By the thirteenth century, drama began to move gradually into the vernacular, and plays were performed outside the church. At the beginning, both Latin and the vernacular were used side by side. The earliest English documents are the twelfth century Anglo-Norman Ordo representacionis Adae , with the prophecies in Latin and in Norman French, which were probably played to French audiences, and the so-called Shrewsbury Fragments a fifteenth century manuscript with a text dating from the late thirteenth to the early fifteenth century, with the role of one shepherd and the third Mary in English.
Although clerical objections are frequently given as an important reason for the development of the vernacular drama, critics such as Karl Young, E. K. Chambers, and A. P. Rossiter see such prohibitions as directed more toward secular drama. The most famous of these clerical prohibitions was made by Robert Grosseteste, chancellor of the University of Oxford and bishop of Lincoln, who in 1244 called on clerics to end participation in miracle plays and mystery plays (Mystery plays, or mysteries, dramatized biblical stories and apocryphal narratives featuring biblical figures; miracle plays, or miracles, as the name implies, centered on miraculous incidents, frequently presented as episodes in the lives of well-known saints or martyrs.) Grosseteste’s main thrust, however, seems to have been against May games and other forms of popular entertainment. A book titled Manuel des Pechiez (c. 1300), by William of Wadington, translated into English verse by Robert Mannyng and titled Handlyng Synne (1303), approved reverent religious drama and verse but condemned outdoor mysteries and miracles.
By the thirteenth century, few of the faithful understood Latin, so that the transition to the vernacular was natural and appropriate. The elaborate ceremonies made an outdoor presentation more appropriate than an indoor one, and some roles were more suited to secular actors than clerical. The development of a truly vernacular English theater was hampered in its early stages by the fact that many educated people spoke French, whereas English dialects were the language of ordinary people. By the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, however, a vernacular tradition had been firmly established.
The first English mystery play extant is a thirteenth century dialogue called The Harrowing of Hell inferior to similar contemporary French manuscripts, it is written in a rather primitive thirteenth century East Midland dialect. The play portrays a wily, bargaining Satan and ends with the overthrow of his power—a very popular theme in the liturgical drama of the Middle Ages. There are few records of English vernacular plays on the great Christmas and Easter cycles, but from the existing manuscripts one can infer that their development was similar to that of vernacular drama on the Continent. Records tell of an Easter play performed about 1220 outside a Beverley minster, in a churchyard, and even include details of a “miracle” strikingly similar to that described in Acts, chapter 20: A child who fell from a window while watching the play, it is alleged, was miraculously unhurt.
In the South of England, the Passion play was very popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as it was in France. At Christmas in 1378, the minor clergy of Saint Paul’s presented The History of the Old Testament; in 1384, a mystery play at Skinner’s Well, lasting five days, told how “God created Heaven and Earth out of nothing, and how he created Adam and so on to the Day of Judgement.” It is not known whether these plays were associated with the Corpus Christi and with the performances of the trade guilds. Records indicate that London had its Corpus Christi procession and that the guilds marched in order of preference.
The institution of the Corpus Christi procession in the second quarter of the fourteenth century had a great impact on the mystery plays Another important factor was the so-called Northern Passion, a simple poem in Northern English, translated from French, that told the story of Christ’s public life, Passion, death, and burial. It seems to have been very popular, particularly influencing the York-Towneley cycle of plays. A poetic translation of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus into Northern English was also very popular and influenced the various mystery plays. One of the best-known episodes is the Harrowing of Hell, present in almost every cycle and generally providing the occasion for the most dramatic creativity. In fact, such vernacular sources seem to have had greater influence on the English plays than did Latin documents.
The great English mystery plays were popular for about 250 years, from the beginning of the fourteenth until slightly after the middle of the sixteenth century. At first, the mysteries were little more than translations or paraphrases of the Latin liturgical dramas, written in simple meters or stanzas. Among the most popular verse forms were octosyllabic couplets and quatrains, not always regular in rhyme or in the number of metric feet to the line. Some plays, such as those in the Chester Cycle use the eight-line ballad stanza. As the mystery plays developed, they increasingly deviated from the Latin originals, adding apocryphal, legendary, and folk characters, much like the plays on the Continent, as well as humorous and popular elements.
The most famous English mystery plays center on the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi. The Corpus Christi cyclemay have been established in Chester as early as 1327-1328, although according to Chambers and others, this date is questionable, because no further mention of the celebration occurs until about a century later. The pageants consisted of cycles of plays performed by the various guilds in competition with one another; each guild was assigned a play related to the craft or trade of its members, so that bakers performed the Last Supper at Beverley, Chester, and York; cooks performed the Harrowing of Hell (Beverley and Chester), supposedly because of their tolerance for fire; watermen reenacted the flood; and so on. Because this was an event that included the entire town, the plays were given outdoors, with the players and their scenes transported on wagons to a given station, in the street or the public square, where the audience assembled to view them.
Although the origin of such plays at the festival of Corpus Christi has provoked much controversy among scholars, it is generally acknowledged that they fit logically into this feast. As a celebration of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi points to the origin of liturgical drama in the ceremony of the Mass. Aside from symbolic considerations, late springtime was the logical season for such performances in England’s damp, cold climate; indeed, the Corpus Christi cycles seem to have been a phenomenon of northern Europe, while in southern Europe such pageants were more likely to take place during Holy Week, culminating in Christ’s Passion.
Although records of the Corpus Christi plays are plentiful, mainly from the documents and account books of the guilds, few cycles have been preserved completely. There are only four complete extant cycles: the Chester Cycle ; the York Cycle , first mentioned in 1387, and which may be the oldest if the Chester date of 1327-1328 is not accurate; the Wakefield Cycle , of about 1425-1450; and the N-town Cycle also known as the Ludus Coventriae), the origin of which has not been established. There are also fragments of cycles from Norwich, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Coventry. Independent plays, which have not been proved to be parts of the Corpus Christi cycle, include Abraham and Isaac, the Digby plays, a mid-fifteenth century Burial and Resurrection (preserved in Bodleian manuscript), and the fifteenth century Croxton Play of the Sacrament. From these plays, one can infer something of the scope and nature of religious drama in medieval England.
The city of Chester was independent and prosperous from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Its guilds showed pride in their successful business skills, yet they remained unspoiled by modernity. Accordingly, their plays remain among the simplest and the most religious of the period. The plays in the Chester Cycle were enacted in heavy vehicles that traveled from one station to another. There were twenty-four pageants in the series, and two sets of banns, or public announcements, of which only five are extant.
Among the surviving cycles, the Chester Cycle bears the greatest resemblance to the French mystery plays. Abraham and Melchisedek, though popular in the French plays, is found in England only in the Chester Cycle. Octavian and the Sybil also resembles the French plays. Other plays unique to the Chester Cycle are The Woman Taken in Adultery, The Healing of the Blind Man at Siloam, and Christ in the House of Simon the Leper. Although most of the plays show great fidelity to Scripture, the treatment of Lucifer in the first play of the cycle, like many other contemporary accounts, goes well beyond the biblical text. The fourth play of the cycle, Abraham and Isaac, is noteworthy for its dramatic development, while the seventh play, an Adoration of the Shepherds titled The Shepherds’ Offering, has a degree of complexity evident nowhere else in the cycles. The latter features a clownish figure, the shepherd Gartius, who, though introducing humor, does not interrupt the reverent atmosphere of the cycle. The plays on the ministry and the Passion of Christ are very different from the others in their simplicity and lack of adornment. The Chester plays persisted until after 1570 and are best preserved in a late sixteenth century manuscript.
The York and Wakefield Cycles are linked in various ways that suggest a special relationship not found between other cycles. They are both preserved in incomplete manuscripts, in the dialect of fifteenth century Yorkshire.
The manuscript of the York Cycle is clearer and gives a fuller picture of its place of origin. York was the center of the earliest British Christianity and the birthplace of Alcuin, who brought scholarship to Charlemagne’s empire through his palace school. By 1415, the period of the city’s greatest growth and expansion, York was large and rich, with numerous trading companies. The York manuscript contains forty-eight plays, all of them quite short, although there seem to have been fifty-one in the complete cycle, according to a list prepared and signed in 1415 by Roger Burton, city clerk of York; a later list includes fifty-seven plays. Documents from 1399 and...