Geoffrey de Gorron
Geoffrey de Gorron
From Actor to Abbot.
Geoffrey de Gorron (d. 1146), who in 1119 became abbot of one of the most powerful monasteries in England, came to his religious career by a surprising turn of events. Born into an aristocratic family in Normandy (now part of northern France), Geoffrey appears to have been good-natured, somewhat accident-prone, and not especially ambitious. After working as a clerk and schoolmaster at the cathedral of Le Mans, he was eventually offered a job teaching in the new school founded by the abbey of St. Albans, across the channel in England. But he took his time getting there, and when he finally arrived at the monastery, he found that the job had been given to someone else. Undaunted, and probably too poor to afford the passage home to Normandy, Geoffrey opened his own school in the nearby village of Dunstable, and proceeded to indulge his real passion: theater. The chronicle history kept at St. Albans vividly describes what happened next.
While he was there, he put on a certain play about St. Catherine, the sort of play that we commonly call a "miracle play." And in order to enhance the production, he begged the sacristan of St. Albans to loan him some of the copes used by the abbey's choir, which he was allowed to borrow. And so he performed the play about St. Catherine. But it so happened that, the following night, the house of Master Geoffrey caught fire and was burned, and so were all his books, as well as the vestments he had borrowed. Not knowing how else to make amends for damage done to God's property, and that of St. Alban, he offered himself as a sacrifice to God, and assumed the habit of a monk at the monastery of St. Albans. And this is the reason why he always took so much care to compensate for the loss of the choir's copes, by making rich gifts to adorn the abbey in later years.
The chronicle goes on to say that, when Geoffrey was elected abbot some years later, he commemorated the events that had led him to the monastery by celebrating the anniversary of his ordination on the feast of St. Catherine, at which time he would treat the monks to a display of the new vestments he had commissioned for the abbey over the previous year.
Geoffrey's interest in theater and its instructional uses did not end when he was elected abbot. It was almost certainly Geoffrey who commissioned and designed the famous St. Albans Psalter, which contains, among other fascinating elements, the oldest copy of the dramatic Old French poem known as "The Song of St. Alexis" and the oldest script for a liturgical play performed, in many different versions, all over Europe. This is the Peregrinus play (The Play of the Pilgrim), based on the gospel story of two disciples' meeting with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–29). The manuscript image depicts the initial meeting of Luke and Cleophas with an unknown Pilgrim (they do not recognize Jesus) and uses some of the same stylized techniques as the manuscripts of Terence's comedies; however, the dialogue spoken among the characters seems to have been added as an afterthought, in alternating lines of red, blue, and green ink in the upper left-hand corner of the page. The following two pages in the Psalter complete the story in pictures, showing Jesus the Pilgrim sitting down to supper with the disciples and then his mysterious disappearance. No dialogue accompanies these images, since all of the important action takes place in silence.
David Knowles, et al., The Heads of Religious Houses England and Wales. Vol. 1: 940–1216. 2nd ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001).