The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play

Another mystery play in the NAEL selection is the Second Shepherds’ Play from the Wakefield cycle, connected with the Yorkshire town of this name. (It is also sometimes known as the Towneley cycle, because the manuscript was in possession of this Catholic family.) Some of the plays were at some point written or rewritten by an anonymous poet, called the Wakefield Master – they are similar stylistically, they use the same 13 (or, in earlier editions 9) line stanza and they show the same sense of humour. From the introduction to the play I’ve learnt something I never knew before – I’ve always read the version that mystery plays are called so because they are about the mysteries of faith. The editors of the NAEL explain that the guilds were called “mysteries”, which is a corrupt version of the Latin word “ministerium”, i.e. service. The guilds were responsible for staging the plays, hence the name “mystery”.

The play takes place undoubtedly in medieval England, not in ancient Palestine: the shepherds have English names and talk about local issues. The first one, Coll, complains about cold, the oppression of landlords and especially their officials, and high taxes. He is glad he can relieve his worries at least by complaining and goes to the place where the shepherds sleep to get some company.

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The York Cycle. The Crucifixion Play – the end

The soldiers have finally heaved up the cross and they put it in the hole in the ground prepared for the base. They do it abruptly on purpose, so that the shock gives Jesus even more pain. The hole is a bit too small for the cross, so they strengthen the base with wedges and stones. After that they ask mockingly Jesus how he feels and whether they’ve done well. Jesus answers in the words reminiscent of “Ye that Pasen by the Weye”, exhorting the passers-by to think about his suffering and asking God to forgive his torturers. The soldiers reply with their usual mockery, and they are ready to leave, but before they do, they need to do one more thing – draw lots for Christ’s coat. The 1st Soldier, unsurprisingly, draws the shortest straw and wins it. With this, the play ends. It is a rather chilling mixture of the soldiers’ offhand cruelty and their workman-like preoccupation with the practical problems they had to solve while doing their job. Did medieval audience clap in applause, I wonder? And did they clap at the end of this play?

The York Cycle. The Crucifixion Play ctd.

The soldiers have finished the job of stretching and nailing of Jesus’ body, and they are commenting with pleasure that the stretching part gives him even more pain. the 4th soldier is about to go to report to the authorities about everything they’ve done, but the first one (acting throughout the play as a kind of leader) reminds him that they now have to erect the cross. The other soldier demurs, saying that this deed may harm them, but surely he didn’t mean leaving the convict on the ground? They have to raise the cross and “bear him to yon hill”. I guess it means carrying the cross a few steps to the hole in the ground, because the idea of carrying the cross with the body nailed to it would be really stupid. Anyway, they try to put the cross upright but fail, complaining loudly about how their shoulders hurt etc. They think the cross is uncommonly heavy and accuse Jesus of witchcraft. Perhaps it has some allegorical meaning, as the cross stand for the sins of the whole world, so that is why the soldiers are having problems.

I am just looking at the clip of the production of the play in York (below) and it dawned on me that all the business with stretching Jesus’ body with cords, apart from adding a gruesome detail about his suffering, also served to justify the presence of the cords around his body. Apparently medieval players were not as committed as some of the contemporary Passion players in the Philippines, but anyway, the real nailing wouldn’t have been practical, taking into account that the play was repeated several times at different spots all over York. And Jesus was just a regular guy who had to return the next day to his shop as a pinner (nail-maker), he needed the use of his hands.

The York Cycle. The Crucifixion Play ctd.

Jesus addresses God, saying that he succumbs obediently to the torture and death for the salvation of mankind, after which the soldiers proceed on with the crucifixion. Their discussion of the process is matter-of-fact, which emphasizes its gruesome aspect, but it also reminds me that the actors playing the soldiers were artisans for the remaining 364 days of the year – nailmakers in this case. They worked with their hands and they knew the value of good workmanship and the troubles caused by the shoddy one. The soldiers have to cope with it too – the holes for nails were bored in the cross too far, so they solve the problem by stretching Jesus’ body with cords, making him suffer even more, which is of course their aim too. They are meant to be cruel and evil, which is emphasized by them swearing “for Mahound’s [Muhammad’s] blood”. The rationale behind this went like this: Muhammad was a false prophet – Muhammad was a devil – the soldiers are evil people – the evil people are going to swear on the devil. The writer, however, cannot keep this up, making the soldiers swear at some point “for him thee bought”, i.e. in the name of the Saviour. That is an even better anachronism that the one about Muhammad, taking into account that Jesus is right now in the process of saving, so to speak. For one thing, these oaths were a part of medieval language (I mean the latter one, not the one about Muhammad.) They stick out for us, modern readers, because they fell out of use, but medieval people just didn’t notice them or the absurdity of using them in certain contexts,  Just like non-Christians today when they exclaim “Jesus Christ” when they are upset, people in the Middle Ages used to swear by different parts of Jesus’ body or various saints, without really thinking what it meant. (I think I am having a senior moment, because I can’t recall the title of the text, but I remember reading in the NAEL a few months ago about somebody swearing by various saints that she or he is going to do something evil.) And secondly, the purpose of medieval playwrights was not to recreate with the utmost realism the conditions of life in Palestine circa 30 A.D. – it was to present the audience with the version of the Biblical narrative that would speak to them directly, in the language they themselves used.

The York Cycle. The Crucifixion Play.

We are entering the fascinating world of medieval theatre. One form of it, practised in England, were large cycle of plays, portraying in short episodes the key events from sacred history, starting with the creation of the world and ending with the Last Judgement. The cycle plays were known in other European countries (e.g. France) as well, but only in England they were staged on pageant wagons during big church events. In York it was Corpus Christi, but it could be also other feast days, preferably those falling on late spring and summer (e.g. Pentecost), when weather is good and days are long. Each play was prepared by a different guild, which was completely in charge of all the aspects of the production, both financial and artistic ones. They provided the wagon, equipped it and the members of the guild played all the roles, including female ones (these might be perhaps given to younger apprentices). The plays were sometimes assigned to the guilds on the basis of the correspondence between the trade and the subject of the play. For instance, the crucifixion play was staged by the guild of nailmakers, for obvious reasons. But sometimes it is quite random, for instance in the same cycle potters produced the play about the Pentecost. We know that these productions were treated very seriously: the guild members taxed themselves all year round to collect money for the production. The actors got paid, but they also could pay fines if they came unprepared or flubbed their lines, as we know from city documents. So, was it amateur theatre? Yes, but amateur in the best sense of the word. Remember, “amateur” derives from “amare”, to love. These plays are the show of love to God and to your city, the way to display your civic pride. York was medieval England’s second city and the cycle was famous all over England. It is the longest of all the extant play cycles (there are three others – Chester, Wakefield and N-town, which may not be a cycle at all but a kind of anthology compiled by a scribe). So imagine, it is the dawn of Corpus Christ day in York. The wagon of the tanners sets out to the first stopping place to play their “Fall of the Angels” (If you have problems imagining it, this website provides a good simulation.) After they are done, they move on to the next stop, while their place is taken by the next wagon. You, a York burgher, can stand at Mickelgate (or sit comfortably in your own window) and see the whole history of the world roll in front of your eyes. You can take a lunch break, because the whole cycle probably took about 15 hours, and catch up with the cycle at the next stop down the street. Or maybe you are a teenage girl with a crush on 1st soldier from the nailmakers’ play, then you can follow this cart and see the whole play over and over again (you know, like my high school friend who used to watch Dirty Dancing on a loop). The cycle probably evolved over its long life, being rewritten many times. At some point in the 14th century the cycle was revised by an anonymous poet who is referred to by the critics as “the York realist”. The plays are written in rhyming verse, in short vigorous lines. The bit I’ve read so far consists of the discussion among the Roman soldiers who are about to crucify Jesus. It’s mostly matter-of-fact: “let’s get to work, don’t make us wait, this foul traitor has to be dead by evening” etc.

Margery Kempe. Extracts from Book 1.76 and 1.79

In the first excerpt Margery describes how her husband, “a man in great age” (meaning above sixty!) slipped one morning and fell down the stairs, breaking his head. The neighbours hearing the racket came to his help and called for Margery, who lived at that time apart from her husband. She writes at great length about how they decided to do it because when they they were living together, evil tongues were always wagging and people accused them of secretly breaking their vow of chastity. Even when they went on pilgrimages together, they were apparently suspected of getting it off in the bushes instead. But now people hold it against Margery, saying that if John dies, she should be hanged for his death (because by sleeping under the same roof she would be a magic safeguard against his slipping?) Margery, you should know by now how it is for women – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But she evidently takes it much to her heart and prays to Jesus to keep her husband alive for a year. Jesus tells her that her prayer will be granted and she should take care of her husband. Margery demurs, saying that she then won’t be able to focus on serving God, but Jesus explains to her that serving her husband will be like serving him. So she takes care of him, which is difficult as he starts to suffer from dementia – it’s not clear whether it’s the result of his age or the accident. Or maybe the accident was the early symptom of his dementia, and the shock just hastened its development? Anyway, he becomes incontinent and Margery spends a lot of time washing his dirty clothes and a lot of money for firewood. But she believes it is a fitting punishment because when they were young she enjoyed sex with her husband too much.

The second excerpt is Margery’s vision of Christ’s Passion she had on a Palm Sunday and continued to have on every Palm Sunday and Good Friday ever since. It’s basically Margery’s free-styling on the Biblical narrative and trying to put herself there as one of the characters. The description begins with the (unscriptural) scene of Jesus’ farewell with his mother before the Passion. Mary falls down on the ground in despair, wishing she could die before her son. Jesus tries to console her, pointing out the necessity of his crucifixion for the salvation. He also says that she needs to outlive him to be the support of the newly-formed Holy Church and promises her to come back for her when she dies and crown her the Queen of Heaven and the Empress of Hell (I’m not a theologian but this last title seems a bit risky). When Jesus is leaving, he asks Margery to stay with his mother and console her. Together with Mary they go through the all stages described in the Bible: the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, the whipping and mocking of Jesus.

This is the end of the selection from Margery’s writings. She is an interesting writer, although her self-aggrandizement might be a bit grating if it weren’t so naive – You get better signs than St Bridget! You are my beloved wife! You are going to be one of the eye-witnesses of the Passion, with Virgin Mary leaning on your arm! Also her obsession with Christ’s body (even when she describes the whipping, she writes about his “fair white body”) is quite blatant at times. Of course a lot of mystical writers used language that was strongly redolent of the one used to describe sexual experience. The facile Freudian explanation is that all these nuns locked up in convents made up for the lack of sex by imagining the Heavenly Bridegroom; a more nuanced explanation is that sex is the strongest experience known to men and women, so trying to describe the personal experience of unity of God one must needs fall on sexual language. That being said, Margery was no celibate and apparently she enjoyed sex; maybe because all the frequent childbirths wore her down, at some point she unconsciously decided to replace the potentially dangerous reality of earthly sex with the thinly veiled sexual metaphors of uniting herself with Jesus? She must have been a rather trying person to be around, with her crying and bawling, and trying to snatch boys out of their mothers’ arms to adore Jesus in them. But at a remove, her autobiography is quite enjoyable.

Margery Kempe. Extracts from Book 1.36 and 1.60

Jesus tells Margery that all the traditional forms of piety such as fasting, praying and alms-giving are good for young beginners, or if a confessor sets them as a penance. But the most perfect way of achieving salvation, which he has chosen for Margery is contemplation. If he were present in the world physically, as he was before his death, he would take Margery by her hand and acknowledge her as his wife to all the world. He also wants her, when she goes to bed, to embrace him with the arms of her soul and kiss his mouth, head and feet. Margery should love him both as her husband and her son. The whole text is kind of naively narcissistic, with Margery, or “this creature” with fake humility describing all the compliments Jesus showers her with. Another sign of God’s grace is that Margery hears something like a sound of bellows, which Jesus tells her is the sound of the wings of the Holy Ghost, which is then transformed into the cooing of a dove and then the song of a robin, which Margery hears constantly for twenty-five years.

In the second excerpt Margery is distressed because the local priest, who was her confessor and who read to her the Bible and other religious texts, fell dangerously ill. During her prayers Margery receives a promise from God that he will recover and she feels prompted to go to Norwich, the burial place of Richard of Caister, a priest who was venerated for his sanctity and died not so long ago. As she enters St Stephen’s Church in Norwich, she is overcome by her usual fit of loud crying, this time caused by gratitude that the prayers of such an unworthy creature as she is are going to be answered. Obviously, that attracts people’s attention, but two priests who know her lead her out of the church, take her to a tavern and give her something to drink to help her recover. She also receives an invitation from a local lady who has heard about her, so she goes to another church in Norwich, where the lady is listening to the Mass. In this church she sees a Pieta and she is again overcome by crying, this time caused by pity for his suffering and the suffering of his mother. The lady’s chaplain tells her “Damsel, Jesus died a long time ago”. MIC DROP. But she, undaunted, answers him that his death is as fresh in her mind as if it had been yesterday, and so it should for every good Christian, and the lady supports her, saying all should follow her example. After that she is invited to the lady’s house, where she is a cherished guest, and after some unspecified time returns to her home town of Lynn, where her friend the priest makes a full recovery.