The first image depicts an English pageant wagon – Sharp – A Dissertation on the pageants (1825)
The second image shows a depiction of a mystery play in Metz during the middle ages.
(The following is from the group’s archives with minor editing)
The Norwich Medieval Mystery Plays take inspiration from gonfalons and the colourful pageant wagons that would have been used for the performances of these biblical plays.
In 1210 Pope Innocent the Third forbid clergy from acting on a public stage. This transferred
the organisation of the dramas to the town guilds. The texts replaced the Latin with non-biblical stories. The plays could be presented with elaborate sets and ‘special effects’, but could also be stark and intimate. To capture the attention of the audience the plays were often noisy, and sometime quite bawdy.
The first image below depicts an English pageant wagon – Sharp – A Dissertation on the pageants (1825)
The second image shows a depiction of a mystery play in Metz during the middle ages in space and scaffold format.
I’ve seen burnings before. Witch burnings. It’s not as if this is really new. I’ve rehearsed this scene over and over. There’s the “screaming hell-fire, I repent” type of scene. That’s just the flames talking. Torture anyone, they will say anything. That’s what they said to me. Of course I talked. That’s what actors do. Talk. In circles, up and down staircases, in hidden rooms, in tower attics, in copses and fields, dungeons and hills.
Woe is me for this short, sweet life! I could say as my last words, but it was anything but sweet. The only thing I lived and breathed for, before, during and after these brief years walking upon and living within dirt –– was the stage. Wooden planks beneath my feet, my voice allowed to boom across the cries of the market, to silence and hush parents as they watched in mystery as we actors, dressed in the trappings of Christ’s disciples, saints and the Devil, revealed the stories with which the priest threatened and sweetened their Sunday masses.
Not that I begrudge the Church for their splendid cathedrals and years of toil extracted from each one of us devoted to building them, as my father had. Nor do I begrudge the priest who was my real father. He had bewitched my mother into secrecy that his lust filled eyes could never cover.
I learned my trade young, from those who managed a stage show of their daily lives. Sadly, the daily Angelus never caught my ear, while the lute-player did. The Inquisition’s torturers are far from sainthood, their savagery will disgrace every man of God, should the Church last much longer with these anti-Christs within their midst. I knew the impending hell my body will soon impeach my soul. I sought one of the men whose mind is confused by his wined haze. I latched onto the poor oaf who had laughed uproariously at my last midnight performance, but who, I knew, sword ready, follows the instructions of my dear Father, in more ways than one.
I digress. The images have blurred. Now I am unveiled before the Inquisition. A bloody mess, stopped with a burning upside-down wooden cross. I am stamped with the sign. The torturers were very polite, seeing as everyone knew my real father. If my mind worked properly, I almost thought they searched for a way to call me temporarily bewitched, or led astray, that it was a young man’s sewing of his wild oats, but not in the warm cellars of peasant women unable to defend themselves. Like him. But upon the draped cart, that traveled from one village to another and performed the acceptable Bible stories.
Often I have been asked if I am a man or woman, seeing as on stage, I play both so well. Now my father has branded me neither. I had not known so many people throughout the area could recount my raucous performances, where laughter rather than “Thanks be to God and Rome” had poured forth from delighted peasants.
Those plays we performed, after midnight, far from official oversight, were not of the Church, but for my countrymen, my fellow peasants. Nor were they plays of saints and sinners. These plays we actors performed spontaneously, because none of us could write. Nor did we want to. Should our plays be discovered, all of us would be burned. These plays were made especially for moonlit acting far, far from the village and censorious priests and other men who knighted themselves as ‘‘holy, men of God’’.
Pain swells my brain then splits it into a million shards. My father brings his red clothes searing into the dungeon, his nostrils flaring at the unaccustomed smells of unholy shit and piss. It is he who demanded me to be stripped, to show the genitals he had fathered were devil-inspired: neither male nor female, but both.
But my father is a clever man, or he would not soon be traveling to Rome. He had brought his men into my cell earlier and done his deed. It was quite a trick, that bit of acting while my Father had my already deformed body further tortured to his wishes.
Reporting by the Catholic Church can NEVER be trusted….
I had found the oaf to engage my soul while I released it from the usual bonds of this body. Never would I attach nor open my mind to this ‘Man of God’ called ‘Father/father’. Those assembled in my torture room – those who have done the deeds and the soon-to-be Cardinal-Father and his cohorts – they all can easily see. Should they come closer, they might even find the maggots cleaning out the fresh wounds. Rather, they distance themselves, believing I was born this way. They somersault backwards from their very small minds. My father’s eyes are burning – now in fear. If his son be born this way, what sayest this of him?
“Tell them!” he rages at me, his audience of one. “Tell them what you saw! How the devil came upon your midnight Angeles (he spat the words) and branded you one of his followers!”
I told you my father was clever. The poor peasant man, equal in my age, but far distant in his ability to weave cause and effect, sputtered twisted, convoluted Latin. Ah ha, and so my father himself had rehearsed this stage too.
“See! Men of the cloth, believers of God and haters of devil-worshipers! This THING is an abomination before God and Man!”
This was my cue to exit. Exiting had been my specialty as a child, and as an adult, entertaining had brought me food, and mull, beer and bread. Short, somewhat happy life. There is much to grieve for, as there has been every day of my waking days – from childhood the first time I spied the Church’s red cloth lay next to my protesting mother.
But I had been blessed with family love, devoted to sitting in the sunset on spring days next to my mother. She watched my father as he carefully carved the delicate designs that would be hidden so far up in the cathedral, only souls floating at the Requiem masses would see them.
“But why?” I had asked.
“Because God sees all, and will rejoice in this beauty I give back to him, as he has given me you.”
My child’s eyes dilate way beyond as I see the flash of leg and red cloth. Opening wide, the light they allowed in ripped the Holy Grail from my heart, ripped the temple of Jerusalem’s cloth, killed me on a cross and sent me spiraling in a flurry to my father to ask. “Hush, hush, sweet child,” he had said.
“Are you like Joseph married to Mary, and the churchman God?”
Still I was verbal in my confusion.
“Shhh,” he said, rocking me back and forth, his arms cradling my thin body in his thinner chest, tears too falling from his eyes.
“Triangles within triangles,” he said. “Mother-Child-Father, Husband-Wife-Other. God-Man-Church. Because they are triangles, unlike the gentle curves I carve. They cut and hurt those about them.”
The faggots are high. My father wishes to speak to me, so he orders them piled higher. He has offered me the sip of the sleeper, the drugged drink to kill me before the flames. I refuse. Being on stage shall be my birth and death.
His hands come now, to squeeze my throat. The battles he now suffer have overruled all his senses and ambitions because I am his only son.
I jerk my throat from his old, trembling hands. I am still able to command an audience.
“The Devil himself comes to kiss his handiwork! Light the fire so we may both join God’s army against Satan!” my golden voice, still undamaged unlike every other part of me, rings across the Church square.
It seems I hear the bells ringing. Alas, what few teeth I have are chocking my throat.
Father has rammed his strong, bejeweled ruby and emerald ringed fist into my mouth. Sweet Jesus, what good have I done! I see, as the flames lick both him and me!
The people have tired of this cleric and maddened Inquisition that kills their laughter – the only thing the Church cannot tax. Every day, the Church’s golden robed ones, pampered monks and well-fed priests rob my friends and villagers of their virgin wives, their sisters and daughters. Now they can fling Him into the fire, the one known far and wide as the people’s Satan.
“No,” he screams, but he is already afire, the rich ornament of his dressings flaming as he tries to leap from the stage. But the faithful continually throw him in again and again. No one offers him succor. Some even try to pat the flames about me down, but the faggots are dry and ready for their duty.
My burning father looks into my eyes, asking for forgiveness.
I look up to the Cathedral and see the man who loved me as a father. His quiver with its bow and arrow so sadly comes to rescue me, our eyes so saddened and opened with too much light.
His heart arrow rescues me from them fire’s pain. I die, glad to have had him as a father.
I could not have asked for a better rescue. He shall hide, as I pray to God, amid the spires he has fashioned, and no one shall find him. This will be the last burning. As a sign from God, this village shall never burn a free spirit again.
Whoosh – my heart, my love, dies. They were just stories, our midnight plays, to raise people’s eyes to the stars and spirits, to make them laugh and rejoice, our midnight Angeluses to love and life. That’s all. Harmless stories to brighten the darkened hearts of those poor trodden people who, like me, had the yoke of hunger and slavery lifted from their necks.
*During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful political force in most of Europe’s masses. To retain their power, they forbid education to commoners, yet needed to share the Bible to keep the faithful enthralled. Thus ‘mystery players’ were troupes of actors moving from village to village. They performed religious plays, memorized by the actors. However, being creative, this mystery player and his troupe created amusing plays for the benefit of the villagers – completely irreligious, whose goal was to share love and laughter.
It also seems this actor was born with a physical deformity, perhaps a minor version of being a hermaphrodite or other biological genetic problem. Being the Middle Ages, such realities were often explained away in religion as evil and signs from Satan.
The saying of the Angelus, a pray, probably acted as a short break for medieval laborers.