Medieval Writing
Drama (3)
The manuscripts of the English Mystery Play cycles contain extensive stage directions as well as the actors' spoken lines. The intricate staging arrangements of the N-town cycle indicate that it was designed to be performed in a static setting. Those of York and Chester indicate that they were enacted on pageant wagons moving through the town. Each wagon and its play was the responsibility of a guild in the city.
Merchant Taylors' Hall
Merchant Adventurers' Hall
St Anthony's Hall
The city of York retains much of its medieval street plan and architecture, including four splendid guildhalls. At top left, the town guildhall on the banks of the river Ouse, restored after Second World War bomb damage. At top right, some timbers at the ends of an unobtrusive brick clad building show the medieval origins of the Merchant Taylors' Hall. It is supposed to be open to the public, but I have never found out when. At bottom left, the Merchant Adventurers' Hall is a heritage building that can be explored. At bottom right, the hall of the guild of St Anthony is now the Borthwick Insitiute for Historical Research. The brick clad upper storey hides a magnificent timber framed hall.
For a rather groovy demonstration of how the pageant wagons progressed around York during the progress of the play cycle, visit the York Corpus Christi Pageant Simulator. You will need Java enabled. If you know your way around York, you will enjoy it all the more.
The York and Towneley manuscripts, dating from the mid 15th century, were a form of master copy, or register, containing the text of all the plays as well as addenda and alterations made for successive performances. As guilds changed over the years, and scripts were altered, the performance changed. The manuscripts represent, not a definitive text, but a segment of time encompassing a number of varying performances. Some parts of the text are older than others. Even though we are dealing with the written word, it is not immutable. There would have been many other manuscript copies, of the individual plays at least, as each guild would have had a copy of its own play and there would have been prompters' copies to ensure smooth performances.
Further evidence about the conduct of the plays comes from an entirely different manuscript source; the records of the participating guilds. From there much can be found about costumes, stage settings and props, food and drink for rehearsals and instructions for participants. From this it is apparent that the staging was elaborate, with some extraordinary special effects. References to fire and gunpowder, and angels and devils bobbing up and down through different levels on ropes make you wonder about their industrial safety record. The whole exercise was a considerable enterprise for the participating guilds. There was quality assurance as well, with fines for substandard performances. The records also tell us that the plays began in the late 14th century, although the surviving texts are much later.
The depiction in stained glass of the mouth of hell as the gaping jaws of a monster derives from the plays, as here in a window in York Minster. (OK, it's not a brilliant photo, but it's a long way up!)
mouth of Hell
fallen angels The fallen angels depicted in the stained glass windows of St Michael Spurriergate, York, wearing (you guessed it!) angel and devil costumes like those worn in the plays.
It is not to be thought that the scripts of these plays were the simplistic interpretations of the town labourers; medieval versions of the Rude Mechanicals of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The texts were drawn from works circulating among the educated clergy of the day, and were probably the product of such literate men. The church retained a master control, even though the events were staged outside the church building. Neither were they simple Biblical paraphrases, or boringly didactic moralisings. They contained poetic language, humour and parody, and an earthiness to appeal to the masses. When Cain says to Abel, "Com kis myne ars!" the common folk knew for sure he was a bad and uncouth dude. Various extrapolations were added to the Biblical stories to expand characters and provide an entertaining dramatic performance. After all, it was a big day out and the people had to be enthralled from dawn to dusk at the height of summer.
The Mystery Plays died out, or were actively suppressed, at the Reformation, although there were attempts to produce expurgated versions suitable for Protestant tastes. Interestingly, they also faded away in Catholic countries, perhaps having overstretched themselves in their ambition and their ability to be kept under control by the church. The revival of performances of complete cycles in their home towns of York and Chester in recent times shows them developing a new significance. Continual wrangles occur between those who want to stage traditional medieval productions and those who want the genre to continue to develop, showing that it is again a living art form.
Mystery Play
  Some local players perform a simplified production of a segment from the Mystery Plays, the Fall of Adam and Eve, at a village bunfest in Flamborough, Yorkshire in the 1970s. I once had the opportunity to go to the York Plays, but it rained and they cancelled. I'm sure they wouldn't have done that in the middle ages!
The web site York Mystery Plays gives plenty of information and shows images of the revival of the York cycle from its reincarnation in 1951 onwards. The Chester Mystery Plays site gives information on recent and upcoming performances. The Lincoln Mystery Plays site is all about the reinvention of tradition.
Perhaps the most fascinating story about this genre of play in modern times is that of one of the most famous, the Oberammergau Passion Play. There was no medieval tradition of a Passion Play in this Bavarian town, but an outbreak of plague in the 17th century resulted in 1633 in the erection of a symbol of the crucified Christ, and in 1634 a play was performed in the cemetery above the graves of the recent plague victims. The oldest script of the play dates from 1662, but indications are that it was largely compiled from older texts, including a 15th century play. In 1674 the script was expanded using other medieval texts. Through the 18th and 19th centuries the play became more elaborate in production and increasingly patronised. In 1934 Hitler attended. The publicity for the play was given a certain ideological spin that year. It was not performed again until 1950, when it was presented as part of the post-war reconstruction of Germany as a nation of Christian tradition. Productions have continued, with ever increasing audiences, but controversy has raged, not only over matters of aesthetic, but about perceived anti-Semitic elements in the script and restrictions on participation by married women. The play continues to arouse issues of significance in the modern world.
More information, and images of past productions, can be found on the Passionsspiele 2000 Oberammgergau web site. It is bilingual German/English.
The Mystery Plays were grand productions for special occasions. They may be the best known form of medieval drama today, but they would not have been the most frequently performed. Many simpler genres of plays existed in both the religious and secular domains. The appearance of a diversity of dramatic forms appears at about the same time as the Mystery Plays, beginning in the 14th century and expanding through the 15th. At least, that is how it appears in the literate record. What was happening in the oral tradition is much harder to determine.


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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last updated 23/11/2009.