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SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York Corpus Christi plays procession routes expenditures petition fees revenues craft guilds goldsmiths masons

Subject: Extracts relating to the Corpus Christi play in York
Original source: York City Archives. Items 1, 3, 4 and 5: Memorandum Book A/Y, ff.17, 19, 187-188, 257. Item 2: Chamberlains account 1396/97 YC/F: C. 1:1 m.1.
Transcription in: Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 47, 50-52, vol.125 (1914), 63-65, 123-24. R.B. Dobson, ed. York City Chamberlains' Account Rolls 1396-1500, Surtees Society, vol.192 (1978), 4-5.
Original language: Latin and French
Location: York
Date: late 14th and early 15th centuries


[1. City ordinance of 1394]

It is agreed that all Corpus Christi pageants be performed in the places anciently assigned them, and not elsewhere than where advised by the mayor, bailiffs and their officers. If any pageant is presented contrary to this order, the craftsmen responsible for that pageant shall pay 6s.8d in the mayor's chamber, to the use of the community.

[2.] Expenses on the festival of Corpus Christi with gifts to lords' minstrels throughout the year [1396]

  • They account for the dyeing of 4 cloths for use in the pageants, 4s.
  • For transporting and bringing back timber for barriers in front of the king, 2s.1d
  • To 8 porters for hauling and moving the pageants, 5s.4d
  • For a new banner and its apparatus, 12s.2d.
  • Towards the performances, 15s.4d.
  • For bread, ale, wine, meat, and a fire for the mayor and reputable men on the day of the play, 18s.8d.
  • To the gatekeeper of Holy Trinity for hosting the pageants, 4d.
  • To minstrels on the feast of Corpus Christi, 13s.4d.
  • For iron nails for repairing the pageants, 5d.
  • For 20 "fursperres" for the barriers before the king, 5s.10d.
  • To Robert Paton for carpentry in making a pageant, two days work, 12d.
  • For the painting of the pageant, 2s.
  • For 19 saplings bought from John de Craven for [making] the barriers, 6s.8d.
  • To William de Barneby carpenter for his work on the same, 4s.4d.
Total: £4.11s.6d
  • To visiting minstrels of the king and other lords, £7.7s.4d.

[3. Petition of the community to restrict the locations of the performances, 1398/99]

The community of the city of York petitions the honourable mayor and aldermen of the city that: Huge expenses and costs are incurred on the play and the pageants of Corpus Christi day, which cannot [all] be acted or performed on the same day (as they ought to be), because the pageants are acted in such a large number of locations, to the great damage and annoyance of the community and of outsiders who visit the city on that day for that reason. Considering that the pageants are maintained and supported by the community and craftsmen of the city, in honour and reverence of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the honour and benefit of the city, we ask you to ordain that the pageants be acted in the locations to which they were assigned and restricted by yourselves and the community in earlier times – the which locations are in a schedule attached to this petition – or in other locations each of which will be determined by the mayor and council. And that any and all who contravene the aforementioned ordinance and determination shall incur a penalty of 40s. payable to the council chamber of the city. And that if any of the pageants are tardy or dilatory [in progressing from location to location] due to default or negligence of the actors, they incur a penalty of 6s.8d to the chamber.

They implore that these matters be undertaken, or otherwise the play cannot be performed by the community. And this they beseech for God's and charity's sakes, for the benefit of the community and outsiders visiting the city, for the honour of God and fostering of charity among the common people.

The places where the Corpus Christi play shall be presented:

  • first, at the gates of Holy Trinity in Micklegate;
  • second, at the entrance to Robert Harpham's house;
  • third, at the entrance of John de Gyseburne's house;
  • fourth, at Skeldergate's end and North Street's end;
  • fifth, at the end of Conyng Street opposite Castlegate;
  • sixth, at the end of Jubretgate;
  • seventh, at the entrance to Henry Wyman's house in Coney Street;
  • eighth, at the end of Coney Street, next to the common hall;
  • ninth, at the entrance to Adam del Brigg's house;
  • tenth, at the gates of the monastery of St. Peter;
  • eleventh, at the end Girdlergate, at Petergate;
  • twelfth, on the Pavement.

It is ordained that banners for the play, [decorated] with the arms of the city, shall be made available by the mayor to the Corpus Christi pageants, for setting up in the locations where the pageants are to be performed. Those same banners must, each year on the day after Corpus Christi, be redelivered at the chamber into the hands of the mayor and chamberlains of the city, for storage during the year to follow, upon penalty of 6s.8d paid to the use of the community by any or all who hold on to those banners beyond the day after and do not return them as specified.

[4. Extracts from city ordinance of 1417]

The mayor, reputable men, and the whole community by unanimous agreement have ordained that all those who receive money for seating upon scaffolding, which they erect in the aforementioned places [i.e. the locations for performances] in front of their houses on communal land, must pay one third of the receipts to the city chamberlains to be applied to the use of the community. If they refuse to pay the one-third share or to make some other fair arrangement with the chamber, then the performance will be transferred to some other location selected at the discretion of the mayor at that time and of the city council; no-one being exempted from this ordinance, with the sole exception of a few owners of scaffolds in Micklegate....

... it is improper, and not to the advantage of the community, that the play be presented each year in the same particular locations and nowhere else, since everyone according to his status is doing his share of the work towards maintaining the performances. They have therefore unanimously ordained, for the benefit of the community, that the places where the play is performed may be changed, unless those before whose houses performances have previously been presented pay some fee to the community for that personal privilege which they have each year. And that in all years to come, for as long as the play continues to be performed, it shall be presented in front of the entranceways and houses of those who pay the best and largest [fee] to the chamber and show a preparedness to do more for the benefit of the whole community in order to have the play presented there; no favour being shown to any individual for his personal advantage, but taking into consideration only the public benefit of the whole community of York. The respectable gentleman John Moreton, in regard to his house, submitted completely to the decision and ruling of the mayor and council on the matter of the play being performed in front of his residence in Micklegate and other of his properties in the city.

[5. Record of the difficulties of the goldsmiths and masons with their pageants, 1431]

It should not be ignored but instead committed to memory that the goldsmiths of the city of York have in previous years borne considerable and onerous expenses related to their two pageants in the Corpus Christi play. But now the world has changed for them; they have become poorer than they were in the past, because of the circumstances mentioned above. They have made repeated appeals to the mayor and council for grant of a subsidy that would lighten their insupportable burden. Or, failing that, for release from responsibility for one of their pageants and its associated expenses, which grow day by day, since they cannot much longer support the burden of both of the pageants without putting themselves in great difficulty. On the other hand, the masons of the city have been grumbling among themselves concerning their Corpus Christi play pageant, in which Fergus is scourged, because the subject of that pageant does not derive from holy scripture and has provoked shouting and laughter rather than evoked devout feelings. In consequence, arguments, quarrels and fights have occasionally broken out among audience members. Rarely, if ever, could they produce and perform their pageant in daylight, as preceding pageants did. Therefore the masons expressed a strong desire to be released from responsibility for that pageant and assigned a different one, which would be based on holy scripture and could be produced and performed in daylight. To have their wishes fulfilled, both groups petitioned and beseeched the mayor and council for their consent and favour in the matter. Whereupon the mayor, Thomas Snaudon, and the aldermen and council of the city chamber, sympathizing with the wishes and desires of the men of those crafts and considering them valid, decided that the goldsmiths should have their burden lessened by relieving them of one of their pageants – that is, Herod. Similarly, the masons and their gild should be released from the pageant of Fergus, taking over [instead] the pageant of Herod for which the goldsmiths had formerly been responsible, producing it at their own expense and performing it in a proper fashion that would bring credit to the city, as part of the Corpus Christi play, as often as that play would be performed in the city.


These various extracts are indicative of the amount of trouble and expense the city underwent to organize and present the Corpus Christi play, a burden it shared with the gilds supporting the individual pageants. The city put its stamp on the event through the banners bearing city arms, set up at authorized performance locations, and later permitted to be mounted above each pageant – in place of signs advertising the trade of the gilds producing each pageant.

One recurring problem was regulating the locations for presentations of the pageants. It may have been that the gilds were bribed by wealthy townsmen to stop and perform before those townsmen's houses. The large number of individual pageants, combined with the large number of performance locations – swollen by unscheduled stops – may well have impeded progress to the point of failure to complete the route during the day. Just possibly some such embarrassment may have occurred when Richard II attended the performance in 1396 (two weeks after granting the city a new charter).

The wagons were stored in one or more communal buildings on Toft Green, in the southwestern corner of the city; these storage sheds came to be known as Ratton Row. It was natural, therefore, for the route of the performances to begin outside the Benedictine priory at the southern end of Micklegate, not far from the town wall; just possibly the pageant scenery was erected on the wagons within the priory walls, and the cavalcade emerged from there. The wagons then trundled northeastwards along Micklegate, stopping before the homes of two citizens – master-weaver Robert Harpham and ex-mayor John Gyseburn – and again at the junction where North Street and Skeldergate ran into Micklegate, before crossing the Ouse at the only bridge then in existence. A short distance beyond the bridge up Ousegate, they reached a junction with Coney Street (west) and Castlegate (east), and gave another performance. Turning up Coney Street (the name meaning King Street), they stopped en route at the junction with Jubbergate (now Market Street), in front of the house of a prosperous merchant (and future mayor), and outside the hall that served for large political meetings. Further along Coney Street, they headed northwards up Stonegate; there they stopped at Adam del Brigg's house, then travelled on to where Stonegate ended, at the boundary of the Minster precinct. After a presentation near the Minster gates, they turned eastwards along Petergate and presented again at its junction with Church Street (formerly Girdlergate) then continued on until reaching the Pavement (a wide paved street) where the final presentation was given by All Saints church. From here it was a short distance south via Ousegate to the bridge and the route back along Micklegate. Part of the complaint of the masons seems to point to the problems which occurred with the large number of pageants combined with large number of stations; those coming last in the process were still performing after daylight had faded. As the final pageant, the Last Judgement, was put on by the powerful mercers gild, any complaint they might have had in this regard would have been influential.

At a meeting of the city authorities in June 1417, one item of business was the confirmation of ordinances stemming from the petition of 1398/99, including the stations for the presentation of pageants, which were described in almost the same terms (although "formerly of" was inserted in front of the names of most of the individuals outside whose houses presentations were to be made). Provisions about the banners were likewise reiterated. Two additions were made, a few days apart, to this ordinance to capitalize on the benefits to certain private citizens from the stations appointed for performances: intangible benefits in terms of social status, but also concrete profits from charging the audience for superior viewing-points; the city felt it should share in the revenues. Councillor John Moreton – being one of the citizens personally benefiting – evidently opposed this at first, but later gave way to majority opinion; he was elected mayor the following year. The city's resentment of the private profits being made from the pageants was doubtless partly due to the fact that costs related to the pageant were a regular item in its own budget. A grant in 1478 to two fishmongers to have the pageants performed between their properties, on the Ousegate side of the Ouse Bridge, shows that the city received 11s. annually for this licence fee; the grant was made for twelve years. The 1486/87 city chamberlains accounts show an income of £4.13s.4d. from 66 "locations" (presumably including both the licences for performance stations and taxes on viewing stands), although 12 other locations, in the Pavement, had not found lessees – perhaps these last stations were less popular because of the late hour at which the final presentations took place there. This represented only a small percentage of the city's total annual income.

The resentment felt by the city may have been exacerbated by the occasional complaints from some of the gilds about the burdensome expense to their members of mounting the pageants. The coopers gild, for example, requested the city authorities adopt an ordinance requiring that anyone who set up shop as a master-cooper should straightway pay a fee of 6s.8d, half going to the city and the other half towards the cost of the pageant. And in 1421 several minor gilds requested that their assignments be amalgamated into a single play, towards whose production costs all of the gilds would contribute (although arguments soon broke out between these gilds as to the amount of contributions). For a number of years in the same period the smiths and marshals (blacksmiths) were demanding – on the grounds of encroachment by each on the trade of the other – contributions towards the production costs of its pageant; arbitration finally decided that one representative from each gild should work together to collect the "pageant silver" from members of both gilds, with the sum collected being put towards production of both pageants. The plea from the goldsmiths again is testimony of what was perceived as a high expense, although we must allow for some exaggeration from the petitioners. Nonetheless, the play overall remained popular, and performances continued well into the sixteenth century.



I.e. office – in this case probably the financial (chamberlains') office.

Perhaps some kind of spar (supporting pole or beam)?

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 27, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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