- The York Mystery Cycle and the Worship of the City
The text of the York mystery cycle has been much studied, with the surviving late fifteenth-century script and the associated documentary evidence scoured for information on the staging of the pageants. This approach has been fruitful, with the scholarly results and a series of performances on wagons since 1975 constantly informing one another. But, as Pamela King reminds us, the surviving text is not prescriptive. As essentially the record of performances between the 1460s and the 1570s, it took account of what the readers already knew and therefore did not attempt to answer some of our most urgent questions. For this reason the time is ripe for a new approach to the cycle.
Professor King's starting point is the relationship between text and audience, with the written text seen as an evolving record of performances that were never precisely fixed. While the cycle is usually regarded as a series of dramatizations of biblical narratives, she notes that the subject matter is more closely related to the pattern of readings in the liturgy of York Use. In an age when lay people did not—could not—read the Bible, they gained a knowledge of scripture from their "lay patterns and experiences of worship." For urban laypeople, she argues,"the liturgy provided the skeleton of all their communal religious experience, the pattern of their calendar, and their focus on the different biblical texts which go to make up the Christian narrative" (p. 5).The ensuing exploration focuses on the summer feast of Corpus Christi, with its showing-forth of the living body of Christ in the community.
This approach both informs previous work on the cycle and explains much that was not entirely clear before, shedding light on the choice of episodes in the biblical narrative and offering new insights into the relationships between them. The observable discrepancies between biblical chronology and liturgical order can be seen to create some anomalies in the ordering of the cycle. King therefore discusses the pageants in groups, according to the liturgical year. This allows her to deal with pageants using related liturgical material, including material that is not, at first sight, relevant to the biblical episode concerned. [End Page 355] Moreover, examination of the liturgical source sometimes shows why nonbiblical material is included in the pageants.
How much of this would a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century audience understand? Not a great deal,perhaps,at a conscious level. Yet,over a lifetime of hearing the liturgy and attending performances of the York cycle, connections would be made, ideas and narratives recognized, and the main theological background to popular worship understood and accepted. A modern audience may be in more difficulty, often lacking the worshiping experience to understand its messages at a deeper level and therefore concentrating on the narrative alone. But this thoughtful and enlightening book will help any audience to a fuller appreciation of the cycle and its individual pageants, and it should be required reading for those intending to produce performances.
This book won the 2007 David Bevington Prize from the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society. King writes clearly and engagingly in presenting some difficult ideas, and the production is handsome (as we have come to expect from this publisher), with printing from the author's own excellent camera-ready copy and one vital color illustration (repeated on the cover). A list of the York plays at the start of the book would have been useful,but is not vital. [End Page 356]