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Medieval Liturgy as Theatre: the Props

  • R. N Swanson (a1)

It may be debated how far the liturgy of the medieval Church (in particular the Mass) can be considered as ‘drama’, but its theatrical impact and organization are undeniable. Staged within a distinct space, the principal act of the Church’s worship had its own text and directions, which through contemplation and allegory summarized Christ’s terrestrial experiences and various aspects of the Christian faith. The Mass and other liturgical celebrations were events to be visualized, both externally and internally. It has been said of medieval plays that their

fundamentally visual nature… so apparent to [a] medieval audience, often escapes the attention of modern scholars. The lines drawn between disciplines hinder easy access to methods that would enable readers to pass from a text to a visual reconstruction of it. Nonetheless the readers of dramatic texts need to visualize stage properties, costumes, and sets, and, when appropriate, to see beyond their literal meaning to their symbolic import. Further, readers must see gesture, placement, and interrelationship of actors, and understand how these visual elements contribute to the content.

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1 The Mass as drama is accepted in Hardison O. B. Jr., Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages: Essays in the Origin and Early History of Modem Drama (Baltimore, 1965), pp. 3579 , see esp. p. 79; see also pp. 23-4, against Young K., The Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 vols (Oxford, 1933), 1, pp.7985, 11011 . Although denying the Mass as drama, Young concedes that its choreography and actions do recall ‘the circumstances of the theatre’, being replete with ‘dramatic externalities’ (p. 80).

2 Legg J. Wickham, ed., Tracts on the Mass-Henry Bradshaw Society, 27 (London, 1904), pp. 1929 ; [ Gararde Friar], The Interpretacyon and Sygnyfycacyon of the Masse (London, 1532; STC 11549), sig. iiiri.iiiv, kiiroiiiv ; Aston M., Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (London, 1984), p. 123 .

3 Sheingorn P., ‘The visual language of drama: principles of composition’, in Briscoe M. G. and Coldewey J. C., eds., Contexts for Early English Drama (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989), p. 173 .

4 Draper P., ‘Architecture and liturgy’, in Alexander J. and Binski P., eds, The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England, 1200-1400 (London, 1987) [hereafter AC], pp. 8391 .

5 For example, Fowler J. T., ed., Rites of Durham - SS, 107 (1902), pp. 1058 ; for the totality of the liturgical experience see Coldstream N., ‘The kingdom of Heaven: the architectural setting’, in AC, pp. 927, esp. p. 96 .

6 Oman C., English Church Plate, 597-1830 (London, 1957), pp. 1213 .

7 I therefore deliberately omit consideration of many other aspects of ecclesiastical decoration which encouraged devotion, but were not involved in the routine, clerical, organized liturgy, like paintings, images, shrines, and personally-owned books of devotion.

8 Swanson R. N., ‘Thomas Holme and his chantries’, York Historian, 5 (1984), pp. 46 ; Raine J., ed., The Fabric Rolls of York Minster, with an Appendix of Illustrative Documents - SS, 35 (1858), pp. 274306 ; Timmins T. C. B., ed., The Register of John Chandler, Dean of Salisbury, 1404-17= Wiltshire Record Society, 39 (1983), pp. 5072 (this includes some inventories of chantries); Watkin A., ed., Archdeaconry of Norwich: Inventory of Church Goods temp. Edward III = Norfolk Record Society, 19, 2 vols (1947-8 ); Masters B. R. and Ralph E., eds, The Church Book of St Ewen’s, Bristol, 1454-1584 = Publications of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Records Section, 6 (1967), pp. 111 ; Oliver G., Lives of the Bishops of Exeter and a History of the Cathedral, with an Illustrative Appendix (Exeter, 1861), pp. 30176 ; Raine , Fabric Rolls, pp. 21235 (cf. the inventory from the reign of Edward VI, ibid., pp. 306-13); Bond M. F., ed., The Inventories of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, 1384-1667 (Windsor, 1947), pp. 3283, 10221, 14859, 16679 ; Walcott M. E. C., ‘Inventory of St Mary’s Benedictine nunnery, at Langley, co. Leicester, 1485’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Architectural and Archaeological Society, 4 (1878), pp. 11921 ; Ives E. W., The Common Lawyers of Pre-Reformation England (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 436, 4436 ; Ridgard J., ed., Medieval Framlingham: Select Documents, 1270–1524 - Suffolk Record Society, 27 (1985), pp. 134, 14853, 155 . For a general consideration of invent ories, restricted to plate, see Oman , Church Plate, pp. 1634 .

9 PRO, E101/517/27, fols 1v, 2v, 4r-v—besides other materials and costs of workmanship these ornaments accounted for 1843 4 oz. of silver.

10 Windsor, St George’s Chapel Archives, XV.3.3, printed in Middleton J. H., Illuminated Manuscripts in Classical and Mediaeval Times: their Art and their Technique (Cambridge, 1892), pp. 2202 . The date is provided by comparison with other material in the Windsor collection.

11 For example, King D., ‘Embroidery and textiles’, in AC, pp. 15761 ; Campbell M., ‘Metalwork in England, c.1200–1400’, in AC, pp. 1628 ; Wathey A., ‘The production of books of liturgical polyphony’, in Griffiths J. and Pearsall D., eds, Book Production and Publication in England, 1375-1475 (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 14361 . A general study of the production of non-choral liturgical texts is lacking; for the present see comments in Wathey, ‘Production of polyphony’, p. 150; Bell H. E., ‘The price of books in medieval England’, The Library, ser. 4, 17 (1936–7), pp. 31232 ; and evidence cited elsewhere in this paper. Oman , Church Plate, pp. 3126 , deals with the Middle Ages, but while seeking to provide a context for the history of church plate, is mainly concerned with offering a species of catalogue of extant material (pp. 40-102).

12 Cox J. C., Catalogue of the Muniments and Manuscript Books pertaining to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield; Analysis of the Magnum Registrum Album; Catalogue of the Muniments of the Lichfield Vicars-Collections for a History of Staffordshire, 6/ii (1886) [hereafter cited as ‘Cox’], pp. 199221 ; Shrewsbury Public Library, MS 2 [hereafter cited as ‘SPL’[, fols 91r–6r. I am grateful to Mr Douglas Johnson, of the Staffordshire VCH, for drawing my attention to this MS, and to Mr James Lawson of Shrewsbury School (who originally identified it) for his assistance.

13 Lichfield, Joint Record Office [hereafter LRJO], D30/1, fol. 70V. An indenture was provided for at Stayndrop’s first appointment as sacrist in 1391 (ibid., fol. 29v); the 1405 arrangements presumably reflect a redrafting of the agreements.

14 Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashm. 794, fols 121v, 138r, 141V, 143V, 144r, 173V, 178V; LJRO, D30/1, fol. 95v; D30/III, fols 120V, 125r, 133V; D30/IV, fols 10v, 40r.

15 These will receive further consideration in due course. They are parts of the lost chapter act- book from which other extracts are considered in Swanson R. N., ‘Lichfield chapter acts, 1433-61’, Collections for a History of Staffordshire, ser. 4, 13 (1988), pp. 2746 .

16 SPL.fol.91r.

17 SPL, fols 92r-4v.

18 SPL, fols 94V-6r.

19 SPL, fols 93V, 95V.

20 Swanson , ‘Lichfield chapter acts’, p. 41 ; SPL, fol. 95r.

21 Some later acquisitions are entered in the act-books: LJRO, D30/II, fols 4r, 11v; D30/1V, fol. 27V.

22 Cox, pp. 204, 211, 220, n. 64. A further complexity of the 1345 list is the record of donations by William de Bosco, who died as chancellor in 1329: Neve J. Le, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1300-1541, x: Coventry and Lichfield Diocese, ed. Jones B. (London, 1964), p. 9 . In the chapter act-book he is recorded as bequeathing three books (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashm. 794, fol. 38v). None is associated with him in the 1345 list, which does name him as donor of a chalice and vestment (Cox, pp. 201, 203, 209–10).

23 SPL, fols 96r, 94V.

24 Cox, pp. 200, 208; SPL, fol. 92r.

25 Cox, pp. 201, 209; SPL, fols 92r-v.

26 Cox, pp. 201-2, 209.

27 SPL, fol. 93r.

28 DNB, 11, pp. 570-3. For his exploitation of office-holding, Presrwich M., War, Politics, and Finance under Edward I (London, 1972), pp. 1523, 168 ; Beardwood A., ‘The trial of Walter Langton, bishop of Lichfield, 1307-1312’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, ns 54/iii (Philadelphia, 1964 ).

29 This booklist is not to be identified as the cathedral libtary, of which details of the early seventeenth-century manuscript collections are provided in Ker N. R., ‘Patrick Young’s catalogue of manuscripts of Lichfield cathedral’, Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies, 2 (1950), pp. 1519 (some of his identifications of survivals have now been rejected).

30 Le Neve , Fasti, p. 42 ; Davis N., ed., Non-cycle Plays and Fragments, EETS, supplementary texts, 1 (1970), pp. xivxxii, 17, 12433 ; Rankin S., ‘Shrewsbury School, Manuscript VI: a medieval part book?’ Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 102 (1975-6), pp. 12944 .

31 Windsor, St George’s Chapel Archives, XV.3.3; Middleton, Illuminated Manuscripts, pp. 220–3.

32 SPL, fols 95v-6r. See also comments on book production for the chapel on London Bridge in Chrisrianson C. P., Memorials of the Book Trade in Medieval London: the Archives of Old London Bridge-Manuscript Studies, 3 (Woodbridge, 1987), pp. 1417 . The sheer functionalism of service-books perhaps accounts for the general lack of illustration: see Scott K. L., ‘Design, decoration, and illustration’, in Griffiths and Pearsall , Book Production, pp. 33, 46, 48 .

33 Sheingorn Compare, ‘Visual language of drama’, p. 184 .

34 Cox, pp. 200–3, 208-10 (a gift bearing the arms of the king of Germany was probably made by Richard of Cornwall: ibid., pp. 204, 211); SPL, fols 93V, 95r.

35 This may simply reflect defects in the fifteenth-century lists, which generally do not mention donors of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

36 Astong Compare, Lollards and Reformers, pp. 1835 . Mass vestments also had a mystical meaning: Legg Wickham, Tracts on the Mass, p. 19 ; The Interpretaron and Sygnyfycacyon, sig. i.iiv—i.iiir.

37 SPL, fols 93r-v.

38 SPL, fols 93r-v, 94r, 95r, see also fols 94V (gift of William Hall), 95V.

39 The demand for prayers might be stated explicitly on plate: Oman, Church Plate, pp. 55, nn. 2–3, 81, n. 1.

40 This clearly applies to Langton: his will leaves very little explicitly to be retained by Lichfield: Beardwood, ‘Trial of Langton’, p. 40 (my interpretation differs from that given ibid., p. 39).

41 SPL.fol.93r.

42 SPL, fol. 93V.

43 Dugdale W., Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. Caley J., Ellis H., and Bandinell B., 6 vols in 8 (London, 1817–30), 6/iii, p. 1262 .

44 Bond, Inventories of St George’s, pp. 5-8, 88-101, 122-45, 158–63; J. T. Fowler, ed.. Extracts from the Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham, 2 - SS, 100 (1898), pp. 379-425, 441-82 passim.

45 Chrisrianson, Memorials, pp. 16-17; Wathey, ‘Production of polyphony’, pp. 144-5 (the physical characteristics of polyphonic material might also affect survival and retention: ibid., pp. 145-8).

46 These responsibilities are implicit in the bond of 1405 (n. 13 above); see also the statutory definition of the sacrist’s duties in H. Bradshaw and C. Wordsworth, eds, Statutes of Lincoln Cathedral, 2 vols in 3 (Cambridge, 1892–7), 2/i, pp. 18-20.

47 Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashm. 794, fol. 161v.

48 LRJO, D30/I, fol. 3v.

49 SPL, fols 93V, 94V.

50 SPL, fol. 93V. Unfortunately, defective transcription in the second case has reduced the sum to gibberish.

51 LJRO, D30/I, fol. 39V.

52 LJRO, D30/IV, fol. 54V (but this may refer to possessions of the vicars choral, rather than the sacrist’s responsibilities).

53 Dugdale, Monasticon, 6/iii, p. 1265; LJRO, D30/III, fols. 138v-9r, D30/IV, fols 75v-6r.

54 Cox, pp. 205-6, 212-13.

55 LJRO, D30/I, fols Iv, 3V.

56 Cox, pp. 206, 212. The editors postulate that he had been buried in the mitre (ibid., p. 221, n. 79).

57 LJRO, D30/I, fols 23V, 115>r, 136r;SPL, fol. 91r.

58 LJRO, D30/IV, fol. 64r.

59 Norwich, Norfolk Record Office, DCN 2/1/82 (account for 13-14 Henry VIII). The possible exception in the Lichfield inventories occurs at SPL, fol. 91r.

60 See comment of Oman, Church Plate, p. 21.

61 Norwich, Norfolk Record Office, DCN 2/1/82 (account for 2-3 Henry VIII).

62 Archer M., ed., The Register of Bishop Philip Repingdon, 1405-1419, 3 = Lincoln Record Society, 74 (1982), nos 154, 509, 538 ; Swanson R. N., ed., The Register of John Catterick, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, 1415-19. Canterbury and York Society, 72 (London, 1990), nos 2001 . See also the miraculous recovery of stolen church property in Grosjean P., ed., Henrici VI Angliae regis miracula postuma ex codice Musei Britanici Regio 13.c.VIII Subsidia hagiographica, 22 (Brussels, 1935), pp. 1502 . The comments on security in Oman, Church Plate, pp. 35-7, strike me as rather optimistic.

63 Venables E., ‘The shrine and head of St Hugh of Lincoln’, Archaeological Journal, 50 (1893), pp. 4850 .

64 For example, Swanson, ‘Thomas Holme and his chantries’, p. 6. See also Burgess C., ‘“For the increase of divine service”: chantries in the parish in late medieval Bristol’, JEH, 36 (1985), pp. 624 .

65 V.C.H. A History of the County of Stafford, iii (Oxford, 1974), p. 168.

66 Campbell M., ‘Metalwork’, p. 162 . For the fate of plate at the Reformation, Oman , Church Plate, pp. 11326 .

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