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medieval imaginations:
literature and visual culture in the middle ages



mystery plays:: a brief insight and link to prose

Section from Baptism of Christ

The text below gives a brief description of medieval mystery plays in general. For specific prose on medieval play episode please make a selection from the dropdown list.

The Mystery Plays are cycles of plays in English verse dramatizing key Biblical stories from the Creation to the Last Judgement. Full cycles survive from York (48 plays), Wakefield (32 plays), Chester (24 plays), and in a cycle of 42 plays now called 'N-Town' (sometimes called 'Ludus Coventriae'), which may be of East Midlands or East Anglian origin. Two plays are extant from a cycle at Coventry, and single plays survive from the cycles at Newcastle, Norwich and Northampton, and from Brome in Suffolk. A full cycle also survives in the Cornish language. Towns and cities where records indicate dramatic activity, but no plays survive, include: Aberdeen, Bath, Beverley, Bristol, Canterbury, Dublin, Ipswich, Leicester, Worcester, and perhaps London and Lincoln. All the evidence points to widespread staging of Biblical drama in later medieval England.

Records suggest that the cycles were evolving from the later fourteenth century, but surviving manuscripts of the texts are later. The cycles were usually performed in connection with the new early summer feast of Corpus Christi (instituted in 1311), the Thursday after Trinity Sunday in June, and may have developed from the processions held on that day in honour of the Eucharist, through which Christ remains continually present to the faithful. The cycles' overall design certainly emphasizes the central place in history of Christ's life, sacrifice and redemption of mankind.

York and Chester records indicate that the plays were performed on pageant wagons wheeled through the city streets, allowing performance at certain points or 'stations' around the town. Stage directions in the N-Town cycle suggest that it was not performed processionally in this way. Records show that the heavy costs of the pageant carts, costumes and other expenses were borne by the craft guilds of medieval towns. Guilds sponsored particular plays (sometimes there was a connection between their trade and the play's subject), and the players were guild members. For several centuries immense amounts of money, time and effort were expended on producing these cycles of Biblical plays. At Chester the cycle took three days to perform, and at York the cycle could only be mounted on Corpus Christi day by using all the hours of daylight at the summer equinox. Mounting the cycles demanded a vast communal and civic endeavour, fuelled by some inter-guild competitiveness and display, as well as by piety. Performance was celebration, entertainment, and worship.

The cycle plays represent an intriguing balance between the religious and the secular. Performed outdoors in English, on holidays, by the laity, these Biblical plays are full of humour and vitality. Yet their original authors, as their theological learning suggests, would have been clerics, and it would seem that the ecclesiastical authorities did not give up a hold over the text of what was performed. However, as the cycles evolved, the texts of some plays were evidently rewritten, and the surviving cycles have the unevenness predictable from revision by various hands. The work of the so-called 'Wakefield Master' and 'York Realist' who rewrote or revised some plays in those cycles, stands out from the rest.

The selection of episodes for dramatization is, with local variations of emphasis, strikingly common to all the surviving cycles and includes:

Episodes from the Old Testament are dramatized because they are seen to prefigure the central drama of Christ's life: the temptation and fall of Adam prefigures the temptation of Christ; the murder of Abel and the sacrifice of Isaac anticipate the Crucifixion; Noah's flood anticipates the Last Judgement; the Prophets look forward to the Annunciation and Nativity, declaring the genealogy of Christ, while Moses also anticipates aspects of Christ's life and ministry.

The Mystery dramatists had a shrewd eye for seizing on the most visualizable Biblical episodes as the focus of their plays, but in this they could also exploit the ways in which their audiences were steeped in a visual culture that everywhere depicted those episodes, as this 'Medieval Imaginations' website is designed to illustrate.