Academic journal article Comparative Drama

London and the Problem of the Clerkenwell Plays

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

London and the Problem of the Clerkenwell Plays

Article excerpt

Scholars and antiquarians at least since John Stow's Survey of London (1590) have believed that there was a cycle of biblical plays performed over several days by clerics at Clerkenwell (or at Skinners' Well) in the fourteenth and the opening decades of the fifteenth century, even, according to Stow, until his own day.(1) There are a number of problems associated with this tradition: there is no other record that a biblical drama was presented in England over more than one day before the early sixteenth century when Chester moved its Corpus Christi play to Whitsuntide(2); the earliest documents we have for a mammoth production of plays lasting for more than a three-day period are otherwise continental and fifteenth century (except for the Passion at Cividale(3)); and those English cycles for which we have extant texts and sufficient documentation were all produced by guilds or ruling oligarchies that constituted civic corporations whereas the Clerkenwell plays are said to be made by the clerics of London outside the precincts of the city. The questions we need to address are: whether the ludi at Clerkenwell were cycles of biblical dramas; whether the clerks of London constituted a body with the resources to produce such a series of plays; and, assuming that they did produce a series of plays, whether they were an annual or regular production over a long period of time.

Before I turn to the Clerkenwell documents, I would like to place my discussion within a current one among scholars of the medieval drama: how we are to read possible references to scripted dramas in the extant records. Although recent scholars are more sensitive to the language of play and game than earlier historians, there remains a desire to read the word "play" and related terms as "drama" whenever we do the basic research of collecting records and writing histories of the early drama. Over the last decade or so, I have taken a sceptical approach to the way we have read our extant documents, yet I also acknowledge that many records remain opaque to us because we do not have enough context to determine whether a "play" is a "drama" or some other ludic activity or even a game.(4) I bring this scepticism to the records of the Clerkenwell plays. At issue in this study are the words "miracula," "pley," "ludus," and "iew" (Fr "jeu").(5) In the past scholars have thought that miracula referred either to saint plays or religious dramas in general or both.(6) I have argued that the term denotes clerical ludi of a raucous and unstructured kind and "somergames," which may be lay equivalents. Either of these may have involved irreverent rather than pious representations of the crucifixion and Harrowing of Hell. But the term may also denote a variety of festivities on days of license (e.g., St. Stephen's, Holy Innocents', St. John's or a patron saint's feast day) that may have included wrestling, football, and other sports, especially within sacred precincts like the parish cemetery.(7) I have also questioned whether the phrase "play of" or "ludus de" followed by a saint's name (e.g., ludus de sancta katerina) indicates that the reference is to a saint play or to a lay parish festivity on a saint's feast day.(8)

In a similar sceptical vein, I approach the problem of the Clerkenwell plays, the documents of which are as follows:

1) 1300-01 (Lancashire 543): Complaint of the prioress of Clerkenwell that the crowd ("gentz") damages her crops, hedges and ditches when they attend the "miracles et lutes" of the clerici of London.(9) The King's writ in reply refers to these activities merely as "luctas sive ludos."

2) 1384, 29 August (Lanc 544): The Westminster Chronicle: "Vicesimo nono die Augusti clerici London' apud Skynnerswell' fecerunt quendam ludum valde suptuosum; duravitque quinque diebus" ("On 29 August the clerks of London at Skinners Well made a certain very sumptuous ludus, which lasted five days").(10)

3) 1385, 12 August (Lanc 545): London Letter Book H: In order to prevent peril and debates the mayor and aldermen forbid "luyte" within the city or its environs by the "gentz" of the same city on pain of imprisonment and forfeiture of their goods. …

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