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2004 November - The Corpus Christi (N-Town) Mystery Plays at St Clement Eastcheap


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Our play this year is taken from a late 15th-century manuscript which was entitled (by a later hand) “The Plaie Called Corpus Christi”. Corpus Christi was a summer festival day established in England in the early 14th Century as a time for contemplating Christ’s sacrifice of his life to redeem mankind from the rule of sin and death. It became an annual tradition in every town and city throughout England to mount a play or pageant sequence in honour of that day.

The text of this year’s play is unlike the other English cycle texts. Probably of East Anglian origin, “Corpus Christi” – the so-called N-town play – may have been written to be circulated round various centres for use at their festivals, each town inserting its name in the prologue.

The ethos is contemplative and includes the Play of Mary focusing on contemporary views of her place in Christianity. The overall theme of the text is a strong one: the ever-presence of Good and Evil, the divide created between God and man by man’s sin and the reconciliation effected by Jesus.

Our selection of scenes opens with a prologue taken from the original Proclamations acting as a publicity announcement in the town performing the play. God introduces the Trinity and creates a heaven full of order and harmony in the midst of which Lucifer inspires rebellion.

Condemned for pride which has disrupted the serenity of Heaven, Lucifer falls to Hell and then, out of envy, tempts newly-created mankind (innocent in the paradise of Eden) to rebel by inflaming it with the desire for the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eating this fruit is seen as their direct sin against God’s order and a misuse of man’s place in nature. God then bars mankind from retracing its way back to Paradise and life becomes one of work ending in death.

Lucifer rises to proclaim his lordship over both Hell and vulnerable mankind on earth. Mimicking a sermon, he exhorts mankind to follow him, accept his lordship and enjoy the Deadly Sins, which (with relevance for all centuries) he portrays as pleasant and reasonable. Man falls under the spell of evil until his sorrow and plea for mercy – expressed by the clerkly character Contemplation – call forth the intervention of God, who proclaims a “time of reconciliation”.

The Parliament of Heaven follows. A vision sequence drawn from other medieval texts introduces the four Daughters of God. They represent qualities or elements of God’s thought: his Truth, or fidelity to promises; Mercy, his care for his creation; Justice, his equity and upright dealing; and Peace, his perfect, tranquil joy. Dressed in traditional colours and wielding symbols, they debate the matter of the rightness of granting man salvation. God the Son offers himself as a means of man’s access back to reunion with God and escape from the devil’s power. This becomes a reality when – after a breathless pause – Mary accepts God’s coming to her on behalf of all creation.

To contrast with this spiritual “high” we continue with the interlude of the two timeless gossip-mongers and trouble-makers Slander and Backbiter from a little-known play in the text called “The Trial of Mary and Joseph”.

The action then moves to the Christmas story. Joseph’s doubts and fears are allayed; the local Bethlehem midwives (popular medieval characters) encounter the miraculous baby; the exotic Kings, coming from the three continents known to the medieval world, find their goal at last and under God’s protection avoid the malevolent threat of the jealous autocrat Herod. Though Lucifer still lives and threatens, the route back to God is assured in Christ, the joy of Christmas.