Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations

Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations

by Martin Stevens

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Martin Stevens examines the four extant complete cycles of Middle English mystery plays in light of the most recent research on the manuscripts, sources, and records relating to the medieval drama. The first comprehensive treatment of all four of the cycles, the book emphasizes the study of the surviving manuscripts as texts distinct from their performance history.


Martin Stevens examines the four extant complete cycles of Middle English mystery plays in light of the most recent research on the manuscripts, sources, and records relating to the medieval drama. The first comprehensive treatment of all four of the cycles, the book emphasizes the study of the surviving manuscripts as texts distinct from their performance history.

Originally published in 1987.

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Four Middle English Mystery Cycles

Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations

By Martin Stevens


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06714-8


The York Cycle: City as Stage

The York plays present a special problem for those who find thematic or structural unity in the medieval Corpus Christi cycles. The difficulty is that the play in York, perhaps because it was staged from the outset in what was then a large regional city, was more nearly a communal enterprise than any other extant English cycle. One senses in reading the manuscript of the plays and the copious municipal records from York that the cycle itself is a corporate work, and not so markedly as the other cycles the work of an individual consciousness. In part one gets that feeling because the documents themselves are testimony to the civic enterprise of nurturing and preserving the play. In York it was not enough to have a Corpus Christi play; it was necessary in addition to have a civic record of that play. The existence of a trove of municipal documents in addition to an official copy of the Corpus Christi play is not simply an accident of history; it is a reflection of the York civic temperament that placed a premium on the preservation of the city's institutions and insisted on the recognition of its longstanding and honored corporate identity. The Corpus Christi play there was no mere popular entertainment, no ordinary annual festive occasion; it was the city's proud and solemn celebration of itself.

We are fortunate in possessing those civic records and doubly fortunate in having newly available a magnificently edited scholarly compilation of all the entries that touched on dramatic, ceremonial, and minstrel performances in York before 1642. These volumes, edited by Alexandra F. Johnston and Margaret Dorrell (Rogerson) under the title York: Records of Early English Drama (hereafter REED: York), provide the fullest documentary evidence available for any medieval dramatic work or activity, documenting in effect the history of the Corpus Christi play at York for its lifetime of some two hundred years, from circa 1376, when the play seems already to have been in existence, possibly for some time, to 1569, the date of its last performance. The dramatic records come from three major sources: the city itself (by far the most informative and voluminous source), the craft guilds (comprised mostly of the copious records from the Merchant Adventurers and the much more limited records of the Bakers), and the religious guilds and hospitals (though these records, especially of the Corpus Christi Guild, are primarily concerned with the Corpus Christi procession). It would be redundant to describe those records here, since Johnston and Rogerson give an excellent summary of their contents and nature in the introduction of their edition (see REED: York, pp. xvii–xli). Suffice it to say that the records give a cumulative picture of the procedures and activities connected with the Corpus Christi plays. They include civic and guild ordinances and regulations; complaints and arbitrations of conflicts; records of fines, expenditures, and payments relating to the Corpus Christi plays; proclamations; and sundry descriptions and observations of activities relating to the plays, including remarks about the decorum of the spectators during performances.

With so much available information, one might expect that we can now produce a quite complete account of the York Corpus Christi performance over the course of its history. Unfortunately, however, that is not the case. As Johnston and Rogerson themselves observe,

The York records offer the familiar paradox of all collections of records. Although they are voluminous, they are also fragmentary, presenting some practices in tedious repetition while mentioning others only once, leaving room for speculation. (P. xv)

For example, the records tell very little about the performances themselves and virtually nothing about the manner of the accumulation of texts. Thus, while we are favored in our study of the York play with copious external evidence, we need to bear in mind that the records often fail to answer the most fundamental questions.

They do tell a great deal about the tone and the atmosphere of dramatic activity in the city. When, therefore, we seek to know what place the play held in the city's self-esteem, we have a valuable guide at hand. It is clear that from the time in 1396 when Richard II transformed the city into a county in its own right, the Corpus Christi play draws increasing official attention in the records. The earliest of the municipal books, the York A/Y Memorandum Book, already makes clear that the play is the ceremonial highlight in the annual calendar. Its performance is manifestly the culmination of a yearlong prescribed routine that is supervised by the city government, a mercantile oligarchy that consisted of the mayor, the aldermen, the council of twenty-four (later expanded into the common council), and such officers as the city clerk, the chamberlains, sheriffs, bailiffs, and bridgemasters. The preparation of next year's play began shortly after the current performance when many of the craft and trade guilds appointed their new pageant masters, 2 and the guild carried on with its preparations always under the watchful eye and the scrupulous guidance of the city, highlighted by the stately moment of the delivery of the "billet," which was either a play description or an approved script. The conveyance of this document was indeed ceremonious: Six of the mayor's sergeants-at-arms, most likely constituting the elite of the city's police force, brought the billets to each of the participating guilds during the first or second week in Lent, as specified in the first full description of the plays, the well-known Ordo Paginarum copied by the city clerk, Roger Burton, in the A/Y Memorandum Book (the Latin phrase for "billets" is sedule paginarum; see REED: York, p. 17). The city was clearly in charge. And the play, in its official eyes, brought it glitter and glory, as attested in the following words addressed to the Goldsmiths concerning their performance of the Herod pageant, which was to be presented "in the more lavish manner which is seemly for the praise of the city" ("honestiori modo quo decet in laudem ciuitatis"; see REED: York, p. 48). Moreover, the city itself was the official host of the play; its banner depicting the municipal arms was displayed at each of the assigned stations of performance (REED: York, p. 12). Every official document made clear that the York city fathers were deeply committed to the perpetuation of the play, which was consistently acknowledged for the glory and profit that it brought to the whole community.

This reverence for the play was, however, not shared by all of its producers, especially those guilds which faced financial difficulty. It is common knowledge that such guilds over the years sought to reduce their responsibilities in the sponsorship and support of their assigned pageants. Had it not been for the corporation and its insistent agenda of maintaining the Corpus Christi play in its accustomed form, many of the pageants at York would surely have died an early death. Just how successful the city was in maintaining the play can be seen by a comparative analysis of the famous Ordo Paginarum of 1415 and the manuscript itself, which dates to a period of at least fifty years later, though possibly as much as seventy-five to a hundred years later, as I shall show later in this chapter. By my count, forty-three of the pageants retained their original primary guild sponsorship, and those pageants which underwent change usually involved the shifting of guilds from primary to secondary responsibility. The records, moreover, confirm that in most instances this sponsorship persisted to the very end. However, the few instances in which guilds could not maintain their assignments are particularly instructive, and they give evidence of the durability of the play as a whole.

Consider, for example, the case of the "Saucemakers" (i.e. Sausagemakers). We encounter their name in the records for the first time in 1417, as a result of a petition for relief in the financing of their play, the Hanging of Judas, which no doubt was assigned to the Saucemakers because a string of sausages could be used to represent Judas's entrails when his body, according to an entry from 1432, "burst in the middle" ("crepuit medius"; REED: York, p. 48). The Saucemakers complained that they could no longer support the pageant ("Salsarij ipsi paginam ipsam diucius sustinere non valebunt"; REED: York, p. 31) unless they received additional support from those who sold candles and who had traditionally helped to sustain the pageant. In particular, the Saucemakers asked for an assessment of all sellers of candles, even those, like the Skinners, who had lately taken up the practice of selling candles and who were not contributors to their pageant. The mayor thereupon agreed that all those who sold Paris candles by retail would thereafter contribute every third penny to the maintenance of the Saucemakers' pageant. Somewhat later, another mayor decreed that all those who sold mustard or other sauces be included in this order. With their new arrangement, the Saucemakers managed to continue their sponsorship of the pageant for some years, though they apparently quarreled with other crafts over its support. As a result, the mayor with the advice of the council combined the following five plays into one: the Condemnation of Jesus Christ ("pagina condempnacionis Iesu christi"; REED: York, p. 48); the Hanging of Judas (formerly the Saucemakers' play); Pilate's Condemnation of Jesus (the Tilemakers' play); the Flagellation (the pageant of the Turners, Hayresters, and Boilers); and the Playing of Dice for Jesus' Garment (the Millers' play). The new, combined play was to be produced by the joint effort and financial support of the Saucemakers and the Tilemakers, with specified contributions from the other crafts. Because of the joint sponsorship, none of the guilds was any longer known as full proprietor of the pageant and the several sponsoring guilds were therefore forbidden to "place any signs, arms or insignia upon the aforesaid pageant, except only the arms of this honourable city" ("Et quod nulla quatuor arcium predictarum ponat aliqua signa arma vel insignia super paginam predictam nisi tantum arma huius honorabil<..> ciuitatis"; REED: York, p. 49). Probably by sharing the expanded pageant, the poor Saucemakers obtained some financial relief, but it is worth noting that they paid the price of no longer sponsoring a pageant by themselves.

And apparently things became worse over the years, for when we next encounter their name in the records, as late as 1515, the Saucemakers are no longer the coproducers of the Condemnation pageant; rather they have become contributors together with the Millers to what is now deemed the "Tile-house [r]z" (i.e. Tilemakers'?) pageant. In the next three years, their fortunes apparently declined even further (or possibly they fought with the Millers), but they were now enjoined to contribute together with the Whitechaundlers (once more the old familiar candlemakers) to the Girdlers' pageant (see REED: York, p. 217). This story of the decline of the Saucemakers, no doubt linked to their economic hard times, gives a good glimpse into the process of play sponsorship in York and the strong role played by the mayor in maintaining the play of Corpus Christi. It is interesting to note that the surviving manuscript still contains the Hanging of Judas episode, though it seems to have been merged at some time with the Remorse of Judas, which was sponsored by the Cooks and Waterleaders. The Saucemakers, alas, are expunged from history; their name subsequently appears nowhere in the register. Their instance discloses that while sponsorships could change, the play itself, with the persistent guidance and management of the city, remained.

I have included this lengthy illustration to cite the usefulness of the records in tracing the fortunes of guild sponsorships. Many other crafts, over the years, petitioned for help, most often for financial reasons, though sometimes for other reasons as well. The Masons, to cite one example, became disenchanted over their play of Fergus (the name of the man who attacked the bier of Mary and whose arm came off and stuck to the bier), for several reasons. First, its performance attracted noise, laughter, and violence. Second, its episode was apocryphal. Third, the pageant often could not be put on because its turn for performance came in darkness (see REED: York, pp. 47–48). The Fergus play was one of the very few, if not the only one, that eventually was dropped from the cycle, but even it (with all the trouble it caused) managed to stay around long enough to be enacted again in 1476. This exception shows how durable the play of York was. Like the government itself, the play was an outward sign of the persistence of institutions in the city. True, the play was finally abandoned, but its demise was imposed by a harsh diocesan administration that was determined to quash all attempts at resistance. The records made clear that if York had had its way, the plays would have continued for a long time to come.

Collectively the guilds were strongly supportive of their government since in so many respects they really were the essential substance of that government. The most common way of becoming a freeman in the city — the first requirement for a potential officeholder — was to finish an apprenticeship in one of the crafts or trades. The regular ladder of promotion for the potential officeholder was the assumption of an accounting office like bridge- or muremaster, then election to chamberlain, then advancement to the council of twenty-four, and, finally, for the most successful, to alderman — a position that would automatically lead to at least one term as mayor. The records attest that aldermen attained the "freedom of the city" at a mean age of twenty-four, came onto the council of twenty-four at age forty-one, and served as aldermen between the ages of forty-six and sixty-seven. The sixteenth-century records show a total of 106 aldermen. Of these, 60 were merchants, 10 were drapers, 4 were haberdashers, 6 were lawyers and gentlemen, 4 were goldsmiths, 4 tailors and hosiers, 3 pewterers, and 15 more came from other craft guilds. These statistics show that the government of York was composed essentially of guildsmen and that, with an established ladder of achievement, it was composed of persons who, at the pinnacle of decision making, were elder statesmen with a lifetime of experience in running the affairs of the guilds and the city. The system encouraged the maintenance of institutions and of established processes. Its governing class undoubtedly saw little distinction between their lives as guildsmen and their lives as civic officials. The Corpus Christi play was thus a self-perpetuating civic institution.

It had to be that in order to have survived for the long period of its existence. In fact, a close look at the economic history of York shows that during the lifetime of the plays, the fortunes of the city steadily declined, and the maintenance of the plays was a genuine hardship for its sponsors. When the plays were inaugurated, probably some time in the 1360s or 1370s, York was the largest provincial city in England. Estimates of its population vary, in part because the Freemen's Register during the fourteenth century failed "to record the names of those whose title to the franchise rested on birth or patrimony," but it was probably in the neighborhood of 15,000. By the mid-sixteenth century, when the plays entered their demise, the population had shrunk to 8,000 people, and York, while still among the half-dozen largest provincial cities in England, was considerably smaller than Norwich, Bristol, Exeter, Salisbury, and possibly Newcastle. At its high point, York was the foremost northern center in religion and administration, and it was a focal point for social life, industry, and the distribution of goods. Its early prosperity rested on all these diverse activities. At the close of the fourteenth century wool was the leading product of York's considerable international trade, and its cloth trades in general were thriving. J. N. Bartlett reports,

The most striking development occurred in the clothmaking industry and the York crafts making cloth shared in the growth of English industry which virtually priced foreign cloth out of the English market and created a substantial demand for English cloth in the Baltic, Gascony, and Flanders. Between 1331 and 1371 there was a sixteen-fold increase in the number of weavers, fullers, shearmen, dyers and tapiters becoming freemen of York, and the percentage of new freemen in these clothmaking crafts rose from two to fifteen per cent.


Excerpted from Four Middle English Mystery Cycles by Martin Stevens. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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