Lessons in "Hopping": The Dance of Death and the Chester Mystery Cycle

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The plays in the Chester mystery cycle may paint a vivid picture of religious belief on the eve of the Reformation, but they also contain many echoes of contemporary social customs as well as borrowings from other sources, both textual and visual. (1) Over the years, research into medieval drama has not just focused on the play texts themselves but also has taken into account the art of the period for visual parallels to the plays. W. L. Hildburgh and M. D. Anderson are but two in a long line of authors to draw valuable comparisons between medieval art and drama. (2) Similarly, Sally-Beth MacLean's Chester Art is among the early contributions to the Early Drama, Art, and Music series to list extant and lost art relevant to the study of early drama in the area. (3) The problem facing researchers is to identify such influences when the original sources have failed to survive. While many medieval texts have undoubtedly been lost to us over the centuries, the extent of the destruction of medieval art through iconoclasm at the time of the Reformation and again under Oliver Cromwell may well be far greater. (4) Inevitably, therefore, comparisons between the extant word and image are badly hampered in that they can only be based on what has actually survived or on other evidence of what once existed. Drama texts can be crucial in helping us obtain a better understanding of the imagery with which late-medieval viewers must once have been familiar but which has since been lost. One famous theme was the danse macabre, or Dance of Death, which was the subject of many examples in the visual arts across late-medieval Europe, although few appear to survive in Britain. In two of the Chester plays, however, it may be possible to detect references to this theme that would attest to its former popularity.

Play 10 of the Chester mystery cycle, in which the Goldsmiths (and possibly the Masons) enacted the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, presents viewers with a scene of brutal murder that is made even more horrific by an exceedingly cruel joke. The scene takes place after Herod has sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to slaughter "all knave-children within two yeere / and on daye ould" (179-80) in an attempt to kill the newborn Christ. The soldiers first demur slightly at the king's command, which they deem unfit for "knightes of great degree" (160), but it is the very extent of the killing that reconciles them to the task. Although not explicitly mentioned here, the total number of Innocents slain was traditionally held to be 144,000. (5) Primus Miles soon exults in the prospect of killing "[t]hese congeons in there clowtes" (209), as the infants are at one point described. At the start of the killing spree by Herod's soldiers, Secundus Miles, whose name is tellingly given as Lancherdeepe (58, 85), addresses the first Bethlehem mother thus:

 
   Dame, thy sonne, in good faye, 
   hee must of me learne a playe: 
   hee must hopp, or I goe awaye, 
   upon my speare ende. 
   (10.321-24) 

The threat of making this mother's son "hop" on the end of his spear would seem to describe simply a favorite mode of slaughtering the infants in Massacre scenes, as confirmed by the subsequent stage direction: "Tunc Miles trasfodiet primum puerum et super lancea accipiet" (344 s.d.). However, the joke about teaching his infant victims to "hopp" clearly proves irresistible to the second soldier, for he repeats it to Secunda Mulier prior to despatching yet another Innocent:

 
   Dame, shewe thou me thy child there; 
   hee must hopp uppon my speare. 
   And hit any pintell beare, penis 
   I must teach him a playe. 
   (10.361-64) 

The women try to ward off the soldiers with all their might, yet the outcome is the same, as the stage direction bears out: "Tunc Secundus Miles transfodiet secundum puerum" (376 s.d.). Both infants thus die impaled upon the soldiers' spears. …