The collection of plays represented in this modernization has had the most complex bibliographical history of any of the collections of plays from the late middle ages in England.
The manuscript is now in the British Library, London (BL MS Cotton Vespasian D.8). However, as its name suggests, it was once in the library of a seventeenth century antiquarian called Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. His librarian, Richard James, made a cursory examination of the manuscript and erroneously assumed that the ms contained the Biblical plays performed in Coventry during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He called them the Ludus Coventriae or "the Play Called Corpus Christi". In both cases he was mistaken but the mistake has proved difficult to irradicate. The name Ludus Coventriae persists in the secondary literature well into the twentieth century. Hardin Craig further complicated the situation in his Medieval Drama (1955), by calling the collection the Hegge Plays after the family first associated with the ms. That name did not find favour and the most common way to refer to these plays now is The N-Town Plays because of the reference in the last stanza of the Proclamation that the play was to be played at "N-Town" or "Fill-in-the-blank Town" -- the letter "n" standing for "nomen" or "name".
The complexities of the manuscript have been fully discussed by Peter Meredith in The Mary Play from the N-Town Manuscript (Longmans, 1987) and by Stephen Spector in the new standard edition The N-Town Play (Early English Text Society, SS 11, 1991). Briefly, although their conclusions are somewhat different, both scholars agree that what is represented in the ms is an anthology -- a series of "pageants" on various Biblical themes; two plays about the Virgin Mary, one on her childhood and the other on her Death and Assumption; and a two-part Passion Play.The "pageants" vary from simple, almost liturgical, recitation of Biblical texts (as in the Moses play of the Ten Commandments, the Jesse play with its kings and prophets and the Penetecost play) to highly complex and fast moving short dramas on Biblical themes that have a naturalism and liveliness (as in the Death of Herod and the Woman Taken in Adultery) almost unique in early drama. These plays can all be played from a wagon or a single booth stage. On the other hand, the two Mary Plays and the Passion Play were written for what is often called "place and scaffold" production in the round using "scaffolds" or raised stages and also the "platea" or the "place" between the stages. The true nature of the ms has been hidden by the fact that the scribe arranged all the episodes in "chronological order" starting with Creation and ending with Judgment, simulating an episodic play presenting salvation history as in the two northern civic cycles from York and Chester. As he did this he buried the Mary Play inside the Nativity sequence and copied the Passion Play into place between the Raising of Lazarus and the Resurrection appearances. It has taken painstaking paleographical and codicological examinations of the ms to determine what the scribe actually did. To further complicate the matter, at some point in the history of copying out these plays, the proclamation was attached to them. Although the proclamation does not match the plays that follow, someone, possibly the scribe of this ms, placed numbers in the margin of the text against incidents that correspond to the description of the "pageants" in the proclamation. This does not affect the single episode pageants but it breaks up the flow of the Passion Play and has obscured the very existence of the Mary Play for centuries.
A final scribal feature of this ms is the stage directions which reflect a curious mixture of intent. They seem to be recording performance detail while, at the same time, facilitating the reading of the manuscript as a meditation text rather than using it as a text to be enacted. The stage directions are in Latin in the pageants, in the Mary Play they are a mix of English and Latin and in the Passion Play they are almost entirely in English. They seem to function as much as an aid to help a reader visualize the action as actual practical instructions to a director. The details of costume and action in the stage directions in the Passion Play suggest a description of an actual performance. The liturgical music is specified in the Mary Play and Assumption Play by including the opening words of each piece or the "incipit" in the stage directions. On the other hand the stage directions in many of the pageants are quite laconic.
All scholars who have worked with this ms agree that it belongs in the east Midlands. Some attempt has been made to place it as far north as Lincoln, but the general consensus places the ms in East Anglia. Stephen Spector cautiously writes "The linguistic evidence indicates that the codex was recorded principally or exclusively by scribes trained in East Anglia" (Spector, xxix). Meredith more positively asserts that The Mary Play comes from Norfolk (Meredith, 6). However, since the eclectic nature of the ms has been recognized, scholars have been hesitant to insist that all the plays copied into this anthology were played in the same place.
The date "1468" appears in the hand of the major scribe at the end of the Purification play (f 100v). This, then, is the earliest possible date for the copying of the text. Spector has concluded on the basis of dialectical evidence that the plays cannot predate 1425 and on the basis of the watermarks on the paper that the paper used by the main scribe comes from the period 1460-77. It is possible, again on the basis of the paper, that the Assumption play, written separately by a different scribe and bound into the main ms, was copied slightly earlier. We are safe to assume that the ms dates from the second half of the third quarter of the fifteenth century. This makes it the oldest ms to contain a large number of Biblical plays. Although we know there were plays performed elsewhere from the late fourteenth century, the York ms was written down in the 1470's, the Towneley ms after the turn of the sixteenth century and all the versions of the Chester plays after 1596.
The radically different nature of the plays in this collection were made strikingly clear in production. Almost every technique for the staging of Bibical drama is represented here in what must be an anthology gathered from many sources in East Anglia.
In order to emphasize the eclectic nature of the manuscript anthology, I have deliberately violated the order of the ms. The text begins with the "pageants" in Biblical order as they were performed in 1988 with the Last Judgment coming directly after the Raising of Lazarus. The two part Passion Play follows and the text concludes with the Marian plays. The Mary Play, as noted above, follows Meredith's edition. Some of the material from the Mary Play also appears in the Nativity sequence in the pageants and is printed in both places. I have edited the Nativity plays in the pageant sequence omitting the lines that clearly belong exclusively to the Marian material. When there is some doubt about what should be included where, I have followed the principle that the pageant material can be identified by the predominant thirteen line verse form. Although he speaks the same lines in both The Mary Play and the Nativity sequence, the character of Joseph is quite different in the two contexts. The Mary Play is followed by the play on the Death and Assumption of the Virgin. The Proclamation is included as Appendix I and the curious forty line interlude between Passion Play I and Passion Play II is included as Appendix II.
© A.F. Johnston 1999
Kahrl, Stanley J. and Peter Meredith (eds). The N-Town Plays. Leeds Texts and Monographs, Medieval Drama Facsimiles IV, 1977.
Meredith, Peter (ed). The Mary Play (from N-Town). London, Longmans, 1987.
------ The Passion Play (from N-Town). London, Longmans, 1990.
Spector, Stephen (ed). The N-Town Play. 2 vols. EETS S.S. 11-12, 1991.