Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The History of the York Mystery Plays: part 1

This year, from Thursday 26 May to Thursday 30 June, the York Mystery plays are being performed at York Minster for only the second time in their 700-year history. In the first of two posts, Ilka Heale highlights some books on the subject in the University Library.

The York Mystery Plays are a Middle English cycle of forty-eight plays or pageants that tell stories from the Bible from the Creation to the Last Judgement.

Also known as the York Corpus Christi Plays, these were traditionally performed in the City's streets on the feast day of Corpus Christi (a movable feast which occurs sometime between 23 May and 24 June). There's evidence that the Plays were performed in York from the 1300s for around 200 years before their suppression in 1569, and that they are one of only four virtually complete surviving English mystery play cycles.

The Plays continued after the Reformation, when in 1548 the feast of Corpus Christi was abolished in England. The plays were adapted to fit the new religious orthodoxy, by cutting scenes honouring the Virgin, but were finally suppressed in 1569 the same year as the Northern Rebellion.

The play cycle was revived in 1951, in the York Festival of the Arts, as a part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. This was performed on a fixed stage in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in Museum Gardens. Following the great success of the 1951 production selections from the plays have been staged periodically since.

Illustration of a performance of a mystery play in
'Ancient mysteries described, especially the English miracle plays' by William Hone
The earliest manuscript of the York cycle, probably dating between 1463 and 1477, is in the British Library and is known as the Ashburnham Manuscript. Originally belonging to the Corporation of York until 1553, it was later owned by Sir Henry Fairfax, Ralph Thoresby, Horace Walpole, Benjamin Heywood Bright, and Bertram, 5th Earl of Ashburnham (1840-1913). The manuscript was acquired by British Museum from Ashburnham in 1897. A facsimile of the manuscript appears in 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.

The plays remained little known until Lucy Toulmin Smith obtained the permission of the Earl of Ashburnham to study this manuscript, then in his possession. In 1885, her transcription was published as 'York plays: the plays performed by the crafts of mysteries of York on the day of Corpus Christi in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, now first published from the unique manuscript in the library of Lord Ashburnham' along with an introduction and short glossary.
In the introduction, Toulmin Smith writes "This was the book wherein the plays … were 'registered' by the city officers, and it must have belonged to the corporation. It was in one time in the care of the priory of Holy Trinity in Micklegate, at the gates of which was the first station in the circle of performances through the city as early as 1399."

Illustration of Holy Trinity church taken from Antiquities of York.
Drawn and etched by H. Cave and published in 1813.
For a list of material on the York Mystery plays, please search YorSearch (the University Library's online catalogue) or browse the shelves in our Literature section for MA 62.4 (the shelfmark for York Mystery Plays). In the Library's AV Collection, there are past performances of the mystery plays on DVD and video.

The books are in the University Library's Special Collections and can be consulted in the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

For books on the history of York, please see Q 42.741. Books on English History from 1558-1603, including the Northern Rebellion are at Q 42.055.

You can also find material related to the York Mystery Plays in the York Digital Library.

All photographs have been taken by the University photographer, Paul Shields, from the Library's collection of books on York Mystery plays.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 4

In the final post in his Fragments series, Jeff Berry explains how appearances can be deceiving...

Oddities are not unique to binding fragments, but the lack of a larger context and the incidental damage inflicted by the binding process can make them seem particularly mysterious. Here is an example of such an oddity. Mirror writing, where the script is written backwards as if in a mirror, is a practice that shows up now and again in medieval works. The most famous example is that of Da Vinci, who used it from time to time. Even in his case, however, no one seems to be clear on what the point of the exercise was.

Sometimes with fragments there will be bits of ink that have been transferred from the manuscript to some other page or cover; this can resemble mirror writing, but it is usually fairly obvious what has happened in these cases. In the first fragment below, the paint from the coloured initials has stuck to the wooden board serving as a cover. Some paint remains on the original leaf as well, and side-by-side it is clear what happened.

From the Stainton Parish Library collection,
York Minster Library, printed in Basel 1563
This next fragment is more difficult to assess. It has several layers, and a small roughly triangular shape is from a different manuscript than the more decorated one below it. It is that lower fragment which appears to be mirror writing.

York Minster Library, printed in Basel 1558
The clear, clean lines argue against a gluey, sticky transfer like that in the above case, as does the appearance of not only the red and blue, but the black as well. However, the effort required to perform the complex mis-en-page and the blue initial with the red pen-flourishing would suggest that this, too, is a case of ink transfer. Further detailed conservation work would be needed to be absolutely certain, but while mirror writing is a possibility, the mundane explanation of glue and moisture seems more likely. Whatever the case, the difficult and complex task of reading the backwards writing is now as simple as few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, as the digitally reversed image renders the mysterious text clear:

All photography by Paul Shields.

The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 1
The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 2
The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 3

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Peter Lewis Gift Collection

Hannah Hogan of the Department of History introduces the Peter Lewis Gift Collection

Historians of fifteenth-century France will no doubt be familiar with, if not partly indebted to, the work of Peter (Shervey) Lewis (1931-2014), the 'doyenne' of British historians of medieval France and a quintessential Oxford don.

Peter Lewis was a Fellow of All Souls from 1953 until his retirement in 1998, Fellow Librarian for The Codrington Library from 1982 to 1998, and an Emeritus Fellow until his death in 2014. A hugely respected scholar on both sides of the Channel, Lewis held memberships not only to the Royal Historical Society but also l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Société de l'Histoire de France. Lewis' research addressed the political and social history of France during the Late Middle Ages, particularly royal power and political institutions during the fifteenth century. His interests also included iconography, propaganda, and contemporary historians and chroniclers of France such as Jean Juvénal des Ursins (1388-1473).

The Peter Lewis Gift Collection was donated to the University Library in August 2015 and was integrated into our own collections in January of this year. It pertinently reflects the research interests of an eminent scholar, and will certainly be of interest to anyone studying French history and historiography, literature, and medieval Europe more generally. The collection is made up of twentieth-century French language historical works which span the political, religious, economic, and cultural life of France during the High to Late Middle Ages. These range from definitive works by major historians (and contemporaries of Lewis) including Jean Favier, Bernard Guenée, and Philippe Contamine, to catalogues of archival material and literary works translated from Middle French.


Cataloguing the personal book collection of an academic can provide a tantalising, sometimes moving, and often entertaining glimpse into scholarly life. This is no less true of the Peter Lewis collection, which frequently turned up forgotten notes, drafts of review articles, letters from colleagues, and invitations. My favourite is an invitation from 1958 to a claret-tasting in All Souls, which aptly fell out of a book on the history of French wine-making (Dion, Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France des origines au XIXe siècle).

In addition to the Library's Peter Lewis label, look out for Lewis' lovely personalised bookplate. It's now a life ambition to have an ex libris like this one in my own books one day…


Portrait of Peter Lewis courtesy of l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. All other images (details from Avril (ed.), Les Grandes Chroniques de France…, written inscription in Maurice, Un grand patriote: Thomas Basin and bookplate in Maurice, Thomas Basin) photographed by Paul Shields.