Corpus Christi is a religious holiday--instigated in 1311--to celebrate the doctrine of Transubstantiation, that is, the symbolism in the Mass of the Host which is taken in communion as the body of Christ--'corpus Christi'.  The Corpus Christi Feast celebrates the possibility of salvation through the sacrifice of Christ at the Crucifixion made available to all through communion in the Christian Mass.


  Time:  The Feast is held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and can thus fall on any date between 23 May and 24 June, the period of early summer in England--long hours of daylight and the festive mood. This period was already strongly associated with folk celebration and festivals culminating in the pagan Midsummer Festivals on June 23rd and 24th. The Church was thus able to exploit the positive holiday mood of the season and to apply it to a religious celebration, expressing the uplifting, joyous possibility of Salvation after the darker mood of the Easter celebrations. As dramatic representations had often been associated with the folk festivals, expectations of some kind of drama were already associated with the period.


The cycle consisted of a series of plays on Christian history, beginning with the Creation of the World, moving through episodes from the Old Testament prefiguring Christ to the Birth, Ministry and Passion of Christ, the Resurrection, Harrowing of Hell and Day of Judgment.


The pageant wagons were wooden flat-topped carts, usually with four wheels, that were most probably pushed and pulled from station to station by men rather than horses. Guild records often refer to payments for beer for the wagon bearers. The playing area consisted of the floor of the wagon, the ground in front of it and often an upper story constructed on the wagon itself which was used to represent Heaven and to provide a playing space for God and Angels. (backdrop and inner space) The wagon is used to represent the ark in the Towneley-Wakefield Noah Play.


Scenery on the wagons was probably minimal and the playing space was purely representational. Characters refer to the space as a stable or a throne room to identify it rather than relying on the scenery and props to produce a realistic image of such places (except when the scenery/props were essential to the stated action of the play: the Cross, sword, the cradle…)


Costumes: elaborate; guild records reveal that money was spent to replace or repair them. (gloves, hose…). Costumes were contemporary and distinctions of rank, class or profession were demonstrated.


The actors were mostly members of the guild which produced the particular play. A statute of 1476 declares that no actors is allowed to perform in more than two plays on Corpus Christi Day and a very heavy fine awaited anyone who was found to have done so. Women did not perform in the plays although they were admitted to the guilds. Their contributions remained the typically domestic ones of washing the costumes and providing food, women's parts in the plays being taken by men or youths. 


The audience for the Corpus Christi plays was involved in the plays in ways which have perhaps never been matched in dramatic performances since. The purpose of the plays was directed entirely towards the audience and the theme of the drama was intended to affect their lives and behavior.  Though the plays functioned very well as books for the unlettered they were also watched enthusiastically by the rich, powerful and educated.


The Mystery Cycles had three basic threads of motivation and function:

1.  They were didactic drama intended to express a moral message that would ultimately save the souls of audience and actors. 

2.  They were occasions for popular entertainment to provide a pleasant means of passing a day free from work.

3.  They were occasions for the expression of civic display, craft honor and local unity.


Typology was a means of comprehending the unity and purpose of Christian history and of showing that all events formed part of God's plan for the universe. Though many of the events of the Old Testament could be seen to have a cause and logic in their own historical circumstances, nonetheless they also contained a relevance to the life of Christ and the establishment of the Christian religion which only becomes apparent long after the events themselves

        On the typological level, "Cain and Abel" gains its place in the cycle as it had already gained its place in exegesis, sermon and the visual arts because Abel can be seen as a type of Christ. Like Christ, Abel is an innocent victim who is killed by the fallen world, here represented by Cain, as at the Crucifixion the unbelieving Jews represent the fallen world. Abel is also killed by his brother and Christ, who had chosen to appear in the world in the form of a man, born of a woman, is also brother to those who kill Him. The typological analogy can be taken further in that Abel is the son of Eve, the woman responsible for the Fall, and Christ was the son of Mary, the woman responsible for the Salvation of the world. The Eve-Mary parallel was a favorite contrast in medieval theology which saw Scriptural approval for the balance in the words of the salutation of Mary at the Annunciation when Gabriel addressed her 'Ave Maria, gratia plena' (Hail Mary, full of grace). 'Ave' is 'Eva' backwards and thus Mary was considered to be, even on linguistic grounds, the inversion of Eve, she who would save the world rather than she who had lost the world.  [Abel-Noah-Isaac as a type of Christ]

During the medieval period typological interpretation of the Bible was a conventional organizing principle and was apparent in many spheres of religious life, not merely at an abstract level of intellectual sophistry. Sermons frequently presented such interpretations and stained glass and sculpture in churches grouped such figures or events together

Narration of performance, or deictic comment, is a frequent technique of medieval drama and in addition recalls the folk drama. The champions and challengers of the Hero Combat play of the Mummers' Play tradition almost always describe their actions in the fight. Action and words are fused to give a more profound and incontrovertible meaning to the events. Medieval plays do not pretend to offer a slice of life or to allow the audience a privileged and unacknowledged witnessing of supposedly real events.


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