The revival of mystery plays, and a more visual form of religious practice, is in the news today: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/24/england-cathedrals-back-to-middle-ages-mystery-plays-pageants-chester-st-albans .
Anyone with an interest in things medieval will probably have had to deal with the various surviving mystery plays at one point or another – they have something to contribute to many fields beyond medieval literature/drama/popular theology, even to my rather technical work on legal history. They crop up so regularly that it is easy to assume that everyone in the middle ages thought mystery plays were great. Recently, though, I came across a case which suggests otherwise. I had filed it under the rather un-academic title ‘PrioressGrumpyPants’, I am afraid. Time to share it.
Clerkenwell, Middlesex, somewhere in the (Augustinian) priory of St Mary
The king (probably Edward I, but dating is not certain)
The people of London (various, noisy and unruly, according to the prioress, who calls them sauvage gent)
The modern reader
The prioress of Clerkenwell is not happy. She is in charge of the priory’s finances, and, like virtually all medieval nunneries, Clerkenwell’s finances are always a bit insecure. A particular annoyance is that she is not getting as much in the way of crops from her fields as she ought to – mainly because of the habit of people of London of coming onto the land and trampling the crops, with their fights or wrestling matches – and their mystery plays (lur miracles & lutes). She petitions the king to ask him to do something about it, saying that the common law has been no help. The response is a bit mealy-mouthed, suggesting that there has been some sort of instruction to a local official, the constable.
The modern reader is not convinced that one constable would be able to do much against the weight of Londoners wanting to use this land for their terrible unruly dramas. She understands the prioress’s financial worries, and is, of course, interested in her as a medieval woman with exceptional power and influence, testing the boundaries of medieval gender constructions, but does feel that grumbling about the unwashed hordes engaging in religious drama might be a little at odds with the idea of religious people as, you know, interested in promoting religion and suchlike. She also wonders if the Londoners might have made a good case for the religious orthodoxy of wrestling matches, based on Jacob’s bout noted in Genesis 32:24-32.
References and reading
The record is SC8/98/4858 and you can see a summary (and even a scan of the document) on the National Archives website: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9149425
If you want to read more on medieval nuns (and who wouldn’t?), the best place to start is still E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge, 1922) (and see her point at p. 36, that ‘[T]he dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them …’ I would have disputed the dry as dust dig, but it’s broadly pro-legal history, so she is all right by me.)
A good entry into medieval mystery plays is: P. Happé, English mystery plays: a selection (Harmondsworth, 1975). Or go and see them – seeing the York cycle long ago was one of the things that started me off on this whole medieval thing …