N-Town Plays

N-Town Plays
(Ludus Coventriae, Hegge Cycle)
(late 15th century)
   One of the four extant compilations of late medieval MYSTERY PLAYS, the N-Town Plays survive in a single manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D.viii. Richard James, librarian to the antiquarian book collector Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, obtained the manuscript from Robert Hegge of Corpus Christi College in Oxford in about 1630, and therefore the plays are sometimes referred to as the “Hegge Cycle.” James labeled the manuscript Ludus Coventriae on its flyleaf, which led early scholars to consider it the cycle performed at Coventry on the festival of CORPUS CHRISTI. While that identification was debunked in the 19th century, it is not clear where the plays were actually performed. Scholars agree that it was somewhere in East Anglia, but the manuscript’s introductory “Proclamation” claims that the plays were performed in “N [nomen] town” on a Sunday. The name of the town, in other words, is left as a generic nomen or “name.” But the fact that the festival of Corpus Christi always fell on a Thursday indicates that this was not a Corpus Christi cycle.
   Thus it is not even clear that the N-Town plays are truly a cycle in the same sense as the CHESTER CYCLE or the YORK CYCLE—that is, a group of discrete plays telling a coherent salvation history from Creation until Doomsday, produced for the festival of Corpus Christi by the craft guilds of a major English city. The “Proclamation” declares that the plays will be performed at six o’clock on the following Sunday, and for some time it was believed that the manuscript represented the repertory for a troupe of touring players. But more recent scholars look at the possibility that the proclamation was simply intended to alert the townspeople to come to a particular location for the performance. Copious stage directions in the text suggest that some of these plays (later additions to the manuscript) were performed at a fixed place on a scaffold, and some may have been performed with wagons. It does appear that the main compiler behind the manuscript may have been a cleric, possibly a monk or friar: The plays make use of liturgical music, and several of the plays emphasize preaching (as in the Woman Taken in Adultery) or scholarly learning (such as Christ and the Doctors). Thus scholars have suggested that the manuscript originated in the Benedictine monastery at Bury St. Edmunds. Other suggestions include the Thetford Priory in East Anglia, the towns of Great Yarmouth or Bishops Lynn (where plays are known to have been performed), and the great cathedral city of Norwich. But it is impossible to know precisely where the manuscript was produced, or where the plays were performed.
   The collection in the manuscript seems to have been compiled from several different sources, and the plan of the manuscript seems to have changed over time. The motives of the main scribe are a matter of some scholarly dispute: It may be that he was collecting plays to deliberately create something along the lines of civic cycles like the York plays. It may be that he was collecting plays for something he hoped to turn into a printed text. Whatever its maker’s intent, the manuscript consists of a basic cycle and five additions to the original collection. The plays of the cycle portion are all written in 13-line stanzas, and they begin with seven Old Testament plays or episodes (the Creation, the Fall,Cain and Abel,Noah’s Ark,Abraham and Isaac,Moses, and a “Tree of Jesse” play focusing on the prophets). Two unusual plays dealing with apocryphal legends of Mary are included (Joseph’s Trouble about Mary and the Trial of Mary and Joseph), followed by four traditional Nativity plays (the Nativity, the Shepherds, the Magi, and Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents). Five plays deal with the life and ministry of Christ (Christ and the Doctors, The Baptism, The Temptation, The Woman Taken in Adultery, and The Raising of Lazarus), and six plays concern Christ’s passion and the end of the world (concerning the Marys at the Tomb, Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene and a later appearance play, a play of the Ascension, of Pentecost, and an incomplete play of Doomsday). Later plays of Lamech, the Burning Bush, and the Cherry Tree Miracle were added to this cycle.
   To this basic cycle, the original scribe seems to have added five more plays in eight-line stanzas concerning Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary, four of which are not mentioned in the manuscript’s “Proclamation.” These plays (concerning the Conception of Mary, the Presentation of Mary at the Temple, the Parliament of Heaven, the Annunciation, and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth) appear to have been performed together on scaffold stages on a single day (perhaps on St. Anne’s Day, July 26). Subsequently a play on the purification of Mary was added to the manuscript. Later was added a Passion play, focusing on Judas’s betrayal of Christ; and later still a second Passion play was included, beginning with the trial of Christ before Caiaphas and ending with the Resurrection. It seems likely these plays were added to fill in the gaps of the original cycle, or were included to replace the passion narrative that the manuscript originally contained. Finally, a substantial play concerning the Assumption of the Virgin was inserted. The sources of the N-Town plays were, of course, the Christian Bible (particularly the Gospel of Matthew), and some apocryphal gospels, including the Nativity of Mary, as well as Marian stories from the GOLDEN LEGEND and the Meditationes of Pseudo-Bonaventure. More than any other cycle, the NTown plays focus on the Virgin Mary. Several of its Marian plays are unique in English drama, including the scene of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearance to his mother (a Franciscan tradition) and the trial of Joseph and Mary, depicting the couple before a late medieval ecclesiastical court challenging Mary’s virtue because of her premarital pregnancy. One explanation for such unusual content is the relationship of the N-Town plays to the continental dramatic tradition: Emphases on the Virgin, plays concerning Lamech, the Parliament in Heaven, and the Jesse Tree, and the use of the fixed stage, all are more typically found in Continental drama than in the English tradition. The close economic ties that East Anglia shared with northern Europe (especially Flanders) because of its cloth industry may explain the cultural context that would account for such similarities.
   Certainly the most unusual and the most eclectic of the extant collections of mystery plays, the N-Town cycle has in recent years become a favorite manuscript for postmodern critics interested in resisting the idea of a text as a finished product, preferring to think of it rather as a continuing process. In that way, this text is certainly the most contemporary of the mystery cycle codices.
   ■ Coletti, Theresa. “Devotional Iconography and the NTown Marian Plays,” Comparative Drama 11 (1977): 22–44.
   ■ ———.“Sacrament and Sacrifice in the N-Town Passion,” Mediaevalia 7 (1981): 239–264.
   ■ The Corpus Christi Play of the English Middle Ages. Edited by R. T. Davies. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972.
   ■ Forrest, M. Patricia. “Apocryphal Sources of the St. Anne’s Day Plays in the Hegge Cycle,”Medievalia et Humanistica 17 (1966): 38–50.
   ■ ———.“The Role of the Expositor Contemplacio in the St. Anne’s Day Plays of the Hegge Cycle,” Medieval Studies 28 (1966): 60–76.
   ■ Gibson, Gail McMurray. “Bury St. Edmunds, Lydgate, and the N-Town Cycle,”Speculum 56 (1981): 56–90.
   ■ Meredith, Peter. The Passion Play from the N-Town Manuscript. London: Longman, 1990.
   ■ The N-Town Play: Cotton MS Vespasian D.8. Edited by Stephen Spector. 2 vols. EETS, ss 11 and 12. Oxford: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1991.
   ■ Steven,Martin. Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual and Critical Interpretations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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