In order to assess the role of the Guilds in the development of later Mediaeval Drama it is necessary to look at the evolution of the urban environment that gave rise to the Guilds themselves, their rise to prominence and the creation of the cycles of religious Guild plays. Account also needs to be taken of the creation of "Holy Days" by the church in the annual calendar and their use as a vehicle of moral and religious instruction by the clergy. In summary we will look at the relationship between the secular clergy, the urban laity and the extant evidence of the interplay between both parties as a part of the later medieval phenomenon of "Holy Day Processions".
The growth of the larger towns such as York, Coventry and Lincoln during the 12th and 13th centuries was a product of the general development away from the existing feudal system towards a more centric urban manufacturing base. This created a new class of Merchants who were not necessarily landowners but owners of these very manufacturing processes. This could be seen in the rise of the wool and cloth trades in places such as Coventry during the 14th Century.
The increasing specialisation of these manufacturing processes caused the creation of the Guilds; groups of men and women bound together by a particular working environment. Most of these were a product of this environment, for example the Shipwrights Guild and the Pinners Guild, and can be considered in the same light as modern apprentice organisations. There were three main types of Guilds by the 14th Century; namely the Craft Guilds as detailed above, the Merchants Guilds and the Religious or Fraternity Guilds.
Of the three types the Merchants Guilds were primarily interested in the more social or economic areas of urban life, such as civic functionality and the Fraternities were mainly concerned with spirituality, such as Saints Cults and Pilgrimage. However it was the Craft guilds that were most involved with the Religious Drama and Processions of the later mediaeval age.
As the Merchant class came to prominence the wealth created caused a new Merchant elite in the urban towns across the country. The rise of this elite and their influence in the running of the urban towns created a highly oligarchic environment, which formed in a distinct hierarchical structure. Many of the functions of town life were managed and run from this elite, functions such as mayoral duties and Burgesses. The tradesmen and women who worked for the Merchants also began to form into specialist groups, or Guilds, pertinent to their particular trades.
These guilds provided various functions to their members; regulation, apprenticeships, and a level of quality of work were some of the main functions. However there were also lesser services such as an early form of "life insurance" and provision of "death duties" by subscription from the members of the guild to provide for eventualities of existing in the harsh environment of mediaeval life. Over time the guilds became wealthy in their own right and formed a powerful base from which they were able to compete directly with the Merchants. A balance had been achieved between the "Owners" and the "Workers" mutually beneficial to both.
Whilst this was happening the Religious Orders were undergoing a change in they way that they undertook education of the laity. This could be seen in the rise of the Orders of Friars in the urban communities; their acceptance by those communities and that the Orders started preaching newer church doctrine. This is especially noticeable when the Franciscans starting to preach the doctrine of Transubstantiation particularly in the urban environments. It is possible that this is a reflection of the Church's realisation that the urban developments had become a viable environment for promulgation of church ideology. This may also be seen in the development of the religious processions during the period and their decline after the reformation.
These processions appear to have started when Pope Urban IV created the "Procession of the Host" in 1264AD. However by 1317AD this idea of procession had evolved and the church began to instigate Feast Days as special calendar days with Pope John XXII inaugurating the "International Feast Day of Corpus Christi". This is first mentioned in England in 1318AD and by 1330AD many of these on appear on record; the original church processions cemented as a fixed days of celebration in the ecclesiastical calendar.
It is from about this time that the Religious Dramas began. There is very little known about the earlier start of this practice but it is possible that these plays were originally created by the Monastic Orders as a form of instruction and performed to an audience of the Order in the closed confines of the monasteries themselves. It is known that in the early processions on the Feast days the Laity tended to lead the processions and the Clergy followed with the more prominent "Merchant Elite" of the laity closer to the Eucharist than the lesser working classes.
It is thought that the origins of the Guild involvement in these processions was alongside of the Monasteries; these Monasteries using the same processions to perform the plays that had previously been for the closed audience of the Friars. There is evidence that the development of the Guild plays evolved in separation to the Clergy with towns holding processions including these plays without any form of clerical involvement. However it is known that by the time of the extant "Cycles" of Religious plays such as the York and Townley cycles that the order of these processions had evolved into a fairly rigid structure. This structure with certain guilds performing certain plays within the cycle and an accepted structure of the precession conforming to the original order of laity followed by clergy.
By the 15th Century this had evolved into a format with certain Guilds performing particular plays from the cycles. These cycles following a story of the Life of Christ, from Birth to Death, and it is interesting to note the particular affinities for the Craft Guilds and the stages of the story. A good example of this would be the "Shipwrights Guild" performing the "Building of the Ark" or the "Pinners Guild" and the Crucifixion" as specified in the York Cycle of plays. In both cases the Guild speciality reflected in the participation; Shipwrights and the boat building; Pinners and their skill in manufacturing wooden pegs such as those used in the crucifixion.
However other Guild performances are not so obvious; for example the Tailors Guild performing "The Ascension" or the Weavers Guild performing "The Assumption of the Virgin" in the same cycle of plays. It is apparent that these processional performances served several purposes. Primarily that the Guilds could, and did, afford the wealth to put on great displays of piety in view of the general urban populace and that these displays were greatly competitive within the Guild and Merchant structure.
Ancillary to this was an undercurrent of public holiday and revelry in that the plays themselves were very focussed on issues pertinent to the times in which they were portrayed. Knightly classes tended to be bad characters, portrayals of the Devil as a raucous vulgar character tending to rude and blustering trends, loud and brash performances to the audiences, all of this indicative of the underlying social urbanisation and trends towards a reflection of real issues in mediaeval urban lifestyle.
In all of this progression of the celebration of Feast Days the church and the clerics tended to move away from the overt use of these events as a means of advancement of doctrine. The use more an expression of religious dominance looking to Feast Days as an obvious exhibition of the power of the church while leaving the lesser power play of political leverage to be played out between the Guilds and the Merchants.
It is a mark of the rise to prominence of these processions and the guild involvement that most of the participants in the plays would seem to have come from the guild members themselves with scant evidence of the use of professional performers. Also the extant cycles of plays would indicate that it was not possible to perform a full cycle in one day. This might indicate that the processions took place over several days or that they were performed in a cyclic nature in that sets of plays from the cycles were done together in intervening years.
It is clear though that the placing of the guilds performing the plays followed by the elite merchant class culminating in the clergy was a recurrent theme in the order of the processions. This would lead to a conclusion that the church had, by the time of the cycles of religious drama, progressed to taking a role of promulgating a purely religious aspect of the Feast Day processions and leaving the more arduous task of propagating the religious doctrine to the laity.
|Canturbury Tales||G Chaucer|
|Piers the Plowman||W Langland|
|St Francis of Assisi||J R H Moorman|
|English Society in the Later Middle Ages||M K Keen|
|A History of the Mediaeval Church||M K Keen|
|A History of the Medieval Church (590-1500)||Margaret Deanesly|
This text is part of the Historical Reenactment Web Site. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use only. If you do reduplicate the document you are required to indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.
© David Debono October 2001