Article

York Corpus Christi Plays

Clifford Davidson

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0103
York Corpus Christi Plays

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
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As an extended sequence of dramatizations of salvation history played on pageant carriages, the York Corpus Christi plays set out to make visible to audiences the principal events from the fall of Lucifer and the creation of the cosmos to the end of time and the Last Judgment. Deeply implicated with the visual piety of the late Middle Ages, their purpose was not in the main didactic (that is, to teach doctrine) but to stage these events for establishing collective memory and for encouraging devotion and the improvement of behavior. They were bound up with the city’s reputation as England’s “second city” and were markers of civic and guild identity. Evidence for York’s civic Corpus Christi plays in the final quarter of the 14th century appears in records of pageant houses for wagon stages and of stations for viewing assigned to various citizens along a route that would be used for the plays from the late 14th century until their suppression under Protestant pressure in 1569. Their early history, however, is not entirely clear, since only in 1415 was the Ordo paginarum, a list of the plays and their contents, drawn up for the use of the city corporation that sponsored them. Each play or pageant was given a guild assignment with responsibility for its staging more or less annually, with the Creed play, the text of which is not extant, eventually being presented at intervals as an alternative. Neither guild assignments nor play texts in the Creation to Doom cycle remained static between 1415 and the date of the extant manuscript, British Library MS. 35,290, dated 1463–1477. Except for a few later additions to this manuscript, it is representative of the cycle at the time when it was prepared as the official “register” to be kept by the city’s corporation. The register contains forty-seven plays, some of which suffer from lacunae in the manuscript. They represent an incredibly ambitious and expensive undertaking by the civic authorities and the guilds that could only have been maintained by the enthusiasm of those who were involved, albeit inevitably there were complaints when individual guilds found them to be a burden in times of economic decline. Written in differing verse forms, including some that appear in the long alliterative line familiar from Piers Plowman, the plays have come to be recognized as having not only considerable literary value but also very substantial worth as scripts for the stage. They also comprise the only fully extant English play cycle recognized as specifically written for the feast of Corpus Christi, and hence are unique in that respect.

Article.  12315 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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