The cycle of MYSTERY plays performed at York is one
of only four extant cycles from the late Middle
Ages, out of at least 12 that are known to have existed.
(Others are the CHESTER and TOWNELEY CYCLES,
and N-TOWN, or Ludus Coventriae, PLAYS).
Performed at the festival of CORPUS CHRISTI in early
summer, these cycles were made up of a series of
short plays drawn from the Bible and from legend,
depicting Christian salvation history from the Creation
of the world until Doomsday. The York Cycle
may be the oldest of the four surviving collections,
with records mentioning performances as early as
1376. York is also the largest cycle, with 48 plays in
the single 15th-century manuscript that contains
the text of the cycle (British library Additional MS
35290). That manuscript, discovered only in the
19th century, was produced for the corporation of
the city of York sometime in the 1460s or 1470s as
the master copy, or register, of the texts of the plays.
Production of the individual Corpus Christi
plays was in the hands of the city’s craft guilds.
Plays were sometimes assigned to guilds on the
basis of some logical connection with the subject
matter—as, for instance, the Shipwrights’ guild was
assigned the play on The Building of the Ark: Apparently
the actors actually constructed a scaleddown
version of Noah’s ship on stage during the
performance of the play, to the astonishment of the
assembled audience. But in general the guild assignment
appears to have been random. Producing
a play was an expensive project—money must be
spent on costumes and props, as well as the storage
and maintenance of a pageant wagon—the elaborate
wagons that served as movable stages for the
productions, sometimes with mechanical devices
for raising or lowering supernatural characters, or
for other special effects. But the guilds seem to have
born the expense gladly, as a matter of civic pride.
Professional actors were hired for major roles, but
other parts were played by guild members themselves.
Since no actor could appear in more than
one play, some 700 actors must have been involved
in a single Corpus Christi pageant, in addition to
hundreds of other costume designers, stagehands,
and other production helpers. The festival created
an atmosphere of celebration that was one of the
highlights of the city’s year.
Some scholars have expressed doubt that an entire
cycle of 48 plays could be produced on a single
day, yet contemporary documents attest that it
is so. In 1415, records show that 54 plays were performed
in York on the day observing Corpus
Christi. Plays were short—no play is much over
500 lines. In York, the pageant wagons progressed
single-file through the city streets following a route
with 12 individual stations at which each wagon
stopped to perform. Thus each particular guild
produced its play 12 times during the long day. To
ensure time for the entire cycle, the first play was
performed at 4:30 in the morning, and the last
production took place after midnight. It was a grueling
schedule, but an audience watching the complete
cycle would be treated to a good deal of
entertainment as well as a coherent Christian history
of the world.
In addition to the special effects made possible
by the pageant wagons, part of the entertainment
included the costumes, which apparently could be
quite ornate.While ordinary characters might be
dressed in contemporary fashion, chief characters
were dressed, it may be assumed, like the characters
pictured in stained-glass windows of the time.
Women’s parts were played by men with wigs and
costumes. Supernatural beings, like God, Satan, or
angels, would wear masks and particularly lavish
costumes. Comic lines and characters were written
into the plays as well—as, for example, Noah’s
shrewish wife, who refuses to get on board the ark.
Such comic relief provided a break from the overwhelmingly
serious salvation history of the rest of
The Christian history of the plays provided the
audience with a spiritual lesson as well. The York
pageant includes a particular emphasis on the Nativity
of Christ (with seven plays, from the Annunciation
to the Magi and the Slaughter of the
Innocents), and on the Passion of Christ (with
nine plays depicting Christ’s last hours in great
specificity). The Old Testament plays chosen for
inclusion in the cycle are all stories that a medieval
audience would have recognized as allegorically
prefiguring events of the New Testament, so that,
for example,Noah’s flood prefigures the Last Judgment,
as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac
prefigures God’s ultimate sacrifice of his own son
for human salvation. That such an interpretation
was intended is clear from the words of the York
Cycle’s Noah, who predicts that God will not destroy
the world by water again, but that he will ultimately
bring the world to a close by fire.While
scholars doubt that the entire cycle could have
been written by a single author, and point to the
continual revision of individual plays, deleting of
old plays, and adding of new plays that must have
taken place over the 200-year life of the York cycle
(it is known, for example, that specific plays concerning
the Virgin Mary were added at the end of
the 15th century), still nothing is known with any
certainty about the plays’ authorship, and there are
patterns of imagery that extend throughout the
cycle, as well as an overall unity of conception that
gives the cycle a kind of coherence: An audience
watching the plays would experience Lucifer’s enmity
with God and his fall, and the Fall of Adam
and Eve, Christ’s birth and suffering and ultimate
defeat of Satan, his HARROWING OF HELL and his
Resurrection. Finally, having seen Christ’s sacrifice
for their sake, the audience would be forced to consider
how they fit into God’s overall plan for the
world, by contemplating their own individual destiny
during the play of the Last Judgment.
The last recorded performance of the York Cycle
took place in 1569, after which it was suppressed,
along with the other Corpus Christi cycles, by the
Protestant ecclesiasts under Elizabeth’s reign. The
festival of Corpus Christi, established to celebrate
the “real presence” of the body of Christ in the Eucharist,
was suppressed in Protestant England, and
the doctrine of many of the other plays—particularly
the later additions dealing with the Virgin
Mary—was clearly Catholic. In recent decades,
however, beginning in 1951, the plays have been restored,
and are performed once again in York every
few years, reviving the sense of community pride
they brought to the city in late medieval times.
Beadle, Richard. “The York Cycle: Texts, Performances,
and the Bases for Critical Enquiry.” In
Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation, edited
by Tim W. MacHan, 105–119. Binghamton,
N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991.
Collier, Richard J. Poetry and Drama in the York Corpus
Christi Play. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1978.
Davidson, Clifford. From Creations to Doom: The York
Cycle of Mystery Plays. New York: AMS Press,
Johnston, Alexandra F. “The York Cycle and the
Chester Cycle:What Do the Records Tells Us?” In
Editing Early English Drama: Special Problems and
New Directions, edited by A. F. Johnson, 121–143.
New York: AMS Press, 1987.
Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford,
Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
Stevens, Martin. “The York Cycle: City as Stage.” In
Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual,
and Critical Interpretations, edited by
Martin Stevens, 17–87. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1987.
Willis, Paul. “The Weight of Sin in the York Crucifixio,”
Leeds Studies in English 15 (1984): 109–116.
The York Plays. Edited by Richard Beadle. London: