The York Corpus Christi Play and the Role of the Craft Guilds

Seminar Paper, 2013

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The York Corpus Christi Play
2.1. The Text and Other Sources
2.2. Content and Mode of Performance

3. The Role of the Trade and Craft Guilds
3.1. Trade and Craft Guilds in the Middle Ages
3.2. Craft Guilds and the York Corpus Christi Cycle
3.2.1. Responsibilities
3.2.2. Financing

4. Conclusions and Summary

5. Bibliography

6. Appendix: List of Plays and Responsible Guilds


In the late Middle Ages, so called 'mystery plays' enjoyed great popularity in a number of English towns and especially in those of the north. Many of these plays were grouped into greater cycles among which the cycle of York, commonly known as the "York Mystery Plays", is the best preserved, and presumably one of the oldest, largest and most elaborate ones as well. Its forty-seven constituent plays are concerned with Christian belief and sacred history, a circumstance reflected in the collection's authentic title - the Corpus Christi play. It is interesting that the term 'mystery plays', an invention of the 18th century, does not only point to the content of the cycle, as the alternative expression 'miracle plays' does. The term simultaneously addresses those associations of people that were responsible for the cycle's staging: the trade and craft guilds of a town. Based on the archaic meaning of the word, denoting a "handicraft or trade" (OED), it was occasionally referred to these guilds as 'mysteries' as well (see Beadle 2009, xvf.). In the case of the dramatic cycle of York, each discreet play was assigned to one (or in some cases two) of the town's 'mysteries' or guilds.

This paper aims at investigating the role these guilds played in the organisation, the funding and the staging of the cycle. It can be argued that aside from their more obvious economic and social functions, the medieval trade and craft guilds also had a cultural function in the narrow meaning of the term. Further can be argued that the Corpus Christi cycle was not only a cultural and a ritual event, but that it had an important social (and perhaps even an economic) function for the city of York and the communal life of its inhabitants. In fact, it might be this interplay of various fields of life and thought that can explain how the cycle could survive in the form of an annual performance for a period as long as two hundred years, and why it came into being as well as disappeared not randomly but at certain moments in history. Looking upon the play as a civic rather than an ecclesiastical affair, this work shall investigate the cycle's link with the economic history of York and the organisational development of the trade and craft guilds.

For this purpose, this paper shall commence with a short general description of the cycle: The primary text, other surviving sources, its link to the liturgical feast of the same name, and its extraordinary mode of performance will be outlined briefly. Before narrowing the focus to the specific role of the trade and craft guilds, chapter 3 will provide an introduction to the medieval guild associations. Their history as well as their economic and social functions shall be considered. Eventually, their part in the organisation of the Corpus Christi cycle will be discussed in some detail: The way they were assigned to the cycle and its individual plays, the responsibilities that arose from this, and, in a separate subchapter, the aspects of funding in particular. The final chapter will summarise these observations and simultaneously provide an assessment of the above mentioned arguments.



Mystery or miracle plays, as well as whole cycles of them, existed in various parts of Europe and in England in particular. Besides the cycle of York, worth mentioning is the cycle of Chester, further the 'Towneley' manuscript, probably connected to Wakefield, and the so called 'N-Town' manuscript from East Anglia. The former existence of a number of other cycles is known through documentary references or from surviving fragments (see Beadle 2009, ix). As mentioned before, the term 'mystery play' is in fact a later invention. In their own day those cycles were known as Corpus Christi plays in northern England, and in the case of York in particular it was usually referred to its cycle by way of the singular, as the Corpus Christi play. Richard Beadle argues that the singular "embodies the recognition that the cycle was intended to be seen as a coherent and unified work of art, a spiritual statement of a communal belief in God's relationship to man" (ib., x). Be that as it may, the York cycle is constituted of nearly fifty individual and fairly self-contained plays which are known as 'pageants'. The earliest source documenting the existence of at least some of them dates back to the year 1376, whereas the last recorded performance of the cycle took place in 1569. During this period of almost two-hundred years it was performed annually, presumably with almost no interruptions.

Today's primary source of information on the York Mystery Plays is a manuscript probably written between 1463 and 1477 and known as the 'Register'. It is a large volume, measuring 11 inches by 8 inches, and consisting of 268 leaves of parchment (see Beadle 2009, xiv). Being the city's official record of the content of the cycle, it was compiled from copies of 47 individual plays, which were known as the 'originals' and held by the city's trade and craft guilds for the purposes of rehearsal and performance (see ib.). Many pages of the manuscript exhibit later annotations, reflecting where the plays have been revised, or even completely rewritten, in the course of one hundred years of performances that followed the compilation of the Register. In addition to the 47 plays included in this manuscript, it is known "through documentary references in the civic archives of York" (ib., xiii) that at least three more plays must have existed at some point of the cycle's active lifespan. All those individual plays, or pageants, vary considerably in length and style, indicating that they were composed by a wide range of authors. The manuscript, by contrast, is "nearly all in the handwriting of a single unidentified scribe" (ib., xiv). Play III, however, is included twice: one copy is in the hand of the main scribe, the second copy in that of a minor contributor. Both versions were copied from the same original, but a thorough analysis of a number of differences between the two reveals that the main scribe had already modified the plays' original Yorkshire dialect of the 14th and 15th centuries "in the direction of the south-east Midland and London dialect, which eventually made the principal contribution to the development of modern standard English" (ib., xxix).

The most important source on the history of the plays prior to the compilation of the Register is the 'A/Y Memorandum Book' in the civic archives of York. It contains a document called the 'Ordo Paginarum', i.e. 'The Order of the Pageants' (see ib., xiv). This document was compiled by the Town Clerk in 1415 and presents a list of guilds and very brief descriptions of the content of their respective plays. From this list can be concluded that the shape and scope of the cycle was rather stable from at least 1415 onwards. Some differences between the 1415 list and the Register, compiled about fifty years later, can be seen, as for instance some plays having been reassigned to other guilds (see ib., xv) - a matter to be discussed in more detail in chapter 3.2 of this paper. Concerning the still earlier history and the origins of the cycle, it is much more difficult to make definite statements. The earliest evidence is a document from 1376, mentioning "the storage of three Corpus Christi pageant wagons" (ib.; more about these wagons in the next chapter). However, this does not tell how much of the entire cycle was already in existence at that time nor from when the earliest parts originate. It is known, however, that the celebration of Corpus Christi day became popular in England in the early 14th century. However, as no direct link is known between the meaning of this day and the specific tradition of performing a play (see ib., x; cf. also ch. 2.2 of this paper), this information does not reveal anything definitive about the very origins of the cycle either.

Something that does give important hints, though - and which shall be discussed in more detail in chapter three - is the economic development of the city of York. The city had come to great prosperity "in the second half of the fourteenth century, after the Black Death of 1349, when the city stood second only to London in terms of national importance and wealth" (Beadle 2009, ix). The fact that the earliest written evidence on the cycle springs from the same period indicates that its origination might have been connected to the economic development of the city. This assumption is supported by the fact that the performance, organisation and financing of the cycle depended on the city's trade and craft guilds, i.e. groups with economic power. Likewise does the decline and end of the performances in the later 16th century correlate with the economic decline of York during that same period (cf. ib., ix). However, the "rapid rise and spread of the extremer forms of Protestantism" (ib.) has certainly contributed to the end of the performances too. For instance is known that those plays near the end of the cycle, which tell about the later life of the Virgin Mary, were suppressed in 1548 (ib., xiv). This ecclesiastical influence on the cycle ran contrary to one of its characteristics, namely that - although performed on a Christian feast day and depicting sacred history - it was primarily a civic enterprise.


It has already been mentioned that although split in some fifty individual parts, the cycle was meant to be perceived as one unified whole, and effectively encompassed the audience with sacred history. Its purpose was to tell the story of mankind from a (medieval) Christian perspective. Richard Beadle and Pamela King summarise the scope of the content as follows:

The essential episodes were the Creation of the world and of man, man's deception by the Devil, resulting in the Fall and the expulsion from Paradise, and his Redemption through the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. In addition, all the extant cycles proceeded beyond Christ's work of Redemption on earth and also treated an event of the future: Christ's second coming at the Last Judgement.

Beadle and King 2009, xi

Accordingly, the cycle was an extensive work of literature. In its surviving form, i.e. the 47 plays included in the Register, it requires 300 speaking parts alone, and comprises about 14.000 lines of text. Modern calculations indicate that a complete performance must have lasted about twenty hours. It is known that the performances began at 4:30 in the morning and thus might have ended only after midnight. This circumstance might have been among the more practical reasons why the cycle was performed precisely on Corpus Christi day: This day, a holiday, could fall on any date between 23 May and 24 June - meaning it was close to the longest day of the year and thus provided sufficient daylight for a performance as long as twenty hours, as well as it came with a fairly high probability of good weather, surely advantageous for an outdoor event. Beadle concludes that "it became in effect the Church's midsummer festival, coinciding with the obvious and traditional period for outdoor celebrations and observances of any kind, whether religious or secular or, of course, pre- Christian" (2009, x).

Matters of daylight and weather lead over to the question in what manner a dramatic composition of such extend could be meaningfully performed. In fact, each of the individual plays or pageants assigned to one particular guild of York was being performed on a so called 'pageant-wagon'. Those wagons moved through the city in a great procession, while stopping at a number of stations, preferably twelve. While the exact positions of these stations could change from year to year1, the traditionally established route along which the pageant-wagons moved remained the same. This remarkable way of presentation in the form of a procession might have been inspired by the ecclesiastical procession "in which the laity and clergy followed a vessel carrying the Sacred Host around the streets of the town" (ib.), but at least since the time recorded it was an entirely separate event that "moved according to its own timetable and route around the city" (King, 11).

This mode of performance made it possible that up to twelve plays could be performed in parallel and implied that each play was probably performed twelve times in the course of one day. By the use of a number of stations all inhabitants of York could see the entire play without the need of an enormous stage or square, while parallel performances of course saved time and made it possible that every play (or at least all those performed in one particular year, as not always were all plays staged; more about this later) could be performed at each station. A couple of inevitable disadvantages arose from this arrangement though: The space for performance on the moveable wagons was of course very limited, even though the street near the wagon was possibly incorporated as the area where unlocalized action could take place (see Beadle 2009, xxii). All the properties and decorations further had to be transportable, while the wagons, drawn by men and not by animals, needed to be small enough to be moved through the narrow streets of York. At any rate, all pageant-wagons were designed specifically for the purpose of the Corpus Christi play. They were not being used for other activities throughout the year, and a considerable proportion of the information on both the wagons and the cycle in general in fact originates from records on how they were stored throughout the rest of the year. It appears that this was a matter of some significance.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to dive into poetic aspects or the literary quality of the text, or into the performances as such, e.g. the manner of acting or the sort of clothing common in medieval theatre. From now the focus shall turn to the question how an undertaking of this size was being organised and financed. In both these matters, the crucial role was played by the city's trade and craft guilds.



Before delineating the role of the guilds for the organisation of the York Corpus Christi performances, it will be useful to give a brief overview of the function, the history and the scope of influence of guilds in general. With respect to the York Mystery Plays, it is often spoken of "trade and craft guilds" (cf. e.g. King 2006), or sometimes of "craft guilds" only (cf. e.g. Beadle 1982 & 2009), although the latter convention is somewhat inexact as among the guilds involved there were traders' guilds as well, as for instance mercers, woolbrokers and drapers. When the term 'guild' will be used in the following chapters of this paper, it is meant to refer to both trade and craft guilds, unless indicated otherwise, but not to various other associations of people that sometimes where known as guilds likewise. This is because in its most general form, any "association of people who share some common characteristic and pursue some common purpose" can be called a guild, as Sheilagh Ogilvie points out (2011, 19). She lists that these characteristics could be religion, nationality, cultural interests, political convictions and others, but that the commonest of all was occupation. Among the different sectors of medieval economy, guilds were "least prevalent in the primary sector", even though some guilds of farmers, gardeners, shepherds, etc. did exist, and "most prevalent in industrial occupations, with a majority of urban craftsmen and even many rural proto- industrial workers forming guilds" (ib.). They existed in tertiary production as well, as for instance among musicians, artists or chimney sweeps, but the most important of the "tertiary- sector guilds were formed by merchants" (ib.).


1 They "were let by the city to the highest bidder, who was then presumably in a position to charge the audience for seating and refreshments during the long performance" (Beadle 2009, xvii).

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The York Corpus Christi Play and the Role of the Craft Guilds
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
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York Mystery Plays, York cycle, mystery plays, miracle plays, Middle Ages, Corpus Christi play, York, guilds, mysteries, trade and craft guilds, England, Christian drama, medieval theatre, theatre, Mysterienspiel, Handwerksgilden, merchant guilds, mittelalterliches Theater, Theater im Mittelalter, Spätmittelalter, Late Middle Ages, Christentum, Fronleichnam, christlicher Glaube im Mittelalter, biblische Geschichten, Corpus Christi
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Sylvio Konkol (Author), 2013, The York Corpus Christi Play and the Role of the Craft Guilds, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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