Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Katherine of Sutton's Easter Play

Katherine of Sutton, abbess of Barking Abbey (a note on Easter Sunday 2015)


Katherine of Sutton, who the was abbess of the Benedictine Barking Abbey from 1358 to 1376, wrote (and produced) the earliest dramatic work by a woman in England.

A royal monastery, Barking Abbey was founded in 666,
but was closed in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,
the abbey destroyed and its wealth sold
Her Easter play survives in a single copy. A prefatory note in the manuscript says that the play was "instituted" by the abbess in order to "dispel" the "sluggishness" of the "faithful."

The play is a multi-part liturgical drama that focuses on significant events associated with the celebration of Easter: the Depositio crucis, a reenactment of the entombment of Christ performed on Good Friday, focuses on the removal of the cross and the host from the altar and their symbolic burial; the Descensus Christi, performed at Easter matins, dramatizes the descent of Christ into Hell (the "harrowing" of hell), traditionally the time between Jesus's Crucifixion and Resurrection; the Elevatio Christi restores the cross and host to the altar; the final section, the Visitatio sepulchri, played directly after the Descensus and the Elevatio, reenacts the early-morning visit to the empty tomb of the "three Marys," Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Salome, a follower of Jesus, sometimes identified as the mother of two of the apostles, James and John. 

The play was written for performance by both nuns and friars. Its audience included the nuns themselves (probably between 35 and 40 women) as well as lay men and women who had come to the church of the convent for the celebration of Easter. The manuscript contains fairly extensive "stage" directions that give a good sense of the performance.

I recommend Michael O'Connell's translation of The Easter Play of the Nuns of Barking Convent included in Donald W. Foster's Women's Works, Vol.1: 900-1550

Today the Curfew Tower, built in 1370.
One of three gates to the abbey, it is only
surviving part of Barking Abbey compound.