By John McKinnell (University of Durham)
Early Theatre: A Journal Associated with the Records of Early English Drama, Vol.3:1 (2000)
Abstract: This article considers some physical aspects of the medieval pageant wagons used for the York Cycle. Many modern reconstructions have assumed that the pageants played side-on, but this view rests on assumptions derived from modern theatre, medieval two-dimensional art, or the demands of the open campus locations where many modern performances have taken place. Comparative European evidence (drawings of early ommegang wagons, and surviving Spanish pageant wagons) suggests pageants designed as three-dimensional pieces of street architecture, transpicuous wherever possible, and aligned toward the front or the rear. The narrowness of York’s streets and practical experiments in 1988 and 1992 at some of the most popular medieval performance places strongly support this model; side-on performance in these places makes it impossible for much of the audience to see the pageants and would sometimes involve placing the property of the stationholder backstage, from where no view would be possible. Medieval pageants were probably higher than most of those used today, with wagon decks five to six feet from ground level and any upper storeys at least eight feet above the lower ones. Large pageants like the Mercers’ Doomsday need a total functional height of over twenty feet, excluding spires, pinnacles, etc.; and even this looks modest beside some drawings of ommegang wagons. The larger wagons used a good deal of machinery; study of one type of machine, the functional lift, suggests that it needed grooved pillars, pulleys and a drum winch. Such a machine could be more safely and effectively mounted on an end-facing wagon than a side-facing one. The York wagons were technologically and artistically ambitious, and our modern efforts have yet to match their inventiveness or their flamboyant magnificence.