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Real story of Mystery Plays
11:55am Saturday 21st July 2012 in Books
Spectators watch the arrival of the wagon carrying players of the pageant play, Abraham and Isaac, in Duncombe Place, as part of the June 1963 York Cycle of Mystery Plays
A new book tells the story of the medieval craftsmen behind York’s Mystery Plays. STEPHEN LEWIS reports
IT’S less than two weeks now till the start of the big event of the year. And no, that’s not the Olympic Games. It is the York Mystery Plays , being performed on a specially constructed stage in Museum Gardens to mark the 800th year of York being granted its city charter.
Hundreds of volunteer actors and backstage crew are involved in the show, which tells – in glorious medieval Yorkshire verse – the story of God’s creation of the world, mankind’s sin and exile from the Garden of Eden, the flood, and God’s assumption of an earthly form to try to save the people he created.
The plays are a medieval tradition in York that stretches back to the 1300s. But how did they get started – and who first performed them?
A new book from the York Archaeological Trust sets out to provide the answers – and intriguing ones they are, too.
Although we know them today as the mystery plays, that’s a comparatively recent name, writes author Nicola Rogers in the foreword to her book.
The plays, first performed in the late 14th Century, were originally a series of pageants, dramatising stories from the old and new testaments.
They were performed by the different craft guilds of medieval York. “Each pageant was ‘brought forth’ by a different guild, or collection of guilds,” Nicola writes.
Together, the pageants were known as the ‘Corpus Christi play’, because they were performed in association with the feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday in May or June.
The later name ‘mystery plays’ makes use of the two meanings of the word ‘mystery’. There is the theological meaning, in the sense of a mystical religious truth. But the craft guilds which performed the plays were also themselves known as mysteries.
So who were these guilds – and which of the plays did they perform?
That’s the question Nicola sets out to address. And the answers are wonderfully revealing – not just about the plays themselves, but about the medieval craftsmen’s guilds which dominated so much of life in the city at the time.
There were a host of such guilds in medieval York, ranging from ones that would sound familiar to us today (such as the butchers, the carpenters and the smiths) to some that seem much more exotic. These included the Pewterers and Founders, who made pots and objects out of pewter and copper alloy; the Spurriers and Lorimers, who made spurs (the Spurriers) and harness fittings such as bits and stirrups (the Lorimers); and the Pinners who, you guessed it, made pins out of copper-alloy wire.
Many of the guilds had their own guildhouses, and they were hugely powerful in medieval York, regulating trade, and governing wages and the recruitment of apprentices.
Each of the guilds also had their own pageants, performed as part of the Corpus Christi play. The Cordwainers (who made leather boots and shoes) performed pageant 30, for example, about the betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; the Girdlers’ pageant was The Slaughter of the Innocents, telling of the murder of young babies on the orders of King Herod; and the Carpenters performed The Resurrection.
This is an impeccably researched book, beautifully illustrated with photographs of guildhalls and the objects that were made by the various guilds, that not only tells the story of York’s Mystery Plays, but also provides a fascinating glimpse of medieval life in the city through the story of York’s guilds.
Medieval Craft And Mystery: Discovering The People Behind York’s Mystery Plays by Nicola Rogers is published by the York Archaeological Trust, price £8.50.