After last week’s post about medieval dancing, there were some comments about miracle/mystery plays, so I thought we’d have a look at them. They were medieval plays based on events from the Bible. They were usually performed at Corpus Christi or at Whitsun, both movable church feasts i.e. feasts which did not take place on the same date every year.
Corpus Christi is the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which in turn is the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pentecost (Whitsun in England) is the seventh Sunday after Easter. For example, this year Easter is on 1st April, Pentecost is 20th May and Corpus Christi is 31st May. Easter is early this year. This will be important later.
Many towns had their cycles of mystery plays, but only those from Chester, York and Wakefield remain. There’s also a cycle from an unknown town. A cycle of plays covered everything from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement, with stops along the way.
The plays were performed in English by members of guilds (mysteries) as a way of showcasing their particular talents. Each guild performed a play relating to their guild. In York the Guild of Goldsmiths was responsible for the Coming of the Three Kings. In Chester it was the vintners who performed their version of the play. In York the Guild of Shipwrights put on the Building of the Ark. In Chester the Guild of Bakers presented the Betrayal of Christ. In York they were responsible for the Last Supplier
The plays were different in each town, although they were all based on Biblical stories. A few were based on the lives of saints. In my paperback collection each play is about twelve pages long, which would take around half an hour to perform, depending on the complexity of the props and the accompanying music.
The plays were performed from the back of a wagon with two storeys. The bottom storey housed the props and the changing rooms. Curtains hid it from the audience. The top storey was the stage. This meant that the players were visible to their audience only when they performed. The wagon was pulled to various places within the town where the audience gathered to watch.
Although the plays were doubtless entertaining, that was not their main purpose. The audience saw great and meaningful events of the Bible acted out for them and became very involved in what was going on. We have moving and changing visual images thrust on us all the time on television, films and YouTube, but that was not the case in the Middle Ages. Interior walls were painted with pictures, but they remained the same until the building was redecorated. Statues were colourful and meaningful images, but they neither moved nor spoke. There were no theatres. The mystery plays literally brought the story of sin and salvation to life for them.
Some of the plays have very funny moments. The only one that I’m familiar with is Noah’s Flood, one of the Chester plays. It was used by Benjamin Britten to create a work in which schoolchildren can perform music with professionals. In the play Noah’s wife prefers to gossip and drink with her friends rather than help build the ark. They’re still gossiping when the flood arrives and she has to be forced into the ark by her sons.
The York plays are making a bit of a comeback and have been performed in York fairly regularly over the last twenty years.
Mystery plays were not the only form of acting that people could see. Morality plays were performed in Latin by clerks (men in minor orders). They had characters such as Ignorance, Humility and Covetousness. Performed in churches, they were obviously less accessible to ordinary people, but could still be entertaining. These were the precursors of the miracle plays, although they continued alongside them.
For sheer entertainment you would have to look at mummers’ plays, where the actors were disguised by masks. These were usually put on at Christmas or Easter. The plays were about a hero who had to fight evil.
Mummers still perform, usually in pubs at Christmas. I’ve seen a performance of St George and the Dragon. The most popular and the best-known of the plays, these days it’s an odd mix of the medieval, the Victorian and the modern. Father Christmas and a doctor in a top hat usually make an appearance, as well as St George, the dragon, a bishop, the king of Egypt, the king of Egypt’s daughter and a Turkish knight. There are examples on YouTube, but the quality of the audio is usually poor, as they’re either performed in front of a rowdy pub audience or outside in a howling gale.
There were secular plays as well, but only fragments of these have been found, whereas there are many examples of the miracle plays. The secular plays were probably performed by travelling musicians.
The plays used rhyme for the speeches. Since they also included music, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some of the lines being sung.
At the beginning of the post I mentioned Corpus Christi. It was recognised as a feast day in 1311. The miracle plays became associated with this feast and with Whitsun. The Latin plays performed in churches could be put on all year round in accordance with the seasons, but the mystery plays were performed outdoors. If the performers were to have an audience they needed to perform when the weather was good, as it often is at the end of May and the beginning of June. Even when Easter is early, as it is this year, the plays were performed on the cusp of summer.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays edited by A.C. Cawley
April Munday is the author of several books set in the fourteenth century. Find out more here.