The modern reader tends to accept that mystery plays are based on the Bible, thereby reading them into an intellectual milieu, the world of the professional Church. Yet we know nothing of the individual authors, and increasingly more, thanks to the efforts of the Records of Early English Drama project, about the milieu of the civic and guild authorities who commissioned and interpreted the texts in performance and the audience who watched them. Few fifteenth-century men and women had access to the Bible as a book. Indeed, following the seventh of Arundel's 1407 Constitutions, it is unclear whether even the translation of the text of the day by preachers could be freely practised.(1) Most, therefore, received the word of God primarily through their ears, and in Latin, through the readings in the liturgy, which only those with some education might recognize. The ecclesiastical climate of the early to mid-fifteenth century was one in which the transmission to the laity of biblical material through any medium was subject to scrutiny. In this context, it is entirely to be expected that the York dramatists' rhetorical construction of the matter of sacred text should be broadly devotional, leaning heavily and conservatively on the forms and patterns of the liturgy. Yet wholesale rejection of the `evolutionary' theory which assumed that medieval vernacular drama was the direct heir of the Latin drama of the medieval Church has caused many modern scholars to ignore all possibilities of liturgical influence: an entire, and once fruitful, line of inquiry has, for the last thirty years or so, more or less been abandoned.(2)
Unlike private Bible study, liturgical reading is not sequential, not narrative or historical in focus, but thematic, meditative, and above all recurrent. The reading aloud from the Gospel book at mass, transforming the written to the spoken word as part of the office, was a kind of transubstantiation. The speaking of God's word invoked his presence, as the reading unlocked the mystery of the day. The correlation between mystery cycles and Corpus Christi is no longer accepted uncritically as a given(3) and it is also the case that the York Cycle pre-dates the formation of the Corpus Christi Guild in York. Yet York's, the earliest cycle, is the one which is consistently associated with the feast, and the influential city fathers and members of the trade and craft guilds associated with it in its heyday were amongst the founder members of the Corpus Christi Guild.(4) It can also be argued that there are points in many of the individual pageants at which the arrival of Christ on earth is perceived as analogous to the process of transubstantiation.(5) The recognition of a special relationship between the feast and the pageants goes some way towards explaining the treatment and selection of biblical narrative history present in the plays as well as their apparently equivocal treatment of historical chronology. The present is, for the whole period after Christ, a period of waiting and witnessing, and witness is borne by repetitious acts of worship. Worship explains particularly the manner in which the plays demonstrate not only the relationship between one past event and another, or the relationship between all past events and the eternal, but the coming together of all past events, through the eternal, with time now.(6) Christianity may be a religion of a linear nature, arranged around a unique and pivotal event, but this is held in tension by the essentially cyclic nature of patterns of worship. The recurrent pattern of anniversaries, of divine service, offers a model for measuring time: the numbering of the years, the annual calendar of festivities, and the hours of each day. The matter of biblical text was arranged in a recurrent interwoven pattern of significances which vicariously measured the passage of time.
The York Cycle(7) is the earliest surviving near-complete cycle of pageants from England. It survives in a single version, and is securely associated with the feast of Corpus Christi. It is already recognized that music in the cycle owes a debt to liturgical practice:(8) this article suggests that there is a comparable and pervasive debt in the spoken text, both for selection and organization and for verbal echo. Placing the cycle alongside liturgical readings in the missal(9) for the period between Epiphany and Easter demonstrates a sustained pattern of analogies. This is not to suggest that the cycle is duplicating the liturgy in another mode; rather it reveals that liturgical associations and echoes are as much a part of the fabric of the cycle as are the vernacular homiletic works with which it is more prominently linked in recent scholarship. Most of the material in the cycle is associated with the two major festal periods in the Church year, around Christmas and Easter. The elaborate mimetic heritage of the Christmas and Easter liturgy explains this apparent concentration. Accordingly, all other material in the cycle simply offers minimal temporal and symbolic contextualization. The other material, however, also represents an elaboration of biblical texts which are read during the intervening period in the Church year. The intervening period of Christ's life is lived out liturgically in the weeks between Epiphany and Palm Sunday, and, in Septuagesima, the sequence is complemented in the breviary by a sequence of Old Testament readings from Genesis at matins.
One third of the York Cycle, in the fullest form in which it can be reconstructed, concerns pageants which treat the subjects of texts read between Epiphany and Holy Week: I The Fall of the Angels (Barkers); II The Creation (Plasterers); III The Creation of Adam and Eve (Cardmakers); IV Adam and Eve in Eden (Fullers); V The Fall of Man (Coopers); VI The Expulsion (Armourers); VII Cain and Abel (Glovers); VIII The Building of the Ark (Shipwrights); IX The Flood (Fishers and Mariners); X Abraham and Isaac (Parchmentmakers and Bookbinders); XI Moses and Pharaoh (Hosiers); XX Christ and the Doctors (Spurriers and Lorimers); XXI The Baptism (Barbers); XXII The Temptation (Smiths); XXIIA The Marriage at Cana (Vintners); XXIII The Transfiguration (Curriers); XXIIIA Jesus in the House of Simon the Leper (Iron-mongers); XXIV The Woman Taken in Adultery/The Raising of Lazarus (Cappers); and XLVII The Last Judgement (Mercers). XXIIA and XXIIIA were never registered, although the main scribe knew of their existence.(10) Richard Beadle further adds that
Both the Ordo and the second list of pageants which accompanies it in the A/
Y Memorandum Book agree in listing the Marriage between the Baptism (no.
XXI) and the Temptation (no. XXII), whereas the Register has the events in
their scriptural order.
This discrepancy is just one of the things explained when the pageants are placed alongside the equivalent readings in the service books. The Ordo and the second Memorandum Book list in fact place this play in its liturgical order, whereas the Register corrects to a natural narrative historical order, such as would be found in a life of Christ. The liturgical order of Christ's meeting with the doctors in the temple and the Baptism are reversed in the same way.
1. Epiphany to Septuagesima
The liturgical texts and the pageants in question fall into three distinct groups. The first group in the calendar relates to the period between Epiphany and Septuagesima for which the pattern of readings in the missal is set out in Table 1. The first three Sundays after Epiphany are marked by Gospel texts at mass relating the Baptism, Christ before the doctors in the temple, and the marriage at Cana. This is the subject matter of York Cycle pageants XXI, XX, and XXIIA respectively. The accompanying readings from the Epistles are based upon an examination of the nature of human society and, specifically, of man's relationship with the deity as it was established through Christ's life. The first of these, from Romans iii.19-26, concerns the difference between divine and human law, the second and third deal with examples of the symbiosis of human society, invoking the imagery of the members of the body to describe universal co-operation as an ideal. The following Gospel readings for the full season between Epiphany and Septuagesima continue this investigation of the human nature of Christ: exploring, for example, his genealogy (Luke iv. 31-7), and narrating the choosing of apostles (Mark iii.6-15 and Luke ix.57-62), as well as subsequent accounts of miracles (reputation for healing, Matthew iv.23-25; healing the leper, Luke v.12-15; stilling the tempest, Matthew viii.23-7). The last of these is accompanied by the text from Romans xiii.8-10 on obeying the Ten Commandments. When Easter is early, however, this season immediately after Epiphany need contain only one Sunday before it coincides with Septuagesima. The sequence above presupposes the maximum possible interval of six weeks. The weeks which do not occur between Epiphany and Septuagesima in the calendar of any one year are transferred to the season between Trinity and Advent, the offices being inserted at the beginning of the season, the masses at the end.(11) Consequently, in every year only the Sunday masses containing the reading of the Baptism (the Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany) and the visit to the doctors (first Sunday after the Octave of Epiphany) will occur, although in a majority of years the marriage at Cana (second Sunday after the Octave of Epiphany) will also occur, the others occurring during this season with diminishing frequency. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that when the selection of episodes in a cycle of pageants is set against the experience of scripture based on a skeletal model of the calendar, no episodes relate to this variable season. The inclusion of the missing pageant of the marriage at Cana in the York Cycle might be connected with its clear eucharistic associations for a festival which was itself a celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi. Its apparently aberrant historical placing is in any case explained. The evidence of rubricated Sarum missals also provides evidence that, where the season was extremely short, the masses of the first three weeks were compressed into the available period,(12) in which case all three masses might occur annually.
[TABULAR DATA 1 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
The York Cycle play-texts which deal with the episodes featured in readings from this section of the calendar show emphases which are characteristic of the liturgical season. The York pageant of Christ and the Doctors follows the text from Luke xi.42-52 quite closely in framework, with some dramatic embellishment. In the Gospel account Mary and Joseph are not given distinct actions and reactions to the loss of their son; in the pageant they are contrasted with each other in a manner reminiscent of their roles in The Flight into Egypt.(13) Joseph appears as comforter:
Marie, mende thy chere,
For certis whan all is done
He comes with folke in feere,
And will ouertake vs sone, (20-4)
and purveyor of practical advice:
Agaynewarde rede I pat we gang
The right way to pat same citee,
To spire and spie all men emang,
For hardely homward gone is he. (39-43)
Mary, by contrast, falls immediately to self-accusation and accusation of her spouse, and to lamenting their loss. Many of her lines are the stock material of the planctus, which is her dominant mode of discourse throughout the cycle and here also echoes the mothers of the children slaughtered in the preceding pageant:
Allas, in bale pus am I boone ... (17)
My is lost, allas pe whille ... (32)
Of sorowes sere schal be my sang ... (43)
The end of the pageant, particularly the reproaches of the parents, follows verses 48 to 52 in almost exact detail.
The central section of Christ and the Doctors has, however, no direct Gospel source, as Luke gives no account of the subject of the disputation. The York playwright turns it into a demonstration of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments, along with the Fourteen Articles of Belief, Seven Sacraments, Seven Works of Mercy, and Seven Sins, were part of the the staple …