Medieval Writing
Drama (2)
Passion Plays had been performed in Italy, France and Switzerland during the 13th century, partly in Latin and partly in the vernacular. The Corpus Christi Plays set the Passion within the whole of time, starting with the Creation and ending with the Last Judgement. It was an edited version, of course, but it could still take all day, or even several. Episodes from the Old Testament were selected which were seen to prefigure events of the New Testament. For example, Noah's flood prefigures the Last Judgement. Such schemes were also followed in many forms of medieval art, which drew a great deal of its expression from the staging of these plays.
Noah's ark
Noah's ark in a stained glass window in Lincoln cathedral. Models of the ark were built for the plays.
A website from Cambridge Medieval Imaginations: literature and visual culture in the middle ages provides a database of images linking episodes from the mystery plays with medieval works of art in various media.
Last Judgement
A Last Judgement scene on a tympanum of Rheims Cathedral.
The grand climax of the play was an enactment of the Last Judgement. This theme was depictedly prominently in medieval church art in places where the laity could see them, notably carved on the tympana of the portals in major French churches. In England, the scene was painted all over the chancel arch of parish churches. It all provided something to think about!
Depictions of an illuminated French mystère manuscript, Mystère dou Jour dou Jugement in the Besançon Municipal Library, are shown on the Dscriptorium web site.
The Corpus Christi plays are often referred to as the Mystery Plays, the origin of the name being a bit of a mystery itself. One explanation which applies to the English plays, that they were put on by the town craft guilds and that it refers to the mysteries, or skills, of the crafts, does not hold up as the French plays were also referred to as Mystères, and they were not generally conducted by craft guilds. In France, Italy and Spain special guilds or societies were generally set up for the purpose of organising the plays.
Brief histories of the Mystery Plays can be found on The Medieval Drama, which is from an article of 1912 by Branden Matthews.
The complexity of the plays and their method of production varied from place to place. Even the timing could change as some were performed at times other than the feast of Corpus Christi. They all had in common that they were performed in the vernacular, by members of the laity, outside the church. An elaborate procession announcing the event was mounted some weeks beforehand, getting the populace into a state of eager anticipation. In Continental Europe the heart of a town, with its marketplaces and buildings, could be taken over as the acting arena. The creation of an imaginary, theatrical space within a real space seems to have been a notable characteristic of the plays.
Valenciennes Passion Play
Depiction of the acting area of a performance of a Passion Play at Valenciennes in 1547, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Click on image for a larger version.
In the above example, Paradise is located on top of a pavilion on the left, while the mouth of Hell spews demons from a building on the right. A pond with a boat in it is labelled as the sea, while various other structures, including what appear to be the town gates, are labelled as the Temple, Nazareth, Jerusalem and other significant places in the play.
The performance could consist of a long series, or cycle, of plays which covered the whole range of subject matter, or a simpler subset. Plays could be performed in a special purpose acting space, or on temporary platforms arranged in an existing space. In Cornwall they were performed in special circular enclosures called, imaginatively, rounds, two of which still survive. This drops a hint of possible re-use of ancient amphitheatres or monuments. In relation to the English plays, the greatest elaboration came in the form of the great cycles, performed by the craft guilds of major towns, and in some cases performed on elaborate pageant wagons which trundled through the streets from dawn to dusk with each set of actors repeatedly performing their segment at different locations through the town.
portable stage A depiction of an improvised stage, from a copy of a miniature in a manuscript in the library at Cambrai. (Then printed in an old French textbook and scanned in by me. This is getting to be like manuscript transmission itself!)
Survival of actual manuscripts of these plays is relatively sparse. The effective suppression of the plays at the Reformation undoubtedly had much to do with it, but it seems that they were not squirrelled away by collectors, as were more highly valued manuscripts. Perhaps, unlike the French example referred to above, they were not produced in fancy illuminated codices, but existed as scruffy working documents which did not attract collectors. That certainly seems to be the case with surviving manuscripts.
The York Doomsday Project represents a research project on the 15th century York cycle of plays and their social and religious context. A couple of images of manuscripts from the fragmentary Coventry plays are shown on their web site. Background material on these plays can be found in the introductions to printed editions, such as P. Happé 1975 English Mystery Plays Harmondsworth: Penguin or A.C. Cawley 1956 Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays London: J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd, or in a whole library of specialised publications.
Only four complete English cycles survive: those of York in one manuscript, Chester in five very late antiquarian copies, the Towneley cycle from Wakefield in one copy and a cycle from an unidentified place in the East Midlands known, inaccurately, as the Ludus Coventriae, or the N-town cycle, in one manuscript. Some other individual plays survive in manuscript form. However, other documentary evidence or individual plays indicate that cycles were performed in Aberdeen, Bath, Beverley, Bristol, Brome, Canterbury, Coventry , Dublin, Ipswich, Leicester, Lincoln, London, Newcastle, Northampton, Norwich and Worcester. The surviving plays show a complex pattern of shared and borrowed work between them, but so many pieces of the jigsaw are missing that it is impossible to work out the patterns.


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