From the 4th-6th December of this year in the run up to Christmas the cathedral shall see the arrival of the Mystery Plays cycle from Gloucester Cathedral. This week, we include a guest blog from English Literature student Katy Ikin who has studied the plays in conjunction with the development of literary and linguistic English. The developing history of the liturgical Mystery Plays has a great span of around five hundred years. During this time, from the tenth to sixteenth century, the English language, literature and drama have undergone huge change.
In the 900s when the Anglo Saxons inhabited our island, Old English was spoken amongst the masses. Despite its popularity in oral tradition, works of writing such as the plays would have been written and performed in Latin as this was the learned language of the church. As a consequence of the invasion of William of Normandy in 1066, French succeeded Latin in play scripts followed eventually by early modern English.
This manuscript is an example which demonstrates the simultaneous usage of Old English with Latin. English was always the dominant oral language, as Latin was for professional documents and so there are very few examples of Old English scripture in existence.
The Plays’ height of popularity was between the 14th-15th centuries during the middle ages. There were four main types of Drama of this time, these being Folk Plays, Mystery Plays, Morality Plays and The Interludes. All were influential towards the later comedies and tragedies of the Renaissance but none more so than the Mystery Plays. The plays started as a visual telling of the Christian story. As the plays would have primarily been performed in Latin and French, languages which many people did not understand, aesthetic importance was paramount in aiding the congregations understanding of the stories. Their escalation was from small musical services into full-scale dramatised performances that became customary for guilds to present during the Christmas and Easter periods.
Chaucer's work of middle English- The Canterbury Tales from an eighteenth century copy in the cathedral library.
During the medieval period, the plays were transcribed in Early Modern and Modern English. Since the recent revival of the plays of the past couple of decades, this has remained mostly unchanged. The same actions and rhythms of the original texts have been reworked only slightly in order to bring the ancient texts into modern English. The plays engage with majestic themes of the bible as well as comedy and tragedy, which in conjunction with rich live musical accompaniment, create a multidimensional performance that appeals to all audiences, old and new.
More about the Mystery Plays and the features of their development is displayed in the Cathedral. This display can be seen in the south nave aisle for the next couple of months.