English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features

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1.4The Corpus Christi feast

The event that initiated the mystery cycles was the establishment of the Corpus Christi feast. In 1264 Pope Urban IV established the feast to take place on the first Thursday following the Trinity Sunday which fell some fifty days after Easter. This feast was later ordered by the council of Vienna in 1311. It celebrated the communion of both wine symbolizing Christ’s blood and bread for his body. This was a result of a tendency towards a more “personal relation” to God and a “mystical union” with Christ (Goldstream 228).

The celebration of the feast began to spread slowly. It replaced pagan feasts held earlier and had become the midsummer feast of the Church. It was celebrated with a procession, which was later accompanied by pageants that lately developed into plays. The Corpus Christi cycles as dramatizations of the Old and the New Testament are first recorded in the second half of the 14th century.

The celebration took place in the cities of greater importance and was a matter of prestige. The most representative of the cycles comes from York; other surviving texts come from the cities of Chester and Wakefield. Plays from smaller cities did not survive and the N-town cycle was a travelling play; traces of its composition lead to Bury St Edwards (Fletcher, 165) and it probably toured the villages around the Norfolk and Suffolk border (Fletcher 167).

The central event of the feast was a procession to which the holy host was a central item. The host was carried in a shrine in the head of the procession. It was followed by the clergy, the most important men of the city and members of the guilds who carried torches. People watched this procession, some of them seated on special scaffolds, the less lucky of them crowded beneath. The procession was later accompanied by pageant wagons.

1.5The York cycle

York was the second largest city in size as well as in importance. The city flourished in the years of economic prosperity after the Black Death. Its population had grown over ten thousand and it had become the most important city of the North. The Corpus Christi feast and the procession of pageants and plays were a matter of prestige. It was a serious enterprise and as such it was a subject to supervision by the city clerks. York demonstrated its prestige by the best maintained mystery cycle. We are now provided with a complete manuscript and a large body of other evidence (city records, fines etc.).

It is not clear how and when the plays came to existence. The terms pageant and play have virtually the same meaning in medieval terminology and we it is hard to derive what exact theatrical form the contemporary records mean. The extant text is dated between 1463 and 1477. As Beadle remarks, this is “exactly half way through the cycle’s documented lifespan” (Beadle 90). The text consists of 47 separate plays. There is a record of controversy in 1399 when commoners complained about too many pageants performed all over the city. The reaction to this complaint was the establishment of twelve fixed stations (Nelson 25). Another important document, contemporary with the extant text, shifts the plays from Thursday to Friday. There is no clear evidence if the plays were performed before the appearance of the text or if the establishment of the pageant route in 1399 concerned plays or tableaux.

The Corpus Christi feast, although it is a religious feast and its religious importance can not be disputed, belonged mainly to the guilds. The clergy, of course, was a governing authority over the feast, but the plays themselves seem to be in the hands of the guilds with the supervision of the city council. The plays were a financial burden, but they were a display of wealth and power for every guild. The distribution of plays in the Ordo Paginarum ascribed the most important plays concerning the Creation, the building of the Ark, Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell and the Last Judgment to the most important guilds (Beadle 95).

The guilds were basic economic units in the cities. They were closely tied communities, they tended to concentrate in certain areas (some streets in York named by different guilds serve as a reminder of the guilds that occupied them). The Corpus Christi feast was a great occasion to let everybody see the wealth of the guild. Biblical stories enabled the guilds to present themselves with appropriate dignity.

1.6The Chester and Towneley cycles

Further discussion of the remaining Cycles in this chapter is problematic. Unlike the York cycle, these cycles are not provided with so much evidence in the form of civic records. In the case of the Towneley Cycle, the text itself is the only source of evidence to support various theses.

The cycle plays from Chester were staged in three consecutive days. They were performed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the Whitsun week and they are arranged in three units celebrating the holy trinity: the God creator, Jesus Christ, the redeemer, and the Holy Spirit. The plays are thus not associated with the Corpus Christi and the Eucharist, but with the coming Trinity Sunday (Mills 117).

The Towneley cycle is associated with the city of Wakefield. Towneley is the name of the family that owned the manuscript when it was discovered for public (Meredith 158). With its borrowings from York and missing pageants it seems to be the most incoherent of the cycles. As Peter Meredith objects, this incoherency is not as disturbing in performance as it appears when reading the text (Meredith 158). The differences between the rich language of plays ascribed to the Wakefield Master and simple language of the other plays is not so evident in performance. What Meredith sees as the unifying factor is the “concentration on human nature” (Meredith 158). The characters that inhabit the cycle are not mere historical figures, they are strikingly human in their actions and language. Mystery plays connect Biblical past with everyday medieval present. This is a feature typical for all the cycles, but it seems to reveal itself the strongest in the Towneley cycle. Other cycles tend to interpret the Bible with certain distance. The Towneley cycle lets Biblical figures speak in the Northern dialect and combines the Biblical content with medieval stories. It is thus the cycle which depicts medieval society better than the others.

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