The Delight of the Masses: A Liturgy, Drama, and Purpose for the English Religion in the Medievel Period


“If a sermon delivered from some authority of the Bible or the Saints, he must preach vigorously in order that his utterance may leave his mouth vigorously and abide in the listener’s heart.”

— Pseudo-Aquinas

“The principal work of the said fraternity is the control of that play for the glory of God.”

— Letter of the Paternoster Guild to the King, 1389.

“She says ‘you may know her body, but you still don’t know her soul.’”

–Bill Mallonee, Pristine, Permafost, 2007.

The sun broke over the edge of Holy Trinity Prior. Corpus Christi broke upon the masses, and the masses had come in response. At the strike of 4:30 am, a gigantic wagon rolled to its mark, the voice of God himself rolled out to the gathered masses:

Ego sum Alpha et nouissimus.

I am gracyus and grete, God withoutyn begynnyng,

I am maker vnmade, all mighte es in me;

I am lyfe and way vnto welth-wynnyng,

I am formaste and fyrste, als I byd sall it be.[1]

For over twenty hours the words and works of this Lord whom is Alpha and Omega would roll on like a mighty flood through the crowded streets of this medieval town in Northern England. Adam, Eve, Noah, and some twenty-odd Christs wandered the streets crying out to the assembled mob. An explosion of sight, sound, and motion until in the glooming dark when the voice of God would once again break through the cacophony:

Nowe is fulfillid all my forthoght,

For endid is all erthely thyng.

All worldly wightis that I haue wroght,

Aftir ther werkis haue nowe wonnyng.

Thei that wolde synne and sessid noght,

Of sorowes sere now schall thei syng,

And thei that mendid thame whils thei moght

Shall belde and bide in my blissing.[2]

What did it mean to see the procession of Gods, Noah, Herods, and Christs? What were the masses thinking and feeling: the priests; the academics; the assembled town leaders and peasants, all of them rubbing shoulders, saints and sinners together in one accord, in a teeming mass of humanity? The York Mystery Cycle has stood as often contentious piece of work both loved and hated by its admirers and detractors. In the dynamism of its provenance and communication, the work reveals the dynamic heart of a particular body of medieval people. An analysis of the origins, works, and the debates they inspired led the scholar or a layperson to a unique understanding of the medieval world which might be missed by focus on the tightly worded works of Scholasticism which was flourishing at this same time.

An Unusual Origin in the Sepulcher

Much ink has been spilled arguing the origin and start of the drama which played out each Corpus Christi in York; however, all involved, despite their views one way or another, feel inclined to mention and point to a curious blend of liturgy and something else which began appearing in both English and West European parishes as early as the ninth and tenth centuries. The centerpiece and seemingly quintessential can be found in the so-called Quem-Quaeritis Trope. This piece of something came to be included in many of the liturgies of the church, both English and Continental. The first recorded mention of this liturgical move can be found in the Regularis Concordia Monachorum, credited most often to Æthelwold, the Bishop of Winchester, a piece of writing meant to be used as an appendix to Benedict’s Rule. The work cannot be precisely dated but is said to have been written sometime between 965 and 975. In discussion of the Easter celebration, the following moves were discussed. After the tenebrae and stripping of the altar on Good Friday, a monk would enter, kiss the cross, prostrate himself before it, and then carry it a structure sitting to the side of the altar which was to made to look like the sepulcher. This sepulcher would be guarded by a series of men throughout the weekend. Before the morning service,[3] the cross was removed. At the highpoint of the Easter service three monks would enter the sanctuary and wander around as if ‘looking for something he had misplaced.’ At which time they would approach a monk holding a Palm branch sitting in front of the ‘tomb.’ The writer told us that this was done “in representation of the angel sitting within the tomb and of the women who came with spices to anoint the body of Jesus.”[4] The following interaction[5] would occur:

Question: [of the Angels]: Whom seek ye in the Sepulchre, O Followers of Christ

Answer [of the Marys]: Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified, O Celestial Ones

The Angels: He is not here; he is risen just as he foretold

Go announce that he is risen from the sepulchre

In this interplay would reveal that the sepulcher no longer held the cross (which had been placed there in full view, but removed in secret). The writer then gave this instruction, “when they see this let them set down the thuribles that they have carried within that same sepulcher, and take up the cloth and hold it up before the clergy… as if in testimony that the Lord has risen and is not wrapped within.”[6] At this the matins begin, and so did a ‘new’ phase in religious thought and action.

Whether or not this should be rightly called ‘drama’ is, of course, much debatable. Adding fuel to the fire has been the fact that much of the liturgy was and always has been highly visceral and touchable. If the work had stayed at this level, then perhaps this would only be another novelty among the novelties of the liturgy. Yet the succeeding years would yield a large number of works upon this theme which would expand the action in all directions: more ‘acting,’ more dialogue, and broader content. In his work detailing the varied pieces of dramatic work prior to Shakespeare, Joseph Quincy Adams recorded five other variations on this trope. The earliest of these a few lines in a manuscript from the ninth century (a century before the Concordia), and the latest thought to have been recorded in fourteenth century for use at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Dublin. To read all of these variations in sequence revealed striking extrapolation and variation. The Irish version contained striking denunciations of the “vile race of Jews,” while the French version (thirteenth century) added an entire character giving both lines and a scene to Mary Magdalene. Most intriguing may be the notes taken by a cleric who had been assigned to play the third wayfarer in this drama. The lines themselves are no different than any other, but the words are most curious as they are not Latin but English. From this evidence it appears that for at least one local parish this ‘play’ within the liturgy was being ‘performed’ in the vernacular. Which may be one of the few times pre-Vatican II that a Roman Catholic congregation got at least a hint of their own language in the liturgy itself. One cannot escape the fact that in such a production the actions of the liturgy come alive and discernable to all involved in such a ceremony. There was no need for understanding Latin to understand and see the meaning behind these acts, and that was to be precisely the point if one takes Æthelwold at his word.

An Explosion of Sight and Sound Taken into the Streets

From a sepulcher formed in general outline by altar books, the drama of the liturgy became a regular production with ever-more elaborate sets, lines, and costumes. The sepulcher set became a part of the sanctuary in many places, and other dramas arose in other places of the liturgy, including a Quarm Quarentis involving shepherds and the Christ-child. To many the growth of dramas outside the church seems a natural progression. Clarence Childs has argued that “the cause of this change was not as often supposed, so much the fact that the plays began to include non-religious elements of a character indecorous for presence within the church. The real reason was the necessity for more room both for the representations and the audience.”[7]

If one can consider the locale of England and its natural climate and spacing of seasons, one can immediately see a problem with holding a large outdoor event in the middle of March or April. Here perhaps is one of those ‘happy accidents’ of history. Just as the liturgical drama was begging for space, the celebration of Corpus Christi was being instituted. Early celebrations of the mass had included a processional in which the priests carried the ‘host’ through the city stopping along the way for ritualistic pronouncements. Though its original connection has been lost in the historical record, any historian with a somewhat active imagination might be able to discern the ‘genius’ in attaching the needs and creating a new beast: the Mystery Cycle which began flourishing (fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus).[8]

Four complete cycles are known to the modern historian (York, Chester, Wakefield and the Ludus Coventrice). York and Wakefield have found the most discussion within scholarship with the Wakefield seen as more highly religious and York as more indigenousness.[9] This cycle contained 48 plays, the shortest of which is that of Creation (10 minutes) and the longest of which is that of Noah (40 minutes), and was staged in one day at anywhere from 12 to 16 stations[10] along a parade route stretching in a sickle pattern from Holy Trinity Priority at the Micklegate to All Saints Pavement at Castlegate. Amazingly the set-up of the route was such that each of the stations was out of the visual field of the other; although not necessarily outside of earshot.[11]

This was an enormous undertaking including 14,000 lines of Middle English Stazaic verse (of which we have 13,500 lines), 300 speaking parts, and a much larger (though uncountable) number of bit players representing demons, angels, and the like. Rather quickly an ingenious solution to the need for finances and manpower was hit upon. Each of the cities trade guilds took on the responsibility for the production of one piece. All this made for a grand spectacle making this one large and extended “party one could drop into and out of at will.”[12] It is no wonder that Beadle can boast of no known modern equivalent of this annual undertaking which would most probably tax even the largest Hollywood studio.

In York for 20 hours in some place within the city a play was going. Tywcross wrote that “by the time the Barkers had finished at the last stage, the Spicers would be playing the Annunciation at the first stage, and the whole of the route would be alive with the Old Testament. To precede forward in historical time, you would only have to walk briskly from the pavement back along the route.”[13] This made for a lot of overlap and a lot of the biblical (as well as apocryphal) stories to be told in full detail and from many different vantage points. In fact almost 22 different actors would take the role of Christ allowing “less danger of identification of the role with any one star actor” in this way the medieval ideal that the “image does not become but representation the personification” of what it relates.[14] This overlap was also helpful for representing a fuller understanding of any one theme of scripture. For instance take the sequence of the last plays in the cycle. If one were to watch the ending of the drama, one would see the playing out of Christ’s redemption from the viewpoint of Christ (The Death of Christ), the cosmic scale (The Harrowing of Hell / Doomsday or Judgment), a macro-historical scale (The Resurrection), and the scale of the individual soul (Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene / Doomsday or Judgment). In describing how another of the cycles deftly interweaved typologies of bread and water into multiple Old Testament and New Testament plays, Walter Meyers stated that the “manipulation of two separate types, held apart until when they could at once be revealed and skillfully united” worked such that “no erudition- not even literacy- would have been needed by an audience to perceive” the theology being taught by these plays. The fact that such types as bread and water were being brandied about on the celebration of the host could not have escaped attention either, or was all of this lost in the grand wonder and spectacle of it all?

An Uncertain Place within the Canons of English Drama

The answers to the questions just above and in the opening section have seemed as murky to us ‘moderns’ as it may have been to these vary participants. Alexandra Johnston wrote that “the three hundred years of [this] dramatic activity in Great Britain from the thirteenth to sixteenth century are bounded on either end by prohibitions so alike that one feels one is moving into the world beyond mirror.”[15] One of the later editors of one of these cyclic dramas would record the following in his introduction to his edition: “We have cause to power out oure prayers before god that neither wee nor oure posterities after us maye never see the like Abomination of Desolation, with suche a clowde of Ignorance to defile with so highe a hand the most sacred scriptures.”[16] The mixed feelings extended to its later interpreters. A.P. Rossiter, who spent much of his life working to translate and expound upon the significance of the works, defined these works as such: “a ritual of defamation sometimes reaching an adumbration of the undermining negation which threaten all human values and response, regulation, and veneration.”[17] Likewise the historian and friend of drama Katharine Lee Bates has described the historical provenance of these works in this way: “After the mental coma produced by the shock of the barbarian invasions, after the blank of the Dark Ages, Europe, leaving science in the main to the Arabians, was content for a few centuries to busy herself in re-sharpening her dulled intellect…. But meanwhile sensation, not reason, ruled high and low alike.”[18] One might be tempted to reflect that with friends like these, the field of English Drama may not need any enemies.

A strange thing happened on the way to certainty of opinion. Towards the middle of the twentieth century a handful of scholars and actors got it in their head to actually see what these dramas might actually look like, and began attempting to stage re-creations of the events.[19] In a heartbeat views changed and new ideas about the purpose and place of these and other religious dramas of the time have experienced a renaissance.

Whether one holds to the view of Bates that these streetwise dramas represented a rebellion against a cold orthodoxy[20], or that of John Coldewey that the dramas represented an outgrowth of economic prosperity and a means of enforcing local solidarity,[21] the plays cry out to be understood as a vibrant if troubling attempt to understand the Word-Made-Human, the coming of the Word of God to the streets of York just as He had to the streets of Jerusalem. Beadle has argued that “the rise of vernacular drama could scarcely have taken place without the vital shift in spiritual sensibility that gave prominence to Christ’s assumption of human form, an emphasis found as early as St Anselm’s treatise on the Incarnation.”[22] Or perhaps one might hear in these ‘living dramas,’ as one essayist has called them, an unique response to St John of Damascus’ call to reveal Jesus Christ triumphant and surrounded by his army “so that those who saw them might offer veneration and worship to God.”[23] Richard Beadle, one of the foremost modern interpreters of this work, has stated in his introduction to a volume of essays on medieval drama stating that “these powerful, didactic genres took their rise as one element in a systematic campaign on the part of the Church to instruct the laity, in their own language, rather than in the Latin of the clergy or the Anglo-Norman French of the Nobility, as to the essential features of the faith.”[24]

In light of this, the question of why these plays were both so widespread in use for long, and why they came to be seen differently during the reforms of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer et al. In discussing an attempt to revise the work for a more ‘modern’ audience:

“the Banns revisor does not simply asset that the plays do not contain —— ; rather he at times distinguishes those plays that have scriptural authority from those that do not …. He also defends others by saying that some authorities warrant them. He seems to think that certain apocryphal or invented stories can instruct if they are not strictly true…. It might be understood not so much as a defense against the charge that the plays are non-scriptural and thus untrue.”[25]

It might be argued that these plays faced the same argumentation against, and problems of the iconic movement within Medieval England. They stood as an elaborate contextualization of the faith: one that was an enormously vital to the period in which it exist: one that was increasingly prone to overuse and misuse because of provenance; and one that in light of the printing revolution, the Reformation’s emphasis on sola scriptura, and the existence of new-found vernacular scriptures became obsolete and therefore a distant charichature of its former glory. Regardless of perhaps in light of argument, one is led to agree with Alexandra Johnston these dramas, apart from being monstrous deformities of medieval provenance, stood as “the lynchpin binding the medieval world,” and as a “glass through which we can glimpse, however darkly, a vanished yet vital world.”[26] In this understanding the medieval world comes alive not as a comatose vacuum but as a world of imagination and mystery, joy and sorrow commingling upon the streets of the villages and towns.


[1] Anonymous, The York Plays, Play One: Creation. Trans. Richard Beadle. Full-Text Available on-line at http://www.hti.umich.edu/c/cme/.

[2] Anonymous, The York Plays, Play Forty-Seven: Judgment. Trans. Richard Beadle. Full-Text Available on-line at http://www.hti.umich.edu/c/cme/.

[3] Or in later times the end of day Matins.

[4] Anonymous. “The English Quen Quaeritis from the Regularis Concordia Monachorum.” The Second Shepherd’s Play, Everyman, and Other Early Plays.” Trans. Clarence Griffin Childs. New York: Houghton MifflinCo.: 5-6.

[5] In Latin, of course, but here translated to English for understanding of his readers by Joseph Quncy Adams in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas from Its Origin Down to Shakepeare. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 3.

[6] Ibid, 6.

[7] Childs, xvii.

[8] The English institution of Corpus Christi, and the first known cycle stand within a decade of each other. Another interesting correlation is the end of the most severe outbreak of the Plague in this same decade. All three events, it has been, argued might have created a “perfect storm” of sorts in which a theological premise, a logistical problem, and an economic impetus all came together to beget the Mystery Cycle.

[9] Perhaps for that reason, it has also been the York Cycle which has seen modern productions.

[10] Play one would start at station one, then move to station two for a second presentation as play two started at station two, and so it would go until all 48 plays played on all 12 to 16 stations.

[11] Which might explain one person’s description of the Tiletatchers’ play as “Mary, Joseph, a midwife, the newborn laying in a manager… and an angel speaking to the shepherd and players in the following pageant.”

[12] Meg Twycross. “The Theatricality of medieval English Plays.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theater. Ed. Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 44.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Twycross, 42.

[15] Alexandra Johnston. “What If No Texts Survived? External Evidence for Early English Drama.” Contexts for Early English Drama. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 3.

[16] Rogers Brevary. As quoted by Lawrence Copper in “Lay and Clerical on Civic Civic Religious Drama and Ceremony.” Contexts for Early English Drama. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 108.

[17] As quoted by Peter Happe. “A Guide to Criticism of Medeival English Theater.” Contexts for Early English Drama. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 258.

[18] Katherine Lee Bates.

[19] The high point of this work came in 1992 as a group staged a four play, four station recreation of the York Cycle on those same streets. Information about, reaction to, and pictures of the event can be found online at http://www.yorkstories.fsnet.co.uk/york_mystery_plays_2002/index.htm.

[20] See her strange and off-putting comparison of this drama to that of a mature robin killing its parent in the introduction of her above work.

[21] See his essay “Some Economic Aspects of the Medieval Play” in the previously cited Contexts.

[22] Beadle, 19.

[23] St John of Damascus. “Treatise One. Three Treatises on the Divine Images.” Trans. Andrew Louth. Crestwood, NY: St Vladmir’s Press, 32.

[24] Richard Beadle, Preface to The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theater. Ed. Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, xiii.

[25] Copper, 108.

[26] Johnston, 13.

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