Medieval Drama Glossary

Are you studying medieval religious drama? Are you having trouble understanding the difference between the Assumption and the Ascension?  Between adoration and veneration?  The Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth?  This glossary (compiled by Dennis G. Jerz) will help.


The faithful act of honoring God as the infinitely perfect, merciful and just Creator, upon whom all humans are eternally dependent. Adoration is due to all persons of the Trinity, including the Son as present in the Eucharist. See also: Veneration

Christ's departure from the Earth forty days after his rising from the dead (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9, 11). He rose to Heaven under his own power, as the fully divine God in a fully human (but resurrected) body. Compare: Assumption.

Ash Wednesday
The first day of Lent. A solemn and prayerful day when the penitent faithful seek pardon for their sins and receive ashes on their forehead, reminding them that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). Because people often refrain from eating rich foods during Lent, the last day to indulge is informally called "Fat Tuesday," or, in French, "Mardi Gras."

The Virgin Mary was assumed (taken up) into heaven, body and soul, not under her own power but by the power of God. The medieval faithful differed as to whether she was taken before or after her natural death, but all who venerated her were united in their belief that through God's grace, Mary, from whose womb came the body of Jesus Christ, was as perfect as mere human flesh can be. Mary's fullness of grace (or most highly favored condition) (Lk. 1:28) preserved her from the effects of original sin -- namely, the separation of body from soul and the physical corruption of the body. Compare: Ascension. See also: Incarnation, Saints, cult of.


Backups (processional cycle)
Backups in a processional cycle occur when a shorter play's wagon arrives at the next station before a preceding, longer play has finished. The narrow, crowded medieval streets probably couldn't absorb more than a handful of backed-up wagons at each station. However, a cycle with many backups is operating at high efficiency -- it is delivering plays steadily, with no wasted time in between performances. See also: gaps


In general terms, any form of togetherness, such as that among the saints in heaven, between God and the human soul, or between Christ and the Christian who partakes of the Eucharist. See also: Real Presence, Sacrifice

Corpus Christi Cycle
A collection of many small Biblical plays, produced on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Four complete English cycles survive, although different kinds of religious plays appeared throughout England.

Corpus Christi
Latin for "The body of Christ."

Corpus Christi, Feast of
A movable feast dating from the 13th century, upon which the church celebrates the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It took place each year on a Thursday in late spring or early summer, about two months after Easter. It was an important day in medieval England, not only because of its religious significance, but also because by that time of year the weather would finally be warm enough for outdoor celebrations.

In general, a painful, slow form of public execution used by the Romans on criminals who were not Roman citizens. The feet were nailed to an upright wooden post and the hands to a crossbar. For the Christian, the crucifixion of Christ and the cross upon which it took place become a symbol not of a gruesome physical death, but rather a glorious victory over spiritual death. Medieval religious art depicts Jesus as engaged in all aspects of his function in the divine cosmic plan, but depictions of the moment of his death on the cross are by far the most significant. In order to foster an increased appreciation of Christ's sacrifice and an increased desire to respond to Christ's sincere call, the medieval church encouraged its faithful to gaze upon pictures or statues, to witness a re-creation of the events in a passion play, to worship in public liturgy, or to reflect privately.


A joyful Christian feast celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Mark 16:6-7, Luke 24) following the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Harrowing of Hell.

Meaning "thanksgiving," a celebration of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ under the appearances of consecrated bread and wine. The thanksgiving action, celebrated at the Mass, was the central point of medieval spiritual life.


Full Performance (processional cycle)
The entire presentation of the cycle, from the first performance of the first play at the first station, to the last performance of the last play at the last station. Each play is performed once at each station. See also: single performance


Gaps (processional cycle)
Gaps occur during the performance of the York Corpus Christi Play when a longer play falls behind a faster preceding play. The faster play runs on ahead, performing and vacating a station before the following play has reached it. The result is that the stations between the fast play and the slow play are vacant, and the whole cycle takes longer to complete. See also: backups

Goldberg, Rube
A U.S. cartoonist (1883-1970) known for his drawings of intricate cause-and-effect inventions. The board game "Mousetrap" suggests the complexity and humor of his work. Alan Nelson compared the traditional description of the York Corpus Christi performance to a Rube Goldberg device.


Immaculate Conception
This often-misunderstood term refers to the sinless condition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, from the moment of her conception within the womb of her mother. The early church did not use the term or explicitly pronounce the doctrine, but St. Emphram (306-373) wrote, "Mary and Eve [were] two people without guilt. Later one became the cause of our death, the other cause of life." In the early church, Mary's assent to God's will was often seen as another, more successful, version of the trial faced by Eve. By a special grace from God, her soul was created immaculate (Latin for "free from stain") because it was untouched by the harmful effects of original sin. The medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (c. 1264-1308) helped to make the doctrine more explicit by developing the idea of "pre-redemption," in order to explain how Mary could have been created free from the stain of original sin before Christ's death and resurrection had granted salvation to the rest of humanity. The doctrine derives from the early Church's interpretation of Mary's graceful, or highly favored, status, and her pre-eminent position among humanity by being chosen as the one person worthy of forming the flesh of the Redeemer within her womb. See also: Virgin Birth.

The Christian mystery of the infinite and eternal God entering the world as a finite human being (or becoming "incarnate") within the womb of the Virgin Mary. The human Jesus of Nazareth was vulnerable to all the foibles that afflict humanity as the result of the fall, including hunger, fear, pain, loneliness, and despair; he also experienced hope, love, and the simple pleasure of making breakfast for his friends. The divine Son of God had access to supernatural powers such as the forgiveness of sins, the healing of sickness, and mastery over the forces of nature. The Son existed before the world, and it was through the Son that the Father created the world. In what the early Church called the hypostatic union, the two separate but full natures, human and divine, co-exist, each without diminishing the other, within the one person who is Jesus Christ. See also: Trinity


Jesus Christ
A title for the fully human Jesus of Nazareth, son of the Virgin Mary. Christ is also the fully divine Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Because of fallen humanity's lack of grace and enslavement to sin, God sent the Son to become incarnate within Mary's womb.

On earth, Christ preached a doctrine of mercy in the form of forgiveness, and justice in the form of upright moral conduct and charity towards those in need. He was crucified for these teachings. The death of the Son of God was the sacrifice necessary to redeem, or purchase back, humanity from the bonds of sin. Christ rose from the dead in order to commission his apostles and all his followers to share their knowledge with all nations. He ascended, body and soul, to heaven; he will preside on Judgment Day.

Judgment Day
At the end of the world, when all humans are resurrected, God will manifest his justice by rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. His judgment will be on the grounds of each individual's moral conduct and attitude towards's God's will, as well as the effect on society and upon others of the accumulated blessings or evils that resulted from each individual's actions. As the agent of God's mercy and justice, Jesus Christ will preside.

Another word for Judgment Day is Doomsday. The word "doom" originally meant judgement, either good or bad; this sense survives in our word "deem". However, medieval piety often depicted an angry Christ, vexed by mankind's sinfulness, and ready to destroy the world. The message in such an image was not all negative, for Mary his mother was always there beside him, pleading and begging for his mercy on the behalf of the imperfect, fallen world.


Last Supper
Christ's last meal before his trial and crucifixion, when he celebrated the Passover with his apostles. On this occasion, he blessed and shared the bread and wine which became his own body and blood (Matt 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20), an event commemorated by the church through the Eucharist.

The international language of the Middle Ages, in which all important cultural activities were performed, and therefore the language of the Church. Most people, however, couldn't read or write the vernacular language of their own country, much less Latin.

A period of forty days of fasting, reflection, and preparation for Easter. It recalls the time Christ spent, shortly before beginning his public ministry, overcoming temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2).

From the Greek for "public work," it refers to the official communal act of adoring God. For the Church, the central liturgical act is the Mass, a celebration of the Eucharist, instated by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. The term in general means anything pertaining directly to the ceremony -- a liturgical play, for instance, would have taken place as part of a formal worship service. Participants generally recite or sing formulaic prayers to show the unity of their belief, hear passages from the Bible, and listen to a homily (sermon) as a group.


Mary, Blessed Virgin
The most-revered of the Christian saints, mother of Jesus and wife of Joseph.

While she was a young girl, engaged to Joseph, an angel appeared to her, telling her that she would conceive a child who was to be the Messiah. Her humble consent to God's will (Luke 1:34) is a model for all Christians, as is her service to those in need (Luke 1:36, 56); her confidence in the power of Christ (John 2:1-11); her loyalty to her son during the Crucifixion (John 19:25-27) and her living in prayerful communion with the apostles and other followers before Pentecost. See Assumption, Ascension; Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth.

From the Latin for "sending," a word for the central liturgical worship service in the church. Based upon the Last Supper, and linked inseparably to the sacrifice offered by Christ on the cross. The solemn prayer and familiar rituals were doubtless beneficial to the spiritual lives of even the most uneducated medieval churchgoers. The paintings, statues, stained glass windows and music would have offered much in the way of material for reflection even for those who could not understand the Latin. Liturgical drama, with its costumes and props (swaddling clothes, an empty tomb, etc.) informed the senses as well as the mind. The repetitive parts of the service would have been in Latin, and the faithful could usually expect a sermon in the vernacular, since even many priests found Latin a difficult language to use informally.

Movable Feast
Religious feast days are called movable if their calendar dates are linked to Easter, which takes place on the first Sunday following the first full moon in spring. All the religious calendar events that commemorate events dependent upon Easter, such as Ash Wednesday, Lent, Ascension Thursday , Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, shift backwards and forwards depending upon when Easter took place. The Feast of Corpus Christi took place on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday.


The word in medieval times could refer to a cycle of processional plays, an individual play within the cycle, or the wagon upon which the play is performed.

A Jewish feast commemorating the protection God gave to Jewish families when he killed all the first-born men and animals in the land of Egypt. After this divine punishment, Pharaoh consented to allow Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 12).

Celebrated by the church for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles of Christ, in the lodgings they were sharing with Christ's mother Mary and other followers, about fifty days after Easter (Acts 2:1-4). In the Jewish tradition, Pentecost was another name for the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Harvest, which took place 50 days after Passover. By that time the crops planted in the spring would have begun to produce their "first fruits," upon which the people feasted.

The modern definition of the word "person" may mislead us into thinking that the trinity is a collection of three separate gods. But the Latin "persona" means "the mask that an actor uses." So, in a sense, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of the Trinity are three "masks" that the one transcendent God uses.

Processional Cycle
See also: backups, full performance, gaps, single performance, pageant, wagon


Real Presence
The doctrine that Christ's presence in the Eucharist is not merely symbolic, or in the mind of the believer. The external physical properties of the bread and wine remain the same after the conversion (the technical term for which is "transubstantiation"). However, to the spiritually-oriented medieval mind, that which makes a thing real is not the physical attributes, appearances or properties (called "accidents"), but rather the internal essence "being-ness" of the thing. The real or substantial is not what we typically mean by "a substance" in the physical sense; but rather, a substance (Latin sub = "under", stance = "stand") that lets us "understand" the nature of the thing -- a nature which supports the physical externals.

Scripture records that Christ's resurrected body was able to penetrate a sealed tomb, locked doors, and to appear and disappear suddenly; clearly the Body of Christ was not bound to the same earthly physical laws that binds humanity. The real presence also meant that Christ was truly and actually present in the Eucharist, regardless of the opinion of an observer or beholder. To show disrespect towards any drop of wine or any crumb of bread that has been properly consecrated was to show an almost unimaginable affront to the Creator.

Although official church opinion never wavered, occasional pockets of resistance over the centuries led the church to develop the theory more fully in order to handle objections. The doctrine of the real presence was, aside from papal authority, one of the major points of contention during the Protestant Reformation, when several groups of dissenters formed their own churches based on their own systems of belief.

Resurrection of Christ
Christ's return from death on the third day after his crucifixion and burial. One of the central tenets of the Christian faith, expressed in the Bible and in early church practices, is that Christ showed his victory over sin and death by sacrificing himself for the sake of redeeming the sins of humanity.

His resurrected body retained the wounds inflicted during his crucifixion as a sign of glory (John 20:27). He ate food with his followers, but his transfigured body was not bound by ordinary restraints of time and space. People often had difficulty recognizing him at first, suggesting some change in appearance. (See resurrection of the body). For about 40 days, until the Ascension, Christ remained on Earth, teaching and preaching.

Resurrection of the Body
The Christian belief that the souls of all human beings, good and evil, will rejoin their bodies on Judgment Day.


The Jewish Testament instructs the faithful to show honor by offering up to God animals or food items precious to the givers. A community or individual could make up for a wrongdoing and so restore moral balance by sacrificing an animal, often a goat; the practice lies behind the meaning of our word "scapegoat."

For Christians, the great sacrifice is that of Jesus Christ, whose crucifixion paid back to God the great debt that humanity had incurred through Adam's fall. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, he gave a new significance to the sacrifice of bread and wine, one which continues to communicate the graces he merited by virtue of his own death.

Saints, Cult of the
The word "cult" (from the Latin "colere", to cultivate) today has negative, coercive connotations; but when applied to the veneration of the saints, it means a distinctive, often a little unusual, form of religious observance. See: veneration

Single Performance (processional cycle)
The performance, at a single location, of all plays in a cycle. Each play is performed only once. See also: full performance


Trinity Sunday
The first Sunday after Pentecost, dedicated to the praise and recognition of the Holy Trinity.

According to the central doctrines of the Christian religion, there is one God, who manifests himself as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). The three divine persons in the trinity are co-equal and deserve co-equal adoration from the faithful.


Veneration (of the Saints)
The honor paid to the deceased men and women who lived exemplary lives and who, by continuing to offer prayers and praise to God in the afterlife, help the faithful to grow in sanctification. Asking the saints to join their voices to those of the living was a way of adding extra spiritual weight to prayer. Also, learning about the earthly lives of the saints can lead the Christian to modify his or her own life accordingly.

From the Church's point of view, one justly venerates, or "reveres" human beings who, through the grace of God, have achieved a state of grace. Such reverent honor does not detract from the adoration due to God, since the venerator is always conscious that the goodness of the saint derived from responding appropriately to God's gifts. Several Protestant groups harshly condemn this traditional practice.

The medieval Church was aware that in some areas, excessive devotion to the cult of the saints was disruptive. In their zeal to possess and venerate physical items precious to the saints, the faithful occasionally unearthed, dismembered, and distributed the bodies of the dead. Because a town with a popular relic could expect good favor from heaven and good money from pilgrims, famous corpses sometimes appeared to replicate themselves in competing locations.

During the middle ages, the saints were heroes of stories and songs, and as such were the major cultural touchstones. They had a popular following much like various elements of our own society have for Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles or even Martin Luther King, Jr.  In medieval times, the faithful gave alms for miraculously preserved drops of milk from the breasts that nourished the infant Christ; at an auction in April 2001, one of pop singer Madonna's cone-shaped bra sold for $20,000.

The local language commonly spoken by the people; as opposed to Latin.

Virgin Birth
The Christian belief that Mary conceived the child Jesus while still a virgin, and that she remained so all her life. Defended by various early Church writers, the belief was formularized by St. Augustine (354-430): "A virgin conceived, a virgin gave birth, a virgin remained." Biblical references to Jesus's "brothers" use a word that also carried the meaning of a figurative brother, or any male relative. See also: Incarnation; Immaculate Conception

Virgin Mary
See: Mary, Blessed Virgin.


Also called a pageant, a decorated wheeled platform upon which actors performed. In York, each guild participating in the cycle was responsible for its own wagon. They were small -- no more than 8 by 12 feet -- so that they could be pulled by servants of the guilds through the narrow streets of the towns. While they had to be mobile and durable, some of the wagons had elaborate special effects, such as trap doors into smoking hell pits; or a rope-and-pulley platform upon which Christ could ascend to heaven.

by Dennis G. Jerz
June, 1997 -- first published in (Re)Soundings
16 Jul 1999 -- posted here 
26 Apr 2001 -- last modified