The Significance of the Eucharist Scenes

in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament





Ji-Soo Kang






     Over the years much of the critical attention given to the Croxton Play of the Sacrament was merely for its historical significance, typically as a "rare specimen of the early drama" (Brook, 29).  That a crucial textual error was corrected only in 1970 with the publication of Norman Davis' Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments is witness to the fact that this play has not enjoyed much attention, let alone much critical acclaim (lxxi).1) This 15th-century dramatization of a legend that concerns the abuse of the Host by a group of Jews who buy a sacramental wafer from a Christian merchant is, to begin with, difficult to categorize.  Although usually listed under "saints' play," the absence of a saint in a supposed saints' play mandates an awkward apology which precedes many of the discussions.2) Those who tried to evaluate its artistic or dramatic significance rarely had positive things to say.3)  The consensus seems to be that the sensational events of the play, namely the torture scene, are so gory and excessive that they verge on being farcical, and the intentional comic scene of the quack-doctor episode is irrelevant or very loosely-tied at best.4)  Recent critics who attempted to shed more favorable light on this work have been busy addressing and making excuses mainly for the objects of these complaints, the violent scenes of torture and the "tiny folk play inserted in the main story" which "accomplishes nothing" as has been asserted by a well-known critic (Craig 326-7). Unfortunately, not much critical effort has been made so far to read this play as a whole in any favorable light. Few critics have even vouched for a thematic coherence, much less an artistic integrity of the work.

     In this paper, I would like to propose a reading of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament according to well-known structural schemes of medieval sermons. The proceedings of the solemn procession at the end and the bishop's speeches lead me to believe that this play may have been written by someone who is familiar with liturgical ritual and preaching.  Moreover, by recognizing the echoes of the Eucharist in important scenes other than in the highlighted scene of desecration of the Host by the Jews and the climactic singing of O sacrarum convivium at the end, namely in the quack-doctor scene, I would like to propose a reading much more coherent than hitherto has been acknowledged.

     Many scholars have noted on the important influence medieval sermons had on medieval drama.  Recently, Briscoe, in her excellent review of the existing scholarship and the challenges lay ahead  in the field of sermon/drama study, concluded as follows: is clear that sermon/drama study requires a challenging combination of literary critic and textual scholar.  But the field is an important one; for if we seek a true literary context  for the medieval English plays, it is incumbent on us to look at contemporary sermons...[for] they were the most practiced form of literary expression in the Middle Ages (169-70).


It is true that sermonic qualities in medieval literature have long been recognized. Moreover, the particular relationship between sermon and drama was studied over half a century ago by G. R. Owst on which topic he devoted a whole chapter from which the following passage is taken:


In scene after scene of the plays, we have found it possible to trace each dominant idea in the preacher's mind, his view of the world as well as of religion, his little mannerisms and tricks of speech, his own tears and laughter, the peculiar inflection of his voice over some favourite tragedy or comedy of the Ars Praedicandi (547).


The relationship between medieval preaching and drama seems obvious.  Sermons and plays share the same matter: the moralized lives of saints, exhortations to repentance and good living, and salvation history of the Old and New Testaments as in the cycle plays. Furthermore, most critics now agree that the plays have instruction in faith and morals as a primary end, as do the sermons.  Indeed, as Briscoe cites, about 1190 the Parisian master of theology, Alain of Lille, inaugurated the preaching handbook tradition with this very definition: "Preaching is open and public instruction in faith and morals"(151). And the common structural scheme given in various sermon manuals runs, it can be discovered and has been, in the speech of several characters, notably Mercy in Mankind. It may be argued that with these shared goals, preaching and plays serve one another as technical and artistic resources.

     The Croxton Play of the Sacrament deserves attention as it follows more than one structural scheme of medieval sermon, and as the structural and thematic unity in and of its "exempla" fittingly supports the unabashedly didactic message about the meaning of the Passion and the doctrine of transubstantiation. It will also be argued that the play might have been written by a preacher-playwright or at least somebody who is thoroughly familiar with various arts of composing a sermon. The process the play transforms itself into a sermon is quite remarkable.

     The structural scheme of later medieval thematic sermons according to Ross who follows Charland's division is as follows: (1) theme, (2) protheme, (3) the introduction to the theme, (4) the division of the theme, (5) the subdivision, and (6) the discussion or development (xliv). However, Robinson, summarizing J. Manly's division, proposed a slightly different structure: (1) theme, (2) protheme, (3) dilation, (4) exemplum, (5) peroration or application, (6) closing formula (729). The existence of still other divergencies reflects variations in the function of the sermon parts allowed to the preachers (Caplan, Merrix).  Indeed, according to Merrix, very few sermons follow the structure given above, and many preachers were flexible in following this "rule" as voiced in the treatises and reflected in the sermons (239).

     Based on Manly's scheme, we may divide the play as follows:


ll. 1-65     Protheme

ll. 65-80    Dilation 

ll. 80-845   Exempla

ll. 867-1007 Peroration and return to theme.5)


Such a division certainly attests to a shared quality between medieval sermon and this play.  However, considering the flexibility enjoyed by sermon-givers or preachers I think I can be allowed to examine this play according to a somewhat combined scheme as, for example, many scholars have done with Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale (Merrix 237, Owen 541-49).  In the eight-hundred lines designated as exemplum, which this section clearly is, I can discern two distinct, and quite possibly three forms of "anti-Eucharist" in the center of the actions, representing in each case the sins the characters commit.  Although the play does not explicitly mention these "divisions" in the theme, it is clearly structured in relation to the Sacrament based on the usual sermon structure illustrated above.

     This play is indeed a play of the Sacrament in a much more significant way than the scholars have hitherto recognized. As mentioned above, the story evolves around different forms of the Eucharist or rather, of "anti-Eucharist."  The first Eucharistic scene appears when Isoder, the priest, comes over to Aristorius' place to have supper with him.  Already the plans have been made to steal the Host after the priest goes to sleep (ll. 326-9), and with this wicked intention Aristorius orders the clerk to bring him wine.  Upon bringing "wine and bread" as the stage direction indicates, Peter Paul says,


Sir, here is a drawte of Romney Red--

There is no bettere in Aragon--

And a lofe of light bred;

It is [w]holesom, as sayeth the fesicion.



From this specific mention of wine and bread as they will be taken by a priest, and in accordance with the plot of the entire play, it is not hard to hear the echoes of the real Eucharist and thus, to realize the thematic importance of this scene. Aristorius invites the priest to drink the wine for a good rest which, of course, will provide him with the chance to steal the host.  It is no coincidence that emphasis is given on the physical, as opposed to spiritual, benefits of the wine and bread (343, 346-7). The mention of a "fesicion" on whose authority the servant vouches for the wholesomeness of bread and wine anticipates the appearance of the quack-doctor. Considering the fact that this play is as much about the penance of Aristorius as conversion of Jonathas, the Jew, it seems fitting, for dramatic as well as thematic purposes, to have an anti-Eucharist scene "perpetrated" by a Christian merchant.

     It is worthwhile to review C. Cutts' careful comparison between this English piece and its Continental analogues. In addition to the French play, Le Mistere de la Saincte Hostie, which is mentioned by almost all of later scholars as a possible source for the Croxton play, she also brings our attention to a fifteenth-century Italian play and a Dutch tale associated with the shrine of St. Gudule's:6)


     All three are strongly anti-Jewish in tone: the French and Dutch in their later forms have as their chief purpose stimulation of faith in the particular miraculous Hosts kept at the shrine of St.-Jean-en-Greve and St. Gudule's respectively; the Italian is in part a Corpus Christie play. None of these purposes is suggested in the English play. There is little anti-Jewish  or pro-Jewish atmosphere, as, of course, it might be considered natural in a country where for several hundred years the Jewish population was inconsiderable in number. Finally, the English play differs greatly from its continental analogues in the extent and nature of its doctrinal teachings. Where the continental tales emphasize only the doctrine of transubstantiation, and subordinate even that to the anti-Jewish and relic aspects, the English play gives all the emphasis to pure doctrine and expands its teaching to include not only transubstantiation but also baptism, confession, penance, pilgrimage, respect for images, reverence for the Blessed Virgin, the spiritual power and authority of a priest and the reverence due to him, and the superior power and authority of a Bishop, which is notably greater than that of a priest (47).


In other words, compared to the continental analogues, the English play is as much about the penance of Aristorius as the conversion of the Jews.  If the Jews represent those who crucified the Christ, Aristorius is another Judas, who is no less reprehensible,   as his confession plainly indicates:


Holy fathere, I knele to yow undere benedicite!

I have offended in the sin of cov[e]itis[e]:

I sold our Lordys body for lucre of mony

And deliveryd to the wickyd, with cursyd advice.

And for that pres[u]mpcion, gretly I agrise

That I presumed to go to the autere,

There to handyll the holy sacrifice.

I were worthy to be putt in brenning fire.

                          (900-7, italics mine)

Aristorius does not say he has sold the Host, but "our Lordys body" itself.  His sin of covetousness is that much more grave because of the doctrine of transubstantiation.  If we look back with this connection in mind, the supper scene where Aristorius shared wine and bread with the priest was his desecration of the Host, thus the Lord's body.  His sin is represented by his false Eucharist.

     In the next Eucharist scene, which is the scene of the main action of the play, occurs a desecration of the Host by the Jews.  Many critics have commented on the fact that Jonathas and his companions recite the major tenets of the Creed.  By rehearsing the whole story of Christ's life--from his conception by the Holy Spirit, his birth by a Virgin, his death and resurrection, to his coming to judge the living and the dead--the author of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament not only dramatizes the magnitude of the Jews' blasphemy in testing the Sacrament but also reviews Christ's life as part of God's plan for man's salvation.  Maltman justifiably sums up this scene by saying "The Sacrament Play, in fact, does in small what the Corpus Christi plays do in the course of the whole cycle" (152). Like a Corpus Christi cycle, the torture scene, by surveying the whole history of the world from the Creation to the Last Judgment, explains the place of Christ in the salvation of mankind, the necessity of his presence and his power as made manifest at the Last Judgment.  It is not difficult to understand that although it is the Jews who recite the tenets of the Creed, the recitation is for the benefit of the Christian audience.  Whether the horrible mutilation and cruelty in the scene is a reflection of the affective piety of the later Middle Ages in particular or a doctrinal necessity for collective salvation in general, the audience was expected to strengthen their faith in the power of the Christ through their emotional response to the scene.7)  Here is where the sermonic quality and intention, and drama come together.  When the procession is being formed, the bishop calls on "all my pepull" or "all ye people that here are" (808, 810).  After the image changes back into bread, the bishop again calls on the people to march in procession:


Now will I take this holy sacrament

With humble hart and gret devocion,

And all we will gon with on[e] consent

And beare it to chirche with sole[m] procession.

Now folow me, all and summe!

And all tho that bene here, both more and lesse,

This holy song, O sacrum convivium,

Lett us sing all with greet swetnesse.



As Bevington notes, the language suggests that the audience join in the singing of this hymn and in the procession.8)   At this point, the audience for the play becomes the congregation of a service.

     The singing of the O sacrum convivium with the marching of the procession, a dramatic and thematic highpoint of the play, carries the last mark of the Eucharist motif around which the story unfolds.  Again, Maltman's statement on this particular antiphon is illuminating:


[O sacrum convivium] is normally found as a Second Vespers' antiphon in the Office of Corpus Christi.  It is so found in the Sarum, the York, and the  yde Breviaries.  It also occurs as a processional antiphon for the feast of Corpus Christi and is so found, for example, in the Sarum Procesionale and in the Processional of the Nuns of Chester.  It is as a processional antiphon that the O Sacrum Convivium is used in the Croxton play.  Ascribed to Saint Thomas, it admirably and briefly sums up the Church's teaching on the Eucharist. A close look at the action of the play makes clear the inevitable rightness of the O Sacrum Convivium sung at the most solemn moment of the play.  The antiphon not only presents the major theme of the play, but the action of the play  is in a very real sense a  dramatization of the antiphon (151).


As we have seen so far, the Eucharist motifs govern the evolution and structuring principle of the play. Noticing these motifs at important moments provides a sense of a more integrated work. Regarded from the viewpoint of its sermon-structure, the two scenes of desecration provide two kinds of examples which become incorporated in the peroration of the bishop's speech.

     However, there still remains the quack-doctor scene to reckon with. The complaints about this scene are levelled against the fact that it seems so out of place in the play. Most scholars agree that the folk characters and their formulaic speeches were borrowed from the mummers' plays and appreciate the comic relief in this tense moment when the Jews are experiencing with utter shock the literal truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation.9) The quack-doctor has been understood as a counterpoint  to the True Doctor who will eventually heal and restore Jonathas' hand.  The appropriateness of employing the theme of death-and- resurrection from the scenes of "Cure" in most of the hero-combat plays has also been noted (Bevington 755-56, Maltman 153-155).  Granted that most of the recorded versions of the mummer's plays date from the eighteenth-century and many of them are in a chaotic state, a considerable amount of information has been accumulated that offers analogues between the medieval plays and the traditional drama.10) While many of the above-mentioned observations related to the Croxton Play of the Sacrament seem valid, I believe the scholars could have found many more pertinent and important aspects of this folk-scene in terms of its originality and its relationship to the rest of the play, have they not been hung up on the fact that the scene seems to have been interpolated by a later hand. Craig's statement is a good example of such a preoccupation:


That the episode of the quack doctor is an addition to the original play is evident from the fact that it appears in the ballad stanza and in a livelier style than the rest of the play....a tiny folk play inserted in the main story.  It accomplishes nothing, and at the end the doctor and his boy are beaten away by the four Jews (326-7).


Usually when folk motifs are incorporated into a Christian drama, they are borrowed as a ready-made item: for example, as the characters, especially the devils; as the gesture such as a call for room and "pes" by the first speaker of the play or a designated "prolocuter"; or as some verbal borrowings such as boasting and vaunting speeches of St, George as they similarly appear in the speeches of the king and the "Miles" in the Pride of Life.  Thematic relationships have also been discussed with the beheading-resurrection of the devils in Mankind, but the importance of this scene is rather minor in the play (Smart, King).  Compared to other expropriated folk scenes in those morality plays, the doctor scene in the Play of the Sacrament seems to reveal an extreme "tempering" by the borrowing hand to suit the purpose of the play as we have examined above.

     The folk scene deserves a particular attention not because of its source or the similarities to the doctor and the "Cure" motif in the mummers' play, but because of its conspicuous departure from the usual characterization and events.  First, it is quite unusual that the quack-doctor in this play has a servant.  In all of the texts of mummers' plays I have read, only one version from Islip, Oxfordshire presents the doctor with an assistant. It is obvious that this version had experienced some changes over the time and it is not sure exactly whether the assistant is Jack Spinney or Fat Jack or both (Helm et al. 71-2). Whoever it was, this character was an enigma.  He was a reluctant assistant who brought the "instruments" required by the Doctor.  He sometimes helped in the cure and sometimes performed it, but apart from adding to some comic effect, his introduction has no apparent purpose. Although there is the folk tradition of knave-servants like Garcio or Pikeharnes in the cycle plays, it is still peculiar that this servant figure has been paired up with the Doctor. Therefore, it is important to examine what must have necessitated the introduction of Colle. Unusual as it may be, Colle's role is important for he introduces to us the doctor as a frequenter of a tavern:


He is a man of all sience

But of thriffte--I may with yow dispenc[e]!

He sittith with sum tapstere in the spence,

His hood there will he sell.


He is allso a boone-setter!

I knowe no man go the better!

In every taverne he is detter--

                 (529-32, 541-43)


Considering the fact that in virtually no text of a mummer's play is mentioned the drunkeness of the folk-doctor, we may assume that this element bears a particular relation to the play. According to Owst, taverns and taverners were one of the popular topics in medieval sermons as a tavern often appears as the scene of drunkeness, gluttony and gambling which lead inevitably to blasphemy and other sins (417-192).   Drunkenness and gambling, gluttony and lechery are the sins of the doctor and we find this out through Colle.  The folk characters and the actions seem to have been expropriated to emphasize this popular topic.  As long as he maintains his habit, he remains a quack.

     Other sermonic qualities can also be found.  After Master Brundiche enters the scene and speaks with his servant for a while, he suddenly turns to the audience and says the following:


Here is a grete congregacion,

And all be not whole, without negacion.

I wold have certificacion:

Stond up and make a proclamacion.

Have do faste, and make no pausacion,

But wightly mak a declaracion

To all people that helpe w[o]lde have.



Even this scene of comic relief carefully works toward an explicit intentions of preaching for the audience just as the tenets of the Creed were recited by the Jews for the audience.  The same theme of the sinful, thus "not whole," state of mankind is evoked here and it reverberates in the speech of the two "vexillators" in the bann, addressing the audience:


1    Therfor, frendys, with all your might

     Unto youer gostly Father shewe your sinne.

     Beth in no wanhope, daye not night;

     No maner of dowghtys that Lord put in!


2       And it place yow, this gadering that here is,

     At Croxton on Monday it shall be sen[e].

     To see the conclusion of this litell processe

     Hertely welcum shall yow bene.



This is yet another example of how the major scenes in the play are integrated into serving the common function of a sermon, an open and  public teaching of faith and moral.

     Questions remain as to why this seemingly irrelevant scene is thematically pertinent to the rest of the play. Another well-known tale set in a tavern, though earlier than the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, seems to shed so much light on this matter.  Many critics have pointed out that the reference to the Pardoner's drinking, the description of the tavern scene in the beginning of the Pardoner's Tale, and the narrator's "culinary 'scholastics'" of turning substance into accident are all reminiscent of the Eucharist, or a conversion thereof (Nichols, Shoaf 220).  The most representative scene is the following.


[They] eten also and drynken over hir myght,

Thrugh which they doon the devel sacrifise

Withinne that develes temple in cursed wise

By superfluytee abhominable.

Hir othes been so grete and so dampnable

That it is grisly for to heere hem swere.

Oure blissed Lordes body they totere--

Hem thoughte that Jews rente hym noght ynough--

                       (468-75, italics mine)11)

From the doctor scene, it is not difficult to imagine the tavern as a place of eating and drinking for purely fleshly pleasure derived from the material manifestation the elements.  If the tavern scene did invoke the Eucharist motif in the minds of the medieval audience, which I propose as a good possibility judging from the scholarship on the Pardoner's Tale, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament now has a completely unified structure and very appropriate exempla divided into three different forms of anti-Eucharist.

     If preaching was to be "In Latin and in the vernacular, to the clergy and to the people" the use of Latin and English certainly qualifies this work as a form of sermon.12)  Various Latin passages seem almost formulaic, being dropped by someone who has been habitually speaking those words.  There are abundant examples of these from the scenes of the Jew's confession after the appearance of Jesus.  Unlike the Latin in Mankind, it does not seem to be parodic or used for any purposes other than the way sermons usually consisted of recitation of Scriptural passages or liturgy in Latin.  With such a use of the language, it can be inferred that this play addresses both the learned and the unlearned, the clergy and the lay people.

     In this paper, I have examined the play according to the schemes of medieval sermons and demonstrated that the whole play is centered around the meaning and power of the Eucharist culminating in the singing of the true teachings of the matter in O sacrum convivium.  Sermonic qualities, not only with its usual theme and intentions, but also with language and form pervade the play.  It would be impossible to validate historically that this play was written by a preacher, but the sermonic structure and quality and the sermonic themes indicate that at least it was written by someone who was very well trained in and familiar with preaching.

     As Briscoe says, "the later Middle Ages was a time of complex religious controversy and the sermon was an adaptive tool" (169).  Cutts has shown in her essay that this play might very well have been an anti-Lollard piece, though the play is usually dated as late fifteenth- or even early sixteenth-century (Cutts 1944).  With this possible impulse, I think this play was written and performed with a specific goal and a clearly discernible effort to bring various aspects of the theme to form a more integrated work than has been realized by the readers and critics.  The Croxton Play of the Sacrament serves as a refined example of how sermon complements drama and vice versa.

(Inha University)











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The Significance of the Eucharist Scenes

in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament


Ji-Soo Kang


The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a little-known play of the 15th century, has not received much critical attention apart from its historical significance or its formal uniqueness.  However, a close reexamination reveals many features that vest this work in much more artistic integrity than it has been acknowledged with. This paper examines the play according to the schemes of medieval sermons and demonstrates that the whole play is centered around the meaning and power of the Eucharist. culminating in the singing of the true teachings of the matter in O sacrum convivium.  Sermonic qualities, not only with its usual theme and intentions, but also with language and form pervade the play. In particular, the quack-doctor scene which has often been treated as an irrelevant or awkward addition to the main action of the play by a later hand, is examined in the context of its "source," the mummer's plays. It is argued that its peculiar difference from other related "scenes" indicate important evidences of an effort to connect this scene of comic relief to the play's sermonic structure and its theme regarding the meaning and the power of the Eucharist.. 









크럭스턴 성체극 나타난 성체 관련 장면의 의미



  15세기 작품으로 추정되는크록스턴 성체극 지금까지 문학사적 의미나 형식적 독특함에 대한 논의 이상의 비평적 관심을 받지 못했다. 그러나 작품의 구조가 중세의 설교 지침서에서 제시하는 설교 구조와 매우 유사할 아니라 성체의 의미와 권능에 대한 가르침이라는 분명한 주제를 중심으로 전개되는 연극임을 파악하게 되면 자연스럽게 개의 대표적인 에피소드가 이러한 주제에 대한 예화로 제시됨을 있다. 특히 논문에서는 기독교도인 상인과 신부가 보여주는 ()성체성사 장면, 유태인들의 호스티아 모독 장면과 더불어 작품 해석의 난제인 돌팔이 의사 장면까지도 모두 성체에 대한 믿음과 믿음이 삶에 구현되어야 함을 깨우쳐주기 위한 것으로 중세 관객이 이해했을 가능성을 제시하며 작품의 구성의 치밀함을 주장한다. 마지막에 「성스러운 향연」(O sacrum convivium) 노래하는 장면에서는 극적 정황을 보았을 당연히 관객까지 동원된 행렬이 지어진다고 여겨지며 이렇듯 자연스럽게 관객의 극중 참여를 유도하는 구성은크록스턴 성체극 어떤 작품 못지않게 설교와 연극의 상호보완성이라는 중세적 특징을 확실히 보여준다고 하겠다.

1) Maltman also gives a brief history of how the antiphon O sacrum convivium sung by the procession at the high point of the play (l.840) has hitherto been edited as O sacrum Dominum. (151-52, 163)  I think the correction has significantly added to the artistic integrity of the play.


2) Bevington lists the play under the title of "Saints' Plays or Conversion Plays" along with The Conversion of St. Paul and Mary Magdalene (ix).  Grantley discusses it in his essay entitled "Saints' Plays" (265-289). Other aspects of saints' plays, namely miracle and conversion, only partially qualify the play as such.


3) For a brief review of these opinions, see Maltman, 149


4) See the introduction to the play in Bevington. Subsequently, all the quotations of the play come from this edition.


5) The line numbers and quotations come from Bevington's edition.


6) Apparently, this French play has not been edited yet.  All the articles I have read mentions "L. Petit de Julleville, Les Mysteres, ii (Paris, 1886), 574-576" as reference.  However, those pages give an outline of the story, not the text itself. Cutts in 1938 claims in her footnote that the University library has a photostat copy of the play.  If it really was in the library then, it seems to have been lost at some point between then and now. Fortunately, Cutts gives a very thorough, line-by-line comparison of the two plays.


7) For an important discussion of the violence and gore in medieval drama, see Enders.


8) It would be absurd to think that "we" here only consist of the bishop and the Jews, for  the Jews would not have known the words to O sacrum convivium,.


9) For the theme, structure, character, action and the types of English mummers' plays, see Chambers 1903, 87-419 and Chambers 1933; Baskervill; Brody, 55-59; Helm et al.


10) See Happe's concise summary of the past scholarship on this connection.


11) All the quotations for the Pardoner's Tale come from The Riverside Chaucer.


12) The actual Latin is, "quosdam sermones ad clerum et populum, nunc litterali, nunc uulgari lingua proposui et dictaui," quoted from Innocent III by Bataillon.