Mysteries and Miracles
Vol. 1A, pages
531-559 from the
Longman 3rd ed.
"Medieval Biblical Drama"
Internet texts of "The Second Shepherd's Play" can be
University of Calgary
You Tube performance
An internet text of the "York Crucifixion" can be found at
University of Michigan
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
This lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be
submitted on the interactive course site at
SUNY Learning Network.
See General instructions on Journaling
this course. For a sample journal, see
Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.
Write for an hour (or more if you have
time). Summarize the readings. Some
other journaling ideas for today include:
How is the medieval
mystery play unlike modern drama or film?
To what extent are these plays scriptural, and to what extent are
they non-scriptural? Are they faithful to the Bible or not?
The Roman Catholic church sponsored the medieval mystery plays, but the
protestant churches of the reformation banned almost all of them. Is
this drama good or bad for Christian believers to see?
These notes are
adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch,
et al.,Teaching British
York: Longman, 2003).
Christianity lends itself to
art, as we saw in the case of Margery Kempe.
may be said to be a performing art, in that its followers are expected to act "Christ-like"
or "saintly," imitating models provided in Christian literature,
painting and sculpture.
In this positive use of art, Christianity in
most of its forms differs from those forms of Judaism and Islam
that prohibit or severely restrict the use of religious images.
especially Biblical re-enactment, was extremely popular throughout medieval Europe.
In Britain only a few of the old plays survive in the
literary record because in the 16th century, after the
England was formed, the traditional religious theater was suppressed as a relic of
Catholic culture. (This censorship of religious plays had the unintended
effect of boosting the
development of the secular drama
Jonson and a host
of Tudor and Stuart playwrights in the Golden Age of British theater.)
The book burners largely did succeed in destroying books, but they missed a handful of the old texts out in the
Second Shepherds' Play
from Wakefield, and the Crucifixion
Play from York, were
performed in the
East Midlands and
north of England,
that enriched powerful nobles in the 14th and 15th centuries by trade in wool with the Netherlands
and Flanders. These plays were staged by guilds of various crafts and
trades, so they they were known as
a title derived Latin mysterium,
referring to the trades or crafts organized in
guilds. They were
sometimes performed in big outdoor theaters, but often they were enacted
as pageant parades in processions that moved from the local cathedral on
carts through the public streets. These mysteries generally were performed on the
Feast of Corpus
Christi, sixty days after Easter, and so this drama was also called
the Corpus Christi play.
The scripts may have been written by church officials,
but the guilds
directly supplied the staging and some or all of the actors. Thus the working man
and perhaps his good wife could gain local recognition as star performers, perhaps by taking
liberties with the text. Absolon in
Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" is one such who thinks he has perfected
a popular role of ranting, raving and strutting the stage in a ludicrous
show of vain self-importance. Creative improvisation clearly was
appreciated by many of the spectators, though this extra-Biblical
activity eventually became a ground for censorship of the mysteries.
comes out of York Cathedral to create the world, in a modern reenactment
of the York mystery plays. In our day, the York plays are performed
every other year.
The Second Play of the Shepherds
Imaginative elaboration on the Bible is
illustrated in "The Second Play of the Shepherds."
Rather than strictly adhering to the nativity story in Luke's gospel, this
play focuses on the professional pride and
discontent of contemporary English shepherds. The poet uses a
challenging 9-line stanza, but manages to create complex characters
using colloquial dialogue and interesting stage action. The scenes flow together
coherently with help from repeated
motifs such as song, sleep, challenges at doorways, disguise and
The grumbling of the shepherds as the play opens,
and Mak’s complaints about hunger later on, are similar to some of the
laborers’ grievances in the
Peasants' Rebellion of 1381.
The shepherds lament the bondage
of servile tenure, marriage, taxes, and oppression by “gentlery men,”
yet Shepherds I and II, for all their complaining about oppression, abuse their own servant Daw.
Hunger is constantly recognized throughout the play. The shepherds'
“moan,” however, disappears with the nativity of
Jesus, and hostilities
are replaced by charity. Mak and Gill's
"baby" is forgotten with the arrival of the Lamb of God.
Mak is eloquent
about his plight as “a man that walks on the moor, / And has not all
his will” (lines 196–97), but he is also devilish. He is the deceiver
pretending to be a yeoman of the king,
feigning a southern London accent, and claiming his monstrous “child”
in Gill's cradle
is bewitched, or a changeling switched by elves. He is a comic
antithesis to God as "Sir Guile,” the father of a “horned lad,” the
creator of lies.
Time collapses in
The shepherds and Mak call on Mary and the Passion and
the martyred saints before they even witness the Nativity (e.g.
“By him that died for us all”). The play invokes a related
overlap of places, Bethlehem and Britain are blended in the first shepherd’s
dream—“I thought we had laid us full near England.” The birth of Jesus
is happening right here and now to the players and their audience.
The York Play of the Crucifixion
Imagine staging the crucifixion of Jesus with soldiers
who are either contemporary Muslim fundamentalists or else US soldiers,
and you have some idea of the explosive force of the
crucifixion play from
York which brings Christ's torturers to life, much
as the Wakefield play enlivens the shepherds. In both plays, the
spectators are forced to confront the Bible story in contemporary terms. The
York torturers are knights oblivious to their grotesque brutality, relishing
their jobs as psychologically they must in order to do the horrific
day-to-day work of a terrorist state. They call the king of kings a traitor to their boss.
suffering of Christ in this play, so masculine and heroic, falls
in the tradition of the Germanic warrior giving his life for his people,
as in the Old English "Dream of the Rood."
The play belongs to the alliterative style of heroic tradition, with
Beowulf and Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight.
It may be helpful to see visual depictions of the
crucifixion, starting in our anthology with the passion scenes from the
Winchester Psalter (color plate 5), and the image taken from “On the
Passion of our Lord” (p. 515). The double image of the Annunciation to
the Shepherds and the Nativity from the Holkham Bible Picture Book
(color plate 7) can similarly serve to illustrate the Second Play of the
from a performance of the York Crucifixion in 1998.In
recent times, the York plays have been staged at York every other year.