Sacred Street Theater in Medieval England
Doomsday, 1433. In York, after dark.
A red curtain. Painted stars. Actors in hoses, wigs, and two-faced masks—some in angel wings, some with trumpets. Wooden clouds and pieces of rainbow, and an iron frame with pulleys meant to effect Christ’s movements between Heaven and Earth. a “hell mouth” billowing smoke and the smell of sulfur. Even a host of tiny puppet angels, set running about the firmament by means of rollers and a bit of twine.
And in the midst of all this pomp and technology, God the Son, wearing a crown and golden mask, Holy Wounds gaping, enters from above:
This woffull worlde is brought till ende,
Mi Fadir of hevene he woll (wills that) it be;
Therfore till erthe nowe will I wende,
Miselve to sitte in magesté.
To deme my domes (issue my judgments) I woll descende,
This body will I bere with me,
Howe it was dight (put to suffering), mannes mys (man’s sins) to mende.
All mankynde there schall it see.
“Obviously,” says Clifford Davidson, “it was intended to be a big flash. Everything builds up to the Last Judgment.”
That’s right: Everything.
Davidson, professor of English and medieval studies emeritus at Western Michigan University (WMU), is referring to the York Corpus Christi Cycle in toto, a daylong theatrical celebration of the eucharist, held on the seventh Thursday after Easter, that almost every year, from 1377 to 1569, wound through the narrow streets of England’s then northern capital, presenting its audiences with nothing less than a staged vision of the sacred history of the world—all of it, from the pre-Creation Fall of Lucifer to the Savior’s final sifting of the faithful from faithless at the end of time. As many as forty-six plays, amounting to more than thirteen thousand lines of verse, may have preceded the performance of the Doomsday play. Together they hit most of the highlights of the Christian canon and apocrypha. There was The Creation of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, The Temptation in the Wilderness, The Coronation of the Virgin, and so on—each mounted on a wagon, known as a “pageant,” and hauled about the city, stopping at anywhere from ten to sixteen predetermined and municipally approved performance stations. According to a contemporaneous document, the entire affair began “at the mydhowre betwix iiijth and vth of the cloke in the mornyng,” and, though its exact duration is debated among scholars, it almost certainly lasted well into the night.
Each individual pageant was the responsibility of one of York’s craft and trade guilds, fraternities whose members shared both a profession and a patron saint. They didn’t write the scripts—and, in fact, scholars aren’t quite sure who did—but raised money for their production, maintained the stage wagons and their trappings, and, very likely, performed many of the roles. Friends and relatives of the guild members, as well as others, including musicians and maybe even the York Minster choir, would also have lent a hand, fleshing out the cast and crew. “It was,” says Davidson, “the biggest, most expensive civic effort of the year.”
And Davidson would know. He has spent the last four decades working “off and on,” as he puts it, with the surviving evidence of this dramatical marathon. Last year, the medieval institute at WMU published his edition of the Cycle, The York Corpus Christi Plays, a hefty tome compiling, in copious but lucid notes, the research of a scholar who came into the business just after the age of the great medieval philologists—Erich Auerbach, Friedrich Ohly, and Ernst Robert Curtius—but nevertheless channels the spirit of precision and vigor that made them great. It is an elucidating read (and one to which this article is indebted throughout), making accessible to the nonexpert many passages informed by what are now the more obscure details of theology, stagecraft, and society in late medieval england—no small feat at a distance of five hundred years.
We’re lucky even to have the York plays to mull over. There were, in the Middle Ages, other English towns with their own outdoor religious drama fests, some of which may have been performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi, and some of which were probably Creation-to-Doomsday cycles. But the York plays, as Davidson points out in his introduction, “represent a unique survival of medieval theater”: the only (more or less) complete cycle definitively linked to a specific city ’s Corpus Christi celebration. Wakefield’s plays, for example, were considered a Corpus Christi cycle until the local historian responsible for designating them as such was discredited. The so-called N-Town Plays, from East Anglia, aren’t so much a proper cycle as a loose collection. And of Coventry’s cycle, only two plays are extant: one depicting events from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents, and the other, the Purification—hardly the full biblical gamut.
Even if other cycles had survived, however, the York plays would still stand a good chance of topping the heap in artistry and spectacle. Consider the climactic scene of the York Nativity, for instance, which finds Mary alone on stage as she narrates the spiritual action unfolding within her:
Nowe in my sawle (soul) grete joie have I:
I am all cladde in comforte clere.
Now will be borne of my body
Both God and man togedir in feere (union).
Blist (blessed) mott he be.
Jesu, my Sone that is so dere,
Nowe borne is he.
Her last line is as much stage direction as soliloquy: The Christ Child must be brought into the world, and Mary, great with child, as the expression goes, must become a new mother—all before the eyes of the audience. It’s a remarkably intimate moment that, in almost any other visual medium—paint, stone, stained glass—would seem almost impossible(I f not unthinkable) to depict. Indeed, as another prominent scholar of the cycle, Pamela King, has said, the birth of Jesus in the play is an “audaciously simple dramatisation,” so straightforward that it is often misinterpreted by modern readers to mean “woman gives birth on stage.” In a pithy footnote of his Plays, however, Davidson points to the revelations of Saint Birgitta of Sweden, a fourteenth-century mystic whose vision of the nativity had a marked impact on medieval art: “Mary would have been kneeling here with her hands held in a gesture of prayer, as suggested by St. Birgitta. She presumably remained in this posture through the recitation of the hail lyrics that follow”—another beautifully wrought passage. “The birth has been painless, for Jesus has been conceived without sin”—pain in childbirth being one of humanity’s punishments for the Fall—“and the Child appears as if miraculously on the ground before her.”
Disabused of the notion that actors in medieval York would have simulated anything so crass as the delivery of Christ, the reader of Davidson’s edition is free to imagine the impact of the scene on its audiences, who, after all, were bearing witness to one of the foundational moments of their faith, right there in front of them, on the streets of their own city. And that, says Davidson, was part of the point. “It wasn’t simply a matter of repeating the stories of the history of the world,” he says. “That was done in the liturgy. It’s actually homiletic teaching. To make the past, that which happened in those holy times, present in our time—that’s really what they ’re doing.” “It’s movable theater,” adds Eve Salisbury, another WMU medievalist, “which is in keeping with the concept of life as a pilgrimage—people moving, and not just physically, but intellectually, spiritually, to another place. York became like the New Jerusalem.”
Of course, the birth of Christ is a standout scene, and it’s hard to imagine an audience—any audience, no matter how religious—sitting in rapt attention, much less spiritual transport, for such a long day of theater. Not only would they have had, at the very least, a passing familiarity with the stories on which the plays were based (no element of suspense to keep them glued), but there were concessions to distract them, and undoubtedly moments—perhaps long strings of moments—when the plays themselves were less than thoroughly engaging. For Davidson, a traditional genre of Persian theater known as Ta’zieh, meaning “condolence drama,” suggests a helpful parallel. “It goes on and on,” he says of a play depicting the death of Imam Husayn ibn `Ali, grandson of Muhammad, “and people sort of watch it and go, ‘Oh yeah, we know the story,’ and they pay attention, but not deep attention—except at the real points of interest, the martyrdom of Husayn, for example. And then they start to pay very, very close attention. It becomes a very devotional moment, in fact.”
Of all the plays in the York Cycle, it was perhaps the Crucifixion that most effectively inspired this kind of devotional attention. The central iconographic set piece of the festival and, arguably, its greatest artistic achievement, the Crucifixion is also a play of almost uninterrupted violence. Most of its three hundred lines focus on the physical act of nailing Christ to the cross, a procedure carried out with cruel enthusiasm by the four soldiers, who in the Gospels are said to have divvied up the savior’s clothes. It’s a fast-paced play—only rarely do any of the figures portrayed speak more than two lines at a time—but there is no getting around the fact that, at seemingly every turn, the script dwells on, and even elaborates, the grisly corporal reality of the event. The soldiers comment on their tools and the cross, abuse Christ verbally, and compete with each other to see who can do a “better” job of nailing him down. And when they discover that the holes in the cross have been drilled too far apart to accommodate Christ’s already abused body, things get even uglier. One remarks, “this boring muste all be amende,” only to be hurried on about his work by another:
A, pees (peace), man, for Mahounde (Muhammad, generic pagan god),
Latte (Let) no man wotte (know) that wondir (marvel).
A roope schall rugge (pull violently) hym doune
Yf all his synnous go asoundre (sinews pull apart).
A few beats later, after some unmercifully detailed pulling and nailing, accompanied by encouraging shouts among the soldiers (“Owe, haylle!” “Hoo, nowe, I halde it wele”), Christ has suffered just that, and worse:
Yaa, assoundir are bothe synnous and veynis (veins)
On ilke a (every) side, so have we soughte.
Again, Davidson’s notes help clarify the action: “They attach Christ to the cross on the ground,” he writes. “This is the manner in which the crucifying is done, for example, in a panel of painted glass now in the church of all saints,” in York, “where . . . ropes are required to extend the body to fit the predrilled holes on the cross.”
What is most surprising about this gruesome scene, however, is that audiences of the late medieval period wouldn’t have found it at all surprising. “A lot of this was pretty conventional,” says Davidson. Depictions of the Crucifixion in the visual arts from earlier in the middle ages were a more dignified affair, showing Christ victorious, largely spotless, godly. But by the time of the York Plays, it was common to see the Savior’s human suffering emphasized. “The figure on the cross becomes more and more tortured,” says Davidson of the evolution of Crucifixion imagery, “the arms extend upward more, there’s more emphasis on the blood. There’s a lot of blood—sacred blood, which, of course, was different from just anybody’s blood. But the violence,” he adds, “is purposeful. It’s shocking, and you can’t ignore it. Those scenes stick in the memory. They were designed to elicit sympathy for the victim.”
The soldiers may dominate the dialog and action of the play, but, as Davidson suggests in his edition, they “are too much like out-of-control guards at a concentration camp or similar prison facility to be sympathetic.” It was, instead, the nearly silent presence of Christ (who speaks only twice, and then only briefly), torn to pieces and covered in blood, that audiences in medieval York would have focused on, thought about, and felt for. “I think,” says Salisbury, “that the York realist”—the unknown person or persons to which the Crucifixion and other of the Cycle plays have been attributed—“really wanted to bring it down to earth, literally, to intensify the involvement of people in the audience. They certainly felt pain at that moment, and maybe a little embarrassment.” Protracting the scene, however gratuitous it may seem today, provided the audience the opportunity to identify, on a human level, with the tortured Christ, whose body was recognizably like their own, and thus to reflect on the significance, in their own lives, of the brutal act on which their salvation, according to Christian doctrine, depended. To behold the violence of the Crucifixion and be moved by Christ’s piteous state was, in other words, to prepare one’s soul for Doomsday, that moment when the Savior, descending in glory from heaven, would declare, as he did every year in York,
This body will I bere with me,
Howe it was dight, mannes mys to mende.
All mankynde there schall it see.
Those watching in the streets, by seeing the earlier scene, would have already felt and understood the full import of his sacrifice.
Though elaborately staged, and, at times, exquisitely written, it was in the end not the sheer spectacle of the York Plays but their devotional potency, their power to draw and inspire a crowd, that eventually led to their suppression. In 1569, with Elizabeth I in power and the English Reformation in full swing, the pageants rolled out for the last time. “The authorities,” says Davidson, “finally decided that the plays were too Roman Catholic.” “When the powers that be get involved politically and stop the production of the cycle,” says Salisbury, “it’s because it has touched a nerve, here is the kind of religious dissent that the Anglican-based government, i.e., Elizabeth, feared. It points indirectly to the fact that a lot of people were involved in the plays—and the more people were involved, the more nervous the crown got.” Ten years later, the play texts were called in by the archbishop for “corrections.” They never returned to the city. “The attitude,” says Davidson, “was: ‘Well, this may have been okay in the time of ignorance’—the time of Roman Catholicism was ‘the time of ignorance’—‘but nowadays, in the happy time of the Gospel, things are different.’”