rigins matter.

Twenty years ago, I was teaching high school high in the Maloti mountains of southern Africa, blissfully ignorant of medieval drama and the fate that awaited me in the guise of a certain University of Toronto professor named Alexandra F Johnston. By the fall I was back home in Canada, enrolled in a graduate course on something called “the York Plays” and all too swiftly discovering the meaning of acronyms such as PLS and REED. By the following spring I was playing the devil and directing Sandy Johnston as angel in the Chester Slaughter of the Innocents. But my own innocence wasn’t quite dead yet.Garrett bedevilling Chester I hadn’t yet read the Towneley plays; I just thought they were another biblical play cycle. Within another year, everything had changed. I began a PhD program in Toronto. I consented to be Artistic Director for a PLS production of what we were calling “The Towneley Cycle of Mystery Plays.” I came to Kalamazoo and watched Barbara Palmer go head to head with Martin Stevens in a very hot and crowded room. Innocence lost.

Well, mostly. I still viewed the plays more as theatre than as a textual entity with a long critical history. I took on Towneley for the same reason as I took on that course on the York plays: partly because I love theatre, but mostly because I didn’t know any better; I had never previously studied any Middle English text. I read the likes of Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman for Denton Fox’s course on medieval allegory that same year before realizing that any translations existed. And I first encountered Towneley's famous second Shepherds play quite literally as Alia eorundem - just another Shepherd play. Who knew it was the evil twin? I first explored Towneley as a playtext, looking for clues as to how it had to be staged. Unlike the now-infamous JW Walker, who forged a few crucial Wakefield records, or the current Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, I had no investment in any Wakefield association, and at that crucial Kalamazoo session (as later in print) Barbara Palmer had neatly prevented my having any confidence in any of the supposed external evidence or even in the manuscript’s marginalia, so I was pretty much left with the playtext alone. And that text made remarkably little sense as a whole, despite the glories of the various parts.

Adam tempted
Cain's sacrifice
Abraham and Isaac
Noah's wife - angelic showers
Lazarus rises
Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene
Anima Christi about to harrow hell
The Scourging
The Buffeting
As I put together my production notes, corresponding with the groups across the continent that would eventually gather to perform the plays, I was all too conscious of our imposing rather than discovering patterns and coherence. The assignment of available acting spaces on Ralph Blasting’s marvelous place-and-scaffold set did most of that work, forcing iconographic resonances between plays: Lazarus and Jesus were raised from the same tomb, and all the various tyrants ranted from the same Palace scaffold. We exploited the fact that five Towneley plays contain reference to “this hill” and yet another makes “yond hill” as a destination (fewer explicit hill references than in York, actually), while other plays traditionally require one. And so in this production, to borrow a line from John Donne, “paradise and Calvary / Christ's cross and Adam's tree, stood in one place” (“Hymn to God my God, in my sickness” ll. 21-22); Cain and Abel (see 2.172) and Abraham (4.146) set up altars on that same artificial hill, as well. However, that was also the hill on which Noah's recalcitrant wife sat to spin (see 3.448), creating an awkward echo of a post-lapsarian Eve within what was once Eden – a scene more like something from the late, great Timothy Findley's novel Not Wanted On The Voyage (see pp.139-143) than from anything medieval. Some of the participating groups shared costume information and even particular props, furthering a sense of visual but ultimately extra-textual or even anti-textual unity. The work that went into coordinating multiple casts on a single set convinced me that no one in the Middle Ages would have been fool enough to try it; individual wagons are a Good Thing. But not all of these pageants are wagon pageants – certainly not The Conspiracy, with its three separate loci and travelling in between, but more on that later. Nor, pace Martial Rose, would a single cast do the trick. That mode would just emphasize other discontinuities, such as the missing Nativity or Temptation, or the misplaced Lazarus, which Martin Stevens thought might deliberately have been placed at the end of the manuscript, precisely because there is nothing to indicate that it should go anywhere else. York, of course, has its misplaced Purification play, but clear signs as to where in the sequence it belongs, much like the signs that indicate the accidentally reversed pages in the Towneley Mactacio Abel. I for one cannot imagine having Jesus raise Lazarus after the Last Judgement – not in performance. And then there is – or rather isn’t – The Trial before Herod: one of the three torturers in The Scourging claims to have just come “From Syr Herode, oure kyng” (22.54), yet in the previous extant play, The Buffeting, the four torturers are told – by Annas and Caiaphas, not the absent Herod – to take Jesus directly to Pilate; in a single cast production, this would certainly be noticed. In short, this is not a continuous sequence, for one cast or many. We cheated to make it look like one.

And so in 1985, at the post-performance symposium, in my very first public performance as a medieval drama scholar – not so different from playing the devil, perhaps – I officially renounced Towneley’s status as a “cycle,” along with any claim to innocence. A few months later, at my first and only appearance thus far at the annual MLA convention, I did it again, in front of Martin Stevens. He was uncommonly gracious about it. In 1993, after several years' worth of drafts that got eaten by computers and postal systems, having already taught a course and even supervised an MA thesis on Towneley, I published “The Towneley Plays, or, The Hazards of Cycling,” which I plunder here shamelessly. I was now implicitly claiming authority, not innocence. Much can happen in a decade. However, as we all know, one can lose one’s innocence, and help others to do the same, and still have little clue as to what one is doing. I have now explained basically where I’m coming from, why I read these plays as I do, and did, but I still do not feel any closer to figuring out this wonderfully infuriating text. I do not know what these particular plays are doing in this particular manuscript, or where the manuscript itself comes from. Having long ago demonstrated that the ‘Towneley Plays’ could not have constituted a ‘Wakefield Cycle,’ if indeed such an entity ever existed, Barbara Palmer has now suggested (in her paper for this same session, and now in print) that the manuscript, like the Towneley family, might well have originated in Lancashire, and not in the West Riding of Yorkshire as normally assumed. “Mystery plays,” indeed.

One of the most recent summaries of the plays and the problems they present comes from Larry Clopper’s recent, marvelous, must-read challenge to received wisdom, Drama, Play, and Game. Clopper outlines the standard “anomalies” of this particular text, including the dual ascription to “Wakefield” in the first and third play titles, the duelling Shepherds plays, those missing and misplaced plays, the five marginal guild ascriptions, the five plays borrowed pretty much wholesale from York and the five traditionally ascribed to the Wakefield Master, etc. He goes on to discuss other possible York/Towneley connections, such as the two similar Baptism plays. I remain mostly unpersuaded that “there are sufficient echoes of York lines in Towneley to suggest that the latter may be a rewriting of the former” as Clopper suggests (226); despite the overlap and various parallels, Towneley and York are very different entities. However, the two Baptism plays have something at least marginally in common. Marginal comments in the York manuscript, made in the mid-sixteenth century by that blessed scribe, John Clerk (servant to the Common Clerk of York), clearly indicate that at some point the extant play was rewritten. Near the beginning of the play he writes, “Her wants a pece newely mayd for saynt John Baptiste” (f.92v, the second page of the play); at the end he notes “This matter is newly mayd and devysed, wherof we haue no coppy regystred” (f.94, the rest of the page and its verso are left blank). In the introduction to their EETS edition of The Towneley Plays, AC Cawley and Martin Stevens explicitly compare these comments to an infamous correction to the Towneley Baptism play, which they call the “one unambiguous reference to a performance” in the manuscript (xxiv). As Clopper notes,

The reference to the seven sacraments in lines 193-200 is crossed out with the marginal comment, “corected & not playd.” The erasure suggests that the play was being performed in the post-Reformation era, but it also suggests that the performers found nothing else in the play inconsistent with Reformation sentiment. (227n44).

The latter suggestion strikes me as being easily as significant as the first, but at odds with it. The reference to the sacraments occurs in lines 196-97: “This is worthy sacrament. / Ther ar vi othere, and no mo”. That apparently offensive line could easily be altered to accord with the Reformers’ doctrine of only two rather than seven sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist: “Ther is on[e] othere and no mo[re].” So why strike the whole stanza? The first part of it contains the anointing of Jesus “With oyl and creme” (194), but clearly the chrism itself was not offensive, given that the same phrase appears earlier (115), untouched.

Nor would staging this anointing have been more offensive than staging the baptism itself, complete with the full Trinitarian formula in Latin, as happens in the uncanceled stanza that immediately precedes this one. This is, after all, what was explicitly and famously prohibited by York’s Ecclesiastical Commissioners authorities in 1576 in relation to “a plaie commonlie called Corpus Christi plaie” in Wakefield:

The said Commissioners Decred a lettre to be written and sent to the Balyffe Burgesses and other the inhabitantes of the said town of Wakefield that in the said playe no Pagent be vsed or set furthe wherin the Maiestye of god the father god the sonne or god the holie ghoste or the administration of either the sacramentes of Baptisme or of the lordes Supper be counterfeyted or represented. (q. Palmer “Revisited” 330-331)

The cancellation in this play is clearly not a response to any such directive, nor to the reformist ideals that inform such. Neither the baptism itself nor any other equally potentially offensive material was ever “corected” for performance. The only other canceled stanza in the whole Towneley manuscript – a stanza in the Resurrection play dealing with transubstantiation, likewise crossed out using red ink – is not associated with any marginal commentary. That particular stanza concludes a lengthy apparent interpolation, a post-Resurrection monologue by Jesus, into what was once the York Resurrection pageant. Its cancellation strikes me as being a simple matter of readerly objection to a controversial doctrine, but the omission of that stanza in performance would admittedly make the play more acceptable to some sixteenth-century audiences. The cancellation of the stanza in the Baptism makes no sense in relation to performance of that play, much less of a sequential performance of Towneley as a whole, with all its other thoroughly Catholic references and representations.

Clopper, incidentally, argues that the York Commissioners’ “directive does not forbid the appearance of Christ in his manhood” (291, original emphasis); for once I uphold tradition, in thinking it does. The directive effectively prohibits the whole of anything that could on its own constitute a “Corpus Christi plaie,” including the Croxton Play of the Sacrament. Still, it is interesting to note that this particular pageant, unlike others, makes no reference to the appearance of “the holie ghoste” who should rightly descend at this point – “To se in sight” as the York version notes (21.68). The only beast mentioned in the Towneley version is “the Lamb of God” (19.21) which Jesus gives to John, no traditional dove. Nor does the Towneley version indicate, like York, that “The fadirs voyce with grete talent / Be herde full ri3t” (York 21.69-70); however, any lines that this voice speaks in York are extra-textual - no lines are credited to God.

Just above his final comment in the York Baptism play, beside the extant final line, which like many final lines in this cycle blesses the audience, John Clerk has written “Hic caret finem”; perhaps God was actually given the last word in performance, after all. Since the line in question clearly ends the play, this note could have been written earlier, in response to yet another earlier revision. In any case, these marginalia, like some of the external records collected in that mother of all REED volumes, indicate the continuing change to which the York plays were subject, both before and after the official extant Register was compiled in the latter half of the fifteenth century. No one knows what happened to discarded versions of individual York pageants, but some might well have turned up near Wakefield in the West Riding, or in Lancashire, ripe for borrowing, along with versions that were still in use. As Peter Meredith has pointed out, in his article on “The York Millers’ Pageant and the Towneley Processus Talentorum,” this might well have been the case with the York Millers’ former pageant dealing with the “division of Christ’s garments” (“Particio vestimentorum christi” in the 1415 list, York: REED 26), which he argues became the Towneley play of the Dice. Like the Towneley version of the York Mercers’ Judgment pageant, the extant play contains additions in variations of the famous 13-line stanza that I’m going to call “Bob,” since John T Sebastian recently killed off the Wakefield Master. Other York borrowings are, or may be, less altered. As Richard Beadle notes (York Plays 453-454), most of the apparent additions in the Towneley Resurrection play to the extant York Carpenters’ pageant text, including that partially cancelled monologue, might actually be passages cut from the York text prior to its fifteenth-century registration. It could well be that some version of the York Baptism pageant, too, more closely resembled the Towneley version, revised because someone really couldn’t stand to have Jesus say the line “John, it is the lamb of me” (Towneley 19.211). But I must confess that revisions to the York play do not always conform to my sense of what ought to be: the Emmaus pageant, one of my personal favorites, with its elaborate, concatenated stanzas of alliterative grief, is another that John Clerk marginally notes as having been “made new” (“de novo facto” being written repeatedly beside the first stanza). That York pageant, too, has a certain structural resemblance to its Towneley counterpart, as well as occasional verbal echoes. The extant text might well be an alliterative revision of a previous text that was borrowed and revised – perhaps multiple times as Cawley and Stevens argue (612) – and eventually “new baptizde” (to quote Romeo & Juliet 2.2) as one of the Towneley plays. Alas, we cannot know.

However, all of these plays, whether from York or not, regardless of the cause, effect, or extent of any known or supposed revisions, still appear to be wagon plays, or are at least playable as such. All have a single identifiable dramatic locus to which characters travel. The Towneley Conspiracy, exceptionally, does not. As Cawley and Stevens point out, the extant play “corresponds to three plays in the York cycle: the Conspiracy to take Jesus (Play 26), the Last Supper (Play 27), and the Agony and Betrayal (Play 28)” (543).
Pilate at the Palace
Last Supper
Prayer in the Garden
The first portion is itself divided metrically, the first part being written in the Bob stanza (including one 12-line variant) and the rest being written in the Northern Septenar 12-line stanza also used for the York Last Supper; Towneley’s Last Supper, however, is entirely in couplets. The last portion of the play is in a mixture of quatrains and a variation on Bob that looks suspiciously like a stanza used in many of the N-town plays. Each of these three portions of the pageant could, by itself, function well enough as a wagon play. Combined, as noted earlier, they require multiple lociPilate’s palace, the “chamber” for the Last Supper, and Mount Olivet, possibly with a heaven (as we had in the 1985 production) containing a Trinity figure who speaks to Jesus – and much travelling in between all these places. I strongly suspect that the play was indeed cobbled together from three originals, the first of which might well have come from York; the third might have come from York, as well, but the second certainly did not. Unlike the York version of the Last Supper, from which pages containing the institution of the Eucharist were removed, this particular play would have given no cause for worry by the post-Reformation York Commissioners or their ilk. Like the gospel of John itself, Towneley’s staging “of the lordes Supper” does not include the institution of the Eucharist. In my 1993 article I made much of this, but failed to point out that the gospel of John also omits the Baptism. Towneley is not simply built on a Johanine model, even if one of its constituent parts may be. That one part, all in couplets as already noted, is unique: because it lacks the Eucharist, it would make a singularly unsuitable Corpus Christi play; its incorporation into something that consists largely of Bob stanzas points intriguingly away from the possibility that any of those plays written exclusively in that stanza form (that is, by the putative artist formerly known as the Wakefield Master, whom we can just call Bob, after the stanza) are or were ever Corpus Christi plays. Rather, they could have been household entertainments. I have long thought that the Noah and second Shepherds plays in particular seemed best suited to an indoor, non-ecclesiastic, non-processional, non-Corpus Christi production. They are secular variations on a religious theme, needing no ‘cyclic’ context to make sense. Indeed, that Shepherds play distinctly loses something in that context: the element of surprise when a play about contemporary domestic strife and sheep-stealing turns magically into a Nativity play – surprise I did not experience when reading the play for the first time, as Alia eorundem, but which students of mine have since felt. My lost innocence tells me that this is not a cycle play.

The York Play consisted of a wide range of pageants played together as one big spectacle in celebration of the Eucharist, the city, and the holiness of the craft guilds. It was clearly a well-known tourist event. Margery Kempe and her beleaguered husband argued about sex on their way home from seeing the play in York in 1413; unfortunately, Margery does not tell us about the pageants she saw. Still, the York register tells us, however imperfectly, what pageants were being performed by whom at a particular moment in the York Play’s long history – a series of textual snapshots. Other records tell us pretty much how these pageants were produced.

The Towneley plays are both like and unlike York’s pageants; some, of course, are virtually identical, but others are very different indeed – it depends on the individual play. The Towneley manuscript is certainly not a register, but nor is it the regenall of Corpus Christy play that one “Gyles Dolleffe” was asked to hand over to Wakefield authorities before Whitsunday in 1559, according to one of few authentic Wakefield dramatic records (see Palmer). It is not a performance text. It is not a cycle, at least not in the sense that York or Chester is a cycle. Pace Richard Rastall, in his recent and essential volume Minstrels Playing, the Towneley collection really is not “unified in the way that the York and Chester cycles are but the N-Town collection is not” (138); the disjunctions are simply more subtle. With its elaborate capitals and lack of performance-related material, the Towneley manuscript is, much like the extant copies of Chester, “designed specifically for the reader of the plays,” as Martin Stevens rightly points out (“Compilatio” 161). I could – and indeed, in drafting this paper, did – go on at some length about things such as stage directions, which like everything else in this manuscript point to its having been copied from multiple sources, including York, and including exemplars – regenalls – that had been in the hands of readers, not just players and producers. I don’t know what Gyles Dolleff handed in. I don’t know what “pagyauntes of Corpus Christi daye, as hathe been heretofore vsed” in Wakefield were brought out at Easter in 1556, nor what “speches of the same” would have been spoken. Those speeches might be recorded in the Towneley manuscript, but I doubt it. They could have been taken from still other pageants recycled from York, or from elsewhere; they could have been something else altogether. They need not have been a cycle of any description, or even a play. If they were from the Towneley collection, they were surely just individual excerpts, not the whole thing. It can’t be done; I tried, and had to cheat. I didn’t fool me.

I can easily imagine Wakefield or any other smaller town near York, jealous of its big play, wanting to mount something similar and making do with a small variety of plays, perhaps moving through some thing like a full cycle over a series of years. In that regard we would do well to keep in mind the Digby Killing of the Children, a Candlemas play performed at the Feast of St Anne (26 July), perhaps in Chelmsford as John Coldewey has argued. As the text itself makes clear, it was one in an annual series: the year before the players performed a play of the Shepherds and the Magi, and they intend the following year to do Christ and the Doctors, before an audience of “virgins” (563) no less.

The last yeere we shewid you in this place
How the shepherdes of Cristes birthe made letificacion,
And thre kynges that come fro ţer cuntrees be grace
To worshippe Jhesu with Enteere deuocion. (25-28)

. . . And the next yeer, as we be purposid in oure mynde,
The disputacion of the doctours to shew in your presens. (561-562)

Then, too, there is the two-part N-town Passion Play, written to have been performed over two years but then cobbled together for some unknown purpose with a series of wagon pageant texts, its original ending lost. Clearly, in the early, early modern period, medieval biblical drama was being recycled in all sort of ways, including as manuscript compilations whose contents look like cycles – like N-town, like Towneley.


Essential (Offline) Reading / Works Cited:


  • The Towneley cycle: a facsimile of Huntington MS HM I, with an introd. by A. C. Cawley and Martin Stevens. Leeds: The University of Leeds, School of English, 1976.
  • The York Play: A facsimile of British Library MS Additional 35290: together with a facsimile of the Ordo Paginarum section of the A/Y Memorandum book / with an introd. by Richard Beadle and Peter Meredith and a note on the music by Richard Rastall. Leeds: The University of Leeds School of English, 1983.
  • Donald C. Baker, John L. Murphy and Louis B. Hall, Jr, eds. The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and E Museo 160. Early English Text Society, OS 283. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • Richard Beadle, ed. The York Plays. York Medieval Texts. Second Series. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.
  • AC Cawley and Martin Stevens, eds. The Towneley Plays. 2 vol. Early English Text Society, SS 13 and 14. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • John C Coldewey. “The Digby Plays and the Chelmsford Records.” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 18 (1975), 103-121.
  • Garrett PJ Epp. “The Towneley Plays, or, The Hazards of Cycling.” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 32 (1993), 121-150.
  • Alexandra F Johnston and Margaret Rogerson, eds. York: Records of Early English Drama. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
  • Peter Meredith. “The York Miller’ Pageant and the Towneley Processus Talentorum.” Medieval English Theatre 4 (1982), 104-114.
  • Barbara D Palmer. “‘Towneley Plays’ or ‘Wakefield Cycle’ Revisited.” Comparative Drama 21 (1988), 318-48. [Reprinted in Drama in the Middle Ages. 2nd series. Ed. Clifford Davidson and John H. Stroupe. New York: AMS Press, 1991. 290-320.
  • ---. “Corpus Christi ‘Cycles’ in Yorkshire: The Surviving Records.” Comparative Drama 27 (1993), 218-231.
  • ---. “Recycling ‘The Wakefield Cycle’: The Records.” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 41 (2002), 88-130.
  • Stephen Spector. The N-town play: Cotton MS Vespasian D.8. 2 vols. Early English Text Society, SS 11-12. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Martin Stevens. “The Towneley Plays Manuscript (HM 1): Compilatio and Ordinatio.” TEXT 5 (1991), 157-73.



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