Mystery Plays – The Nativity

Background

The Mystery Play Cycles were performed in several English towns for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which occurs eleven days after Pentecost in the liturgical calendar (in May or June). In the late Middle Ages this feast was enormously popular with the laity. The play cycles, performed annually on this date, aimed to dramatise salvation history from its beginning, Creation, to its ending, Judgement Day.

Each play belonged to a particular trade guild whose responsibility it would be to stage the performance each year. The Nativity plays which we will be reading belong in York to the Tilethatchers, in Coventry to the Shearmen and Tailors and in Chester to the Wrights.

The Texts

‘The Nativity’, The York Plays, ed. Richard Beadle (London: Edward Arnold, 1982)

‘The Pageant of the Company of Shearmen and Taylors in Coventry’, The Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Pamela M. King and Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), pp. 83-111

‘The Wrightes Playe: De Salutatione et Nativitate Salvatoris Jesu Christi‘, The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 97-124

Topics for Discussion:

  • Representations of political power
  • Joseph’s doubt
  • The representation of time: episodic, liturgical, teleological
  • Versification
  • Language: use of French and Latin; the incorporation of theological explanation and its associated vocabulary into Middle English
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