Seniority and Mastery: The Politics of Ageism in the Coventry Cycle
In the early decades of the sixteenth century, Coventry experienced a severe economic crisis that, by the 1530s, was verging on the point of catastrophe. In this period the city experienced not only a glaring lack of 'substantial citizens' who functioned as the primary force behind much of the medieval urban economy, but also an increasing shortage of merchants willing to hold civic offices. While the reason behind this avoidance of office-holding was its exorbitant expense to the citizen, the effects of evading public office placed a great deal of stress on the city's social fabric. Unable to fill positions within the council, Coventry's authority structures experienced a contraction of membership, which forced a reconfiguring of the city social superstructure. Perhaps the clearest example of this reconfiguration is the merging of the Corpus Christi Guild with the Trinity Guild in 1534.
More than that of many other provincial urban centres, Coventry's social hierarchy was gerontocratic in nature; among the most affluent classes in the city, age served as the principal means of compartmentalising society. The importance of age to an individual's social advancement was mirrored in the duration of his progress through the Corpus Christi and Trinity guilds — Coventry's two principal religious guilds. Indeed, the profound interconnectedness between these guilds and the civic government is witnessed by a citizen's necessary progression through the guild hierarchy to attain the highest levels of political status within the city.
The significance of this basic age categorisation was manifested in a variety of ways. One consequence of this mode of social organization is the use of gerontocratic language to confer privilege on elite guildsmen. This notion of age as a distinguishing feature in both the civic and guild hierarchies also appears explicitly within the Corpus Christi Plays, both of which were newly 'translated' within a year of the merger between the city's two religious guilds. My paper focuses on the different ways in which the authority of the city's aged elite is disrupted and how this disruption is dealt with. I argue that in the Weavers' Pageant we can see a treatment, though thinly veiled in a biblical context, of the three most significant social groupings within Coventry — the craft fellowship, the household, and the civic council — as well as the specific threats that may potentially disrupt the hierarchy of authority within each grouping. This pageant further suggests a consciousness of how Coventry's aldermanic authorities manipulated the language of age in order to mystify the economic structure that underwrote these divisions. The Weavers' keen awareness of how a rhetoric stressing the authority of the elder was deployed by office holding guildsmen who practiced the wealthier crafts may help to explain not only the centrality of age within the pageant but also the different ways in which age is exploited in the various encounters between characters.
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