient [to her husband]” (de Vitry, p. 145). However, even though marriage was viewed as a way for people to have sex without sinning and (was really only established for men and women to have sex and procreate), there were dozens of laws and restrictions for when married couples could have sex. In the Middle Ages, there was a “sex calendar” that dictated when it was sinful and permissible for a husband and wife to have sex, which seemingly restricted acceptable days for sex to only a dozen or so days a year (3/1/21, PPT, slide 10). These restrictions in and of themselves were a heterosyncracie of the time— furthermore, because an excess of sex in marriage was a sin and abstaining from sex in marriage was a sin, these laws reveal that the very institution of heterosexual relationships was a lot more complex than people may think.
In conclusion, differences in the depiction of men and women in the Play of Adam versus other popular works of the time expose the discrepancies between the expectations for men and women. Whether it is contrasting accounts of which gender is supposed to be the seductor/seductress or Adam recognizing Eves as his equal (even if just for a moment), the behaviors of Adam and Eve in the play exemplify a few of the heterosyncracies in the Middle Ages. Ultimately, while heterosexuality was definitely the norm, and gendered stereotypes existed (and were largely enforced) for men and women, works such as the Play of Adam indicate how there was nothing normal or constant about heteronormativity.