Play 36, Mortificacio Christi
Play 36, MORTIFICACIO CHRISTI: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: AV: Authorized (“King James”) Version; Meditations: Meditations on the Life of Christ, trans. Ragusa and Green; MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; RB: Richard Beadle, ed., York Plays; REED: Records of Early English Drama; YA: Davidson and O’Connor, York Art; York Breviary: Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesie Eboracensis; York Missal: Missale ad usum insignis ecclesiae Eboracensis.
References to the Ordo paginarum are to REED: York, 1:16–27.
As the narrative and emotional climax of the Passion story, the Butchers’ pageant opens with Christ on the cross along with the two thieves, but with Pilate in front and center to tell his version of events in his long initial speech. The play comprises both the death of Jesus and his burial, both of which are specified for this pageant in the Ordo paginarum of 1415, though since the verse adopts the long alliterative line, it is highly unlikely to have retained its early fifteenth-century form. Pilate still holds his equivocal position as one who was reluctant to kill Jesus but is compromised ethically in allowing the Crucifixion to proceed, while the high priests put forward their charges against him as vociferously as ever. Pilate is the author of the writing placed above Jesus on the cross, and he refuses to modify it. However, he must bear responsibility in spite of his effort to shift all blame to the high priests. The middle section in which the Virgin Mary and the others come onto stage is more or less consistent with the liturgical drama Planctus Mariae,1 and the death of Jesus and the final Deposition scene are of course closely related to the actual Good Friday rituals performed each year in the churches.2 If the hostile Wycliffite Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge may be invoked, this pageant could have been the most affecting in the cycle, not unlikely moving members of the audience “to compassion and devocion, wepinge bitere teris.”3 The verse of the Mortificacio Christi is in thirteen-line stanzas.
25–26 Transgressours als / On the crosse schalle be knytte. After mentioning hanging as a punishment for felons (lines 23–24), Pilate speaks of crucifixion and perhaps points upward to the three men on crosses, with Jesus noted as being “on yone hill . . . so hye” (line 34). Depictions of the crucified Christ at York show the central figure, sometimes along with Mary and John and others but never with the two thieves. They are, for example, present in the Speculum humanae salvationis (Wilson and Wilson, Medieval Mirror, p. 188) and the Holkham Bible Picture Book (fol. 32r–32v), where the thieves have their arms tied over the cross-arms of their crosses and only Jesus is nailed to his cross. Also, in the latter example, Jesus’ bloodied body stands in contrast with the thieves, whose clear white skin shows that they have not been tortured in the way he has been. Love reports that “stremes of that holiest blode” ran from all the “grete wondes” in his body (Mirror, pp. 177–78). It is not unusual, as in a panel of painted glass now in All Saints, Pavement (Inventory of the Historical Monuments, vol. 5, pl. 47), to see angels holding chalices to catch the streaming blood — a clear connection between the blood of Christ and the Eucharist.
82 Thou saggard. In late medieval art, Jesus usually hangs with arms upraised in the shape of a V to emphasize the pain, and his body most often is twisted into an S shape with the ribs clearly visible — a way of imagining the Crucifixion that became popular in the twelfth century and developed into more exaggerated forms in the later Middle Ages. See the emphasis in the pageant on the way Jesus’ back is bent (e.g., in line 123). Jesus’ shape approximated that of a harp, literalizing the stretching of the strings of the cithara of the psalms of David, with whom he was identified; in this way Jesus’ act of dying on the cross could be seen as symbolically achieving harmony between this world and heaven just as his own nature united the human and divine. For discussion, see Pickering, Literature and Art, pp. 285–98, and C. Davidson, From Creation to Doom, p. 126.
97–104 To save nowe thiselffe late us see . . . trewelye, ilkone. Reported in the synoptic gospels as a collective mocking of Jesus on the cross by the rulers, chief priests, and others. Love cites this and other similar statements by Jesus’ persecutors as blasphemy (Mirror, p. 178), itself in the Middle Ages considered a deadly sin and deserving of very severe punishment; see Catholic Encyclopaedia, s.v. Blasphemy.
107–17 wipe ye yone writyng away, etc. The argument over the motto placed at the head of Jesus’ cross by Pilate. The objections are only reported in John 19:20–22. The Harleian text of the Northern Passion reports that Pilate’s text was “wretyn in the parchemyne” in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin (1:195, lines 1659–60). St. John reports that words proclaimed “This is the King of the Jews.”
114 Quod scripci, scripci. John 19:22; see also the Northern Passion, 1:197.
118–30 Thou man that of mys here has mente. Jesus’ speech is again based on the Good Friday Improperia or Reproaches. Jesus allowed himself to suffer on the cross thus because of his love for humankind, an emphasis that connects with the theme of Christ as a knight doing battle on the cross for his lady — i.e., the Church. See Woolf, “Theme of Christ the Lover-Knight.”
131–82 The laments of Mary. Mary presumably enters, having been brought onto stage by John, either before Jesus’ speech or at line 131, but there is no rubric in the manuscript to indicate the moment of her arrival. As noted above, this section roughly parallels the liturgical drama Planctus Mariae, but with only two short speeches for Maria Cleophe and none for Mary Jacobi, who is also specified in the Ordo paginarum. Mary’s weeping must be seen within the context of affective piety. The reference to the sword of sorrow derives from the prophecy of Simeon in the York Purification (Play 17, line 441), and here she is so traumatized that she despairs and wishes to die. Jesus has just given her John to serve as a new son in his place. Mary and John are the most frequent figures to appear with the crucified Christ on roods in churches, nearly always the most prominent images at or near the high altar, but they were common in other locations. When John, addressing the Virgin Mary as “modir” (line 161), suggests that they ought to leave the site of the cross, she will object, for she wishes to stay by her Son’s side until he passes away.
183–91 With bittirfull bale have I bought . . . And treste. Christ as sacrifice has taken on himself all of the sins of the world. His sorrow is entirely suffered “for thy sake.” The Golden Legend quotes Cur Deus homo of Anselm of Canterbury: “There is nothing more painful or difficult that a man can do for God’s honor than to suffer death voluntarily and not for debt but of his own free will, and no man can give himself more fully than by surrendering himself to death for God’s honor” (Jacobus de Voragine, 1:208). In this way Jesus is the Great High Priest who sacrifices himself to release humankind from the powers of darkness, though, as conventional in Western tradition, not all members of the race — indeed, only a small minority — will be saved. In contrast to the belief of some early Christians such as Isaac the Syrian who believed that it would be blasphemous to impute to God the eternal condemnation to hell of sinners, the damned are to live in that place of darkness and punishment forever.
192–95 For foxis ther dennys have thei . . . heed for to reste. See Matthew 8:20.
196–99 If thou be Goddis Sone . . . for to spille. Spoken by the bad thief, Gesmas, at Jesus’ left; this is his traditional position. Only Luke (23:39) among the synoptic gospels records a repentant thief; the others say that both thieves reviled Jesus. The thieves’ names appear in the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus (pp. 63 and 65).
200–08 Manne, stynte of thy steven and be stille . . . to thi bliss. Spoken by the thief on Jesus’ right, Dismas. Following Luke 23:40–41, he rebukes Gesmas and accepts his own punishment with humility. He also proclaims Jesus’ innocence: “Noon ille did hee.”
209–12 to thee schall I saie . . . principall. Jesus’ forgiveness is extended to the thief on his right, who is promised a place with him in paradise “this daye.”
213–15 Heloy! heloy! . . . Lama zabatanye. Heloy, from Mark 15:34, is the Aramaic word for “My God”; in Lama zabatanye (Vulgate: lama sabacthani) Jesus is quoting from the incipit of Psalm 21 (AV 22): “O God, my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?” The source in Psalm 21 is noticed in the Pepysian Gospel Harmony (p. 99).
222–25 The character identified as Garcio is conventionally named Stephaton; he appears here as a boy, who offers a sponge with vinegar and gall (line 244). Stephaton appears frequently in iconography, as in a window of c. 1339 in the west end of the Minster, where he is dressed as a soldier (French and O’Connor, York Minster: The West Window, p. 79).
248–60 Thi drinke it schalle do me no deere . . . in manus tuas. Jesus’ final speech, beginning with his rejection of the sponge offered by Garcio/Stephaton, but ending with his affirmation that his work is finished and his commendation of his “spirite” to the hands of his Father (“in manus tuas”), echoing Psalm 30:6 (AV 31:5): “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” This is the moment of his death, confirmed by his mother’s moving six-line lament that follows.
272 Lede we her heyne. Embedded stage direction. Now that Jesus is dead, John and the Marys will leave the scene.
287 Tho caytiffis thou kille with thi knyffe. Pilate orders the soldiers to kill the two thieves, who are not yet dead. That Jesus died first was probably taken as a sign that the thieves were not tortured as Jesus was.
291–99 Ser Longeus, steppe forthe . . . grounde. Longeus, or Longinus, is given the “spere” which he is to thrust into Jesus’ side to create a wound that will, along with those in his feet and hands, serve to be an object of devotion, as in an illumination that has been associated with York and local veneration in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. litug.f.2, fol. 4v. See also Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, pp. 244–45, fig. 111. Longeus is blind, so another soldier, presumably the Centurion who speaks next, must guide the spear as he pierces the side of Jesus.
300–12 O, maker unmade . . . markid in me. Longeus immediately recognizes that Jesus was God, for, according to the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus, he is given his sight on account of contact with Jesus’ blood, which “sprent on Longeus eghen there, / And sone he sawe withouten doute” (p. 63, Ms. Add., lines 629–30).
314–16 This weedir is waxen full wan. Compare the words of the Centurion in the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus: “The sonne at his dede wex alle wanne” (p. 67, MS. Add., line 703). Jesus’ death is marked by an eclipse and other marvels. The expectation would have been that these should be represented by sound and lighting effects; see, for example, Muir, Biblical Drama, p. 136. The Centurion is immediately inspired to believe in Jesus.
341–42 Delyver . . . / And sewe, sir, oure Sabott to saffe. Pilate is depicted as a Jew, which of course he was not. The rush to justice was one reason for the failure to achieve legal fairness. Now the burial must take place quickly. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus will undertake that task.
370 Nowe blemysght and bolned with bloode. Compare Love, Mirror, who describes Jesus’ “lovely face alle defilede with spittynges and blode, and the heres of his berde drawen awey fro his chekes, as the prophete Ysaie speketh in his persone thus, I gaf my body to hem that smyten it, and myn chekes to hem that drowen the her aweye” (p. 185, quoting Isaias 50:6). For discussion of the significance of Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion, see C. Davidson, History, Religion, and Violence, pp. 180–204.
377 Take we hym doune us betwene. The conventional iconography of the Deposition will pertain as they lovingly remove the nails and lower him to the ground. Love, in his adaptation of the Meditations, describes the process, which requires the use of ladders and pincers to remove the nails. In a painted glass panel formerly in St. Savour’s Church and now in All Saints, Pavement at York, Joseph of Arimathea holds Jesus, whose hands have been released from the cross, while Nicodemus, below, pulls the nail from his feet (Inventory of the Historical Monuments, vol. 5, pl. 48). The holy women and John are not, however, present in the pageant as they are in the glass. In the play the two men perform an act of devotion.
381 Late us halde hym and halse hym with hande. Embedded stage direction. They must hold him more or less as the Virgin (who is not present) does in the Pietà. Because of the length of the play, this action could not have been given much time in performance.
382 A grave have I garte. Presumably a coffer tomb, as in another panel of glass now in All Saints, Pavement (Inventory of the Historical Monuments, vol. 5, pl. 48), where he is laid out. Joseph has a shroud (line 387), and Nicodemus has “oynmentis” to “anoynte” him “With myrre and aloes” (lines 400–03).
406 on knes here I knele. Embedded stage direction. The Burial too is an act of devotion. For extensive kneeling in the Good Friday Depositio rite at Durham, see Sheingorn, Easter Sepulchre in England, pp. 129–30.
Play 36, MORTIFICACIO CHRISTI: TEXTUAL NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: Bevington: David Bevington, ed., Medieval Drama (1975); Köbling: E. Köbling, “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik der York Plays”; LTS: Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., The York Plays (1885); RB: Richard Beadle, ed., The York Plays (1972) (incorporating numerous emendations from other sources); RB2: Richard Beadle, “Corrections to The York Plays,” in Gerald Byron Kinneavy, A Concordance to the York Plays (1986), pp. xxxi–xxxii; s.d.: stage direction; Sykes: A. C. Cawley, ed., “The Sykes MS of the York Scriveners’ Play”; Towneley: Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley, eds., The Towneley Plays.
The base text for this edition is London, British Library, MS. Add. 35290, called the “Register” in the York civic records and here identified by the abbreviation Reg. Some variations in lineation from the manuscript are not noted here; see RB and Beadle and Meredith’s The York Play: A Facsimile. In most cases the line numbering in the present text is consistent with RB. Lineation of alliterative verse throughout is based on Reg, with line numbering adjusted accordingly to account for half lines. Scribes are identified as follows: Scribe A; Scribe B: main scribe; JC: John Clerke; LH: later scribal hand (unidentified).
The title is written in red ink.
20 myght. Altered in Reg by LH; originally myne.
75 CAYPHAS. Reg: added by JC.
95 brade. Emended (o changed to a) in Reg.
105 pleasaunce. So LTS, RB; Reg: pleasaune.
126 Than I. Reg: inserted by JC at right.
133 thou. So Reg, LTS; RB: he.
155 to. Reg: added in text, interlined.
208 Whan. So RB; Reg, LTS: What.
241 spare. So LTS, RB; Reg: sware.
254 Reg: at right JC has added: for why (canceled).
259 thee. Altered in Reg (from me).
273 Reg: at right, presumably indicative of the exit of Marys: Hic caret.
313 CENTERIO. So Reg; RB: Centurio.
352 NICHODEMUS. So throughout in this edition; Reg has Nichomedis.
I. So LTS, RB; omit Reg.
358 we. So RB; Reg, LTS omit.
395 To. So LTS, RB; Reg: Do.
404 JOSEPH. So RB; Reg: Joshep.
410 mende. So LTS, RB; Reg: wende.
Play 36, MORTIFICACIO CHRISTI: EXPLANATORY NOTE FOOTNOTES
Footnote 1 See Young, Drama of the Medieval Church, 1:503–13.
Footnote 2 See Sheingorn, Easter Sepulchre in England.
Footnote 3 Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, p. 98, and, for brief commentary on the affective piety involved, pp. 132–33.
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