Edited and Introduced by Richard Beadle and Pamela King
Country: Great Britain
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.