Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Resurrection: Representation v. Reality
In a Miracle of St John of Beverley

Susan E Wilson

John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham from 687 to 706, and then Bishop of York until his retirement and subsequent death in 721, was the subject of a number of post-mortem miracle collections composed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. One of these collections, which was written between 1211 and 1219, reveals an author who was clearly aware of the power of the written word to communicate theological concepts and church dogma to his audience. His stories are all dramatic narratives that create vivid visual impressions, and in so doing entertain whilst at the same time serve as a skilful teaching medium. In recounting the miracles, the author assumes the role of omniscient narrator and ascribes motivations and emotions to the people who figure in the stories, making this a very self-consciously literary collection of miracles. It is clear that, as well as possessing a firm belief that divine influence governs all aspects of people’s lives, this writer had a profound interest in exploiting the possibilities of language as an effective medium of communicating what he sees as the truth of his faith.

One of the stories in this collection concerns the apparent resurrection from death of a child who had fallen from the roof, high up inside the church of St John, whilst a dramatic representation of the resurrection of Christ was being performed in the cemetery outside by a group of players. All miracle stories claim to honour God and the saint through whom he performs his miraculous works, and this is no exception. It was written and preserved at Beverley to demonstrate that a special relationship existed between John and God, who wrought miracles for and through his saint. This, in turn, validated the claims of the church community that John’s relics were a source of spiritual power, and that appeals to the saint could result in the performance of miracles. This was of vital significance to the church community as it gave them the authority to promote the cult, with all the material and spiritual benefits that flow from that activity.

However, as well as glorifying God and St John, this author uses the miracle in a number of ingenious ways, not least to illustrate the entire Christian message from Abraham to the incarnation of Christ, his death and resurrection. He also establishes a relationship between the resurrection of the child, the resurrection of Christ, and the theatrical representation of that defining event. At the same time he creates an analogy between the different kinds of representation involved: his own representation in language, the actors’ performance in play, and God’s reenactment of Christ’s resurrection. In creating these analogies, the author implicitly questions the ability of either the linguistic or dramatic representations to express truth as adequately as the physical re-creation of the event.

As the only English translation of this story can only be found in my unpublished thesis, I reproduce that text hereunder:1

A boy who fell from the high arch of the church of Beverley and was killed, gets up safe and sound.

One summer a representation of the Sunday resurrection was performed by the words and action of players (as is customary), on the northern side of the church of Saint John within the cemetery enclosure. A great number of people of both sexes flocked together there, having been drawn there by various vows, for pleasure of course, or to be amazed, or for the sacred purpose of being inspired with devotion. Indeed, when a large number of people could not get in because of the dense crowd standing around, especially some who were very small in stature, several people entered into the church, either so that they might pray, or to look at the paintings, or to avoid the boredom of this day through some sort of recreation and amusement. Then some young boys, having entered into the church, by some lucky chance found a half-open door through which stairs ascended to the roof. Running to it with boyish recklessness, they climbed the arches of the church over the walls, step by step, with the intention, I suppose, that they might look more freely upon both the clothes and gestures of the actors, and hear their speeches more easily through the great windows of the turrets, or through any openings there might be in the glass windows; in this they were imitating Zacchaeus, who since he was small in stature, climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.2 But, look! The watchmen have been told what the boys were doing. No doubt fearing that the boys' rashness in wanting to see the players performing the aforementioned presentation might break the glass windows, or somehow destroy them, they chased swiftly after them; and when they had scolded those boys for their impetuosity, and beaten them very soundly, they forced them to go back.

One of the boys, having seen his friends’ punishment, fearing to fall into the hands of the pursuing men, withdrew even higher, until by running swiftly he reached a great cross on the far side, at that time erected above the altar of St Martin. Standing there and looking downwards, he carelessly put his foot on a square stone which, since it loosened from the wall and fell off, plummeted down upon the stone pavement with a great crashing and, not withstanding the hardness, it was smashed to smithereens. Indeed, the young boy, having been deprived of his support, struck with a dreadful stupefaction, fell to the ground and there lay lifeless for a long time, very much like a corpse. Many people stood around sighing heavily, groaning piteously over such an accident, grieving for his suffering with many tears. His parents wailed and tore their hair, they interspersed their cries and howling with frequent sobs, not knowing that in a short time, because of divine dispensation, their sadness was going to be changed into joy, their weeping into laughter. For God, not allowing the church which had been dedicated in his and the confessor's honour, to be defiled by, as it were, human slaughter, but wanting the church to be possessed of greater authority in the future, and also wanting to provide evidence of the truth of that representation of the resurrection which was being performed at the same time, in the sight of everyone present he raised up the boy, who was believed to be dead, so unharmed that there was not a single scratch to be seen on his whole body.

Moreover it was done so that those who were unable to see the dramatic representation because of the great number of people outside the church would see a more marvellous expression of the resurrection inside the body of the church; and not only of the resurrection, but of the Lord's passion. For truly, through the cutting off of the stone, which detached itself from the wall without human agency, the Incarnation of the Lord, born of a virgin without male intervention, was clearly indicated: through each fall, that is to say both of the stone and of the boy, his passion was signified, of man and of God. Further, the stone that had been broken into pieces in the fall, carried with it the image of a ram that had been struck down; truly the child was an image of Isaac remaining unharmed.3 Therefore the fall was a sign of his passion relating to his human nature; furthermore, the miracle by which he was raised up was a sign of his resurrection in accordance with his divinity.

From the perspective of the history of drama, this story sheds valuable light on the public performance of vernacular drama at a remarkably early date. The Latin word used to describe the performance is ‘repraesentatio’ rather than ‘ludus’ or ‘spectaculum’, which leaves no doubt that this is a play. However, it is not a liturgical play. The writer of the collection of miracles, of which this story is the first, is very conscientious about locating his stories within the liturgical year whenever possible, but with this particular miracle story, all he tells us is that it was in the summertime. The absence of any reference to Easter, Corpus Christi, or any other feast day suggests that the author does not consider the liturgical date to be significant. Although the play is connected with the church and has as its theme one of the most important scriptural events for the Christian Church, it is not inside the church, but outside in the churchyard. It is open to the public and has attracted a great crowd of people of both sexes, adults and children alike. All these things taken together indicate that this is not a liturgical play, but a play designed to entertain the general populace. It would therefore have been in the vernacular, not in Latin. This is borne out by the claim that the boys climbed the stairs in the church because they wanted to try to hear the speeches of the actors, something which would have been fruitless for these youngsters if the performance had been in Latin.

The narrative also gives us a valuable insight into the motivations of the audience of such plays, giving reasons as to why people attended them and what they expected to get from watching the performance: some had spiritual motivations, others wished to be entertained and derive pleasure from the experience, and the boys wanted to hear the speeches and see the players’ costumes and gestures.

The words “as is customary” (“ut assolet”) used to describe the performance could be an indication that this was not a singular event, but that such plays formed a regular part of that society’s cultural activities. However, bearing in mind that the oldest manuscript we have containing this story is of the fourteenth century, it is always possible that this particular phrase was interpolated at the time the text was copied; it was not unusual for scribes to “update” the works they were copying to conform to the current situation. Nevertheless, whether or not the performance of this play was a regular event, we clearly have an extremely early reference, perhaps as early as 1211, to a type of drama that is popular in both senses of the word.

A major concern of the author is to set up parallels between the dramatic performance of the resurrection play, the miraculous raising up of the child, and Christ’s resurrection as portrayed in the Scriptures. One of the ways in which he does this is by establishing an analogy between different kinds of audiences: those watching the play outside the church, those watching the miraculous event inside the church, including himself and us, the text’s audience, who contemplate in our imaginations two types of representations of the original defining event.
The people massed in the churchyard to watch the resurrection play can be seen as analogous to the crowds that were drawn to watch Christ’s actual condemnation and crucifixion. This link is made specific by likening the boys, who were too short to see over everyone’s heads and climbed the stairway in an attempt to see the play, with Zaccheus, who was also short and unable to see Jesus and so found a way to climb above the crowds to get a better view of him.4 The chasing and beating of the boys by the watchmen of the church can also be seen as corresponding to the pursuit of Jesus and his disciples at Gethsemane by the priests and elders who sought his destruction.

Having climbed as high as he could in his endeavour to escape his pursuers, the boy is said to have stood by the great cross above the altar of St Martin. This image of him standing before a great cross offers a direct comparison and living example of Christ at his crucifixion. When he lies apparently dead on the floor of the church, the text’s audience is provided with the reaction of the audience within the text to the boy’s death: they groan and sigh, wail and tear their hair when the accident happens. However, we are told that when the boy rises up unharmed, their mood is to be transformed to one of joy and laughter. By describing the emotional response of this audience, the author is presenting his own audience with an example of the proper way in which they, too, should respond to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Two of the reasons the author gives for God’s decision to perform this miracle relate to local concerns which are linked with the promotion of the cult: firstly, to avoid John’s church from being defiled by human death; and secondly, so that the church should possess greater authority in the future. Both of these issues were of great importance to the church community, as a child’s death within the church might have cast doubt on its sanctity, and the ability of their patron saint to prevent such a tragic event. This could have resulted in fewer pilgrims visiting the church, with a resultant decline in the popularity of the cult. Conversely, a reversal of the death by means of a miraculous resurrection would have had tremendous public relations value. This would have validated the claim that John was an extremely powerful intercessor with God, and would have made his shrine an even more attractive place for pilgrims to visit.

The text then moves beyond local issues to the theological concerns of the Catholic Church: God performed the miracle to prove the truth not only of Christ’s resurrection, but also of his passion. The standard biblical analogy for a miracle in which someone is supposedly raised from the dead through the intercession of a saint is that of Lazarus, thereby linking the saint directly with Christ as one who was able to perform a similar act. However, this author does not interpret this particular miracle in that conventional way; rather, he creates a far more complex analogy. In detaching itself from the wall without human interference, the stone that led to the boy’s fall is likened to the conception of Christ by the Virgin Mary, which is also said to have occurred without any human involvement. Further, the two falls—that of the stone and of the boy—are interpreted as signifying Christ’s passion as a man and as a God by likening the destruction of the stone and the resurrection of the boy to the ram that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, who rose up from the sacrificial bier unharmed. The fall of the boy is thus imbued with providential significance and is elevated to the status of two of the most significant biblical events: the salvation of Isaac as told in Genesis, and the redemption of humankind through Christ’s passion and resurrection as told in the New Testament, episodes traditionally linked typologically. The whole event is interpreted as illustrating the truth of the entire Christian message: that Christ endured suffering in accordance with his humanity and was resurrected in accordance with his divinity. This not only presses home the message of the gospels, but also carries the underlying message that the truth of the scriptures is as valid and relevant in the present as it was when the events recorded first took place.

So rather than merely demonstrating the merits of St John, for whom God performed the miracle, the saint is also endowed with universal relevance as an intrinsic part of the divine superstructure. At the same time, the glossing of this story has gone far beyond the normal hagiographic convention of glorifying the saint and has become a didactic discourse in its own right. We are told that in resurrecting the child God wished to prove the truth of the play being performed outside, that is, the truth of the defining event of Christ’s crucifixion that the play claimed to portray. The raising up of a real child from death is shown to supersede the dramatic representation of the raising up of Christ: the people inside the church are shown the reality of a resurrection, whereas those outside are merely being shown an imitation of a resurrection. This raises questions as to whether the miracle is also a comment on drama.

In the staging of a play, the scene is set and props are used to establish the context within which the performance is to take place. Within this framework the actors perform their parts by communicating with their audience both visually and orally. The audience sees the players’ costumes, their facial expressions (or those of their masks if that is the case), their gestures, and their actions, and they also hear the words spoken by the actors. These things together allow them to infer the psychological and/or emotional state of the character being portrayed. With a piece of writing, however, all impressions have to be provided through the written word alone, via the perspective of the narrator. Just as the manner in which a play is performed, as much as what is performed, conveys the motivations and emotions of the characters of the drama, so the manner in which a writer tells the story is dependent upon the effects s/he wishes to produce.

The whole narrative was written as if it were a dramatic performance. The scene is set in time and place, the events follow swiftly on each other as emotions and attitudes are manipulated, a crisis occurs, and a conclusion is reached. And we, the readers, or hearers, of the text, are the audience, and those standing around inside the church are both players in the drama set before us, and witnesses of the miracle performed in front of them. Further, in the same way that a play needs an audience in order to fulfil its function, so the performance of a miracle has to be witnessed in order for it to be recognized as an act of divine intervention; together with the people in the church, we are witnesses to this miraculous event via this incredible narrative.

The text suggests that the events were taking place before the narrator’s eyes. He puts himself in the position of an audience to the drama unfolding before him, at times explicitly locating himself inside the narrative: “with the intention, I suppose, that they might look [. . .]” he writes. As we, the readers, imagine him watching the events occur, we are able to visualize the scene as if we were watching it happen too: we are put in the same position as spectators at a play.

With his opening sentence he sets the scene for the events that are to unfold, and at the same time articulates its central theme. We are in the cemetery to the north of St John’s church one summer’s day, and a representation of Christ’s resurrection is to be performed. He then creates a picture in words of a crowded churchyard, thronged with a mass of people, ascribing a number of different motives as to why they are there, and why some of them decide to enter the church.

With knowledge of the disaster to come one might have expected the author to write that the boys find the half-open door ‘by some unlucky chance’, but instead he writes this from their viewpoint: it is a “lucky chance” because they see this as an opportunity to get sight of the play. Their excitement is communicated to us as we are told that they run to the door “with boyish recklessness.” “But, look!” cries the narrator, as if he, and we, are present and watching the scene, and he is actually pointing out to us the watchmen chasing after the boys. This adds to the sense of the action unfolding before his and our eyes.

When the boy reaches the great cross, he is said to stand there and look downward. This latter, small detail is superfluous to the event and serves no purpose in advancing the narrative, but it helps us visualize the scene. We get a vivid picture of a small child standing perilously high up in the church, looking down at the ground far below, which gives us a sense of perspective and increasing the tension as we recognize the danger this boy is in. The accident itself is described in a highly skilful way with the author creating a metonymic relationship between the fall of the stone and the fall of the boy. The description of the stone plummeting down and being smashed to smithereens on the hard stone floor of the minster, immediately echoed by the fall of the boy, creates a powerful image and has great emotional impact.

This author has put before his audience a number of different ways in which the death and resurrection of Christ may be represented: through the medium of play, through written narrative, and through an imitation of the original event involving ‘real’ death and a ‘real’ resurrection. However, his claim that one of the reasons God chose to perform this miracle was so that the audience inside the church could see a more marvellous expression of Christ’s resurrection than those watching the dramatic performance outside in the cemetery suggests that God’s actions were essentially in imitation of the play. So what we have here is a rather complex situation: the play being performed in the churchyard is a dramatic representation of Christ’s death and resurrection; the death and resurrection of the boy inside the church are both an actual representation of that defining event, and a representation of the play.

The characters in a play can only act out the roles ascribed to them, pretend to experience emotion and, indeed, pretend to die. It is claimed that one of God’s reasons for performing the miracle was to prove the truth of the play, and by extension, the truth of the original event. This implies that a genuine physical enactment of death and resurrection is a far superior medium through which to demonstrate the truth of the scriptures, than any artificial, dramatic performance, no matter how well acted.

Whilst casting doubt on the ability of play to communicate meaning as effectively as a physical reenactment of events, the author explores the possibility that language might be a more successful medium to convey the truth of Christ’s experience. The style in which he chose to recount the miracle story is highly reminiscent of the dramatic effects of a theatrical performance. But whilst he was unable to exploit the visual impact of theatre, he compensated for this by describing the events in an extremely pictorial way, thereby enabling the text’s audience to envisage the events in its mind’s eye. He also employed his linguistic skills to relay effectively the emotions of the characters in his text and to encourage his audience to share in their experiences.

Whereas his stylistic technique enabled him to emulate theatrical performance in the way in which he told the story, he nevertheless also had it within his power to go beyond the capabilities of a dramatic representation to communicate the truth of God’s work to its audience. Indeed, in his all-encompassing, yet precise, interpretation of the significance of the event that took place in the church that day, he went far beyond anything that the average witness to the miracle could have inferred. In this way he ensured that the interpretation of the event ultimately took precedence over its representation: through language his representation of the boy’s death and resurrection was, in fact, far superior even to the experience of God’s miracle in its ability to convey fully the deeper spiritual truth of the act as he saw it.



1 Susan E Wilson, “The Cult of St John of Beverley,” unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Southampton, 2001), appendix 5B . The thesis also provides the Latin text (appendix 5A), which can also be found in Acta Sanctorum Bollandiana, 64 vols (Antwerp 1680), Mai II, 187-88; and The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops, ed. James Raine, 3 vols, RS 71 (1879-94), i. 328-30. Return

2 Luke 19.3-4. Return

3 Genesis 22.Return

4 Luke 19.1-10 Return












Updated 9/30/02