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In This Article York Corpus Christi Plays

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Manuscripts
  • Editions
  • Documents and Dramatic Records
  • Comparative Studies
  • Language and Style
  • Visual Context and Iconography
  • Revivals

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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

LAST MODIFIED: 12/15/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396584-0103

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