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SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York Corpus Christi plays preservation peace crafts theatre

Subject: Orders regarding the Corpus Christi pageants
Original source: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, f.245
Transcription in: Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed. York Plays: the plays performed by the crafts or mysteries of York on the day of Corpus Christi, New York: Russell and Russell, 1963 (original edition 1885), xxxiv.
Original language: Middle English
Location: York
Date: 1394


Proclamation [concerning] the Corpus Christi play performed on the eve of Corpus Christi

Hear ye, etc. On behalf of the king and the mayor and sheriffs of this city, we order that no-one is to go about in the city armed with sword or Carlisle-axe, nor any other weapon, so as to disturb the king's peace or the play, or to obstruct the Corpus Christi procession. They are to leave their harness in their inns – except in the cases of knights and respectable squires, who have their swords carried after them – upon penalty of confiscation of their weapons and imprisonment. Those men who present the pageants are to perform at the places assigned them, and nowhere else, upon penalty of the fine already established; that is, 40s. The craftsmen and all other men who have to provide torches are to proceed out in good array, in the fashion which has previously been the custom, carrying the pageant lights; none are to be bearing weapons. Officers responsible for keeping the peace, upon penalty of disfranchisement and imprisonment, ... [see note]. All craftsmen are to present their pageants in an orderly fashion, according to sequence, using good performers properly costumed and reciting audibly, upon penalty of 100s. to be paid to the chamber without any remission. All performers who are to take part are to be ready at the proper time – that is, at the half-hour between 4 and 5 in the morning; with each of the pageants following each other, according to the sequence, in a timely manner without dawdling, upon penalty of 6s.8d. paid to the chamber.


This set of orders suggests that the celebrations on Corpus Christi day had become an opportunity for trouble-making by rowdier elements, or a venue for bringing rivalries to a violent head. Such problems were not easy to resolve; we hear again, in 1419, that while participating in the Corpus Christi procession the skinners were assaulted by members of the carpenters' and tawyers' gilds. Further evidence from the next decade indicates that the Corpus Christi festival was far from being a solemn religious ceremony, but was an excuse – at least among some elements of the city populace, as well as some of the visitors from outside – for general raucous behaviour.

The orders also reflect the continual difficulty with keeping the large number of presentations sequenced in an orderly fashion that adhered to a schedule and specific locations for performance. A simulation of the sequencing/timing of performances at the different stations has estimated that it would have required 20 hours to complete the entire cycle of 48 presentations at each of the 12 stations, assuming everything ran smoothly and there were no unscheduled stops (as there evidently were), with each wagon taking about 3 hours to complete the route. This estimation is based upon assumptions regarding the lengths of each performance and the speed and coordination with which wagons moved from station to station, and the assumption that all pageants were presented each year; all of which historians debate. That the different pageants varied considerably in length – performance time ranging between 5 and 30 minutes – must have made smooth transitions near to impossible: some stations would have been without any performances for periods, while other stations would have the next wagon waiting for the previous to finish. Even though the daylight hours were relatively long in northern England at this time of year, the last pageants must have been performing in twilight or the dark (as some complaints attest).

In addition we see a concern for the quality of the presentations. Craftsmen were not necessarily good actors (as Shakespeare reflected through Bottom's troupe in A Midsummer Night's Dream). A later ordinance (1476) required four of the most capable actors in the city to ensure the quality of production of the pageants, including auditioning performers and discharging any not up to the demands of theatrical performance. At the same time, it was prohibited for any performer to undertake more than two roles (again Bottom is recalled), suggesting either that the more capable gildsmen were being over-used or perhaps even that professionals were being employed by some of the gilds.



In this context, harness refers to the accoutrements worn for carrying weapons. This phrase also indicates how the plays and the procession must have attracted visitors from outside the city, some perhaps coming for other entertainment than just the official events.

[latter half of text]
The latter half of this text is not the original version, but written in a different hand over an erasure. The erasure probably explains why the sentence concerning keepers of the peace is truncated and lacks verb and object.

Refers to the financial office of city government.

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

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