Corpus Christi Plays in Durham

Picture medieval Durham one day in the late spring. Plays are performed in the city from dawn until dusk. An elaborate procession moves from the marketplace to the Cathedral, bearing a shrine. A special service is celebrated. In this podcast, Dr Mark Chambers resurrects a special tradition in Durham’s religious calendar.

Each year, the Cathedral celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi. This feast, celebrating the ‘Body of Christ’ represented by the bread and wine of the sacrament of Communion, has been a highlight of the Christian calendar for nearly 700 years, and is still the premier feast day following the celebration of Easter.

In the medieval period, Corpus Christi day would be celebrated with an elaborate procession by clergy and assembled dignitaries. It would also include Corpus Christi plays, specially put on by the city’s trade guilds and fraternities. The famous York Corpus Christi plays are part of this tradition. In Durham, the assembled procession would carry the spectacular shrine of Corpus Christi from its resting place in St. Nicholas’ church in the Market Place, up the hill to the Cathedral, where prayers would be said, hymns sung and a special service celebrated. On the same day, Durham’s dozen or so trade guilds would each be responsible for putting on their ‘Corpus Christi play’ – each play presumably enacting a scene from Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.

As well as tracing the history of the Corpus Christi plays before the reformation and highlighting evidence for them, Mark Chambers also investigates theories as to what plays were played, by whom, and how.

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