Guild of Scriveners of theCity of York
Guild of Scriveners, Textwriters, Luminers, Noters, Turners and Flourishers of the City of York
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A brief history of the Mystery Plays

The word ‘mystery’ means a ‘trade’ or ‘craft’ in medieval English. ‘Mystery’ is also a religious truth or rite.

The medieval plays were sponsored and subsidised by the city’s craft guilds.

Traditionally, the plays were played on the feast day of Corpus Christi, a movable feast occurring between 23 May and 24 June.

The solitary surviving manuscript of the York plays, dating from around 1463-77, is kept at the British Library. It was the centrepiece of an exhibition in York in 2010, organised to accompany the 2010 production of the plays.

The York Mystery cycle usually comprised some 48 pageants, illustrating the Christian history of the world.

The Lord Mayor and Aldermen made the decision for the performance to take place, but the Guilds shouldered the economic and practical burdens of getting the show of up to 48 waggons on the road. This was both an act of worship and ‘community theatre’ for the entertainment of locals and visitors alike, honouring God, reflecting honour on York and allowing the Guilds to display their corporate identity.

The Plays survived the 1548 abolition of the Corpus Christi festival, but although episodes honouring the Virgin were cut to appease anti-Catholic opponents, the year 1569 saw the last medieval production. The final curtain was inevitable as, one by one, traditions associated with the old religion were removed from the calendar.

The Corpus Christi waggons were not seen again until 1909 when the Angels and Shepherds of the Nativity, accompanied by a procession of actors bearing heraldic banners to represent the ancient guildsmen, appeared in the York Historic Pageant.

Although the Mystery Plays were revived in the 1951 York Festival of the Arts, they were performed on a fixed stage in the Museum Gardens and it was not until 1954 that a waggon play ‘The Flood’ was offered in the streets.

The modern Guilds and Companies of York were formally associated with a waggon production for the first time in 1998, and in 2002 they took charge of the production themselves.

The plays are now performed every four years, from noon until early evening on two Sundays in July.