The Significance of the Eucharist Scenes in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament
Medieval English Studies, vol 9. (2001) No. 2
Over the years much of the critical attention given to the Croxton Play of the Sacrament was merely for its historical significance, typically as a “rare specimen of the early drama” (Brook, 29). That a crucial textual error was corrected only in 1970 with the publication of Norman Davis’ Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments is witness to the fact that this play has not enjoyed much attention, let alone much critical acclaim (lxxi).1) This 15th-century dramatization of a legend that concerns the abuse of the Host by a group of Jews who buy a sacramental wafer from a Christian merchant is, to begin with, difficult to categorize. Although usually listed under “saints’ play,” the absence of a saint in a supposed saints’ play mandates an awkward apology which precedes many of the discussions.2) Those who tried to evaluate its artistic or dramatic significance rarely had positive things to say.3) The consensus seems to be that the sensational events of the play, namely the torture scene, are so gory and excessive that they verge on being farcical, and the intentional comic scene of the quack-doctor episode is irrelevant or very loosely-tied at best.4) Recent critics who attempted to shed more favorable light on this work have been busy addressing and making excuses mainly for the objects of these complaints, the violent scenes of torture and the “tiny folk play inserted in the main story” which “accomplishes nothing” as has been asserted by a well-known critic (Craig 326-7). Unfortunately, not much critical effort has been made so far to read this play as a whole in any favorable light. Few critics have even vouched for a thematic coherence, much less an artistic integrity of the work.
In this paper, I would like to propose a reading of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament according to well-known structural schemes of medieval sermons. The proceedings of the solemn procession at the end and the bishop’s speeches lead me to believe that this play may have been written by someone who is familiar with liturgical ritual and preaching. Moreover, by recognizing the echoes of the Eucharist in important scenes other than in the highlighted scene of desecration of the Host by the Jews and the climactic singing of O sacrarum convivium at the end, namely in the quack-doctor scene, I would like to propose a reading much more coherent than hitherto has been acknowledged.