Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the New York Corpus Christi Plays

By Winkelman, Michael A. | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the New York Corpus Christi Plays


Winkelman, Michael A., Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the New York Corpus Christi Plays, by Sarah Beckwith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xviii + 294. Cloth $35.00; Paper $22.50.

For the summer feast of Corpus Christi, York produced a play that presented Christian history from Creation till Doom. Performed processionally, it was made up of about fifty pageants. The Register, a compilation of most of the scripts, survives from the fifteenth century. The play is remarkably rich, and it has attracted a substantial amount of enlightening secondary criticism With Signifying God, Sarah Beckwith steps into the mix. From its trio of apposite epigraphs to its illustrations from stained glassed windows in York's Minister to its hundreds of scholarly endnotes, her study may be said to represent the state of the art in New York Play criticism. Beckwith has labored diligently and thought carefully about her subject, and what she has produced is in many ways impressive. Yet Signifying God fails to live up to the encomia that Derek Pearsall, Miri Rubin, Gail McMurray Gibson, and Paul Strohm express for it in the laudatory blurbs on the back of the book jacket. After reading it, this reviewer found himself simultaneously struck by its insights yet frustrated by the presentation, for reasons detailed below.

Signifying God covers three main overlapping areas: late medieval York's Play of Corpus Christi as "sacramental theater," "Social Relation and Symbolic Act" in the cycle, and twentieth-century revivals of mystery and morality plays. Two hypotheses underwrite its explorations: first, "these plays do theological work" (xvii); and second, their values are discovers not as intrinsic dogma, but via processes and communal relationships. Beckwith argues suggestively that Reformation theology and modern critical tenets obscure our understanding of the play; that in effect, to grasp its significance we must remove those lenses and re-envision a fifteenth-century catholic worldview.

Corpus Christi provides the symbolic playing field for these negotiations, Several of its key meanings apply: (1) the Eucharist that effects spiritual cleansing-"Hoc est enim corpus meum" (Matt. 26:26); (2) the celebratory midsummer festival; (3) the Play about salvation history performed on or near a holiday; and (4) the body of Christ as mortal Jesus and the Universal Catholic Church that members partake of and make up. Speaking of the entry into Jerusalem pageant, Beckwith asks, "How then does York welcome Christ into its city on Corpus Christi Day, and how does suck a welcoming, such as recognition, mutually constitute Christ and the penitential community as the body of Christ, the church?" (101). The answers to this complex question are found throughout the book. In the Trial plays, for example, "the legal and dramatic imagination of the playwright has pitted one version of the body of Christ against another" (104). More generally, the author summarizes some of her central hypothesis:

In the late medieval church, signifier and signified has exchanged places "such that the sacramental body is the visible signifier of the hidden signified, which is the social body of Christ." .. . [T]hese plays actualize the body of Christ in its complex appearing and disappearing, absence and presence, past and future temporality.

(116, quoting William Cavanaugh)

In chapter 2, Beckwith invokes anthropology, theology, and ritual and theater studies to explore Christ's body and its meanings (in her words, "the symbolic utterances that circulate around the symbol of Christ's body are the very densest sites of signification" (40).' She amalgamates these different disciplines in order to arrive at a more profound understanding of the York plays. She states:

My argument is that ritual does not so much assert a set of monolithic beliefs as construct a series of tensions. . . . This view further implies that ritual does not so much designate an object as a process of relation. …

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