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St. Joseph in Old York: Recovering the Lost Tradition of Sacred Drama

Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream … (Mt 1:20a)

With liturgical celebrations devoted to St. Joseph dating as far back as the eighth century, it may come as no surprise that the Solemn Feast of St. Joseph has been observed in the West on March 19th since the 1400s.[1] Belonging to the same period in history was a type of popular devotion known as Sacred Drama. Also referred to as ‘Sacred Pageantry,’ this genre of performing art was closely related to liturgy and was an important part of European culture from the early 1200s to the mid or late 1500s, depending on locale. Written, supplied, and performed by alliances of clerics, craftsmen, and civic authorities from generation to generation, Sacred Drama was born from liturgy and led back into it, delighting and moving while at the same time catechizing audiences. Among the many plays written and performed during this time, one of the most remarkable dramatizes Joseph’s decision to take Mary his wife into his home. Elaborating on a matter-of-fact account given in a half-line of the Gospel (Mt 1:20a), the York Play of Joseph’s Trouble About Mary presents Joseph’s deliberations as an analogy for the faithful’s own belief in the most fundamental elements of the Creed.

In the north of England the tradition of Sacred Drama originated at a time more or less contemporary with the Franciscan popularization of the crèche, with the earliest record of sacred pageantry in York dating to the 1220s.[2] After years and years of development and refinement, this art form eventually came to represent such a robust cultural expression of Catholicism that it could not long survive the systematic erasures resulting from Elizabethan policy. In one of the most extreme efforts to stamp out Catholicism in Yorkshire, the Queen’s Council of the North confiscated the texts of the York Plays from the city’s aldermen in 1579, ten years after a dispute over the Mass in the region had led to an uprising which had threatened to end the reign of Elizabeth. By the time of this suppression, the tradition of Sacred Drama in York, like the generational building of a cathedral, was literally centuries in the making.

In the age-old city from which our own “New York” takes its name, Sacred Pageantry was one of several expressions of popular piety which anticipated well what the Second Vatican Council would eventually outline as the ideal condition for cultural expressions of devotion by the lay faithful:

Popular devotions of the Christian people … should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it … (Sacrosanctum Concilium 13).

In the City of York, from c. 1375 to 1579, just such a devotion of the Christian people was to be found in the city’s annual celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a day on which the whole community came together to remember in Sacred Drama the full scope of salvation history from the Fall of the Angels to Doomsday. One of the most common touch-points connecting today’s reader with this English tradition is to be found in The Everlasting Man, where Chesterton suggests the following in his reflection on the Incarnation:

The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sightseer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression. It is the idea of simultaneous happenings on different levels of life. Something like it may have been attempted in the more archaic and decorative medieval art … perhaps it could have been best conveyed by the characteristic expedient of some of the medieval guilds, when they wheeled about the streets a theatre with three stages one above the other, with heaven above the earth and hell under the earth.[3]

The phrase “simultaneous happenings on different levels of life” describes well the manner in which the late-medieval northern English guild-sponsored plays worked, with both their aesthetic and their poetic functioning in the manner described in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The craftsmen who sponsored the York Play of Joseph’s Trouble About Mary were The Pewterers and Founders. They were known to manufacture a variety of metal objects for domestic use, and also to craft liturgical-use items such as “candlesticks, thuribles, censers, and handbells.”[4] This fact suggests a question open for debate: How did the craftsmen’s craft relate to the sponsored play?

As the play opens, Joseph laments his old age: “I am of grete elde … Als ilke man se it maye” (I am old of age … As each man may see) (ll. 5, 7).[5] The dramatist here sets Joseph’s age in contrast to Mary’s youth, immediately calling to mind two literary genres which would have been familiar to the audience of the time, the fabliau and the chanson de mal marieé.[6] Joseph sums up his “trouble about Mary” in the play’s most concise expression of its complication: “My 3onge wiffe is with childe full grete, / þat makes me nowe sorowe vnsoght” (My young wife is with child full great, / which brings me now sorrow unsought) (ll. 43-4).

For the anonymous dramatists of the York Plays, thematic tension often rests upon what the darkened intellect expects versus what God in his providence proposes to the mind and will of man. Miracles and the fulfillment of prophecy, such as in ll. 61-4 where Joseph recalls Isaiah 7:14, serve to prepare people of good will to receive the Faith. The plays thus address the essentials of the Creed, reasoning with and persuading audiences. Thus the audience’s sympathies with Joseph’s bewilderments, their sharing in his wonder and surprise at the particularity of the Incarnation, direct the mind, heart, and will of viewers towards the mystery of the Virgin with Child, the reality of God among us.

Like us who profess in every season our faith in the Real Presence, Joseph wonders at the “hidden theological essence” of the mystery before him.[7] He exclaims, musing, “A maiden to be with childe?” (l. 211). Mary’s reply to Joseph cautiously safeguards the mystery of the Incarnation, upon whose secrecy man’s salvation depends: “Joseph, yhe ar begiled” (l. 214). Mary could not simply tell Joseph about the message of the angel, for the soteriology which informed the York playwrights held that the Devil had been “tricked” by the hiddenness of Jesus in the Holy Family. The Gospel’s cardinal mystery, the Incarnation, therefore must be brought to Joseph by the message of an angel.

After a long dialogue in which Mary answers his every question honestly yet with artful amphibole,[8] Joseph retires to the solitude of a nearby wild wood. His state of mind is one of resignation: Joseph’s “Do with me what God will” (l. 241) echoes Mary’s fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (Lk 1:38) and anticipates Jesus’s not what I will but what you will (Mk 14:36). In the next play in the sequence, the York Play of the Nativity, Mary and Joseph’s prayers mirror each other while also echoing the prayers of the late-medieval English liturgy. As they lay the Child Jesus in the crèche, Mary and Joseph declare their submission to the One who will, for the duration of His formative years, willingly be obedient to them (Lk 2:51). Joseph’s prayer “to thy seruice I oblissh me” is repeated word for word a few lines later in Mary’s declaration “to thi seruice I oblissh me” (ll. 146 and 151). The Holy Family is one in mind, heart, and will, as Mary and Joseph here utter a translation into Middle English of the prayer prescribed for the priest by the York Missal near the end of the late-medieval English Mass: Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas, obsequium servitutis meae, “May it be pleasing to thee, O Holy Trinity, the oblation of my servitude.”[9] Born in liturgy and returning to it, the York Play of Joseph’s Trouble About Mary ultimately finds its resolution in the Nativity, a play whose climax proposes an analogy between Joseph’s faith in the Expectant Virgin and our own belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.


[1] For the Feast of St. Joseph taking place on March 20th in an eighth century martyrology, see Analecta Bollandiana 72 (1954), pp. 357-62. For the observance of the feast on March 19th beginning in the late 1400s, see Richard Beadle, ed., The York Plays: A Critical Edition of the York Corpus Christi Play as recorded in British Library Additional MS 35290, Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 91; V.A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), p. 249; and Philip C. Deasy, St. Joseph in the English Mystery Plays (Washington, D.C., 1937), pp. 17-19.

[2] York Minster Statute Book, entry for 1220-5, in Alexandra F. Johnston and Margaret Rogerson, eds., The Records of Early English Drama: York (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), p. 1.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1947), p. 200.

[4] Richard Beadle, ed., The York Plays: A Critical Edition of the York Corpus Christi Play as recorded in British Library Additional MS 35290, Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 88.

[5] All citations of the York Plays are from Richard Beadle, ed., The York Plays: A Critical Edition of the York Corpus Christi Play as recorded in British Library Additional MS 35290, Vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[6] In fabliau, a younger woman is typically married to a much older man, causing tension in the marriage. The genre is turned to hilarious but impious effect in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”. In Joseph’s Trouble, the allusion to the genre sets a horizon of expectation by which the audience may begin to imagine how Joseph must feel about his situation. Along similar lines, the chanson de mal marieé is a genre of lament whose tension arises from a marriage entered into poorly, often (though not always) regretted on account of disparity in age.

[7] Cp. Josef Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 35.

[8] A poetical figure employing ambiguity in order to signify doubleness in such a way that the reader, viewer, or listener can discern the poet’s intended irony.

[9] William George Henderson, ed., Missale ad usum insignis ecclesie Eboracensis (Durham: Andrews & Co., 1874), p. 204. Translation my own.

Dr. Marcel Antonio Brown

Dr. Marcel Antonio Brown

Dr. Marcel Brown is a Faculty Member and Co-founder of Tulsa's Theological Institute. He holds his B.A. in English from the University of Dallas and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America. A scholar of the York Cycle who specializes in Catholic themes in literature, Dr. Brown resides in Oklahoma with his wife and their eight children.