The ancient York Mystery Plays, circa 2012

When I was twenty I had the opportunity to witness a modern staging of an ancient but frequently performed religious play, the Oberammergau Passion Play in this small town in Bavaria. Running all summer long and involving about a thousand of the townspeople in all aspects of the project, each performance lasted a full six hours long with dramatic music, live animals, and a massive well-rehearsed cast - it was powerful to say the least. 

Biblical plays in the middle ages were taken quite seriously for the religious education of everyday people in that time, and were frequently put on in conjuction with major church Feast days. What I only discovered recently was that in medieval towns, many of the guilds were intimately involved in the production of these plays. In the English town of York, every feast of Corpus Christi in June - one of the most major feast days of the entire year, the celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ - would see an extensive presentation of these plays. This went on for several centuries, ending about 30 years after the English Reformation turned Christian life in that country upside down. In the early 1950s, the plays were rediscovered and revived, and now they are put on every few years by the townspeople of York. They call them the York Mystery Plays. 

Here is a more detailed description of the York Mystery Plays:

The only surviving manuscript of the York Cycle dates from the mid 15th Century. It is probably the original register book kept by the corporation of York, set down when the plays were already about a century old. Performances continued till 1572. During the period 'Mystery' had the following meanings: 'a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving', 'a religious rite', 'an incident in the life of our Lord regarded as an object of commemoration in the Christian church', 'a hidden or secret thing', 'a secret or highly technical operation in a trade or art', 'a trade, profession or calling'. 

York is known to have had three cycles of religious plays. The Paternoster Cycle of thirteen plays based on the Lord's Prayer (*) and the Creed Play, also of thirteen plays, are lost. So are a number of individual plays belonging to churches and fraternities. What survives is the 'Great' Cycle.

This Cycle was produced by the craft Guilds of York on or around Corpus Christi Day, under the supervision of the City Council. (The term 'craft' includes selling as well as skill in making.) Each guild, or small group of guilds, performed one play and was responsible - on pain of fines to the corporation - for all aspects of 'bringing forth'. The guilds levied among their masters and apprentices for the production expenses, and imposed fines on members who did not come up to scratch. One of the reasons the system maintained its stability for so long was because one could be fined for objecting to it!

The main method of staging was on more or less elaborate pageants taken around the city to a number of 'stations'. The wagons in use today may have a passing resemblance to these.

The latest presentation (a modern interpretation, but fairly faithful to the original from what I understand) of the "Great Cycle" of these Mystery plays happened only a few short weeks ago in August. There was even a live stream of one entire day long performance. Here is the amazing trailer.... 


The website for the York Mystery Plays has extensive and fascinating information, including a variety of videos and podcasts as well as a brief history of the mystery plays. For a good overview of this year's plays this BBC article does an excellent job. Check it out!

(*) Since the guilds often performed plays that were personal to their profession, the Paternoster Guild(s) would have most definitely put on the Paternoster plays. 


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