Of the four complete mystery cycles in the extant body of Middle English biblical drama, the N-Town plays are the most enigmatic. The single manuscript in which the cycle is preserved contains an amalgamation of scribal and authorial efforts. The institutional and geographical origins of the plays have been the subject of extensive research and debate, as has the means by which they were staged. Even the name of the cycle has been unstable: designated variously as the Ludus Coventriae, the Hegge cycle (after the first known owner of the manuscript), and the Lincoln plays, the plays are now commonly referred to as the N-Town cycle because the Proclamation that opens the collection refers to their performance in "N-town."
Like other biblical cycles, the N-Town plays contain stories from the Old and New Testaments and apocrypha. The opening Proclamation, spoken by three vexillators, describes a numbered series of pageants that does not correspond exactly to the dramatic episodes and plays contained in the manuscript that has come down to us. The divisions between plays are often unclear, with relatively few announced in the manuscript with specific titles or rubrication. The cycle includes a number of scenes unique to this collection, including the cherry tree incident involving Mary and Joseph, and the killing of Herod. Even more noteworthy, the N-Town cycle incorporates two smaller cycles that can be performed separately: a series of plays on the life of Mary, and a two-part Passion play. The N-Town cycle is also distinguished by what numerous scholars have identifed as an unusual concern with themes of redemptive promise, grace, and mercy.
A central issue in the study of medieval texts is their instability and indeterminancy. Medieval manuscripts are seldom complete and were typically revised, separated, compiled, or erased in the process of copying. The N-Town manuscript is a case in point. It was originally attributed to the city of Coventry, in the West Midlands, because of the label ("Ludus Coventriae") placed on the manuscript's flyleaf by a seventeenth-century librarian. Its dialect and calligraphy, however, indicate the involvement of at least four scribes from four different locales in East Anglia (modern-day Norfolk and Suffolk). The manuscript also contains evidence of additions and revisions at various points in its history. Early in the twentieth century, Esther L. Swenson suggested that the cycle's various meters indicated different scribes or authors. Although this idea has since been dismissed, more recent scholars, such as Stephen Spector (1991), have observed that sections that share metrical forms also have thematic and verbal affinities. A character named Contemplacio frames the series of Mary plays, probably indicating the sequence's prior independent existence; the manuscript's revisions of his speech may represent changes made to fit the self-contained sequence into the larger cycle.
The manuscript's eclectic character has given rise to debates over its provenance. While the early attribution of the cycle to the Grey Friars in Coventry has been discredited, most scholars agree that the cycle was associated with a religious institution of some sort. It is generally agreed that the manuscript was probably generated in the rich social and cultural environment of East Anglia in the late fifteenth century. Many scholars have accepted Gail McMurray Gibson's argument (1981) that the cycle originated in the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, home of poet John Lydgate, but others insist that other sites nearby are just as likely.
The manuscript also contains unusually detailed stage directions, leading to a great deal of speculation as to how the play was staged. Like Continental drama of the time, many of the N-Town plays seem to require a fixed stage, or plataea, with various loci, or stations, rather than the movable pageant wagons more typical of English drama in that period. Most scholars agree that the cycle may never have been staged wholly in the manner in which it survives. Still, its plays allow for some of the most spectacular stage effects in medieval drama. In the Passion sequence the stage directions are particularly detailed, calling for rapid juxtapositions of scene and simultaneity of action.
Scholars have noted the cycle's unusual concern with Mary, more typical of Continental dramas than of English cycles. The Mary of N-Town is only intermittently the pious and humble Madonna; more consistently, she figures as the glorious virgin queen whose purity the cycle dramatizes to the fullest. Critics also find in the cycle an unusually strong emphasis on theological concepts. Unlike other cycles, N-Town focuses on Christ's dual nature as God and Man and on Christ's Incarnation as the central act of mediation between God and humankind. N-Town is heavily peopled with ecclesiastical characters—bishops, priests, etc.—who mediate the action and underline its connections to the liturgy. The sacraments, especially Communion, and prayer are brought to the fore as practical, quotidian methods of communication between God and humanity.
Most of the critical discussion of the N-Town cycle has centered on the origins of the manuscript and the staging of the plays. After Hardin Craig (1914) proposed Lincoln as the origin of the cycle, his idea was not seriously contested until Gibson put forward her argument in favor of Bury St. Edmunds. Current critical consensus is that the plays originated in East Anglia, but that the exact location is yet to be convincingly determined. With regard to staging, Swenson suggested that the Mary cycle and the Passion plays were produced on a fixed stage, while the others were acted on movable stages. Kenneth Cameron and Stanley J. Kahrl (1967) maintained that the older plays in the cycle were acted on movable stages and the newer ones on fixed plataeas. Anne C. Gay, on the other hand (1961), argued for a continuous place-and-scaffold staging and found no evidence of movable stages at all. Alan H. Nelson (1972) and Martial Rose (1973) similarly found no evidence of movable staging. Spector remarks only that the staging of the plays is open to conjecture, suggesting that the construction of the manuscript "seems to suggest a tendency toward the isolation of plays rather than continuous acting, or indifference to such issues during compilation."
The eclectic nature of the N-Town plays has led to arguments for and against the cycle's thematic unity. While critics such as Peter Meredith (1991) observe that the process of compiling the manuscript appears to have been haphazard, many would agree with Spector that "the eclecticism of the text does not preclude the possibility of thematic and artistic unity." Timothy Fry (1951) saw in the cycle a unified theological message, while Patrick J. Collins (1979) identified fruit and growth imagery and other motifs that perform a unifying function. Kathleen M. Ashley (1979) argued that the limited nature of human wisdom is a dominant theme throughout much of the cycle.
1. The Creation, and Fall of Lucifer
2. The Creation, and Fall of Man
3. Cain and Abel
4. Noah, and Lamech
5. Abraham and Isaac
6. The Ten Commandments
7. The Tree of Jesse
*8. The Conception of Mary
*9. Mary in the Temple
*10. The Betrothal of Mary
*11. The Parliament of Heaven and the Annunciation
*12. Joseph's Trouble about Mary
*13. The Visitation
14. The Purgation of Mary and Joseph
15. The Birth of Christ
16. The Shepherds
17. The Magi
18. The Purification
19. The Slaughter of the Innocents
20. Christ and the Doctors in the Temple
21. The Baptism
22. The Temptation
23. The Woman Taken in Adultery
24. The Raising of Lazarus
†25. The Conspiracy, and the Entry into Jerusalem
†26. The Last Supper
†27. The Betrayal
Doctors ' prologue
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Ludus Coventriae: A Collection of Mysteries Formerly Represented at Coventry on the Feast of Corpus Christi (edited by James Orchard Haliwell) 1841
Ludus Coventriae: or The Plaie called Corpus Christi (edited by K. S. Block) 1922
The Corpus Christi Play of the English Middle Ages (modern English translation, R. T. Davies) 1972
The "Mary Play" from the N. Town Manuscript (ed. Peter Meredith) 1987
The "Passion Play" from the N. Town Manuscript (ed. Peter Meredith) 1990
The N-Town Play: Cotton MS Vespasian D. 8 (ed. Stephen Spector) 1991
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SOURCE: A note to the University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, Vol. 1, October, 1914, pp. 72-83.
[In the following excerpt, Craig surveys nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholarship on the N-Town plays and suggests Lincoln as the home of the cycle.]
It has never been known where the cycle of mystery plays published by the Shakespeare Society in 1841 as "Ludus Coventriae: a Collection of Mysteries formerly represented at Coventry on the Feast of Corpus Christi," were acted, although it has long been known that they are not the Coventry plays. The editor of the cycle, J. O. Halliwell(-Phillips), follows a tradition to the effect that this cycle was formerly acted by the Grey Friars of Coventry. The first connection of the manuscript with Coventry is an entry on folio l*r, said by Halliwell to be in the handwriting of Dr. Richard James, librarian to Sir Robert Cotton to the following effect: "Contenta Novi Testamenti scenice expressa et actitata olim per monachos sive fratres mendicantes; vulgo dicitur hic liber Ludus Coventriae, sive Ludus Corporis Christi; scribitur metris Anglicanis." The manuscript had formerly belonged to Robert Hegge of Durham, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; he has written his name on it in several places. At his death in 1630 the manuscript passed into the hands of Sir Robert Cotton. Halliwell states on the basis of a letter in the Cottonian...
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SOURCE: "The Humor of King Herod," in The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1920, pp. 96–100.
[In the following essay, Chesterton relates the so-called Coventry Nativity play to more familiar Renaissance dramatic conventions and asserts that the proximity of comedy and tragedy began with medieval miracle plays.]
If I say that I have just been very much amused with a Nativity play of the fourteenth century it is still possible that I may be misunderstood. What is more important, some thousand years of very heroic history will be misunderstood too. It was one of the Coventry cycle of mediæval plays, loosely called the Coventry Mysteries, similar to the Chester Mysteries and the Towneley Mysteries.
And I was not amused at the blasphemy of something badly done, but at a buffoonery uncommonly well done. But, as I said at the time, the educated seem to be very ignorant of this fine mediæval fun. When I mentioned the Coventry Mystery many ladies and gentlemen thought it was a murder in the police news. At the best, they supposed it to be the title of a detective story. Even upon a hint of history they could only recall the story of Godiva; which might be called rather a revelation than a mystery.
Now I always read police news and I sometimes write detective stories; nor am I at all ashamed of doing either. But I think the popular art of...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Ludus Coventriae or the Plaie Called Corpus Christi, edited by K. S. Block, Early English Text Society, 1922, pp. xi-lvii.
[In introducing her edition of the cycle, Block describes the details of the manuscript. This excerpt includes her assertions that the manuscript is a compilation and that the cycle differs from other cycles in its ritual and dramatic complexity.]
The general evidence of the various features of the MS …shows that the collection contains parts or the whole of four separate groups: (1) the composite Contemplacio group (viii to xiii); (2) the first Passion (xxvi to xxviii); (3) the second Passion group (xxix to xxxii), dovetailed on by means of the Descent into Hell (xxxiii), of different style, to a Burial play (xxxiv) of similar style, which in its turn is joined (p. 314, beginning of U quire) to a (4) Resurrection and Harrowing play connected in style with xxxiii and forming a group with the Three Maries and, as it stands in the compilation, with the Mary Magdalen play. An examination of the text gives two more groups showing that (5) the first three plays (Creation, Fall, and Cain and Abel) and (6) the Visit of the Magi and Massacre of the Innocents and Death of Herod (xviii and xx) form respectively continuous sets, diction and metre connecting also the...
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SOURCE: "The Unity of the Ludus Coventriae," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, July, 1951, pp. 527-70.
[By relating the doctrinal content of Ludus Coventriae to the writings of patristic authorities, Fry argues that the theory of the Redemption as a response to the devil's abuse of power unifies the cycle.]
Scholars have been pretty well agreed that the Ludus Coventriae, as the compilation of plays now stands, is [as Å. E. K. Chambers puts it in his English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, 1945] "in a state of confusion." Studies devoted to the cycle as a cycle have been chiefly concerned with the stages in the development of the compilation of plays that comprise the Ludus Coventriae. As necessary as these studies were to clear the ground, they did not give a full understanding of the cycle, principally because the most important aspect was overlooked, or disregarded, namely, the doctrinal content of the plays. Within recent years the cycle has been re-examined from this more cogent aspect with the result that earlier opinions must be revised.
It is the purpose of this short study to show that a particular Patristic theory of the Redemption unifies this cycle, the plays being related to this theme as integral elements of the theory, and that the plays which find no direct bearing on the theory are brought into its circuit by constant...
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SOURCE: "Staging the N-Town Cycle," in Theatre Notebook, Vol. XXI, Nos. 3 and 4, Spring and Summer, 1967, pp. 122-38, 152-65.
[In the following excerpt, Cameron and Kahrl explore the staging of plays in Lincoln, as well as internal evidence from the N-Town cycle, in order to argue for the use of both movable and stationary staging methods in the cycle.]
Much attention has been given to problems of doctrine, of supposed unity, and of geographical ascription in the N-Town Plays. Known also as the Ludus Coventriae or the Hegge MS. plays, this lengthy cycle has been frequently examined because of its great complexity and the many problems it poses. Its staging, however, has seldom been analyzed in any great detail, and except for two unpublished dissertations [by Anne C. Gay and Izola Curley Harrison], little attempt has been made to solve the cycle's intricate and often contradictory production problems. Among recent work, probably Margaret Birkett's production of a large part of the cycle as "The Lincoln Plays" in Martial Rose's modern
text at Grantham in June, 1966, came closest to a serious analysis, and one that seemed flawed only when it ignored the rich multiplicity of scaffolds in the Passion sequence.
Any approach to the N-Town Plays' staging must take into account a good deal more than the extant MS. of the plays themselves. Despite the fact that parts of...
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SOURCE: "The 'Stage' and the Staging of the N-Town Plays," in Research Opportunities in Drama, Vol. X, 1967, pp. 135–40.
[In the following except, Gay revises previous notions of medieval stage structures, arguing that the N-Town plays differ from other cycles not in the stage structures themselves but in dramatic techniques.]
The term "stationary ("fixed" or "standing") stage" has long been applied to the N-Town Plays because the term stands for the opposite of "movable ("perambulatory") stage." Certainly, the stage directions of the N-Town "Passion," combined with the evidence for con tinuous playing within sequences of plays in other parts of the cycle, preclude perambulatory wagon staging as we have understood it from David Rogers' description of pageant carts and their use.
Since the publication, however, of Richard Southern's The Medieval Theatre in the Round (London, 1957), and Glynne Wickham's Early English Stages, Vol. I (London, 1959), it is no longer logical to divide medieval stages into the two mutually exclusive categories, "movable" and "stationary," for such a division originated in the mistaken belief that perambulatory wagon staging (as described by Rogers) was the rule for the performance of the English religious cycles, and that "stages" which did not move about upon wheels were exceptions. However semantically reasonable such a division may once have...
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SOURCE: "Devotional Iconography in the N-Town Marian Plays," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 22-44.
[By exploring the Marian plays' connection to devotional art, Coletti reveals how the cycle embodies its audience's spiritual concerns.]
The Middle English N-Town cycle evinces an extraordinary consciousness of the motifs and interpretations that characterized late medieval devotion to the Virgin. Of the four Middle English Corpus Christi plays, only the N-Town cycle includes a group of plays, extending from The Conception of Mary to The Trial of Joseph and Mary, specifically concerned with the life of the Virgin before the birth of Christ. The scope of Marian attention in the cycle also embraces plays such as the Nativity and The Adoration of the Magi, and the N-Town manuscript shares a Death and Assumption play only with the York cycle. Many scholars have noted the unique Marian preoccupation of the cycle, but the iconographic and devotional richness of this group of plays remains largely unexamined. The cycle's manifest awareness of Marian concerns thus invites an exploration of the relationship of devotional iconography to dramatic import. This study explores the N-Town Marian plays as a form of devotional art. It proposes ways in which stage iconography could have embodied the spiritual concerns of the dramatic audience.
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SOURCE: "Law and Disorder in Ludus Coventriae," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 200-13.
[By exploring fifteenth-century law, Squires suggests that many of the plays of the N-Town cycle contain severe criticism of the contemporary legal establishment.]
My purpose is to provide a new context for the late medieval cycle of plays traditionally referred to as Ludus Coventriae by investigating the fifteenth-century legal conditions reflected in these plays. Critics of medieval drama have not recognized the importance of laws as a religious ideal and so have not noticed its significance in late medieval and early Renaissance religious drama. Because we no longer link law with religion, we must remind ourselves that law, for the medieval Englishman, was the formal expression of divine will; it was the common belief that the common as well as the ecclesiastical law originated in the mind of God. This did not prevent Englishmen from criticizing their legal institutions, however; law was, in fact, an extremely controversial topic in the fifteenth century, no less so than in the sixteenth.
Law stood for the principle of virtue itself; it stood for the ordering forces in society and, more importantly for our purposes, in drama. When fifteenth-century lawyers, politicians and dramatists argued for legal reform, like John Wyclif before them, they were arguing for reform of...
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SOURCE: "Bury St. Edmunds, Lydgate, and the N-Town Cycle," in Speculum, Vol. CVI, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 56-90.
[In this seminal essay, Gibson asserts that the N-Town plays originated not in Lincoln but in the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds.]
No scholar of medieval English drama needs to be reminded of the old and unsolved puzzle of the provenance of the fifteenth-century cycle of mystery plays preserved in MS B. L. Cotton Vespasian D.viii. The socalled N-Town Cycle has been plagued by a series of misnomers, erroneous catalogue descriptions, and confusions of place attribution ever since about 1629, when Sir William Cotton's librarian wrote on the flyleaf of the manuscript, "vulgo dicitur hic liber Ludus Coventriae." Three hundred and fifty years and many errors later, all that can be said with complete confidence about the Cotton manuscript is that [according to Mark Eccles in "Ludus Coventriae: Lincoln or Norfolk?" Medium Ævum 40, 1971] it "has absolutely nothing to do with Coventry," and that it badly needs a standardized title of reference. Having neither local habitation nor a name, the N-Town plays remain the most mysterious of mystery plays. All efforts to reconstruct text, images, and staging are grievously hampered by our ignorance about the local historical circumstances which shaped them.
Thomas Sharp in his Dissertation on the Pageants or...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Passion Play from the N. Town Manuscript, edited by Peter Meredith, Longman, 1990, pp. 1-36.
[In an excerpt to his introduction to this edition, Meredith discusses the staging and general themes of the Passion Play.]
Play and pageants
It is sometimes implied or stated that the present Passion Play is a revision of earlier pageants (those described in the Proclamation) to make a continuous play. While it is impossible to disprove this it seems to me that in the case of Passion I and the first part of Passion II (up to I. 880) this is unlikely. The demonstrable overlaps between the episodes in the play and the Proclamation are not numerous. Passion I deals with the events from the beginning of the Conspiracy against Christ to his taking in the garden of Gethsemane. The scribe has numbered the play as a series of pageants, 25 to 27 (Proclamation 23 to 25). The descriptions in the Proclamation only very inadequately describe the play episodes. The first description (one of the 'half-stanza' ones) runs:
In þe xxiijti pagent, Palme Sunday,
In pley we purpose for to shewe,
How chylderyn of Ebrew with flourys ful gay,
Þe wey þat Cryst went þei gun to strewe.
The text to which this applies, numbered 26...
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SOURCE: "Writing Before the Eye: The N-Town Woman Taken in Adultery and the Medieval Ministry Play," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1993-94, pp. 399-407.
[Here, Gibson argues that the Woman Taken in Adultery play enacts the Christian mystery of the connection between the flesh and the divine.]
Richard Beadle has recently observed [in a review in Medium Aevum 60, 1991] that "If any area of medieval English studies can be said to have changed out of all recognition over the past twenty years or so, it must be that of the drama." Certainly, twenty years ago I could have asserted the perversity of teaching a field of scholarly inquiry—the medieval English mystery play—whose very name ("mystery" play) was a modern scholarly invention perpetuating a linguistic confusion. As E. K. Chambers had nagged [in The Medieval Stage] in 1903, the word 'mystery' "is not English at all, in a dramatic sense, and in France first appears as misterie in the charter given by Charles VI in 1402 to the Parisian confrérie de la Passion." In a note he adds: "The first English use of the term 'mystery' is in the preface to Dodsley's Select Collection of Old Plays (1744)." The medieval "mystery" plays, as I have more than a few times nagged to my own students, were in fact, ministerium plays, that is, plays performed by medieval craft or parish guilds. The...
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SOURCE: "The N-Town Plays," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 163-88.
[In the following excerpt, Beadle describes the provenance of the N-Town manuscript, arguing against Gibson's suggestion of Bury St. Edmunds as its origin. He also asserts that the manuscript is a composite, and offers a general overview of the plays.]
'Corpus Christi plays', 'cycle plays': these are just two of the more familiar boxes in which modern critics have tried to contain the resisting diversity of much late medieval English drama. Indeed, such pigeon-holing has a long pedigree. Whoever wrote 'The plaie called Corpus Christi' on the first page of the play manuscript that concerns this chapter, British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D. viii, is the earliest known member of this critical family tree. He would hardly have foreseen that his sixteenth-century attempt to sum up the plays in front of him would have provided the title for one of the most successful studies of medieval drama in recent years, [V.A. Kolve's The Play Called Corpus Christi, 1966] a study whose equally unforeseen consequence has been the encouragement of some homogenised ways of thinking about what a 'Corpus Christi cycle' might be. The fact is, however, that the plays of Cotton Vespasian D. viii are not tidily compliant, and...
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Ashley, Kathleen M. "'Wyt' and 'Wysdam' in N-Town Cycle." Philological Quarterly 58, No. 2 (1979): 121-35.
Explores the elements that produce N-Town's learned tone as a basis for the unity of the cycle.
Benkovitz, Miriam J. "Some Notes on the 'Prologue of Demon' of Ludus Coventriae." Modern Language Notes 60 (1945): 79-85.
Argues that the "Prologue of the Demon" that introduces the Passion group ties the cycle together; also contends that the author of the Prologue was a theologian.
Cameron, Kenneth, and Stanley J. Kahrl. "The N-Town Plays at Lincoln." Theatre Notebook 20, No. 2 (1965-6): 61-9.
Reviews scholarship and extends the argument that the N-Town cycle is based in Lincoln and that it represents a step in the development from movable to fixed stages.
Cawley, A. C., et al., eds. The Revels History of English Drama. Vol. I: Medieval Drama. London: Methuen, 1983, 348 p.
Offers overviews on staging, religious ritual, and morality in medieval drama, as well as specific analyses of individual cycles and plays by several different authors.
Coletti, Theresa. "Sacrament and Sacrifice in the N-Town Passion." Mediaevalia 7...
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