Thursday, 02 Feb 2017


Context for Medieval Drama

In this class, we will look at a handful of short plays from the York Corpus Christi Cycle, an epic outdoor theatrical spectacle that was part Thanksgiving Day Parade and part Sunday school.

It’s very common today for children in Christian churches to commemorate the birth of Jesus by putting on costumes and acting out the story of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, being told there was no room at the inn, and so forth.

In an age before Netflix, people enjoyed being entertained by live performances that included singing, humor, and crowd-pleasing antics, all designed to teach religious lessons. For instance, actors portraying demons would move through the crowd, grab a fellow actor who was pretending to be an audience member, and drag him kicking and screaming into a hell-mouth that belched smoke and fire.

The full script of the York Corpus Christi cycle is made up of about 40 short plays, which together told the story of Christian salvation, from God’s creation of the world through the final judgement at the end of time. Each play dramatized a brief episode, and each episode was staged by a local guild. The guilds sometimes competed with each other, and used their plays as a form of advertising. For example, the play in which God tells Noah to build the ark was sponsored by the ship-builders guild, and it’s likely that the amateur actor portraying Noah was a well-known local ship-builder.  The Biblical story that featured Jesus turning water into wine was sponsored by the wine-makers. The play that featured the Star of Bethlehem was sponsored by the candle-makers — and they probably had a huge brilliantly-lit star prop to show off their wares.

For this assignment, I am asking you to read several pages on the cultural background of the York plays.

Religious, Political, Economic and Artistic Contexts

The following historical anecdote does not describe the  York, England play we are studying; it is from Seville Spain; however, it does illustrate the complex relationship between the story being performed and the society in which the performance is taking place. A Christ Taken Prisoner

The surviving script for the York Corpus Christi Plays includes some 56 individual plays.

Historical records indicate that each play was not performed every year.

Historical records indicate that each play was mounted on a wagon, which was pulled through the narrow streets of York. The streets were so narrow that, even though the videos and pictures I’ve shown you present the plays staged longways, it’s probably the case that more people were able to see the carts if they were performed end-on (with the stage being deep rather than wide).

Historical records also indicate that anywhere from 8 to 16 “stations” throughout the city were paid for (perhaps by the owner of an inn nearby, who could rent out upper rooms to customers who wanted to watch). At each “station,” the wagons would stop, the actors would set up their play, and then when they finished, they would pack up their wagon and move on to the next station. If you’ve ever been in a parade, you’ll be familiar with lining up in a big open space, waiting for your turn, doing your thing along the route, and then finishing off your performance, probably where local dignitaries are gathered on bleachers to watch. That’s very much the environment in which these plays were performed — by amateur actors, who were during the rest of the year bakers, butchers, and so forth. They came together on a religious feast day in June, to celebrate their shared faith, watch some lively and free entertainment, to eat and drink and gossip and enjoy themselves, or perhaps they sold their wares to tourists who came to York for the pageant.

The actors on stage were probably dressed in ordinary clothes, not “bible time” costumes, and it was common for the actors to interact with the crowd. For instance, in the Nativity play, the actors playing Joseph and Mary probably started their scene blending in with the crowd; they remark to each other how busy the streets are and how crowded the inns are. Their experience would have mirrored the experience of the crowds who came to York to watch the pageant.

Questions of salvation were on everyone’s mind in their daily affairs (not just on Sunday); and what we understand as the separation of Church and State did not exist.

These plays were immensely popular; people who couldn’t read would learn the Bible stories from these plays (as well as from stained glass windows, paintings, and sculptures), and everyone would enjoy the music, humor, and spectacle.

These plays date from a time when England was Catholic. A few hundred years after these plays were written, Henry VIII established his own church (in large part because he wanted to be able to divorce a wife who hadn’t given him a male heir; thanks to a combination of divorces, annulments  and beheadings, he actually ended up having six different wives).  Henry’s new church resembled the Catholic church in many respects, but one key difference involved the Protestant rejection of what Catholics call the “real presence” of Christ in the sanctified bread and wine. Protestants said the bread and wine was important and holy, but just symbolic; Catholics said the sanctification process was  more than just symbolic. The details aren’t important for the purposes of this class, but what matters is that the day on which these plays were performed — the Feast of Corpus Christi — was a celebration of the “body of Christ” — a celebration of the Catholic principle that the Protestants denied. Having a whole day devoted to the celebration of a religious concept Henry VIII had rejected would have been awkward for the new Church of England, so the plays were suppressed, the manuscript confiscated by censors, and actors were forbidden to portray Jesus or God on stage.

This ban is one reason why Shakespeare never tackled Cristian drama.  He wrote plays that featured pagan Gods, but never tried to dramatize any Bible stories.

This ban is also the reason we have the scripts to study today — the censors who confiscated the script, in an effort to prevent the local merchants from performing the plays, ended up preserving the manuscript for us to study centuries later.