REED all about it – Part II: Angelic sheep-stealers, iconophobia, and the unaccountable longevity of ‘Merry England’?

Jonathan Willis

Last month I wrote a REED-related post about a minor scuffle at a church ale in Bere Regis in 1590, but this time I would like to highlight a more significant and well-known case, to my mind one of the real gems of the REED material: the controversy surrounding the performance of the Whitsun plays in Chester during the early 1570s.[1]  There was a rich history of sacred drama in Chester going back at least as far as the late fourteenth century, including plays to celebrate Easter, midsummer, and Corpus Christi.  By the sixteenth century, it was held that the ‘old and Antient Whitson playes’ held annually in the city were ‘first made Englished and published by one Randall Higden a monk of Chester Abbey, and sett forth and played at, and by the Citizens of chester charge In the time of Sir Iohn Arneway Knight, and Major of Chester Anno 1268’.[2]  In 1571-2 the plays were still going strong, and detailed guild accounts give a fascinating insight into both the performances themselves, and the degree of time, effort and resource which went into their preparation.  The Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers’ Records for that year recorded 3d for equipment (a ‘touyle’), 1s 4d for casting costs (‘seekinge our players’), and 7s 8d worth of beef to sustain them ‘for our genrall rehearse’, along with two whole cheeses and spices for the meat.[3]   An amateur dramatics group, like an army, evidently marched on its stomach, as payments for bread over three separate rehearsal days totalled 4s 10d, and to quench the assembled thirst there was 10s worth of ale and 9d of small ‘beare’.  Alongside the players, payments were also made to musicians and minstrels, as well as 4s 2d ‘to the clergy for the songes’, implying a close relationship between the professional religious institutions of the city (quite possibly the choir of Chester Cathedral) and the amateur efforts of the trade guilds.

As well as a cast, musicians, and food and drink to sustain them, the Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers also required a stage and props.  To that end, they recorded payments for boards, wheels, nails, and other odds and ends (‘ynckill pynns’, anyone?) for the making of ‘the Carrage’.  The carriage was dressed and bedecked with ribbons, and small payments of a couple of pence were made to porters for moving it into place for the performance and for bringing it home again afterwards.  Other props included a diadem, gloves, a fan, and the accounts even record 10d for ‘sope to wash the clothes’, to keep the costumes as clean as possible.  The dramatis personae for the play are named in the accounts as Simeon, Anne, two angels, Joseph, Mary, God and three doctors.  As befitting the celestial hierarchy, God received a larger payment of 16d to the angels’ 12d, but the doctors also received 16d and Mary (because she had the biggest part?) received 18d.  The loan by a clerk of a cope, an altar cloth and a tunicle, as well as the making and reading of a book, confirm what is already evident from the list of characters: that this play was a recreation of the presentation of the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem.  The ‘songs’ sold to the players by the clergy were therefore likely to have included the nunc dimittis, uttered by Simeon upon his recognition of the Christ child as the messiah.  The part of Jesus could have been played by an actual baby, but it seems likely that the players on this occasion chose a small statue or doll, or at least a bundle of cloths (or a real child) with a mask, as the accounts also recorded a payment of 8d for ‘gildinge of litle gods face’.

Little could the assembled smiths, cutlers, plumbers, painters, glaziers, embroiderers, stationers, bowyers, fletchers, stringers, coopers, cordwainers, shoemakers and other accumulated guildsmen of Chester have known that one pair of eyes in the audience was watching intently for reasons other than their owner’s enjoyment of a traditional festive spectacle.  Those eyes belonged to the Chester-born Church of England clergyman and radical thinker Christopher Goodman, better known to most early modernists as a significant figure in the development of Protestant resistance theory through his How Superior Powers Ought to be Obeyd (1558) than as theatre-critic-in-chief of the north west of England.  Furious letters of complaint concerning what he witnessed from Goodman to the earl of Huntingdon and the archbishop of York rapidly generated a political and religious fireball, which soon expanded to consume Sir John Savage, the mayor of Chester, who had caused the ‘popish playes’ to be set forth.[4]  The material surrounding the affair runs to dozens of pages, but I would like to focus on the ‘notes of absurdities &c in the Chester plays’ which Goodman appended to his letter to Archbishop Grindal.  In part, Goodman’s objections centred around the presence of unscriptural and superstitious elements in the plays, for example the calling of the Ark a ‘shrine’ and the bringing in of Sybill ‘in so superstitious a manner as is not commendable’.[5]  But other complaints centred around what might reasonably be called artistic differences, as Goodman took issue with the directorial decisions of the Chester guildsmen.  This included the ‘unreverent’ speaking of the Shepherds (‘who by the Scripture seem to be honest men’), their ‘foolish descanting’ upon the Gloria, and a masterpiece of dramatic irony whereby the shepherds suspected the visiting angels to be a coterie of ‘sheep-stealers’, and confronted them with a ‘lewd and merry song’.

The craftsmen were obviously playing it for laughs, but the humour was lost on Goodman, who accused the plays of maintaining ‘Superstition’.  This included specific popish doctrines, such as the affirmation of purgatory and the meritorious nature of good works, but extended to the improper portrayal of orthodox Protestant practices, such as ‘the sacrament [of the altar] made a stage play’.  One suspects that, had the entire cycle been theologically and doctrinally orthodox, it would still have caused raised eyebrows amongst Goodman and his ilk.  I think that this material is worth airing partly because it is so extraordinarily fascinating and rich.  But it does also raise an interesting question.  In recent years a number of historians including (but not limited to) myself[6] and Tara Hamling[7] have sought to modify the classic argument made by Patrick Collinson that English Protestant attitudes towards ‘the arts’ had hardened by c.1580, from a position where reformers had been happy to embrace popular cultural forms for their own ends to one which was more stridently ‘iconophobic’.[8]  But criticising an argument’s shortcomings is not the same as putting forward an alternative.  Is it possible to articulate a broad paradigm as generally useful as Collinson’s shift from iconoclasm to iconophobia while also taking due account of the messy detail that Hamling has shown with relation to visual cultures, and which I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere with religious music?  And even more broadly, are our very categories of ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’, ‘Puritan’, and the rest, doomed to be forever hopelessly inadequate in trying to understand the constantly evolving and endlessly fissiparous nature of religious identities in this period?  Answers on a postcard…!


[1] There is a thorough analysis of the history of the plays based on the REED material by David Mills: Recycling the cycle: the city of Chester and its Whitsun plays (Toronto, 1998).

[2] Mayors List 9, BL: Add. 11335, in REED Chester, ed. Lawrence M. Clopper (Toronto, 1979), p. 19.

[3] BL: Account Book I Harley 2054, in REED Chester, pp. 90-91.

[4] Bodl.: MS. Rawlinson B. 282, in REED Cheshire including Chester, ed. Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence M. Clopper and David Mills (Toronto, 2007), p. 162.

[5] Letterbook of Christopher Goodman, DRO: DD/PP/839, pp. 119-122, in REED Cheshire, pp. 147-148.

[8] Patrick Collinson, ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation’, The Stenton Lecture 1985 (Reading, 1986).

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One thought on “REED all about it – Part II: Angelic sheep-stealers, iconophobia, and the unaccountable longevity of ‘Merry England’?

  1. Nice post Jonathan – I am very familiar with this form of early drama, and REED really gives a fascinating insight into exactly how these things were staged and what the spectacle would have felt like for the audience. I was thinking about the ‘artistic differences’ that your critic takes umbrage with – to my mind this is a direct expression of the reformers’ hatred of the mixing of the sacred and secular (integral to Collinson’s thesis of course), rather than to do with directorial choice, or even ‘superstitious’ practices. Making scripture humorous was certainly a way to appeal to the audience, but for some injecting such scurrilous material was too high a price to pay, and it dangerously diluted the message. This quote from Anthony Munday (a playwright himself) encapsulates this:

    “When I see the word of truth proceeding from the heart, and uttered by the mouth of the revered preachers, to be received of the most part in the ear, but a few rooted in the heart: I cannot by anie means believe that the words proceeding from a filthy player, and uttered in a scorning sort, interlaced with filthy, lewd, and ungodly speeches, have greater force to move men to virtue, than the words of truth uttered by the Godly.”

    This is not to suggest that all Protestants thought like this, but Christopher Goodman seems like the sort. As for your final question, yes the labels are inadequate, but nonetheless still a good place to start…?

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