Dr. Jill Stevenson

title.none: King, York Mystery Cycle (Dr. Jill Stevenson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.022 08.02.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Jill Stevenson, Marymount Manhattan College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: King, Pamela M. The York Mystery Cycle and the Worship of the City. Westfield Medieval Studies, vol. 1. Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. ix, 246. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-098-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.22

King, Pamela M. The York Mystery Cycle and the Worship of the City. Westfield Medieval Studies, vol. 1. Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. ix, 246. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-098-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Jill Stevenson
Marymount Manhattan College

The York Mystery Cycle and the Worship of the City is a thoroughly and impressively researched study of York's dramatic cycle. In her Introduction, Pamela King argues that the "time seems right to return to a broadly textual approach" to the cycle that is "informed by the work on civic history, cultural theory, and staging, and by the publication of archival materials, which have characterised recent scholarship" (2). Her specific goal is to re-examine the York pageant texts in their worship context in order to demonstrate how popular worship modes that emerged from the ecclesiastical and theological milieu of fifteenth-century northern England may have influenced the cycle's form and content. She argues that the central motivating force guiding the York cycle was sacramental in nature and that the authors of the pageant texts used liturgical and paraliturgical elements to reinforce this sacramental theme. She analyzes the extant play texts alongside the York Missal and Breviary, and in relation to different rituals, practices, and texts that embellished institutionalized worship events. Her chapters include detailed background material on how these services and practices developed in England and the continent generally, and in York specifically. Although no images are reproduced in the book, King also refers to iconography where applicable. Her analysis of late medieval worship is valuable and comprehensive, while her textual analyses expose new ways of reading and considering these well-studied plays. King's localized approach not only makes a valuable contribution to scholarship on York's dramatic cycle, but also to the study of how performance functioned as part of late medieval devotional culture.

While some scholars have characterized the York cycle as an "adjunct" to Corpus Christi day, King argues that the cycle's form and content were firmly linked to the theological purpose of the religious feast. In Part One, she situates the cycle as one element within the early fifteenth-century revival of sacramental orthodoxy that was sparked, in part, by the threat of Lollardy. The Eucharist, and particularly the Elevation of the Host, figured centrally in the emerging devotional practices of this period, with texts and prayers serving to mediate the relationship between Host and layperson. King argues that the cycle functioned in a similar fashion.

King devotes the remainder of her book to analyzing the cycle's structure and dramatic content in order to trace connections between these and the popular devotional texts and worship patterns of this period. She begins by comparing the cycle's structure to York's calendrical sequence of liturgical readings. She points out that the medieval laity did not experience the Bible as an historical narrative; rather, they experienced it through readings that followed the liturgical calendar. Throughout Part Two she suggests ways in which liturgical reading patterns, which were "thematic, meditative, and above all recurrent" (34), may have impacted the cycle's organization. She divides her analysis into three chapters: after Epiphany to Septuagesima; Septuagesima to Quadragesima; and, Quadragesima to Palm Sunday. Each chapter includes a table that lists the Epistle and Gospel readings in the York Missal from that same calendrical period and indicates when these same Gospel episodes appear in the cycle. Using the liturgy as a guide requires King to juxtapose and analyze groups of pageants from different parts of the cycle alongside one another; therefore, the tables are helpful references, especially for readers unfamiliar with York's pageants or with late medieval worship. By employing this liturgical structure, King also demonstrates that medieval laypeople likely conceptualized biblical material in ways distinct from our own.

In Chapter Two King examines a trio of pageants that focus on Christ's adulthood: Christ and the Doctors, The Baptism, and The Marriage at Cana. She argues that these plays offer spectators a Christ who is willing to submit to ceremonies of the Law, a depiction that supports ecclesiastical orthodoxy while simultaneously reinforcing the cycle's sacramental focus. Chapter Three considers the liturgical readings for the thirty days before Lent. Although none of the Gospel material from this calendrical period appears in the cycle, King explains how the Old Testament sequence of readings closely parallels the cycle's Old Testament episodes in both content and form. The fact that much of this material may have been drawn from weekday Masses supports the argument for clerical authorship of the cycle. Chapter Four examines the episodes from Christ's adult life that occur after his baptism but before Palm Sunday. King characterizes these pageants as meditations on the dual nature of Christ that "act as glosses on the anagogical meaning of the sacrament of the altar, the participation of the human in the divine" (69). She argues that pageants such as The Temptation and The Transfiguration reinforce the notion that Christ's mercy is formalized and perpetuated by the Church, especially through formal worship and the sacraments. The analyses in this chapter are particularly rich and illuminating.

Part Three, entitled "Feast of Feasts," shifts the focus from overall structure and organization to specific representations within the plays. In Chapters Five through Seven, King investigates how recurrent worship and paraliturgical practices may have enriched or even modified the presentation and reception of specific biblical moments dramatized in the cycle. Chapter Five examines the Nativity sequence of pageants from The Annunciation and the Visitation to The Slaughter of the Innocents. All of these plays depict individuals responding to Christ's incarnate presence with them. By borrowing images and emphases from the liturgy, the pageants' author(s) connect the dramatic action to the Sacrament of the Altar and thereby underscore the sacramental theme of Corpus Christi. As in the previous chapters, King supplements her textual analyses with historical background about the associated festive occasions she mentions. I found her discussion of The Purification pageant particularly valuable. This play does not exploit the rituals and spectacle associated with the popular liturgy of Candlemas as one might expect; instead, the play uses an encounter-recognition structure common in liturgical ceremony. By emphasizing the transformational meeting between Simeon and the Christ child, this pageant reinforces the theme of Corpus Christi: the individual's encounter with and welcome of the Host. King's reading recuperates and complicates a play whose dramaturgy some scholars have "dismissed as the product of dramatic ineptitude" (128).

The focus of Chapter Six, "Holy Week and After," is the series of pageants from The Entry into Jerusalem through Pentecost. King chooses to analyze only those plays that depict events that were also the subject of liturgical or paraliturgical festivities. For example, she argues that both The Entry into Jerusalem pageant and the Palm Sunday liturgy place great emphasis on entrances and exits, thereby focusing attention upon the presence or absence of the divine flesh--either the Host or Christ. She also notes that the speeches by the eight Burgesses take the form of Elevation lyrics like those spoken by laypeople when the Host passed them during the Corpus Christi procession (140). Likewise, King's analysis of The Crucifixion links the play's simplicity to the Good Friday liturgy, which was known for its starkness and absences. The pageant's action parallels the Good Friday Mass of the Presanctified, a visual and verbal connection that likely prompted specific reactions in spectators. In this same chapter, King also considers those pageants that depict Christ's post-Resurrection appearances and she observes that all four draw attention to Christ's bodiliness. For instance, Christ utters the "do not touch me" command in Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene, while in The Incredulity of Thomas he invites the disciples to touch his wounds and then agrees to eat with them. These choices further reinforce Corpus Christi's sacramental theme.

In Chapter Seven, King suggests ways in which the sacraments of the church influenced the cycle. Pageants such as The Baptism and The Last Supper employ different kinds of liturgical and instructional material in order to negotiate the depicted event's historical representation with its spiritual significance. This negotiation raised concerns among Protestant reformers who may have excised pageants such as The Last Supper due to their more obvious support of Eucharistic devotion. And yet, as King has demonstrated in the preceding chapters, the cycle as a whole reinforced a sacramental theology. Therefore, such cutting did not eliminate the cycle's communion message. King also reminds us that references to the sacraments in the pageants may have been gestural in nature, such as Adam and Eve replicating the handfasting ritual in The Creation of Adam and Eve. Consequently, layers of sacramental meaning not readily identifiable in the pageant texts may have emerged during live performance.

Part Four is particularly interesting and elaborates on material King previously published on the York trial pageants. Because the single chapter in this section veers in a direction somewhat different than the preceding chapters, it reads like a new argument rather than as a continuation of Parts One through Three. In "Feast of Fools?" King turns to the fifteenth-century political climate in York and suggests how this may have impacted the cycle's design and reception. She interprets the cycle as wrestling with contemporary issues of authority and juridical principles. But while we might interpret pageants such as Christ and the Doctors as parodic reactions to the institutionalized Church's power, King cautions us that this is only one possible reading. Here she returns to issues of ephemerality and textual instability first mentioned in her Introduction, and argues that the cycle's potential for subversion and irony could have been "either realized or equally refused in performance" (193). Although she begins by discussing potential "town and gown" tensions between the City and York's major religious institutions (St. Mary's Abbey, St. Leonard's Hospital, and the Minster), King's actual focus is the tension between town and crown. Her central example is the 1405 trial and execution of Archbishop Richard Scrope, which served to unify the clergy and laypeople of York against the King. Episodes in the pageants that deal with issues of jurisdiction and law, specifically the trial pageants and The Resurrection, might be read as responses to the corrupt legal practices made particularly evident during the Scrope incident. Such criticism of royal authority was made possible, in part, by York's faith in its own divine privilege and special relationship with God, a belief affirmed by the annual performance of its Corpus Christi cycle.

Throughout this book, King is careful not to generalize audience reception as she builds persuasive arguments about resonances between worship and performance. Some readers might find the book under theorized or even conservative in its approach, especially if they are familiar with some of King's latest conference presentations in which she has employed contemporary theory in exciting ways. This is a textual study, in most respects, and scholars interested in performance might wish King used her vast knowledge of York's social and devotional climate to assert more suggestions about the meanings derived during performances of the cycle. As I note above, she does some of that work, but it is not her primary concern in this project. Instead, King embeds the York cycle into its specific liturgical, devotional, and political context, and offers scholars dense and engaging examinations of the York pageants. She moves through the plays swiftly, a style that might prove difficult for those readers unfamiliar with the York cycle and late medieval lay devotion. But her familiarity with and knowledge of the plays is obvious, and her analyses are clearly and concisely expressed.