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Medieval Drama: Myths of Evolution, Pageant Wagons, and (lack of) Entertainment Value

Carolyn Coulson-Grigsby

Probably the most pervasive misconception about medieval drama is that it originated as an extension of Latin church services, that these liturgical dramas gradually grew in length and production size to the point that they had to move outside to the church steps, and that once outdoor production began, civic authorities naturally became involved as productions became more complex and involved the laity. Besides this long-debunked evolutionary theory, other misconceptions include the beliefs that the great urban "cycle" plays were the normal and ubiquitous form of drama, that all such biblical plays were alike in form and content and were performed on traveling wagons, and that medieval drama, especially the morality play, was merely a dramatized sermon (and therefore boring). On the contrary, recent scholarship and productions have revealed that some cycles were performed in a fixed platform area and did not move in procession, that there is distinct regional variety between plays which ostensibly treat the same subject, and that many of the medieval plays are funny, moving and highly entertaining.

Any discussion of misconceptions about medieval drama must begin with a treatment of the evolutionary theory, which was most effectively promulgated by E.K. Chambers and Karl Young. When Karl Young compiled his magisterial two-volume collection, The Drama of the Medieval Church, published in 1933, he organized his materials so that they demonstrated an evolution of form, from the simplest, shortest version of a dramatic interlude to the most complex, longest play that treated the same subject. In doing so, Young preferred to assume that forms always move from simple to complex, regardless of the fact that some very complex drama exists in very early manuscripts, while some of the simplest pieces exist in late manuscripts. He wiped dates aside with the assumption that simple, late plays were merely copies of early forms, and in some cases, Young slyly included an early, complex play with its counterparts from a hundred years later. For example, by all accounts, the Freising Officium Stellae is the most "ambitiously conceived and executed" form of the Christmas play of the three Magi’s encounter with Herod the Great. It is preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript, yet Young grouped the play with Magi plays from the twelfth century and cited it as a culmination. Rather, the Freising Stellae play demonstrates that some of the earliest church drama could feature complex characterization and form, which writers of later liturgical drama might ignore in preference to a simpler version.

Young did not spend much time on the vernacular plays performed outside of the church, but E.K. Chambers, in his The Mediaeval Stage, originally published in 1903, brought the evolutionary-anthropological model to the vernacular drama, especially to its relationship to the Latin church drama and to folk ceremonies. After presenting chapters on Minstrelsy and Folk Drama, Chambers moves on to Religious Drama. Crucial to the misconception his work promulgated is his chapter on "The Secularization of the Plays," which begins:

The evolution of the liturgical play described in the last two chapters may be fairly held to have been complete about the middle of the thirteenth century. The condition of any further advance was that the play should cease to be liturgic. The following hundred years are a transition period. During their course the newly-shaped drama underwent a process which, within the limits imposed by the fact that its subject-matter remained essentially religious, may be called secularization. (Chambers II 69; my italics)

Chambers follows this assertion with the statement to which too many anthologies and introductory textbooks have clung: "Out of the hands of the clergy in their naves and choirs, [the drama] had passed to those of the laity in their market-places and guild-halls" (Chambers, II 69). The troubles with this statement are many. To begin, the vast cycle plays of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries cannot be seen as unilaterally having fallen out of the hands of clerical writers. Secondly, although we know that some urban drama was performed in conjunction with guild organizations, we can no longer assume that what held true in York or Chester can be applied to other towns. Finally, in the late Middle Ages, church drama did not cease to exist. Rather, it continued as an extension of the Mass which is inherently theatrical.

Both Young and Chambers are to be credited with the collection of vast amounts of manuscript materials. However, their shared mental framework, based on the evolutionary model so prevalent during the times in which they wrote, informed their books pervasively, and this evolutionary model left an indelible mark on the study of medieval drama, even after later scholars, notably O.B. Hardison, pointed out the flaws in Chambers’ and Young’s assumptions. While studies have pointed to sermons, the visual arts, and folk rituals as the roots of cycle plays, today’s scholars seem to agree that the precise genesis of vernacular civic drama is, and will most likely remain, a mystery. In the comments that follow, I will focus on the drama of medieval England, although the misconceptions I outline here are to a certain extent applicable to continental drama as well.

A number of misconceptions about the medieval drama derive from one large one: that there are only two types of drama in the Middle Ages — cycle plays and morality plays — and that within each genre, there is little variation. This assumption is exacerbated by the repeated anthologizing of Everyman and the Towneley Second Shepherds’ Play, to the exclusion of any other examples of medieval drama. The Second Shepherds’ Play is introduced as an example of the cycle pageant, and Everyman is introduced as an example of the morality play. A number of forms are ignored, such as the Saints’ Play, pageants for royal entries, mummings and disguisings, interludes, late medieval liturgical drama, and other non-cycle religious plays.

Further, the presentation to students of the Second Shepherds’ Play and/or Everyman in isolation inherently, yet falsely, suggests that all the pageants are like the Second Shepherds’ Play and all the moralities are like Everyman. However, neither play is representative of its genre. The so-called morality plays from England are so diverse in their styles that no one of them can really be used to represent the genre (and Everyman is generally believed to be a translation from the Dutch Elckerlijc, and therefore not an English play at all), and the Second Shepherd’s Play is singled out for its unique qualities more than for its representation of a typical cycle play.

For many years, biblical cycle plays (sometimes referred to as Corpus Christi plays or, more archaically, as "mysteries") were considered to be analogous, and the four different English cycles were treated as interchangeable. Students who were venturing beyond the ubiquitous Second Shepherds’ Play would be assigned to read the "best" version of each different pageant, rather than an entire cycle. Recent scholarship on medieval drama, however, has persistently queried old assumptions about the interchangeability of the cycles, and we now have critical discussions about the particular concerns, theology, and aesthetics of specific cycles. For example, the Chester cycle, in contrast to the York cycle which has many different authors, is acknowledged to be the work of one playwright and exhibits a unified theological message which stresses the trinity and Christ’s divinity. Also, because of manuscript evidence, scholars of the Chester cycle can trace changes to the cycle over time. The N-Town cycle from the region of East Anglia has been shown by scholars such as Gail McMurray Gibson to exhibit traits typical of that region’s devotional traditions.

Perhaps the most pervasive branch of the misconception that all the cycles were alike is the assumption that all such drama was performed by guilds on pageant wagons which traveled around a city on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The York cycle in England was indeed performed by guilds on wagons which repeatedly performed their pageants at different stations throughout York on Corpus Christi Day. The manuscript containing the cycle identifies the guilds assigned to each pageant, and we know something about the York pageant wagons from documents like the 1433 Mercers’ Guild inventory, which describes their wagon, props and costumes. Other documentary records provide lists of the stations at which the play could be heard. For many years scholars and students assumed that the staging conventions used at York were used for all cycles. More recent research and attention to the details of manuscript evidence (and lack of it) have revealed that these assumptions cannot be made. Records indicate that the Chester cycle’s mode and date of performance changed over the years during which it was produced, and was, by the sixteenth century, performed processionally over three days at Whitsun, rather than on Corpus Christi Day. The N Town plays, which are themselves an apparent composite of several separate cycles, seem to have been collected for a touring company, rather than for production by a particular city. The three main components of the cycle (the Passion Play, the Proclamation Play, and the Mary Play) all seem to be designed for stationary performance in a "place-and-scaffold" set up. While it seems impossible to prove definitively how the N-Town plays were performed, scholars have come to a general consensus that rules out processional wagon staging.

Admittedly, people whose exposure to medieval drama consists of reading Everyman and nothing else are entitled to cling to the misconception that the medieval morality play is rather like a sermon, and therefore, by some accounts boring. However, should those same people either read or attend a performance of the fifteenth-century English morality play Mankind, they would be astonished to witness the still-effective bawdy and scatological humor of the Vices sharply contrasted with the Latin language and piety of the character of Mercy, not to mention the apparent audience interaction when the hat is passed to collect money before the devil Titivillus can make his entrance. Similarly, The Castle of Perseverance, generally considered the earliest English morality, features a devil with explosives coming out of his buttocks, not usually a feature of a sermon.

Anyone who has attended the recent modern productions of medieval plays has had the pleasure of discovering how entertaining they are. I direct the reader to the commentary which came out of the 1998 productions of the York cycle at the University of Toronto or in York itself. I participated in the Toronto production and was astounded to see children of three and four years of age still thoroughly engaged with the cycle during the Harrowing of Hell, many hours into the processional staging. Children are notoriously honest as audience members, and these ones were honestly enjoying themselves as much as the adults in the audience. While modern staging of medieval dramatic texts certainly predates 1980, the last twenty years have seen a wider acknowledgment of the scholarly value of performing medieval plays. Seeing an entire cycle performed adds to our appreciation for its unique content and staging qualities, and even the most traditional scholars have realized that we can learn much about the experience dramatic productions must have provided for a whole community, including the audience.



On the Evolutionary Theory and its Un-doing:

Chambers, E.K. The Mediaeval Stage. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1903

Craig, Hardin. English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Hardison, Jr., O.B. Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1965.

Karl Young. The Drama of the Medieval Church. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933.

Collections of Essays (fairly recent):

Alford, John A., ed. From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

Beadle, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. (this volume contains excellent bibliographic material divided into different categories)

Briscoe, Marianne and John C. Coldewey, ed. Contexts for Early English Drama, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Davidson, Clifford et al, ed. The Drama in the Middle Ages: Comparative and Critical Essays. New York: AMS Press, 1982.

Cycle Plays, General:

Kahrl, Stanley J. Traditions of Medieval English Drama. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.

Kolve, V.A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1966.

Nelson, Alan H. The Medieval English Stage: Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Prosser, Eleanor. Drama and Religion in the English Mystery Plays: A Re-Evaluation. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1961.

Robinson, J.W. Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1991.

Stevens, Martin. Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.

Art, Sermons, and Popular Religion:

Anderson, M.D. Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Gibson, Gail McMurray. The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Davidson, Clifford. Visualizing the Moral Life: Medieval Iconography and the Macro Morality Plays. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

Owst, G.R. Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England. 2d ed., rev. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1961.

Scheingorn, Pamela. "On Using Medieval Art in the Study of Medieval Drama: an introduction to methodology." Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 22 (1979): 101-109.

Scherb, Victor I. Staging Faith: East Anglian Drama in the Later Middle Ages. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001

Twycross, Meg. "Beyond the Picture Theory: Image and Activity in Medieval Drama." Word and Image 4 (1988): 589-617.

Studies of Individual Cycles:

Davidson, Clifford. From Creation to Doom: The York Cycle of Mystery Plays. New York: AMS Press, 1984.

Gardner, John. The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.

Lumiansky, R.M. and David Mills. The Chester Mystery Cycle: Essays and Documents. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Palmer, Barbara. "’Towneley Plays’ or ‘Wakefield Cycle’ Revisited." Comparative Drama (1988): 318-48.

Stevens, Martin. "Language as Theme in the Wakefield Plays." Speculum 52 (1977): 100-17.

Travis, Peter W. Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982

Morality Plays:

Bevington, David. From Mankind to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Davenport, W.A. Fifteenth-Century English Drama: The Early Moral Plays and Their Literary Relations. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982.

Potter, Robert. The English Morality Play. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.


Davidson, Clifford. Illustrations of the Stage and Acting in England to 1580. Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, 16. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1991.

Meredith, Peter and John E. Tailby, eds. The Staging of Religious Drama in Europe in the Later Middle Ages: Texts and Documents in English Translation. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1983.

Mills, David. Staging the Chester Cycle. Leeds: University of Leeds, School of English, 1985.

Southern, Richard. The Medieval Theatre in the Round. London: Faber, 1957. 2nd ed. 1975.

Documents and Records:

Coletti, Theresa. "Reading REED: History and the Records of Early English Drama." In Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain 1380-1530, ed. Lee Patterson. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1990. 248-84.

Johnston, Alexandra F. "What if No Texts Survived? External Evidence for Early English Drama." In Contexts for Early English Drama, ed. M. Briscoe and J. C. Coldewey. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989. 1-9.

-----. "’All the World Was a Stage’: Records of Early English Drama." In The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama, ed. Eckehard Simon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 117-29

Records of Early English Drama series. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1978


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