York Guilds and the Corpus Christi Plays: Unwilling Participants?

  • Clifford Davidson Western Michigan University


Maud Sellers, in 1912, introduced the notion that the York guilds which produced the civic Corpus Christi plays found them to be ‘an intolerable and vexatious burden.’ The idea has persisted. However, the picture of guild support for the plays is complex, especially during the period of economic and civic decline which in fact impoverished some guilds and left others with a membership deficit due to the inability to maintain their numbers. York, like other cities, was unable to maintain its population without immigration from outside since the death rate exceeded the birth rate. Pestilence and disease played a part in this with consequences for the plays, including the effect on the personnel available for playing the roles. Other indicators, such as strong support for parish churches, are signs of enthusiasm for efforts to maintain the cultural memory involved in recalling salvation history. The result was a play cycle, albeit not without changes, that continued to be produced over a very long run of two centuries.