The picture above is from The Harrowing of Hell, a play in the cycle known as the York Mystery Plays. This photograph is from 2006 production at York, and was produced by the Cordwainers guild of that city.
Friday, July 30, 2010


York Mystery Plays

One of my gripes as a student of English is when someone looks at a text, say a play of Shakespeare’s or Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and says something about it being in Old English. I usually get on my pedantical high horse and launch into a lecture about the distinction between Old English, which is Anglo-Saxon, and Middle English, and between both of those and Modern English. Shakespeare and Spenser, even with their strange spellings, are Modern English, as are Thomas More and the early Tudors, and possibly a bit before. Chaucer and the York plays are in Middle English. Chaucer, to my ear, and I may be wrong because I never made a formal study of Middle English is smoother than the York poets, whose verse is more heavily accentual.

Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, verse was heavily accentual and heavily alliterative. The accents typically fell on the alliterated syllables, and there would be a caesura, a break in the line so that it fell into two halves. You find this in Beowulf, and you find it in more recent poems such as Browning’s The Ring and the Book, or Auden’s For the Time Being. Here is an example from the first play, The Fall of the Angels, with the accents indicated by acute accent marks:

My bléssing of blée shall bé blénding
And híelding from hárm to be híding.

Now the sense of the first line is presumably something like, “My blessing of happiness shall be poured forth,” and the second line conveys the idea of concealing from harm. The editors gloss these lines as “The blessing of my countenance shall be suffusing,” and note that “hielding” means pouring forth, while “hiding” is glossed as “protecting.” So the two lines mean:

“The blessing of my countenance shall be suffusing
And poured forth from harm to be protecting.”

The editors have provided extensive notes to help the reader with the plays. They have modernized the spelling as well.

European drama has its roots in religion. The Greek drama originated in festivals associated with the Greek god Dionysius. The later drama, which began in the Christian era, is supposed to have risen out of the Quem quaeritis trope. This was part of the liturgy of Easter Sunday. The women sought Jesus, and when they found the empty tomb they asked where he was.

Eventually the drama moved out of the cathedrals and churches, and into the streets. It became traditional to put on a pageant, usually sometime after Easter, and generally at the feast of Corpus Christi, which then occurred on a weekday, not a Sunday. The various guilds would put up money for a play, the wagon, on which the plays were performed, a playwright, and possibly professional actors. The wagons would move from one station in the city to another, and each would give a performance at that station. In York there were 12 stations, so each play was given 12 times. The performances would last from a little before sunup till late in the day.

While the drama was still outside the church, or at least outside the altar, a form of liturgical drama is still preserved in the reading of the Gospel on Palm Sunday. The liturgy requires a narrator, Jesus, the voices of the people, and other roles, and while a direct reading of the Gospel arguably has elements of the drama in it.

There were 47 plays in the York cycle, which covered the period from the creation of the world through the last judgment. The editors have chosen 22 for inclusion in this volume. Each play has a brief headnote that discusses the guild that put it on, and the metrics of the play, as well as a bit of the literary and theological background. I’m going to try to give a brief comment on each play, but nothing extensive. The plays are associated with the various guilds, which you can see when you buy the book, but for now I’m not going to mention the guilds unless it’s relevant to my comment.

Next up, plays by Christopher Marlowe.

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