Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > The Early Religious Drama > Corpus Christi Plays
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

III. The Early Religious Drama.

§ 11. Corpus Christi Plays.


The usual method of treatment developed, not like that mentioned above, from liturgical scenes performed within churches, but from the procession on Corpus Christi day. In 1264, the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted; this soon grew into a solemnity in the celebration of which the church displayed her highest splendour. The Corpus Christi procession was a sort of triumphal progress, by which the church, after centuries of struggle, solemnised her absolute and full victory over the minds of men, and by which, at the same time, she satisfied the perennial inclination of the people for disguisings and festal shows. Very soon it became customary for groups to walk in the Corpus Christi procession, which groups, in their succession, were to typify the whole ecclesiastical conception of universal history from the creation to the judgment day. It was a frequent practice to distribute the arrangement of these groups among the different crafts, which always made it a point of ambition to be represented in the procession as splendidly as possible. In some countries, these processions assumed a dramatic character, especially in England, where the processional drama was fully developed as early as the fourteenth century. Here, it was customary for each of the crafts presenting a certain group to explain its significance in a dramatic scene. The different scenes, whenever possible, were distributed in such a way as to bear some relation to the occupation of the craft that performed it: e.g., the task of producing Noah’s ark was entrusted to the boat-builders, the adoration of the magi to the goldsmiths. The actors stood on a stage (“pageant”), moving about on wheels. In the course of the procession, a certain number of stations were appointed, at which the several pageants stopped in passing, and on which the respective scenes were performed. For instance, the first craft at the first station acted the creation of the world; then it passed to the place where it stopped for the second time, and repeated the performance; at the same time, the second craft acted at the first station the sin of our first parents, and afterwards repeated the same at the second station. In the meantime, the first craft had proceeded to the third station, and the third craft began at the first station to act the play of Cain and Abel. If, in such a processional play, one character appeared in several scenes, it was, necessarily, represented by different persons: Christ on the Mount of Olives was a different individual from Christ before Pilate or on Golgotha. As early as 1377, Corpus Christi plays are mentioned at Beverley; and, in 1394, this system of plays is spoken of in an ordinance of the municipality of York, as of old tradition. The earliest documentary mention of them in this city dates from the year 1378.   16
  By this stage arrangement, every drama was divided into a series of little plays. The progress of the action was, necessarily, interrupted as one pageant rolled away and another approached; on each occasion, order had to be kept, and the attention of the multitude crowding the streets had to be attracted anew. The function of calling the people to order was, wherever feasible, entrusted to a tyrant, say Herod, the murderer of the Innocents, or Pilate, who, dressed up grotesquely and armed with a resounding sword, raged about among the audience and imposed silence on the disturbers of peace. Repetitions, also, frequently became necessary, in order to take up again the broken thread of action; on the other hand, authors could not give way so freely to an easy flow of speech as in “standing plays” (plays performed in one fixed place, so called in contrast with processional plays).   17

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