Palm Sunday Prophets and Processions and Eucharistic Controversy
Erler, Mary C., Renaissance Quarterly
Item Spent Apon Pallme Sondays for flowres & kaakes and Nayles and Settyng vp of the pageanttes Summa xx d
Item paid for a parchement skyn for the prophettes sholders on palmsonday iij d
Item to the chyldern thatt playyd the proffytes on pallme Sonday ij d(1)
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as part of their Palm Sunday liturgical celebration, various London parishes purchased or rented costumes, wigs, and props for prophets, and paid to build scaffolds for them to stand on ("pageanttes"). Six other cities too had Palm Sunday prophets between 1498 and 1559 and it is perhaps significant that in all these places a substantial tradition of religious dissent existed. It is in London, however, that such Palm Sunday celebrations are first recorded and most numerous.
Of the thirty London and Westminster parishes whose pre-Elizabethan financial records survive, half certainly mounted such dramatic ceremonies; records of other similar celebrations have most likely perished.(2) A lost London payment for playing the prophet has been cited from 1451, and records of Palm Sunday carpentry survive from 1486 to 1499, but the celebration's greatest popularity comes in the early sixteenth century and continues, despite the Edwardian interruption, until Elizabeth's accession.(3)
Historians of drama have found these records interesting because the ceremonies seem frequently to tremble on the edge of mimesis, and in their somewhat indeterminate character to offer some perspectives on the relation of liturgy and drama. The ceremonies may, however, sustain a broader interpretation. Three elements in the Palm Sunday liturgy are particularly significant: first, the occasional presence of a boy prophet, initially noted in the early sixteenth century; second, the intensification of the adult prophetic role, long part of the Palm Sunday liturgy, through the dramatic embellishment of costume and props; and third, the eucharistic procession itself. Each of these elements illuminates the cultural meaning of this celebration in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries at a time of theological controversy.
The child and adult prophets have previously been viewed as curiosities constituting a taxonomic problem. Should they be considered part of an elaborate liturgical event, their costumes and props subordinated to the function of liturgical worship, indeed intensifying that act of worship? Or does their presence provide further evidence for the continuing tendency of the liturgy over the centuries to produce both dramatic and quasi-dramatic offshoots? Are they liturgical or dramatic?
If we examine these prophets' ritual function, however, the questions can be reframed. The prophets both initiate a new element of eucharistic homage (in the case of the child) and strengthen those already present in this day's liturgy (the adult prophets). This prophetic role comes to prominence at a time when eucharistic belief continues to constitute both the most crucial and the most controverted English theological issue. Since Wycliff, the precisions offered by Aquinas - that at the consecration the bread and wine were changed substantially by the priest's words, though their accidents remained unchanged - had been rejected by many. Peter McNiven says, "The implication of transubstantiation for the vast majority of the population . . . was that the consecrated Host was Christ . . . and therefore God: a fitting subject for direct devotion. . . . To Wycliff, no version of the doctrine of the real presence justified the popular practice of praying to and worshipping the consecrated elements in exactly the same manner as Christians were bound to worship God in Heaven. If acceptance of transubstantiation did not automatically produce observances which Wycliff regarded as idolatrous, he certainly believed that it led most ordinary believers in that direction" (26-27). Since by these standards the liturgical function of the Palm Sunday prophets may be seen, indeed, as idolatrous - they explicitly hail the sacrament as the historic Christ - the prophets' presence may be read as reaffirming a traditional theological position during a period of challenge to it. …