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Croxton Play of the Sacrament: Introduction


1 The play goes by this title in all its modern editions, but see Dox ("Representation without Referent" and “Medieval Drama as Documentation”), who proposes the alternate title of the Croxton Conversion of Ser Jonathas the Jew by the Myracle of the Blessed Sacrament, the title of the play given in the sole surviving manuscript copy following line 80.

2 Kruger (“Bodies of Jews,” p. 310) describes the Jews’ double motivation in purchasing the Host: (1) skepticism about transubstantiation and (2) their intention to do violence to the Host.

3 For the definitive study of the medieval history of Host desecration accusations and narratives, see Rubin, Gentile Tales.

4 Maltman, “Meaning and Art,” suggests that the play is, in fact, not anti-Semitic because in the end the Jews are converted rather than executed as they are in most other Host-desecration narratives. Similarly Walker (“Medieval Drama: The Corpus Christi in York and Croxton,” p. 379) contends that the Jews’ conversion in the play “was motivated, not by anti-Semitism per se, but by a desire to refute the arguments of the Lollards and reconcile them to orthodoxy: hence all the participants are offered the prospect of salvation, not simply the erring orthodox figure [i.e., Aristorius].” Nichols (“Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” p. 137n61) describes the poet as charitable toward the Jews not only in his provision for conversion rather than execution but also in his avoidance of caricature. Kruger (“Bodies of Jews,” p. 322n25) argues, however, that the diminished violence at the conclusion of the Croxton play notwithstanding, conversion is necessarily in and of itself an anti-Semitic way of resolving the tension between Christian and Jewish beliefs.

5 Celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi was instituted throughout the church with the promulgation of the bull Transiturus by Pope Urban IV in 1264 and was furnished with a new liturgical office traditionally ascribed to Thomas Aquinas. See Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 176–77 and 185–89.

6 For a discussion of blood cults, pilgrimage, and anti-Jewish fervor in late medieval northern Europe, see Bynum, Wonderful Blood, pp. 23–81.

7 Jonathas’ literalism also recalls the insistence of the Oxford theologian and condemned heretic John Wyclif on the preeminent value of the letter of the text over allegorical interpretations. For the fictional Jews as figures for late medieval English heretics, see below, pp. 8–11.

8 Bynum (Wonderful Blood, pp. 61–64) notes the existence of cases of Host abuse perpetrated by naive Christians that predate incidents of desecration blamed on Jews and identifies “a general pattern of change from Christian to Jewish perpetrators, accompanied by a growing paranoia of tone” in cases from Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe (p. 64).

9 This summary of the 1290 incident in Paris is derived from Rubin, Gentile Tales, pp. 40–48.

10 According to Rubin (Gentile Tales, pp. 44–45) the appellation “des Billettes” derives from a “badge in the shape of a lozenge (‘billette’)” or diamond worn by the Brethren of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin, who eventually became the overseers of the chapel. See also Enders, Death by Drama, pp. 120–21.

11 While Host desecration became the most common form of anti-Jewish narrative in the Middle Ages, it was not the only type. Charges of blood libel were leveled against Jews who, it was claimed, had ritualistically murdered Christians and especially Christian children, for which see “The East Anglian Context” below. Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is the best-known literary treatment in English of the blood libel.

12 Rubin, Gentile Tales, p. 45. The first two of Rubin’s elements are pronounced in the Play of the Sacrament. The third, the summoning of Christian authorities to the site of the desecration, is accomplished by the Jews themselves in response to the command of the image of Jesus that erupts from the Host. The perpetrators of the abuse are punished, although the fate of the Jews in the play, conversion, is milder than the sentence of summary execution typical of most accounts. While the play makes no reference to the development of a cult around the fictional miracle, the setting of the tale in a specific place (the city of Heraclea in Aragon) at a particular time (1461) creates the illusion of a community of supporters, as does the bishop’s invitation to the audience to join in the singing of the Te Deum, to form, as it were, a proto-cult.

13 Langmuir, “At the Frontiers of Faith,” p. 139.

14 Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Tanner, p. 230: “corpus et sanguis in sacramento altaris sub speciebus panis et vini veraciter continentur, transsubstantiatis pane in corpus et vino in sanguinem potestate divina, ut ad perficiendum mysterium unitatis accipiamus ipsi de suo, quod accepit ipse de nostro. Et hoc utique sacramentum nemo potest conficere, nisi sacerdos, qui fuerit rite ordinatus secundum claves ecclesiae, quas ipse concessit apostolis et eorum successoribus Iesus Christus.” The translation is Tanner’s.

15 See Rubin, Gentile Tales, pp. 146–47, figures a–f, for a color reproduction of the predella. The altarpiece itself depicts the Last Supper and was begun by Uccello as well but completed by Joos van Gent. See Gallagher and Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism, pp. 85–109.

16 Rubin (“Desecration of the Host,” p. 369) suggests that Uccello knew the Paris incident from a lost earlier version of a surviving sixteenth-century Italian play on the subject, which itself derived from the entry for the year 1290 in the Cronica of the fourteenth-century Florentine Giovanni Villani.

17 Rubin, Gentile Tales, p. 149.

18 Rubin (Gentile Tales, p. 193) cautions that while the “expulsions from England and France left the [Holy Roman] Empire as the home of most European Jews outside the Iberian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages,” the Host-desecration narrative ought not be labeled a distinctly “‘German’ tale,” for it “was located at the heart of late medieval religious culture, in its attitude to Jews, its knowledge about the eucharist, and in the desires for self-definition to which it gave form.” Spain’s Jews were later expelled and commanded to depart by August 2, 1492, the eve of Columbus’ embarkation upon the “First Voyage.”

19 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. lxxiii.

20 Barns, "Background and Sources," cited in Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. lxxiv. See also Lampert, Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare, pp. 109–11, for a discussion of the significance of the play’s Spanish setting.

21 Clark and Sponsler, “Othered Bodies,” pp. 75–77. While various medieval iterations of the narrative preserve different details, the results are universally disastrous for the Jewish antagonist, who even in the most generous retellings, among which the Croxton play must be counted, is compelled to abandon his faith in favor of conversion to Christianity but who is more often than not simply sentenced to summary execution for his offenses.

22 Rubin, Gentile Tales, pp. 169, 172–73.

23 Langmuir, “Tortures of the Body of Christ,” p. 292.

24 Scherb, “Violence and the Social Body,” p. 75.

25 Kruger (“Bodies of Jews,” p. 310) contends that the “Jews of the Croxton Play both boldly deny transubstantiation and act as though they believe in its truth.”

26 Bynum (Wonderful Blood, p. 81) argues that mere hatred of Jews was not the source of Host-abuse accusations in the Middle Ages, since other claims, like the blood libel, would have served equally well as a justification for persecution. Rather, Bynum claims that “the texts construct their narrative to culminate not in a verdict of Jewish guilt (of which they [i.e., Christians] were, of course, completely convinced) but in the wonderful blood of God made visible in matter by Jewish desecration.” Christians, in other words, “needed Jews to produce miraculous blood” which in turn made an invisible God materially and undeniably present.

27 Jones, “Theatrical History in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” p. 250.

28 Cutts, “Croxton Play: An Anti-Lollard Piece.”

29 Cutts, “Croxton Play: An Anti-Lollard Piece,” p. 45.

30 Cutts, “Croxton Play: An Anti-Lollard Piece,” pp. 46–51.

31 See, e.g., Walker, “Medieval Drama: The Corpus Christi in York and Croxton.”

32 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 30.

33 Nichols, “Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” pp. 118–19. See also Nichols, “Lollard Language,” p. 25, where she retreats somewhat from this position by showing that the author of the Croxton play regularly employs a distinctly Lollard diction, using words such as “gloss,” “groundid,” and “unkynd,” with reference to the preconversion Jews in the play, who also refer to the consecrated Host as a “cake” or “bread.” But she cautions that this distinctive vocabulary only suggests that the playwright was familiar with the terms of the Lollard debate and that there is no internal evidence to suggest that the author had wittingly had any contact with actual Lollards. She concludes persuasively that "[t]he Jews in the Croxton play, of course, are no more real Lollards than they are real Jews: they are stage Jews who were given the contemporary language of unbelief. It is not surprising that a well-read cleric would have been aware of the special linguistic features of Lollard language. Neither is it surprising, given the literary sophistication of the author of the Croxton play, that he used them so deftly to characterize the non-believers in the Play of the Sacrament." 34 Rubin, Gentile Tales, p. 170.

35 Hill-Vásquez, Sacred Players, p. 96n26.

36 Beckwith, “Ritual, Church and Theatre,” p. 73.

37 Beckwith, “Ritual, Church and Theatre,” p. 75.

38 Strohm, “Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” p. 33.

39 Sofer, Stage Life of Props, p. 46.

40 Gallagher and Greenblatt (Practicing New Historicism, p. 104) observe in the course of their analysis of the Uccello predella that “[t]he Jews are inevitably guilty in such stories because they do not believe and because at the same time they are made to act out, to embody, the doubt aroused among the Christian faithful by eucharistic doctrine.”

41 Jones, “Theatrical History in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” p. 230. See also Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews.

42 Chemers, “Anti-Semitism, Surrogacy, and the Invocation of Mohammed,” p. 35.

43 Chemers, “Anti-Semitism, Surrogacy, and the Invocation of Mohammed,” p. 33 and passim. It should be noted that Chemers’s rejection of Cutts is founded upon a perhaps too restrictive definition of heresy.

44 Chemers, “Anti-Semitisim, Surrogacy, and the Invocation of Mohammad,” p. 49.

45 Dox, “Medieval Drama as Documentation,” p. 104.

46 Rubin, Gentile Tales, pp. 3–4 (emphasis original).

47 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, pp. lxxxiv-lxxxv. The other Croxtons are in Cambridge-shire and Lincolnshire. Incidentally, Fletcher (“N-Town Plays,” pp. 166–67) makes a case for Thetford as “N-Town,” the unnamed place associated with the large compilation of biblical plays assembled somewhere in East Anglia in the fifteenth century contained in British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D.8.

48 Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle, p. 116. Upon learning from another monk of the destruction wrought by the rising level of the pond that fed the mill, Samson, “replied, with a flash of anger, that he was not going to sacrifice his fish-pond for the sake of our [i.e., the monks’] meadow” (p. 116). I am grateful to Johanna Kramer for pointing out Jocelin’s account of the construction of the mill at Babwell.

49 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, pp. 34 and 186n69. See also Bevington, ed., Medieval Drama, p. 756.

50 Nichols, “Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” p. 120.

51 Gibson has also proposed Bury as the site of the morality Wisdom’s production and John Lydgate, the Bury monk, as the author of the N-Town Plays. See Gibson, “Play of Wisdom and the Abbey of St. Edmunds” and “Bury St. Edmunds.”

52 William’s story was recorded and circulated by the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth, whose Vita et passio Sancti Willelmi martyris Norwicensis (Life and Passion of the Martyr St. William of Norwich) was instrumental in establishing William’s cult. See McCulloh, “Jewish Ritual Murder,” and Cohen, “Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich.” Such accounts are colored by gross misperceptions of Jewish belief by Christian chroniclers and by the zealotry that accompanied the call to establish local cults around such child-martyrs.

53 See Lampert, “Once and Future Jew.”

54 Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle, p. 15.

55 Dobson, Jews of Medieval York, p. 22; Hillaby, “Jewish Colonisation in the Twelfth Century,” p. 31.

56 Hillaby, “Jewish Colonisation in the Twelfth Century,” pp. 30-31.

57 See Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle, pp. 41–42.

58 See Lydgate, Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. MacCracken, 1:138–39.

59 Lampert, “Once and Future Jew,” p. 240.

60 See Wright, Vengeance of Our Lord. I am grateful to Andrew Galloway for suggesting the connection between the Croxton play and Continental dramatization of the “Siege of Jerusalem” narrative.

61 For the influence of Continental spirituality on England see, e.g., Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim; Kerby-Fulton, Books under Suspicion.

62 For East Anglian “wool churches,” see Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 26.

63 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 27.

64 See Milla B. Riggio, “Allegory of Feudal Acquisition.”

65 Coletti, “Paupertas est donum Dei,” p. 341.

66 For a different reading of the work the Croxton play does to promote social unity, see Scherb, “Violence and the Social Body.”

67 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 8.

68 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 10.

69 Love, Mirror of the Blessed Life, p. 10

70 Love, Mirror of the Blessed Life, p. 10.

71 Bynum, Wonderful Blood, p. 73.

72 Bynum, Wonderful Blood, p. 72.

73 Coldewey, “Non-Cycle Plays,” p. 202.

74 Coldewey, “Non-Cycle Plays,” p. 206.

75 Scherb, Staging Faith, pp. 49–50.

76 Scherb, Staging Faith.

77 Granger, N-Town Play, p. 149.

78 For a recent discussion of medieval English acting companies, see Palmer, “Star Turns or Small Companies?”. Coldewey (“Non-Cycle Plays,” p. 202) argues that the common denominator uniting the many different genres of play produced in East Anglia, which shows the greatest regional variety of dramatic types, was their performance for profit. For an account, albeit a fictional one, of the costs likely to be incurred by traveling players, see Unsworth, Morality Play.

79 Tydeman, English Medieval Theatre, p. 58. See also Wasson, “English Church as Theatrical Space,” p. 32.

80 Wasson, “English Church as Theatrical Space," pp. 31–32. Scherb (Staging Faith, p. 68) also imagines All Saints’ Church as part of the “set.” See also Wasson, “English Church as Theatrical Space,” p. 31, which describes the disposition of the landscape in greater detail:
As it happens, Croxton has an ideal playing space for the performance of this particular play. On the main road, just across from the west front of the church, is a rather high embankment, running parallel to the street. If the audience were in the street below and most of the play were performed on this embankment, there would be good sight lines and plenty of room on the embankment for Aristorius’s stage, the Jew Jonathas’s stage, the post, the cauldron, and the oven. When the oven collapses, Christ can simply rise from the other side of the embankment. When the presbyter returns to the church, he need only cross the road to the parish church. Similarly, Aristorius can cross the road with the church key, open the door to the west front, go in, and return with the host.
81 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 40. The initials “R.C.” appear on the last folio of the manuscript following the note concerning the number of required players.

82 Atkin, “Playbooks and Printed Drama,” p. 197.

83 Scherb, Staging Faith, p. 16.

84 Both Scherb (Staging Faith, pp. 75–76) and Tydeman (English Medieval Theatre, pp. 67–69) imagine the Jews’ scaffold in the middle, since the central scene of the Host abuse transpires there.

85 Davidson, “Positional Symbolism and English Medieval Drama,” p. 68.

86 Tydeman (English Medieval Theatre, p. 61) imagines Aristorius delivering his opening speech from the platea, which would also enable him to begin in the neutral middle space, although the opposition between the Jews’ scaffold and either the bishop’s scaffold or an actual church might then be less clear if the Jews’ scaffold were centrally located.

87 See Grantley, “Producing Miracles”; Butterworth, “Providers of Pyrotechnics”; Enders, Death by Drama.

88 Gedenkbuch des Metzer Bürgers Philippe von Vigneulles, p. 244 (translation mine).

89 Gedenkbuch des Metzer Bürgers Philippe von Vigneulles, p. 244 (translation mine).

90 Butterworth, “Providers of Pyrotechnics.”

91 Butterworth, “Providers of Pyrotechnics,” p. 67.

92 Butterworth, “Providers of Pyrotechnics,” p. 69. For medieval Europe’s fascination with exotic spices, see Freedman, Out of the East.

93 Gibson, “Bury St. Edmunds.”

94 Grantley (“Producing Miracles,” pp. 83–87) discusses the instruments, including bladders, bellows, and fountains, by means of which the Play of the Sacrament’s spectacular displays of copious blood could have been achieved.

95 Maltman, “Meaning and Art.”

96 See Milla Cozart Riggio, “Staging of Wisdom”; Gibson, “Play of Wisdom and the Abbey of St. Edmunds.”

97 Grantley, “Saints’ Plays,” pp. 284, 286.

98 See, e.g., Craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages, pp. 326–27. Davis (ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. lxxv) likewise suggests that there is good reason for believing the scene to be an interpolation.

99 Homan, “Devotional Themes,” pp. 332–35. But see also Scherb, “Earthly and Divine Physicians,” who also treats the scene as integral to the play.

100 See Kruger (“Bodies of Jews,” p. 314), who argues that “in its emphasis on the body and bodily rebellions” the Brundich interlude “clearly has thematic connections to the remainder of the play.”

101 See, e.g., Delany, “Constantinus Africanus’ De Coitu,” p. 65.

102 See lines 459ff. in Mankind, ed. Ashley and NeCastro.

103 The playwright’s skillfulness in this regard went largely unnoticed in the early criticism because it was not until Davis’ 1970 EETS edition that the stanzaic divisions in the script were properly recorded.

104 Atkin (“Playbooks and Printed Drama,” pp. 194–96) suggests that the watermark of the paper on which the play is copied probably dates from the mid-sixteenth century.

105 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, pp. lxxvi–lxxxv. Davis reviews the linguistic evidence for attribution to East Anglia in greater detail, refuting, in the process, previous suggestions that at least one of the scribes responsible for the surviving postmedieval copy of the text may have been Irish.

106 See James P. Myers, Jr., “‘Murdering Heart . . . Murdering Hand’: Captain Thomas Lee of Ireland, Elizabethan Assassin,” Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (1991), 47–60.

107 This is Nicholas French, Catholic bishop of Ferns during a brief period of Roman Catholic rule in Ireland in the 1640s by the so-called Confederation of Kilkenny. French fled Ireland in 1651 following the incursion of an English Parliamentarian army headed by Oliver Cromwell into Ireland for the purposes of reclaiming the island and was subsequently further disheartened by the treatment of Irish Catholics following the Restoration. French remained on the Continent until his death in Ghent in 1678. See Jane H. Ohlmeyer, Ireland: From Independence to Occupation, 1641–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 123–24; James MacCaffrey, “Nicholas French,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), .

108 Waterhouse, ed., Non-Cycle Mystery Plays, p. lv.

109 The Informations exhibited to the Committee on the Fire of London, 1667 is notable for the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish hysteria that seems to have motivated many of the witnesses to the events of early September, 1666, when what began as a bakery fire erupted into a conflagration that consumed much of the city of London. Among the casualties was St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was famously rebuilt, along with many of the city’s parish churches, by the architect Christopher Wren. Wren was also responsible for the monument to the fire erected not far from the Pudding Lane bakery where the fire erupted. For a century and a half, the monument bore an inscription around its base proclaiming the culpability of papists for the destruction wrought in 1666. For an analysis of the monument as “a site of struggle over English national memory” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see Frances E. Dolan, “Ashes and ‘the Archive’: The London Fire of 1666, Partisanship, and Proof,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31:2 (2001), 379–408 [396–97].

110 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. lxx.

111 Atkin, “Playbooks and Printed Drama,” p. 194.

112 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and the Winchester Dialogues, p. 93.

113 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and the Winchester Dialogues, p. 93.

114 Changes in hand are indicated in the Textual Notes.

115 Atkin, “Playbooks and Printed Drama,” p. 197. Atkin (pp. 201 and 204–05) suggests that the exemplar used by the scribes may have been a no-longer-extant printed text of the play, although she dismisses that possibility as unlikely and argues instead for at least one scribe who was familiar with, and influenced by, the developing conventions of printed drama. As discussed above, Gibson (Theater of Devotion, pp. 35 and 40) hypothesizes that “R.C.” could be Robert Cooke, vicar of the village of Haughley and collector of playbooks.

116 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. lxxii.

117 Davis, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and the Winchester Dialogues, pp. 93–94.

118 The dating of the play’s composition to shortly after 1461 is almost universally accepted. The one exception I know of is Bernard Glassman, who without explanation and clearly mistakenly dates the play to 1378. See Glassman, Anti-Semitic Stereotypes without Jews, p. 24.

119 Atkin (“Playbooks and Printed Drama,” p. 203–04) notes that the appearance of speech prefixes in the left margin is consistent with the conventions of sixteenth-century printed drama rather than of fifteenth-century dramatic manuscripts, in which these tags typically appear in the right margin.

120 Howard-Hill, “Evolution of the Form of Plays,” pp. 113–14 and 129.

121 Atkin, “Playbooks and Printed Drama,” p. 202. The inclusion of lists of dramatis personae, for example, was unusual in manuscript and even early printed play texts before 1530, according to Atkin, whereas the use of brackets to mark rhyming lines is very much a feature of medieval scripts and not found in printed texts.

122 Duffy, Stripping of the Altars.

123 Lerer, “‘Representyd now in yower syght,’” p. 53. Lerer concludes that “[w]hat we have in the physical artifact of the play, then, is testimony to issues in the sixteenth-century religious imagination, rather than a record of fifteenth-century theatrical practice” (p. 54, emphasis original).

124 Jones, “Theatrical History in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament,” p. 248.

125 The critical edition of the text is in Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, ed. Davis, from 1970. In his review of Davis’s edition, David Bevington noted the “lack of interpretative notes” necessitated by the play’s inclusion in an anthology, as has been the case for every modern edition of the play prior to this one. See Bevington, Review of Norman Davis, Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. 735. Also missing from Davis’ edition in Bevington’s estimation was a full investigation of the play’s many Latin quotations and liturgical referents, allusions that would eventually find treatment in the groundbreaking work of Sr. Nicholas Maltman three years later. See Maltman, “Meaning and Art.” Bevington concluded his assessment by praising Davis’ philological work before lamenting at greater length the absence of any sustained discussion of genre, sources and analogues, or staging. The present edition takes advan­tage of the space afforded by a single-text volume to try to fill some of those gaps observed by Bevington and to take stock of the rich scholarship that has tremendously advanced our understanding of this play in the almost four decades since Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments was published in 1970.

126 P. Z. Myers, “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker,” its_a_goddamned_cracker.php (accessed May 18, 2010).

127 “Florida Student Abuses Eucharist,”

128 Myers, “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker” (emphasis original).

129 “Host Desecration Video Back on YouTube,” national_story.php?id=29788.

130 P. Z. Myers, “The Great Desecration,” the_great_desecration.php.

131 Myers, “Great Desecration.”

Few works of Middle English drama are likely to strike their modern readers as more irredeemably “medieval” — with all of the negative stereotypes that that word popularly implies — than the Croxton Play of the Sacrament.1 The script, which survives in a single sixteenth-century copy, dramatizes the physical abuse by five Muhammad-worshipping Syrian Jews of a Host, the bread consecrated by a priest during the Christian Mass. The play opens with the arrival of the Jewish merchant Jonathas in the imaginary city of Heraclea in Aragon. Jonathas quickly seeks out Aristorius, his Christian counterpart, in order to purchase a consecrated Host from him so that by torturing it he might disprove the doctrine of transubstantiation, the teaching that the body and blood of Christ are made present in substance in the sacramental bread and wine of the Eucharist. To Jonathas’ rational mind, transubstantiation is a simple “conceit” or trick intended to make the Jews “blind.”2 Aristorius balks at selling his God to a nonbeliever, but Jonathas is relentless and increases his offer until Aristorius finally consents to steal a consecrated Host from the local church.

Having acquired the Host, Jonathas gathers with four coconspirators at his lodging, where they first denigrate Christian teaching and then profane the Host by piercing it with daggers in five places in perverse imitation of the five wounds (hands, feet, and side) suffered by Jesus on the Cross. To the horror of the Jews, the afflicted Host spews blood from the dagger pricks. Astounded by this unanticipated result, the Jews decide to submerge the bleeding bread in a cauldron of hot oil, but the Host frustrates their efforts by stubbornly clinging to Jonathas’ hand. His companions then attempt to nail the wafer and hand to a post, only to be interrupted by the entrance of the quack doctor, Brundich, who, with the aid of his assistant Colle, peddles his dubious services to the injured Jonathas. The Jews swiftly chase the doctor away with threats of still further violence and then renew their efforts to immerse the intractable Host, with Jonathas’ wayward hand still unrelentingly attached, in the seething oil. This time they succeed, but the cauldron immediately and spectacularly boils over with yet more blood. Frantic, the Jews snatch the Host from the cauldron and enclose it in an oven, which explodes into an image of Jesus as a child with blood freshly streaming from the five wounds. Jesus reproaches the Jews for their unbelief and for their cruelty in subjecting him to a second Passion but proceeds nevertheless to restore Jonathas’ hand. The imago Christi then commands the confounded assailants to present a full account of their actions to the local bishop.

After learning of the Jews’ misadventures, the bishop goes to their house, where he bears witness to the Host’s miraculous transformation into the imago Christi before entreating the image to revert to its previous form. Jonathas and the other Jews beg forgiveness for their errors and are baptized by the bishop, thus ending the play as newly converted Christians and fully integrated members of the community. They announce their intention to go on pilgrimage as penance for their offenses. The merchant Aristorius likewise confesses his own part in the proceedings and, as punishment for treating the body of Christ as just another commodity, renounces his profession and promises to repeat his story for the moral instruction of others susceptible to the blandishments of covetousness. The play concludes with the bishop calling upon the rest of the characters as well as the audience to join in singing the hymn Te Deum laudamus (We praise you, God).

The play’s central scene, the staging of the bloody torture of consecrated bread, is consistent with widespread reports of Host desecration that circulated in chronicles and sermons throughout Europe beginning at the end of the thirteenth century.3 Tales of the insidious Jew who dupes a corrupt, vulnerable, or simply gullible Christian into acquiring a Host for him to desecrate were also elaborated in poetry and visual representations, including theatrical entertainments like the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, even in parts of Europe where, officially at least, there were no Jews following expulsions such as those that were decreed in England in 1290 and France in 1394. Given the play’s unabashed anti-Semitism and its almost ghoulish obsession with tortured, broken, and bloodied bodies, it is challenging for modern readers or spectators to conceive of the Play of the Sacrament as anything like entertainment.4 Indeed, one is sorely tempted to excuse what is so abhorrent in a text that seems to celebrate acts of violence committed by and against cultural others with an evasive appeal to the playwright’s benighted worldview as being no more or less than what we might expect from a man of his time and place. To do so, however, only trivializes the spectacular monstrosity at the heart of this play — not to mention the kinds of fear and misunderstanding that continue to fuel religious and ftlineethnic hatred well into our own day — and turns the play into little more than a relic or curiosity left over from a distant and alien past. Dismissing the anonymous dramatist as naive or unenlightened also risks denying him his due as an artist, for the surviving text is the work of a playwright possessed of a tremendous theatrical imagination, notwithstanding his choice of subject matter. This dramatic account of five unbelieving Jews who torture a Host in order to refute the sense-defying theological claims of Christians who “beleve on a cake” (line 200) also continues to warrant attention because it reveals the contours and complexities of a distinctive spirituality focused on the humanity of Christ that generated new modes of religious expression in the liturgy (the creation of the Feast of Corpus Christi),5 new forms of personal devotion (e.g., pilgrimages to shrines throughout Europe that exhibited bleeding and other kinds ofmiraculous Hosts for veneration),6 and new subjects for literature and the visual arts. The Croxton Play of the Sacrament thus lays bare the fine line between piety and persecution in medieval England and in doing so enables us to seek out and understand better the sources of religious violence both then and now. It also contrasts the tepid faith of Aristorius, a latter-day Judas willing to trade his God for gold, with the incredulity of Jonathas, whose earnest piety fuels his literalist testing of the Host but also leads the Jewish merchant to a confrontation with Jesus and His redemptive grace.7 In the end, Jew and Christian alike are healed of their spiritual blindness, but only after the playwright has probed the distinction between rational disbelief on the one hand and mere doubt on the other.


Beginning late in the thirteenth century, European Jews were regularly subjected to claims from civil and ecclesiastical authorities that they tortured consecrated Hosts in ignorant rituals and depraved parodies of the Mass. The earliest fully documented case concerns events that were alleged to have transpired in the parish of Saint-Jean-en-Grève in Paris during Holy Week of 1290.8 According to later homiletic and chronicle accounts of the incident, a poor Christian woman redeemed clothing that she had previously pawned to a local Jewish moneylender named Jonathan by bringing him the Host that she received at Easter Mass. Jonathan is supposed to have tortured the Host in a mock reenactment of the Passion of Christ.9 This abuse purportedly culminated in the miraculous appearance of a crucifix above a cauldron of scalding water in which the Jew was alleged to have submerged the Host. It was reported that the moneylender’s family witnessed this miracle and con­verted as a result, but that the perpetrator of the desecration remained intractable: his depravities were eventually uncovered, however, and he was sentenced to death by burning. The Host itself and the knife used to pierce it acquired the status of relics, and a chapel known as the Chapelle des Billetes was built adjacent to the site to commemorate the miracle.10

From Paris, allegations of desecration spread rapidly throughout Europe. Indeed, after 1290, stories of Host abuse became the primary narrative vehicle for European anti-Semitism. This particular form of anti-Jewish polemic had its roots in the common medieval identification of contemporary Jews with the historical “murderers” of Christ.11 What was perceived as the perfidy of the Jews of the Gospels was presumed to have endured throughout the generations only to be passed to their descendants, who, so it was claimed, expressed their own opposition to Christian teaching by denying the truth of Eucharistic theology. Documents attest to charges leveled against individuals or even against entire communities of Jews in parts of Franconia in 1298, in Deggendorf in 1337, Pulkau in 1338, Barcelona in 1367, Brussels in 1370, Prague in 1389, Crete in 1451–52, Wrocław in 1453, Passau in 1478, and many other parts of Europe before the end of the fifteenth century. Miri Rubin has shown how several elements of the Paris protonarrative recur in these later accounts of desecration. These include: (1) the collusion of a Christian conspirator who exchanges the Host for payment or some other favor; (2) the abuse of the Host in a private space and in a variety of forms that produce an effusion of blood and the subsequent transformation of the Host itself; (3) the Host’s self-revelation to the surrounding Christian community, leading to punishment of the assailants; and (4) the development of a cult on the site of the Host miracle.12 This high degree of narrative consistency implies a motive for Jewish persecution far more ideological and insidious than the widespread fear that Jews really might be abusing Hosts. As Gavin I. Langmuir has observed, “[w]hat inspires religious violence is the anger or fear aroused when believers who recognize that disbelief exists on the frontiers of their faith are seriously upset by the recognition that their faith is not unchallenged.”13 The particular contested linebelief that gave rise to allegations of abuse, and to the unspeakable violence perpetrated against innocent Jews in the wake of such baseless claims, was the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation.

Transubstantiation is the belief that in the sacrament of the Eucharist the bread and wine of the altar exchange their essential substances for those of the body and blood of Christ while retaining all of their original outward characteristics (size, shape, color, taste, texture, odor). This tenet of the faith was not without its detractors even from within the church, and while the term had been used earlier, the first attempt at a dogmatic definition of “transubstantiation” came out of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The first con­stitution promulgated by the bishops participating in the council contains a statement of “the catholic faith” (de fide catholica), which includes the declaration that the body and blood of Christ
are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood [transsubstantiatis pane in corpus et vino in sanguinem potestate divina], so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us. Nobody can effect this sacrament except a priest who has been properly ordained according to the church’s keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the apostles and their successors.14
Failure to believe in Christ’s real presence in the miraculously transformed bread offered Christians a convenient and obvious excuse for persecuting Jews even when matters of faith were not explicitly at stake, as was the case with the famous retelling of the events of Paris in 1290 in a six-paneled predella, or frame, to an altarpiece painted by the Italian Paolo Uccello in the 1460s for a religious confraternity and now housed in the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino.15 Across the six scenes of the Profanazione dell’ostia (Profanation of the Host), Uccello narrates the history of the Jew who purchases a Host from a Christian woman and then cooks it in a pan over a fire. The Host produces a copious stream of blood, which flows out into the streets through a passage in the wall of the Jew’s house, thereby alerting Christian authorities to what has occurred within. The Jew along with his wife and two children are burned at the stake, while the Christian woman who procured the Host is spared hanging through the intervention of an angel, only to appear again in the final scene of the predella in a state of near-death stretched across a bier in front of an altar with two angels at her head and two devils at her feet. Uccello’s paintings were intended to adorn an altar upon which another Host miracle, that of the Eucharist itself, was to be endlessly repeated. Yet while Paris, 1290, may have been only a distant memory for Paolo Uccello,16 understood within the political and economic climate of mid-fifteenth-century Urbino, this tale of Jewish perfidy also took on immediate relevance. As Rubin argues, to appreciate fully the meaning of Uccello’s predella it is important to note that the sponsoring confraternity also undertook in 1468 to create the conditions in which Urbino might be rid of its Jewish community by eliminating the need for Jewish moneylenders through the establishment of institutions that supported nonusurious loans to Urbino’s citizens.17 The historical Host desecration is conveniently adduced as one more justification for purging the Jews from the city.

It was the pliability of the narrative of the Jew who challenged the integrity of the corpus Christi that enabled the story to take root almost universally, even in England and France, where all Jews were officially expelled in 1290 and 1394, respectively, and where anti-Jewish polemic nevertheless remained a viable vehicle for reinforcing Eucharistic orthodoxy among exclusively Christian populations.18 The composition of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament late in the fifteenth century in England is indicative of the staying power of this cultural narrative and of the anxiety occasioned by transubstantiation, as are accounts of Host desecration retold throughout the Middle Ages in a range of devotional media, including poems, altarpieces, windows, wall paintings, books of hours, and at least three other documented dramatic performances. A festival held in 1473 to honor Leonore of Aragon featured another play centered on a Host miracle and staged by Florentine performers.19 It has been suggested that the 1473 event may explain the Croxton play’s setting in Heraclea, “the famous city of Aragon” (lines 11–12).20 A fifteenth-century Parisian play, Le Mistere de la Sainte Hostie, describes the torture of the Host in scenes strikingly similar to those of the torture in the Croxton play while simultaneously incorporating the role of the destitute woman known from the events alleged to have transpired in Paris in 1290. The Jewish merchant and moneylender of the French play, Jacob Mousse, comes to a grimmer end than his English counterpart: whereas Jonathas and his companions convert to Christianity at the close of the Croxton play, Jacob’s refusal to abjure his faith results in his death.21 And an Italian Miracolo del Corpo di Cristo survives from the sixteenth century and is likewise an embellishment of the 1290 incident.22

The popularity of the desecration narrative suggests that, despite the fact that the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine was repeated daily and ubiquitously in churches throughout Europe, the doctrine of transubstantiation nevertheless posed conceptual challenges not only for nonbelievers but even for Christians willing to believe. Langmuir observes that “[a]lthough belief in Christ’s physical presence was reinforced by doctrine, dogma, and ritual, the basic challenge to the belief was not any abstract philosophical or theological argument; it was the contrast, evident to anyone, between the officially prescribed belief and the lack of any visible change in the Host.”23 Transubstantiation, in other words, defies “the evidence of the senses.”24 In the play, Jonathas’ denial of the truth of the Eucharist is more a function of his rational inability to believe the seemingly unbelievable than of his Jewishness. He enumerates his objections to transubstantiation for the benefit of his fellow Jews and the audience at the conclusion of his long opening speech:
The beleve of thes Cristen men ys false, as I wene,,
For they beleve on a cake — me thynk yt ys onkynd.
And all they seye how the prest dothe yt bynd,
And be the myght of hys word make yt flessh and blode.
And thus be a conceyte they wolde make us blynd,
And how that yt shuld be He that deyed upon the Rode.     
(lines 199–204)
belief; suspect
make it subject
by the power
should; Cross
For Jonathas, belief in “a cake” is onkynd, that is, unnatural. That a piece of bread might be something other than what it looks, feels, smells, and tastes like simply defies human reason. Jonathas calls particular attention to the absurdity of the proposition that a priest, through mere words uttered at the moment of consecration, could transform bread into divine flesh, which nevertheless continues to look and taste like bread. He repudiates the very idea as a “conceyte” foisted upon Jews to make them “blynd.” It is perhaps worth noting that Jonathas does not seem to reject Christ’s Messianic status but only that “He that deyed upon the Rode” could be made materially and perpetually present in simple bread.25 Masphat, another of the Jews, echoes Jonathas’ objections in declaring that
. . . ther feyth ys false:
That was never He that on Calvery was kyld
Or in bred for to be blode: yt ys ontrewe als.
But yet with ther wyles thei wold we were wyld.       
(lines 213–16)

untrue also
wiles; wish; mad
Jonathas and Masphat dismiss the identification of the sacramental bread with the body of the historical Jesus that was tortured and stretched out on the Cross at Calvary. The belief of the Christians is both “onkynd” and “ontrewe,” unnatural and false. The reaction of the Jews in the play to transubstantiation is supremely rational, their response to the apparent trickery of Christians deeply empirical, for should not what claims to be flesh behave like flesh? If you prick it, should it not bleed? And so the play’s miraculous Host responds to the Jews’ demands for rational proof by behaving as flesh should: it does bleed.26

Given that Jews had been, for all practical purposes, absent from England for almost two centuries, it is perhaps little surprise that the question of the identity of the Jews has dom­inated modern scholarship on the Play of the Sacrament. As Michael Jones has succinctly put it, “[n]o two commentators seem to be able to agree on the Croxton play — its provenance, its uniqueness, its purpose, and the precise valence of its representation of the Jews.”27 Since there were no Jews in England (so the traditional thinking on the subject has gone), then the Jewishness of Jonathas and his cohorts must, in the final analysis, be symbolic. With no literal referent to turn to, most treatments of the Jews read them allegorically. The earliest and most enduring discussion in this vein dates to 1944 when Cecilia Cutts published what was to become a very influential essay.28 Observing that previous scholarship had dealt only with the play’s Continental analogues and predecessors, Cutts set about addressing what made the Play of the Sacrament specifically English.29 In its emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the structure of penance, and the importance of baptism, the play seemed to Cutts to linebe responding directly to Lollardy, the loosely organized reformist movement inspired by the controversial fourteenth-century Oxford theologian John Wyclif that, in the decades following Wyclif’s death, grew in popularity throughout England.30 Lollardy never developed a coherent or uniform theology, but its adherents routinely called for reforms that would limit the power of the clergy as intermediaries between the laity and God, so that they would no longer be the indispensible conduits of divine grace in the sacraments or the necessary interpreters of the Latin Scriptures. The Lollards also objected to pilgrimages, devotional images, indulgences, Masses said for the dead in exchange for a fee or endowment — in short, to material practices that placed what they took to be unnecessary and often expensive obstacles on the laity’s path to salvation. In Cutts’ reading of the Croxton play, the Jews are stand-ins for the Lollards in a didactic play aimed at shoring up the faith of lay audiences in danger of being wooed away from obedience to ecclesiastical authority by a populist heresy.

Cutts’ argument has proven durable. Many recent commentators have either reaffirmed her assessment of the play as anti-Lollard polemic or offered variations on it.31 Yet a growing chorus of dissenting voices has been challenging Cutts’ interpretation of the play in recent years on the grounds that Lollardy was less of a threat than Cutts suggested. Gail McMurray Gibson, for instance, describes East Anglia, the region in which the play originated, as especially tolerant of heterodoxy:
[T]he attitude of both secular and ecclesiastical establishment in East Anglia throughout most of the fifteenth century was one of remarkable tolerance and leniency, indeed almost of resignation, about the presence of Lollardry [sic], a convenient label that was invoked for nearly any kind of religious nonconformity. There was tolerance, that is, if those nonconformists were discreet and if they presented no threat to the state.32
Gibson characterizes the heresy trials that did take place in East Anglia under William Alnwick, bishop of Norwich, in the early 1430s as more a demonstration of political might than a response to real religious agitation in the towns. Of those trials Ann Eljenholm Nichols has similarly observed:
[b]y 1431 the proceedings were finished; the simple folk had abjured and gone home to complete their penances. We may doubt the extent of their conversion to orthodoxy, but they are the last Lollards to appear in Norwich episcopal records until after 1500. . . . Thus no documentary evidence exists to suggest that a dramatist would have been prompted by local heresy to write an anti-Lollard play, and there is little to suggest that Lollardy was a burning issue. In fact, as the lack of evidence suggests, Lollardy at this period was an underground movement; episcopal vigilance had made it so.33
For Nichols, the play is about Eucharistic piety, and the identity of the Jews is only of secondary importance, while Miri Rubin sees the figure of the Jew as “a didactic prop,” one subordinate to the play’s larger themes and whose eventual conversion simply emphasizes the power of the sacrament that is the real focus of the play.34

Other scholars have interpreted the Jews not as Lollards but as doubting Christians. Thus Heather Hill-Vásquez views the play less as propaganda intended to counter the advance of Lollard sympathy and instead as a celebration and reassertion of orthodox belief for the benefit of non-Lollard Christians whose faith might nevertheless need buttressing. She emphasizes the Jews’ rationalistic motivations and contends that their “empirical desires . . . to test the Host rather than merely destroy it (as do their continental counterparts) suggest that they have more in common with late medieval Christians than might immediately be expected.”35 Sarah Beckwith also emphasizes the intensely ratio­nalistic character of the Jews, whom she finds eager, like the Lollards, to separate appearance from reality, signifier from signified in the Eucharist. For Beckwith, the Jews’ assault on the Host in the play “is part of a quest for belief, rather than an unmotivated act of desecration.”36 This “quest for belief” simultaneously challenges the authority of the clergy, who set themselves up as the privileged interpreters of the corpus Christi, a symbolic object that conflates signifier and signified, material bread with spiritual reality. For Beckwith, Jonathas is “a grotesque form of Christ, a grotesque priest,”37 whose utterance of the words of sacramental consecration draws attention to clerical manipulations of authority and power. By showing that even a Jew can be a priest, the play unveils the instruments of control, including the Mass, through which the medieval clergy preserved their own authority over the laity. The play, then, becomes a means not only for reasserting orthodoxy but also for critiquing the habits of those responsible for safeguarding it.

For both Beckwith and Hill-Vásquez, the Jews represent Christians willing to believe who nevertheless struggle to come to terms with the demands made on their faith by a complex doctrine and a priesthood unwilling, or unable, to articulate its own workings. Paul Strohm has memorably remarked that the Eucharistic rite itself “not only does not make sense but is not supposed to; it functions precisely as a complete exception, a suspension of rules, a thing like no other.”38 About the play Andrew Sofer muses that “it is as if the entire Brechtian arsenal of stage techniques — pastiche, properties that announce their prop-ness, self-consciously theatrical effects — were to be harnessed in order to shore up an ideology rather than demystify it.”39 Whether or not the Jews represent a specific kind of doubt, like Lollardy, or just a more general sense of uncertainty in response to the incredible, Cutts and other scholars look beyond the literal Jewishness of the play’s Jews for their symbolic significance.40

Still other scholars have rejected Cutts’ association of Jews with Lollards in order to return attention to the actual Jewishness of the characters, but in doing so they nevertheless extend the meaning of Jewish identity in the play beyond the bodies and identities of Jonathas and his cohorts. Jones situates the play within the broader scope of theat­rical history, in which, by the late fifteenth century, “the conventions of Christian inscription of Jews are firmly established, and their roles as agents in a sacramental and theatrical economy fully codified.”41 Michael Mark Chemers also rejects the identification of the play’s original audience with Lollards and contends that “it seems odd to imagine that the author of this play believed that the Lollards could have been convinced of their heresy by a rather silly and grotesque piece of stage business when they had not been convinced by violent persecution.”42 Instead, he sees the Jew as a figure for Christianity’s great external foes generally, including Muslims, by whose prophet Muhammad the Jews of the Croxton play swear.43 The play thus serves as
a revision of a narrative of origin that exculpates an ethnically cleansed England for the failure of the Crusades and the fall of Constantinople and Trebizond, and rewrites history with an English victory over all infidel forces, embodied locally on the English stage by actors, loaded down with bladders full of animal blood, playing Jews invoking the Muslim Prophet while torturing the semiotically unstable host prop.44
Donnalee Dox goes a step further, arguing that the “reality” of Jewishness in the late fifteenth century was a social construction, the culmination of centuries of figuring Jewishness as “a hostile alterity” opposed to Christianity in every way that mattered.45 In these readings, then, the play is not about specific Jews but about Jewishness as a means of displacing dissent and doubt, both internal and external, onto a scapegoat. The total eradication of the threat and the reinforcement of orthodoxy in the tidy conclusions to narratives like the Play of the Sacrament reassured their audiences that all really was well that ended well, even if the root anxiety — doubt about the real presence of Christ in the bread of the altar — remained somewhat uncomfortably unaddressed. Tales of Host abuse con­centrated fears about the potential for Jewish unbelief to subvert Christian faith and hegemony, confusion about doctrine, and contemporary political, social, and economic anxieties onto a single narrative that proved over the course of the late medieval period to be an extraordinarily adaptable tool of cultural observation and critique. Miri Rubin has reminded us of “the need to think of narrative as historically situated, as drawing its meanings and weight, its relative urgency from performance, enactment and deployment.”46 We must now, therefore, consider in their specificity the historical, social, and devotional circumstances that informed the composition and production of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament in order to understand the cultural work performed by this particular version of an insidious, and irrepressible, tale.


Essential to any interpretation of the Jew as a signifier must be a consideration of the influence on the play of the artistic and devotional habits and economic conditions particular to the part of England known as East Anglia. The region of East Anglia spans the eastern peninsula of the island of Britain, which juts into the North Sea. Named for one of the Germanic peoples who settled there and elsewhere in the southern part of the island between the fourth and sixth centuries and whose settlements became the foundation for a later Anglo-Saxon kingdom, East Anglia consists primarily of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk (where the Anglo-Saxon “north folk” and “south folk” dwelt in the early medieval period), and most descriptions of the fluid boundaries of the region include at least parts of neighboring Essex and Cambridgeshire.

The town of Croxton, announced in line 74 of the text as the site of the performance of the play “on Monday,” is one of several English Croxtons; that the reference is to a village of that name in southwestern Norfolk about two miles from the town of Thetford and twelve miles north of Bury St. Edmunds seems to be confirmed by a reference to the Babwell mill (line 621).47 Babwell had been the site of a Franciscan priory since the middle of the thirteenth century and lay just outside the powerful Benedictine abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, which dominated the economic and political affairs of the surrounding region. The presence of a mill at Babwell from at least a half century earlier is confirmed by the chronicler Jocelin of Brakelond, who reports that the mill, a pet project of the often-imperious Abbot Samson, was responsible for flooding neighboring farms around the end of the twelfth century.48 The reference to Doctor Brundich’s lodging near the “colkote” (line 620), a word usually glossed as “coal shed,” has also been adduced as evidence for the play’s composition somewhere within Bury’s orbit of influence by Gibson, who conjectures that colkote is a misreading for Tolcote, the “tollhouse just opposite the [Babwell] friary near the North Gate of Bury.”49 Ann Eljenholm Nichols also associates the play with Bury based on the bishop’s admonition late in the play that pyxes, the vessels used to contain consecrated but unconsumed Hosts, should be kept locked and their keys carefully guarded in order to prevent the kind of theft that initiates the play’s central action (lines 924–27). She sees in the bishop’s warning a possible allusion to a London incident of 1467 in which a number of pyxes were stolen from a church for the value of their metal.50 In the fifteenth century, London was in close and regular contact with the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, as witnessed by the career of the Benedictine John Lydgate, who was both poet laureate to the Lancastrian kings and a monk at Bury. Nichols speculates that news of the theft in London could have quickly reached the ears of a Bury monk writing a play that would eventually be performed several miles north of Bury at Croxton.51

The Croxton Play of the Sacrament seems appropriately at home in East Anglia, when viewed from the perspective of the region’s curious history of anti-Semitism, which stretches back at least into the twelfth century, when East Anglian Jews were accused of murdering Christian children, first a twelve-year-old named William in Norwich in 114452 and then a boy called Robert in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk in 1181.53 In the case of William, the entire Jewish community of Norwich was initially held responsible for the boy’s death but was eventually spared through royal intervention, since English Jews were then subjects directly of the king. In his chronicle of Bury’s powerful Benedictine abbey, Jocelin of Brakelond records Robert’s martyrdom and directs his readers to a separate life of Robert also by Jocelin and now lost.54 In 1190 lingering animosities toward Jews in Norwich, Bury, and elsewhere culminated in a series of pogroms. The most infamous of these took place in York, where some 150 Jews are thought to have died,55 but the slaughter at York was preceded by violent attacks on Jews in the Norfolk towns of Lynn and Norwich and followed by the massacre of fifty-seven Jews in Bury in Suffolk on Palm Sunday of that year.56 What Jews remained in Bury were soon after expelled by Bury’s Abbot Samson.57

While these events were some three centuries or more distant from the dramatist responsible for the Croxton play, there is evidence to suggest that the supposed past crimes of East Anglian Jews were not quickly forgotten. Among the surviving works of the Bury monk John Lydgate, the most prolific English poet of the fifteenth century, is a prayer to Robert of Bury,58 while a chapel housing Little Robert’s relics existed at the abbey until at least the early sixteenth century.59 Yet there is little reason to suspect that anti-Jewish feeling was especially strong in the region during the late 1400s when the play was being written or that it extended beyond the hostility toward Jews characteristic of medieval Christianity generally. Following the expulsion of the Jews from England by royal edict in 1290, there was simply no occasion for the kinds of open aggression that routinely surfaced in places on the Continent, where the presence of Jewish communities within or near Christian ones often prompted outbursts of violence. East Anglia’s easy access to international shipping lanes did, however, link the region to the Continent, where a tradition of anti-Jewish drama flourished.60 While there is no evidence to suggest that this tradition exercised any direct influence on the composition of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, East Anglia’s relative proximity to, and frequent economic and cultural exchange with, the Low Countries may have increased awareness of Continental forms of anti-Jewish polemic not unlike the way that English spirituality of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was influenced by new modes of pious expression originating on the Continent.61

East Anglia’s involvement in trade with the Low Countries is certainly visible in the Croxton play’s negative view of commerce, evidenced by Aristorius’ renunciation of his profession by play’s end. Raw wool and the cloth produced from it dominated East Anglian trade in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and formed the basis for the economy of the many towns, like Norwich, that rose to prominence throughout the area. So important was trade in wool and textiles to East Anglia, in fact, that the many churches built or refurbished with gifts from wealthy merchants during this period came to be known as “wool churches.”62 But with worldly prosperity came spiritual unease; Gibson has surveyed surviving wills from the region that offer glimpses of East Anglians “with anxious hearts, if not guilty consciences, about their worldly and prosperous lives.”63 In detailing the bequests of their testators, these wills serve as postmortem confessions offered by Christians con­cerned that their worldly gains might interfere with their prospects for salvation. Aristorius’ fall in the Croxton play attests to the perilously fine distinction between good business practice and the practice of covetousness. Concerns about accumulating material wealth recur in several plays written and performed in the towns of East Anglia, including The Castle of Perseverance, in which Covetousness stands at the head of the seven deadly sins and serves as the play’s chief representative of worldliness,64 and the Digby Mary Magdalene, a play Theresa Coletti has described as working “to resolve contradictions between a spiritual ideology whose highest value counseled renunciation of the world and a prosperous social and economic environment whose moral fissures are registered in anxieties about property, status consciousness, and promotion of charity.”65

Donnalee Dox’s assertion that the Jew in the play figures a generalized alterity is especially instructive for thinking through the social dimensions and implications of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament within its East Anglian contexts. Unlike the Jews of the play’s Continental analogues, who often exercise some form of control over their Christian con­spirators, the antagonists of the Croxton play are never socially menacing. Their Jewishness does not threaten to disrupt the community of Heraclea. Quite the opposite: Aristorius dispatches his servant to seek out the newly arrived Jewish merchants so that he might go so far as to welcome them into his home. He acknowledges their shared professional interests and the potential for profitability inherent in good relations with them with no apparent misgivings over religious difference. In Continental narratives of Host desecration, the Jewish presence is always inimical because it is immediate, unlike the situation in England after 1290; the only sure way to combat that presence and to preserve social unity is through the total destruction of the Jew. For the English playwright and his audience, converting the Jew and sending him on pilgrimage is sufficient for neutralizing the threat; rather it is the practice of commerce which must be eliminated in order to maintain a healthy society.66 The Jews are, for the moment at least, welcomed into a body unified through faith, a community that sings together Te Deum laudamus at the play’s conclusion, but it is the estrangement of Aristorius, the Christian merchant, from that community that is finally emphasized. The Jews, then, may represent unbelief, a lack of faith through either ignorance or an overreliance on reason, but it is the Christian merchant who should know better and whose susceptibility to greed frames the spectacular desecration that provides the central action of the play. The Jews of the play are the conventional villains of medieval English theater who oppose Christ in the temple with their misdirected learning in the N-Town “Christ and the Doctors” or on Calvary with their hammers and nails in the various Crucifixion pageants, but they are also what Christians risk becoming when they permit reason — whether the reason that cannot reconcile how God can be present in a hunk of bread or the reason that deems the exchange of that bread for one hundred pounds an offer too good to refuse — to triumph over their fear of God.

The Croxton Play of the Sacrament not only stages the conflict between the blandishments of the world and the commandments of God that preoccupied wealthy East Anglians and that simultaneously furnished morality plays, several of which also have their origins in the region, with their subject matter; it also reflects East Anglians’ distinctive preferences for imagining God in His physical humanity. Gibson has memorably described East Anglia as a “theater of devotion” defined by an “incarnational aesthetic.” This “deliberate and con­scious effort to objectify the spiritual even as the Incarnation itself had given spirit a concrete form” emphasizes affective response to Christ’s humanity, which in meditative texts, drama, and visual art was rendered in striking images that often foregrounded pain, suffering, and even torture but that above all celebrated human bodies and especially the body of Christ.67 Gibson observes that it is “the truth of imagination, of imaging, which is the fundamental truth behind late medieval lay spirituality and is the shaping aesthetic for the religious drama and lyric.”68 For medieval East Anglians, in other words, seeing was believing, as it had been for Christians from Doubting Thomas on. The mystery of the Incarnation, in which the invisible divine became materially present, provided Christians access to God through their shared humanity with Christ. East Anglian lay spirituality privileged “bodyes or bodily þinges,” in the words of the Carthusian prior Nicholas Love, whose Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ ranks as one of the most widely read and influential English texts of the fifteenth century.69 Love counsels that “contemplacion of þe monhede [manhood] of cryste is more likyng [pleasant] more spedefull [beneficial] & more sykere [certain] þan is hyõe contemplacion of þe godhed” and encourages his readers to “sette in mynde þe ymage of crystes Incarnacion passion & Resurreccion so that a symple soule þat kan not þenke bot bodyes or bodily þinges mowe [might] haue somwhat accordynge vnto is [his] affecion where wiþ he maye fede & stire his deuocion.”70 Awash in blood and bedecked with wounded flesh, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament places bodies and bodily things center stage as objects for contemplation and devotion while simultaneously avoiding the speculative theologizing about intangibles, such as the nature of God’s divinity, to be found in the universities. Indeed, even the play’s central symbol, the Host, is rendered literal and concrete by becoming an actual bloodied body. The playwright explores a wide range of meanings assignable to carnality. Human flesh is everywhere in the play, not only in the tortured and torturing Host or the abused body of Jonathas but also in the tantalizing aromas and tastes conjured by the exotic spices Jonathas enumerates among his wares in his opening monologue; in the priest Isoder’s body’s susceptibility to the soporific qualities of the food and drink with which, in a parody of the salvific power of the Eucharist, Aristorius plies him before stealing the consecrated Host from the church; and in the doctor’s incomparable knack for misreading the symptoms of unsound bodies. The polysemousness of human flesh serves to unify the disparities of mood, tone, and language of the Croxton play and to emphasize the centrality of Christ’s humanity, while the play’s seemingly unstaunchable flow of blood “makes visible an invisible God.”71 For their part the Jews cease to be subjects in their own right and function instead as props; they become, in the words of Caroline Walker Bynum, “useful for making manifest a blood that excites devotion, precipitates pilgrimage, and defends the faith against all unbelievers.”72 This emphasis on the Host’s agency can be seen in the title of the play given in the manuscript following line 80: The Play of the Conversyon of Ser Jonathas the Jewe by Myracle of the Blyssed Sacrament. Jonathas becomes an object; all of the play’s agency is invested in the Host and in the flesh which unites Jesus and His human followers by means of an intimate and inviolable bond. In Continental narratives of Host desecration, the central miracle justifies condemnation, not conversion; in the Croxton play, the tone is pointedly devotional, and the Jews simply cease to be Jews once they have served their purpose in revealing God’s presence. In its preference for the human over the divine, for the visible over the invisible, for the embodied over thedisembodied, the Play of the Sacrament is thus typical of the spiritual and devotional sensibilities of its time and place; it is, in short, quintessentially East Anglian.


The Play of the Sacrament consistently exhibits traits of the dramaturgy and stagecraft peculiar to East Anglia. John C. Coldewey has suggested that the Croxton play, like others from Norfolk and Suffolk, was less a vehicle for religious didacticism per se or for displaying civic pride but was instead performed primarily for profit.73 Although profitability and didacticism need not be mutually exclusive motivations for staging drama, the Play of the Sacrament, with its disembodied hands and exploding ovens, surely takes advantage of its spectacular potential, and, Coldewey observes, “as modern entertainment has demonstrated beyond doubt, nothing pleases so well as spectacle.”74 For Victor I. Scherb, the conspicuous deployment of devotional images is what defines East Anglian dramaturgy. Building on Augustinian psychological models, Scherb suggests that for medieval Christians, drama, because of its appeal to multiple senses, created stronger impressions on the mind than other exclusively visual media and enabled spectators to recall with greater ease the images they witnessed during a performance for the purposes of devotional meditation.75 Scherb contends that the deployment of physical space in the staging of these plays is crucial to achieving the plays’ intended devotional effects. So-called place-and-scaffold plays highlight specific devotional images through juxtaposition. An unmarked platea or open playing area encourages debate and facilitates the incorporation of the audience within that debate. And large-scale plays with numerous loca (scaffolds or raised stages) are conducive to multiple presentations of time and place, thereby reminding the audience of the universality of the themes on display and of God’s unique, eternal perspective on them.76 The Croxton play, an example of the place-and-scaffold type, focuses the audience’s attention on a web of images that all refer to the body of Christ and that generate meaning through juxtaposition. Most recently, Penny Granger has made the case for “liturgicality” as a particular characteristic of East Anglian drama. She contends that “liturgical material in the East Anglian plays seems to be incorporated into the text rather than merely added, almost as an afterthought, in the manner of a musical interlude” and that musical material drawn from the Mass and the Divine Office, the two major modes of formal worship in the medieval church, serves to emphasize climactic moments in these plays, as, for example, in the singing of the hymns O sacrum convivium (O holy banquet) and Te Deum laudamus in the Croxton play.77

It is important to note that there is no evidence that attests to the play’s actual performance in Croxton — or anywhere else for that matter — at any time during the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, most scholars take for granted that the play was staged. The banns — the first eighty lines of the play in which a future performance is announced — have often been interpreted as implying the play’s performance by an itinerant professional troupe. Banns are a feature of several medieval English plays, including The Castle of Perseverance, the N-Town plays (which takes its name from the anonymous site of its performance, “N-town,” proclaimed in its banns), and the Chester plays (for which two different banns have survived, one pre- and one post-Reformation). The banns to the Play of the Sacrament provide for two vexillatores, or “banner-bearers,” to advertise the play to potential audiences much like the modern film trailer. The second vexillator’s invitation to the curious passerby “to here [hear] the purpoos of this play / That ys representyd now in yower syght” (lines 9–10) might also suggest that the banns were accompanied by a “dumb show,” in which the play’s basic plot would have been pantomimed by costumed actors. The banns also call for minstrels, who “blow up with a mery stevyn [song]” (line 80). That the Play of the Sacrament might have been performed by a traveling company of professional players and minstrels is likewise intimated by the note that concludes the surviving copy of the text, which helpfully suggests: “[n]ine may play yt at ease.” The ability to double or triple the number of roles undertaken by a single actor would be crucial to an itinerant troupe, since the smaller the cast the less the expense, although nine players would still have made for a large company by medieval standards.78

Scholars have also imagined medieval performances that do not depend on the Play of the Sacrament being a touring show. William Tydeman points to the non-traveling Passion and Resurrection play performed in New Romney in Kent during the sixteenth century and to records documenting the play’s promotion by “cryers” in the nearby village of Hythe as possible evidence that the Play of the Sacrament was only ever intended for performance in Croxton but was proclaimed to audiences further afield.79 John M. Wasson suggests that All Saints’ Church in Croxton could have served as a general backdrop in front of which scaffolds were positioned around a platea with the audience situated on the facing slope. Tydeman con­jectures that the audience might even have been invited to enter the church itself for the play’s final scene, which could otherwise have been played outside and in front of the building.80

Gibson offers an especially imaginative reconstruction of the play’s possible performance history, with performances first at Bury and later at Croxton put on by local amateurs:
The Play of the Sacrament was written in the latter part of the fifteenth century, very possibly in Bury St. Edmunds, and perhaps in the late 1460s like the N-Town cycle compilation which contains very similar banns, likewise spoken by “vexillatores.” The Play of the Sacrament was a play performed on Corpus Christi Day, a play deliberately addressing the troublesome Lollard sympathies of the Suffolk-Norfolk border region, and it was probably a play produced by one or more confraternities of priests and pious laymen. In its original setting, it may have been performed in the open market square at Angel hill, just in front of the parish church of St. James, which could have served as the church setting for the Episcopus scenes. In the early sixteenth century, a copy of the play was made for a performance at the small neighboring Norfolk village of Croxton, perhaps, as was so often the case in East Anglian villages, to raise money for the parish church. This copy of the text was made by “R. C.,” who noted helpfully the smallest number of players required to perform the play and who may have been Robert Cooke, a local vicar who by 1537 had collected enough drama manuscripts to refer to them in his will as “all my playbooks.”81
No documentation exists to support Gibson’s admittedly hypothetical reconstruction of the play’s conception at Bury as a Corpus Christi entertainment, and Tamara Atkin has since argued that “R.C.” is probably the printer Robert Copeland.82 Nevertheless, Gibson’s fantasy production is useful in reminding us of how prevalent dramatic performance was in East Anglia at the end of the Middle Ages and how imperfectly the surviving texts have captured the spectacles to which they bear witness.

In the absence of explicit records, we can nevertheless infer the general shape of a hypothetical fifteenth-century performance of the Play of the Sacrament by considering the staging conventions of other East Anglian place-and-scaffold plays as well as by examining the numerous stage directions in the manuscript. Scherb notes that plays of the place-and-scaffold type
employ two or three scaffolds or stages, substantial casts, music, and the dramatic action of the procession in order to stage devotional moments. Most frequently, these dramas oppose sacred to profane space, the action often climaxing around a devotional image of some kind. The frequently spectacular and sometimes violent nature of the action allows these dramas to appeal to particular currents in late medieval piety, even as the dramas stress the healing potential of particular devotional attitudes, actions, and symbols.83
The Play of the Sacrament exemplifies this arrangement. Its stage directions identify three loca which establish the boundaries of “Heraclea”: the Jews’ house (line 228, s.d.), Aristorius’ house (see line 271, in which Aristorius invites Jonathas “up” onto his scaffold), and a church (367, s.d.) wherein dwells Episcopus (the bishop). These loca surround and define the platea, but they are not merely physical markers of theatrical space; they serve also to establish the play’s spiritual boundaries. Given that the play presumably opens with Aristorius atop his stage, it is easy to imagine that his was the central scaffold, or raised platform, with the church (either another scaffold or else an actual building like All Saints’ Croxton) to one side and the Jews’ house, the site of the desecration, on the other.84 Clifford Davidson has discussed the importance to medieval dramaturgy of “positional symbolism,” or “the framework of meaning by which the action of the drama may be accurately understood.”85 Thus Aristorius’ positioning between the play’s two moral poles, the church and Jews’ house, might have recalled familiar medieval depictions of the Final Judgment, the end of secular time, when Christ will divide humanity into flocks of sheep bound for eternal bliss and goats condemned to ceaseless torment (Matthew 25:31–46). Visual representations of this scene show the saved souls arrayed on Christ’s right-hand side with the damned on the left. While signifying literally the houses and other buildings to be found on the streets of “Heraclea,” this arrangement of scaffolds might also have triggered a visual association for the audience with the symbolic iconography of the Judgment. The Jews’ house thus becomes a figurative Hellmouth, a place for the faithless, the damned, and the tortured, while the church — scaffold or actual building — becomes a symbol of heaven, the celestial kingdom awaiting those who believe in salvation through Christ. Movement to and between these scaffolds infuses the characters’ actions with moral meaning. The platea, the undefined space between the scaffolds and the moral extremes for which they stand, likewise ceases to be a neutral space when we realize that Aristorius’ approach toward the Jews’ scaffold with the purloined Host separates him from heaven both physically and symbolically and simultaneously carries him closer to the playing space’s allegorical hell. It is not clear from the dialogue or the stage directions where the meeting of the merchants following Aristorius’ successful looting of the Host takes place, only that Aristorius moves through the platea before spying Jonathas approaching in the distance:
But now wyll I passe by thes pathes playne;
To mete with Jonathas I wold fayne.
Ah, yonder he commytht in certayn:
Me thynkyth I hym see.
(lines 373–76)
meet; be glad
I seem to see him
If we imagine the scaffolds arrayed so that the church and the Jews’ house stand at opposite poles with Aristorius’ house centrally positioned between them, Aristorius’ traversing of “thes pathes playne” can only lead him away from the church, from salvation, and toward the damnation represented by the Jews and their unbelief.86 How far Aristorius proceeds on the path to hell is not clear from the text: does he go beyond his own scaffold in the course of his dialogue with Jonathas? How great a sin has he committed? The answers to these questions are not clear; what is certain is that the Host itself pursues a trajectory during the play that takes it from the space symbolically associated with heaven through the in-between space of the platea, the terrestrial world, and into hell (the Jews’ house). By play’s end the Host has been processed ceremoniously back to the altar of the church that is also heaven whence it was originally stolen. Thus the play’s most important and most polysemous object, the Host, moves from heaven through earth to Hell and back again, following the path of the Son of God, whose body it encloses, in His descent to earth to redeem humanity, His rescue of the patriarchs from hell’s clutches during the Harrowing, and His glorious return to the Father after the Ascension.

The playwright’s reliance on positional symbolism and his attention to the play’s allegorical associations do not, however, imply a lack of interest in the dramatic potential of the play’s literal action, as demonstrated by the pronounced concentration of stage directions in the manuscript surrounding the “testing” of the Host by the Jews. The effects described in these stage directions indicate that the playwright not only had a flair for the spectacular but was also interested in employing realistic and believable effects in order to create his outrageous stage illusion. The stage directions call for a bleeding Host, fire, a detachable hand, a cauldron that overflows with blood, an exploding and bleeding oven, and a speaking “image” of Christ as a child “with woundys bledyng.” None of these effects were beyond the capacities of medieval technicians,87 although the concentration of so many in a single, relatively brief play is extraordinary. Some indication of how a few of the Croxton play’s effects might have been accomplished is suggested by a sixteenth-century source. The cloth merchant Philippe de Vigneulles witnessed a performance of the Play of the Sacrament’s French analogue, the Mistere de la Sainte Hostie, or some version of it, in Metz in 1513. The production’s spectacularity evidently captivated Philippe, who details the “secret” means by which an abundance of blood was repeatedly coaxed from the tortured Host. He approvingly records, for example, that the Jew placed the Host on a table and pierced it with a knife, and that “by means of a secret [secret] which was performed, a great abundance of blood issued forth and leapt up from the aforementioned Host, just as if it were a child who pissed, and the Jew was sullied and bloodied and played his role very well.”88 Philippe recalls that the Jew, “not happy about this, threw the aforementioned Host into the fire, and through some device [engien], it raised itself from the fire and attached itself to the flue of the chimney, and the traitor pierced it again with a dagger and through another device and secret [engien et secret] it again emitted blood abundantly.”89 Philippe leaves many of the play’s spectacular effects unexplained, but his eyewitness account confirms that the stage directions in the Croxton play could indeed be accomplished with available medieval technologies.

In his study of the early history of pyrotechny, Philip Butterworth has analyzed documents surviving from the sixteenth century that point to a reasonably well-developed understanding of how to produce fireworks using various forms of gunpowder and other chemicals to create explosions and how to transform various tubes and casings into rockets, wands, and other incendiary devices.90 The materials used by medieval and early modern pyrotechnicians are known primarily from records of payments made for firework ingredients. Butterworth has concluded that the primary purveyors of pyrotechnic materials were by and large members of England’s various mercers’, merchants’, and grocers’ guilds.91 In support of this claim, he cites a document from 1453 attesting to the kinds of goods the London Grocers’ Company might be expected to deal in, including not only familiar tools of pyrotechny like turpentine, verdigris, and saltpeter but also spices and other exotic comestibles such as “gynger,” “galyngale,” “pepper,” “safron,” “dates,” “almaunds,” “ryse,” “reysens,” “clowes,” “greynis,” “mac,” “cynamon,” and “long pepper” — all items in which Jonathas also claims to deal in his opening monologue.92 While most of the records Butterworth has unearthed date from a century or more after the Croxton play, several of them come from Norwich and Wymondham in Norfolk; others from Canterbury, Maidstone, and New Romney in Kent; and still others from Cambridge, that is, from places in or around East Anglia. Given the importance of this region of England on the international trading scene, it is intriguing to imagine a playwright familiar with the kinds of goods that could be procured from merchants — perhaps, as Gibson has suggested, a monk at the cosmopolitan monastery at Bury St. Edmunds, an abbey that had occasion to host prominent guests, those with a taste for the kind of well-seasoned fare not typical of standard monastic cuisine.93 The dramatist’s knowledge of spices and medicinal herbs could simply have come from the kinds of encyclopedias familiar to a fifteenth-century monk of not trivial learning rather than from local merchants, and in any case the stage directions in the Play of the Sacrament call for blood more than explosions.94 But in light of Butterworth’s research into the early history of English pyrotechny and the importance of trade in East Anglia generally, the playwright’s knowledge of exotic spices and fondness for special effects may not be entirely coincidental.


The admittedly circumstantial case for the playwright’s familiarity with the devices and materials of medieval pyrotechny raises the fascinating if ultimately unanswerable question of authorship. While the play has survived with no name attached to it aside from the enigmatic initials “R.C.” at the conclusion of the only manuscript copy, certain details about the life, education, and milieu of the anonymous dramatist can be reasonably adduced. First and foremost, he was almost certainly a member of the clergy. Throughout the play he demonstrates his knowledge of Scripture, the Mass and the Office (the two primary forms of medieval Christian liturgy or institutional worship), and the Latin language. Sr. Nicholas Maltman, O.P., has convincingly argued that the likely source for the scriptural quotations that adorn the speeches of Jesus and the repentant Jews during the play’s climax is the liturgy for Holy Week, while the appearance of a line from the compline hymn Christe, qui lux es et dies (see the note to line 753) and the play’s resolution in a communal Corpus Christi procession accompanied by the singing of the Te Deum laudamus justify labeling the Play of the Sacrament liturgical drama.95 The playwright was clearly not only intimately familiar with the liturgy but capable of adapting it artfully to a new context.

In addition to using liturgical chant to enhance the play’s action, the playwright also introduces a number of spoken Latin lines into his script, the sources for several of which have never been satisfactorily identified. The use of Latin to adorn the text raises further questions about the complex identity of the play’s original audience: does the dramatist envision an elite audience of the kind that has been proposed to have witnessed the production of the East Anglian morality Wisdom?96 Or might some of the Latin lines, especially those uttered by Christ following his spectacular entry from the exploding oven, have been added by a later scribe as a kind of scholarly annotation for the benefit of a learned reader familiar with the authoritative sources for the characters’ vernacular speeches?

Whatever the purpose of his Latin citations, the playwright reveals himself to be an artist eminently capable of working in a variety of verbal registers to great dramatic effect. The Play of the Sacrament is remarkable for the variety of stanzaic forms it employs. Most common are an eight-line stanza rhyming ababbcbc and a quatrain with the pattern abab. Nearly three- quarters of the play’s 1007 lines can be found in one or the other of these stanzas. While the surviving text includes several unique stanzas not found elsewhere in the script which may be attributed either to authorial shortcomings or to scribal sloppiness, many of the play’s departures from these two stanzaic building blocks seem to signal important shifts in the dramatic action. Thus, the playwright uses a nine-line stanza rhyming ababcdddc to mark four significant occasions: lines 249–57 (the priest’s announcement to Aristorius of the arrival of Jonathas from Syria), 274–82 (Jonathas’ solicitation of Aristorius’ aid in procuring a Host), 323–31 (Aristorius’ revelation of his stratagem for acquiring the Host), and 368–76 (the speech immediately following the theft of the Host). These four speeches act as narrative crescendos, marking for the audience the path which leads Aristorius into sin.

The playwright departs from his basic stanzas in two other key episodes. The first is a scene featuring the corrupt doctor, Brundich, and his servant, Colle (lines 525–652). The majority of this comic interlude is written in a stanza rhyming aaabcccb. Successive rhymes combined with shorter lines during this interlude serve to enhance the scene’s comic effect by leaving the audience with little opportunity to process what is being said by these swindlers. To take a single example, in lines 541–44, Colle heralds the arrival of his master with rapid-fire but ambiguous praise:
He ys allso a boone-setter,
I knowe no man go the better.      
In every taverne he ys detter:
That ys a good tokenyng!

It takes the audience a beat to recognize that Colle has averred not only the doctor’s skill at mending broken bones but also his indebtedness at the tavern, and with comparable verve. Likewise, the sarcasm of the punchline — “that’s a good sign!” — is simultaneously masked by the pace of the line and accented by the shift in rhyme. Indeed, the b-lines in these stanzas serve as a kind of verbal punctuation, a means of drawing attention to, and often of subverting, whatever precedes them.

Other instances of stanzaic variation likewise serve to propel this scene. Brundich uses a unique aaaaaab-stanza in lines 601–07, to which Colle responds in lines 608–21 with a series of seven rhyming couplets. In his speech, Brundich also revels in aureation, the use of Latinate words, by rhyming congregacyon, negacyon, certyfycacyon, proclamacion, pausacyon, and declaracion. Brundich’s conspicuously gilded and affected diction reminds the audience that the good doctor is all talk but no substance. Colle’s ensuing advertisement-in-couplets of services offered by the doctor — he can cure everything from fever to swollen genitals — likewise serves to emphasize the disjunction between rhetoric and action. The playwright here masterfully deploys a panoply of unique stanzaic forms to great effect in supporting the heavily ironized and comical language of the text to create the character of a doctor who is so (un)skilled that he can make healthy men sick.

This interlude has been the subject of much scholarly disagreement. As recently as 1994 the comic potential of the doctor scene has been described as “rather redundant” and contributive of “little to the development of the narrative.”97 Several scholars have labeled this scene an interpolation, in part because of its shift in metrical form, despite the fact that the aaabccccb stanza characteristic of the doctor and servant is employed by the Jews in the stanzas preceding the entrance of these two fraudulent interlopers.98 The shift to lowbrow comedy in what is otherwise a devotional play has also been cited as evidence of interference by a later writer. Indeed, one of the few critics interested in actually redeeming this scene as an integral part of the play does so only by denying the comic potential of the scene.99 Yet the playwright’s facility for varying the poetry’s structure in order to change the tone of the action, to increase dramatic tension, or to flesh out his characters in other scenes seems thoroughly consistent with the author’s artistry throughout the play.100 This episode also serves to prime the audience for events to come by juxtaposing the low comedy of the Brundich scene with the “swemfull [sorrowful] syght” (line 800) of a bleeding Christ erupting from the infernal oven to which the Host is finally consigned by its frenzied and frightened torturers. The dramatist baits the play’s spectators into indicating their delight in the slapstick transpiring on stage by means of their audible laughter, laughter that is perhaps still ringing in their ears at the moment when the seriousness of the subject matter is rendered visible through the spectacular appearance of the bloody and wound-ridden corpus Christi. By repeatedly drawing attention to his master’s “cunnyng” (lines 555 and especially 591 and 596) with its pun on the French con (“cunt”), Colle comically extends the tally of Brundiche’s sins to include not only ignorance, avarice, and pride but also lasciviousness. The remedies with which he plies his many female patients (on whom he expends all his “cunning”) include ingredients such as scammony that were noted by medieval medical authorities for their aphrodisiacal properties.101 Rather than a mark against his poetic and dramatic abilities, the playwright’s easy and compelling blending of high and low indicates a certain sophistication and level of artistry of the kind frequently claimed for no less a poet than Chaucer and evident elsewhere in the drama, for example in the morality Mankind, where the play’s action is similarly interrupted by the entrance of the devil Titivillus and {softlinein which crude, materialistic humor serves to propel the drama to its redemptive and ultimately transcendent conclusion.102

During the scene initiated by Jesus’ explosive entry, the playwright experiments with stanzaic variation yet again. The bloodied Savior rebukes the Jewish conspirators with a series of three quatrains with concatenated rhymes that should probably be understood as a single twelve-line stanza rhyming ababbcbccdcd:
Oh ye merveylows Jewys,
Why ar ye to yowr Kyng onkynd,
And I so bytterly bowt yow to my blysse?
Why fare ye thus fule with yowre frende?
Why peyne yow me and straytly me pynde,      
And I yowr love so derely have bowght?
Why are ye so unstedfast in yor mynde?
Why wrath ye me? I greve yow nowght.
Why wyll ye nott beleve that I have tawght
And forsake yor fowle neclygence,
And kepe my commandementys in yowr thowght,
And unto my Godhed to take credence?
(lines 719–30)
Although; redeemed
behave; foully
torture; severely; constrain

do you anger

The second stanza of Jesus’ speech continues his rapid, and incredulous, questioning in an ababbccccb stanza which, in its pace and insistence, seems to anticipate the kind of interrogational technique employed by the bad cop in crime dramas to confuse and shame the suspect into a tearful confession.

While many of the variations in the play’s rhyme scheme are certainly deliberate, the appearance of several other unique stanzas in the play suggests simple errors in copying. Lines 497–503 show the unique pattern of aaabccb, but given this stanza’s inclusion in a section of the play dominated by the aaabcccb stanza of the Brundich intermezzo, it is hard not to believe that the scribe mistakenly omitted a c-line as he copied. So, too, one could argue that the stanza formed by lines 646–52, with its pattern of ababbcc, is missing its penultimate line rhyming on b. These anomalous stanzas notwithstanding, the competence and subtlety with which the playwright constructs his scenes not only through his diction but by means of the framework upon which he hangs his language is one of the particular marks of his artistry.103

Alliteration serves as another means by which the poet accents his dialogue. Several moments in the play are characterized by conspicuous and virtuoso displays of encyclopedic knowledge that emphasize the epistemological tension everywhere present in this play between what is knowable empirically and what must be taken on faith alone. Following the banns, the play proper opens with paired introductions by Aristorius and Jonathas, each of whom vaunts his mercantile prowess with an encyclopedic and alliterating boast. Lines 95–116 offer an alphabetical and alliterating attestation of foreign lands touched by Aristorius’ business interests which implicitly serve to condemn Aristorius for his over-reliance on bookish learning at the expense of faith:
In Antyoche and in Almayn moch ys my myght.
In Braban and in Brytayn I am full bold.
In Calabre and in Coleyn ther rynge I full ryght.     
(lines 97–99)
Antioch; Alemannia
Brabant; Britain
Calabria, Cologne; move about
And so on. Aristorius’ map-in-verse is paralleled by Jonathas’ catalogue of goods for sale, from “dyamantys derewourthy to dresse [precious diamonds for adornment]” (line 165) to “Clowys, greynis, and gynger grene [cloves, grains of paradise, and green ginger]” (line 181). Rhetorical and encyclopedic excesses imply intellectual pride on the part of the two merchants, Christian and Jewish, who put their own materialistic fantasies of empire ahead of God’s revealed truth. Conspicuous encyclopedism features in the Brundich interlude as well, when Colle announces his master’s competency in treating whoever “hat the canker [cancer], the collyke [colic], or the laxe [diarrhea], / The tercyan, the quartan [varieties of recurring fever], or the brynnyng axs [burning fever]” (lines 612–13). Colle favors repetition or a theme-and-variation structure (e.g., the tertian and quartan fevers) over alliteration at times, but his penchant for listing, coupled with his overt sinfulness, is reminiscent of the speeches that accompany the entrances of Aristorius and Jonathas at the play’s opening. Such stylistic resonances suggest again that the Brundich interlude was originally part of the script and not a later interpolation as has so often been claimed. Throughout the play the dramatist demonstrates his mastery of stylistic variation as a tool for defining his characters and creating effects through parallel speeches (the encyclopedic boasts of Aristorius, Jonathas, and Colle) as well as through contrasting juxtapositions (the low comedy of the Brundich scene and the devotional somberness of Christ’s appearance from the oven) characteristic of place-and-scaffold plays as described by Scherb.

While the identity of the Croxton playwright will likely remain a mystery, we can nevertheless begin to discern the outlines of a biography for this remarkable dramatist. He may have been a monk at Bury St. Edmunds in the 1460s or 1470s and was in any case a member of the clergy who was at ease with Scripture and the liturgy. He may have associated with local merchants who traded in spices and the materials necessary to produce fireworks and other pyrotechnic effects. He was probably familiar with contemporary medical compendia and other kinds of encyclopedias popular in his day and therefore probably had routine access to a significant library, such as the one at Bury. He was a poet of considerable skill who managed effectively to blend high devotion with low physical comedy within the compass of a relatively brief play. He adapted a familiar legend to a new set of cultural circumstances and in doing so created the only known play of its kind to survive from medieval England, a play that recounts not the story of salvation history familiar from biblical pageants nor the struggle of a universalized human soul against the allegorized powers of sin common to the moralities but a miracle that allegedly took place not too long ago nor too far away. And he had an eye for spectacle. He was, in short, a talented playwright who deserves a place among the most accomplished of Middle English writers but whose obscurity seems almost assured in the modern era by his anonymity and above all by his choice of subject matter.


The original script written by the Croxton playwright, whoever he may have been, has apparently been lost. The only surviving copy of the Play of the Sacrament appears on folios 338r–356r of what is now Dublin, Trinity MS F.4.20, catalogue no. 652. Since F.4.20 preserves the only surviving copy of the play, it is impossible to determine the play’s original written form beyond what is contained in this text. This is an important point with regard to claims that the Brundich scene is an interpolation, since there is no textual evidence to support that theory, which has been advanced primarily on stylistic grounds. In any case, the version of the Play of the Sacrament in F.4.20 is a later copy datable by paleographical analysis to the early sixteenth century.104 Nevertheless, the language of the text is mostly consistent with the dialect spoken and written in late medieval East Anglia.105

The paper leaves on which the play was written have been removed from the miscellany of which they once formed a part and are stored separately in a folder. The remainder of F.4.20 consists of widely ranging sixteenth- and seventeenth-century materials: the Declaration of the Government of Ireland, Discovering the Discontents of the Irishry addressed in 1594 to Elizabeth I by Captain Thomas Lee, who was eventually executed for conspiring to harm the queen;106 an Apologia pro se et aliis Catholicis (“Apology for himself and other Catholics”) attributed to Nicholas, bishop of Ferns;107 a genealogy of the English kings and an illustrated history of the popes, both by one William Cambden; Informations exhibited to the Committee on the Fire of London, 1667; poems attributed to a Sir John Davis and others; and a map of Cabra in Ireland and its surrounding area.108 The Croxton play at one time appeared as the sixth item in the book, following the testimony about the Great Fire.109

At first, this may appear to be a rather peculiar assortment of items for a miscellany, but some thematic and even ideological connections are discernible. The manuscript was donated to Trinity College in 1741 by John Stearne, bishop of Clogher in Ireland. Stearne had purchased the manuscript in 1703 following the death of its previous owner, John Madden,110 who had been president of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland since 1694.111 It is possible that the disparate items that now comprise F.4.20 were first compiled into a single volume for Madden. What is almost certain is that the text of the Croxton play circulated independently before it was collected into Madden’s miscellany and brought to Ireland. Folio 338r, the first page of the dramatic script, shows significant wear, especially when compared to the other leaves that make up the three quires containing the Croxton play. This wear is likely the result of that page’s having once been on the outside. What interest the volume’s compiler had in a fifteenth-century play from England about Host desecration, or how he came across a sixteenth-century copy of it some two hundred years or more after its original composition, can only be guessed at, but the other materials in the miscellany suggest an Irish, Catholic owner with an interest in Catholicism’s post-Reformation fortunes in both England and Ireland. The Croxton play, with its championing of the doctrine of transubstantiation, would certainly appeal to a person of such tastes.

No precise date for the composition of the play has been determined, although the attribution of the events recounted in the play to the year 1461 (line 58) provides a terminus post quem. The loss of the original play hinders attempts at more precise dating. That the text of F.4.20 is a copy of a lost exemplar can be inferred from the corrections that appear throughout the text. These corrections are clearly executed by the same scribes responsible for the main text, which suggests that the scribes were working from an exemplar that served as the source for, and also as a check against, their copy.

The text is written in three distinct hands, conventionally identified as A, B, and C. Norman Davis describes A as an initially “neat and careful” secretary hand that rapidly becomes “much looser, and rather sprawling” by the time the scribe has finished his work.112 B similarly employs a secretary hand, one that is nevertheless more careful than A’s. C writes in a noticeably larger Anglicana hand, which Davis describes as “of a type sometimes found in local records of the early sixteenth century.”113 A’s work is interrupted by both B, who con­tributes only about 150 lines, and C, who also finishes the text.114 The initials “R.C.” appear at the bottom of folio 356r, although whether these belong to C and who R.C. might have been are not entirely certain. Recently, however, Tamara Atkin has convincingly demonstrated that the handwritten initials are nearly identical to the professional mark of the printer Robert Copland, known to have produced some twenty books between 1514 and 1548.115 Davis identifies A and B with the early sixteenth century, and suggests that C, who must necessarily have been contemporary with A and B, consequently seems deliberately to imitate the style of an earlier period,116 but he also notes that the language is consistent with forms of English common in the fifteenth century.117 These observations lead to the conclusion that the manuscript contains the work of three sixteenth-century scribes copying a text probably composed in the late fifteenth century.118

The version of the play in F.4.20 is simply presented and generally unadorned. The text is relatively consistent in its inclusion of speech-prefixes indicating which characters speak when, with only minimal omissions, duplications, or misattributions. These prefixes typically appear in the left margin, although those appearing at the tops of pages are usually centered.119 Individual speeches are separated by horizontal lines. Stage directions are also separated by horizontal lines, usually indented, and frequently preceded by a vertical line to the left, resulting in a three-sided box around the directions. Both speech-prefixes and stage directions are regularly highlighted in yellow crayon. T. H. Howard-Hill maintains that F.4.20 reflects the conventions of laying out a playscript common to the period of its copying (the sixteenth century) rather than of its composition (the fifteenth),120 while Tamara Atkin describes the text’s mise-en-page as “a curious mix of manuscript and print conventions.”121


As the only instance in the surviving Middle English dramatic corpus of a nonbiblical, nonmoral play that takes as its subject a contemporary miracle, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament is often cited for its uniqueness. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the fact that it is the only play for which we can document a revival of interest in the centuries since its composition and prior to the era of modern critical editions, and not only in England but also in Ireland. Whatever the reaction he might have expected from his original audience, the dramatist could not have foreseen the long and international afterlife that his play would enjoy. While our best guess locates the date of the play’s composition in the latter decades of the fifteenth century, the extant copy dates probably from some time in the period 1520–40, from a time, that is, when the doctrine of transubstantiation was being debated anew among Protestant reformers and the adherents of what Eamon Duffy has famously labeled “traditional religion.”122 Seth Lerer has observed that the fifteenth-century play would have spoken easily to Tudor “fascinations with display, surveillance, and spectacular judicial punishment” and seemed to anticipate Protestant anxieties over idolatry.123 Michael Jones likewise comments that the play is “both Catholic thesis and Protestant antithesis: a fifteenth-century play thoroughly imbricated with sixteenth-century concerns.”124 Then, at the turn of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth, that same copy found its way into the hands of an Irish antiquarian with interests in Catholic history and doctrine who included it in a miscellany he was assembling. And with the dawning of the era of modern textual scholarship in the nineteenth century, the play, which has been edited no fewer than eight times since 1860, gained still wider audiences.125

For better or for worse, and despite (or perhaps because of) its bloody and polemical content, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament has maintained its power to fascinate and thrill. Nor, sadly, has the play become any less relevant topically, as evidenced by a bizarre Internet phenomenon from 2008. On July 8 of that year, P. Z. Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, published an entry on his personal blog entitled “It’s a Frackin’ Cracker!” in which he commented on a story that had been recently covered by media outlets in Orlando, Florida.126 According to published reports, a student at the University of Central Florida attending Catholic Mass on campus received the Host during Communion but failed to consume it immediately, which prompted a member of the church to approach him following the Mass in order to demand the Host’s return. The student initially refused the request but later returned the Host after allegedly receiving death threats. It was later intimated that the student had taken the Host as a means of protesting student fees that were being used to fund religious activities on the public campus. The incident generated outrage both from Catholic groups,127 who demanded that the taking of the Host be treated as a hate crime, and from secularist defenders of the UCF student. Myers officially joined the fracas by concluding his blog entry with the following request:
So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage . . . but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.

Just wait. Now there’ll be a team of Jesuits assigned to rifle through my mail every day. 128
The response to Myers’ appeal was not trivial. Some forty videos of desecration by a variety of means appeared on the video-sharing website YouTube. Shocked Catholics protested, and on October 1, 2008, the videos were taken down from the site only to be restored again later the very same day.129 Myers, meanwhile, posted photographic evidence of his own act of desecration, committed with a rusty nail against a consecrated Host that was then thrown in the trash with coffee grinds, a banana peel, and pages from both the Qur’an and The God Delusion, a book by avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, in a gesture presumably intended to demonstrate Myers’ self-distancing from any ideology.130

In a peculiar twist, the perpetrators of these ghastly Internet spectacles, in assuming the role of the super-rational and empirically-minded Jew of the Middle Ages, appear to be guilty of what countless innocent Jews were wrongly accused of and for which they were summarily punished and even ruthlessly slaughtered. Ironically, Myers even cites the persecutory force of medieval anti-Semitism as a justification for his condemnation of contemporary Catholic theology:
Declare something cheap, disposable, and common to be imbued with magic by the words of a priest, and the trivial becomes a powerful token to inflame the mob — why, all you have to do is declare a bit of bread to be the most powerful and desirable object in the world, and even if it isn’t, you can pretend that the evil other is scheming to deprive the faithful of it. Now you could invent stories of Jews and witches taking the communion host to torture, to make Jesus suffer even more, and good Catholics would of course rise in horror to defend their salvation. None of the stories were true, of course — Jews and infidels see no power at all in those little crackers, and the idea that they were obsessing over obtaining a non-sacred, powerless, pointless relic is ludicrous — but heck, it’s a cheap excuse to make accusations illustrated by cheesy woodcuts of hook-nosed Jews hammering nails into communion wafers and lurid tales of blood-spurting crackers and hosts that pulsed like and [sic] beating heart, and thereby providing a pretext to encourage massacres.131
Myers’ reading of the Host-abuse legend as an instrument of exclusion and punishment is sensitive to the dynamics of the narrative and to its ideological power, as eloquently described elsewhere by Miri Rubin, and there is no question that medieval Christian communities were guilty of committing truly heinous deeds against the Jews within their midst. But far from rejecting the past, Myers revives it, and in a way that in one important respect exceeds the depravities of the Middle Ages: he and his disciples have perpetrated the very act which medieval Jews likely never carried through and, in choosing to express their rejection of the real presence of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist, have made real what medieval people, like the author of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, could only conceive of in fantasies motivated, as Myers’ own surely are, by fear and misunderstanding.


This text of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament was prepared from Dublin, Trinity College MS F.4.20 and the facsimile edition of the play in Non-Cycle Plays and the Winchester Dialogues: Facsimiles of Plays and Fragments in Various Manuscripts and the Dialogues in Winchester College MS 33, ed. Norman Davis, Medieval Drama Facsimiles 5 (Leeds: University of Leeds, School of English, 1979), pp. 95–131.

The current text adheres to the general conventions of the TEAMS Middle English Text Series.

The Middle English letter thorn (þ) has been replaced by th and yogh (3) by g, gh, or y.
Use of u and v and i and j have been regularized in accord with Modern English practice.
To avoid confusion with the definite article the, the second person pronoun, often spelled the in the manuscript, is regularly printed as thee.
Roman numerals have been replaced with their Middle English equivalents.
Abbreviations in the manuscript are silently expanded throughout this text.
Punctuation is editorial and follows Modern English usage. Final e that receives syllabic value as a long vowel is marked by an accent (e.g. charité).
Word division has been silently regularized in accord with Modern English practice. E.g., tomorowe (line 321) appears as to morowe in the manuscript, while shal be (line 435) is originally shalbe in the manuscript.
Capitalization follows Modern English practice. Given the subject matter and implicit personifications of the play, I have capitalized words referring to God (including second and third person pronouns), Cross, Rood, Mass, Host, and the sacraments pertaining to the Passion, Crucifixition, and Resurrection.
Latin words and both Latin and English stage directions are printed in italics.
Speakers’ names, spelled inconsistently in the manuscript, are regularized in this text.
All other deviations from the text of Trinity MS F.4.20 are recorded in the textual notes.

The Croxton Play of the Sacrament has previously been edited no fewer than eight times:

Play of the Sacrament: A Middle-English Drama, Edited from a Manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, with a Preface and Glossary. Ed. Whitley Stokes. Publications of the Philological Society. Berlin: Asher, 1862.
Manly, John Matthews, ed., Specimens of the Pre-Shakesperean Drama, with an Introduction, Notes, and a Glossary. 2 vols. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1897–98. 1:239–76.
Waterhouse, Osborn, ed., Non-Cycle Mystery Plays, together with the Croxton Play of the Sacrament and The Pride of Life. EETS e.s. 104. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909. Pp. 54–87.
Adams, Joseph Quincy, ed., Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama from Its Origin down to Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924. Pp. 243–62.
Davis, Norman, ed., Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments. EETS s.s. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. 58–89.
Coldewey, John C., ed., Early English Drama: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993. Pp. 274–305.
Bevington, David, ed., Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Pp. 754–88.
Walker, Greg, ed., Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Pp. 213–33.

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