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Medieval Studies York Corpus Christi Plays
by
Clifford Davidson

Introduction

As an extended sequence of dramatizations of salvation history played on pageant carriages, the York Corpus Christi plays set out to make visible to audiences the principal events from the fall of Lucifer and the creation of the cosmos to the end of time and the Last Judgment. Deeply implicated with the visual piety of the late Middle Ages, their purpose was not in the main didactic (that is, to teach doctrine) but to stage these events for establishing collective memory and for encouraging devotion and the improvement of behavior. They were bound up with the city’s reputation as England’s “second city” and were markers of civic and guild identity. Evidence for York’s civic Corpus Christi plays in the final quarter of the 14th century appears in records of pageant houses for wagon stages and of stations for viewing assigned to various citizens along a route that would be used for the plays from the late 14th century until their suppression under Protestant pressure in 1569. Their early history, however, is not entirely clear, since only in 1415 was the Ordo paginarum, a list of the plays and their contents, drawn up for the use of the city corporation that sponsored them. Each play or pageant was given a guild assignment with responsibility for its staging more or less annually, with the Creed play, the text of which is not extant, eventually being presented at intervals as an alternative. Neither guild assignments nor play texts in the Creation to Doom cycle remained static between 1415 and the date of the extant manuscript, British Library MS. 35,290, dated 1463–1477. Except for a few later additions to this manuscript, it is representative of the cycle at the time when it was prepared as the official “register” to be kept by the city’s corporation. The register contains forty-seven plays, some of which suffer from lacunae in the manuscript. They represent an incredibly ambitious and expensive undertaking by the civic authorities and the guilds that could only have been maintained by the enthusiasm of those who were involved, albeit inevitably there were complaints when individual guilds found them to be a burden in times of economic decline. Written in differing verse forms, including some that appear in the long alliterative line familiar from Piers Plowman, the plays have come to be recognized as having not only considerable literary value but also very substantial worth as scripts for the stage. They also comprise the only fully extant English play cycle recognized as specifically written for the feast of Corpus Christi, and hence are unique in that respect.

General Overviews

Earlier introductory studies of the York Corpus Christi plays often leave much to be desired because of the availability of new information. The groundbreaking study King 2006 provides a convincing explanation for the structure of the York plays cycle. Davidson 1984 situates the plays within the expectations of local iconography and traditional visual modes of seeing.

  • Beckwith, Sarah. Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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    Postmodernist criticism, sometimes not sufficiently conversant with recent scholarship but nevertheless challenging. Beckwith develops a theory of sacramental theater as applied to the Passion pageants and considers some questions of ritual and “social space” in performance. Modern revivals of the plays are considered as “part of a commodified heritage industry.”

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  • Collier, Richard J. Poetry and Drama in the York Corpus Christi Play. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1977.

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    Attention to verse forms, homiletic purpose, and artistic coherence. The book’s conclusion asserts that the plays were staged in a “perpetual present” and dramatized a salvation history that is perennially available. Others have used the term “devotional present,” which might be a better term. Collier’s perspective is at times dated, but specific observations can be very useful.

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  • Davidson, Clifford. From Creation to Doom: The York Cycle of Mystery Plays. New York: AMS, 1984.

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    Survey of the Corpus Christi cycle with special attention to their visual effect and their rootedness in the city’s common iconography, the latter based on an extensive survey of the extant and lost religious art of York. Use is made of the dramatic records—for example, the Mercers’ inventory of the Doomsday pageant from 1433 that gives a remarkable listing of its stage properties at that date.

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  • King, Pamela M. The York Mystery Cycle and the Worship of the City. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2006.

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    An in-depth study of the York lectionary as used in local parish churches, which finds there the specific topics in biblical history that were dramatized in the town’s Corpus Christi plays. Earlier speculations about the plays’ dependence on a Seven Ages of Man organization or other theoretical structures are called into question. A seminal study that must not be ignored.

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Shorter Overviews

Numerous efforts have been made in shorter format to provide overviews that undertake to place the entire dramatic cycle in a particular perspective. Diverse approaches are offered—for example, Johnston 1993’s viewing of the cycle as favoring an Augustinian point of view, or King 2003’s approach to the plays’ relationship between the city that produced them and the Church. Ashley 1998 presents a cultural studies approach that emphasizes something of the complexity that has frequently been ignored, albeit at the same time espousing interpretations that are unlikely to be found acceptable. The best summary of current knowledge about the plays may be consulted in Beadle 2008.

  • Ashley, Kathleen. “Sponsorship, Reflexivity and Resistance: Cultural Readings of the York Cycle Plays.” In The Performance of Middle English Culture: Essays on Chaucer and the Drama in Honor of Martin Stevens. Edited by James J. Paxson, Lawrence M. Clopper, and Sylvia Tomach, 9–24. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1998.

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    Cultural studies approach, emphasizing the plays’ “multilayeredness.” For example, Christ’s tormentors in the Passion pageants are said to be shown as “conscientious and skilled workmen” of the city. However, a serious problem not recognized here is that the tormentors and executioners are horrible bullies and also representative of the “banality of evil” (to use Hannah Arendt’s term); it is hard to imagine that audiences would not have seen them as such. Nevertheless, in spite of its flaws, the article is provocative and should not be neglected.

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  • Beadle, Richard. “The York Corpus Christi Play.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. 2d ed. Edited by Richard Beadle and Alan J. Fletcher, 99–124. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    This survey opens with the useful observation that the Moses and Pharaoh pageants would have invoked the memory of the plague—a point that underlines how the plays were connected not only to sacred stories but also to the experiences of those who lived in the city of York. Careful attention is given to documentary evidence and the manuscript, matters of multiple authorship and rewriting of play texts, and questions of performance both in the past and in the present day. The best brief survey.

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F. “The Word Made Flesh: Augustinian Elements in the York Cycle.” In The Centre and Its Compass: Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor John Leyerle. Edited by Robert A. Taylor, et al., 225–246. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1993.

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    Johnston argues that the York plays are deeply imbued with Augustinian views of the Incarnation and Passion. The suggestion is plausibly made that the authors may have used the great library of the Augustinian priory located literally next to the city’s Common Hall, and that this collection may have been the source of many revealing “allusions and learned interpretations” to be found in the pageants. The idea of possible Augustinian authorship is developed more fully in Johnston’s “The York Cycle and the Libraries of York” included in The Church and Learning in Later Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson, edited by Caroline M. Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas, 2002), pp. 355–370.

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  • King, Pamela M. “The York Plays in Performance: Civitas Versus Templum.” Medieval English Theatre 21 (2003): 84–97.

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    Careful consideration of the relation between the citizens who produced and performed in the Corpus Christi cycle and the ecclesiastical establishment.

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Historical Background

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, York was a very prosperous town and regarded itself as the most prestigious in the realm after London. It was known for its many occupations, which would be organized into trade guilds. Dobson 1997 suggests that the city’s leaders, the merchant elite, used the play cycle, divided into many short plays assigned to individual crafts, as a way of organizing and controlling them at a particular point in the city’s history. This view, which has been dubbed the “Big Bang” theory, has been widely accepted, though not universally or entirely convincingly; see Goldberg 1997. If as a consequence we are to believe that the plays existed for nearly two hundred years mainly because of the coercion of the corporation, we must be skeptical. The city, and its population, became impoverished and went into severe decline, with the wool industry, a source of its earlier wealth, leaving York and moving to the West Riding during the course of the 15th century. Yet the plays were not discontinued and also survived disease and periods of famine. Even following the disruptions of the Reformation, the craft and merchandizing guilds continued to provide the technical and financial support necessary to stage spectacular productions in the streets of York. This certainly suggests widespread enthusiasm for the play cycle as a major event promoting the city’s religious and civic identity.

  • Dobson, R. B. “Craft Guilds and City: The Historical Origins of the York Mystery Plays Reassessed.” In The Stage as Mirror: Civic Theatre in Late Medieval Europe. Edited by Alan E. Knight, 91–105. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

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    Argument by a distinguished historian for a theory of the origin of the York Creation to Doom Corpus Christi cycle as a program by the corporation to bring order to the city’s crafts, an effort related to the Crown’s demand for their regulation. Thus, in Dobson’s view, the plays “actually initiated craft organization” and were principally sustained by the urban elite who made up the city council.

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  • Drake, Francis. Eboracum. London: W. Bowyer, 1736.

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    Early urban history. Drake made extensive use of York records, some of them from manuscripts now damaged or lost. An invaluable general resource for historians of the city.

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  • Goldberg, Jeremy. “Craft Guilds, the Corpus Christi Play and Civic Government.” In The Government of Medieval York: Essays in Commemoration of the 1396 Royal Charter. Edited by Sarah Rees Jones, 141–163. York, UK: University of York, Borthwick Institute, 1997.

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    Goldberg’s view, which opposes Dobson 1997, is that the guilds were in existence prior to the development of the drama cycle, and that their roles were necessarily critical to the preparation and adoption of the plays as a civic enterprise. An insightful essay that stresses the necessity of the guilds’ enthusiasm and the importance of the wealth of the late 14th century and beginning of the 15th century in the plays’ development.

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F. “The City as Patron: York.” In Shakespeare and Theatrical Patronage in Early Modern England. Edited by Paul Whitfield White and Suzanne R. Westfall, 150–175. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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    Underlines the fact that the city corporation was the patron of the Corpus Christi plays, which were considered a major civic effort. Johnston accepts Dobson’s view that the city elite were motivated by the desire to control the guilds, but see Goldberg’s argument in opposition in Rees Jones 1997.

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  • Palliser, D. M. Tudor York. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

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    Best survey of York’s history under the Tudors. Important aspects of social history, the vicissitudes of economic life, and religious change and local attitudes to the New Religion (Protestantism) are surveyed.

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  • Raine, Angelo. Mediaeval York: A Topographical Survey Based on Original Sources. London: John Murray, 1955.

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    Thoroughly describes the medieval city’s streets and buildings, including what can be surmised of their contents from the extant archival documents. Useful information for tracing and understanding the pageant route. Contains a superior foldout map of the medieval city.

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  • Rees Jones, Sarah, ed. The Government of Medieval York: Essays in Commemoration of the 1396 Royal Charter. York, UK: University of York, Borthwick Institute, 1997.

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    Essays by urban historians, based on a series of lectures, provide insight into the complexities of city government. Most important, Goldberg 1997 provides a new and credible view of the rise of the pageants. He believes, contrary to Dobson’s view, that plausibly the guilds must have existed prior to the organizing of a civic drama cycle and that their role must have been crucial to its development. Goldberg emphasizes York’s prosperity in the period in which the plays arose and the enthusiasm of the guilds as a necessary aspect of their development.

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  • Tillott, P. M., ed. A History of Yorkshire: The City of York. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

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    In addition to extensive sections on the city in medieval and Tudor times, brief surveys focus on individual topics of interest such as guilds, sites of religious worship, and religious practices. A standard reference source.

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Religion’s Role

The history of York and its plays in the late 14th, 15th, and early 16th centuries cannot be separated from the complexities of late medieval religion and, thereafter, the reaction against it during the Reformation. The city of York that was subject to the mayor and council, along with the liberties in the vicinity of the cathedral and the territory immediately outside the walls, had more than three dozen churches and a very large population of clergymen prior to the Reformation. The intense religiosity attributed to a high proportion of the merchant elite and undoubtedly shared by many among the members of the craft guilds was one of the principal factors in the rise and continuance of the plays over such a long time in the city’s history. Recent studies of urban piety in York (e.g., King 1995) have proved instructive in this regard. The celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi (Rubin 1991), though less important than sometimes believed for determining the content of the plays, nevertheless sets the tone of festival in which playing took place. Conversely, Protestant resistance to Roman Catholic theology and imagery was a major factor in the suppression of the Corpus Christi plays (see Gardiner 1946).

  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

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    A wide-ranging survey of late medieval religious expression in England and the effects of the Reformation. Although often criticized for its nostalgia for earlier modes of religiosity, this book nevertheless is indispensable for its attempt to give a comprehensive view of the religious culture in which religious drama such as the York Corpus Christi cycle emerged and eventually was suppressed.

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  • Gardiner, Harold C. Mysteries’ End: An Investigation of the Last Days of the Medieval Religious Stage. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946.

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    Classic book on the suppression of religious plays such as York’s Corpus Christi drama. The psychological dynamic involved in the suppression of the plays—a dynamic related to iconoclasm directed against other visual representations under Protestantism—is not developed. Thus, while a somewhat oversimplified description is presented, the book nevertheless still provides useful background for understanding the end of the mysteries at York and elsewhere.

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  • King, Pamela M. “York Plays, Urban Piety and the Case of Nicholas Blackburn, Mercer.” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 232 (1995): 37–50.

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    Careful look at the connections between lay piety and its expression, and an examination of deeper social and religious motives for supporting the plays. An important point is made about the late medieval emphasis on the necessity of charity, explained as a pre-capitalist concept involving caritas, acts of love, and signs of respect.

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  • Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Medieval Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    Thorough survey of the development and history of the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi in England. Indispensable background to the processions and plays on the feast in York.

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Bibliographies

The Corpus Christi plays are the only existing drama texts from medieval York, but Lancashire 1984 provides a listing of both the extant pageants and lost drama identified with the city. There is no adequate bibliography exclusively for York or the York plays. For useful aids to research, see, for example, ITER, the online bibliographic aid at the University of Toronto; the Year’s Work in English Studies; and the extensive Early Drama, Art, and Music Checklist compiled between 1977 and 2002. A recent selective bibliography appears in Beadle and Fletcher 2008.

Journals

Several periodicals have consistently provided important information about the York Corpus Christi plays. These include the REED Newsletter, published as an organ of the Records of Early English Drama project, and Medieval English Theatre. The latter has published invaluable articles on York that have presented information and interpretation available nowhere else.

Manuscripts

One relatively complete manuscript, the Register (British Library MS. Add. 35,290), and one guild copy (Sykes MS.) are all that survive of the York Corpus Christi Creation to Doom cycle. The Register was turned over to the dean and archbishop of York for examination (in a futile attempt to revive the plays) in 1579, and disappeared from sight until 1685. Its contents were first described in the 18th century when it was in the possession of the antiquarian Ralph Thoresby. Eventually, it appeared in the hands of Lord Ashburnham, from whom it passed to the British Museum in 1899.

  • “The Register.” British Library MS. Add. 35,290. London.

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    Dating from around 1463 to around 1477 with later additions, the manuscript was known as the “The Register,” and was intended by the cCorporation to assist in the management of the pageants. The texts are earlier in date, and were copied into “tThe Register” from the guild copies.

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  • “Sykes MS.” York City Archives.

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    The Scriveners’ pageant of the Incredulity of Thomas, a unique guild copy. The manuscript is damaged but still readable.

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Editions

Although the manuscript and its contents were known from the 18th century, the earliest printing of the York plays did not appear until the edition of Smith 1885. This edition is superior to other 19th-century editions of medieval English drama. It is superseded by Beadle 1982 and is no longer cited in scholarly work.

  • Beadle, Richard, ed. The York Plays. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.

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    Currently the standard edition, but attention should be called to Beadle’s “Corrections to the Text” in A Concordance to the York Plays by Gerald Byron Kenneavy (New York: Garland, 1986), pp. xxxi–xxxii. Extensive critical commentary is lacking, but the edition has good textual notes and a glossary. An appendix by John Stevens presents commentary and musical transcriptions for the songs in the Assumption drama. Text available online. Beadle’s new Early English Text Society edition was in preparation as of early 2010.

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  • Beadle, Richard, and Pamela M. King, eds. York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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    Twenty-two plays only. For example, the Barkers’ Fall of the Angels, the first play in the cycle, is represented, but then there is a gap up to the Coopers’ Fall of Man, with the Expulsion, the fragmentary Cain and Abel, and Abraham and Isaac also excluded from the Old Testament series. Among the many pageants excluded from among the New Testament pageants are the Annunciation, Shepherds, Purification, Agony in the Garden and the Betrayal, Pilate’s final condemnation of Jesus, and the Assumption of the Virgin, the latter generally considered one of the most spectacular of all. This makes for a very fragmentary selection, albeit one that does not do violence to the original text and yet is accessible to the general reader.

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  • Beadle, Richard, and Peter Meredith, eds. The York Play: A Facsimile of British Library MS Additional 35290. Leeds, UK: University of Leeds, School of English, 1983.

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    Fine facsimile, with an indispensable introduction. The music from the Weavers’ pageant of the Assumption is reproduced in color, and there is commentary on the music by Richard Rastall. Also included is a facsimile of the Ordo paginarum, or list of pageants that had been initially entered into the York Memorandum Book A/Y in 1415.

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  • Cawley, A. C., ed. “The Sykes MS of the York Scriveners’ Play.” Leeds Studies in English 7–8 (1952): 45–80.

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    Transcription of the guild copy, which Cawley believes was used as a prompt book. Its text is independent of the version in the “The Register.” A full discussion of the text is included.

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  • Purvis, J. S., ed. The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A Complete Version. London: SPCK, 1957.

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    Canon Purvis prepared a modernized translation of the Corpus Christi plays in abbreviated form for the 1951 revival in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey at York. Afterward he was encouraged to continue the task, which resulted in this edition. It is, however, neither reliable nor particularly readable, and certainly not very understandable as modern English.

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  • Smith, Lucy Toulmin, ed. York Plays: The Plays Performed by the Crafts or Mysteries of York on the Day of Corpus Christi in the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon, 1885.

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    First published edition of the York plays, now superseded by the edition of Beadle 1982. It nevertheless was prepared with considerable care for its time and represents the work of a highly knowledgeable 19th-century editor. Some of the stanza arrangements have greater consistency with the manuscript than found in Beadle’s edition. Reprinted in 1963 (New York: Russell and Russell).

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Documents and Dramatic Records

The York Corpus Christi plays were ventures under the patronage of the Corporation or city government; hence, much of the records evidence concerning them must come from the civic documents. These records additionally are useful in showing how the city functioned as a corporate unit and a social entity. Evidence also has been gathered from guild accounts, often merely notations of expenditures and receipts, though even these can at times be very revealing. Most remarkable surely is the 1433 inventory of the stage properties of the Mercers’ Doomsday play. The dramatic records have been meticulously excerpted and edited in Johnston and Rogerson 1979. Twycross 2007 examines the important Ordo paginarum.

  • Attreed, Lorraine C., ed. York House Books, 1461–1490. 2 vols. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1991.

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    Meticulous transcriptions, with translations of Latin passages, from the Corporation’s House Books. Especially important because it covers the years when “The Register,” the manuscript of the York plays, was being transcribed. These volumes give a good picture of activities affecting the city but focuses in less well on the selections in the Records of Early English Drama volume

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F., and Margaret Rogerson, eds. Records of Early English Drama: York. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

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    Indispensable collection of dramatic records, including inventories of the Mercers’ pageant, references to the Creed Play, Pater Noster Play, designation of the order for processions, and more. Records include notice of a Shepherds play as early as 1220–1225, and mention of pageant wagon houses from1376 and playing stations along the pageant route from 1398. Other records trace the suppression of the Corpus Christi plays in 1569 and efforts to revive them by citizens.

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  • Raine, Angelo, and Deborah Sutton. York Civic Records. 9 vols. York, UK: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1939–1978.

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    Transcriptions of the House Books, recording the business of the corporation. Superseded by Attreed 1991, for the years 1461–1491.

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  • Sellers, Maud, ed. York Memorandum Book A/Y. 2 vols. Durham, UK: Andrews, 1912–1915.

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    Contains copies of important civic documents, including the Ordo paginarum of 1415, which establishes the order of the Corpus Christi plays and civic procession, but also a great deal else of interest about the city government and its diverse roles.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “The Ordo paginarum Revisited, with a Digital Camera.” In “Bring Furth the Pagants.” Edited by David N. Klausner and Karen Sawyer Marsalek, 105–131. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

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    Twycross’s groundbreaking study of the Ordo paginarum as a document which, with later emendations and changes, was first entered in the York Memorandum Book A/Y in 1415. She overturns previous conclusions about the scribe and gives careful attention to later erasures and alterations in the manuscript.

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Comparative Studies

A number of general studies have approached the York Corpus Christi plays in the context of British cycle drama, most notably Woolf 1972, which provides a rich comparison with the Chester Whitsun cycle as well as the N-Town and Wakefield collections. A sampling of other comparative studies, of varying usefulness, demonstrates the development of interest in historical issues in the early comparative work of Lyle 1919, in the nature of cycle form (Happé 2004), in dramatic language (Diller 1992), and in traditions of staging in late medieval Britain (Cawley 1983).

  • Cawley, A. C. “The Staging of Medieval Drama.” In The Revels History of Drama in English. Vol. 1, Medieval Drama. Edited by Lois Potter, 1–66. London: Methuen, 1983.

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    Cawley, a distinguished student of medieval drama in England, looks at aspects of staging and other matters of general interest that are worth consulting, even though York is neglected.

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  • Craig, Hardin. English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.

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    Attempt to sum up what was known up to the mid-1950s about medieval drama in England, but now very dated with many conclusions no longer accepted. The York plays are treated comparatively along with the Towneley plays. Considerable attention to matters of sources and versification, the latter a subject currently under reconsideration by scholars along with matters of authorship. Craig’s work antedates the rise of interest in the plays as effective theater.

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  • Diller, Hans-Jürgen. The Middle English Mystery Play: A Study in Dramatic Speech and Form. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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    Unique comparative study that is highly illuminating about dramatic speech. A significant contribution to the rehabilitation of medieval drama in general, and with serious attention to the York Corpus Christi plays. Diller’s important work has implications that have not received the attention they deserve elsewhere in studies of the York plays.

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  • Happé, Peter. Cyclic Form and the English Mystery Plays. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.

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    Comparative study of the cycle form with attention to examples in the visual arts and Continental drama. A good introduction.

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  • Lyle, Marie C. The Original Identity of the York and Towneley Cycles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1919.

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    Study of sources and borrowing. An example of older scholarship that is still valuable.

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  • Robinson, J. W. Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1991.

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    Comparative study of the “York Realist” and the “Wakefield Master.” Posthumously published, this work is deeply steeped in the sources of the plays and in their function as effective theater. The value of the book is not diminished by recent questioning of the “York Realist” as a single author.

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  • Stevens, Martin. Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

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    Widely recommended work, but one that needs to be approached with great care since Stevens’s approach is idiosyncratic in so many ways, especially in his insistence on carnival as an aspect of the York plays and in his views on performance. The medieval city was saturated with visual depictions of the scenes also depicted in the plays, and fortunately many of these remain available for comparison and study.

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  • Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

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    Focuses on the English cycle form and provides careful comparisons between the York pageants and the other biblical dramas in Middle English. Although we must not expect from the author a nuanced sense of the theater since that is not her strength, Woolf is very conversant with theological and iconographic traditions and gives careful treatment of sources and analogues. This book was groundbreaking at the time it was published and remains indispensable—a work that must not be neglected.

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Studies Focused on Specific Plays or Episodes

The subject matter dramatized in plays or episodes has received intense scrutiny, and the amount of scholarship is immense. Some of the research cited here focuses on specific York plays. Much, nevertheless, is directed to comparisons and relationships between a York play or plays and other cycles. Comparativist methodologies have frequently been adopted to good purpose. Older studies often assume a genre “Corpus Christi drama,” which has been shown not to be a useful designation, and the belief that the Towneley plays were a Corpus Christi cycle performed at Wakefield has only recently been found to be untenable.

Old Testament Plays

The York Creation to Doom cycle begins with an episode, the creation of the Angels and of the fall of Lucifer and his cohorts, that derives mainly from nonbiblical writings. Presented by the Barkers (Tanners) who were an affluent if unprestigious guild on account of their work with an odoriferous process, the play included Lucifer’s spectacular fall into hell’s mouth and his reappearance from that place of smoke, dirt, and foul odors as one who has been completely transformed into a devil; such is his reward for his attempt to imitate God (Hanning 1973). Thereafter, the creation of Adam and Eve, their fall and expulsion, and subsequent events from the Old Testament follow, often mediating between Old Testament story and contemporary experience or practice (e.g., Beadle 1983). Comparative study is able to illuminate text and also the action in plays incomplete in the manuscript, including, for example, the Killing of Abel (Guilfoyle 1991).

  • Beadle, Richard. “The Shipwright’s Craft.” In Aspects of Early English Drama. Edited by Paula Neuss, 50–61, 144–145. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1983.

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    In the York Building of the Ark, God shows intimate knowledge of how to construct a clinker-built ship, a type of construction that would have been common in the 15th century. The materials and tools used by Noah were likely provided by the guild of Shipwrights.

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  • Guilfoyle, Cherrell. “The Staging of the First Murder in the Mystery Plays in England.” Comparative Drama 25 (1991): 42–51.

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    The York manuscript lacks the pages that contain Cain’s murder of Abel. This article, by examining the other English plays that dramatize it, provides a clear view of what is missing in the York text.

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  • Hanning, R. W. “‘You have begun a parlous pleye’: The Nature and Limits of Dramatic Mimesis as a Theme in Four Middle English ‘Fall of Lucifer’ Cycle Plays.” Comparative Drama 7 (1973): 22–50.

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    Lucifer is discussed as a “practitioner of false mimesis” in the York play and three others. The York dramatist exercises control with regard to his subject matter, unlike Lucifer, who falls under the spell of his own beauty and falsely believes his power to be like God’s.

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  • Woolf, Rosemary. “The Effect of Typology on the English Mediaeval Plays of Abraham and Isaac.” Speculum 32 (1957): 805–825.

    DOI: 10.2307/2850298Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Alone among the English dramatizations of the sacrifice of Isaac is he depicted as older, “Thyrty yere and more sumdele.” This places him as a type of Christ, whose age at his sacrifice was similar. Isaac is younger in the other English plays on this subject. As Jesus will be the Lamb of God, so also Isaac was represented like a sacrificial lamb. The tying of his hands is significant and a link with the Passion, since the Gospel of Nicodemus says that Christ’s hands were tied. In Isaac’s case, the Father sent a replacement, a sheep, also a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the Lamb of God.

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Nativity and Early Life

These plays dramatize the most popular events in biblical history and, not surprisingly, they have collected their share of attention by scholars. In this regard, scholars have focused on the plays’ symbolism and imagery, including small but significant details such as the spoon as one of the gifts of the York shepherds (Ishii 2004) and broader aspects such as the connection between the Nativity and the end of time (Campbell 1976) or a matrix of belief-doubt images in the English plays, including York (Gibson 1975). The most wide-ranging study, broadly connecting iconography and drama, treats the Massacre of the Innocents (Oosterwijk 2003). In one case, the York text of a pageant is closely related to plays from other cities and is treated in the classic study Greg 1914.

  • Campbell, Thomas P. “Eschatology and the Nativity in the English Mystery Plays.” American Benedictine Review 27 (1976): 297–320.

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    The Advent liturgy is deeply imbued with eschatological references and with an emphasis on penitence. In the York plays, the Magi thus, for example, pray for salvation from their sins, and there are suggestions that Herod is seen as foreshadowing the Antichrist. Very little on York specifically, but the point is well worth notice.

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  • Gibson, Gail McMurray. “The Images of Doubt and Belief: Visual Symbolism in the Middle English Plays.” PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1975.

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    Important for its discussion of the role of plays such as York’s Joseph’s Trouble about Mary in confronting doubts about the virginity of Mary.

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  • Greg, W. W. “Bibliographical and Textual Problems of the English Miracle Cycles: III. Christ and the Doctors: Interrelations of the Cycles.” The Library 3rd ser. 5 (1914): 280–319.

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    The play dramatizing Jesus in the Temple at age twelve is the only pageant that is textually similar to other play cycles (Towneley, Coventry, Chester), and in this case the York Christ and the Doctors represents the “most original form.” The parallel passages are presented for comparison.

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  • Ishii, Mikiko. “A Spoon and the Christ Child.” In The Dramatic Tradition of the Middle Ages. Edited by Clifford Davidson, 128–139. New York: AMS, 2004.

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    Discussion of the iconography of a representative object that appears in both drama and art. A spoon is one of the shepherds’ gifts in both the Shrewsbury Fragments, some connection of which with the York plays has been demonstrated, and the York Chandlers’ Shepherds specifically.

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  • Oosterwijk, Sophie. “‘Long lullynge haue I lorn!’ The Massacre of the Innocents in Word and Image.” Medieval English Theatre 25 (2003): 3–53.

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    Thorough consideration of the Massacre of the Innocents episode in art and on the English stage, and an affirmation that the York pageant and others on the subject would have had a powerful effect on the medieval audience. Special attention is given to the defiant mothers and the feeling of tragedy. Bakhtinian and feminist approaches are challenged.

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  • Staines, David. “To Out-Herod Herod: The Development of a Dramatic Character.” Comparative Drama 10 (1976): 29–53.

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    Comparative study of the English renderings of Herod the Great. York’s pageant is distinguished by Herod’s comic absurdity and his paranoia, and by his devotion to Mahomet. Coventry’s Herod is even more irascible and, ultimately, absurd.

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Christ’s Ministry to the Last Supper

The Ministry series begins with the Barbers’ Baptism and leads up to the Skinners’ Entry into Jerusalem, followed by the Bakers’ Last Supper, incomplete in the manuscript, but with corroborating guild records available (Mill 1935). The Baptism play is theologically traditional and lacks signs of being influenced by nominalist philosophy (Munson 1997). This factor is consistent with the notion that there was a connection in the writing of the plays with the Augustinian canons who lived literally next door to the Common Hall, the seat of the city government. The Smiths’ Temptation is one of the more attractive pageants in this series of plays with its conflict between Jesus and the Devil, who is defeated but not intellectually illuminated by the experience (Wee 1974).

  • Mill, Anna J. “The York Bakers’ Play of the Last Supper.” Modern Language Review 30 (1935): 145–158.

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    Classic article that uses records to situate the pageant as an effort of the Bakers’ guild.

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  • Munson, William F. “Self, Action, and Sign in the Towneley and York Plays on the Baptism of Christ and in Ockhamist Salvation Theology.” In Nominalism and Literary Discourse: New Perspectives. Edited by Hugo Keiper, Christoph Bode, and Richard J. Utz, 191–216. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.

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    While in the Towneley Baptism the rite is seen essentially in nominalist terms, as a sign, the York play presents baptism in a more traditional way as representing God’s presence, as the indwelling Spirit and as the Word, in humankind—that is, not as a token or an external “word” brought by angels merely.

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  • Wee, David L. “The Temptation of Christ and the Motif of Divine Duplicity in the Corpus Christi Cycle Drama.” Modern Philology 72 (1974): 1–16.

    DOI: 10.1086/390532Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The devil, a “typical medieval demon,” comes to Jesus to ascertain the truth of his claims of divinity in the Temptation pageant, where his tests proceed according to the categories of gluttony, vainglory, and covetousness. Being deceived by Christ’s humanity, Satan’s confusion is not in the end so obviously cleared up by his temptations. The motif of Jesus’ deception of Satan is, according to Wee, “an integral part of the whole cycle.”

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The Passion

The Passion provides the theatrical center of the York plays. The texts were revised and expanded after 1422 in ways consistent with prevalent iconography and tradition to achieve a more vivid representation of the violence of the bullying scenes of torture and gratuitous torment of Jesus. These scenes have proved difficult, with their propensity to show Jesus bloodied and broken, for modern audiences and even more so for contemporary critics (Diller 1992). The scenes are affected by the showing of Jesus’ blood, which if real would have been regarded as a relic (Davidson 2002). The trial scenes show a twisting of justice, with patently false charges being put forward in order to achieve a summary execution (Tiner 2004). One of these charges is sorcery (Nicholson 1986). The judges are malicious or weak, while Jesus appears ultimately as the silent sufferer, the hero who endures all manner of insult and physical abuse (Johnston 2000).

  • Clopper, Lawrence M. “Tyrants and Villains: Characterization in the Passion Sequences of the English Cycles.” Modern Language Quarterly 41 (1980): 3–20.

    DOI: 10.1215/00267929-41-1-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The characters of the tyrants—Annas and Caiphas, Herod, Pilate—help crucially to define the nature of Christ. The tyrants and villains in processional production may have little consistency of costume from pageant to pageant, for example, and the different portrayals also militate against a consistency in character. York, in the Passion sequences, shows a distinct awareness of the insecurity of earthly power.

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  • Davidson, Clifford. History, Religion, and Violence: Cultural Contexts for Medieval and Renaissance English Drama. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

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    Collected essays, including “Sacred Blood and the Late Medieval Stage,” pp. 180–204. The perception of the sacred as a core religious experience in art, relics, and drama, with the sacred blood of the Redeemer being central to this experience. Exposition of an often neglected aspect of the plays, their devotional intent. A comparative study.

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  • Diller, Hans-Jürgen. “The Torturers in the English Mystery Plays.” In Evil on the Medieval Stage. Edited by Meg Twycross, 57–65. Lancaster, UK: Medieval English Theatre, 1992.

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    Important article that surveys torture in the English Passion pageants and remarks how the plays of the Passion at York were deliberately decarnivalized in their representation of the scenes of torture.

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F. “‘His language is lorne’: The Silent Centre of the York Cycle.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 185–195.

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    Jesus ultimately confronts the lies of his accusers by silence, and this strategy paradoxically will result in salvation for humankind subsequently. Jesus, as the Word become flesh, thus defeats those who represent the “sins of the tongue.”

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  • Nicholson, R. H. “The Trial of Christ the Sorcerer in the York Cycle.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 16 (1986): 125–169.

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    Selects the charges of sorcery directed against Christ as a major element in his trial. While overemphasizing this factor, Nicholson nevertheless presents important information concerning this factor.

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  • Tiner, Elza. “English Law in the York Trial Plays.” In The Dramatic Tradition of the Middle Ages. Edited by Clifford Davidson, 140–149. New York: AMS, 2004.

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    The York Passion pageants present the summary trial of Jesus by verbal examination, showing many legal errors and the presence of what technically was considered “wrongful defamation.” A good introduction to the legal issues involved in the trial sequences.

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  • Wolff, Erwin. “Proculas Traum: Der Yorker Misterienzyklus und die epische Tradition.” In Chaucer und seine Zeit: Symposion für Walter F. Schirmer. Edited by Arno Esch, 419–450. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1968.

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    Discussion of Percula’s dream in which she is visited by the devil in a manner that establishes parallels with the temptation of Eve. The episode, and the cycle itself, are considered in relation to epic tradition.

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The Harrowing

The Harrowing is implied in the Apostles’ Creed’s Descensus ad inferos clause (“He descended into hell”), but was vastly expanded in such works as the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus as well as later writings. The narrative served as confirmation of important points of the medieval theology of the atonement (Macaulay 1966). With the use of a hell mouth as integral to its staging, possibilities for dramatic action were enhanced (Meredith 1992). Scholars have long been interested in the close verbal parallels between the York Saddlers’ pageant and the Towneley Harrowing play (e.g., Curtiss 1933).

  • Curtiss, Chester G. “The York and Towneley Plays on The Harrowing of Hell.” Studies in Philology 30 (1933): 24–33.

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    Comparison of the York and Towneley texts, mainly to show how the latter differs from York, but also to suggest that the Towneley scribe had at hand a better text of York, now lost, from which to work than the one in “The Register.”

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  • Macaulay, Peter Stuart. “The Play of the Harrowing of Hell as a Climax in the English Mystery Cycles.” Studia Germanica Gandensia 8 (1966): 115–134.

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    As an episode derived ultimately from early apocryphal writings, the Descensus ad inferos and Extraccio animarum, sources available to the dramatists would have been easily at hand, including in the Sentences of Peter Lombard. The theological underpinning of the episode is the theory of the Atonement known as the Abuse of Power, in which Satan was held to have overreached his authority in organizing the Crucifixion, and this satanic tendency still shown in the Saddlers’ Harrowing of Hell to his undoing. A comparative study.

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  • Meredith, Peter. “The Iconography of Hell in the English Cycles: A Practical Perspective.” In The Iconography of Hell. Edited by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler, 158–186. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1992.

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    Applies the experience of a theater specialist to the problems of performance and meaning of the Harrowing. Includes drawings of hypothetical stage settings, a wagon stage, and a cross section of a portable hell mouth with opening and closing jaws. The York, Towneley, and Chester pageants are compared. Attention is given to another aspect of the plays, the inclusion of light as a stage effect.

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The Resurrection

The Resurrection, associated with the feast of Easter, which was the greatest celebration of the Church year, was marked in the York liturgy by an Elevatio ceremony in which a Host was ceremonially removed from a tomb in symbolic remembrance of the biblical event. Although no Visitatio sepulchri (Visit to the Sepulcher) appears in the York service books, the Marys at the tomb of Christ figure in the York Resurrection play (Sheingorn 1982). Experimental performances reveal the effectiveness of the York Carpenters’ Resurrection (Twycross 1981).

  • Sheingorn, Pamela. “The Moment of Resurrection in the Corpus Christi Plays.” Medievalia et Humanistica 11 (1982): 111–129.

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    Beginning with a consideration of the Visitatio sepulchri and the liturgical Elevatio ceremony, this essay considers the ways in which the action of the Resurrection is presented in the medieval Creation to Doom cycles, which dramatize the actual moment of rising from the grave. A consistent theme in the later plays, including York’s, is the joining of Christ as triumphans and Christus patiens, the triumphant one and the sufferer.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “Playing ‘The Resurrection.’” In Medieval Studies for J. A. W. Bennett. Edited by P. L. Heyworth, 273–296. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

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    Information gathered from an experimental performance of the York Resurrection. Comment on the physical closeness of the audience, but still onlookers who, for example, can be threatened by the soldiers. Of particular significance is the observation that the Marys remain “conductors” of the emotion generated by the Crucifixion, and that this brings the action into the sphere of affective meditation on the part of the audience as well. Stage effects—the earthquake, the silent rising from the dead, and the angel singing Christus resurgens (a logical choice in the production)—are noted as “stunning.”

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Christ’s Appearances

Among Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances, the Peregrinus was perhaps the most famous. The episode was well known in the liturgical drama, and in its appearance in the York cycle presents a symbolism that is thoroughly appropriate in a play to be shown on Corpus Christi. Gardiner 1971 is an extended comparative study.

  • Gardiner, F. C. The Pilgrimage of Desire. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1971.

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    Sensitive treatment of the pilgrimage theme that is one of the central elements in the Emmaus story, but missing the importance of the revelation of the Eucharistic elements in place of the physical presence of Christ as a major theme in plays such as the York Woolpackers and Woolbrokers’ Supper at Emmaus.

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Pentecost

The Pentecost was one of the most important feasts of the Church, since it was regarded as representing the event that marked the inception of its mission in the world. In the play, the Holy Spirit comes among the disciples, who are now to walk in Jesus’ steps and to do his work in the world. Consult King 2007 for this play.

  • King, Pamela M. “Playing Pentecost in York and Chester: Transformations and Texts.” Medieval English Theatre 29 (2007): 60–74.

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    The York Potters’ Pentecost is heavily indebted to the liturgy and uses it to good effect, with the Latin hymn Veni creator spiritus having a central role. A particular interest is shown in presenting the effect of the pentecostal miracle.

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The Virgin Mary’s Death, Assumption, and Coronation

These Marian plays were considered high points of the cycle in the 15th century, when the prosperous Weavers were in charge of the Assumption, for which remarkable music was added in mid-century (Wall 1970, Wall 1971). The pageant of “Fergus,” based on the controversial apocryphal story of the Funeral of the Virgin, is noted in the York manuscript but was never entered (Mill 1950, Sullivan 2005).

  • Mill, Anna J. “The York Plays of the Dying, Assumption, and Coronation of Our Lady.” PMLA 65 (1950): 866–876.

    DOI: 10.2307/459578Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Pioneering study of the Marian plays, including the lost “Fergus” pageant, in relation to the surviving records.

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  • Sullivan, Mark R. “The Missing York Funeral of the Virgin.” In The Dramatic Tradition of the Middle Ages. Edited by Clifford Davidson, 150–154. New York: AMS, 2005.

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    Based on iconographic evidence; there are scenes showing the Funeral in stained glass in the choir of York Minster and in a York service book. Sources for the story are noted. The structure and some of the content of the play of the anti-Semitic “Fergus” can be ascertained in rough outline. It was unpopular and appears to have been seldom performed.

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  • Wall, Carolyn. “The Apocryphal and Historical Backgrounds of ‘The Appearance of Our Lady to Thomas.’” Mediaeval Studies 32 (1970): 172–192.

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    The York Weavers’ Assumption follows a more elaborate account than in the Legenda aurea, but it is not necessary to look beyond Middle English sources for this play. The story of the Virgin throwing down her girdle to St. Thomas appears in late medieval iconography. An English alabaster showing the scene in the Walters Art Gallery is cited.

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  • Wall, Carolyn. “York Pageant XLVI and Its Music.” Speculum 46 (1971): 689–712.

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    The York Weavers were a powerful guild in the city in the first half of the 15th century with considerable independence, matched only by the more powerful Mercers. The songs uniquely included in their pageant in the manuscript are of high quality, not surprisingly since the North had rich musical traditions. An appendix by Ruth Steiner gives a transcription of the music.

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Doomsday

The Mercers’ Doomsday play is the pageant about which the most is known concerning its staging because of the discovery of the Mercers’ indenture (Johnston and Dorrell 1971, Johnston and Dorrell 1972). As the final pageant of the cycle, it offers a vision of the Last Day of history when the dead arise (Twycross 1990), Jesus as Judge returns, and his judgment separates the damned from those who will receive salvation on the basis of whether or not they have performed the Corporal Acts of Mercy.

  • Johnston, Alexandra F., and Margaret Dorrell. “The Doomsday Pageant of the York Mercers, 1433.” Leeds Studies in English 5 (1971): 29–34.

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    Report by Dorrell (later Rogerson) on the discovery of the Mercers’ indenture containing a list of the stage properties of the Doomsday play. The most important find of previously unknown records in York archives.

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F., and Margaret Dorrell. “The York Mercers and Their Pageant of Doomsday, 1433–1526.” Leeds Studies in English 6 (1972): 10–35.

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    Continuation of the preliminary report by Johnston and Dorrell (later Rogerson) to comment on the 16th-century property list relating to the new Mercers’ pageant wagon built by the York alabasterman John Drawswerd.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “‘With what body shall they come?’: Black and White Souls in the English Mystery Plays.” In Langland, the Mystics and the Medieval Religious Tradition: Essays in Honour of S. S. Hussey. Edited by Helen Phillips, 271–286. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1990.

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    Discussion of the meaning and iconographic context, including attention to the color coding of souls at the Last Day of history. A comparative study. Supplemented by a short article, “More Black and White Souls,” Medieval English Theatre 13 (1991): 52–63, which calls attention to the specific black/white color coding in the Bodleian manuscript of Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur.

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  • Twycross, Meg, and Pamela M. King. York Doomsday Project, University of Lancaster.

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    Useful website focusing on the Mercers’ Doomsday pageant and its context.

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Language and Style

One of the most perplexing problems with regard to the York plays involves their use of language. Some of the plays show evidence of layers of composition, introducing dialectal differences within the same composition. The identification of the York Realist (Reese 1951), now contested, was in response to a felt need to find the author of the alliterative verse (see Turville-Petre 1977), added to certain of the pageants after c.1422. No complete study of dialect has yet been made.

  • Beadle, Richard. “Verbal Texture and Wordplay in the York Cycle.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 167–184.

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    Emphasizes stylistic connections between the plays and homiletic writing. The playwrights’ writing style involves a “restricted code” of expression characteristic of didactic discourse.

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  • Reese, Jesse Byers. “Alliterative Verse in the York Cycle.” Studies in Philology 48 (1951): 639–668.

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    On the use of verse in the style of the alliterative revival of the late Middle Ages. Argues for the presence of a “York Realist.” Some now see this hypothetical presence as representing the work of more than one dramatist.

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  • Robinson, J. W. “The Art of the York Realist.” Modern Philology 60 (1963): 241–251.

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    Stresses the “realistic elaboration” and the sense of dramatic continuity in the plays of the Passion that are attributed to the York Realist. He cites, for example, the effectiveness of the sloth of Percula’s son. Such attention to detail involves much more intensity than in the other plays, and on the whole a greater inventiveness is demonstrated.

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  • Turville-Petre, Thorlac. The Alliterative Revival. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1977.

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    Full discussion of the alliterative revival in England. The alliterative riming stanzas appearing in more than a dozen of the York Corpus Christi plays are briefly discussed. The value of the book is not in specific analysis of the pageants but in providing context for this versification.

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Visual Context and Iconography

A number of the publications cited previously provide treatment of iconography, which is a major area of research on the York Corpus Christi plays and other drama of the late medieval period. Anderson 1963 provides a useful general introduction to the topic, whereas Twycross 1988 indicates the dangers inherent in making comparisons between drama and art.

  • Anderson, M. D. Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

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    Classic study, but not specifically focused on the York plays. The author follows Émile Mâle in the belief that late medieval artists were influenced by the religious stage, which served as a model for their iconography. This view is in general rejected, and instead primacy is usually now given to examples in the visual arts as normative, from which the dramatists and producers derived their conceptions of how scenes in the drama ought to appear.

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  • Davidson, Clifford, and David E. O’Connor, comps. York Art: A Subject List of Extant and Lost Art Including Items Relevant to Early Drama. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1978.

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    Iconographic index of local religious art, mainly in York Minster and the parish churches. Lost items have been researched in records such as ecclesiastical records, wills, and other documents as well as, in some cases, in antiquarian descriptions. Extensive bibliography. The list has been updated; see the related website.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “Beyond the Picture Theory: Image and Activity in Medieval Drama.” Word and Image 4 (1988): 589–617.

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    On the one hand, this rich article is a defense of the study of iconography as essential for stage productions—for example, in the case of the York Resurrection even to know what happens between lines 186 and 187 when Jesus rises without speaking from the tomb. But simplistic application of medieval iconography must be avoided. A performance is living theater, not just a series of pictures, like a slide show.

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Play Performance

Since the texts of York Corpus Christi plays were intended for performances rather than for personal reading, they need to be understood in their original theatrical context as thoroughly as possible. Reconstruction of the original conditions of performance must he regarded as tentative or speculative, though careful attention to the material remains, iconographic evidence, and records, both dramatic and other municipal documents, has produced a clearer picture of the plays in their heyday. Some of the references will again be comparative in scope.

Pageant Route

References to pageant houses on Toft Green, conveniently located not far from the gates of Holy Trinity Prior that served as the beginning point for the pageant productions on wagons, were found as early as 1377. The route through the city was established by 1398, when playing stations were first leased at twelve locations through the city (Crouch 1990). The specific locations tended more or less to be unchanged, but sometimes augmented, along the same route throughout the long period when the plays were produced (White 1984, Twycross 1978). The Ordo paginarum’s call for starting the playing of the pageants midway between 4:00 and 5:00 is challenged as not applying to the earlier years of performing (Twycross 2003).

  • Crouch, David J. F. “A Medieval Paying Audience: The Station Holders on the Route of the York Corpus Christi Play in the Fifteenth Century.” MA thesis, University of York, 1990.

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    Listing of the station holders, with much information about them. The findings are summarized in Crouch’s “Paying to See the Play: The Stationholders on the Route of the York Corpus Christi Play in the Fifteenth Century,” Medieval English Theatre 13 (1991): 64–111.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “‘Places to Hear the Play’: Pageant Stations at York, 1398–1572.” REED Newsletter (1978): 10–33.

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    Chart comparing the years in which information is given about the playing stations from the earliest through 1569 and subsequently the Pater Noster Play in 1572. A very convenient resource.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “Forget the 4:30 Start: Recovering a Palimpsest in the York Ordo paginarum.” Medieval English Theatre 25 (2003): 98–152.

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    Erasures and corrections in the Ordo paginarum indicate that the order for a 4:30 start was a later addition to the list. The 4:30 start would not have been possible until the Corpus Christi procession was separated from the performance of the plays by being moved to the next day.

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  • White, Eileen. “People and Places: The Social and Topographical Context of Drama in York, 1554–1609.” PhD diss., University of Leeds, 1984.

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    Thorough survey of the city and the citizens to define the pageant route, based on evidence from its later years. A summary of the findings appears in White’s “Places for Hearing the Corpus Christi Play in York,” Medieval English Theatre 9 (1987): 23–63.

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  • White, Eileen. “Places to Hear the Play: The Performance of the Corpus Christi Play at York.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 49–78.

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    Pageant route is traced along the locations named in the dramatic records from Holy Trinity Priory gates to the Pavement. Illustrations, albeit very poorly reproduced, show the various sites in early photographs and drawings, beginning with Toft Green, where many of the wagons were stored in pageant houses, and continuing along the pageant route to the Pavement before All Saints Church.

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Wagon Stages

The York pageant wagons are now understood to have been not of a uniform design but rather adapted specifically to the plays to be performed on them. Matters of maneuverability (Butterworth 1979), height and width (McKinnell 2000), and orientation (side-on or end-on) (Twycross 1992) have been argued.

  • Blasting, Ralph. “The Pageant Wagon as Iconic Site in the York Cycle.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 127–136.

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    Consideration of the use of the platea and the attention to iconic presentation, both there and on the pageant wagon. Wagon staging differs markedly from stationary place-and-scaffold staging.

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  • Butterworth, Philip. “The York Mercers’ Pageant Vehicle, 1433–1467: Wheel, Steering, and Control.” Medieval English Theatre 1 (1979): 72–81.

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    Detailed discussion of wagon technology, based on the York dramatic records.

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  • McKinnell, John. “The Medieval Pageant Wagons at York: Their Orientation and Height.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 79–104.

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    Careful consideration of playing in narrow medieval streets, the height of the wagon decks and raised spaces for playing heaven scenes, and the use of stage machinery. A strong argument for end-on orientation of the wagon stages in the streets is presented. McKinnell makes the point that it is a critical question how the pageants sounded and looked to audiences, and that this question is crucial to modern interpretation as well.

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  • Twycross, Meg. “The Left-Hand-Side Theory: A Retraction.” Medieval English Theatre 14 (1992): 77–94.

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    Twycross had originally proposed that the pageant wagons were oriented toward one side, with the assumption that the stations at which the pageants were played were thus all located for convenience on one side of the street. More recent research on the placeholders’ property has made this theory untenable. Experimentation has also led to a preference for an end-on position for the pageant wagon.

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  • Wade, Jon Terry. “The Economics/Economies of the Medieval Palette: Paint, Painters, and the Dramatic Records.” Early Drama, Art, and Music Review 21 (2001): 83–99.

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    Comparative study of pigments and the use of color. Treatment of an aspect of material culture that is highly significant for the understanding of the visual effects of the pageant wagons and stage properties at York and elsewhere.

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Costumes

Although there has been considerable interest of late in medieval costume, there is a serious need for a scholarly study of York costume design, albeit in many respects necessarily speculative. Information about available types of cloth and terminology, with attention to the York records as well as the play texts, about dyes and about techniques of decorating costumes needs to be brought together to determine what can be learned concerning favored clothing designs from the York region, the latter as necessarily judged from its extant religious art and examples likely to have been known in northern England. On masks, Twycross and Carpenter 2002 provides a model comparative study.

  • Twycross, Meg. “Apparell Comely.” In Aspects of Early English Drama. Edited by Paula Neuss, 30–49, 143–144. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1983.

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    Comment on costumes used in the York pageants and other English plays. The players’ wardrobes were lavish, intended to be impressive and a credit to the sponsoring guilds. It is hard to think of a better introduction to the topic.

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  • Twycross, Meg, and Sarah Carpenter. Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

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    Essential reference work on masks in English entertainments and plays, with a special section on theatrical masking in the mystery plays.

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Stage Effects and Music

Attention to matters of sight and sound was clearly regarded as crucial to the effectiveness of medieval plays at York, as elsewhere. Special lighting is required in some plays, such as the Annunciation and Pentecost. In regard to the matter of sound, music was of very great significance at York. Performers of liturgical music were especially involved (Rastall 1996–2001). Interestingly, it seems that odors, specifically those emanating from the hell mouth, may be added at least hypothetically to the effects (Seiler 1992).

  • Butterworth, Philip. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1998.

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    Thorough study of the use of pyrotechnics and lighting effects. An essential resource in spite of minimal attention to York specifically.

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  • Dutka, JoAnna. Music in the English Mystery Plays. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1980.

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    Useful guide to the music and texts of the songs in the York pageants and other English biblical plays. Translations from the Latin are provided. There is a good glossary of musical terms, along with commentary.

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  • Rastall, Richard. Music in Early English Religious Drama. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 1996–2001.

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    Standard reference work, in two volumes. Each musical item mentioned or implied in the rubrics or text of the York plays and other cycles is given thorough examination.

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  • Remnant, Mary. “Musical Instruments in Early English Drama.” In Material Culture and Medieval Drama. Edited by Clifford Davidson, 141–194. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1999.

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    Written by a foremost expert on medieval English instruments, this essay presents details and commentary on the possibilities for instrumental music in the drama at York and elsewhere in medieval England.

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  • Seiler, Thomas H. “Filth and Stench as Aspects of the Iconography of Hell.” In The Iconography of Hell. Edited by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler, 132–140. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1992.

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    Suggests how the presence of foul odors would have been associated with the hell mouth, in York’s Play 1 and elsewhere, as a disgusting site of evil.

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Medieval Acting

Acting styles in the vernacular drama of York and elsewhere from five hundred years ago necessarily present challenges that can be resolved only in part by studying iconography and other sources of information. In fact, the Latin liturgical drama presents far fewer problems because of the availability of information about gestures and liturgical acts. Nevertheless, from a variety of sources, it is possible to piece together for the vernacular drama a working knowledge of gesture (Davidson 2001) and other aspects of acting, in summary sketched out in Robinson 1959.

  • Davidson, Clifford, ed. Gesture in Medieval Drama and Art. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2001.

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    These essays, most of them comparative, together comprise virtually the only extended scholarship on gesture in the medieval English drama. Gestural conventions of the Middle Ages differ substantially from today’s. To cite a rather obvious example, a handshake was not a normal sign of greeting.

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  • Meredith, Peter, William Tydeman, and Keith Ramsay. Acting Medieval Plays. Lincoln, UK: Honeywood, 1985.

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    Of the three essays, Meredith’s commentary, especially concerning the staging of the York Mercers’ pageant in the 15th century, is a useful introduction to medieval production, albeit speculative.

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  • Robinson, J. W. “Medieval English Acting.” Theatre Notebook 13 (1959): 83–88.

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    Brief but very useful survey.

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Audience

Audience response theory has been applied to medieval drama with conflicting results. As the carnivalesque seems neither to describe the purpose of the producers nor the likely audience reaction, questions remain. How much, for example, were the plays an expression of the visual piety that was favored by many families in the York oligarchy? How were the visual and aural elements balanced in the actual staging of the plays (King 2000)?

  • King, Pamela M. “Seeing and Hearing; Looking and Listening.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 155–166.

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    Caution is urged in attempts to advance theories about audience response. Speeches and iconographic considerations combine to limit the stage presentation. Both text and traditional pictorial expectations must be taken into consideration, as it is also important to look at these as sign systems that are related to religious and spiritual practice. If necessarily tentative and careful, this is an excellent discussion of audience response that should not be neglected.

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Revivals

Following the suppression of the York Corpus Christi plays in 1569, the city managed to produce a Creed Play in 1572, and thereafter essentially the medieval religious drama was suppressed in spite of the wish of many of the citizens for its revival. Protestant prejudice, backed by the legalities of stage censorship, was believed to prevent the revival of the plays until 1950, when arrangements were made for their production the following year as part of the Festival of Britain (Elliott 1989, Browne and Browne 1981). Revivals of the complete cycle were staged in 1977 and 1998 at Toronto (Johnston, et al. 2000), and individual pageants were staged from time to time, most impressively by the Lancaster University Players in the York streets. The York guilds, taking up their ancient tradition of sponsorship, began to sponsor an abbreviated cycle in the streets of the city in 1998 (Oakshott 1999).

  • Browne, E. Martin, with Henzie Browne. Two in One. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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    A memoir. Chapter 10 is a firsthand account of E. Martin Browne’s work directing the historic 1951 revival of the York mysteries as well as his involvement with the 1954 and 1957 productions.

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  • Elliott, John R., Jr. Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

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    A lengthy segment in the book treats background to the first modern revival of the York plays in 1951, for which E. Martin Browne was secured as director. Useful attention is paid not only to subsequent performances of the York cycle but also to revivals of other medieval plays.

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F., et al. “Directors’ Notes.” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 199–278.

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    Following an overview of the 1998 production of the entire York Corpus Christi cycle of plays at the University of Toronto in 1998 by Johnston, directors’ remarks are provided on the various pageants performed. Joel Kaplan’s “Afterwards” offers a brief summing up.

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  • Oakshott, Jane. “York Guilds’ Mystery Plays 1998: The Rebuilding of Dramatic Community.” In Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe. Edited by Alan Hindley, 270–287. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1999.

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    Report on the revival, with Oakshott as director, of a number of the Corpus Christi pageants on pageant wagons in the streets of York under actual local guild sponsorship.

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  • Research Opportunities in Medieval and Renaissance Drama. 1958–.

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    Annual census of current productions includes reviews of York plays on a regular basis as performances have occurred. Known until 2004 as Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama.

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  • Rogerson, Margaret. Playing a Part in History: The York Mysteries, 1951–2006. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

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    Extended and impressive description of revivals of the York plays since the mid-20th century. It has everything that one could hope for, except the attention given (or not given) to traditional iconography of the kind that informed the original productions of the late Middle Ages.

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  • University of Toronto Video Productions. The York Cycle Pageant Series. VHS. 1998.

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    Videotapes of the entire York Corpus Christi cycle as performed in 1998 at Toronto. A total of forty-seven parts on eighteen videotapes.

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Lost Plays of York

No play texts are extant for two play cycles of an extended nature, with one of them, the Creed Play, mounted at intervals as a substitute for the Corpus Christi plays. A riding of St. George has also received scholarly notice.

Creed Play and Pater Noster Play

These two plays were major cycles, the Creed Play being under the sponsorship of the Corpus Christi Guild, and the Pater Noster Play the responsibility of the Pater Noster (subsequently St. Anthony’s) Guild. In 1446 the manuscript of the Creed Play was left to the guild by William Revetour, who described it as containing eighty-eight leaves. It was to be played every twelve years, later specified as every ten years, for the final time in 1535. Yet another performance, planned in 1568, was suppressed by the ecclesiastical authorities. The Pater Noster play dated from the late 14th century, but the only records of actual performances are from the 16th century. The final performance was in 1572 (Johnston 1975).

  • Davidson, Clifford. Festivals and Plays in Late Medieval Britain. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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    Contains a discussion of the Creed Play (“The York Corpus Christi Guild and Drama,” pp. 81–105). Following treatment of the relationship of the guild with the civic Corpus Christi procession, the Creed Play is discussed. The structure of the play seems to have been based on the tradition that at Pentecost each of the apostles was responsible for one of the clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. The order of the apostles and their speeches may be connected with local iconography, including painted glass in the Minster.

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  • Johnston, Alexandra F. “The Plays of the Religious Guilds of York: The Creed Play and the Pater Noster Play.” Speculum 50 (1975): 55–90.

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    Survey of the documentation found in early records, and suggested lists of the plays’ contents. For the Pater Noster Play, Johnston suggests an organization based on the Seven Deadly Sins. However, it should be added that other options than those given by Johnston ought to be entertained, perhaps adding the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit as a possibility. For example, its organization may have been related to the diagrammatic representation showing the usefulness of the Lord’s Prayer on a painted “table” placed in York Minster by the Pater Noster Guild in 1388–1389 and perhaps similar to a diagram in the Vernon Manuscript.

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  • Mezey, Nicole. “Creed and Prophets Series in the Visual Arts, with a Note on Examples in York.” EDAM Newsletter 2.1 (1979): 7–10.

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    Convenient charting of the different arrangements of Creed clauses available to the author of the Creed Play.

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  • Wright, Stephen K. “The York Creed Play in the Light of the Innsbruck Playbook of 1391.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 5 (1991): 27–53.

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    Evidence of very different Continental choices of episodes suggests that one should at least be cautious about the design of the York Creed Play.

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St. George Riding

Among other lost plays of York, the St. George Riding has received the most interest. The commentary in White 1981 implies that it had its origins at least in the 15th century and that at an early date it was an actual drama and not only a procession. Whether the play was scripted perhaps does not matter if we accept improvisation as a form of drama.

  • White, Eileen. “‘Bryngyng forth of Saynt George’: The St. George Celebrations in York.” Medieval English Theatre 3 (1981): 114–121.

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    A riding of St. George, described as an “auncient Custome,” was revived in 1554. There was a play or entertainment that included St. George and the dragon as well as a king, a queen, and a maid. A pageant wagon was apparently used. The earliest extant record of the custom was 1503. The St. Christopher Guild had been the sponsor of the performance, and an image of St. Christopher was somehow involved as well. White gives a fuller account of the guild, which had been combined with the St. George Guild, in a monograph, The St Christopher and St George Guild of York (York, UK: Borthwick Institute, 1987).

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LAST MODIFIED: 12/15/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396584-0103

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