English Mystery Cycle Dramas Overviews

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

E. K. Chambers (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Medieval Drama," in English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, 1945. Reprint by Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1947, pp. 1-65.

[In the following excerpt, Chambers summarizes the background of the miracle plays, discussing performance season and location; the literary, ecclesiastical, and cultural sources used; the use of humor in the plays; the history of written records of the dramas; and their literary merit.]

Miracle plays are traceable during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in some forty English localities, predominantly perhaps in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Others can be added from sixteenth-century documents. They were known also in Scotland, and at Dublin in Ireland, which was much under the influence of English customs. The fact that most of the surviving texts represent performances of a particular type has perhaps rather obscured the variety of organization which the records disclose. It is probable that, when the plays were detached from the liturgy, the financial responsibility was often taken over from the established clergy by some of those religious and social gilds which contributed so largely to the development of medieval public life. In London this arrangement seems to have prevailed to the end. Here a gild of St. Nicholas, composed of parish clerks, gave performances, possibly with the assistance of boys from the cathedral school of St. Paul's, in the open at Skinners Well, near Clerkenwell in the suburbs. The plays are first noticed in 1300, when the Abbess of Clerkenwell complained to the king of the damage done to her fields and crops by the crowds who attended the 'miracles', as well as the wrestling bouts which the citizens were accustomed to hold in the same locality. The plays, however, continued. Stow says that they were given annually. The chroniclers record elaborate performances in various years from 1384 to 1508, lasting from four to seven days, and covering the whole span from the Creation to the day of Judgement. In 1508, however, they seem to have been given near St. Paul's. They took place in summer, twice at least on a day dedicated to St. John Baptist. London, however, had also, as in the days of William Fitzstephen, saints' plays. There was one on St. Catherine in 1393, and others at St. Margaret's Church, Southwark, on the feasts of St. Margaret and St. Lucy, in the fifteenth century. Outside London, SS. George, Thomas of Canterbury, Laurence, Dionysius, Susanna, Clara, and no doubt many others, were similarly commemorated. Some of these plays seem still to have been given in churches, and others are recorded in churchwardens' accounts well into the sixteenth century. Presumably, however, they were now detached from the liturgy, and the sacred edifice merely served to shelter them. At Hedon, in Yorkshire, in 1391, we find the town chamberlain making a payment to Master William Reef and his companions for playing on Epiphany morning in the Chapel of St. Augustine. Probably these companions were a gild. There are occasional notices also of plays in a gild hall, or by schoolboys at the manorhouse of some person of local importance. But in the main miracle plays were an out-of-doors affair. Many of the small religious and social gilds disappeared during the Black Death, and by the fifteenth century the control of the plays, in the larger towns outside London, seems generally to have passed to the local governing body, itself often in some aspects by origin a gild of the merchant gild type. At Norwich, however, the gild of St. Luke remained responsible for the plays at least to 1527. Many of the performances seem to have been occasional only, given in the market-place or in some convenient 'croft' or 'stead'. At Aberdeen they were on Windmill Hill; at Lincoln in the cathedral close. More interesting, from the literary point of view, is the emergence of a type of play which was not stationary but ambulatory, taking the...

(The entire section is 23,654 words.)