How ‘The York Play of the Crucifixion’ takes a familiar and well-known scene and displays it in a way that shocks the audience- and how that leads to a new understanding.
‘The York Play of the Crucifixion’ is part of a genre known as the ‘Mystery Plays.’ These plays were Bibilically based stories created and put on by various city guilds as early as the twelfth century, but especially during fourteenth and fifteenth century England. They were often performed during two important celebrations in large cities: “Whitsuntide, the week following the seventh Sunday after Easter, or Corpus Christi, a week later”(Norton, 466). These performances were an annual public spectacle, many of them lasting all day long. Of course, such religious and ritualized celebrations faded out as the Reformation began to take place in the 1500s, but these plays still had a profound effect on the mind of the English population. In fact, it was celebration plays like these that acted as the foundation for the importance of theater during Elizabeth I’s reign and the works of people like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Many of these plays were lost over time, though the city of York managed to protect many of their own, allowing us to read them even today.
That brings us to this play in particular created in 1425: ‘The York Play of the Crucifixion’. Since the very event occurred, story after story has been written about the culminating event of Jesus Christ’s life: his crucifixion. Written and presented to a crowd in the English town of York where Christianity was the dominant religion, this was a scene well-known and strong in the minds of all citizens. As the introduction states, “Everything in each cycle leads up to the Crucifixion, the turning point in human history, when the original sin of Adam and Eve is paid for by Christ’s suffering and death”(457). This very event holds such a weight in the minds of all Christians as it is when the entire destiny of the world was irrevocably changed. As this scene has been told before again and again, though, one would expect that this story wouldn’t make much of an impact upon delivery. Yet, the author takes this popular and well known event and turns it on its head enough that this is still a story read and studied six hundred years after it was first written and performed.
The first shocking part of this play is in its specific presentation and delivery. The introduction to this play states that, “While the soldiers are hard at work, the audience see only them, complaining of bad workmanship by those who bored the nail holes too far apart…Only when Christ is raised does the audience recognize the full extent to which both soldiers and audience have been shielded from the pain inflicted by the soldiers’ work”(457). How shocking this must have been for the audience watching this performance for the first time; to see a simple scene of Roman soldiers complaining about work and the terrible efforts of those who worked before them. Considering the time period, this is a familiar opening scene to many of the audience, what with work that is connected to labor. The audience more than likely felt at ease at such a familiar series of complaints(for, of course, their suspicions could not be correct)- then, right as they were lulled into a sense of ease, Christ is lifted up and the true gravity and confirmation of just what they are watching hits them. The event that has held such weight and power in their Christian lives has now been relegated to a story about workers complaining about the mistakes made by those who worked before them rather than any realization of just who exactly they were putting to death. It seems almost blasphemous to regard the story in such a way while the Savior of the world is dying on the Cross.
Connected to this part is the fact that this is a play not told from the perspective of Christ’s disciples, mother, or even Christ himself. Instead, the four soldiers are the ones that are the main characters of this play while Christ himself only speaks twice in the entire play, actually playing the role of a minor character in his very own crucifixion and the very event that changed the entirety of religious world history. Here are the men themselves who put Christ to death, and yet in the two times he speaks, Christ asks for them to be saved due to their own ignorance. The author of this play is taking the very men who directly killed Christ and instead of relegating them as villains and cruel monsters, they are merely men who are charged with a duty that they have to carry out to a man they think absolutely deserves it. How shocked the audience must have been to see this scene shown in such a way.
Shockingly, the first mention of Christ they make is to call him a ‘dote’, or better said, a fool. Then they mention Calvary and say that they want to get this job over and done with! The first soldier says “He shall be set and learned soon”(458) which the footnote says means that he will be “put in his place and taught quickly”. Though the audience does not yet know this is Christ, one would assume some suspicion has been raised due to the setting of the play and the dress of the soldiers as well as the religious day that is being celebrated. But in no way could this truly be Christ they speak of- for who could ever endeavor to teach the Savior anything or dare to call him a fool? But of course, all Mystery Plays were in some way religious and this play in particular was created during the time when the focus was on the pain and suffering of Christ so more than likely this was the actual scene, they must have realized mentally. Then, later in line 32, the roman soldiers call Christ a traitor and wish him good luck for what he is to face. They remark that this is happening because of Christ’s deeds and his behavior almost in a ‘he brought this on himself’ kind of way.
Then Christ speaks, praying and even pleading to God above and offering his obedience to right Adam’s wrongs on behalf of mankind. He then prays for the welfare and safety of the men who just said such things about him and treated his death in such a way. For a moment, it almost seems like he is not just addressing God, but is addressing the York audience watching this play to not grow angry at the actor- the roman soldiers -that are acting in such a way. Even more, in response to his words, the soldiers are surprised and even offended by Christ words and swear of their honor on the name of Muhammad- which must have been quite shocking to the mostly Christian audience. I mean, this was only a little over a century after the Eighth Crusade(1270) took place!
Actually, let’s look at the historical context for this story right now. The 1400s is such an important century in history; for England, the Hundred Years War is still going on(having started in 1337). The English just hit a high point in the war and effectively gained control of all of France due to the Treaty of Troyes(1420). But, their king Henry V died in 1422, leaving his one year old son as the next king. Due to that, England was now being ruled by a Regency Council until the young king Henry VI grew up. Even more, Joan of Arc was already on the move in France and would soon tip the balance in France’s favor, leading to France winning the war. Then, the year that war ends(1453), Constantinople falls to the Muslim Ottoman Empire and is set to become Istanbul, leading to the Exploration of the West Coast of Africa and the eventual discovery of the Americas in 1492. This century is effectively the end of the Middle Ages before the beginning of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
Of course, this is just a quarter into that situation and, though the Islamic Ottoman Empire is still in decline after the attacks of Timur(or Tamerlane, a Muslim Turk general who married a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and wants to reestablish the Mongol’s power by conquering Asia) in 1402, no doubt Christian England was still worried about the threat that Islam would pose on Christian Europe. So to even mention the name of Muhammad and worship his name instead of any Christian figure must have been incredibly shocking to the audience then. The roman soldiers treat Christ as if he is mad and, like a parent scolding a child, say that he should instead think about what he has done, calling his actions “wicked”(460). They disparage his words as if, as the footnote says, they were “thought up” by only him and that he is only “behaving like a saint” and deserves this. How aghast the audience must have been, to see the Savior spoken of in such a way! Then they order him to be prepared to be raised on the cross and of course he obeys.
They then go through the motions of stretching and tying his arms, saying that they have Christ in their “control”. To quote the footnote, they then say “Drive the nail in hard, for him who redeemed thee (a splendidly anachronistic oath)”. All the while complaining about the poorly driven holes in the cross. Then, horrifically, as the footnote translates, they say “Let’s see, what trick could increase his suffering” for to them this is not an innocent man, but a traitorous criminal who deserves all the pain he is receiving and the death he is facing. And again they mention Muhammad; how appalled must the audience have been then! And at the end, they admire the strength of their work and remark that his “tricks”- that “his acting like a saint shall be paid for with pain”(footnote, 461). The names do not end as they call Christ a “rascal”(well, they say harlot, but the glossary says they meant rascal, 462).
And as they finally start to lift up the cross with Christ nailed upon it, the truth of the scene is finally confirmed in the minds of the audience- this really is the Crucifixion of Christ being treated so callously! And after lifting him, they remark that if he was God, then he should be able to take this pain away and not have this event happen. The 4th soldier says “The Devil him hang!” which I’m confused slightly on if they are referring to the Devil or calling Christ himself a devil- but either way, it’s an incredible statement to make after just mentioning God. They then try again to lift the cross all the way up, complaining all the while. One even speaks of Christ and says, as the footnote says, “I think this knave cast some spells”(463). The nerve, the crowd must have thought. This is the Middle Ages(though Late Period); superstitions about witches and magic being the work of the devil are rampant- and they are making the miracles of Christ out to be such awful magic and writing Christ off as if he is a warlock, a follower of the Devil! The Cross is finally standing within the hole dug out and they mess with it a bit as they speak. In the end, they turn to Christ and ask for his opinion on their work. It is here that Christ speaks for the second and last time, these words seeming to be directed towards the audience watching:
“All men that walk by way or street,
Take tent-ye shall no travail tine-*(Take heed, you shall not lose your labor)
Behold mine head, mine hands, my feet,
And fully feel now ere ye fine*(cease)
If any mourning may be meet
Or mischief*(injury) measured unto mine.
My Father, that all bales may bete,*(My Father, who may remedy all evils)
Forgive these men that do me pine*.(torment)
What they work woot*(know) they nought:
Therefore my Father I crave
Let never their sins be sought*(searched)
But see their souls to save.”(464)
It is a speech hearkening back to Christ’s last moments on the cross, and here, it seems to speak to the audience who have so far been horrified and angered by the careless and cruel actions and words of the roman soldiers crucifying Christ. He asks for them not to judge them but instead have compassion on the men, invoking God’s name. I can’t imagine how striking this must have been to see and hear it all played out in front of the audience…And in response, the soldiers mock him, speaking about how he prattles on and on non stop(even though they are the ones that have been speaking and complaining the entire time). They mention his blasphemy- to call himself God’s son and curse him in Latin saying “In Faith thou who destroys the temple”, referencing Christ’s statement in the Bible that a temple shall be destroyed and a new one will be raised up in three days by him. But it may also be a reference to when Christ went to the Temple and chased out the men within that were turning the Temple into a common market.
They then applaud their own task as well-completed and remark that it should be repeated often for other criminals, treating Christ as a silly child for speaking to the heavens. Then, shockingly, they bargain over Christ’s cloak and who gets to have it through straws! And the last words of the play “The travail here we tine.*(We’re wasting our time here)”- a stunning disregard to the suffering and death of Christ. It must have been silent at the end of the play, everyone shocked at what they had all said and how they mocked and scorned the Savior as nothing more than a criminal, fool, and warlock. Such a strong action taken by the author of this play, to take such a well-known and sacred part of the Bible and remake it as a simple task to punishment someone who deserves it, but it brings with it a message.
It is not easy to make something old new, yet this author has achieved that perfectly in this rendition of Christ’s Crucifixion. He is pulling the audience into the scene and writing Christ as if he is speaking to them, marking the audience itself as the very crowd that gathered around Christ when he was being raised onto the Cross on Calvary. The author relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge and understanding of the event to realize the true gravity of the play itself. They understand just what is happening here while the main actors themselves do not, confronting the audience head on with the truth of the Crucifixion of Christ. How will the audience decide to look at this scene: will they be as distant to it as the Roman soldiers and the crowd at Calvary were? That is what the author seems to wonder here. This story is a truly stunning rebuke to the Christian audience to not take the Crucifixion of Christ as lightly as the Roman soldiers have, but to always keep its gravity and importance in their minds as a part of their own lives. It is this powerful message that has allowed this story to be carried on through the centuries to still be told and read today.
Link to the story
Here is a Modernization to ‘The York Play of the Crucifixion’, free to read!
“The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages”, pages 457-467 ‘The York Play of Crucifixion’ and ‘Mystery Plays’.