N-Town Cycle Essay - Critical Essays

N-Town Cycle


N-Town Cycle

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

The Plays


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

28. The Preliminary Examination: Annas and Ca iaphas

29. The Examination: before Pilate, and before Herod

30. Pilate's Wife's Dream, and the Trial before Pi late

31. The Crucifixion

32. The Harrowing of Hell (i)

33. The Burial

34. The Harrowing of Hell (ii), and the Resurrection

35. The Maries at the Sepulchre

36. The Appearance to Mary Magdalene

37. The Appearance to Cleophas and Luke, and to Thomas

38. The Ascension

39. Pentecost

40. The Assumption of the Virgin

41. The Last Judgement

*constituent of the "Contemplacio" group of plays (plays 8-13)

†constituent of "Passion Play I" (plays 25-7)

‡constituent of "Passion Play II" (plays 28-34)

Principal Editions

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


Hardin Craig (essay date 1914)

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...

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G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1920)

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...

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K. S. Block (essay date 1922)

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...

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Timothy Fry (essay date 1951)

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...

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Kenneth Cameron and Stanley J. Kahrl (essay date 1967)

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,...

(The entire section is 7638 words.)

Anne Cooper Gay (essay date 1967)

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...

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Theresa Coletti (essay date 1977)

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...

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Lynn Squires (essay date 1978)

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....

(The entire section is 4679 words.)

Gail McMurray Gibson (essay date 1981)

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...

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Peter Meredith (essay date 1990)

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...

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Gail McMurray Gibson (essay date 1993-94)

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...

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Alan J. Fletcher (essay date 1994)

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...

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Further Reading

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."...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)