Professor earns fellowship to research medieval English morality plays

Gail McMurray Gibson said that her college professors first sparked her interest in medieval studies. She has pursued that interest and become one of the most inspiring and decorated teachers in Davidson College. She has received the college’s Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, and was named North Carolina Professor of the Year in 1987 by the national Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

Now Gibson has received yet another honor — a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library to conduct research for a chapter of a new book she’s writing titled Medieval Drama in Afterlife. Each chapter concerns the way that medieval Catholic religious drama texts continued to be defiantly protected after England adopted the Protestant Reformation.


She has already written a chapter about the Catholic Towneley family who compiled and possessed for centuries the Towneley Cycle of medieval mystery plays. She has also written a chapter about the cloak-and-dagger underground Catholicism promoted by the earliest known owner of another mystery play cycle, the N-Town Cycle.

Her time at the Folger will allow her to research a chapter about Cox Macro, an East Anglian collector of antiquities in the late 1600s into the mid-1700s who was the first known owner of three medieval morality plays called “the Macro Plays.” The Folger Library has possession of the only surviving manuscript of these English morality plays anywhere.


Morality Plays were a popular form of theatrical entertainment in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were allegories in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt the protagonist to choose a Godly life over one of evil.

Gibson admits she has a “human-gossipy curiosity” about Cox Macro, who owned the morality plays that have been important to her entire career of scholarship. She said, “I’m curious to see how knowing more about him and about subsequent owners of the manuscript can help me reconstruct its trail through time and English literature.”

Gibson published a previous book concerning medieval drama titled The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages. She has also written about medieval theatre in chapters in various books, and a long list of articles in refereed journals.

But the chapter she’s titling “Cox Macro, The Macro Plays, and the Ghosts of an East Anglian Past” represents a new challenge for the veteran medievalist. Looking at the context of these well-known works has led Gibson to raise a lot of questions. “I’m aware of having a lot of what I had thought about, and been taught about in the past, being challenged by what I’m doing now and who I’m talking to now…It really raises a lot of questions about the way we teach literature and history,” she said.


She will be at the Folger Library with 42 other short-term fellowship winners who were selected from hundreds of applicants around the globe. She’s also looking forward to connecting with the small “Davidson mafia” who work at the Folger-chief librarian Stephen Enniss ’82 and head of reference Georgianna Ziegler, who taught Renaissance literature at Davidson in the 1970s. ‘

Though she is on leave this semester, Gibson looks forward to teaching at Davidson next spring, with her fellowship providing a new perspective on the courses she teaches. She said, “It’ll be really interesting to come back to my English 240 survey course, which I’ve taught dozens of times, thinking in a more scholarly way about the way we bracket texts in history.”

Gibson is now phasing into retirement, planning to teach for the next three spring semesters before fully retiring. “I love teaching, and I thought it would be too hard to just quit teaching cold turkey,”she said.


The free fall semesters will also give her the opportunity to publish the “Cox Macro” book, and undertake projects that have been on the back burner, including a book titled The Religion and Arts of Childbed.

Source: Davidson College