London and the Problem of the Clerkenwell Plays


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Scholars and antiquarians at least since John Stow's Survey of London (1590) have believed that there was a cycle of biblical plays performed over several days by clerics at Clerkenwell ( or at Skinners' Well) in the fourteenth and the opening decades of the fifteenth century, even, according to Stow, until his own day.1 There are a number of problems associated with this tradition: there is no other record that a biblical drama was presented in England over more than one day before the early sixteenth century when Chester moved its Corpus Christi play to Whitsuntide2; the earliest documents we have for a mammoth production of plays lasting for more than a three-day period are otherwise continental and fifteenth century (except for the Passion at Cividale3); and those English cycles for which we have extant texts and sufficient documentation were all produced by guilds or ruling oligarchies that constituted civic corporations whereas the Clerkenwell plays are said to be made by the clerics of London outside the precincts of the city. The questions we need to address are: whether the ludi at Clerkenwell were cycles of biblical dramas; whether the clerks of London constituted a body with the resources to produce such a series of plays; and, assuming that they did produce a series of plays, whether they were an annual or regular production over a long period of time.

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