This might sound like a rather abstruse theological question – along the lines of angels and pinheads. However, it isn’t as far as I’m concerned. Since auditioning for the York Mystery Plays‘ forthcoming wagon productions, I have become God’s understudy. I’m not sure whether this kind of role existed before, but the shadow of COVID has meant directors are more concerned about having ‘first reserves’ for the main speaking parts.
Some years ago I encountered the York Mystery Plays while undertaking research connected with the history of hospital chaplains. This involved visits to the York Minster Library to access records and materials connected with the large hospital of St Leonard, developed out of an infirmary built over a thousand years ago. It was here that I came across a reference in the prayer of the Barber Surgeons which addressed the Lord ‘as Sovereign Leech’. It’s a small expression of the visceral and earthy content of the plays, bringing the stories told in Latin in the pristine interior of the Minster down to the vernacular of the Shambles. A narrow lane where the butchers of York conducted their trade, and the cobbles no doubt ran with blood.
The play in the cycle which I’m supporting is The Flood. Given some of the inaccessibility of the language it’s helpful to have a story which is well known, even outside Christian circles. The cast has reflected on the question of what kind of god saves one family and kills everyone else? This may have been less troublesome to Medieval tellers of the tale or their audiences, where the traditional explanation of ‘sin’ is the accepted reason offered for the mass slaughter. God repents of creating humanity and decides to ‘work this work I will all new’.
Sithen has men wrought so woefully
And sin is now reigning so rife,
That me repents and rues fully
That ever I made either man or wife.
I’ve no doubt that official toleration of the plays depended to some extent on the text more or less following the official story known to the literate people of the day. However, it would be fascinating to know what some thought about this mass extinction when plague had been part of their experience. Times when everyone would have known someone who had suffered and died in the frequent outbreaks that occurred in urban centres. In the second half of the 14th century York’s population fell from 15,000 to 10,000. As the deaths undoubtedly fell unevenly, some families and professional Guilds would have experienced dire losses. Questions about the link between sin and an early grave may well have vexed the minds of citizens, especially given the suffering that took place with very limited medical aid.
At the very least, after the plagues, the story of the Flood may not have seemed quite so innocent or uncomplicated. Unlike many, this does not give me concern from a biblical perspective. Like the story of Job, I do not view these as literal accounts in the sense that they describe physical happenings as we would evaluate them today. Very often these accounts are addressing theological and philosophical questions that were real and pressing for people. Why do sudden natural events wipe away large number of people? Where is God in this destruction and loss of life? Are human beings living the way God is calling them to live? Can we make a fresh start? One view about the demise of Mystery Plays across Europe suggests that a growing diversity of beliefs meant that vernacular plays were no longer uncontroversial accounts of an agreed theology. This both placed people’s souls at risk (of error) and posed challenges to civic authorities attempting to maintain order in fractious times.
The plays are full of hints and winks that add ribald humour to the narrative and no doubt contributed to the popularity of the plays. For example, we are left to wonder whether one of the daughters became pregnant in the ark when she remarks towards the end of the flood: ‘Nine months past are plain Since we were put to pain’ (both the timespan and reference to pain – Genesis 3:16 – appear to leave little doubt). As with so much community theatre, the allocation of roles could also lead to mirth. Might some of the humour be subversive, casting a teetotaler as Noah or a reprobate as God? We know from the contemporaneous Canterbury Tales the character of Medieval discourse and popular humour or, at least, the kind of humour that found a ready audience. In a dissertation by Asier Ibáñez Villahoz, it is suggested that both the Mystery Plays and the Tales draw on a form of carnival subversion. While I disagree with Villahoz’s claim that sexual humour is absent, it may certainly have been more obscure or toned down when compared with the Tales due to its public performance.
Carnival subversion appears in the way some characters as the adulterous woman or Noah’s wife are depicted connected to that anti-feminist tradition. Misogyny is a major issue in these plays: not only Eve is represented in a negative way but also other women that have just been mentioned do not behave the rigid orthodox way of behaviour they should have.https://uvadoc.uva.es/bitstream/handle/10324/33297/TFG_F_2018_35.pdf;sequence=1
The resurrection of the Mystery Plays in a modern setting may reflect the relative decline in the UK of religious disagreements as a cause for public disorder. The audiences appear happy to regard the wagon plays as public spectacles, with historical interest and a spirit of local pageantry. Seeing them performed in full for the first time since the pandemic may cause some to reflect on the recent inundation of infection. Whether this unforeseen loss of life will raise theological questions is uncertain and, despite the inevitable temptation, I genuinely hope that God does not come down with COVID.