Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Whom Seek Ye, Sirs?": The Logic of Searching in the York Herod and the Magi

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Whom Seek Ye, Sirs?": The Logic of Searching in the York Herod and the Magi

Article excerpt

The search for Jesus has been fundamental to Christian performance since the development of the quem queritis ("whom do you seek?") trope in monastic liturgical ritual. This phrase appears in the earliest Visitatio Sepulchri ceremony for Easter and also in Christmas liturgies featuring the adoration of the shepherds and the visit of the magi. In one especially elaborate example, in the Fleury monastery's Ordo ad representandum Herodem (Service for Representing Herod), the shepherds are asked, "Quem queritis, pastores, dicite?" (1) Later in the text, monks singing the parts of the magi reveal that they too are seekers: "Regem regum quaerimus, / quem natum esse stella indicar, / quae fulgore ceteris clarior rutilat" (We seek the king of kings, / Whose birth the star reveals / Which radiates with more shining splendor than the rest; ll. 21-23). (2) The reagi follow the star to the manger, where an angel displays the Christ child: "Ecce puer adest quem quaeritis" (Behold, here is the boy whom you seek; 1. 94). Whether this performance text is viewed strictly as ritual or as a protodrama, it is clearly structured by the logic of seeking, as the star generates the search and leads the magi forward to find what they have sought. (3)

The action of seeking Christ is likewise central to the York Corpus Christi play, the only complete civic cycle drama to survive from fifteenth-century England. A massive devotional performance produced by craft workers' groups, the cycle engages simultaneously with traditional religious representations and with late medieval York's complex labor system. York's Herod and the Magi pageant, in dramatizing the familiar search for Christ in a very particular way, also meditates upon artisanal rules and regulations to suggest ways in which the city's system of labor inspections might work to promote a more inclusive "social body." (4) The pageant's representations of the magi's journey, their interactions with Herod, each other, and with the Christ child, enact concerns particular to the civic context in which these plays were composed and performed, a context that offered many opportunities for what Sarah Beckwith has called the "theatrical exploration of labour and its divisions, transformations, praxis, and political regulation." (5) This drama turns, as do all magi plays, on the action of spiritual seeking. (6) But the particular visitations depicted in this pageant may also be seen to evoke craft searching, the inspection of workshops by guild officers (searchers) for violations of craft standards or infringement of craft monopolies, punishable by tines that contributed in part to financing the city's dramatic cycle. Though it was a government-mandated form of inspection widely acknowledged as potentially abusive of fellow craftworkers, searching was equally a process of discovery predicated on the desire for peaceful coexistence among guilds. The practice was scrutinized by the guilds themselves and understood as a means of defining each craft's interests among other workers, making even minor craft groups visible as participants in the wider urban economy. If we read the magi's spiritual search for Christ as informed by the practicalities of guild searching, the interconnections of religious drama and social life are illuminated in a new way, as artisanal drama comments upon the possibilities for civic unity that inhere in a labor practice that contributed materially to bringing forth the play every year.

The feast of Corpus Christi, inaugurated in the thirteenth century to celebrate the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic host, quickly became a prime occasion for civic and religious discourses to mingle in public performance. (7) While Mervyn James influentially interpreted the craft-produced Corpus Christi drama as functioning to display the various artisan guilds as unified in a single "social body," (8) more recent materialist work has uncovered the ways in which guild-produced drama also evokes the competing interests of different city dwellers: mayors and aldermen, wealthier and poorer guilds, apprentices and masters. …

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