Origin and History of Corpus Christi Plays

Did the plays spring up as a result of the Corpus Christi celebration, or did the plays already exist in some form before the feast was declared, so that an existing form contributed to the eventual shape of the new festival? The question remains open. In either case, neither the plays nor the celebration would be the same without the other. Corpus Christi Plays were extremely popular in Northern England; however, in Europe, the most lavish productions were reserved for Passion plays -- Easter celebrations that dramatized the events immediately around Christ's Crucifixion. Why is it that Easter celebrations were not as elaborate in England? 

The reason no doubt has much to do with the difference in climate between England and the rest of Europe, and with the date of Easter. The liturgical calendar sets the date of Easter according to the occurrence of the first full moon after spring, which usually places Easter in March or April. At that time of the year, it is warm enough in Southern France or Spain to attract great crowds to an outdoor celebration, but it is usually still too cold in England. The date the church chose for Corpus Christi Day was the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, or about seven weeks after Easter. The existence of a festival to coincide with the onset of warmer weather no doubt contributed to England's affinity for celebrating Corpus Christi.

The plays were a communal event that everybody participated in, one way or another -- the church, the guilds, the city officials, and the tourists. The citizens of the town of York felt honored to participate -- they also made a hefty sum from the visitors who came from all across the countryside to see these plays, which were top-notch entertainment, including music, song, costumes, and in many cases lavish special effects. They were also, in many cases, overtly preachy, because the church authorities knew that performance was a great way to get its message across to a public that was largely illiterate. 

The surviving York manuscript of 48 plays (with a combined length four times that of the longest Hamlet text) and the civic and guild records of the town of York give us much information on the nature of those productions; they were complex productions that required careful planning and great expenses. Disputes were common among the many different groups involved, and violence occasionally broke out.

Performed back-to-back in one location, the 48 surviving episodes of the York Cycle would last about 13 hours. The staggered performance times, distances between the performance stations, and the uneven lengths of the plays meant that frequently the actors would spend time moving their wagons or waiting in line for their turn to perform-- all of which extended the overall event's duration considerably.  (See Staging the York Plays: The Scholarly Debate).

Theories of Origin

Prof. Alexandra Johnston (University of Toronto) reports that, being a good Protestant (and therefore suspicious of the non-Biblical embellishments to the York play), she checked every one of these dramatic or thematic additions, and -- much to her surprise - she found that each addition was supported somewhere in the writing of the very early church, whether in a sermon, a scriptural commentary, or in some devotional work dating from perhaps the third or fourth century. 

By chance Johnston came across an inventory of the library of the Augustinian Friary in York, which was located near the City Council buildings. Every work that supported the non-Scriptural York material was represented in that library list. All the information required to produce these plays seems to have been immediately available in this monastery, next door to the city council. She imagines the mayor and his neighbor the abbot striking up a friendly conversation that led to the development of the York plays. 

Other theories include the idea that the plays started out as modest, silent scenes acted out by actors posing on a wagon -- much like the "floats" of the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York or the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, and that these plays gradually expanded to their present form. Historical documents consistently support the idea that the whole event, even at the time of the earliest references to it, was a major production involving significant expenses, suggesting it began with a bang, not a whimper.

The Records of Early English Drama is ". . .a project intended to locate, transcribe, and publish systematically all surviving external evidence of dramatic, ceremonial, and minstrel activity in Great Britain before 1642. REED grew out of the 1973 Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago when an international group of individual records editors met and agreed that a wholesale attempt to edit all the extant sources should be inaugurated before they suffered further deterioration, dispersal, and misconstruction. Such a project began to be organized under Professor Alexandra Johnston as Executive Editor and in March 1976 REED was awarded a Major Editorial Grant by the Canada Council. . . " (excerpted from the program printed for the 1977 York Cycle).

Since then, the REED project has been putting out about one book a year, each time publishing the performance-related details of a particular city.

Chronology of evidence for the origins of the York Cycle

Compiled from the REED volumes on York:

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