The Body of Christ: Sacred Street Theater in Medieval England

The Body of Christ: Sacred Street Theater in Medieval England

By James Williford

Humanities, Volume 33, Number 4 (July/August 2012)

Introduction: Doomsday, 1433. In York, after dark. A red curtain. Painted stars. Actors in hoses, wigs, and two-faced masks—some in angel wings, some with trumpets. Wooden clouds and pieces of rainbow, and an iron frame with pulleys meant to effect Christ’s movements between Heaven and Earth. a “hell mouth” billowing smoke and the smell of sulfur. Even a host of tiny puppet angels, set running about the firmament by means of rollers and a bit of twine.

And in the midst of all this pomp and technology, God the Son, wearing a crown and golden mask, Holy Wounds gaping, enters from above:

This woffull worlde is brought till ende,
Mi Fadir of hevene he woll (wills that) it be;
Therfore till erthe nowe will I wende,
Miselve to sitte in magesté.
To deme my domes (issue my judgments) I woll descende,
This body will I bere with me,
Howe it was dight (put to suffering), mannes mys (man’s sins) to mende.
All mankynde there schall it see.

“Obviously,” says Clifford Davidson, “it was intended to be a big flash. Everything builds up to the Last Judgment.”

That’s right: Everything.

Davidson, professor of English and medieval studies emeritus at Western Michigan University (WMU), is referring to the York Corpus Christi Cycle in toto, a daylong theatrical celebration of the eucharist, held on the seventh Thursday after Easter, that almost every year, from 1377 to 1569, wound through the narrow streets of England’s then northern capital, presenting its audiences with nothing less than a staged vision of the sacred history of the world—all of it, from the pre-Creation Fall of Lucifer to the Savior’s final sifting of the faithful from faithless at the end of time. As many as forty-six plays, amounting to more than thirteen thousand lines of verse, may have preceded the performance of the Doomsday play. Together they hit most of the highlights of the Christian canon and apocrypha. There was The Creation of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, The Temptation in the Wilderness, The Coronation of the Virgin, and so on—each mounted on a wagon, known as a “pageant,” and hauled about the city, stopping at anywhere from ten to sixteen predetermined and municipally approved performance stations. According to a contemporaneous document, the entire affair began “at the mydhowre betwix iiijth and vth of the cloke in the mornyng,” and, though its exact duration is debated among scholars, it almost certainly lasted well into the night.

Click here to read this article from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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