What is a mystery cycle?
The N-town Plays are one of the four complete surviving English medieval mystery cycles – collections of short plays, known as pageants, which were performed together in a sequence to form a narrative that begins with the story of Adam and Eve and ends with the story of the Last Judgement. They attempt to tell the Christian story of the beginning to the end of time, from the Creation to Doomsday.
The N-town Plays are strikingly different from the other three cycles (the York Cycle, the Chester Cycle and the Wakefield or Towneley Cycle). Those other cycles were performed in particular towns by guilds (groups of people, often practising the same trade, who had formed a club). In the case of N-town, however, the play manuscript appears to have belonged to a group of travelling players. The first pageant is the ‘banns’ – the proclamation pageant. In this short play, an actor makes the following announcement:
A Sunday next, yf þat we may
At vj of þe belle we gynne oure play
In N. town; wherefore we pray
That God now be ȝoure spede
Amen. (f. 9v, ll. 525–529)
[Next Sunday, if we may
At 6 of the bell we will begin our play
In N. town; wherefore we pray
That God will bring you success
The town with no name: What does ‘N-town’ mean?
‘N. town’, which appears in the quotation above, refers to the Latin word nomen, meaning ‘name’. It seems that as they travelled around the country, the players who used this manuscript would insert the appropriate name of each town they came to. The plays are anonymous, but they were put together by a scribe in the late 15th century. The scribe gathered together material from other different plays – almost as if he was copying and pasting – making a kind of patchwork of texts in contrasting forms and styles.
The stage directions
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this manuscript is that it contains extensive stage directions, which give us an insight into the realities of medieval dramatic performance. In the play of ‘Satan and Pilate’s Wife’ (play 31 in the cycle), the following stage direction appears:
Here xal þe devyl gon to Pylatys wyf, þe corteyn drawyn as she lyth in bedde, and he xal no dene make, but she xal, sone after þat he is come in, makyn a rewly noyse, comyng and rennyng of the schaffald, and her shert and her kyrtyl in here hand, and sche xal come beforn Pylat leke a mad woman, seyng þus (f. 176r)
[Here shall the Devil go to Pilate’s wife. The curtain is drawn back to reveal her lying in bed, and he shall make no noise, but she shall, soon after he comes in, making a woeful noise and running off the scaffold, her shirt and gown are in her hand and she shall come before Pilate like a mad woman, saying thus]
The linguistic choices here are illuminating. The direction tells us that this play was performed on a raised scaffold, with substantial scenery (it describes a curtain and bed), but equally intriguing is the description of the ‘rewly noyse’ made by Pilate’s wife and the picture of her behaving ‘leke a mad woman’. These lively images are tantalising glimpses of a fleeting performance, which comes back to life, some 600 years after it was acted.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.