Printer Friendly

But owthir in frith or felde: the rural in the York cycle.

City dwellers frequently treat their city as foreground and that which surrounds it as background, or, indeed, as invisible. Such an attitude is, perhaps, part of the urban experience itself, not only in modern cities but also in medieval ones. A city such as York seems small and even somewhat rustic to a dweller in a modern metropolis like New York, Toronto, or London; but to the medieval people who called York home, the city was anything but bucolic. In the opening chapter of his Tudor York, David Palliser argues that "town and hinterland" were linked and complementary rather than opposed "in the case of a provincial capital" such as York. (1) Surely this is so, yet it does not necessarily follow that the citizens of medieval York were always entirely at ease with this complementary relationship. Indeed, one can detect in the greatest literary production of that city--the York cyde--an attitude toward the rural that is both suspicious and colonizing. The plays of York show a dramatic flexibility that allows the city streets on which they are performed to become a variety of places: everywhere from heaven to hell and all degrees between. Yet they are peculiarly cautious when portraying the countryside around the city, as if reluctant to touch the place without strict controls over what aspects of the rural may, and may not, be let inside.

This attitude is of course not surprising given the theology of the plays, nor is it unique to them. The ancient and baleful statement "Maledicta terra in opere tuo" ("Cursed is the earth in thy work") (Gen. 3:17), (2) and the striking portrayal of heaven as a city, the New Jerusalem where death, sorrow, and toil will have been eliminated (Apoc. [Rev.] 21), create an enduring and apparently scripturally mandated contrast between the dangers of the rural and the goodness of the city. Naturally enough, in the analogous episodes in the York cycle, the characters echo this contrast: Adam's lament about the earth's hostility to him (VI.93-116) (3) opposes the invitation to heaven at the Last Judgement (XLVII.365-68).

Not only Scripture but also geography and history could lead the citizens of York to view the world outside the walls askance. The landscape immediately around the city was not as inviting as it became in later centuries, for during the late medieval and Tudor periods it consisted largely of scrub, deforested woodland, and marsh. (4) The marshland, furthermore, frequently invaded the city; poor drainage would often cause heavy rains or melting snow to rush into the city, drowning the streets (5); an ice flood in late 1564 followed by a sudden thaw in early 1565 caused the destruction of Ouse Bridge and twelve houses thereon. (6) Historically, also, the countryside around York was not unusually marked by instability. The proximity to Scotland and the frequent and hostile Scottish incursions into Yorkshire during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries led the York Council in 1419 to ban the northern outsiders from holding any official position in the city or participating in any civic business. (7) Additionally, a series of rebellions in the North, from Archbishop Scrope's rebellion against Henry IV in 1405 to the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, repeatedly brought trouble to the city from the outside. (8)

Awareness of and reaction to these realities can be seen in the very terminology with which the York plays describe the contrast between urban and nonurban. In the play of "The Temptation" Diabolus describes the world as consisting of"Toure and toune, forest and felde" (XXII. 146). In the cycle as a whole, the first two--examples of what usually is called civilization--appear a total of thirty-six times, while the last two--examples of the rural and the wild--appear a total of fifteen. Furthermore, toune appears far more frequently than toure--twenty-nine times to seven, focusing attention on the specifically urban--and felde, the cultivated aspect of nature, far outshows forest--twelve times to three. Even the biblically significant word wildirness--the place to which prophets, saints, and Christ himself retreat to receive spiritual revelation--appears a scant five times, and the similarly significant word desert, once. (9)

Pursuing this word study further, one finds that the two dominant places--town and field--are insistently contrasted with each other. Of the twelve occurrences of the word felde, seven of them appear in the same line as the word towne, and of the remaining five at least three contain implicit contrasts with the idea of the town. All of this suggests two major points. First, a recurring contrast in the York cycle is that between urban and everything that is not urban; the most commonly made such contrast is between town and field. Second, when the field is thought of in the York cycle--or when the natural or rural, more generally, is thought of--it is almost always as a contrast with the town rather than as a place in its own right, with its own life, culture, or agency.

Such an attitude is evident in, for instance, the play of "Joseph's Trouble about Mary." At the outset, Joseph is complaining about his old age, his shame, and his suspicion that his wife has cuckolded him. In his first stanza, he says,
 For I am of grete elde,
 Wayke and al vnwelde,
 Als ilke man se it maye;
 I may nowder buske ne belde
 But owther in frith or felde.

The last couplet, in which Joseph states that now he may move about, and stop moving, only in wood or field, seems curious, but its apparent meaning is that Joseph is expecting death there; in other words, he anticipates that the remainder of his life, and his final resting place, will be in the wood and field. Of course, the citizens of York hearing this could expect to be buried in their parish churchyards; even some villagers from outside the city proper were customarily buried inside the city walls, depending on parish jurisdiction. (10) Joseph's fear of dying and being buried in wood or field, outside the city walls, reflects not only his fear of mortality but also his fear of being cast out of society. His failure to guard his wife, as he repeats several times during the course of the play, puts him outside the bounds of the law. (11)

Joseph's troubles are, of course, different from the scriptural account, which says merely that he "voluit occulte dimittere eam" ("was minded to put her away privately") (Matt. 1:19). In the York plays, Joseph dismisses this idea and chooses instead to censure himself, and to imagine his society doing the same. This detail is derived from the account given in the apocryphal Protevangelion:
 Then Joseph was exceedingly afraid, and went away from her,
 considering what he should do with her; and he thus reasoned
 with himself: If I conceal her crime, I shall he found guilty by the
 law of the Lord; And if I discover her to the children of Israel,
 I fear, lest she being with child by an angel, I shall be found to
 betray the life of an innocent person: What therefore shall I do?
 I will privately dismiss her. (12)

In the York cycle, however, this episode is greatly expanded. For example, in his opening monologue, Joseph fears execution for the failure to guard his wife:
 Forthy giff any man frayne me
 How [??]is [??]ing mi[??]t be wroght,
 To gabbe yf I wolde payne me,
 [??]e lawe standis harde agayne me:
 To dede I mon be broght.

His solution is to remove himself not only from her but also from the society which he believes he has failed, to become in fact an outlaw beyond city wails, a detail not in the Protevangelion nor in other apocryphal gospels.
 For certis I thynke ouer-ga hir
 Into som wodes wilde,
 Thus thynke I to stele fra hir.
 God childe ther wilde bestes sla hir,
 She is so meke and mylde.

Thus we can see two associations with the wood and field: they are places of death, and of the outcast. They are explicitly contrasted in this same play to the story of the flowering of Joseph's "drye wande" (XIII.27): this miraculous event happened, as Joseph reminds the audience, "in be temple" (XIII.22), in the heart of the city, and among the crowd of unwedded men and of elders, two societies of which Joseph is a part. It may seem strange from a modern perspective that it is a place in the city that is associated with fertility, the growth of new life, but that is the case. There is no sense of such fertility and possibility in wood and field, however: only death.

Yet, that which is outside the city gains a new and seemingly redemptive meaning by the end of the play. Joseph says that he will "walke here in Iris wildirnesse" (XIII.239), one of the rare appearances of that word, and it is there, in his sleep, that Joseph mets the angel Gabriel, who reveals the truth to him. But wilderness is not the same as field, or even as frith. Wilderness occurs only four other times in the cycle, and is always a site of miracle and revelation--it is where Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac, it is where Moses leads the children of Israel, and it is where Christ endures temptation. Revealingly, while Joseph's encounter with Gabriel is a common element of the story in its various forms, only the York play and its possibly related Towneley version locate that meeting in the wilderness. That detail occurs neither in the Protevangelion, nor Pseudo-Matthew, nor in the Meditationes vitae Christi, nor in the N-Town or Chester analogues. Also revealingly, earlier in the play Joseph merely talks about the frith and field to which he is to be banished; in the later half, he says, "his wildirnesse'," walking in the place where revelation happens. When revelation of some kind is a possibility, the city street is dramatically and imaginatively drafted to serve as its location, wilderness or not; thus, the city is dramatically shown to encompass and include the positive, but only the positive, possibilities of that which is outside it. The play's other meanings of the nonurban, the possibilities of death or banishment without redemption, those are merely talked about; they are not dramatically portrayed in the streets of York; they are left dramatically as well as socially outside the walls of the city.

A similar pattern of thinking occurs elsewhere. In the twenty-fifth play of the York cycle, "The Entry into Jerusalem," a number of contrasts explicitly between field and town make an appearance. Of course, most of the play takes place imaginatively outside the city walls of Jerusalem, yet of course inside the city walls of York. As in the play of "Joseph's Trouble," that which is outside the city is encompassed theatrically by the city. Yet the whole movement of the play is, of course, one of leaving the rural behind and moving into the urban, into Jerusalem. A striking example of this action takes place when Jesus heals the lame man Claudus on his way to Jerusalem; "My man" says Jesus,
 ryse and caste [??]e crucchys gode space
 Her in [??]e felde,
 And loke in trouthe [??]ou stedfast be,
 And folow me furth with gode menyng.

Naturally, in the crowded city streets of York, this direction poses an interesting theatrical and safety problem. But more importantly, it points up the field as a place to be left behind; it is where the man's now useless props are to be left so that he may follow, not with his crutches but with his intentions.

Furthermore, the field is again described as ancillary to the city; and, in what must be a strange idea to a modern urbanite, though not to a medieval urbanite, it is suggested that the city is more full of fertility than the field. The first of these two points is made by the Second Burgher when the eiders of the town are discussing the preparations for the royal entry. He suggests that the burghers should
 hym ressayue with grete rennowne
 As worthy is.
 And [??]erfore sirs, in felde and towne
 [??]e fulfille his.

Note how casually it is assumed that the field is simply the entrance to the town.

But rather more interesting is the First Burgher's suggestion that the people should meet him "With braunches, floures and vnysone" (XXV.261). The suggested theatrical movement is by the burghers and other city dwellers, away from the city and into the fields with branches and flowers in hand, bringing symbols of life and fertility into the field not out of it. Such an idea seems to be in contrast to historical reality, which was that most agricultural goods were of course brought into York from outlying villages and farms. (13) Yet the city did have a tradition of gardening; gardeners first became freemen of the city in the 1330s, and the Dominican friary (founded 1227) and other religious houses had certainly cultivated gardens for rather longer than that. (14)

Furthermore, the ass upon which Christ rides into the city during the royal entry is found not in the countryside but in the city. It seems likely, given the linear nature of processional staging, that the ass is to be found at the gate of Jerusalem itself; this impression is confirmed by the declaration of Janitor, the beast's owner, that "This tydyngis schall haue no laynyng, /But be be citezens declared till/Of bis cyte" (XXV.101-105). This is the only play in which the word citizen actually appears, and one of only two in which the word city appears (the other is "Christ and the Doctors" XX.40). The striking use of the word citizen confirms beyond any doubt that this is an urban donkey on which the king rides--and that the entry is the concern of the hierarchy of the city itself. Palliser, noting the historical uncertainty over the concept citizen, notes that the citizens of York were a relatively small group acting as representatives for the population at large. (15) On this account, the reinforcement of the centrality of the city, and particularly of its hierarchy, is uniquely affirmed in this play.

Yet another detail in the play is equally telling. The placing of the ass within the city is not the only way to translate the source, though it is the norm in medieval drama. In Matthew 21:2 and Mark 11:1, the beast comes from a castellum, a word that can mean "castle" or "town" or, alternatively, "village" which is the translation of the Douai Bible. The York cycle, like the N-Town Play (26/347) chooses the translation "castle" and links the structure with the city; the Chester cycle (14.152s.d.) does not specify a translation but does depict Peter and Philip going"in civitatem" to find the animal; the Cornish Ordinalia uses the direct translation "castel" (16) This seems at first a natural enough equation, especially in York, given the Latin word's appearance and the presence of a castle in the city. Yet it is also a curious equation, given the role that the castle played in the city.

York Castle was, one might say, in the city but not of it. It served as the headquarters for the shire and for some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the city. Yet these people are relatively unknown to us because they did not operate under the city's jurisdiction and rarely became freemen, having no need. During the reign of Richard II, it was stated that the castle "hath reference to all three Ridings of the county, but yet stands in none of them; neither is it within the liberties of the city." (17) Additionally, the castle served as a center for judicial activities: prisoners were kept there and courts held there; at the same time, the castle was often dilapidated despite costly attempts at upkeep. Frequently it was a site of trouble. In 1333 the castle was thoroughly repaired in preparation for Edward III's campaigns against the Scots; a mere sixty years later, in 1392, further repairs were made for the considerable sum of 308.8s [pounds sterling] in preparation for the Courts of King's Bench and Chancery, and similarly large-scale repairs were appointed but not made during Richard III's reign. (18) By the time Leland visited York (c. 1539), the castle was, as he reported, "of no very great quantitye. There be a 5. ruinus toures in it." (19) Notoriously, also, the castle was the site of executions.

Yet the castle of the York play is quite different from York Castle itself. It is the place where the sacred king gains the symbol of his authority, the animal upon which he rides. It is, furthermore, inhabited by a man, Janitor, who is humble and knows his place, is both helpful and reasonable, and hastens to declare the news of the king's arrival to his masters, the "citezens cheff, without debate,/Of all his lande" (XXV. 111-112). Far from a problematic and ambiguous place like the real York Castle, the castle as portrayed in the plays is a harmonious neighbor and a cooperative servant. Thus, the castle as symbol of kingly authority is also subservient to the city; and the animal upon which the king rides is also associated with the city. Contrary both to actual monarchial hierarchy and to post-Romantic expectations, the medieval York plays see kingship and plenty, even biological plenty, as coming not from the crown or from nature but from the people of the town.

But perhaps the best example of the York plays' urbanism can be seen in the appearance of the Shepherds. There were of course sheep and shepherds in the land immediately outside the city walls, although there the importance of cattle was greater than that of sheep. Yet the livestock in question were owned by citizens of the city; the land on which the livestock grazed and the herders worked was, though outside the city walls, still within the city's legal boundaries. (20) The York cycle's urbane shepherds are remarkably well-read and erudite for farm laborers and probably bore little resemblance to those who worked for the citizen livestock owners of York. The opening speech by the First Shepherd shows that these fellows spend their time discussing matters of high theology:
 Bredir, in haste takis heede and here
 What I wille speke and specifie;
 Sen we walke bus, withouten were,
 What mengis my moode nowe meve yt will I.
 Oure forme-fadres faythfull in fere,
 Booth Osye and Isaye,
 Preued hat a prins withouten pere
 Shulde descende doune in a lady,
 And to make mankynde clerly,
 To leche [??]am [??]at are lorne.
 And in Bedlem hereby
 Sall [??]at same barne by borne.

This is not only demonstrates that the shepherd is well-read scripturally but shows acquaintance with prophecy and its interpretation and is also spoken in the manner of a well-educated student of logic and philosophy. The statement that the prophets did not predict or prophesy but, rather, proved their doctrine of the Messiah, as if it were a geometrical proposition, not to mention the complex sentence structure of this shepherd's discourse, shows a comfort with rhetoric, logic, and dialectic that surely betrays an urban education. Add to that the statement that Bethlehem is nearby (a "burgh" [XV.13]) as it is called by the Second Shepherd--that is, a place where burghers live) and the implication is clear: yes, revelation can come to the poor and rural, but it helps if they got their degree in a nearby city school, of which there were many at York--although few citizens of York went further afield, or to the universities. (21)

Of course, when revelation comes, things change considerably. The exact nature of the change is unclear, as the manuscript is missing a leaf right at the crucial moment of the angel's appearance to the shepherds; nonetheless, from the surrounding stanzas that survive, we can see that the speech patterns of the shepherds change considerably. Rather than speaking in complex sentences and complete stanzas, the shepherds break into fragmentary dialogue:

I Pastor: We, Hudde!

II Pastor: We, howe?

I Pastor: Herkyn to me.

II Pastor: We, man, bou maddes all out of myght.

I Pastor: We, Colle?

III Pastor: What care is comen to be?


When the angelic light actually shines upon the shepherds, they drop the urbane erudition and revert to what V. A. Kolve called "natural man." (22) It is thus that most audiences remember them, but it is notable that before their reversion to this allegedly natural state, they are in fact highly artificial. (23) It is difficult to know how to read this reversion: possibly it is a version of the sentimentalizing view of peasants that occurs generally in pastoralia.

When their play doses, the shepherds revert to speaking in full stanzas before the infant Christ as they offer their gifts; in these final speeches, they show a kind of uneasy tension between their rural humility and their urbane sophistication. For instance, although they do speak in full stanzas, their diction remains simpler than at the outset, though still of surprising sophistication:
 The aungell saide bat he shulde saue
 This worlde and all bat wonnes berin,
 Therfore yf I shulde oght aftir crave
 To wirshippe hym I will begynne:
 Sen I am but a ymple knave,
 bof all I come of curtayse kynne,
 Loo here slyke harnays as I haue--
 A baren-broche by a belle of tynne
 At your bosom to be;
 And whenne [??]e shall welde all
 Gud sonne, forgete no[??]t me
 Yf any fordele falle.

Rhetorically, we may have departed from the high style, but we have only dropped to the middle. Furthermore, the insistence on his courteous lineage by the shepherd is echoed by the Second Shepherd, who insists, "For I haue herde declared / Of connyng clerkis and clene, /That bountith askis rewarde" (XV.116-19). Even at the end, the shepherds insist on their sophistication and learning.

The rural in the York cycle is consistently portrayed in terms of urban expectations and assumptions. This fact is hardly surprising, given the plays' urban origin and setting. Rather more surprising is the way in which the assumptions function, identifying with the urban several aspects of life that a modern post-Romantic might more clearly associate with the rural. A key commonplace of modern ecological thinking is that civilization is in danger of overwhelming the natural world and that the urban should remember that it is merely a part of the great web of the ecosystem, which transcends and includes it. (24) In medieval York, however, the opposite pattern of thought appears to have held. The city in the York cycle transcends and includes the field that physically lay outside it. Is the city reacting to a counterpart of our fears? Did some of its citizens, at least, fear that the world outside was in constant danger of overwhelming their civilization? However that may be--and the tumultuous history of the world outside York in the late Middle Ages makes such a hypothesis at least plausible--dramatically at least it seems sure that the York cycle turns the actual physical world inside out; though in literal terms York was a walled city surrounded by fields, conceptually that which the city represents encompasses and perfects that which the "frith and felde" represent. When the York A/Y Memorandum Book declared that the cycle was, in part, for the "honour & profitt de mesme la Citee" ("glory and benefit of the same city"), (25) it is not only the specific city of York they have in mind but the city of York as a model and representation of the urban idea: the ideal to be fulfilled in the ultimate city, the New Jerusalem.


(1) David Palliser, Tudor York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 1.

(2) Biblical references in my article are to the Vulgate and Douay versions. I have regularized the punctuation and capitalization of Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem, ed. Bonifatio Fischer et al., 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) to match that of the Douay.

(3) References to the York cycle in my essay are to The York Plays, ed. Richard Beadle (London: Edward Arnold, 1982).

(4) Palliser, Tudor York, 9.

(5) The problem continues. In late 2000, York experienced some of the worst flooding ever recorded for the city (BBC News/UK/York breathes sigh of relief,, downloaded 4 June 2003).

(6) Palliser, Tudor York, 3,266-67; see also Charles Brunton Knight, A History of the City of York (London, 1944), 409, 509,536, 575-76, 703.

(7) Knight, A History, 321-22.

(8) Although the citizens of York in some cases supported such rebellions, these events tended to bring in outsiders; Scrope's rebellion, for instance, rallied twenty thousand men at York at a time when its population was less than fifteen thousand altogether (Knight, A History, 259-60, 331; Paniser, Tudor York, 49-50,234-39).

(9) Additionally, such words as thorp, village, and hamlet do not appear at all, the word cite(e) appears only four times, and the word citezens only twice.

(10) Palliser, Tudor York, 30, 228.

(11) Joseph mentions or alludes to his feared outlaw status at II. 46-50, 57-58, 67, 150-51,200, and (possibly) 179.

(12) The Lost Books of the Bible (t926; reprint, Gramercy Books, 1979), 31; see also The Other Bible, ed. Willis Barnestone (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), 394.

(13) Palliser, Tudor York, 185.

(14) John Harvey, York (London: Batsford, 1975), 4, 150-51.

(15) See D. M. Palliser, "The Birth of York's Civic Liberties, c. 1200-1354, "in The Government of Medieval York: Essays in Commemoration of the 1396 Royal Charter, ed. Sarah Rees Jones, Borthwick Studies in History 3 (York: Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York, 1997), 88-107.

(16) The N-Town Play, ed. Stephen Spector, EETS, s.s. 11-12 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, EETS, s.s. 3, 9 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974-1986). Edwin Norris, in his edition of the Cornish Ordinalia (Ancient Cornish Drama, 2 vols. [1859; reprint, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968], 234-35, [l. 174], translates the Cornish word castel as village; as does Markham Harris in his translation of the play The Cornish Ordinalia (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1969), 89.

(17) A. W. Twyford and Arthur Griffiths, Records of York Castle (London, 1880), 37; Pallister, Tudor York, 146.

(18) Knight, A History, 230, 249; Twyford and Griffiths, Records of York Castle, 37.

(19) John Leland, The Itinerary, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith, 5 vols. (1965; reprint, Carhondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), 1:54.

(20) Palliser, Tudor York, 10, 29.

(21) Ibid, 176.

(22) V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 206.

(23) See Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 183-84.

(24) See, for example, Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 45-60.

(25) Records of Early English Drama: York, ed. Alexandra E Johnston and Margaret Rogerson, 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 1:11, 2:697. Sarah Rees Jones has discussed the ways in which the government of late medieval York structured the city's finances so that the city could function" as a religious institution" in its own right; Jones demonstrates "the attempts of the city authorities to both beautiful and perhaps beatify the walled city of York." "York's Civic Administration, 1354-1464," in The Government of Medieval York, ed. Rees Jones, 136-38.


University of Toronto
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Scoville, Chester
Publication:Comparative Drama
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Previous Article:Borrowings and the authorial domain: Gostanzo, Polonius, and Marston's Gonzago.
Next Article:The politics of adapting Behn's Oroonoko.

Related Articles
Stateside: Golden girl's happy return.
CYCLE SPEEDWAY: Cov, by a spoke's width.
CYCLE SPEEDWAY: Docker sparkles.
Cycle speedway: Coventry's title challenge faces crucial test.
Speedway: Injury-hit Devlins are edged out.
Injured Frith is back to boost chances; CYCLE SPEEDWAY.
Star quartet to play Hexham.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters