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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 11. Importance of the Corpus Christi Festival

But, as is shown in a subsequent chapter, it was not long before the strongest impulse ever given in a contrary direction by the church was imparted by pope Urban IV’s institution of the great Roman Catholic festival of Corpus Christi. It does not appear that this pope, who, at the foundation of the feast, granted a “pardon” for a certain number of days to all who attended certain parts of the divine service performed on it, took any note of the representation of religious plays; the “pardon” mentioned in the proclamation for Whitsun plays at Chester, and attributed to “Clement then bishop of Rome,” together with the concomitant excommunication of whosoever should interfere with the performance of the said plays, is supposed to have been issued by Clement VI, i. e. about a generation later than the confirmation of the institution of Corpus Christi. As is shown below, the Corpus Christi processions of trading-companies in England very soon developed into the performance by them of religious plays; but what in the present connection it is desired to establish is the fact that the redintegratio amoris between church and stage due to the popularity of Corpus Christi long endured, though exposed to many interruptions and rebuffs from high quarters. The friars, above all, as it would seem, the Minorites, were active in fostering an agency of religious excitement which the older and more aristocratic orders were probably less disposed to look upon with favour.

The further development of the relations between the church and the drama is examined at length elsewhere. No religious plays preserved to us from this early period are known with certainty to have been written by secular priests or monks for performance by themselves or their pupils. Possibly some of the extant isolated mysteries may have had clerical authors, but we lack any knowledge on the subject. There is, however, no reason for supposing that these clerical or monastic plays for popular audiences differed very largely from the plays written for lay performers by which, to all intents and purposes, they were superseded, or into which they were absorbed—more especially as there seems every reason to believe that of these latter a large proportion were, at least in the earlier part of the period, written by monks. Nor can it be at all confidently asserted that the comic element was less freely cultivated in clerical than in lay plays, and that the friars were likely to exercise much self-restraint when desirous of tickling the palates of their audiences. In general, though an attentive study will prove capable of marking not a few distinctive characteristics in particular religious plays or in groups of them, of which the variance is due to difference of time or place, it is by no means surprising that an essentially popular growth, not at all intended to satisfy more elevated or refined tastes, still less to secure to its products a place in literature, should have altered but little in the course of several centuries. In nothing are the illiterate more conservative than in their amusements; and in this instance it could not be in the interests of the purveyors, whether clerical or lay, to move far out of the beaten track.

It will be shown in our next chapter by what steps the religious drama in England had passed out of the hands of the church into those of lay performers in town or gild, who, in ever increasing numbers, were found desirous of gratifying their aspirations by the practice of an art in which few think themselves incapable of excelling. By the fifteenth century the process was complete, and a considerable literature of religious drama was in existence, although, from the nature of the case, every part of it was to be subjected to more or less continuous revision and extension.

Of English religious plays, under their threefold designation of mysteries—a name not in use in England, but convenient as designating plays mainly founded upon the biblical narrative—miracles or saints’ plays, and moralities, a full account will be found in the third chapter of the present volume; the question of the relative antiquity of particular extant English plays (The Harrowing of Hell, dating from the middle of the thirteenth century, not being yet to be accounted a play proper) will be there discussed, and special attention will, of course, be given to those cycles of plays, following the chronological order of biblical events, which, though not absolutely peculiar to our literature, are by no other possessed in several complete examples. It will be shown what was the relation of these plays to others of the same species in foreign literatures, and in French more especially, and from what sources besides Holy Writ, apocryphal, apocalyptic, or legendary, they at times derive the incidents or the colouring of their action. Thus, the basis of most of the Christmas plays is not the Scriptural, but the apocryphal, narrative. The most evident source of the episodes of Joseph of Arimathea, The Harrowing of Hell, and The Coming of Antichrist, is the Latin Gospel of Nicodemus. The influence of Cursor Mundi, extant in a large number of MSS., is particularly strong in the York Plays, and to this source, and to the Legenda Aurea of Voragine and similar sources, are largely due the traditions which are reproduced in the English religious plays, and which have little or no basis in the Scriptural narrative. Such are the conception of the hierarchy of the angelic orders, the developed story of the fall of Lucifer, and the legends of the Oil of Mercy and the Holy Rood-Tree.