Ointment Seller, The

(Unguentarius, Mastiˇckáˇr)
(ca. 1340)
   The 14th-century Czech-Latin play known as Mastiˇckáˇr, or The Ointment Seller, is an Easter mystery play concerned with the visit of the three Marys to a seller of balms and spices, from whom they purchase the ointments with which they intend to embalm the body of Christ on Easter morning. Probably composed during the reign of John of Luxembourg (1310–46), the farce may have been performed as a part of a Central European Easter festival known as the risus paschalis. The play, written in Czech with Latin passages and snatches of pseudo-Hebrew as well as broken German, contains raucous farcical and scatological elements that parody the resurrection and satirize the “outsiders” in Czech society: Jews, Germans, and women.
   The text is preserved in two extant manuscripts: The longer and earlier of these (431 lines) is in the Czech National Museum, while the shorter (298 lines) is known by the name of the Austrian town in which it was discovered, Schlägel.
   The plot of the irregular verse drama has the Marys come to the shop of an ointment seller and quack doctor named Severin. Before dealing with the women, he performs a mock resurrection: A Jew named Abraham approaches him, asking for an ointment for his dead son Isaac. Severin promises to revive Isaac, and tells his apprentices to concoct the suitable ointment. The chief apprentice, the Jewish clown Rubin, deliberately replaces the proper ointment with human feces which, when used to anoint the dead Isaac’s buttocks, seems to bring him back to life. Severin tells the boy to stand up and praise God, Christ, and the Blessed Virgin. Now the Marys approach and offer to buy the ointment with which to anoint the body of Christ. Moved by their grief, Severin is willing to give them a discount on the ointments, but his wife interrupts with shrewish protestation, calling the Marys whores, and she is ultimately beaten by her husband. This is followed by another quarrel and beating of the apprentices, further delaying the Marys’ obtaining of the necessary ointments. Scholars have noted how some of the farcical elements in the play seem to derive from folk tradition, evinced, for example, by the parallel between the plot of The Ointment Seller and the English mummers’ play, in which a quack doctor performs a pseudo-resurrection. More controversial is the use of obscenity and scatological humor in the play. One suggestion is that the farcical or “carnival” elements in the play are intended to satirize or to deride the oppressive hegemony of the church.Alfred Thomas, the most recent scholar to comment on the play, believes the opposite is true: The objects of satire, he claims, are not those in power but rather the outsiders in Czech society, including Jews (like the obscene Rubin as well as Abraham and Isaac, who make use of the excremental balm); Germans (whose participation in knightly tournaments is satirized, and whose language is occasionally mocked by some of the characters’ use of broken German words that sound like obscene Czech ones); and women, who are all depicted as either hags or whores (until the Marys become part of the holy Easter story and speak and sing in Latin).
   ■ Jakobson, Roman.“Medieval Mock Mystery (The Old Czech Unguentarius),” in Selected Writings, VI, Early Slavic Paths and Crossroads, Part Two, Medieval Slavic Studies. Berlin: Mouton, 1985, 666–690.
   ■ Thomas, Alfred. Anne’s Bohemia: Czech Culture and Society, 13101420. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
   ■ Veltrusky, Jarmila F. A Sacred Farce from Medieval BohemiaMastiˇckáˇr. Michigan Studies in the Humanities, no. 6. Ann Arbor: Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, The University of Michigan, 1985.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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