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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Guild Livery

There are so many facets to the life of a working guild. One such is our pageantry.  We have our next guild procession on Friday 27th May and lots of work is going into developing our livery. These pieces are unfinished, but will be completed by the end of May. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

“The Norwich Stonemasons’ Play” by Gail McMurray Gibson

The Guild of St. Stephen & St. George is very grateful to East Anglian medieval drama expert, Professor McMurray Gibson, for rewriting the 'N-Town' Play, 'Cain & Abel' for our guild members to perform. The rewriting is an adaptation of the original rendering it understandable to twenty first century audiences. The Master & apprentices of our guild will be performing this play across seven city centre locations in Norwich during the day on Saturday 28th May. Here are the times and locations:
  1. 10:30am Anglican Cathedral, west front
  2. 11:30am: Norwich Castle Museum, keep main floor
  3. 12:15am: Norwich Guildhall, facing taxi rank
  4. 1:15pm: Catholic  Cathedral, garden 
  5. 2:30pm Norwich Playhouse, St George's Street, outside theatre
  6. 3:00pm Anglican Cathedral, west front
  7. 4:00pm Adam & Eve Pub, outside  

Finally, here is a piece written by Professor McMurray Gibson about the work...

Gail McMurray Gibson        “The Norwich Stonemasons’ Play”

[Fig. 1 Cain killing Abel with his shovel, medieval stained-glass window from St. Gatien Cathedral, Tours, France ] 

            The first murder on earth occurred, according to the biblical book of Genesis, when Cain murdered his brother Abel. The fourth chapter of Genesis makes clear that Cain’s motive was jealousy; Cain was angered because God favored his brother’s pious sacrifice of a lamb more than Cain’s own sacrifice of harvested wheat.  It was this mythic story of sibling rivalry, embellished by both popular legend and centuries of learned biblical commentary, and translated and enlivened to make the biblical text memorable to the people of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Norfolk, that was once annually performed by the city Stonemasons’ Guild along with other craft guild plays on pageant wagon stages drawn through the streets and squares of Norwich.

            This detail from an early seventeenth-century painting representing a Brussels pageant wagon procession can give an idea of what the elaborate and costly Corpus Christi Day processions of Norwich craft guild pageants must have looked like.

[Fig.2 Brussels pageant wagon, a detail from “The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615,” a painting by Denys van Alsloot in the Victoria and Albert Museum]
The text of the old Norwich Stonemasons’ Cain and Abel play has unfortunately been lost; the only play that happens to survive from the Norwich Corpus Christi pageants is the Grocers’ Guild play of the Fall of Adam and Eve, extant in two versions in an eighteenth-century antiquarian’s handwritten copies in the Norfolk Record Office.

            But an East Anglian Cain and Abel play, of uncertain origin, does survive in a fifteenth-century compilation of scriptural plays, once owned by the famous manuscript collector Sir Robert Bruce Cotton and now preserved in the British Library (BL MS Cotton Vespasian D.viii). It is this text, from the play compilation known as the N-Town Plays (N, for nomen, the Latin word for “name,” i.e. fill in the name) that has been adapted and modernized for the Stonemasons’ Guild play of 2016.

[Fig.3 The opening lines of the N-Town Cain and Abel play, BL MS Cotton Vespasian D.viii, fol. 17]

In the N-Town play version, Cain kills Abel by striking him with an ass jawbone that he finds lying on the ground. This is how the first murder was commonly portrayed in English visual art, as in this detail from the illuminated fourteenth-century East Anglian manuscript known as The Holkam Bible Picture Book.

[Fig. 4  Cain killing Abel, detail of folio 5v, from the 14th-century Holkam Bible Picture Book  (BL MS. ADD. 47682) ]

In our version, taking the suggestion of some other late-medieval craft-guild scriptural plays, Cain kills Abel with a stone in a kind of ironic product placement that purposefully connects sacred history to the craftsmen-actors themselves. We can see this irony in the civic decision to assign a play about eating forbidden fruit to the Norwich Grocers’ Guild.  Perhaps, most famously, we know that the late-medieval York Crucifixion Play was performed by the Pinners, the York city guild that crafted nails.

[Fig. 5 Performance of the Pinners Crucifixion, Stonegate St., York, 1992, Bretton Hall photo]

In the complex time of the mystery play, performances of Old Testament history sometimes allude in a kind of purposeful anachronism to New Testament events yet to come (as when the N-Town Abel prays to God to accept his lamb since, says Abel, in the form of “a lamb’s likeness/ Thou shalt for humankind’s wickedness/ One day be yourself painfully offered up” in the incarnate Jesus and die.)

[Fig. 6 Performance of the Chester Cain and Abel Play at Toronto, Canada, 2010, photo by Theresa Coletti].

But especially, the mystery plays aimed for a kind of omni-temporality, for performances in time and for all times, performances from biblical history that were appropriated and transformed for the present. The anonymous author of the N-Town Cain and Abel play thus rewrote the violence of Genesis as a play in which Cain is forced to learn that he has sinned and been cursed by God forever, not only for killing his brother, but for his refusal to give a worthy tithe (a church tax consisting of a tenth of income) to God’s medieval Church.

Our performance rewrites the play to proclaim a different lesson. In the Stonemasons’ Cain and Abel play of 2016, it is not the medieval requirement of tithing but the living tradition of service that becomes our theme. This Cain and Abel play dramatizes the holiness of giving; the play ends by emphasizing the sanctity of offering generously of ourselves and our talents and the work of our own hands. The motto of the Norwich Stonemasons’ Guild of St. Stephen and St. George fittingly concludes this version of the play: “Seek perfection in an imperfect world.”