York Mystery Plays: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The York Mystery Plays, more properly called the York Corpus Christi Plays, are a Middle English cycle of forty-eight mystery plays, or pageants, which cover sacred history from the creation to the Last Judgement. These were traditionally presented on the feast day of Corpus Christi (a movable feast occurring the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, between May 23 and June 24). They were performed in the city of York, from the middle of the fourteenth century until 1569. It is one of only four virtually complete surviving English mystery play cycles, with the others known as the Chester Mystery Plays, the Towneley/Wakefield plays and N-Town plays. In addition to these, two long, composite, and late mystery pageants have survived from the Coventry cycle, and there are records and fragments from other similar productions which took place elsewhere. A manuscript of the York plays, probably dating from some time between 1463 and 1477, survives at the British Library.[1][2]


The Plays

There is no record of the first performance of the York Mystery Plays, but they are first recorded celebrating the festival of Corpus Christi, in York in 1376, by which time the use of pageant wagons has already been established. The plays were organised, financed (and often performed) by the York Craft Guilds ("Mystery" is a play on words, representing both a religious truth, or rite, and, in its Middle English meaning of a trade, or craft). The wagons would be paraded through the streets of York, stopping at each of 12 playing stations, designated by the City banners.

The cycle uses many different verse forms, but most have rhyme, a regular rhythm with fairly short lines, and frequent alliteration. The balance of critical opinion is in favour of the idea of several clerics being responsible for their authorship, one of whom is conventionally known as the "York Realist".

The cycle of plays comprise some 48 pageants, which were originally presented upon carts and wagons, dressed for the occasion. In some accounts, there are as many as 56 pageants. They told stories from both the Old and New Testaments, from the Creation to the Last Judgement.

The Plays continued after the Reformation, when in 1548 the feast of Corpus Christi was abolished in England. The plays accommodated themselves to the new religious orthodoxy, by cutting scenes honouring the Virgin, but were finally suppressed in 1569.

Traditionally, an individual guild would take responsibility for a particular play.

  1. Barkers (Tanners) – The creation, and the Fall of Lucifer
  2. Plasterers – The creation myth – up to the Fifth Day
  3. Cardmakers – Creation of Adam and Eve
  4. Fullers (Preparers of woolen cloth) – Adam and Eve in Eden
  5. Coopers (Maker of wooden casks) – The Fall of Man
  6. Armourers – Expulsion from Eden
  7. Glovers – Sacrifice of Cain and Abel
  8. Shipwrights – Building of the Ark
  9. Fishers and Mariners – Noah and his Wife
  10. Parchmenters and Bookbinders – Abraham and Isaac
  11. Hosiers – Departure of the Israelites from Egypt;Ten Plagues; Crossing of the Red Sea
  12. Spicers – Annunciation and Visitation
  13. Pewterers and Founders – Joseph's Trouble about Mary
  14. Tile-thatchers – Journey to Bethlehem
  15. Chandlers (Candlemakers) – Shepherds
  16. Masons – Coming of the Three Kings to Herod
  17. Goldsmiths – Coming of the Kings: Adoration
  18. Marshals (Grooms) – Flight into Egypt
  19. Girdlers and Nailers – Slaughter of the Innocents
  20. Spurriers and Lorimers (Spurmakers, makers of bits, etc.) – Christ with the Doctors
  21. Barbers – Baptism of Jesus
  22. Smiths – Temptation
  23. Curriers (Men who dress leather) – Transfiguation
  24. Capmakers – Woman Taken in Adultery; Lazarus
  25. Skinners – Christ's Entry into Jerusalem
  26. Cutlers – Conspiracy
  27. Bakers – Last Supper
  28. Cordwainers (Shoemakers) – Agony and Betrayal
  29. Bowyers and Fletchers – Peter's Denial; Jesus before Caiphas
  30. Tapiters (Makers of tapestry and carpets) and Couchers – Dream of Pilate's Wife
  31. Listers (Dyers) – Trial before Herod
  32. Cooks and Water-leaders – Second Accusation before Pilot; Remorse of Judas; Purchase of the Field of Blood
  33. Tilemakers – Second Trial before Pilate
  34. Shearmen – Christ Led to Calvary
  35. Pinners and Painters – Crucifixion
  36. Butchers – Mortification of Christ; Burial
  37. Saddlers – Harrowing of Hell
  38. Carpenters – Resurrection
  39. Winedrawers – Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene
  40. Sledmen – Travellers to Emmaus
  41. Hatmakers, Masons, Labourers – Purification of Mary; Simeon and Anna
  42. Scriveners – Incredulity of Thomas
  43. Tailors – Ascension
  44. Potters – Descent of the Holy Spirit
  45. Drapers (Dealers in cloth and dry goods) – The Death of Mary
  46. Weavers – The Appearance of Mary to Thomas
  47. Ostlers (Stablemen) – Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin
  48. Mercers (Dealers in textiles) – Judgement Day

Modern Revival

After their suppression in Tudor times the plays remained little known until Lucy Toulmin Smith obtained the permission of the Earl of Ashburnham to study the manuscript of the plays, then in his possession, and in 1885 to publish her transcription, together with an introduction and short glossary.[3]

In 1909, The York Historic Pageant included a parade of the banners of the Guilds through the streets, accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity.[4] In December of the same year a selection of six of the plays was performed as a fund-raising venture for St Olave's Church, York.[5]The play cycle was revived on a much larger scale in 1951, in the York Festival of the Arts, as a part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. This was performed on a fixed stage in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in Museum Gardens and directed by E. Martin Browne. The part of Jesus was played by Joseph O'Conor,[6][7] with other roles taken by amateurs. In the interests of comprehensibility, the text was abbreviated and modernised[8] by Canon J. S. Purvis. He later produced a modernisation of the complete text.[9]

Following the great success of the 1951 production, which was the most widely applauded Festival of Britain event in the country, with over 26,000 people witnessing the plays,[7] selections from the plays were staged in the same location at three-year intervals, lengthening to four-year intervals, until 1988. Usually there was a professional director and a professional actor to play Jesus, with the rest of the cast being local amateurs, though some of the latter, such as Judi Dench, later became professionals. Directors included E. Martin Browne again (1954, 1957, 1966), David Giles (1960), William Gaskill (1963), Edward Taylor (1969, 1973), Jane Howell (1976), Patrick Garland (1980), Toby Robertson (1984) and Steven Pimlott (1988). The role of Jesus was played a second time by Joseph O'Conor (1954), then by Brian Spink (1957), Tom Criddle, (1960), Alan Dobie (1963), John Westbrook (1966), John Stuart Anderson (1973), David Bradley (1976), Christopher Timothy (1980), Simon Ward (1984) and Victor Banerjee (1988).[7]

In 1992 the production was moved to the Theatre Royal, with Robson Green playing Christ. The 1996 production, in the same place, was all-amateur, with a script adapted by Liz Lochhead. For 2000, the interest of the Dean of York, Raymond Furnell, led to the most ambitous production ever.

The York Millennium Mystery Plays

In 2000 a large-scale performance of the plays was staged in York Minster, known as The York Millennium Mystery Plays. Directed by Gregory Doran, and with Ray Stevenson in the role of Christ, the production was the most expensive and wide-reaching project in the history of the plays' modern revival.[7] The first half began in Heaven with the story of the fall of Lucifer, followed by the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark (with impressive and memorable representations of the animals and the flood) and the story of Abraham and Isaac. From the New Testament there came the annunciation and nativity of Jesus, the massacre of the innocents, Christ's childhood, baptism, temptation and ministry, and his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The second half concentrated on the capture and trial of Christ, and his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The production ended with the Last Judgement.[10]

The production ran for a month, with a total audience of 28,000. Aside from the professional director and actor, Ray Stevenson, the cast was made up of amateurs, mainly from the York area. Over fifty children also took part in the play. Original music was written for the production by local composer, Richard Shepherd.[7][10]

The Waggon Plays

An experimental production using brewers’ drays and market stalls, was performed around Leeds University, in 1975.

In 1994 the Leeds-based historian Jane Oakshott worked alongside the Friends of York Mystery Plays, the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and the York Early Music Festival to direct in York the first processional performance of the plays in modern times. This production involved nine amateur drama groups each taking one of the plays, and touring it to five playing stations in the city using pageant waggons.[7][11]

A production in a similar format in 1998 featured eleven of the plays, and for the first time the modern York Guilds were involved for some of the plays, either directly or as sponsors of performances.[7][12]

For the 2002 production overall management shifted to a committee of the Guilds of York, namely the The York Guild of Building, The Company of Merchant Taylors, The Company of Cordwainers, The Guild of Freemen, The Company of Butchers, The Guild of Scriveners and The Company of Merchant Adventurers. Ten plays were offered, again with the assistance of local drama groups.[7][13]

In 2006, twelve waggons performed in the streets, in conjunction with the York Early Music Festival.[14] Two complementary collections of images of this production: 'wide angle' and 'zoomed in'

A further waggon production is scheduled for 2010.


Language in modern productions

In general, modern performances of the plays use some degree of modernisation of the text, either by a radical policy of replacing all obsolete word and phrases by modern equivalents, or at least by using modern pronunciations. An exception is the productions of the Lords of Misrule, a dramatic group composed of students and recent graduates of the Department of Medieval Studies at the University of York[15]. Their presentations use the authentic Middle English both in the words used and in their pronunciation. They have regularly contributed one of the waggon play productions.[11][12][13]


The unaltered Middle English text

  • The first publication was that of Toulmin Smith in 1885.[3] This was republished in 1963 and again in 2007.
  • A century later Richard Beadle felt the time was ripe for re-examination of the manuscript, and he published a facsimile edition.[16]
  • Beadle also published a transcription of the text with notes and glossary.[17] This included many minor amendments to Toulmin Smith's work, but no major surprises.
  • Beadle's 1982 text has been put on-line at the University of Michigan[18] and at the University of Virginia[19] Because this has been constrained to use a modern alphabet, the obsolete letters thorn and yogh, which are correctly reproduced in the printed version, here appear as "th" and "yo" respectively.
  • More recently Beadle has revised and enhanced his work into two volumes, the first containing an introduction, the text and musical settings accompanying the plays[20] and the second containing notes, glossary and discussion.[20]

Edition in modern spelling

  • The version of Beadle and King[1] contains a transcription of 22 of the plays into modern spelling. One unfortunate feature of this is that where the modernisation involves the loss of a syllable it has just been dropped, which in general damages the scansion. A commonly occurring example is the Middle English word "withouten", which in this edition appears as "without".

Modernised editions

  • The first complete full modernisation was that of J. S. Purvis.[8][9]
  • A more recent complete modernisation is that of Chester N. Scoville and Kimberley M. Yates[21] in Toronto.

Adaptations and related plays


  1. ^ a b Beadle, Richard; King, Pamela M. York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283710-9. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=MBY-XnjWSA4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=beadle#v=onepage&q=&f=false.  
  2. ^ Davidson, Clifford. Festivals and plays in late medieval Britain. Ashgate Publishing. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HpbjszYfK8kC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:%22Clifford+Davidson%22&as_brr=3#v=onepage&q=&f=false.  
  3. ^ a b Toulmin Smith, Lucy (1885). York Plays: the Plays performed by the Crafts or Mysteries of York on the Day of Corpus Christi in the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  
  4. ^ The Guilds of York - York Mystery Plays site
  5. ^ "100 years ago". The Press (York). December 29, 2009.  
  6. ^ Alan Strachan, Joseph O'Conor obituary, The Independent, 2 February 2001
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h York Mystery Plays site
  8. ^ a b Purvis, J. S. (1951). The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A Shorter Version of the Ancient Cycle. London: SPCK.  
  9. ^ a b Purvis, J. S. (1957). The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A Complete Version. London: SPCK.  
  10. ^ a b York Millennium Mystery Plays: Programme
  11. ^ a b York Mystery Plays '94: Souvenir Programme
  12. ^ a b York 1998 Mystery Plays: Programme
  13. ^ a b York Mystery Plays: 2002 Programme
  14. ^ York Mystery Plays: 2006 Programme
  15. ^ Centre for Medieval Studies
  16. ^ Beadle, Richard; Meredith, Peter (1983). The York play: a facsimile of British Library MS Additional 35290 : together with a facsimile of the Ordo Paginarum section of the A/Y memorandum book. University of Leeds.  
  17. ^ Beadle, Richard (1982). The York Plays. London: E. Arnold.  
  18. ^ Beadle's original text at Michigan
  19. ^ Beadle's original text at Virginia
  20. ^ a b Beadle, Richard (2009). The York Plays (VoIume 1 The Text). Oxford University Press. ISBN 01995788478.  
  21. ^ Text of the York Cycle - modern English - Scoville & Yates
  22. ^ The York Realist
  23. ^ Minghella

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The forty-eight York Mystery Plays, or York Miracle Plays, cover sacred history from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The York cycle was written in Middle English by a number of anonymous writers, reaching its final state around 1440. It was performed annually in the streets of York by the city guilds until the 16th century.

The translations used here are by Chester N. Scoville and Kimberley M. Yates. [1]

  • I am gracyus and grete, God withoutyn begynnyng,
    I am maker unmade, all mighte es in me;
    I am lyfe and way unto welth-wynnyng,
    I am formaste and fyrste, als I byd sall it be.
    • I am gracious and great God without beginning.
      I am maker unmade; all might is in me.
      I am life and way, unto weal winning.
      I am foremost and first; as I bid, shall it be.
    • God, in The Barkers' Play: The Fall of the Angels, line 1.
  • O, what I am fetys and fayre and fygured full fytt!
    The forme of all fayrehede apon me es feste,
    All welth in my weelde es, I wote be my wytte;
    The bemes of my brighthede are bygged with the beste.
    My schewyng es schemerande and schynande,
    So bygly to blys am I broghte;
    Me nedes for to noy me righte noghte,
    Here sall never payne me be pynande.
    • Oh, how I am handsome and fair, with figure well fit!
      The form of all fairness upon me holds fast.
      All this wealth's for my wielding, I know by my wit;
      The beams of my brightness compare with the best.
      My appearance is shimmering and shining,
      So securely in bliss I am brought.
      To concern myself, that I need not;
      For no pain here shall bring me to pining.
    • Bad Angel, in The Barkers' Play: The Fall of the Angels, line 65.
  • Owe, certes, what I am worthely wroghte with wyrschip, iwys!
    For in a glorius gle my gleteryng it glemes;
    I am so mightyly made my mirth may noghte mys-
    Ay sall I byde in this blys thorowe brightnes of bemes.
    Me nedes noghte of noy for to neven,
    All welth in my welde have I weledande;
    Abowne yohit sall I be beeldand,
    On heghte in the hyeste of hewuen.
    • Oh, what, how I am worthily wrought with worship like this!
      In a glorious glow, my glittering gleams.
      I am so mightily made that my mirth may not miss;
      I shall abide in this bliss, through my brightness of beams.
      By concern I need never be driven;
      All might in my hand I am wielding;
      Above I shall always be dwelling,
      On high, in the highest of Heaven.
    • Lucifer, in The Barkers' Play: The Fall of the Angels, line 81.
  • I sall be lyke unto hym that es hyeste on heghte.
    Owe, what I am derworth and defte-Owe! Dewes! All goes downe!
    My mighte and my mayne es all marrande-
    Helpe, felawes! In faythe I am fallande.
    • I shall be like the One who is highest on height;
      Oh, how I am worthy and deft – Oh, Deus! All goes down!
      My might and my mirth are unsound;
      I am falling, in faith! Help me, friends!
    • Lucifer, in The Barkers' Play: The Fall of the Angels, line 91.
  • Nowe in my sawle grete joie have I,
    I am all cladde in comforte clere,
    Now will be borne of my body
    Both God and man togedir in feere.
    • Now in my soul great joy have I;
      I am all clad in comfort clear.
      Now will be born of my body
      Both God and man together here.
    • Mary, in The Tile Thatchers' Play: The Nativity, line 50.
  • Hayle my lord God, hayle prince of pees,
    Hayle my fadir, and hayle my sone;
    Hayle sovereyne sege all synnes to sesse,
    Hayle God and man in erth to wonne.
    Hayle, thurgh whos myht
    All this worlde was first begonne,
    Merknes and light.
    • Hail, my lord God, hail prince of peace;
      Hail, my father, and hail, my son;
      Hail, sovereign Lord, all sins to cease;
      Hail, God and man on earth to run;
      Hail, through whose might
      All this world was first begun:
      Darkness and light.
    • Mary, in The Tile Thatchers' Play: The Nativity, line 57.
  • Thus schall the sothe be bought and solde
    And treasoune schall for trewthe be tolde.
    • Thus shall the truth be bought and sold,
      And treason shall as truth be told.
    • Pilate, in The Winedrawers' Play: The Resurrection, line 449.
  • This woffull worlde is brought till ende,
    Mi fadir of heuene he woll it be;
    Therfore till erthe nowe will I wende
    Miselve to sitte in magesté.
    To deme my domes I woll descende;
    This body will I bere with me –
    Howe it was dight, mannes mys to mende,
    All mankynde there schall it see.
    • This woeful world is brought to end,
      My Father in Heaven so wills it be
      Therefore to earth now I will wend,
      To seat myself in majesty.
      To deem my dooms I will descend;
      This body I will bear with me.
      How it was hurt, man's sins to mend,
      All mankind there shall clearly see.
    • Jesus, in The Mercers' Play: The Last Judgement, line 177.

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