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Surviving Episodes of the York Corpus Christi Play
Historical records generally use the names of the sponsoring guilds to
refer to the individual episodes that make up the Corpus Christi play that was performed
in York. For simplicity, my simulation of the York cycle uses
descriptive labels for each play. These labels are listed below, with the sponsoring guild
identified in parentheses. Each entry below includes a short account of the events
depicted in the episode. You can find the full York
e-texts at the University of Virginia.
- The creation of the world and the fall of Lucifer. Admiring his own handsome face in a
mirror, Lucifer is unwilling to praise the Lord along with the rest of the angels. As
punishment for his pride, he loses his beauty and is cast down into hell.
- Creation/5 Days (Plasterers)
- The first five days of creation. This play showcases God's power over the physical
- Adam & Eve (Cardmakers)
- The creation of Adam and Eve.
- Eden (Fullers [makers of a felt-like cloth])
- The Lord brings Adam and Eve into Paradise, and warns them not to eat the fruit of the
tree of Knowledge.
- Fall of Man (Coopers)
- The Serpent tempts Eve; she eats the fruit, and gives it to Adam.
- Explusion (Armorers)
- Punished for their sin, Adam and Eve are thrown out of Paradise by a heavily armed
- Cain & Abel (Glovers)
- Cain, enraged because the Lord shows preference to Abel, commits fratricide. The York
Register lacks a good portion of this text, which the Toronto production reconstructed
from another source.
- Noah's Ark (Shipwrights)
- The Lord commands Noah to build the ark. The man playing Noah was likely a shipbuilder.
This play rather wittily shows the Lord endorsing this man's ship-building enterprise.
Other humor revolves around Noah's slapstick struggle to bring his wife aboard the ship --
she prefers to stay behind gossiping with her friends.
- Noah's Flood (Fishmongers and Mariners)
- With the ark already constructed, Noah brings the animals on board and weathers the
- Abraham & Isaac (Parchmentmakers)
- Abraham shows his love for the Lord through his willingness to sacrifice his beloved
son, Isaac; the Lord shows His compassion by saving the boy from death.
- Exodus (Hosiers)
- Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, where the Pharoah had enslaved them. The
Pharoah here is a blustering, pompus and rather incompetent dictator, the first in a
series of loudmouthed rulers that includes Herod of the Nativity story, a latter Herod of
the Crucifixion story, and Pilate. The hosiers would have been able to show off their
wares to costume the royal courtiers.
- Annunciation/Visitation (Spicers)
- The first play from the New Testament. It begins with a long speech by a character
representing a learned man, who explains that the birth of the Son of God was foretold by
ancient prophecies, which he describes in detail. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary,
announcing that she will become pregnant and bear the Son of God. Mary brings the news to
her cousin Eizabeth, who is also miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist.
- Joseph's Trouble (Founders)
- This play presents Joseph as an old man, who thinks his young fiancee has been
unfaithful to him. The broad comic overtones of this play recall the unfaithful wife and
cuckolded husband in Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" -- particularly
when the exasperated Joseph suggests that it was no angel who slipped into Mary's chamber,
but rather a young lover disguised as an angel. Joseph argues not with Mary, but with a
character representing Mary's maid -- this arrangement allows for slightly more ribald
humor than a medieval Christian audience would accept in a scene between Joseph and Mary.
- Nativity (Tile-thatchers)
- Joseph and Mary search for an inn in Bethlehem. The text of the play indicates that the
set depicted a stable with a thatched roof badly in need of the services of the play's
sponsors. The next several plays form the basis of the familiar Christian children's event
we now know as the Christmas Pageant. Those people for whom such a pageant has been their
only contact with religious drama may be predisposed to think of all medieval drama as
charming at best, and otherwise amateurish and childish. In fact, historical records of
events such as the York Corpus Christi play provide evidence that religious theatre was a
major public event, in which the people from all walks of life invested huge amounts of
time and money.
- Angel/Shepherds (Chandlers [the word is related to
"candle" and "chandelier"])
- An angel appears to three shepherds, and tells them that the Savior has been born in a
nearby manger. Unlike the comic and lower-class shepherds of the widely-anthologized
Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play, the shepherds of this play are intelligent -- they
understand the angels who sing in Latin, and translate the song for the benefit of the
audience. The light of the Star of Bethlehem and the divine glow of the infant Jesus may
have been opportunities for the Chandlers to demonstarte their trade.
- Magi & Herod (Goldsmiths; Masons; Minstrels [ownership
changed over the years])
- King Herod attempts to use the Magi (that is, magicians or astrologers) as spies to
ascertain the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews, whom he regards as a political
- Adoration (Goldsmiths)
- This play dramatizes the events depicted on countless Christmas cards, as well-wishers
and onlookers recognize the baby Jesus as the Son of God, and give him the appropriate
honor and praise. One of the gifts of the magi was, of course, gold.
- Purification (Community of St. Leonard's Hospital;
- Mary and Joseph present their child in the temple, in order to fulfil Jewish ritual
requirements. Simeon and Anna recognize the child as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy.
- Flight to Egypt (Marshals)
- In order to protect their child from Herod, Mary and Joseph flee with the baby to safety
- Innocents (Girdlers)
- This play represents the Slaughter of the Innocents: Herod, in his great desire to kill
the baby Jesus, slaughters all male Jewish children under two years old.
- Christ & Doctors (Spurriers and Lorimers
[makers of spurs and harnesses])
- This play depicts Christ as a youth, who impresses the learned men (Doctors) with His
wisdom and knowledge of scripture.
- Baptism (Barbers)
- Jesus begins his public ministry after being baptized by John.
- Temptation (Smiths)
- While Jesus is in the desert praying, Satan tries to trick Him into sins of pride, just
as he (in the form of the serpent) had successfully tricked Adam and Eve. Jesus, however,
manages to prevail.
- Transfiguration (Curriers [leather worker])
- While some of his followers look on, Jesus appears in a glorified state, talking with
Moses and Abraham. His presence with these ancient religous leaders shows that He is the
fulfillment of the promise that the Lord made with His people.
- Woman/Lazarus (Plumbers/Capmakers)
- The two short stories in this play deal with a woman whom Jesus saves from being stoned
for adultery (he forgives her and tells her not to do it again), and he raises his friend
Lazarus from the dead.
- Jerusalem Entry (Skinners)
- Jesus is welcomed into the holy city Jerusalem, where the people celebrate Him as the
descendent of David.
- Conspiracy (Cutlers)
- The religious leaders conspire with Judas, one of Christ's closest followers, to have
Jesus killed. Like all homogenous societies, medieval England was extremely suspicious of
outsiders, including Jews, who were often portrayed unfavorably. The conspirators are here
identified as Jews. At the same time, however, the leaders of the conspiracy, who confront
Jesus in the later plays, are presented as priests and bishops. Jesus is presented, then,
as a victim of a corrupt religious hierarchy -- not of the Jewish faith.
- Last Supper (Bakers)
- Because the Feast of Corpus Christi (that is, the Body of Christ) was the occasion for
the theatrical performance, this play -- in which Christ breaks bread with his followers
and tells them that the bread is his body -- would naturally have been a high point. Given
its emphasis on bread, it is also natural that the bakers sponsored it.
- Agony & Betrayal (Cordwainers [shoemakers])
- Jesus, aware that His fate is to die a horrible, painful death, prays in the Garden of
Gethsemane. The betrayer, Judas, leads a mob in to arrest Him. During the following
several plays, Jesus says almost nothing; his quiet composure contrasts with the
blustering pomposity of the authority figures who deride him.
- Caiaphas/Peter (Bowers and Fletchers)
- While Jesus is put on trial before the High Priest Caiaphas, Peter -- one of Jesus's
closest followers, who has pledged to remain with Christ until the end -- weakens in his
resolve. As Jesus had predicted, Peter denies knowing Him.
- Pilate 1/Wife (Tapiters [tapestrymakers])
- The first trial of Jesus before Pilate, a Roman official. Pilate's wife had a dream
about Christ; she is desperate to save Him.
- Trial by Herod (Dyers)
- King Herod has his turn to try Christ. As is the case in all the previous trials, Herod
is unable to find Jesus guilty of anything. This play includes references to Christ
wearing the color of fools; he is wearing a garment that is white, and therefore undyed.
- Pilate 2/Judas (Saucemakers)
- After returning to Pilate, Jesus is put on trial again. Judas is paid for his treachery.
The Bible mentions that Judas' guts spilled out when he killed himself; no doubt this was
an occasion for impressive special effects.
- Condemnation (Tilemakers)
- Jesus is condemned to death by crucifixion.
- Road to Calvary (Shearers)
- As Jesus carries his cross to the place where he will be crucified, his followers mourn,
and others revile and attack him.
- Crucifixion (Painters; also
associated with the Pinners [Nailers])
- Although the York plays contain few stage directions, the dialogue of the four Roman
soldiers who crucify Jesus holds all the clues we need to know that the actor playing
Christ stretched himself out on top of the cross and waited for the soldiers to come and
nail him on it. The soldiers then tied Christ to the cross -- a necessary safety measure,
since they lift the cross into a notch on the end of the wagon, and raise him up. The
actor then calls out to all the people who are walking past him, and instructs them to
look at his wounds, and think about how Jesus must have loved humanity, since he underwent
tremendous agony in order to save us from our sins. His speech is carefully constructed so
that it not only represents the historical Jesus speaking to the crowds in Jerusalem, but
it also addresses the crowds in York -- even those people who just happened to be in the
neighborhood, ignoring the play and trying to go about their daily business. By extension,
then, it address all people who encounter this play.
- Death of Christ (Butchers)
- Christ dies on the cross, and his body is laid in a tomb.
- Harrowing of Hell (Saddlers)
- During the time that Christ's body lies dead in the tomb, the Son of God appears in
Hell, where all souls had gone ever since the Fall of Man. Adam and Eve are among the
souls who are released and sent to Heaven.
- Resurrection (Carpenters)
- Christ miraculously rises from the dead.
- Mary Magdalene (Winedrawers)
- Christ encounters Mary Magdalene, a sinner who changed her ways when she met Christ. As
she struggles to come to terms with the apparent failure of Christ's ministry, Christ
himself appears to her.
- Road to Emmaus (Wool-packers)
- Two of Christ's followers meet a stranger on the road; they tell the stranger all about
the events of Christ's death. The stranger turns out to be Christ himself.
- Doubting Thomas (Scriveners)
- Christ appears to a group of his followers. Thomas, who was absent from the group, does
not believe them when they tell him. Christ later appears to Thomas, telling him that the
truly blessed are those who believe without seeing.
- Ascension (Tailors)
- Christ's resurrected body rises to Heaven.
- Pentecotst (Potters)
- Christ's followers, once again struggling to come to terms with Christ's departure,
receive the gift of inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and begin preaching and teaching with
- Death of Mary (Drapers)
- Many years after Christ's followers began spreading his teachings, His mother Mary dies.
Her closest friends are miraculously transported to her bedside to be with her. Her
bedside is often depicted in art with lavish tapestries and draperie, which would have
given the guild ample opportunity to showcase their wares. Mary seems to die in each of
the next two plays as well -- evidence which supports the argument that each play need not
have been produced each year.
- Assumption (Woollenweavers)
- When Mary dies, her soul is taken up into Heaven.
- Coronation (Mayor; Innholders)
- When Mary's soul is taken up into Heaven, she reunites with her son Jesus, and is
crowned Queen of Heaven. The innholders benefitted considerably from the tourism that the
York play drew to the city, and likely produced a lavish heavenly throne to receive the
Mother of God.
- Judgement (Mercers [Merchants])
- The big finish, also called Doomsday. At the end of the world, the Son of God returns in
order to divide all souls into the good and the bad. The bad souls -- the ones who did not
feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed -- are tormented by demons
and taken into hell. The good souls enter paradise with the angels, saints, and apostles.
Music, special effects such as fire and brimstone, and the antics of costumed devils would
likely have made this production a grand finale.