The Failure of Emotion and Reason in the York Cycle

  • Norma Kroll
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The York Corpus Christi cycle is the earliest of the four extant relatively complete sequences of plays from the creation of the angels to the Last Judgment.1 But the York, like the Wakefield, Hegge, and Chester versions, is notably different from the earlier plays of Hrotsvitha or the liturgical drama, as different as the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries were from the ninth to thirteenth.2 Some of these differences might seem to be a matter of increasing secularization, a term that scholars of medieval drama usually apply to the noisy, obscene, or vulgar. Yet, as Erich Auerbach rightly sees it, “real secularization does not take place until the frame is broken, until the secular action becomes independent; that is, when human actions outside of Christian world history, as determined by the Fall, Passion, and Last Judgment, are represented in a serious vein; when, in addition to this manner of conceiving and representing human events, with its claim to be the only true and valid one, other ways of doing so become possible.”3 The York playwright(s), like the other cycle poets, does not “break” but rather reshapes the action within the frame by drawing on fourteenth–century philosophical developments and mystical practices. As a close reading reveals, the portrayals of the angels and of Adam and Eve establish them as viable figures in a drama, endowed with free will and empowered to choose ways of interacting with God and each other.4


Spiritual Experience Medieval Literature Divine Grace Secular Action Early Play 
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© Bonnie Wheeler 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Norma Kroll

There are no affiliations available

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