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Corpus Christi Plays at York: A Context for Religious Drama by Clifford Davidson (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 572-576 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0041

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English medieval drama, which has come down to us only in a small body of texts, has produced a stunning amount of research into its contexts. Clifford Davidson, who established the EDAM (Early Drama, Art, and Music) Project at the Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University in the 1970s1 (and for a long time was editor of Comparative Drama) is one of the most prominent pioneers of this truly interdisciplinary approach. The very first sentence of the book under review states that the importance of the local context, “in historical time and space” (ix), for the study of the Corpus Christi plays was brought home to him more than forty years ago, on his first visit to St. Michael-le-Belfry near York Minster.

The title modestly promises “a context,” but with equal justice one could distinguish five or six contexts. These do not strictly coincide with the subject matter of one chapter each, but there certainly is a distribution of emphases. Chapter 1 (“York Guilds and the Corpus Christi Plays”) concentrates on the social and administrative context and offers important insights into local conflicts surrounding the production of the pageants. Guilds often pleaded poverty that prevented them from participating. After the Reformation there was also reluctance on the part of individuals, as of the four drapers who refused to support their guild’s Death of the Virgin in 1554. The Corporation of York harshly rebuked this “great encoragyng of suche lyke wilfull persones and disordre in the sayed craftes” (11; after REED York 1:313). The wording suggests that the refusal reflected a more general mood, but it also shows that the Corporation felt strongly about continuing the plays. In 1569, a year after Elizabeth’s succession to the throne, they were banned “under pressure from the ecclesiastical authorities” (16), but “against, apparently, the wishes of most of York’s citizens” (167).

Chapter 2 (“The York Plays and Visual Piety”) concentrates on an aspect of religious mentality and devotes considerable space to the effect of playing out the Passion scenes. While allowing that the spectators were not “necessarily uniformly reverent” (49), Davidson concludes that a Bakhtinian spirit of blasphemous Schadenfreude about Christ’s suffering at the hands of the Torturers is most unlikely. Strong support for this view comes from the antitheatrical, Wycliffite Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, which admits that the Passion plays often move spectators “to compassion and devocion, wepinge bitere teris” (50).

The subject is also touched on in chapter 3 in a section (67–69) called “Blood, Suffering, and Devotion,” and the book returns to it in the final, collaborative chapter. In the main, chapter 3 (“The Color of Devotion”) deals with the painters’ contribution to the overall effect of the pageants; it benefits particularly from Davidson’s earlier work on the material culture of medieval York.

Chapter 4 (“The Pageant Route, the City as Stage, and the Sacred”), which treats the physical context of the pageants, is of special interest in that it touches on the relationship between the Corpus Christi procession and the Corpus Christi play or pageant. The traditional view that the play or plays somehow “evolved” from the procession is almost certainly untenable. In the York records, which are far from providing a complete picture, however, the first mention of the play antedates that of the procession, if only by a year.2 Plays “growing out of ” the procession would have created logistical problems that seem impossible to overcome. As Davidson puts it, “instead of ever having been joined, it is more likely that the pageants and the procession had always been separate” (87). But even this arrangement “would have involved a logistical complication” (87). Even though separate, the two events were initially close enough to collide. According to Margaret Dorrell, members of the Skinners’ guild complained in 1419 that “diversi artifices Carpentariorum et Allutariorum [Cordwainers]” had broken the torches, which they [the Skinners] were carrying for the Corpus Christi procession, beating them with clubs and Carlisle axes, “alia enormia fecerunt in […] impedimentum ludi et processionis Corporis Christi” (71). Dorrell concludes that the procession must have preceded the pageants since, “if the procession had followed the play it seems unlikely that...



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