The Truly Astounding Play Mariken van Nieumeghen

We are pleased to share this contributing post by Therese Decker, co-translator with Martin W. Walsh of the play Mariken van Nieumeghen (Mary of Nijmegen), which was published by Camden House in 1994 as a bilingual edition with Middle Dutch and facing English translations. The play, the first known example of the play-within-a-play device, tells the story of a young woman who enters into an agreement with the devil, offering her soul for knowledge and wisdom.

Now available is a full video of Mary of Nijmegen, which was staged on May 24, 1992, as part of The Medieval Festival at the University of Toronto by the Harlotry Players of the University of Chicago, with and under the direction of Martin W. Walsh. Visit https://youtu.be/YOo430GMT18  to watch online or to download.

My discovery of the play itself was serendipitous, as is so often the case. I had descended to the 5th or 6th subbasement of Harvard’s Widener Library, where they keep the Dutch collection, in order to find a book on Joost van den Vondel, when I noticed a small volume sticking out. It was an edition of the play. I had no difficulty reading the Middle Dutch, because, as part of my dissertation, I had translated the abele speelen & sotterniën of the Hulthem Manuscript (approx. 1350). I was immediately intrigued.

Here we have a young, innocent girl making a pact with the Devil. She simply ignores the offer of riches and jewelry and wants to learn the Seven Liberal Arts: (music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy—plus grammar, logic, and poetry). In the Kramer/Sprenger book Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) of 1486, we are told that the Devil prefers women as easier to seduce. But a young woman wanting to be introduced to the most recent knowledge at leading universities was surely remarkable. The chapbook of Historia von D. Johann Fausten was publishedin 1587, and Christopher Marlow’s play Faust was of 1589-92. Yet Mariken was dated by internal evidence as having been written after 1471 but before 1516-18, with the latter date being the publication date of Willem Vosterman’s edition. By the time Goethe published his Faust, his hero, already disenchanted with academic learning, wants to “know everything” that is knowable and even unknowable for ordinary people. One must ask oneself: how did the anonymous poet of this play come by this sophisticated invention of the story?

One might also ask how the poet came by the idea of introducing a play-within-a-play as an effective tool to make Mariken realize what a sinful life she has led in the company of and as the wife of the devil Moenen. It is conceived as a trial before God, the Son, with another devil called Maskeroon representing Lucifer and his followers in hell, while the Mother of God, Mary, pleads the case for humanity. While God at first wants to destroy humanity utterly as irredeemably sinful, Mary persuades her Son to have mercy for all sinners and receive them back into his grace, if they truly regret their sins. Not until Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ca. 1600-1601), in which Hamlet enacts the play “The Murder of Gonzago” in order to trap the king, does a play-within-a-play have such a direct effect on the action of a drama.

Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in 1517 as Debating Points in Latin, in which he derives his concept of sola fide, justification by faith alone, from quotes mostly from the New Testament. In 1520 he published in German Von der Freiheit eines Christen Menschen (About the Freedom of a Christian). Mariken’s pilgrimage from one ecclesiastic authority to the next higher one—first to her uncle, the village priest, then to the most learned priests in Nijmegen, to the Bishop in Cologne, and finally the Pope himself—each time confessing her sins, each time being denied absolution, until the Pope, by putting three iron rings on her body, tells her that she must endure and wait for the grace of God to relieve her of her sins. These scenes are a dramatic staging of Luther’s concept sola fide:only faith in the grace of God will allow a sinner to be saved. Did the author anticipate Luther, or was this concept already immanent, in the air, so to speak, and ready to be spread by Luther and his powerful language throughout the Christian world?

This extraordinary play was brilliantly staged and directed by Martin W. Walsh at the University of Toronto’s Medieval Festival on a cool but sunny Sunday morning, May 24, 1992, with the Harlotry Players of Michigan State University, with Martin Walsh playing the Uncle. It was filmed by me, Therese Decker, and is now available as video at YouTube in two different versions: normal definition for PCs or laptops, and High Definition for larger screens, in order to minimize distortions.


This guest post was written by Therese Decker.

Mariken van Nieumegen
by Therese Decker and Martin Walsh
9781879751200, Hardcover, £48.75 or $58.50