York Mystery Plays

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Delma Tomlin Personal Folder : Professor Barrie Dobson article

Item type: Delma Tomlin Personal Folder
Archive reference: YMP/O/1/6
Date/year: 2002, 2011
Description: A formal article by Professor Barrie Dobson entitled: 'York finds its soul? The Revival of the Corpus Christi Plays in June 1951.'  Filed as YMP/J/5.  Professor Dobson is a noted academic, a Professor of History formerly at the University of York, and a Fellow of the British Academy.  He has written often about the history of York.
Here is a link to the archive entry about relevant books held at the NCEM.
Below is text from the authoritative Victoria County History about the Plays.

The most notable contribution of the crafts to the religious life of the city was their participation in the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi. The earliest detailed account of the plays which were performed by the crafts on this occasion was compiled by that indefatigable antiquary, Roger Burton, in 1415.  It lists 51 plays, though the surviving text of them, dating from c. 1430 - 40 with emendations reaching down to the 16th century, contains only 48. But the celebration of the feast with pageants was already well established in 1376, and the earliest elements in the plays may date from about 1350 or even earlier and utilize materials from still older plays which are known to have been performed in York in the 13th century. In the course of time, naturally, there were many changes both in the plays and the celebration of the feast. The crafts found the burden a heavy one, and some plays were amalgamated and became a joint responsibility for more than one guild.  Basically, however, the cycle continued to constitute what Burton called it, 'a representation of the Old and New Testaments',  played at some dozen stations between Holy Trinity, Micklegate, and Pavement.  The pageants were at first associated with a procession of the civic dignitaries and some of the crafts to the minster and St. Leonard's Hospital. As a result of disputes between carpenters and cordwainers during the procession in 1419, however, and under the influence of Friar William Melton,verbi Dei famosissimus predicator, the city authorities ordained that in future the plays would take place on Corpus Christi Eve, so that the feast day could be kept free for the procession and church-going, undisturbed by carousing and junketing.  In the event the plays continued to be performed on Corpus Christi Day, the procession being postponed to its morrow; but there was still rioting in the course of it between weavers and cordwainers in 1490 and 1492.

The Corpus Christi plays were not the only ones performed in the city. There was a Paternoster play and a guild responsible for it which attracted the attention of Wyclif in 1384. Responsibility for the Paternoster play eventually passed to St. Anthony's guild; and when the latter was unable to perform it in 1495 it was replaced by a Creed play, the text of which had been bequeathed to the Corpus Christi guild in 1446 and which was performed by that guild in every tenth year about Lammastide.  Furthermore, improvised but none the less impressive pageants were devised for special occasions like Richard III's visit in 1483 or Henry VII's in 1486. 

The Corpus Christi plays indicate the broader context in which we have to set the guilds of later medieval York; but they were also burdensome to the craftsman, who had to pay pageant-silver to maintain them. They aggravated, therefore, those financial grievances of which much is heard at the end of the Middle Ages and which were the more serious because prosperity was deserting the city crafts.

Ref: The later middle ages: Craft Organisation and the Guilds, in A History of the County of York: the City of York (P. M. Tillott ed., 1961) pp 91-97. (also known as Victoria County History.) Accessed via www.british-history.ac.uk, 29 November 2011. Footnotes not here included.


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