Suffering and the York Plays

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

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. …

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