Tag Archives: Medieval Period

York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling


Edited and Introduced by Richard Beadle and Pamela King
Country: Great Britain
Genre: Drama
Years: 14th Century
Edition Read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1987 cover design.
First Read: Yes

The requirements that existed for my English major were quite thorough in that they forced students to be exposed to works from all six British periods, Shakespeare, critical theory, linguistics, Canadian and American, etc. One that I dreaded most, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, was Medieval literature. I managed to delay this until my final year. I have extreme difficulty with Middle English – I have since I first slogged through “The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe” in my first-year survey course. My Middle English Literature course was interesting albeit challenging (lowest mark I received in my entire degree); we studied the original Robin Hood poems and plays, some biblical reinterpretations, lots of King Arthur tales, and The Book of Margery Kempe – which I still look at on my bookshelf with contempt. I was so happy to be finished with this course. Since then, I have grown quite fond of Middle English literature, but these days I read it in translation, typically an Oxford World’s Classics edition. Blasphemy you say? Not at all! I chose to read Chaucer, Langland, or Mallory for pleasure. In an academic setting, translations are very inappropriate, but at home for fun, I see no problem with reading a [quality] Middle English translation.

My latest literary conquest is York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling edited by Richard Beadle and Pamela King. These plays are the oldest of the English mystery cycles which depicted the most spiritually important episodes from the Bible. Dating from at least the 14th century, these plays were performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi starting at sunrise in the city of York. Each play was performed by a different craft guild (equivalent to a union in today’s parlance), which were known in Middle English as mysteries. Hence, York Mystery Plays. These plays are still performed today as part of a theatre festival in York:

I’ve had this book on my shelf since 2003. I wanted to read something from this period, so I figured this book had been patient enough and deserved to be read. This was a tough slog which got the dreaded one-star rating on Goodreads. The reason I did not enjoy it relates back to my thoughts on translations. I assumed that the subtitle of this edition “A Selection in Modern Spelling” meant that this was a translation. I assumed wrong. This book was neither a translation, nor a raw a Middle English text. It was this strange hybrid of the two that rendered this text practically unreadable. Essentially, words that would have roughly the same spelling, would be updated to current spelling (ex. wyf changed to wife) and archaic letters were updated to the modern orthographic equivalent. Additionally, one other small annoyance that upped the challenge was the placement of the notes. Normally, Middle English texts will have inline notes, so any note on a particular line is justified on the right margin; this allows for some flow from line-to-line. This volume though, used footnotes. This caused extreme disruption in trying to get through the text.

If you can power through the deep editorial flaws of this volume, the plays themselves are quite interesting. Pilate and Jesus are fascinating characters and the Passion narrative has some interesting interpretations of Biblical tradition. The headnote of each play gives a good outline of what the play is about, some notes about the guild putting on the play, and some insight into the authorship. One thing that fascinated me was the sometimes-tongue-in-cheek pairings of the play and the guild (the Butchers and the Death of Christ for instance).

This is an important work in the English literary canon and one of the earliest examples of English drama. The clips I’ve found online of contemporary productions in York are mesmerizing. I’m going to track down a different edition and read these plays again someday; they deserve far better than what they get in this volume.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 9, 2017 in British Drama


Tags: , , ,

The Earliest English Poems

428858  beowulf 220px-the_dream_of_the_rood  795951

Translated, Edited and Introduced by Micheal Alexander
Country: Great Britain (Pre-England)
Genre: Poetry
Years: 600AD – 1000AD
Edition Read: Penguin Classics, Third Edition. 1985 cover design.
First Read: Yes

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena      in géardagum
þéodcyninga      þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon.

In the eyes of most undergraduate English majors, these lines are the kick-off point of English literature. These are the opening lines from Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem about a Geatish hero who slays monsters, mothers and dragons. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poetry is far deeper and richer than just the 3,182 lines of Beowulf. The average undergrad English major though is unlikely to be exposed to much pre-Chaucer/Sir Gawain writing, except for Beowulf or perhaps of The Dream of the Rood if they take a Bible and literature course. I was in that situation. These two pieces were the only Anglo-Saxon works I read as a student, and the professor I had for my Medieval-Renaissance survey course only taught Beowulf because he was a huge fan of Seamus Heaney – this was not normally included by other professors teaching the class. My university had several courses in Middle-English literature, but nothing dedicated to Old English. A classmate of mine asked the Chair of the department about doing a direct studies course on the subject, her request was declined because there was no one suitable to oversee it. The writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, and even Tom Clancy descended from Anglo-Saxon poetry just as humans descended from the flat-worm. It deserves the attention of any discerning reader.  It deserves it’s share of critical and academic attention.

A few years ago, I came across The Earliest English Poems while browsing the Penguin Classics at my favorite used book store. The concept alone intrigued me. Whether I would ever read it or not, I thought it would be a nice-looking addition to my shelf. Edited, introduced and translated by Michael Alexander, this volume essentially serves as a sample of the best Anglo-Saxon poetry from the four major poetic manuscripts, at least in the editor’s subjective opinion. Selections include heroic poems like Widsith, Deor, Brunanburh, Maldon and passages from Beowulf; elegies such as The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Wife’s Complaint and The Husband’s Message; a large selection of the riddles from Exeter Book; and The Dream of the Rood.

Michael Alexander does several things that make this book both extremely readable and highly informative. First, he has written an incredible introduction. The intro is concise, gives context and historical background, explains his approach to translating these pieces, and gives some commentary on why reading each of these poems is significant. Second, he gives summaries and descriptions of each poem. This is very important in making this book assessable, especially for someone with an English degree let alone a layman; Alexander delves into the historical framework of each poem, gives a general summary, and digs into the genre and its significance (e.g. heroic poem, riddle, elegy, etc). Finally, his translations open these poems up to 21st century readers. The language is still “elevated,” in that elegance is not sacrificed. Alexander also manages to maintain the alliteration that is such a signature of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Additionally, a few select words of Old English are maintained, both for dramatic effect and because there is no direct translation to modern English, like Hwaet and Wierd.

It is safe to say that in this 200-page book, I learned more about Anglo-Saxon literature than I did in a four-year English degree. Every poem in this book is between 1000 and 1300 years old – to put this into perspective, these poems are closer to a living Jesus than they are to us. It is a miracle of historical accidents that they survive at all. Why is this a great book: great poetry that stands on its own merits, historical gravitas, novelty, to understand that there was great writing in English before Chaucer, to get some great timeless riddles to try out on your friends, need I say more?

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 5, 2017 in British Poetry


Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: