270. York Mystery Plays cycle (c.1415)

“Men see the world but vanity,

Yet will no man beware thereby;

Ilka day their mirror may they see

Yet think they not that they shall die”

The Last Judgement, lines 49-52

Source :  York Mystery Plays :  a selection in modern spelling / edited by Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King, Oxford World’s Classics, 1995.

Thoughts : As my previous post promised (this alliterative ailment is addictive), I have just read a selection of the play scripts surviving from the mystery play cycle as performed in the streets of English towns in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries (in this case, York). Town guilds would take on particular scenes from the Bible and dramatise them in an annual parade through the streets, performing on wagons and in the street beside. Often the story chosen would be appropriate to the work of the guild (e.g. the Shipwrights tell of the construction of Noah’s Ark, the Roofthatchers of the Nativity in the tumbledown Manger, the Goldsmiths of the Magi bearing precious gifts, etc.)

Some plays allow humorous scenes, such as Noah’s wife’s reluctance to board the Ark, and her request to take on board her gossipy friends; and even Mary and Joseph’s mutual ignorance of where Egypt is when warned to leave Bethlehem. However, the latter is quickly followed by the horror of the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Although my version had modern spelling, almost every line uses many words unfamiliar to modern English. Fortunately the editors provide footnotes on every page, and repeat these at the first instance of their use in each play, so I didn’t have to search too far to remind myself of their meanings. This richness of choice of words even in English at that time allows the alliterative style which reappears in these scripts.

Apparently the play cycle has been reinstated at different times in the recent past, most lately 2016. The full cycle contained 48 plays, and would stretch from before dawn until midnight. The book I read featured 22 of the plays, of which I read 19.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

Some scenes and ideas have been identified as coming from the Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal book of the Bible, which describes the Harrowing of Hell (which gets its own play here). Other embellishments may just be the playwrights’ touches

  • Herod is a power-crazed villain calling on Mohammad in curses,
  • The animals in the Nativity stable breathing on baby Jesus to keep him warm,
  • The Holy Rood (Cross) moving the distance between nail holes and changing its shape and weight to try and prevent the soldiers from crucifying Jesus,
  • Judas skimming his tithe off monies given to him as an apostle, and the thirty pieces of silver being his imagined profit on ointments which Jesus gave away, and
  • During the Temptation of Christ in the desert, and again in the Harrowing of Hell, Satan/Lucifer is still not totally convinced that Jesus is truly the Son of God, and does not quite know how to react to his works.

Personal rating:  Perhaps would be more fun to watch in live performance, but I like the embellishments to the stories. 5/10

In the years 1400-1409:

  • King Richard II of England dies in prison, 1400, possibly murdered
  • German Emperor Wenzel deposed for drunkenness, succeeded by Ruprecht
  • Mongol leader Timur devastates Baghdad and occupies Damascus, 1401
  • English forces defeat Scottish invaders at Homildon Hill, Northumberland, 1402
  • Welsh prince Owen Glendower revolts, 1402. English King Henry IV defeats revolt led by the Percies, at Shrewabury, 1403, and sends army against Glendower. Welsh defeated 1405, despite assistance from French forces. Henry executes barons and imprisons Edward, Duke of York, 1405
  • English capture James, heir to the Scottish crown, 1406. King Robert III of Scotland dies 1406, succeeded by the still captive James.
  • Louis, Duke of Orleans murdered by Jean, Duke of Burgundy, plunging France into civil war, 1407
  • The Council of Pisa declares Roman and Avignonese Popes deposed and elect Alexander V, 1409, resulting now in three rival Popes.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

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