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The York Corpus Christi Plays: Introduction


1 For a thorough discussion of the religious feast, see Rubin, Corpus Christi.

2 The term is from an entry dated 1408 in the Register of the Corpus Christi Guild; see Records of Early English Drama: York, 1:15 (hereafter REED: York).

3 See Halbwachs, On Collective Memory.

4 British Library, MS. Add. 35290 is of parchment, 8 x 11 inches, and contains 268 leaves. For a full description of the manuscript, see York Play: A Facsimile, introd. Beadle and Meredith, pp. xi–xix. The first eight folios are copied by Scribe A. Scribe B, the main scribe, entered the remainder with the exception of the sixteenth-century additions by John Clerke (Scribe C) and the very inferior late addition (not included in the present edition) to the Innholders’ pageant, written by Scribe D. The manuscript’s contents remained unknown until the middle of the nineteenth century, and were first edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith in 1885.

5 Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. King and Davidson; and, for convenience, Mills, “Chester Cycle,” pp. 125–29.

6 See Cawley, Forrester, and Goodchild, “References to the Corpus Christi Play in the Wakefield Burgess Rolls”; Palmer, “‘Towneley Plays’ or ‘Wakefield Cycle’ Revisited”; and Palmer’s conclusion in “Corpus Christi ‘Cycles’ in Yorkshire,” p. 228.

7 British Library MS. Cotton Vespasian D.VIII, fol. 1; N-Town Play, ed. Spector, pp. xiii–xvi, and especially the discussion of N-Town in Fletcher, “N-Town Plays.” See also the useful summary in N-Town Plays, ed. Sugano, esp. pp. 5–17.

8 See A. Johnston, “What If No Texts Survived,” esp. pp. 11–12; C. Davidson, Festivals and Plays, pp. 49–79.

9 York Plays, ed. Beadle, pp. 10–11.

10 York House Book 13, fol. 14v, as quoted by Meredith, “John Clerke’s Hand,” pp. 249–51.

11 REED: York, 1:109.

12 See REED: York, 1:187; in 1527 the Clerk’s deputy is named for the task (REED: York, 1:263).

13 For the text of this fragment, see York Plays, ed. Beadle, pp. 404–05.

14 REED: York, 1:351.

15 Cawley, “Sykes MS.”

16 See MED, s.v. “parcel” (1c). An example of a parcel, though not from York, is Dux Moraud; see Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays, pp. c–ci, 106–13, pl. IV.

17 REED: York, 1:16–24; see also the facsimile of this heavily damaged record in the York Memorandum Book A/Y included by Beadle and Meredith in York Play: A Facsimile (fols. 252v–255r).

18 Twycross, “Ordo paginarum Revisited,” pp. 105–31.

19 Twycross, “Ordo paginarum Revisited.”

20 REED: York, 1:25–26. The titles in this second list have been adapted insofar as possible for the names of the pageants in the present edition. In the Register they are mainly identified by the names of guilds principally responsible for them.

21 See Twycross, “Ordo paginarum Revisited,” pp. 119–20.

22 REED: York, 1:3, where the date is given as 1376.

23 REED: York, 1:5.

24 REED: York, 1:8; translation from 2:694.

25 See A. Johnston, “Traders and Playmakers”; Twycross, “Flemish Ommegang and Its Pageant Cars”; C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, pp. 17–25.

26 Knight, “Processional Theatre and Social Unity,” and “Manuscript Painting and Play Production.”

27 REED: York, 1:8, 29.

28 Muir, Biblical Drama, p. 33.

29 The notion of evolutionary development from Minster to Market Place, to borrow from the title of the book by Canon Purvis, has been considered untenable since the appearance of the seminal chapter on the subject by Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama, pp. 1–34.

30 REED: York, 1:1. There was, however, some connection, as yet not fully deciphered, between the York Corpus Christi plays and the Shrewsbury fragments (Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays, pp. xvii–xix and 3–7).

31 For recognition of the financial burden already in 1399, see REED: York, 1:11, and for the belief that the commons were thus antagonistic to what the Corporation made them do, see Swanson, “Illusion of Economic Structure,” p. 44. A refutation of this view is contained in C. Davidson, “York Guilds and the Corpus Christi Plays.”

32 Dobson, “Craft Guilds and the City.”

33 Goldberg, “Craft Guilds, the Corpus Christi Play and Civic Government,” p. 148.

34 REED: York, 1:312.

35 See REED: York, 1:42. The description of the plays as “sumptuous” appears in the well-known 1426 entry in the York Memorandum Book A/Y in which the Corporation takes account of the recommendations of the friar William Melton, who objected to the disorder that he saw at York on the day of the play. This, he argued, detracted from the spirit of devotion that should have obtained. A large part of the difficulty was that the civic Corpus Christi procession was held on the same day, and virtually along the same route as the plays; Melton firmly recommended that the procession and the plays be separated, with the plays moved to the vigil of the feast. This did not happen, and when there was a change, it was the procession that was transferred. By the time the Register was compiled, the procession had been relegated to the following day, a Friday.

36 REED: York, 1:153–54.

37 See McKinnell, “Medieval Pageant Wagons at York,” pp. 79–99; and also the discussion of pageant wagons in C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, pp. 17–31.

38 REED: Chester, pp. 238–39, 325, 355, and 436.

39 REED: Norwich 1540–1642, pp. 52–53.

40 Sharp, Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries, frontispiece.

41 See A. Johnston and Dorrell, “York Mercers and Their Pageant of Doomsday.”

42 REED: York, 1:55–56.

43 York Minster Library, MS. Add. 2, fol. 208; reproduced in C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, fig. 93. Compare King, “Corpus Christi Plays and the ‘Bolton Hours’, 1.” Also see the website of the Lancaster University Doomsday project: <>.

44 See C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, passim.

45 See Raine, Mediaeval York, p. 123.

46 See Twycross, “Forget the 4:30 a.m. Start”; REED: York, 1:25.

47 See Twycross, “‘Places to hear the play’: Pageant Stations at York, 1398–1572.”

48 REED: York, 1:11, 29–30. Placeholders are discussed by Crouch, “Paying to See the Play,” and E. White, “Places for Hearing the Corpus Christi Play,” as well as, by the same author, “Places to Hear the Play in York.”

49 The term ideology, Marxist in origin and as generally used, is a rather rubbery concept.

50 See Florovsky, “Work of the Holy Spirit,” to which Rowan Williams calls attention (Why Study the Past, p. 92).

51 See Duffy, Stripping of the Altars.

52 Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ as a vernacular work that was given official approval, in part to counter Lollard translations of the Bible, provides perhaps the most useful single tool for interpreting the action of the York Corpus Christi plays in their treatment of the gospel narratives. Its date of composition seems to be c. 1410, for which see the comment of its editor, Michael Sargent (pp. xlv–xlvi); this would imply its availability to those authors and revisers of the York plays who were active after this date. 53 Love, Mirror, p. 161.

54 Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, p. 98.

55 See C. Davidson, Deliver Us from Evil.

56 It seems rather absurd to try to force the York Corpus Christi plays into a pattern of carnival drama, though Martin Stevens has argued that they represent “just such a form” (Four Middle English Mystery Cycles, pp. 82–83). However, in another sense they were to be sure festive, and hardly dull, solemn fare. See C. Davidson, History, Religion, and Violence, pp. 207–25.

57 See, for example, Gray, “Five Wounds of Our Lord,” and, for an illustration of a hairy devil with masks on head, the genitals, and a knee in the St. Cuthbert window at York Minster, C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, fig. 71.

58 In the Explanatory Notes, I have made frequent reference to York Art, the listing which I prepared in collaboration with David O’Connor many years ago as a rather tentative descriptive index of those scenes depicted locally in the visual arts relevant to the drama. An updated version of this list is available on the web at <>.

59 Beadle, “Verbal Texture and Wordplay,” p. 173.

60 See Reese, “Alliterative Verse in the York Cycle”; Robinson, “Art of the York Realist”; and Craig, English Religious Drama, pp. 224–33.

61 Turville-Petre, Alliterative Revival, p. 123.

62 A. Johnston, “York Cycle and the Libraries of York.”

63 For the very extensive catalogue, see Humphreys, Friars’ Libraries, pp. 11–154.

64 See York Plays, ed. Beadle, pp. 40–41.

65 C. Davidson, From Creation to Doom, pp. 16–18.

66 REED: York, 2:722; for Latin text, see 1:37.

67 REED: York,1:48; for translation, see 2:733. Compare the second list in the Ordo paginarum with the first (corrected) list (1:26, 22).

68 For demographic decline, see Palliser, Tudor York, p. 112, and C. Davidson, “York Guilds and the Corpus Christi Plays,” pp. 11–16.

69 REED: York, 1:298, 303, and see 1:9 for noting of billets as early as 1396, when two parchment membranes were purchased for use at Corpus Christi.

70 REED: York, 1:291–92 and 331–32.

71 REED: York, 1:355–56.

72 REED: York, 1:390 and 392–93.

73 The classic account is H. Gardiner, Mysteries’ End, though subsequent scholarship has to some extent modified this description of the suppression of the vernacular religious drama.

74 For the director’s account, see E. Browne and Browne, Two in One, pp. 183–95. Additional information concerning the revival of the York Corpus Christi plays is found in Margaret Rogerson, Playing a Part in History: The York Mysteries, 1951–2006 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), which was published after the present book was in page proofs.

75 E. Browne and Browne, Two in One, p. 184, and see the illustration in Nagler, Medieval Religious Stage, p. 85.

76 Browne was originally anxious to use the Yorkshire dialect, but quickly cooled to the idea when he found himself unable to understand a countrywoman in the North Riding (E. Browne and Browne, Two in One, p. 185). Purvis’ modernization is in fact neither Middle English nor Modern English.

77 Rogerson, “Living History,” pp. 12–19.

78 Elliott, Playing God, pp. 76–77.

79 Quoted in Eliott, Playing God, p. 82.

80 Elliott, Playing God, pp. 76–77.

81 See the survey in Elliott, Playing God, pp. 14–24.

82 Elliott, Playing God, pp. 97–98

83 Review by Elliott, in “Census of Medieval Drama Productions,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 20 (1977): 97–98.

84 Review by Happé, in “Census of Medieval Drama Productions,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 23 (1980): 91–82.

85 See Harrison, Mysteries and Making of The Mysteries (production booklet, 1985). As for the stage production, Grantley considered it more of “a parody of medieval drama” (“National Theatre’s Production of The Mysteries,” p. 73).

86 A. Johnston, “Four York Pageants Performed in the Streets of York.”

87 Rastall, “Mystery Plays 25 Years On.”

88 Oakshott, “York Guilds’ Mystery Plays 1998.”

89 Review by Rogerson, in “Census of Medieval Drama Productions,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 42 (2003): 165–66.

90 Rastall, “Mystery Plays 25 Years On.”

91 Review by Bevington, in “Census of Medieval Drama Productions,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 20 (1977): 110.

92 The listing of the 1535 receipts in the Chamberlain’s rolls for pageant money for thirty-three pageants (as opposed to the full number in the Register) on a year when the “Corpus christi play was not playde” (REED: York, 1:260–61) has been suggested as demonstrating the point.

93 Lloyd, “Reflections of a York Survivor,” p. 233.

94 Johnson, “Last Judgment,” pp. 270–71. The impression was of God the Father as a tyrannical ruler, and more in keeping with current earthly tyrants who are able to create their own “reality” at whatever cost to their people. It was a medieval commonplace that God the Creator is synonymous with harmony, as opposed to cacophony and dissonance, in this production recorded and played loudly on a boombox. The oedipal conflict between Father and Son in this pageant, however, would have been even more of a source of displeasure in the fifteenth century. Such an interpretation is precisely opposed to the meaning of both the play and orthodox thought on the subject. Though this interpretation was based on the difference perceived between the sternness of the Semitic Old Testament God and the Christian forgiveness offered by the Son of the New Testament, one can imagine that it would have resulted in a heresy trial had the pageant been staged in this manner by the Mercers in medieval York!

95 The entire issue of Early Theatre 3 (2000), under the title The York Cycle Then and Now, was devoted to discussion of the 1998 production.


For the invisible things of [God], from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. — Romans 1:20
The feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated annually on Thursday after Trinity Sunday, was devoted to the Eucharist, and the normal practice was to have solemn processions through the city with the Host, the consecrated wafer that was believed to have been transformed into the true body and blood of Jesus.1 In this way the “cultus Dei”2 thus celebrated allowed the people to venerate the Eucharistic bread in order that they might be stimulated to devotion and brought symbolically, even mystically into a relationship with the central moments of salvation history. Perhaps it is logical, therefore, that pageants and plays were introduced in order to access yet another way of visualizing and participating in those events of times past that were believed to matter most for the lives of the citizens as well as of other residents and visitors in cities such as York. Thus the “invisible things” of the divine order “from the creation of the world” might be displayed, and this might be done in order to bring these events into the orbit of the collective memory.3

There are, however, problems with the popular view that would take York as typical of an entire genre of early civic drama that was supposed to have been generated by the religious feast. The York Corpus Christi plays, contained in London, British Library, MS. Add. 35290 and comprising more than thirteen thousand lines of verse, actually represent a unique survival of medieval theater (see fig. 1).4 They form the only complete play cycle verifiably associated with the feast of Corpus Christi that is extant and was performed at a specific location in England. Of the Coventry Corpus Christi cycle, texts have survived for only two pageants, the Shearmen and Taylors’ and the Weavers’ plays, while the Chester plays, though they developed from Corpus Christi drama, are in their present form a Whitsun cycle found in the main only in late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century transcriptions.5 The Towneley manuscript, now in the Huntington Library and formerly thought to contain a Corpus Christi cycle from Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, has been surmised by recent scholarship to be instead a collection of plays, including some of them adapted from York, from which individual pageants might be selected for production on one occasion or another. Their association with Wakefield as its Corpus Christi cycle rested on the authority, now discredited, of a local town historian.6 The N-Town manuscript is a compilation of separate plays, in this case from East Anglia, connected with Corpus Christi only by the words “The plaie called Corpus Christi” written in a late hand across the top of the first page of the manuscript.7 In fact, it is no longer possible even to speak of a Corpus Christ tradition of Creation to Doom pageants as the norm, for a “Corpus Christi play” noted in dramatic records of a medieval English town might have been simply a drama of some kind presented on this major feast day.8 York’s cycle, then, is of particular interest for its completeness as medieval religious street theater mounted nearly on an annual basis on wagons at stations throughout the city. It was not representative of anything like a national standard for Corpus Christi drama.

Completeness, however, must be seen as relative, since the York cycle as we have it mainly is representative of the pageants as they existed when entered into the Register, or official manuscript maintained by the city Corporation, in c.1463–77.9 In a manuscript that shows signs of considerable use, it may be no surprise that in some cases leaves have been lost, leaving unfortunate lacunae such as the crucial central segment of the Bakers’ Last Supper. Notations in the margins, many of them by the John Clerke, “under clerk” to the “common Clerk of this city” between the 1530s and the suppression of the pageants in 1569,10 indicate that at least in the final years what was played had not always been entered in the Register. The city Corporation was always solicitous of the pageants and concerned about their quality. Auditions had been instituted to remove actors not “sufficiant . . . either in Connyng voice or personne.”11 By 1501 the town clerk or his deputy may have been on hand at the first station, at Holy Trinity Priory gates on Micklegate, to observe the plays.12 The performances understandably were to be given scrutiny with both the speeches and the pageants’ visual appearance in mind, and some discrepancies were duly noted in the Register. Further, some pageants were never registered: The Marriage in Cana (22A), The Feast in Simon’s House (23A), and The Funeral of the Virgin, or Fergus (44A). In 1559 an order was issued to have the text of the Innholders’ Coronation of the Virgin pageant copied from their “Regynall” or original guild copy into the official Register, either to replace or to supplement the version of the play already present in the manuscript. However, in this instance only a fragment, a text of vastly inferior quality, was entered,13 while the copying of the Purification of the Virgin was not even begun at this time. A subsequent order to John Clerke to copy the Purification, the Vintners’ Marriage in Cana, the Ironmongers’ “Marie Magdalene wasshyng the Lordes feete etc.” (The Feast in Simon’s House), and the conclusion of the Tilers’ Nativity into the “old Registre”14 was only partially fulfilled, with the Purification then being entered by him out of order in the manuscript. Only one pageant, the Scriveners’ Doubting Thomas, appears both in the Register and also in a guild copy, the damaged Sykes manuscript.15 No copies of the individual parchment rolls, or parcels, each containing the speeches of an individual character, survive.16

The Register likewise will not provide readings of the playtexts as they must once have existed in earliest years before revisions were made to them, in some cases involving radical rewriting. For the state of the playtexts in those years it is necessary to refer, though with great caution, to the cast lists and brief descriptions in the Ordo paginarum. This document was designed to designate the content and order of the pageants for the use of the Corporation, which, rather than any ecclesiastical body, had responsibility for the cycle. The Ordo, dated 1415, is contained in the York Memorandum Book A/Y.17 It is, unfortunately, extremely problematic on account of damage to the manuscript and also numerous erasures and changes that were made to correct and keep the list up to date.18 Formerly believed to have been initially written by Roger Burton, the town clerk, Meg Twycross has recently demonstrated that it is in the hand of a different scribe, whose identity is uncertain.19 When the Ordo’s descriptions are not consistent with the playtexts, something nevertheless may be revealed concerning the changes that took place between 1415 and the date of the Register a half century or so later, though again caution must be urged. A second list in the Memorandum Book A/Y, apparently by Burton himself and usually dated in c.1422, gives, like the first list, names of responsible guilds, but only provides titles for the plays.20 This list too was designed to be a record, but much less detailed, of the order of the pageants as they set out in order to play through the city. It also reveals some amalgamation of pageants as the list was kept up to date.21


Some of the earliest documentation concerning the York plays are records of pageant houses in which wagon stages were stored, and for the specific stations throughout the city where the pageants were played. The York Memorandum Book A/Y notes a structure used to house three Corpus Christi pageant wagons in 1377,22 and the principal location of such buildings on Toft Green (sometimes called Pageant Green), near the Dominican Friary, was cited in 1387.23 Already in 1394 there was an order promulgated that “all the pageants of Corpus Christi shall play in the places appointed from ancient times [in locis antiquitus assignatis] and not elsewhere.”24 “Ancient times,” however, would have been an indefinite period, but perhaps logically should refer to at least one generation in the past, if not longer. No certainty is possible here, except we know that displays on wagons were not invented at York even if performing plays on them possibly was a local or regional innovation.

Trade with the Low Countries would have brought the merchants of York, its most influential citizens, in contact with the tableaux vivants that were paraded on wagons through the streets in cities such as Bruges, Antwerp, Leuven, and Brussels.25 These were moving wagons, not plays, and where the notion of using wagons originated for setting up and staging drama at fixed locations we cannot tell. It would seem to be too far-fetched to believe that the exception of Lille, which had a procession honoring the Virgin Mary that dated from 1270 and that did in fact develop into plays on various biblical and other subjects on wagons, provided the model.26 One thing is very clear from the 1394 record, and this is that the York plays in earlier times were not mere tableaux vivants but presentations on wagon stages that stopped at a set number of fixed locations for viewing as designated by the city Corporation. In 1417 these stations were ordered to be marked with banners having the arms of the city. The awareness of movement — the progress of human life as pilgrimage, and history as linear — was a ground against which the pageants were played. Nevertheless, while they could have appeared like iconic “floats” when moving between the places appointed for playing, there is nothing in the records to support such a supposition. When a play had been staged at a specific location, its carriage could simply have been pulled, always by human labor and not impossibly with the accompaniment of minstrels playing, to the next playing station — a task that would have been made easier if the wagons were lightened in weight by not having a cast of actors aboard.

French drama cycles are sometimes put forward as models for the York plays. In their sequential presentation of biblical history, these massive productions, acted on fixed stages and often taking several days to perform, had their roots in fourteenth-century community theater.28 Potential awareness of Continental play cycles by York dramatists and producers still does not reveal precisely how these plays emerged in the form which they adopted.

But one aspect of the development of the York Corpus Christi plays needs especially to be emphasized. Any notion of a clear line of evolutionary development from the Latin liturgical drama must be set aside.29 There is no evidence that these vernacular plays arose as a result of a process of secularization or dissatisfaction with the clerical control over liturgical plays mounted in the cathedral and churches, like the Pastores and the Magi in the Christmas and Epiphany seasons at York Minster in the thirteenth century.30 From the first the Corpus Christi plays arose as an expensive display for the members of the various crafts or guilds of the city who were expected to perform them, even under threat of a hefty fine if they did not — a fact that, however, does not suggest a lack of enthusiasm with the exception, it would appear, of times when the financial burden was felt to be excessive.31 In no way could the plays have continued to be played for two centuries in a city under the stress of difficult times if the essential good will toward them had not been present.

Speculation concerning the plays’ origin, though not explaining the source of using the wagons as stages at fixed locations, at the present seems to favor what has been dubbed the “big bang” theory. This theory, advanced by R. B. Dobson, is based on the supposition that the plays were part of a plan by the mayor and Council to establish an elaborate cycle of plays in order to provide a “mechanism for identifying . . . crafts and their members” — that is, as a way of rationalizing local industry. In so doing, the large amounts assessed the individual craft and mercantile guilds, intended to be based on their ability to pay, could be directed to the activity of play production, which was regarded as a charitable act for the good of the community.32 It is, nevertheless, difficult to see the hand of the Corporation solely responsible for bringing the pageants into being ex nihilo. Their ultimate origin was undoubtedly more complex and surely must have involved wide community support.

There is good reason to suppose that the guilds, or the craftsmen who established such fraternities, were involved at the very beginning. Jeremy Goldberg even suggests not implausibly that the pageants “postdated the origin of the craft gilds,” and that there was a desire by them to “give religious meaning to their labours and to participate in this collective manifestation of civic pride, this act of devotion, and this work of mercy that in many cases gave rise to the gilds.”33 In any case, to be so magnificently successful, the project could hardly have been sustained by the element of coercion alone. This does not mean that some guilds would not have expressed dissatisfaction at times, especially when we keep in mind the levying of fines for hindering the plays and the heavy assessments for their support when in later years the city’s economy was declining. But the disorder caused by the Girdlers in tarrying and thus “stoppyng of the rest of the pageantz folowyng and to the disorderyng of the same” for “an wholle hower,” for which they were fined 20s in 1554, seems to have been unusual.34 We should not believe that a “sumptuous” play cycle35 of the magnitude of the York plays could have been carried on for centuries without the wholehearted enthusiasm of those directly involved. And of magnitude and magnificence the cycle truly seems to have been, attracting watchers and listeners from all around the region. In 1487, when King Henry VII visited York, he saw the plays, but not on Corpus Christi since they were deliberately deferred at his request until Lammas day to coincide with his coming to the city.36


With one exception, the dramatic records of York are meager with regard to information about the construction and design of the wagon stages but nevertheless point to elaborate structures, many of them likely to have been as large as could be accommodated by the narrow streets of the medieval city.37 Some details can, however, be surmised from the wagons used in those other cities that used this type of staging, but here too there is a paucity of reliable information. Chester’s are described in Rogers’ Breviary, albeit in a way that has been a source of confusion.38 Whether of four or (less likely) six wheels, the Chester wagons were large and impressive structures, and, when necessary, they must have accommodated complex and sophisticated equipment in order to achieve spectacular effects in the city’s Whitsun plays. At Norwich, the Grocers’ wagon, left derelict out-of-doors, had been described in 1564–65 as being “a Howsse of Waynskott paynted and buylded on a Carte with fowre whelys” with “a square toppe” placed overhead on it and having three painted cloths hanging about it. This meager information is accompanied elsewhere in the records by an inventory of the props and other accouterments, most famously the “Rybbe Colleryd Redd” for the creation of Eve.39 But as for the actual wagons, either at York or elsewhere, they have not left a trace behind, not even a drawing or sketch. There is nothing therefore remaining to match the elaborate illustrations of the Flemish tableaux vivants which likely would have set a standard of sumptuousness to which the York producers may have aspired. Attempts such as David Jee’s illustration, purporting to show a Chester wagon and elaborated from Rogers’ description, in Thomas Sharp’s Dissertation (1825) reveal more about nineteenth-century preconceptions than about late medieval stages.40

The exception to this paucity of information for York appears in a single document, a 1433 inventory of the Mercers’ Doomsday pageant that remained unknown until 1972.41 Truly remarkable, this list takes note of such equipment as a device for lowering and raising Jesus at his Second Coming and even puppet angels that run about the heavens.42 As a prop list this is an essential document, and can profitably be compared with the depiction of similar aspects of Doomsday in the visual arts. Here reference is most fruitfully made to local examples such as the Doomsday illumination in the Bolton Hours (1410–20), which has been associated with leading merchant families in the city.43

The dramatic records nevertheless, since they are mainly accounts of expenditures, receipts, and enforcement of local ordinances, show very vividly that the making and maintenance of the pageant wagons, their accouterments, and all the other equipment necessary for the plays required wide community effort. The assistance of not only the carpenters, painters, and cloth workers but also other guilds is duly noted in the extant documents, albeit as financial records these are often fragmentary and sporadic. At least we know that the plays were a source of economic gain for some of the citizens, just as musicians brought in to assist were the beneficiaries of payment for their services.44

Detailed information at York is, however, available about the stations along the streets at which the pageants were played, for here the records kept by the Corporation are very specific. The entire route can still be traced today since much of the old city remains, albeit with numerous changes (e.g., the shortening of Stonegate to create open space for St. Helen’s Square in the eighteenth century).45 As noted above, each station was to be marked with a banner, and fines were instituted for unauthorized stops for playing. An early sixteenth-century alteration to the official proclamation of the plays entered into the city records ordered that “euery player that shall play be redy in his pagiaunt at convenyant tyme, that is to say at the mydhowre betwix iiijth and vth of the cloke in the mornyng and then all other pageantes fast followyng ilkon after other as ther course is without Tarieng” on pain of a fine of 6s 8d.46 While this probably does not pertain to the early years of the York plays when a delay would plausibly have been needed to allow for the civic Corpus Christi procession to set out from the same location at Holy Trinity Priory, the 4:30 a.m. starting time is credible after the separation of the procession from the play in the course of the fifteenth century.

We can thus assume that either at a convenient time in earlier years, or in later times around dawn on Corpus Christi, the first of the pageants — the Barkers’ (i.e., Tanners’) Creation of the Angels with the Fall of Lucifer — was being moved away from Toft Green and around to the first station before the gates of Holy Trinity Priory inside Micklegate Bar, the main entrance to the city on the route from London (see figure 2). From there the wagon stages proceeded down Micklegate and over the Ouse River, performing at the specified stations before audiences along the way. On the other side of the river, the stations would be spaced at intervals at the corner of Spurriergate and along Coney Street, Stonegate, Petergate, and the Pavement, the final station and, interestingly, the least popular.47 In 1417, when the practice of leasing the stations was regularized according to a bid system, twelve stations were specified, the same number that had been awarded in 1398.48 It appears that the lessees, initially some of the city’s most affluent citizens, had financial gain in mind since in turn they were able to set up scaffolds and rent seats as well as to offer concessions to the spectators. This of course does not mean that they were entirely mercenary, if they believed, as surely they did, in the value of the plays as charitable acts to be presented for the general good of the community.


Much has been made of the theology inherent in the plays, and to be sure this is a part of their civic and religious context that needs to be explained for many modern readers and, when opportunity for seeing actual productions is presented, for viewers. A considerable portion of the Explanatory Notes in the present edition must thus be given over to notice of such matters, which for some scholars are nowadays sometimes treated under the rubric of “ideology,” or what was generally assumed more or less by everyone living at that time and in that place.49 Those who persist in seeing the plays as essentially didactic, as teaching devices focused on doctrine, will be seen to have a generally reductionist view of them. Among other things, they were intended as acts of charity, mnemonic instruments, so to speak, to inspire devotion and bring to mind the totality of the works of God, beginning with the Creation. Like the liturgy, which was to be sure imperfectly accessible to most people since it was in Latin rather than in the vernacular, the Corpus Christi plays were designed to bring to memory the events of salvation history. Pamela King’s The York Mystery Cycle and the Worship of the City is a convincing overview of the deep interconnectedness of the civic drama, under the control of the secular administration of the city, and the content of the liturgy celebrated in parish churches, in York Minster, and in the monasteries and friaries. More directly than through the Latin liturgy, then, personal and communal engagement with cultural history and tradition through memory — indeed, charismatic memory50 — might be advanced as the most important aspect of the production of the plays. And this was indeed also a communal project designed to bring together the crafts and trades in Christian harmony with each other, however imperfectly this may have been the case.

As religious drama deeply embedded in late medieval “traditional religion”51 and congruent with the intense spirituality that is found in such writings as Nicholas Love’s adaptation of the popular Latin Meditations on the Life of Christ (Meditaciones Vitae Christi),52 the plays were designed to promote emotional involvement with the events being staged. Most intensely, the suffering and Crucifixion of Jesus were even to be felt as necessary for salvation. Love, who possibly had been prior of the Augustinian friary at York and at the time of his writing was prior of the Carthusian monastery at Mount Grace, is insistent that such identification be felt “inwardly” in one’s thoughts through “trewe ymaginacion and inwarde compassion of the peynes and the passion” of the one who died for all humankind.53 But drama is never quite so simple, even if it stirs strong emotions, such as the York plays must have achieved — very possibly, as the author of the Wycliffite Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge claims to have occurred in response to religious plays, “weping bitere teris.”54 There is also the matter of engaging, whether one will or no, with the characters, even ones representing evil.55 Leaving aside the matter of Schadenfreude, such symbolic participation in plays — for in a deep sense the pageants are symbolic structures representing the essentials of human history — would have had the effect of bringing to life the events of salvation history for late medieval audiences. As such, there is no doubt also that they were consistent with traditional iconography, especially since this would have been not only expected but also demanded in a time when innovation outside the boundaries of the acceptable visual limits was taboo. One could only imagine what the response would have been to the representation of God in an animal mask!56 Jesus’ wounds were to be seen bleeding, even after death, and devils were expected to be exceptionally ugly, often hairy and fitted with double (or triple) masks with one of them on the face and another in the groin area.57 Particular attention to the iconography of the plays, especially with reference to examples in the visual arts at York, will appear in the Explanatory Notes.58


The authors of the plays, attending to favored iconographic tableaux but not generally as static or fixed scenes that would freeze the action, were of differing talents, and their poetic techniques varied. Richard Beadle argues for the presence of a “basic range of vocabulary, often expressed in repeated formulae, which [the dialogue] is guaranteed to share with both its immediate and distant neighbours in the Cycle as a whole.”59 This generalization holds true only in part, since some of the plays introduce vocabulary, including rhyme words, that are not only distinctly Northern but, to many readers, obscure and out of the ordinary. Stylistically, the most unusual plays or segments of plays are those that have been attributed to a “York Realist,”60 an attribution that is discussed in Paul A. Johnston’s Appendix in the present volume. These are plays, and sections of plays, in the long alliterative line, probably otherwise best known through William Langland’s Piers Plowman.

The poetic forms here differ from those found in Anglo-Saxon practices from which the alliterative technique is ultimately derived. This is particularly true in the choice to use rhyme and in the division into stanzas. While the stanza forms differ, their use of alliteration is “metrically functional” and at the same time provides “a very effective vehicle for dramatic dialogue,” as T. Turville-Petre has noted.61 The manuscript sometimes presents the parts of the long line as two lines, a practice that was followed by Lucy Toulmin Smith in her pioneering edition of 1885 and is generally retained in the present edition. In the manuscript the pageants in the long alliterative line are otherwise some of the most problematic. The handwriting itself suggests that the scribe had considerable difficulty coping with the copies with which he was working, and these portions of the Register are the least well presented on the page in the manuscript.

These and the other pageants in the cycle can firmly be said not to have been written by the guild members themselves. Alexandria F. Johnston has engagingly suggested the involvement in writing these texts of the canons from the Augustinian house next to the Common Hall, for the members of the Corporation were on close and friendly terms with the friary.62 The York Augustinian friary possessed one of the greatest libraries in the North of England,63 and was noted for its learning. The plays show signs of knowledge of a wide range of religious literature. The sources are not always evident, but echoes, for example, of the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, the Cursor Mundi, the Northern Passion, the Stanzaic Life of Christ, and the Gospel of Nicodemus are present.64 The spirit of St. Bernard of Clairvaux is evident. The Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ was also known to some if not all of the York playwrights, perhaps through the adaptation of Nicholas Love and whose work in any case, as noted above, often provides the most useful explication of passages in the pageants. The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden can also be easily traced, most visibly in the Nativity where revisions are evident when the play is compared with the earlier description in the Ordo paginarum.65 Other influences, such as Ludolphus of Saxony’s Vita Christi, are cited by J. W. Robinson in his seminal work, left unfinished at his death and subsequently published as Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft.

The documents excerpted in Records of Early English Drama: York fail to give much direct indication of actual re-writing or revision, particularly in the decades about which we would like to know the most. However, in an entry in the York Memorandum Book A/Y in c.1422, the Crucifixion was reported to be shortened for the sake of efficiency in playing, herein joining the “stretching out and nailing of Christ on the cross” and “the raising up of the Crucified upon the Mount.”66 Another entry, dated 1432, indicated that further consolidation and regularization elsewhere in the cycle with regard to guild support had taken place. A single pageant was created from the Saucemakers’ Suspencio Judas, the Tilemakers’ Condemnation of Christ by Pilate, the Turners, Hayresters, and Bollers’ Flagellation, and the Millers’ <>Parting of Jesus’Garments.67 These records do not prove that other revisions and rewriting took place between 1422 and 1432, but they can provide a plausible guide for dating alterations that would introduce the long alliterative line into the plays. The second quarter of the fifteenth century still represented a time of prosperity for the city of York, which would later decline both economically and demographically with the flight to the West Riding of the cloth industry and the dramatic reduction of its population, perhaps by the middle of the sixteenth century to a level little more than half of its earlier high point.11


Ironically, when prosperity and population growth began to return in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, the plays, in spite of the desire of the citizens to retain them, would be suppressed. In mid-century disease and other pressures had deterred the city from performing them in some years. In 1551 only ten pageants were ordered to be played at ten stations, and in 1552 the “billettes,” written orders issued to the guilds for playing, were called in.69 Under King Edward VI, who had instituted a process of radical Protestantizing and iconoclasm, the Marian plays of the Death, Assumption, and Coronation of the Virgin were set aside, only to be reinstated under Queen Mary and then suppressed again in 1561.70

Pressure on the pageants mounted as the crisis year of 1570 approached, when Catholic rebellion was in the air and Queen Elizabeth was to be excommunicated. The change in archdiocesan politics at York did not bode well for the plays, and in 1569 they were played, on Tuesday during Whitsun week rather than on Corpus Christi, for the last time.71 In 1579 the Register would be taken to the archbishop and dean “to correcte, if that my Lord Archebisshop doo well like theron,” and in 1580 the House Books report that “the Commons did earnestly request of my Lord Mayour and others this worshipfull Assemblee that Corpus christi play might be played this yere,”72 but to no avail.73 The plays would not be staged at York again for nearly four centuries.


The revival of the York plays was to be assured only in 1950, when E. Martin Browne, who was known for his successful productions of Murder in the Cathedral and other religious plays, was chosen as director.74 The cycle was mounted the next year in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, a spectacular setting but demanding a fixed stage, in this case utilizing mansions more or less modeled on the famous illustration of the 1547 Valenciennes Passion play.75 Its length too was regarded as a serious problem. Hence the text was condensed to allow only a three-hour production, and it would be done as a single unit, not broken into the segments originally staged as pageants by individual guilds. There also would be considerable modernization of the language, undertaken by Canon J. S. Purvis, who had been enthusiastic about such a project and was in fact the person who initially suggested producing the plays. Even the dialect was standardized to conform with BBC English.76 For all its value in bringing attention to the York plays as theater, the production was a “heritage” event rather than either an authentic historical experiment or living theater.77

Nevertheless, it will surprise many to learn that resistance to the revival emerged from Evangelicals, both within the Church of England and in sectarian protestantism. John R. Elliott, Jr., has noted that even Canon Purvis was nervous about the production, and he quotes the minutes of the York Festival Committee which report his remarks: “There is an enormous and impassable gulf between us and the people who wrote, performed, and watched these plays. . . . The scourging and crucifixion scenes are too realistic for us today. Nobody would dare to put on some of these plays today. They are too shocking.”78 After their successful run of two weeks, the archbishop of York was quoted in the Yorkshire Post as having his “misgivings . . . completely removed,” but nevertheless argued that there should not be another revival for “a considerable interval — at least five years.”79

Doctrinal and legal issues also had to be faced in 1951. The Last Supper, being the institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, was a sensitive matter, but was retained as an offstage event, and the plays of the Death, Assumption, and Coronation of the Virgin along with other Marian content were omitted as too controversially “Mariolatrous.”80 Legal challenges were only sidestepped because the York cycle antedated the 1737 act for the licensing of plays, which normally allowed the Lord Chamberlain to censor those that were either licentious or blasphemous, with the appearance of representations of God and Jesus on stage falling into the latter category.81

Subsequently, the York cycle, in similarly abbreviated versions, continued to be played at intervals in the ruins of the abbey. By the 1970s, emphasis had shifted to spectacle and humor and shied away from religious content as much as possible.82 In 1976 pageant wagons were introduced onto the stage, but were largely stationary and used for indoor scenes only except for the parody of ceremony at Herod’s entrance. The three kings arrived riding horses, and there were sheep, heifers, and donkeys along with “174 extras who somehow managed to make themselves present.”83 Peter Happé’s review of the 1980 production reported the choice of “Sumer is icumen in” as a dance at the beginning, and thereafter a selection of mainly familiar music that culminated at Doomsday in the Old Hundredth (English Hymnal, no. 365), while the text was still so condensed that “there was often little sense of development in individual scenes.”84 In 1992 the plays were moved indoors, and 2000 saw a Millennium production in the Minster. Eventually the success with audiences of Tony Harrison’s text (largely derived from York) and Bill Bryden’s directing of The Mysteries at the National Theatre would influence the staging of the cycle.85

However, sporadic attempts to introduce processional wagon staging at York led in 1988 to a four-pageant production in the streets directed by Meg Twycross, whose efforts were a genuine effort to replicate the conditions of late medieval staging.86 This, like a subsequent production in 1992, was a university production with actors not connected with the city. The plays were returned to community theater in 1994 — a less fragmented version of nine plays, presented by York guilds (see fig. 3).87 Three of the guilds were still in existence from medieval times, and thus the Butchers could once again play the Mortificacio Christi. The production was under the overall direction of Jane Oakshott, who repeated the effort in 1998.88 By 2002 ten plays, now given over to local control, were able to be mounted at five stations, running from noon to seven o’clock in the evening and ending, of course, with the Last Judgment, which Margaret Rogerson judged to be appropriately capturing “the spirit of the Middle Ages while linking the message of the play to the present.”89 In 2006 the number of plays had advanced to eleven, but at four stations. In 2008 Oakshott was awarded an MBE for her efforts in community theater — a very encouraging sign of the recognition of this drama for our time.

The productions in York streets have not yet been able to offer a complete cycle, but this had in fact been accomplished elsewhere in academic settings. In 1975, various departments of the University of Leeds, with the leadership of Oakshott who was then a recent graduate, produced thirty-six pageants — not yet a complete cycle, but certainly an historic event.90 Thereafter, two productions of all forty-seven extant plays were presented on wagons at the University of Toronto in 1977 and 1998 under the auspices of Poculi Ludique Societas. The 1977 performance, for which David Parry was artistic director, encountered unexpected adversity in the weather, and the performances had to be moved indoors. Nevertheless, David Bevington could praise the effort as one that uniquely gave an incomparable “sense of the vitality and richness of Corpus Christi drama.”91

The 1998 performance fared much better, and has the advantage of being well documented in both Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama and Early Theatre. In this instance, the performances occurred at four stations at Victoria College, and, starting at 6:00 a.m., continued until midnight. The impossibility of staging forty-seven or more pageants at twelve stations widely separated in distance was made evident, resulting in discussion among the participants and spectators concerning the likelihood that some were simply omitted each year on a regular basis when the Corpus Christi cycle was staged at medieval York.92 Among other things learned, one of the most important concerned the interaction between actors and audience. In Megan Lloyd’s words, “Whatever the intent of individual plays, the effect of the York Cycle . . . was an obscuring of audience and actor, fiction and reality, that helped me feel as though I were participating in the Passion and Christian journey itself. I was not alone in my response.”93 There was also some controversy, as with regard to Handmade Performance’s Doomsday pageant, a “radical reinterpretation” which struck many as an extreme violation of the ethos of the original play, and certainly it would have been regarded as blasphemous in its own time. The idea that the devil was a classical music lover and that all-powerful God “can play anything he wants,” no matter how incompetent musically, was symptomatic of the inversion of values in this “post-modern” production.94 The 1998 Toronto plays, on account of the very extensive commentary available in print,95 will continue to be most valuable for future directors, while much can also be learned from the community theater productions at York where they have been reclaimed by the guilds.


The present edition adheres as closely as feasible to the text of the York Corpus Christi plays as they appear in the Register, London, British Library, MS. Add. 35290. However, as is the convention with TEAMS publications, the orthography is lightly modernized with respect to archaic letters. Thee is consistently given its modern spelling though normally it appears as the in the manuscript. Roman numerals are presented in their arabic equivalents. Emendations introduced by earlier scholars have only been adopted carefully when deemed necessary. In a few instances, however, corrections have been entered into the text from those plays derived from York originals in the Towneley manuscript and from the Sykes manuscript. In the Mortificacio Christi, the name Nichodemus has been corrected, the manuscript’s Nichomedis being so obviously a scribal error.

It will be recognized that, in defense of choosing rather conservative principles of editing, there is no perfect Urtext available for the plays, nor ever was there one. The Register was based on the copies of the plays that had been supplied to the guilds, then subjected to further copying and revision. At times the copies from which the scribes worked in preparing the Register must have looked more like the “foul papers” famously posited for plays of the Shakespeare era. This must particularly have been true for those pageants that adopted the long alliterative line.

Go To 1. The Creation of the Angels and the Fall of Lucifer