York and The Flood in Medieval Drama

Living in York, one becomes accustomed to the rise and fall of the River Ouse, which can burst its banks and retreat several times in the course of a year. The degree to which it, and even more the Foss, rose over the recent Christmas period was horrifying, making a lake of much of the city. It seemed such a catastrophic thing, and yet many people had memories of similar events. This was not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. 2000. 1982. 1968. 1947. Amidst the usual flood-talk (floods are spoken of as being “of biblical proportions”; people comment that “if it gets much higher, it’s time to start building an ark”), it made me think of the medieval plays about Noah. With York’s rivers doing this watery dance throughout history, what extra significance might plays about the most famous flood have held for the city’s people?

All four of the surviving medieval mystery play groups have plays about Noah; it’s one of the standard Old Testament stories. York is the only one to devote two plays to the subject, splitting the story between the Shipwrights’ “Building of the Ark” and the Fishers and Mariners’ “The Flood”. (The connections between these guilds’ daily work and their dramatic subject is somewhat obvious.) The Noah plays are framed in part as marital comedy, with Noah’s wife refusing to get on the boat. Their squabble, which eventually results in either her acquiescence or being bodily hauled aboard, still protesting, is meant to elicit laughs. After all, the audience knows that Noah is literally on a mission from God and in the right; his wife’s stubbornness, therefore, makes her seem both shrewish and foolish.

It strikes me as interesting that the two plays (York and Chester) which are decisively attributable to a specific city, and moreover cities which are river-side and prone to the experience of actual flooding, use Mrs. Noah not just as comedy, but as a way of showing the poignant side of the Flood. She wants to stay with her belongings, work on her spinning, and talk with her friends. Her ‘gossips’ actually appear in the Chester play, and she laments their loss in the York version. After all, the story of the flood is not just to give Noah a pat on the back for being virtuous; it is the story of the death of the entire world. Only Mrs. Noah seems to have a care for the family and friends who are lost, and her wish to stay on her own patch of land, literally come hell or high water, is one that can be seen enacted any time waters rise. Among the hyperbolic canvas of a worldwide flood, messages from God, and a miraculous boat of epic proportions, Mrs. Noah is a moment of absolute reality, and heart-breaking empathy. Is it possible that the writers of these plays created such a character from their observations of their cities’ own high-water traumas?

Although I don’t know of any occasion when the Corpus Christi festival was cancelled due to high water (as it was occasionally for plague), York’s floods are certainly not a 21st century phenomenon. 2000’s flood was the highest “since 1625”, and it was already known to be flood-prone by the fifth century A.D. It seems safe to assume, then, that audiences to the mystery plays would have had some experience of what happens when the Ouse and Foss get out of control; and, in an era before insurance or government disaster aid, there were probably some who could all too vividly relate to Mrs. Noah’s desperate attempts to try to save what she had. Among the many parables and miracles of the Bible being enacted on their streets, the people of York probably had a slightly more intimate empathy with the Noah family’s experience than with many of the other biblical tales.

“The Flood” didn’t make it into the large-scale 1951 production in St Mary’s Abbey, which cut almost all the Old Testament stories, but it was the first chosen to appear on a waggon in the 20th century, as an adjunct event to 1954’s revival. It was repeated in 1966, 1969, 1973, and 1980. I suspect that there are many reasons for why this should be one of the most repeated waggon plays – easily recognised iconography, near-universal familiarity with the story, and the obvious but dramatic waggon-as-boat set (these being chief among the reasons it was chosen for our 2012 production) – but one can’t help wonder if there isn’t at least a subliminal nod to York’s experiences as a frequently-flooded riverside city as well.

One of the biggest documentary gaps in our knowledge of medieval drama is that of eyewitness accounts. We have nothing to tell us if somebody watching the Noah plays suddenly recalled how his own wife scrambled to save a bit of spinning she had been working on, when the Ouse started to invade their plot of land. Perhaps our only clue of their experience will come the next time we see the play, whether in the Minster next summer or on the streets in years ahead. York is an incredibly resilient city, which has been drying itself off and getting on with life for over two thousand years. When we see the play, will we remember watching the rivers rise? Or will we simply have moved on, accepting that this is what happens sometimes in river towns, all the while knowing, a bit like Noah, that someday our streets will again be under water?