Anonymous - York Mystery Plays

York Mystery Plays

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York Mystery Plays Summary

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The York Mystery Plays, also known as the York Corpus Christi Plays, is a collection of short Middle English plays dating back to the 1300s. The forty-eight plays included in the cycle cover religious history from the time of creation to the Last Judgment. It is unclear who wrote the plays, but they were very popular with medieval audiences. Different craft guilds across York took responsibility for performing each play, and they ran alongside the Corpus Christi festivities in the city. The plays were widely performed until religious suppression banned them in 1569. Now, the York Mystery Plays are celebrated at an annual Yorkshire Festival.

Although it is unclear who wrote each play in the collection, literary scholars suggest that clerics wrote the plays. Each guild then adapted the play’s content to suit its needs. The plays are short in length, and the verses within each play are short and rhythmic. Although the York Mystery Plays were entertaining, they were primarily designed to help onlookers worship God and deny sin.

The first five plays cover the period between the creation of all life and Lucifer’s fall. The first play, The Creation of the Angels and the Fall of Lucifer, establishes God as eternal. It describes the ten angelic orders and, particularly, the angels who followed Lucifer when he fell. This theme is continued through the following run of plays. The third play, The Creation of Adam and Eve, touches upon Lucifer again and explains how God created Eve in Adam’s image.

The Fall describes what happens when Adam and Eve meet Lucifer in the Garden. The play suggests that Lucifer feels threatened by Eve and her beauty as a human woman. The Expulsion from the Garden covers the fallout from Adam and Eve’s expulsion and the resulting eternal sins of humankind.

The play sequence then moves forward from the creation tale to the stories of Noah and Moses. Play seven, Sacrificium Cayme et Abell, touches on the Cain and Abel story before leading into Noah’s origin story. Pharaoh and Moses covers what happens to Moses and the resulting plagues upon humanity.

In the twelfth play, The Annunciation to Mary and the Visitation, the authors depict the story of the Immaculate Conception. It emphasizes that Mary is a perpetual virgin, and she is free from all human sin. Her unborn son has already saved her. This theme is continued in the following handful of plays.

The plays from the fourteenth, The Nativity, through the twenty-fifth, The Entry into Jerusalem, cover Jesus’s early life, exploring how he spread Christianity and built a loyal following. They also consider where Jesus’s adversaries come from. The plays plant the seeds for the Betrayal.

The twenty-sixth play, The Conspiracy, looks at who orchestrated the downfall—Judas and Pilate. They both believe that Jesus must be stopped. Pilate wants to execute Jesus under the guise of preventing civil unrest. He pretends that there will be a legitimate trial, but everyone knows it is a sham. Jesus knows that he will not survive the trial.

The twenty-seventh play, The Last Supper, through the thirty-fourth play, The Road to Calvary, cover the trials and the vile punishments Jesus is subjected to. The twenty-ninth, The Trial before Cayphas and Anna, lays out the charges against Jesus. The charges range from witchcraft to blasphemy. It is impossible, they say, that the son of a lowly carpenter is also the Son of God. Jesus, it is noted, stays silent and stoic throughout the reading of the charges.

The First Trial before Pilate depicts Pilate as a hypocritical tyrant mired in sin. He is a proud and angry man. His wife, Percula, is vain, self-obsessed, and sexually deviant. In The Remorse of Judas, Judas regrets betraying Jesus but it is too late to turn back. Judas, from this trial forward, is known as one of the most devious criminals in history. Pilate seals a similar fate for himself during his second trial of Jesus, depicted in play thirty-three, The Second Trial before Pilate.

Crucifixio Christi and Mortificacio Christi cover the Crucifixion in detail. The emphasis is on Jesus’s strength, his refusal to break under immense suffering, and his determination to stay true to God. His Resurrection in the thirty-eighth play, The Resurrection, is celebratory. Many now regret crucifying Jesus because they think he is the Son of God. Others, like Pilate, refuse to show remorse.

The final plays take the audience from Mary Magdalen’s vision of Jesus to Doomsday and the Last Judgment. Events covered include Mary’s funeral, the Ascension, and the Coronation. There is a clear theme that we must stay true to Jesus and God, repenting of our sins. Only by following Jesus can we be saved on Judgment Day.