Fashion and Religion in the 11th Century

In a world, ruled by social media and advertisement, it could be easy to assume that the current world of fashion and clothing has never been so widespread and homogenised.

With new looks and trends permeating through the internet, into the minds of the consumers, the connection between fashion and commercialism has never been closer.From the jaw-dropping exhibitions of the New York and Paris catwalks, to the flocks of people crowding Primark’s 325 locations – it would appear that people have never been more enthralled with fashion and clothes shopping.

french-fashion-middle-ages1The average British woman spends around £600 a year on clothes, with men spending half of that. We spend even more on children’s clothes, around £764 per year.Our clothing habits today are ruled by immediacy and trends.

Thanks to online shopping we can now sit at home and order in anything from kids designer clothes in Liverpool to hand-crafted authentic kimonos from Tokyo. With just a few clicks we can spend a couple of hundred pounds, equivalent to an 11th century lifetime’s earning and discard the garment with a few weeks.

Just like today, buying clothes in the 11th Century was an expensive habit – more so in fact. Clothes were an expensive commodity, just like today, sellers and makers would hawk their wares for a great deal of money. Unlike today, your average consumer would only be able to afford one or two changes of clothes. So, even though their options were varied, they could make a very limited amount of choices with their restricted budgets.kids-online-clothing

The fashion choices that the average Middle-Age person made would be largely dependant on the individual’s wealth and their social status. Of course, they didn’t have Amazon back then, they didn’t even have shops as we know them. 11th Century society’s clothing was supplied by a myriad of niche businesses, specialising in one particular piece of clothing at a time.

These businesses, small as they were, would depend on the annual performance of the mystery plays to promote their wares and put them in favour with the Church. Sponsoring individual carts, hosting specific Mystery Plays, the local craft guilds would usually have some thematic link with the content of the play – some more spurious than others, for example:

Tailors – Ascension

mdievalThis strange connection between clothes tailoring and the Ascension of Christ is a little hard to piece together. At the time, tailors were a business in demand. There were no standard sizes. Unless you knew how to sow, you’d have to bring your textiles from the drapers and get them turned into custom fitted clothes. As such, they had a big sway over the Church, resulting them in scoring the most bombastic cart.

Jesus’ triumphant ascension is the ultimate tale in the Life of Jesus and would have attracted many interested viewers – acting as a nice form advertisement for their tailoring.

Cordwainers (or Shoemakers) – Agony, Betrayal and Arrest

Similarly, its hard to see the thematic link between such a crucial portion of the Jesus story and this particular story. The Agony, Betrayal and Arrest of Christ are all pivotal moments of the Passion that occur between the final moments of the Last Supper and Christ’s eventual trial at the hand of the Romans.

Once more, this is certainly one of the more dramatically rich mystery plays to perform and would have been the subject of much scrutiny, giving the Guild of Cordwainers a good chance to show off their shoes.

Hosiers–Departure of the Israelites from Egypt; Ten Plagues; Crossing the Red Sea

fashionIt’s hard to imagine how just a handful of actors in the 11th Century managed to depict not one, not two, but three major Biblical Events in back of a simple horse-drawn cart.

Even though it might be hard to picture, it was certainly the case and the Hosiers were chosen to sponsor this particular cart because of their historical affiliations with the Ancient Egyptians. Although there are very little historical records proving this, it’s an urban myth that has persisted to this present day.

Glovers—Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

cain-and-abelLastly, the makers of gloves – an item most useful to people of the middle-ages due to the freezing temperatures that they had to endure during those times. Another cart that would have drawn quite the crowd, the theological reasoning behind this particular lesson from God is a curious one.

Cain kills his brother (we can assume with his own hands, hence the gloves) because of his envy over God’s greater love for Abel’s lambs rather than his farmed goods. He is, of course, punished for this crime by the omniscient God who is confused by his envy:

‘Why are you furious? And why are you downcast? If you do right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door.’

So, apparently, Cain didn’t do right by providing food from the land for God, and should have just been a sheep farmer instead. A little confusing – but I’m sure there’s a message in there somewhere.

Although some of these links were harder to detect than others, it’s interesting to note the correlation between the Church, Religion and Commerce. The interconnectedness of these three things might seem a little trite, but it’s hard to deny the logic.

In order to sell more of their wares, each small business had to promote their brand as much as they could – what better way to do this than a moving stage, circling the city all day in front of hundreds of people?

Congratulations Lincoln Mystery Plays!

Another successful season ends for Lincoln Mystery Plays.

Our southern compatriots have been periodically performing their adapted versions of the N-Town Plays for the last four decades, drawing in hundreds of local performers of all ages and backgrounds.

lincoln-posterTheir most recent series of productions came to an end in August and we’ve heard nothing but good things about them. Performed in the cloisters of the city’s grand cathedral, for this year’s cycle of shows, director Colin Brimblecombe selected 17 of the whopping 42 possible plays in the Hegge Cycle. Nearly a hundred years younger than the York Mystery Plays that we performed in 2010, the Hegge Cycle is recognisable for it’s regular rhyme, short lines and use of alliteration.

Lincoln’s a fine town for the performance of these plays. Thanks to the regular performance of these shows (every 4 years, different plays hit the streets) the public has grown receptive to this mid-summer. Over the course of 8 days, the hundred strong cast of performers of all faiths and religions take to the streets and lead the audience into the Cathedral where the majority of the plays are performed.

lincoln-jesusWith a considerable amount of cross over between the Old and New Testament Bible Stories, some performers are required to learn considerably more lines than others.

Henry Deighton, who played the antagonistic role of Satan/Lucifer performed in over half of the plays, providing those plays with a spiteful yet enigmatic villain for the audience to root against. Charlie Seeley had the unenviable task of playing Jesus in a similar amount of plays, whilst Dominic Freeston had, arguably, the biggest challenge of all, portraying God in 12 of the 17 plays.

With a huge Production team working from behind the scenes, the cast was ably supported throughout the two weeks of performing the plays allowing them to perform to the best of their abilities; giving the people of Lincoln yet another evening of entertainment to cherish for years to come.

Congratulations on another successful production, Lincoln Mystery Plays!

Big Ideas For The Next Cycle

Who’s got some ideas for the next cycle of Mystery Plays?

We’ve yet to secure funding for the production of any more Mystery Plays, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get some ideas rolling on what we could do. With the fantastic Lincoln Mystery Plays coming to an end a month or so ago, we’re brimming with ideas and possibilities of what we’d do if we won funding tomorrow.

Arts funding at this time is notoriously hard to come by, combined with the fact that Political support for projects has moved away from Religious works to more Secular pieces. Still, there’s no reason that we can’t live in hope and continue to apply for funding. In the mean time, thinking costs nothing and there’s nothing more exciting than making a wildly extravagant plan with absolutely no hope of it reaching fruition.

After a brief brainstorming session with the rest of the gang, I’ve collected 4 of the best/wackiest ideas of how we could bring back the Durham Mystery Cycles bigger and better than ever:

More People

Something that all the best Biblical Epics of the golden age of cinema had in common was an unbelievably huge amount of extras. Although we’ve done well in the past to get as many people together as we have, it would be great to attract even more to join the show.

les-miz

Filling out our cast with a wider array of demographics should help lend more credibility to our production. Imagine double the amount of people crowding the stage with a huge variety in ages, race and gender. To bring more people into our production would be the easiest, cheapest way to raise the production values of our show.

Historically Accurate Attire

Along with more people, we’d also need to invest in more costumes. Of course, if we do somehow secure funding, we’d want to reuse the costumes we used in the last cycle. However, in an ideal world, we would be able to dress our significantly larger cast in a completely new wardrobe.

medival-costumes

A brand new production would require new costumes, and it would be fantastic to be able to invest in traditional, historically accurate costume. To provide the people of Durham with a truly authentic Mystery Play experience would be wonderful, and not something our audience would forget in a hurry.

Animals

Although there are strict rules in place when it comes to the use of animals in entertainment situations (just take a look at the difficulty that the makers of the new Harry Potter play ran into recently) there’s no reason why we can’t shoot for the stars by enlisting some furry friends to help us set the scene.

easter-miz

The old adage goes, ‘never work with animals or children’. Well we’ve managed to handle dozens of children in a live theatrical setting before, why not go one step further and get some lives in mix? A donkey to ride our Jesus through the gates of Jerusalem, sheep to tend to our manger in the nativity scene – perhaps even a live snake for the Fall of Man?

Ice Sculptures

This is a much more off the wall idea, suggested by one of our more enthusiastic volunteers. The idea of one mystery play being represented as an intensely detailed ice sculpture is one that we can’t stop thinking about. Of course there would be an inherent challenge in presenting a piece of theatre as a tableau, but this could be easily stepped around.

glacier-art-dino

Many of the stories in the York Cycles of plays draw from incredibly iconic moments in the Bible. The Creation of Man, Building of the Ark and Sacrifice of Cain and Able are all stories that could be told within a single frame. As to who would create such a thing, a colleague has been raving about Glacial Art’s ice sculptures for months now, it might be worth giving them a call.

There’s still no word on whether we’ll be able to go ahead with another set of plays, but for now these ideas are more than enough to keep us excited.

 

6 Epic Mystery Plays That Need Adaptation

We’ve had a whale of a time adapting our choice of 10 of the York Mystery Plays, but as you may know, there are 38 more of them still left to go! Now, we’ve not got the go ahead to start production on any more. But if we were to get hold of some more funding, then these would be the first 6 that we’d choose adapt.

Judgement Day

judgment-dayIn the 14th Century, people had to be kept in fear of God and this was the classic story that would deter them from committing the sins that would have eroded the social fabric of he Middle Ages. What better way to keep the serfs in line than threatening the punishment of eternal damnation?

Of course, the purpose of the Mystery Plays were not to scare the living Christ out of the audience, but to provide them with a gaudy distraction for a day – so there’s a good chance that the Medieval players would have kept the tone light for this particular play. What could be more theatrical than the end times?

Mortification of Christ

mortificiationOne of the most tragic scenes of Jesus’ story, his mortification and eventual burial are told through 4 separate accounts, from 4 different disciples.

Although modern scholars disagree on the most likely turn out of events, it’s likely that the writers of the Mystery Plays settled on using Mark’s Gospel over the other stories due to the detail it provides in terms of burial rites and action.

Rather worryingly, the Craft Guild of the Butchers were charged with the funding of this particular cart – one can just imagine what kind of special effects work they contributed to the Mortification. We’d probably tone down the gore, but there would be no need to underplay the drama at stake here.

Baptism of Jesus

jesu5Considered to be one of the 5 major moments in Christ’s story, Jesus’ baptism is seen by many as the beginning of the Ministry of Jesus. It is the sacred act of baptism, which Gospel writer John performs, that induces a ‘holy spirit’ to descend from the sky ‘like a dove’. This miraculous appearance signals Jesus’ importance and inspires the first two disciples to join the cause.

Besides from being one of the most important events in Christianity, the Baptism of Jesus is packed full of great symbols and moments. The only issue would be finding a way to fully realise a running river on stage – we always love a challenge, though!

Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem

A classic part of the Easter story, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey, is one of the most iconic sections of his tale. It represents the unabashed love and respect that he was lavished with, by the inhabitants of a city who had to see him in the flesh yet.

triumphal-entry-jesus-1078565-gallery

Another story that would translate perfectly to the stage, dozens of supporting players could be used for this scene, emphasizing the joy and enthusiasm that greets Jesus upon his entrance. We’re yet to have secured the necessary documents to provide an actual donkey for this conceptual production, but I’m sure we can sort something out with the local pantomime company – sometimes the old ways are the best.

Last Supper

The Last Supper has become one of the most iconic scenes in the Easter Story. Whether it’s due to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting or the role it played in the best-selling book The Da Vinci Code, it’s hard to deny that it makes for wonderful theatre.

1-the-last-supper-leonardo-da-vinci

Traditionally the Bakers Guild would sponsor this play – which makes sense, considering the Communion that takes place. It’s the ritual of communion, Jesus’ predictions of the betrayals to come and the nature of this foreshadowing that make this a riveting piece of drama – perfect for the stage. Taking inspiration from da Vinci and staging this scene as an homage to the painting would be a great way to instantly familiarise the audience with the drama at hand.

Massacre of the Innocents

massareThe bawdy Middle-Age audiences loved nothing more than a bit of violence or raunchiness. This story is devoid of that latter but has the former in abundance. For a long time, as is the case with many Bible stories, the story of the mass killing of children under the age of two was seen as gospel. However, biblical scholars (especially biographers of Herod himself) have disputed the historic nature of this abhorrent crime.

Although this may seem like dark territory to stumble into for a fun night out at the theatre, the Massacre of the Innocents would provide the evening with some tonal variation. We visualise setting the scene in a modern day war zone.

After all it’s not so  hard to believe something like this happening in this day and age.