Calendar and Text: Christ's Ministry in the York Plays and the Liturgy

By King, Pamela M. | Medium Aevum, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Calendar and Text: Christ's Ministry in the York Plays and the Liturgy


King, Pamela M., Medium Aevum


The modern reader tends to accept that mystery plays are based on the Bible, thereby reading them into an intellectual milieu, the world of the professional Church. Yet we know nothing of the individual authors, and increasingly more, thanks to the efforts of the Records of Early English Drama project, about the milieu of the civic and guild authorities who commissioned and interpreted the texts in performance and the audience who watched them. Few fifteenth-century men and women had access to the Bible as a book. Indeed, following the seventh of Arundel's 1407 Constitutions, it is unclear whether even the translation of the text of the day by preachers could be freely practised.(1) Most, therefore, received the word of God primarily through their ears, and in Latin, through the readings in the liturgy, which only those with some education might recognize. The ecclesiastical climate of the early to mid-fifteenth century was one in which the transmission to the laity of biblical material through any medium was subject to scrutiny. In this context, it is entirely to be expected that the York dramatists' rhetorical construction of the matter of sacred text should be broadly devotional, leaning heavily and conservatively on the forms and patterns of the liturgy. Yet wholesale rejection of the `evolutionary' theory which assumed that medieval vernacular drama was the direct heir of the Latin drama of the medieval Church has caused many modern scholars to ignore all possibilities of liturgical influence: an entire, and once fruitful, line of inquiry has, for the last thirty years or so, more or less been abandoned.(2)

Unlike private Bible study, liturgical reading is not sequential, not narrative or historical in focus, but thematic, meditative, and above all recurrent. The reading aloud from the Gospel book at mass, transforming the written to the spoken word as part of the office, was a kind of transubstantiation. The speaking of God's word invoked his presence, as the reading unlocked the mystery of the day. The correlation between mystery cycles and Corpus Christi is no longer accepted uncritically as a given(3) and it is also the case that the York Cycle pre-dates the formation of the Corpus Christi Guild in York. Yet York's, the earliest cycle, is the one which is consistently associated with the feast, and the influential city fathers and members of the trade and craft guilds associated with it in its heyday were amongst the founder members of the Corpus Christi Guild.(4) It can also be argued that there are points in many of the individual pageants at which the arrival of Christ on earth is perceived as analogous to the process of transubstantiation.(5) The recognition of a special relationship between the feast and the pageants goes some way towards explaining the treatment and selection of biblical narrative history present in the plays as well as their apparently equivocal treatment of historical chronology. The present is, for the whole period after Christ, a period of waiting and witnessing, and witness is borne by repetitious acts of worship. Worship explains particularly the manner in which the plays demonstrate not only the relationship between one past event and another, or the relationship between all past events and the eternal, but the coming together of all past events, through the eternal, with time now.(6) Christianity may be a religion of a linear nature, arranged around a unique and pivotal event, but this is held in tension by the essentially cyclic nature of patterns of worship. The recurrent pattern of anniversaries, of divine service, offers a model for measuring time: the numbering of the years, the annual calendar of festivities, and the hours of each day. The matter of biblical text was arranged in a recurrent interwoven pattern of significances which vicariously measured the passage of time.

The York Cycle(7) is the earliest surviving near-complete cycle of pageants from England. …

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