The York Plays compirse one of the four complete surviving medieval play cycles sometimes known as ‘mystery cycles’. They are a series of short plays, known as ‘pageants’, which were performed by members of different craft guilds (groups of people practising the same trade who formed a club) at locations throughout the city of York.
The plays were performed together in a sequence to form a narrative that begins with the story of Adam and Eve and ends with the Last Judgement. Each one was performed on a stage-wagon, which stopped at between 12 and 16 different locations in the city along a particular route. The final performance took place late at night, when the Mercers’ Guild performed the ‘Last Judgement pageant’ at a location rich with symbolic meaning – it was here that public announcements were made and public executions took place. The plays are written in a variety of differing verse forms. Some use the long alliterative line that we find in Piers Plowman.
The earliest evidence for the existence of the cycle at York dates from 1376, but there were probably performances before that time. A later document dated to 1415 called the Ordo Paginarum contains a description of each pageant and its theme; it describes a cycle of plays that is roughly the same as those preserved in this manuscript, which itself was made between 1463 and 1477. What we see in this manuscript, therefore, is probably what had been performed in York for some time.
Corpus Christi (‘body of Christ’) was a holy day or ‘feast day’ which happened six days after Easter. The idea of the body of Christ became an important part of church worship in the Western Christian church after 1215, when the Church decreed that when worshippers ate and drank the holy bread and wine known as ‘the Eucharist’ during church services, this bread and wine miraculously turned into the body and the blood of Jesus.
Scholars are divided about why the feast of Corpus Christi occasioned the performance of the mystery play cycle. Some say that there is a theological connection between the plays and the feast. Some have pointed to the fact that the ‘lessons’ – the prescribed readings in the church services – in the eight days before the feast stress the connection between the miracle of the Eucharist and other miracles in the Christian story. Other scholars, however, simply point out that Corpus Christi falls between the end of May and the end of June, and therefore the weather in York was likely to be better at that time of year. Whatever the reason, the York Plays were an ambitious city-wide project, which still have the power to delight and entertain centuries later.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.