books,  history

Learning about medieval religious plays and poems

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Yesterday I finished reading the book A Little Lower Than the Angels by Geraldine McCaughrean. It is a great historical fiction novel, set in Britain during the middle ages and one of the wonderful things about it is that it isn’t about knights and castles. Instead its about a stone-mason’s apprentice, Gabriel, who runs away with a group of travelling mystery players. Gabriel enjoys the care given to him by Garvey, the playmaster who plays God, but he’s a little nervous around the Frenchman Lucier, who plays Lucifer. When they run into some trouble Garvey decides to turn Gabriel into a faux miracle worker and tensions mount. Gabriel is innocent enough to believe the miracles must be real but slowly he realizes what is happening and has to come to terms with being unable to bring about the miracles he wishes so much he could bring.

A Little Lower Than AngelsReligion features very, very strongly in this book, and yet it isn’t a religious book, just a book about a very religious time period. Christianity is pervasive; there is no question of “do you believe?” because the thought of not believing is impossible. The stain glass windows, the miracles plays and masses all remind the people of the Biblical stories they’ve always known. The characters see their own struggles in light of religious concepts. Where is their redemption? Will they be like the fallen angel Lucifer?

When Gabriel first sees a play it seems so marvelous to him. Later he knows the workings of the pageant and how the stunts are done. Later it is the actors he sees, and not their characters. Yet he still struggles with the way in which character and actor overlap, particularly with Garvey, who plays God, and Lucier, who plays Lucifer. Is one sent to tempt him away from the other? There is a loneliness to playing Lucifer:

Lucier was accustomed to it: the wry grins as they acknowledged he was only a man in costume; the superstitious snatching away of their hands for fear he was a little bit more. Normally it amused him. Today he felt as slighted as a leper.

It is not a religious book, and yet it could be. With Garvey as the playmaster they “only played the pith and peel, the pieces at either end” (111) and not the heart of the Mysteries. Garvey did not want to focus on Jesus but on miracles and angels. That could lead to interesting discussions on the heart of Christianity… as could questions of who all are redeemed within the story? (Though the redemption that happens is largely the literary type of redemption, where a person is healed or changed or whatever, rather than strictly religious.)

Another issue is the role of women. There is one girl traveling with the players. She is Izzy, the daughter of Lucier, and though dressed as a boy she may play her pipe she is not allowed to act. Instead she cooks, sews, cleans, cares for everyone and everything. She is undoubtedly the hardest working member of the group, and yet she wishes that she were a boy not to escape all the work but simply so she would be able to pass on the words of the plays, which were passed down from a great-great-grandfather to her father. I wonder momentarily whether reading about women’s exclusion from professions will plant outdated ideas into my children’s heads. Why even suggest to them that women have ever been anything but entirely equal? Except that wouldn’t be true or accurate, and eventually we’ll have more conversations about how women are still oppressed. I think at the end she starts to recognize her own importance.

The book is a great one for reinforcing in the kids the importance of a good education. I want them to know Bible stories like any other literary reference. We’ve spent some time discussing bits about Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s vision of heaven, hell and purgatory, and are now starting to read a children’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which again reinforces the need for a classical education – my children laugh happily to recognize names like Brutus, Cassius, Homer, Cleopatra, etc, in the stories.

I also found an ebook copy of the York Mystery plays, and we discussed how those were performed. In York the mystery plays were sponsored by the guilds, and performed on Corpus Christi day. The tanner’s production of the creation of the world would start at dawn in one location of the city. Once performed there, the stage-wagon (pageant) would be moved (by humans, not animals) to the next station and performed again, while the second play in the sequence, sponsored by a different guild, would be performed at the first location. Modern parades have it easy in comparison, just waving and throwing candy not performing a part of a sacred play! Apparently a handful of the York plays are believed to have been written by the same person, now known as the York Realist. They are incredibly heavy in alliteration. For example take two of Pontius Pilates lines:

Under the royalist roy of rent and renown,

Now I am regent of rule of this region in rest;

Though the version of the plays I was reading was with “modern spelling” and plenty of footnotes the language was still to hard for my kids to follow much. Yet after talking about it a bit and reading a few lines and my summarizing the first play for them my six year old recruited his three year old sister to act in his rendition of the first play. He hid her behind the curtains above our couch, and then announced that he was God, the Alpha and the Omega, and that he created mankind – and signaled to his sister to come out from her hiding spot as the first human. It was cute and I love his energetic willingness to tackle anything set before him. His nine year old brother was more thoughtful, more hesitant to act but more interested in the questions.

We also talked a bit about how despite Christianity being so pervasive and so much the water in the fishbowl, people didn’t always have a good impression of the churchmen. There’s a fun children’s comic version of Canterbury Tales by Marcia Williams that has a good deal of mocking of ‘men of the cloth.’ From my own reading I could share with them bits about the tithing, and how people complained particularily that the tithe rarely went to their local priests and church. The book Pursuit of Glory by Tim Blanning includes these lines from a “traditional harvest song”:

We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
For why should the Vicar have one in ten?

Read about our earlier explorations of medieval history.

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