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Mystery Plays. Mystery Plays. Mystery Plays developed at the same time and from the same Liturgical Dramas as Miracle Plays They told the stories from the Bible in a manner that the common man could understand Many were performed on “Pageants” (mobile stages)

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mystery plays1
Mystery Plays

Mystery Plays developed at the same time and from the same Liturgical Dramas as Miracle Plays

They told the stories from the Bible in a manner that the common man could understand

Many were performed on “Pageants” (mobile stages)

The N-town Plays were performed by traveling players putting the (N)ame of the current performance place into the introductions

mystery plays2
Mystery Plays

These plays were found all over Europe, but especially France, Spain, and England

Most told the stories from the Old Testament

In many English towns, each craft guild took on the job of portraying one of the Bible stories

Frequently the craftsmen were the performers, with some professional actors in a few roles or plays

mystery plays3
Mystery Plays

In many English towns they developed into “cycles” of plays that moved through the Bible from the Creation to Day of Judgment

The plays were performed during Christian festival days-especially during the Festival of Corpus Christi

These groups of plays could take up to 20 hours to complete and would take place over several days

By the mid-1300’s they were such a part of the culture as to be considered to be “from antiquity”

There are four great cycles still in existence, known as the Towneley, Chester, York, and N-town (or Coventry) plays.

Three are named from their performance places.

The Towneley mysteries were performed, at Woodkirk, near Wakefield & named for the family who owned the manuscripts for many years.

In their present form the number of plays in the cycles:

Towneley 30 (or 31)

Chester 24

York 48

N-town 42 (Coventry)

Four Additional Plays are preserved at Oxford


The Craft Guilds were organized groups of wholesale traders, merchants and craftsmen

Most guilds also had a charitable and social side that included:

1. Feasting

2. Religious services

3. Helping retired and sick members

4. Putting on one of the Corpus Christi plays


Some of the Craft Guilds still exist today:

1. The York Guild of Building

2. The Company of Merchant Taylors

3. The Company of Cordwainers

4. The Gild of Freemen

5. The Company of Butchers

6. The Guild of Scriveners

7. The Company of Merchant Adventurers


We know little about how the system of craft organization evolved.

The city council registered freemen as early as 1272

Most craft guilds are not recorded until the 1300s

The plays were not written down until the 1370s.

The plays and the guilds may well have evolved together:

1. In the 1360s and 1370s England's economy was booming

2. The cult of Corpus Christi was developing

3. The craft guilds became more prominent

It may even be that some guilds and fraternities first organized

to put on a play rather than to regulate their business affairs.

The division of the Bible story into separate plays may well reflect the number of craft groupings willing to put on a play.


A Map of York

Dozens of short plays, mounted on pageant wagons,

began with a performance at the Trinity Priory (red dot, lower left)

and moved through the city streets, stopping at pre-arranged

performance locations known as stations (white dots).


The York Plays:

1376 - the year in which the existence of pageant

wagons is first recorded in York

1568 - the year in which the plays were banned

1951 - the plays are once again staged, as part of the Festival of Britain

The only surviving manuscript of the York plays,

dating from around 1463-77, is kept at the British Library

The word "mystery" means a "trade" or "craft" in medieval English.

"Mystery" is also a religious truth or rite.