St Matthew-in-the-City Catholic Church in Auckland, New Zealand, has caused a commotion by erecting the above billboard with the aim of “challenging stereotypes.” But actually, the portrayal of Joseph as a feckless cuckold is pretty stereotypical–or at least it used to be. In Merrye Olde Englande, Christmas plays regularly indulged in such bawdry. Take, for example, the following lines from the late 15th-century “Trial of Mary and Joseph” (from the N-Town Plays):
DETRACTOR 1 Syr, in the tempyl a mayd ther was
Calde Mayd Mary, the trewth to tell.
Sche semyd so holy withinne that plas.
Men seyd sche was fedde with holy aungell.
Sche made a vow with man nevyr to melle,
But to leve chast and clene virgine.
Howevyr it be, her wombe doth swelle
And is as gret as thinne or myne!
DETRACTOR 2 Ya, that old shrewe Joseph — my trowth I plyght —
Was so anameryd upon that mayd
That of hyr bewté whan he had syght,
He sesyd nat tyll he had her asayd!
DETRACTOR 1 A, nay, nay, wel wers she hath hym payd!
Sum fresch yonge galaunt she loveth wel more
That his leggys to her hath leyd.
And that doth greve the old man sore!
DETRACTOR 2 Be my trewth, al may wel be,
For fresch and fayr she is to syght,
And such a mursel — as semyth me —
Wolde cause a yonge man to have delyght!
DETRACTOR 1 Such a yonge damesel of bewté bryght
And of schap so comely also
Of hir tayle ofte tyme be light
And rygh tekyl undyr thee, too!
DETRACTOR 2 That olde cokolde was evyl begylyd
To that fresche wench whan he was wedde!
Now muste he faderyn anothyr mannys chylde
And with his swynke, he shal be fedde.
DETRACTOR 1 A yonge man may do more chere in bedde
To a yonge wench than may an olde.
That is the cawse such a lawe is ledde,
That many a man is a kokewolde.
It’s hard to imagine an American Catholic church doing what St. Matthew-in-the-City has done. Auckland is evidently more in touch with the church’s medieval roots.
Update: Fr. Gregory, in the comment below, correctly points out the St. Matthew-in-the-City is not a Catholic but an Anglican church. Mea culpa. Worse, the Catholic Church in New Zealand has condemned the billboard as “inappropriate and disrespectful.” Mea maxima culpa. I have been led into sin by the temptation to over-quick blogging before lunch. Yet, yet, I plead not guilty to the good father’s charge that I failed to grasp the ultimately pious resolution of the Christmas play quoted above. My point was only that these plays have no qualms about raising the questions about sex and paternity and cuckoldry that the Nativity story raises. In the Middle Ages, that was not considered inappropriate and disrespectful–just human.