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Transcript of MEDIEVAL DRAMA
The Nativity (Ommegang, 1615)
Annunciation pageant (Ommegang, 1615)
Denis Van Alsloot (1570 - 1628),
'The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella'
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Continental analogues: The Ommegang in Brussels
Glynne Wickham. Early English Stages (1963)
Performance on wagons/pageants:
Anonymous painting. The Thames at Richmond. (c. 1620). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Jean Fouquet, ‘The Martyrdom of St Apollonia’
The Hours of Etienne Chevalier (c. 1455)
Musée Condé, Chantilly
generic terms, not always specific and often misleading:
» Corpus Christi plays, mysteries, cycles
» miracles, saint plays
» moralities, moral interludes
Performance often linked to religious festivals, like Corpus Christi and sponsored by the craft guilds of the city
Religious drama in the vernacular (II):
The Pray Codex (late 12th c.)
Budapest National Library
Interrogatio. Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio. Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli. Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro
The Quem quaeritis trope:
Everyman (1528 edition)
dramatized allegories, introducing personified virtues and vices to present a Christian lesson
Castle of Perseverance (early 15th c.); characters: Humanum genus, Bonus & Malus angelus, Mundus, Belial, Mors, virtues & vices…
Mankind (c.1470): Mankind, Titivillus, Mischief, Newguise, Nowadays, Nought, Mercy
Everyman (printed 1515): Everyman, God, Death, Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Confession, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, Five Wits
The Towneley cycle
Huntington Library HM1 (late 15th c.)
York: 48 plays; performed on Corpus Christi as part of the procession
Chester:25 plays (may have originated at Corpus Christi, but were performed on the 3 days following Whitsunday)
Towneley/Wakefield cycle: 32 plays; originally not associated with guilds & possibly not performed on wagons
N-Town (formerly Ludus Coventriae): 42 plays. Reference to ‘N-Town’ suggests touring performance; orig. not a cycle, but a compilation of plays rearranged in the style of a sequence
Major mystery cycles:
The Harrowing of Hell, from the York Cycle
Revival performance on wagons by
Populi Ludique Scoietas, U of Toronto (1977)
The plays dramatize mysteries of the Christian faith
they were organized by members of the guilds; each guild was responsible for a play related to their "mystery" (Lat. ministerium) or craft
Noah's Flood: the water-carriers, or the fishermen
Last supper: bakers
Crucifixion: nail-makers, or butchers
The term ‘mysteries’:
Conjectural reconstruction. From M. Bellinger’s
A Short History of the Drama (1927)
By late 14th c., the Corpus Christi feast had become an important focus for dramatic activity in England
Some towns performed whole cycles of scriptural plays, covering salvation history from Creation to Doomsday
Corpus Christi / Mystery plays:
Missel à l’usage d’Evreux
Evreux, BM Lat 099 (late 15th c.)
1264: Pope Urban IV institutes the feast of Corpus Christi to venerate the Blessed Sacrament
1311: street procession of clerics & civic dignitaries created to mark the feast of Corpus Christi
In some cities, the procession incorporates static tableaux on floats, representing biblical scenes
This may have led to dramatic performances of a scriptural episode or even a sequence of plays
The feast of Corpus Christi:
Auto de los Reyes Magos
Bib.Nac. de Madrid vª 5-9 (13th c.)
earliest European example: Auto de los Reyes Magos (Toledo, c.1155)
‘evolutionary theory’ of its origin (development from liturgical drama), now discredited
the rise of vernacular drama associated instead with the emergence (early 13th c.) of the mendicant orders: Franciscans & Dominicans
evangelising purpose: to instruct the lay people, diverting as well as edifying
The rise of vernacular scriptural drama:
The Benedictional of Æthelwold (c. 970)
BL ms Add. 49598
The liturgy of the Church assimilates
forms of drama into its offices
Tropes: brief liturgical dialogues, sung in Latin (antiphonal singing)
use of tropes in the liturgy attested c.970: Visitatio sepulchri in Æthelwold’s Regularis Concordia, as part of the services for Easter Day
Visitatio: dialogue between the angel at the tomb performed by monks in disguise and involving some scenic movement
Festal Psalter (14th c.)
The Hague, KB 78 D 40
Dispersal of the dramatic heritage of Greece & Rome
Evidence for theatrical entertainments often comes from indictments of the ecclesiastical authorities:
» against spectacula or ludi
» against mimi, histriones,
Vague terms: may have
included acrobatics, mimicry,
miming, dancing, singing,
The theatre after the fall of the Roman empire:
MJM-Literatura anglosajona y medieval inglesa, 101 (2010-11)
Hubert Caillau. Scenery for the Valenciennes Mystery Play, 1547
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
To be in a procession is to participate in a Group activity that minimizes individuality, since every member must be a part of the moving Group and direct his or her own body in terms of the rhythms set by the Group. Indeed, togetherness, or solidarity, is the most characteristic feature of processions, a feature that applies to the motion itself, the succession of the participants in the procession, and even the route which the procession takes, since all participants must go the same way and at the same pace.
Each episode was delegated to a separate group, a trade or religious guild, which was totally responsible for its production.
Each group had or shared a mobile stage also called a pageant, which when their turn came they pulled through the city along a traditional route, stopping at prearranged stations (the word means ‘stopping places’) to perform their episode.
The hybridity on display within the cycles was also at play within the responses of the spectators. In this manner the cycle dramas were able to articulate a fluid dialogue with their spectators and it is this ability which explains the longevity of the pageants within medieval society.
Indeed the processional mode of performance suggests that many of the audience were probably not tied to one place of spectatorship, but perambulated with the procession. What is significant is the notion that the audience was not homogenous and that it received the spectacle through a diversity of viewpoints.
The earliest possible documentary reference to the existence of cycle drama in York dates to 1376, though the extant copies of the plays were not set down until much later.
In its subsequent career in the 15th and first half of the 16th century the cycle changed in many ways, but there is no evidence to suggest that each guild did other than bring forth the same pageant, more or less annually, through to the last recorded performances in the late 1560s.
It appears that they continued to use the same script.
All the surviving pageant-wagon cycles have a basic structure in common. The great story that composed the Corpus Christi play (the whole cycle was called a play, while the individual portions were pageants), a history of the universe from just before its Creation to its ending at the Day of judgement, was parcelled up into episodes.
In Britain, large-scale open-air theatre must almost by definition belong to the summer.
The civic cycles of mystery plays were traditionally performed on or around Corpus Christi Day (21 May to 24 June).
The shape and acoustics of the venue, the skills of the actors, the nature of the audience and of the occasion, all presented certain constraints and certain opportunities.
Open-air staging: pageant wagons.
Open-air staging: place-and-scaffold
The acting area consists of an open space (the place) surrounded by individual stages (the scaffolds), each localised as a structure (house, palace, temple) or natural feature (a mountain).
There was no such thing as casual theatregoing: each of these plays was the centrepiece of a special occasion for a close-knit community. The mystery plays were at the same time a religious festival and a tourist attraction.
Medieval plays were not written for the theatre. They were put on in the city streets, in churches, on playing fields, in college halls and in private houses, and each exploited each of these venues in its own distinctive way.
The admixture of popular sayings and common images, of oaths and obscenities, of references to bodily functions, was not introduced as a colourful insertion of realism: they were part of the deliberate tactics employed to command not merely attention, but assent.
These texts should be regarded as essentially exercises in popularising what the medieval mind perceived as constituting the truths necessary for human survival in this world and the next.
These plays were for the public forum; they had to declare both openly and tacitly their affinities with theh life of the market-place, the backstreet, the farmyard,
The language, both verbal and visual, had to convince onlookers that the men and women of the Bible looked, and, even more importantly, spoke as they did themselves.
2. Emergence of the fraternal Orders of St Francis and St Dominic, in 1210 and 1215 respectively, and the missionary zeal of their members in expounding the message of personal salvation to the lay individual.
3. Corpus Christi
Winedrawers – Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene
Sledmen – Travellers to Emmaus
Hatmakers, Masons, Labourers – Purification of Mary; Simeon and Anna
Scriveners– Incredulity of Thomas
Tailors – Ascension
Potters – Descent of the Holy Spirit
Drapers (Dealers in cloth and dry goods) – The Death of Mary
Weavers – The Appearance of Mary to Thomas
Ostlers (Stablemen) – Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin
Mercers (Dealers in textiles) – Judgement Day
Cutlers – Conspiracy
Bakers – Last Supper
Cordwainers (Shoemakers) – Agony and Betrayal
Bowyers and Fletchers – Peter's Denial; Jesus before Caiphas
Tapiters (Makers of tapestry and carpets) and Couchers – Dream of Pilate's Wife
Listers (Dyers) – Trial before Herod
Cooks and Water-leaders – Second Accusation before Pilot; Remorse of Judas; Purchase of the Field of Blood
Tilemakers – Second Trial before Pilate
Shearmen – Christ Led to Calvary
Pinners and Painters – Crucifixion
Butchers – Mortification of Christ; Burial
Saddlers – Harrowing of Hell
Carpenters – Resurrection
Was the acting highly stylised or moderately naturalistic?
The actor, as image, does not become but represents the person he plays.
The use of masks for supernatural characters, the gilding of God’s face, haloes and the way in which some characters carry attributes, suggests a certain measure of stylisation, as does the rhetorical structure of the dialogue.
But it is possible for both to coexist in the same performance: they are not opposites, but a matter of degree.
At what point in their development the cycle texts came to take the form they manifest today is difficult to establish.
Composition was continuous and spread over the decades, involving constant revisions from radical re-writing to a processs of minor modifications.
The plays’ authorship has recently come under renewed scrutiny. In our present state of knowledge the most likely creators of the sequences appear to be the laity.
1. Shift in spiritual sensibility that gave prominence to Christ’s assumption of human form, an emphasis found as early as St Anselm’s treatise on the Incarnation Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become Man?) 1097. Christ’s significance as the type of vulnerable and suffering humanity acts as a powerful stimulant to religious thought and artistic creativity during the 12th century.
It has become traditional to characterise the principal types of plays as Corpus Christi or craft cycles, moralities and moral interludes, saint plays, miracle plays and so on. But these classifications are arbitrary.
Common characteristic: the plays shared evangelising purposes.
Their authors’ primary business was to instruct the populace in those truths essential for their salvation by rendering them accessible.
Pewterers and Founders – Joseph’s Trouble about Mary
Tile-thatchers – Journey to Bethlehem
Chandlers (Candlemakers) – Shepherds
Masons – Coming of the Three Kings to Herod
Goldsmiths – Coming of the Kings: Adoration
Marshals (Grooms) – Flight into Egypt
Girdlers and Nailers – Slaughter of the Innocents
Spurriers and Lorimers (Spurmakers, makers of bits, etc.) – Christ with the Doctors
Barbers – Baptism of Jesus
Smiths – Temptation
Curriers (Men who dress leather) – Transfiguation
Capmakers – Woman Taken in Adultery; Lazarus
Skinners – Christ's Entry into Jerusalem
Barkers (Tanners) – The creation, and the Fall of Lucifer
Plasterers – The creation myth – up to the Fifth Day
Cardmakers – Creation of Adam and Eve
Fullers (Preparers of woolen cloth) – Adam and Eve in Eden
Coopers (Maker of wooden casks) – The Fall of Man
Armourers – Expulsion from Eden
Glovers – Sacrifice of Cain and Abel
Shipwrights – Building of the Ark
Fishers and Mariners – Noah and his Wife
Parchmenters and Bookbinders – Abraham and Isaac
Hosiers – Departure of the Israelites from Egypt; Ten Plagues; Crossing of the Red Sea
Spicers – Annunciation and Visitation
J.L. Styan. The English Stage. A History of Drama and Performance. pp.16-17.
Many details of everyday realism are scattered through the plays, setting the profane among what is deeply sacred, and colouring the sacred with what is familiar. These popular elements may be divided into four broad kinds:
1. Direct and natural details that would have been immediately recognizable by the audience.
2. Moments of tenderness and pathos to which the audience could make a sympathetic response.
3. The realistic exhibition of violence and cruelty chosen to reflect the audience’s
notion of barbarism.
4. Elements of ribaldry and clowning, with touches of satire and caricature from common life.
Pope Gregory I, The Great (540-604)
Use of images as didactic tool
No adoration, but:
"it was one thing to adores these pictures, another to learn by them what to adore."
Art as "book for the illiterate"
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74):
“There were three reasons for the introduction of the use of visual arts in the Church: first, for the instruction of the uneducated, who are taught by them as by books; second, that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints be more firmly impressed on our memory by being daily represented before our eyes; and third, to enkindle devotion, which is more efficaciously evoked by what is seen than by what is heard.”
Bible of the Poor