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Sacred Blood and the Late Medieval Stage Clifford Davidson The Wycliffite Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge alleges that the late medieval religious stage, specifically "miraclis pleyinge," is a vehicle by which audiences see "veine sightis of degyse."1 While this allegation reflects the opinion of a hostile witness, the terms that he uses serve to identify precisely the visual nature of the late medieval religious drama. To be sure, the writer in his polemic mixes secular entertainment with sacred drama and thus is able to insist upon the ability of such theatrical spectacle to stir "to leccherie and debatís" and to other vices.2 'Degyse,' referring to costumes, masks, and other aspects of disguise taken on by actors, and 'sightis' are both terms which confirm Pamela Sheingorn 's insistence on medieval drama as essentially one of the visual arts of the Middle Ages.3 The terms also seem to be consistent with Graham Runnalls' argument, referring to the great French mystery plays, that "the medieval theatre was a place where the spectacle was considered to be more important than the text."4 In contrast to the early medieval rejection of verisimilitude and specific detail in the depiction of religious scenes, late medieval art and drama tended to be both very precise and realistic in the representation of the Passion and the martyrdom of saints.5 The spectacle, because it has not been preserved for us except in descriptions in texts, stage directions, and theatrical records, is of primary concern for investigation at the same time that it is most elusive. One of the primary hermeneutic problems in need of exploration in this drama therefore involves how we are to visualize the scenes presented on the medieval stage and how we are to understand their visual dimension. While the study of fixed pictures and sculpture—e.g., wall paintings, stained glass, alabaster carvings—may illuminate this study, the late medieval stage must not be understood as static. It is clear that the effects produced by the producers and actors of the vernacular 436 Clifford Davidson437 religious drama would hardly have been rigidly presented or lifeless. Indeed, all the evidence seems to point to decidedly effective theatrical presentation, designed often, as is consistent with the insistence on identification with the Passion of Christ and with the popular appeal of veneration of martyr saints, to bring the individual viewer to an emotional response to the events being depicted.6 The audience response to religious drama in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries would be difficult if not impossible to replicate today. While the encouragement of strong identification with the suffering Christ in plays of the Passion resulted in the presentation of a character who would appear to be beaten until wounded from his head to his feet, the response of a modern audience to such a realistic scene is likely to be one of revulsion rather than sympathy at the sight of blood that is represented as Christ's. A recent incident in a parade in a small American town may serve to verify this point. According to an Associated Press story, a local church sponsored "a bloody Jesus wearing a bloodstained robe dragging a cross before whip-wielding Roman soldiers " in the Railroad Days parade at Durand, Michigan. Complaints were registered with the parade committee, and it was emphatically decided that "This type of parade entry will not be permitted in our future . . . parades."7 The scene of a wounded Christ carrying the cross was seen as offensive, and certainly was not viewed as conducive to devotion by the spectators who saw it and complained. The stage blood and the torturers were apparently seen as inappropriate violence, hardly reflecting the sacrificial act of a Savior whose blood thus is to be apprehended as ritually pure.8 In contrast, late medieval spirituality accepted Christ's blood as pure because of his sinlessness. Joseph of Arimathea thus exclaims concerning the Crucifixion in the Bodley Burial ofChrist: O innocent bloode, Most of vertue, most graciose and gude, This day stremyt owt lik a floode. . . . (24-26)9 In this scene the Virgin Mary is unable to touch her Son because the cross is "so high...


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pp. 436-458
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