Two of my favorite things combined: the medieval world and drama. From the UK's Times Online:
July 01, 2006
A marvellous quarry of medieval devotion
As York prepares to put on its four-yearly cycle of mystery plays, our correspondnet meets its makers
A VIVID demonstration of medieval religious life surges on to the streets of York this month in the shape of the celebrated mystery plays which are staged at sites around the city every fourth year.
The plays enact the basic doctrine of the Christian Church; as the Archdeacon of York, the Ven Richard Seed, puts it, the plays allow “people to see that incarnation makes godliness available to all and leads us to resurrection and Heaven”.
What then, many people ask, is the mystery?
The word “mystery”, as well as referring to religious rites, was simply another name for the medieval crafts and trades guilds, and it was under the auspices of these guilds that a number of cities, notably Chester, Coventry, Lichfield, Townley and York, developed their play cycles.
The cycle might include as many as 48 pageants, illustrating the Christian history of the world from the Creation to the Last Judgment, and often elements would be presented by the appropriate guild, so for example the shipwrights would present the pageant of the Building of the Ark.
York was holding such performances as early as 1376. Usually they were on the feast of Corpus Christi, which falls on the first Thursday after Trinity between May 23 and June 24. The 12 plays presented this year are based on a manuscript by a single scribe. Thought to have been completed in 1463-77, it is entitled The Register of the Corpus Christ Play.
The Dean of York, the Very Rev Keith Jones, is a patron of both the guild cycle and those of York Minster, which, it is hoped, will be enacted in the nave in 2010. York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, has hosted static productions, as have the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and the stage of York Theatre Royal.
Jones says there is a tradition of telling the Christian story in a public forum, which helps to impart a new understanding of the Christian faith. “The text is a marvellous quarry,” he says, from which each generation presents its interpretation.
His tolerance contrasts with views of a predecessor, Dean Hutton, who banned the plays in 1568, declaring: “As I find manie thinges that I muche like because of the antiquite, so I see manie thinges that I cannot allowe, because they be disagreinge from the senceritie of the gospel.”
In the modern era the plays were restarted in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, attracting an audience of more than 26,000 that year. Until recently Christ was portrayed by professional actors — and a young Judi Dench played Mary in 1957.
The plays continue to bring together many sections of the community. Apart from the seven guilds, there are three church groups: two Anglican (St Luke’s and one from citycentre congregations) and St Paul’s Church in Heslington, which serves both Anglicans and Methodists. Pocklington School, on the edge of the city, and York Civic Trust provide the 12 storytellers. In total, there are 350 volunteers, of whom more than 100 have speaking roles. The youngest is Joshua King, 11, who plays the young Jesus in the story of Christ and the Doctors for the Guild of Scriveners, whose members today are mainly accountants and lawyers. Formerly, when few could read, scriveners wrote letters and other documents, as well as copying and decorating books.
The language will not be medieval English but will echo it — with “a strong Yorkshire dialect encouraged”, says Roger Lee, chairman of the York Mystery Plays.
The first play opens thus:
I am gracyus and grete god withoutyn begynnyng,
I am maker unmade all mightes es in me,
I am lyfe and way unto welth wynnyng!
York Mystery Play Website: