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19.06.14 Fitzgerald, The York Corpus Christi Play

19.06.14 Fitzgerald, The York Corpus Christi Play

Christina Fitzgerald provides an accessible edition, rich with supplementary materials, that is sure to be an immediate success with teachers of medieval drama. This edition of the York Play is the latest in a growing number of "Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama" editions for which Christina M. Fitzgerald and John T. Sebastian are series editors, following the successful edition of their Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama (2012). These individual editions follow the trend in recent decades for scholars to study medieval religious drama in local context, in contrast to ur-cycle approach of David Bevington's influential Medieval Drama (1975), which is still in print and influenced earlier generations of drama students. Like the Broadview anthology, these selections from the York manuscript are edited to be accessible to undergraduates and non-specialists. The text is presented in modern spelling, with archaic and difficult words glossed or footnoted, so that additional information is available right on the page at hand. The modernization allows for easy readability for use in the classroom or in performance, while maintaining some Middle English terms crucial for interpretation.

This text joins a growing body of relatively recent editions of the York compilation, including an edition by Clifford Davidson for the TEAMS Middle English Texts series (2011) and a critical edition by Richard Beadle for Early English Text Society (2013). Fitzgerald's new edition will provide serious competition for Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King's The York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford University Press, 1984), a current favorite with teachers wishing to work in greater detail on a single dramatic text than the usual selections in an anthology allow. In contrast to others, Fitzgerald's edition refers to the whole York compilation in the singular, "the York Corpus Christi Play," "following the usage of Medieval York itself" (10), and signaling the editor's preference for understanding the text in the context of surviving civic documents. In character with the edition's interest in bridging modern and medieval contexts, the text also uses the term "play" as well as the terms "pageant" and "episode" in referring to the individual episodes staged by individual guilds.

The text includes 27 of the surviving 47 individual plays or "pageants" chosen, according to the editor, to represent "the core narrative" of creation, fall and salvation (10). These include the most frequently taught of the pageants. A full list of the pageants is in the introduction to the volume, including the pageants that are mentioned in the records but lost and those in the surviving manuscript or "register" of the play (British Library Additional MS 35290). This list contextualizes the edition's selections within the larger corpus of the York plays. A short (12-page) and highly readable introduction addresses the specificity of the York Play and also supplies broader contexts for understanding medieval drama. The introduction touches on such topics as the nature of the feast of Corpus Christi and its relevance to the selection of episodes, the role of the city's craft guilds, and the stations for staging the plays along the pageant route through the city. The editor also discusses more literary topics, such as the possibility of single authorship or revision by one author, the interpretive method of "typology" often seen to unite the episodes, and the poetic structure, tone and rhetorical style of the pageants. Broader contexts discussed include medieval anti-Semitism and lay piety. The introduction concludes by briefly referencing the performance history of the plays, which were known to have been staged from the fourteenth century to the present. Approximately one-page introductions precede the text of each pageant. These include commentary on such topics as the themes of the pageant, references to the Bible and medieval art, information about the sponsoring guild, and comments on staging. These commentaries will provide even beginning students with multiple ways to approach their readings of the pageants.

The edition also supplies multiple supplementary documentary resources for studying the plays that have been carefully selected from Records of Early English Drama: York (eds. Alexandra F. Johnston and Margaret Rogerson, University of Toronto Press, 1976) and re-edited for this edition by Fitzgerald. Featured in the edition are the Ordo Paginarum (a list of pageants played in York in 1415 by the Common Clerk of York) and the York Mercer's Indenture (which includes references to costumes, props and mechanisms for special effects for York's "Last Judgment"). A section taken from the civic records includes excerpts from the Mercer's Pageant Accounts (about the upkeep of a wagon-labor and costs), the City Chamberlains' Rolls: Account of Receipts for Station Placement (amounts paid by people paying to bring the pageant route where they wanted), An Ordinance of the Tanners (showing how pageants could be used in a medieval version of product placement and how the guilds raised funds for the pageants) and a judgement by the City Council concerning pageant costs (showing the burdens of the costs of production). These brief and carefully edited documents not only provide crucial information about the material production of the drama, they also can help teach the methods of archival research to students. Especially welcome are the inclusion of four Middle English Crucifixion poems from Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman's Middle English Lyrics (Norton, 1974) (from a commonplace book, a preaching manuscript and from the Harley manuscript). These lyrics present a larger context for discussing affective piety and would facilitate discussion of the performativity enabled by the two related genres and other topics. A selection of black and white images at the back of the text provides a visual context for the play. These include photographs of four pages from the "Register" or official copy of the York Play, one of which includes a musical score, and visual images iconographically linked to several episodes from York. These include Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent and the Crucifixion from the Holkham Bible, Noah building the Ark from the Bedford Hours, scenes from the infancy of Christ and a mid-12th century psalter, and the Harrowing of Hell from the Gough Psalter. There are also modern photographs of York's city walls and "Micklegate Bar," one of main gates to medieval York and one of the many stations at which the pageants were performed in medieval York. A map of medieval York annotated with the pageant route is provided in the front of the volume. This body of supplementary material helps students imagine the York Play in performance, complete with sets on pageant wagons, props, and music as well as speaking parts.

The one caveat I have about this otherwise magnificent teaching edition is that it would be useful--especially for student readers and for instructors who are not specialists in medieval drama--to include bibliography, perhaps in the form of a "Suggestions for Further Reading" section or even a "Works Consulted" to accompany the introduction.

With its balancing of an accessible text with a rich variety of resources for understanding the York Play's cultural contexts and history of performance, this convenient and thoughtfully put together book will undoubtedly become the new standard classroom edition of the York Play.