ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York Winchester Corpus Christi festivals processions ceremony craft guilds friars plays disrespect behaviour church services Purgatory prohibition commerce civic events

Subject: The Corpus Christi procession
Original source: Item 1: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, f.278; item 2: British Library, Add. Ms. 6036
Transcription in: 1. Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part II (1388-1493). Surtees Society, vol.125 (1914), 156-58; 2. W.H.B. Bird, ed. The Black Book of Winchester. Winchester: Warren & Son, 1925, 27-30.
Original language: Latin
Location: York, Winchester
Date: Early 15th century


[1. Provision for proper attention to the Corpus Christi and other divine services]

In the name of God, Amen. By a certain custom in effect over the course of many years, all of the crafts of the city of York have taken upon themselves the presentation of a lavish play (its various pageants, taken together, telling the story of the Old and New Testaments) each year at the festival of Corpus Christi, at various stations in the city; at the same time they make a solemn procession in honour of the blessed sacrament representing the body of Christ. This begins at the great gates of the priory of Holy Trinity in York and goes in procession to York cathedral, and then to the hospital of St. Leonard in York, where the sacrament is delivered up. It [i.e. the sacrament] is preceded by numerous lighted torches and a multitude of priests dressed in surplices, and is followed by the mayor and citizens of York with crowds of other people flocking behind.

On this matter a certain very religious man, brother William Melton of the order of Friars Minor, a propounder of holy scripture and one of the most famous preachers of the word of God to have come to this city, in several of his sermons commended the play, declaring that it was a good thing and most praiseworthy, in itself. However, he said, the citizens of the city and outsiders attracted to the festival there, instead of focusing their attention exclusively on the festival play, also gave themselves over to feasting, boozing, carousing, sing-songs, and other improper behaviour, and made little effort to attend the divine services that day. And what was most to be regretted was that, because of this, they lost the right to the indulgences recorded to have been graciously granted in regard to the festival by Pope Urban IV: of one hundred days to those Christian faithful who attend the Matins services celebrated in association with the festival; the same amount to those [who attend] mass; to those who attend instead the Vespers of that festival, which is the second most important, likewise a hundred; while to those who attend Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline, forty days for each of those hourly services; and to those who on the octaves of the festival attend the morning or evening services, Mass, and the hourly offices, a hundred days for each day of the octave. Just as is more fully specified in canon law.

Consequently it seemed advisable to Friar William, and he had convinced the people of the city in that regard, that the play take place on one day, and the procession on another; so that the populace could congregate in the churches on the festival and be present for the church services that would result in them obtaining the indulgences.

In relation to which, Peter Bukcy mayor of this city of York, Richard Russell recently mayor of the staple at Calais, John Northeby, William Bowes senior, John Moreton, Thomas Gare senior, Henry Preston, Thomas Esyngwald, Thomas Bracebryg, William Ormesheved, and John Aldestanemore, aldermen, Richard Louthe and John Dodyngton, sheriffs, John Hewyk, Thomas Doncastre, John Usburn, Thomas More, Robert Yarom, Robert Midelton, Geoffrey Savage, Thomas Snawdon, John Loftehouse, John Bolton, John Lyllyng, John Gascoigne, William Craven, Thomas Aton, Thomas Davy, John Baynbrig, Thomas Kyrkham, William Bedale, William Gaytesheved, John Louthe, and John Warde, members of the 24, gathered in the city's council chamber on 6 June 1426 [to consider] the declarations, urgings, and the sensible warnings convincingly put forward by Friar William, and persuasive arguments that it was not a sin, nor would it offend God, if something good were changed to something even better. Having therefore carefully discussed among themselves the issues set out above, they gave their unanimous and explicit agreement first to the proposal being announced to the community in the common hall; and then, having obtained the consent of the community, to these matters being reformed for the better.

For which purpose the mayor and community of this city having come together in the common hall on 10 June, and having made a proclamation about the aforesaid serious matter, it was ordained with community consent that as to the solemn play, which it had been the custom to present on Corpus Christi day, it would henceforth be presented annually on the Wednesday, the day before that festival. And that the procession should be made in a solemn fashion on the day of that festival. So that all the people then in the city could devote time to Matins, Mass, Vespers, and the other hourly services of the festival, and be recipients of the indulgences graciously granted in that regard by Pope Urban IV.
Burton, R.

Also at the same place and time, at the urging of Friar William, it was first ordained by the mayor and the community that on Sundays no victuallers or craftsmen henceforth have their shops or windows open, nor place stalls or benches in front of their houses in the place called the Thursday Market, nor anwhere else within the city or its suburbs (except in times of great need [such as] the sudden arrival of lords or ladies or persons from outside the city), for the purpose of buying or selling any kind of merchandize, or for buying or selling meat, fish or any other foodstuffs. But that shops and windows of all men be kept closed on Sundays, from nightfall on Saturday to sunrise on the Monday after, with the sole exceptions of those of taverners and common cooks, for the convenience of travellers, and also fishermen on the Ouse and Foss bridges from Lent to Easter. Buyers, captors, and purveyors of victuals should make arrangements for spending time in buying supplies on the Saturday rather than the Sunday following. So that six days may be occupied with all business and labour, while the people set aside the seventh – that is, Sunday – for rest to the praise of God, who on the seventh day rested from all those works he was performing; and putting aside their worldly preoccupations, they may go to church and personally attend Matins, Masses, and Vespers. Upon penalty of 6s.8d paid to the use of the community of this city by anyone engaged in commerce, industry or victualling who is found to have contravened this [ordinance] at any time in the future.
Burton, R.

[2. Arrangements for the procession at Winchester]

At the congregation held at Winchester on 31 May 1437, an ordinance was made by Richard Gater mayor of the city of Winchester, John Gymere and Henry Putte bailiffs of that city, and agreed to by all the citizens and the community of that city, concerning the public procession on the festival of Corpus Christi by the various crafts within the city. Which is that the carpenters and tilers should go together in the first section of the procession, the smiths and barbers in the second section, the cooks and butchers in the third, the shoemakers with two lights in the fourth, the tanners and coverlet-weavers in the fifth, the fraternity of St. Thomas and the tailors' assistants in the sixth, the fishermen and the skinners in the seventh, the vintners and the fraternity of St. Anne in the eighth, the weavers with two lights in the ninth, the fullers with two lights in the tenth, the dyers with two lights in the eleventh, the mercers with two lights in the twelfth, wives with one light and John Blake with the other light in the thirteenth section of the procession. All these lights ought to be carried in due order in the procession, in advance of the priests walking in the procession. Four lights of the fraternity of St. John Baptist should be carried on either side of the body of Our Lord Jesus that day in the procession. If any member of those crafts raises any objection, or refuses hereafter [to comply with] this ordinance, or pulls out of the procession, then that craft offering resistance or failing to participate is to forfeit 20s. to the city, at the discretion of the mayor and the 24 then being in office, and may face imprisonment. And should any craft slander any other craft, then it is to forfeit 6s.8d to the city, on the grounds of having committed a violation.


In 1264 Urban IV ordered that Corpus Christi be celebrated as a religious festival each year on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, although his death that same year prevented this from having much effect. It was not until early in the next century that Clement V followed up and observance of Corpus Christi, as one most important Catholic festivals; its observance spread quickly across England in the 1320s. The festival was marked by a solemn procession whose purpose was to display the Holy Sacrament (or rather, the shrine that contained the Host) on its travels from one church to another, but also gave the Church the opportunity to show off its pomp and circumstance, since it was the local clergy who accompanied the Host on the march. With observance and organization being left by the Church up to its local representatives and to local authorities, we find the procession becoming a major civic event by the mid-fourteenth century. The timing of Corpus Christi, a moveable festival occurring between late May and late June, placed it very close to midsummer, providing for long hours of daylight and one of the best chances for clement weather.

The Corpus Christi procession provided an opportunity for communal display generally. Particularly the display of communal harmony, in which all interests – as represented by the various trades and the socio-religious fraternities – worked together. The lower strata of urban society are not very conspicuous in this ceremony, and this may reflect their general exclusion from the definition of commuity at this period in towns; on the other hand, the gilds simply provided a convenient mechanism for ordering the procession, while at the same time reflecting how urban society was coming to be perceived as divided into these interest groups. Borough authorities often took advantage of the event to reinforce their authority by giving themselves a conspicuous role in the procession. The trend towards ever more elaborate display, fostered in part by competitiveness between the gilds, led to the introduction of religious iconography and in some English towns to the Corpus Christi pageants, which may initially have been still-life scenes but later developed into playlets. It is not clear whether these could have been integrated into the procession itself, but possibly they were presented on a second circuit, after the procession proper – which began very early in the morning – was completed.

The procession thus combined expression of religious piety, civic pride, and gild rivalry. Ironically, because of the social statement being made by the procession and the competition between the participating groups to see which could outshine the other, matters such as the order in which participants appeared, or the costs of participation, or behaviour prompted by jealousy, could become the cause of squabbling, disharmony, and even bloodshed. An example of this is at York, where it appears that the torches for the procession were custom-made to beautify them as much as possible. In 1419 on the day after Corpus Christi the skinners complained to the mayor and city council that their torches had been smashed by certain carpenters and tawyers, using cudgels and Carlisle axes, and other unspecified enormities had been done to them, disturbing the ceremonies. Early in the reign of Henry VI the York cordwainers were complaining about the high cost of custom-made torches for the procession as well as the cost of the Corpus Christi plays (which was a frequent bone of contention for the craft gilds). In 1426, a week after Corpus Christi, we have the concern expressed in the document above, that the party atmosphere at the time of Corpus Christi plays was interfering with the solemnity associated with the procession; the arrangement for separating the two was later altered so that the play would be the main feature on Corpus Christi day, and the procession was relegated to the day after.

The persuasive argument in leading the city authorities to this decision was the question of indulgences. The concept of Purgatory had become, for the lay population, a key feature of Catholic theology in the Late Middle Ages, painting the picture of an extended period the soul must spend prior to the Last Judgement in a place of punishment and torment – at least, so it was perceived in England. Indulgences provided a partial remission of their punishments, for sins that had already been confessed and contrition shown, so that the recipient was in a state of grace. Normally, the adverse effect of sins on the well-being of the soul had to be erased not merely by absolution from guilt but also by undertaking the reparations assigned by the pardoning agent; in order to remove the burden from the soul before Judgement, these reparations might be undertaken during life (e.g. through penance) or for a certain period in Purgatory. An indulgence removed or reduced the obligation for reparations (or, more strictly, assumed that the sinner's debt to the Church had been paid in full or in part). The value of such remissions to medieval people, in reducing the length of the dreaded stay in Purgatory, was influential, as evidenced in the widespread medieval traffic in indulgences, reflected in Chaucer's Pardoner. The normal length of time specified on an indulgence was 40 days, but longer periods could be given – in the case of the Corpus Christi indulgences above, 100 days for attending the principal Mass of the day. The various services gave structure to a day for the clergy and especially monks, but Mass lay at the core of religious participation for lay people.

Friar William did not stop with his proposal about Corpus Christi. He was on a reforming kick for, as we see above, his proposals to the authorities went beyond Corpus Christi to lack of church attendance on Sundays generally. At the same time he also had roused the populace, and was urging the authorities, against prostitutes, seeking their expulsion from the city; the authorities revived an existing ordinance prohibiting them from living in the city and ordering all to leave within eight days or foreswear their occupation.

A gild dedicated to Corpus Christi had been founded at York in 1408, though it is difficult to say whether this had anything to do with a perception among the clergy that the spirit of Corpus Christi observances had been corrupted among the citizenry. It took some years for the gild to establish its authority in regard to the procession. At some point apparently after the date of the document above, which makes no reference to the gild's role, it was the master and keepers of the gild – all chosen from local clergy – who took the lead in the procession, ensured the procession remained orderly, and accompanied the bejewelled gilded container of the blessed sacrament in the procession. Other local clergy sang, if capable, during the procession, and carried crosses, banners, and lights (torches and tapers). The city officers, dressed in their ceremonial robes, followed after the clergy, and were in turn followed by the the gilds, each in a prescribed order, carrying more banners (symbolizing their crafts) and torches. The streets down which the procession passed were decorated by the citizens. Most members of the Corpus Christi gild were clergymen. Lay persons of good reputation could also become gild members, but not participate in governing the gild; mayor Peter Bukcy had been a member since 1414, and Richard Russell (a former mayor) joined in 1426 – probably close to the events in June – while Thomas Gare had been one of the founding members. Melton was not a member; he would have lacked the means to join.

As the Winchester ordinance was made immediately following the day of the procession, we may suspect some local commotion there concerning the ordering of the procession, necessitating intervention from the borough authorities. As in other towns, each group participating in the procession would carry a large light, which went in pairs; they would probably end up as an offering. The largest crafts monopolised a section of the parade and thereby had to provide two lights; we can clearly see here the importance of the cloth industry in the town. These provisions remained in effect into the reign of Henry VIII, with minor additions of other crafts (the plumbers, silk-workers, chandlers, and brewers).

At about the same period we find other urban regulations governing the processions. At Beverley a Corpus Christi gild founded to support the procession, with priests its principal members, dates back to the 1330s. As the craft gilds became involved, there was a tendency towards disorderly behaviour. In 1430 the Beverley authorities restricted participation in the procession to the aldermen and stewards of the gilds, and arranged the order in which the gilds would appear in the procession. At Chester too we see, in the first reference made to a Corpus Christi procession (1399), an outbreak of violence between the weavers and fullers participating.

At Norwich we hear of the procession in the 1389 returns of two gilds associated with the Collegiate Church of St. Mary's, also known as the Chapel in the Fields; one of the gilds, its members clerics, was said to have been created in honour of Corpus Christi in 1278, which was when the chapel changed from a hospital to a college. It is therefore probably significant that a Norwich ordinance of ca.1449 reveals the Chapel in the Fields as the destination of the Corpus Christi procession; the fact that the same building was also used at times in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries for large civic assemblies is of less certain significance. The same ordinance specified that the procession should begin with the Body of Christ surrounded by light-bearers, followed by specific gilds, the lesser in front and the greater (mercantile) to the rear, each bearing a banner, then followed by "the procession" possibly meaning a dozen pageants depicting scenes from Old and New Testaments, and ending up with the city officials: the sheriffs' assistants, the sheriffs themselves, the mayor's assistants, the mayor himself, and finally the aldermen each carrying bibles or rosaries.

Instructions issued at Coventry in 1445 for the order of the procession also seem to embody some rationale for positioning, placing victuallers first, artisans involved in the leather- and metal-working trades next, those involved in the cloth industry (more vital to the city's economy) thereafter, closing with the large-scale cloth-dealing trades of drapers and mercers. Charles Phythian-Adams has noted that this arrangement is the reverse order in which the crafts were likely to have access to high political office in Coventry ["Ceremony and the citizen: The communal year at Coventry, 1450-1550", in Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700, ed. P. Clark and P. Slack, London, 1972, 63]

London, as so often, is an exception to the rule. It had no gild of Corpus Christi dedicated to organizing a city-wide procession, and the feast of Corpus Christi was not treated as a civic ceremony, per se. However, the skinners gild, whose dedication was to Corpus Christi, was holding a procession by at least 1327; over time this grew to incorporate (according to Stow) over 100 decorated wax torches, more than 200 singing clergymen, followed by civic officials, and finally the members of the skinners gild. In some other London parishes, other individual gilds or fraternities organized lesser processions for their members.



"York cathedral"
Here a sermon was preached to the principal participants in the procession.

"propounder of holy scripture"
The original sacre pagine professor might alternatively be translated as "advocate of the holy pageants", which is tempting given the overall context; but the association with the specific context of him being a preacher is slightly more likely.

"Matins" "Vespers"
Matins was the principal service of the day, celebrated at dawn. Vespers, the most solemn office of the day, was celebrated at sunset; this service was the most popular with the faithful, Matins being at a difficult time to attract celebrants.

"Prime, Terce, Sext, None"
The shorter services of the day, taking place respectively around 6:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m.

"Burton, R."
"Burton recorded this", i.e. the stamp of Roger Burton, York's town clerk at that time, a man trained as a notary and with a strong interest in historical matters.

Lesser retail outlets were essentially residences/workshops with goods being sold through the open window.

"from Lent to Easter"
I.e. when fish became more the dietary staple.

Officials taking prises of shipments.

Those tasked to requisition victuals for official purposes or purchase them for provisioning some noble or ecclesiastical household.

"John Blake"
A man of this name was mayor in 1403/04 and 1407/08, although it is unlikely he would still be alive in 1437.

"possibly meaning"
So thought Alan Nelson (The Medieval English Stage: Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays, Chicago: University Press, 1974).

main menu

Created: March 14, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | Search | About ORB | HOME

The contents of ORB are copyright © 2003 Kathryn M. Talarico except as otherwise indicated herein.