By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
In many cities throughout northern Europe, medieval guilds cooperated in welcoming distinguished visitors with elaborate parades, triumphal arches, and displays of tableaux vivants. They also collaborated in mounting Passion plays and other dramas in town squares.
The Corpus Christi Play
Perhaps the best-known guild-sponsored theatrical event of medieval Europe took on its own unique form in the English town of York. As there were no open spaces large enough to accommodate the staging of huge spectacles, the guilds of York divided the dramatic history of human salvation into some 50 different episodes. Each of these were staged on a wagon that could be pulled through the city’s narrow streets, stopping at each of a dozen stations to perform that episode.
These episodes came to be known as pageants. The collective production was called a mystery play or ‘the mysteries’, because it was performed by those initiated into the secrets or mysteries of their various métiers, or trades. And because it was performed on Corpus Christi, it was also ‘the play called Corpus Christi’.
Jesus, a Universal Figure
The episodic division of sacred history into individual pageants also meant that there had to be at least two dozen local actors playing Christ, sending the powerful message that Jesus was a universal figure, an everyman, who could take on different guises at different times.
This necessity dramatizes the parable in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus tells his disciples that his Second Coming will be a day of judgment for all souls, when those deemed righteous would be those who gave him food when he was hungry, clothing when he was naked, care when he was sick or imprisoned. For, “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.
Recognizing Jesus in the humanity of every person is what the York pageants demand, and this very parable is central to the final play of the cycle, Judgement Day.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Working-day World of the Guilds
Additionally, dramatizing sacred events against the backdrop of the everyday urban landscape elided the working-day world of the guilds and the world of the Bible, sacralizing the city while showing sacred stories to be real, historical events that had actually taken place. This elision is characteristic of all medieval artistic practices, which did not hold the sacred at arm’s length, at an historical distance, but imagined these events as ever present, always contemporary.
By involving the guilds and the entire community in the performance of the cycle over the course of one long summer day, beginning at dawn and ending at night, the people of York also truly enacted the message of Corpus Christi—that the Body of Christ is made up of all people, laymen as well as clerics, de-emphasizing the hierarchical nature of the Roman Church.
Moreover, the plays also dignified every kind of labor, from the messy business of skinning and tanning hides to the making of gilded dinnerware or fine clothing. Indeed, the plays were distributed among the guilds so as to show each craft to its best advantage, and to provide opportunities for advertisement and product placement.
Using the Stories of Sacred History
According to surviving play scripts and other documentation, the Creation was performed by the Plasterers, who molded and painted the heavens and the earth:
The armourers provided the flaming sword for the expulsion;
the shipwrights built the ark for Noah;
the fishmongers stocked the seas for the flood;
the tilers provided the stable roof for the nativity;
the chandlers (candlemakers) furnished the brightly-shining star that astonished the shepherds, the goldsmiths brought the gifts of the magi;
the barbers made John the Baptist’s hair shirt, and also offered an example of poor grooming which their arts could correct;
the vintners brought the wine for the miracle at Cana;
the pinners (nail makers) and painters collaborated on the nails and blood for the Crucifixion, while the carpenters built the set for the entombment of Jesus.
Finally, the plays of the York cycle constantly use the stories of sacred history as a vehicle for tackling socioeconomic injustice and political corruption in their community. Herod and Pilate are held up as evil and ineffectual rulers. The high priests, dressed as Christian bishops, exemplify the hypocrisy of high-ranking clerics. When Joseph hears that his betrothed, Mary, has conceived a child prior to their wedding, he comes terrifyingly close to domestic abuse, until an angel intervenes to stop him—sending the message that abuse is wrong and can happen to anyone, even the Blessed Virgin.
In many plays, working-class performers were able to elevate themselves and their professions by participating in the year’s most important civic event, taking on identities and appearances that they could not perform in their daily lives.
Scholars have posited that the ‘rude mechanicals’ of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are parodies of the guild-affiliated actors whose performances the playwright had witnessed as a boy, but whose plays were gradually being outlawed and eradicated by the Protestant government of Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare also has his own amateur impresario, Hamlet, worn against acting that ‘out-Herods’ the Herod of guild plays.
But in many ways, Shakespeare was a medieval dramatist who carried forward the traditions and the commitment to social critique which had been pioneered by professional guilds and organized labor for centuries, and which still inform social movements today.
We still see that labor movements and organizations aim to empower workers and provide them with social and emotional support. They also offer political representation and economic opportunity. Thus, whether or not one supports these efforts today, it’s worth remembering their vital medieval heritage.
Common Questions about Medieval Guild-sponsored Plays
The guilds of York divided the dramatic history of human salvation into some 50 different episodes. Each of these were staged on a wagon that could be pulled through the city’s narrow streets, stopping at each of a dozen stations to perform that episode. These episodes came to be known as pageants. The collective production was called a mystery play or ‘the mysteries’.
The plays dignified every kind of labor, from the messy business of skinning and tanning hides to the making of gilded dinnerware or fine clothing.
William Shakespeare was a medieval dramatist who carried forward the traditions and the commitment to social critique which had been pioneered by professional guilds and organized labor for centuries.