Suffering and the York Plays

By Davidson, Clifford | Philological Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Suffering and the York Plays


Davidson, Clifford, Philological Quarterly


[H]aue trewe ymaginacion & inwarde compassion of pe peynes & pe passion of oure lorde Jesu verrey god & man. [W]e shole vndurstande pat as his wil was to suffre pe hardest dep & most sorouful peynes, for pe redempcion of mankynde[,] so by pe self wille he suspendet in al his passione pe vse & pe miht of Be godhede fro pe infirmite of pe manhede ... after pe kynde of manne.--Nicholas Love, Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ (1) **********

The first record of the York civic religious plays, known today from those entered in the Register (British Library MS Add. 35,290) prepared in c.1463-77, (2) is 1376, when the York Memorandum Book A/Y made mention of a pageant house for the storage of three pageant wagons used at Corpus Christi, (3) but the lack of previous evidence does not rule out a history for the plays that could have extended some years earlier. The York Memorandum Book entries only go back to 1376, (4) and no earlier records are extant that provide any information on which to make a judgment about the date when the play cycle with its Creation to Doom structure was instituted. However, several things are clear--for example, that the guild system in the city was in the process of developing its organization and establishing its relationship to the city's ruling elite. Guilds would have been a particularly valuable asset in times of insecurity and, most importantly perhaps, in those years in which the city, never a very healthy place, periodically endured epidemics. (5) The plague, which had come to York in 1349 in a particularly virulent form, was again recorded in 1361 and 1369, with a return in 1378 and 1390, when a thousand people are said to have died in the city. (6) The inability of the population to grow or even remain stable without an influx of people from outside the city meant that there was always a degree of precariousness in maintaining its size and economic position, both of which were nevertheless diminished after 1460. (7) No doubt influenced by the feeling of the fragility of human life which led the people to think about the hereafter, the late fourteenth, the fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries were times of very strong civic support for York's religious foundations, including not only parish church building and repair but also endowments for chantry chapels, donations to friaries, and funding of other sacred functions. (8)

Jeremy Goldberg suggested in 1996 that the initial impetus for the staging of the plays may have come from the guilds rather than the corporation, which ultimately controlled them. (9) Their motives would have included the strong desire among their members to achieve identity by this and other means, as well as, at the same time, to establish a visual testimony to the history of Christianity and its devotional practices. In an article published in the following year, R. B. Dobson argued the possibility of the reverse of Goldberg's theory in speculating that the developing guild structure and the plays could instead have been part of an effort of the merchant elite who dominated the city government for organizing and controlling the crafts which made up the guilds. (10) But in spite of the resentment that some guilds occasionally pleaded in response to overly heavy taxation in times of economic decline, their enthusiasm for playing on the whole must be assumed since the plays continued to be played at Corpus Christi through the fifteenth century and into the third quarter of the sixteenth century. (11) The plays were suppressed in 1569, (12) when, following the death of Archbishop Young in the previous year, the diocese was being administered by Dean Matthew Hutton. This would also be a year of political turmoil on account of the Northern rebellion, which, in spite of sympathy for the Old Religion in York, the city resisted joining. (13)

Neither possibility of course provides anything like a definitive explanation of the origin of the original texts of the pageants in the York Corpus Christi cycle, though Alexandra Johnston has found the latter "big bang" theory to be plausible and consistent with a possible connection between the city corporation and the Augustinian friary next door to the Guildhall which might have been called on to assist with the writing of the plays.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Suffering and the York Plays
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?