Medieval Mystery Plays are brought vividly to life for modern audiences through research that sheds light on how the plays were originally performed and makes the text accessible to all.

These translations offer us as organisers, and the various directors and groups who perform the Plays, accessibility to the language, mind-set and world of the medieval citizens of York. They help us to recreate these Plays for modern localities and audiences

Chair of the York Guilds and Companies

The York Cycle of Mystery Plays, first performed in the 14th century, has become a hugely popular event in the cultural heritage of York, and a major source of revenue to the local economy, thanks in no small part to the work of Professor Richard Beadle of the Faculty of English.

His extensive knowledge of the plays, and the ways in which they were originally performed by the city’s medieval guilds, has been vital to their revival. In 2010, as a direct result of Beadle’s research, the plays were performed outdoors by local people on wagons drawn through the city streets – a tradition not seen for over 400 years.

Beadle’s work on the text of all 50 plays has resulted in a definitive edition, which is now the only place where the original text of the entire cycle can be read together with explanatory notes and a glossary. And his modernised version of 22 of the plays, co-edited with Pamela King, is widely used by schools and academic institutions across the globe, and is the favoured text of many modern performers.

Plays for the people   

In its cinematic sweep through Christian biblical mythology, from the Garden of Eden to the Last Judgement, the medieval York Cycle of Mystery Plays told a rich and vivid story, bringing the words of the Bible out of churches and onto the streets, and into the reach of ordinary people.

Performed annually by the craft and mercantile guilds of York – including spicers, pewterers and tile-thatchers – the plays were a key event in the city’s and even the nation’s calendar, drawing audiences from far and wide for over two hundred years.

The plays survived the Reformation but were finally banned in 1569. In 1885, a ‘modern’ version of the plays was published, but it was not until 1951 that they were brought to life again as York’s principal contribution to the Festival of Britain.

Written in Middle English, in many different styles, the 50 or so plays, made up of over 13,500 lines of verse drama, present a challenge to modern audiences. As revival of the cycle became more and more popular during the 20th century, the need became crucial for a definitive, accessible text and a better understanding of how the plays were originally performed.

A text for the modern age

Beadle’s ground-breaking work has married new interpretations of the original text with new insights into how the plays were performed, resulting in an invaluable version of the cycle for the modern age.

The plays that make up the cycle were first collected together in around 1477, in a manuscript that survives today and is preserved in the British Library. Beadle’s work has shed new light on the text, dating it more accurately and showing previously unknown connections with Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III).

Delving deep into the York City Archives, Beadle has uncovered a wealth of detail about the 60 or more original guilds behind the plays and the intricacies of how they performed them – the staging, props and costumes, and the logistics of how the pageant wagons made their way through the busy streets, stopping at special points across the city to tell their stories.

The Mystery Plays are now a permanent fixture in the cultural life of York, with performances taking place at least every four years. Hundreds of local people take part, from schools, community groups, churches and the modern versions of the guilds. Whether as performers, musicians, stage-hands, stewards, costume makers or even wagon pushers, they all share an inspiring experience that gives new perspectives on the city’s history and medieval life.