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The N-Town Plays: Introduction


1 Coletti, “N-Town Plays.”

2 Linguistic Atlas, ed. McIntosh, Samuels, and Benskin, 3:307–08, 339–44, 4: map 6.

3 Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 19.

4 Farnhill, Guilds and the Parish Community, p. 6.

5 Donkin, “Changes in the Early Middle Ages,” p. 152; Emery, Greater Religious Houses, 2:9–13.

6 Nichols, Seeable Signs, p. 3. Nichols’ work emphasizes the need for scholars to study more inter­disciplinary and Continental connections for East Anglian art, literature, and drama.

7 Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, pp. 142–43.

8 Sanok, “Performing Feminine Sanctity.”

9 See Rosser, “Communities of Parish and Guild,” p. 35, and French, “Maiden’s Lights.”

10 Towneley Plays, ed. Stevens and Cawley, 1:xix–xxii.

11 Towneley Plays, ed. Stevens and Cawley, 1:xxiv–xxv.

12 Castle of Perseverance, ed. Bevington, lines 134 and 145.

13 N-Town Plays: A Facsimile, ed. Meredith and Kahrl, pp. 19–20.

14 Sugano, “‘This game wel pleyd,’” p. 229.

15 Non-Cycle Plays, ed. Davis, pp. cxx–cxxi.

16 N-Town Plays: A Facsimile, ed. Meredith and Kahrl, p. xxiii.

17 N-Town Play, ed. Spector, 1:xxiii–xxiv.

18 Meredith, “Scribes,” p. 21.

19 Stokes, “Lost Playing Places,” p. 276.

20 Sugano, “From Playbooks to Compilatio,” pp. 240–41.

21 Scherb, Staging Faith, pp. 194–95.

22 Medieval Drama, ed. Bevington, p. 480.

23 Rose, “Staging of the Hegge Plays,” p. 221.

24 Squires, “Law and Disorder,” pp. 279–81.

25 Sugano, “From Playbooks to Compilatio,” pp. 202–15.

26 Galpin, Old English Instruments of Music, p. 166.

27 Beadle, “Medieval Drama of East Anglia,” 1:88.

28 Ralph Hanna III, quoted in Lerer, “Medieval English Literature,” p. 1253.

29 Cox and Kastan, New History of Early English Drama, p. 2.

30 Cox and Kastan, New History of Early English Drama, p. 4.

31 Mary Play, ed. Meredith, p. 124.

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The N-Town Plays: Introduction

by: Douglas Sugano (Editor)
from: The N-Town Plays  2007

“N-Town’s spectators, whatever selection from the compilatio they were served with, could not have seen their world reflected as in a plane mirror, but playfully refracted into some­thing rich and strange.”
— Alan Fletcher, “N-Town Plays,” p. 184
In the late 1400s in eastern England, a scribe was in the process of compiling a large dra­ma­tic manuscript of over two hundred vellum folios. No one knows who compiled them nor where, why, or for whom this work was done — and we may never know. The sketchy history of the N-Town Plays, so named for the variable nature of its own Banns announce­ment, an­swers none of the above questions; in fact, the manuscript’s history and its scholarly treat­ment have created more questions. It is to some degree because of these vagaries that the N-Town Plays have received the least treatment of all of the four surviving major English play cycles, the others being York, Chester, and Towneley. Perhaps these vagaries explain recent scholars’ attraction to this set of plays and why the N-Town Plays will continue to pro­vide a rich field for further study, as well as being a valuable entré into the study of early English theater.

In treating the manuscript as an organized anthology or compilation of plays, not exactly like a play cycle, we hope that readers will see the N-Town Plays’ uniqueness in the British Isles and Western Europe. Even though this edition owes much to other editions such as to K. S. Block’s Ludus Coventriae and Stephen Spector’s N-Town Play, this Middle English Texts Series edition recognizes Peter Meredith’s lead in his separate editions of The Passion Play and The Mary Play, for they best reflect the eclectic and evolving nature of the N-Town man­uscript. The manuscript contains components of an independent Mary Play, parts one and two of an independent Passion Play, and an independent Assumption of Mary Play, as well as ten play subjects that appear in no other English cycles — the killing of La­mech in the Noah Play (Play 4), the Root of Jesse (Play 7), the story of Joachim and Anne (Play 8), the Presentation of Mary in the Tem­ple (Play 9), the Parliament of Hea­ven (Play 11), the Trial of Mary and Joseph (Play 14), the scene of Mary and the cherry tree in the Nativity Play (Play 15), the Death of Herod (Play 20), the scene of Veronica’s ker­chief in the Procession to Calvary (Play 32), and the appearance of the risen Christ to the Virgin Mary in her Assumption Play (Play 41).1 It is important to note the manuscript’s em­phasis on Marian ma­terial, both in the in­clusion of these subjects and in a later reviser’s work. This edition ack­nowledges the N-Town compiler who took plays from various contexts and inte­grated them into an existing cycle of plays, thus treating the manuscript as if it were a super­structure whose parts could be replaced, renovated, and supplemented without altering the fun­da­mental coherence of the overarching design. This general plan, memorialized in the heavily revised and inac­curate Banns, gives the N-Town plays a superficial resemblance to the York or Chester civic cycles. However, the N-Town manuscript is neither a civic register nor an antiquarian text that pre­serves an actual or intended performance. In fact, the N-Town manuscript was prob­ably never played in its entirety as a Creation-to-Doomsday se­quence, and substantial textual evi­dence indicates that individual plays or play sequences were performed apart from the rest after the com­pila­tion of the manuscript that survives. N-Town, then, is a manuscript that probably served several purposes: part of it was likely a play cycle at one time; later, it probably served as a regional depository of plays which were lent or rented out as smaller playbooks according to the needs of various pro­ducers. Moreover, it is quite possible that for the compiler or patron, the manuscript may also have been used for devo­tional reading, but it is important to remember that however the manu­script may appear, this is no closet drama, for all of the plays in the manuscript are emi­nently the­atrical, highly producible dramas, with much to appeal to the eyes and ears of late medieval East Anglian audiences.

Like other volumes in the series, this edition of the N-Town Plays is intended to be a text accessible enough to be useful to both students and established scholars in a variety of disciplines. Not only should those engaged in literary study be able to use this text, but also students of theater, theater history, religion, English and European history, gender studies, theology, philosophy, musicology, and art history all should find considerable material in the N-Town Plays relevant to their studies. Graduate students and scholars in a variety of disciplines should find the text and notes accurate and thought-provoking enough to stimulate their own research. In other words, readers at all levels should use this text as a vehicle to enter imaginatively into the language, stagecraft, and culture of these five-hundred-year-old plays. With this edition, we hope readers will take the opportunity to re-envision the theatrical experience of the N-Town Plays. In the process of doing so, we hope that the N-Town Plays will help people to acquaint themselves in fresh ways with the social and aesthetic rituals from the late Middle Ages, and come to sense the complexity and vivacity of East Anglia at one of the high water marks of late medieval culture.


“Religion was a ritual method of living, not a set of dogmas.”
— Gail McMurray Gibson, Theater of Devotion, p. 41.
The dialect of the N-Town main scribe has been traced to an area near the western bor­der of Norfolk and Suffolk counties, near East Harling, Thetford, and Bury St. Ed­munds.2 Primarily for this reason, scholars have decided that the N-Town Plays were written and performed in East Anglia, that protruding landmass across the channel from the Lowlands. The 1468 date found at the end of the Purification Play seems consistent with the dating of the dialects found in the manuscript. Hence, critics have come to assume that the N-Town Plays are an East Anglian product of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The more scholars study this region of England during this period, the more likely such an assumption seems. As Gibson observes:
East Anglia in the fifteenth century was not an economically depressed backwater, but the thriving center of the English cloth trade. A quarter of the late medieval cloth pro­duction in England came from these two counties. The village of Lavenham, near Bury St. Edmunds, had grown prosperous enough in the cloth industry to be listed . . . by 1525 . . . the twelfth richest community in England — and the great Norfolk port of Norwich would be richer than London.3
By 1515, Suffolk was the seventh richest county and Norfolk the twelfth out of the thirty-eight English counties.4 Not only were these two counties prosperous, but they were also densely populated. The combination of these two demographic factors during this period no doubt explains East Anglia’s 1400 churches, 2400 manor houses (one-fourth of them religious), and several hundred religious guilds.5 It is important to note that Norfolk, of all counties, produced the most grain in England; and the most luc­rative industry in Suffolk, wool production, peaked in the 1470s, a date concurrent with many of these building projects and with the N-Town manuscript.6

Not only were material wealth and population density important factors in explaining East Anglia’s cultural richness, but also this region’s religious piety was recognized in Eng­land and in Western Europe. Norfolk, for example, possessed the highest density of an­chorites in medieval England. Walsingham and Ipswich, known for their Marian shrines, were major pilgrimage sites in the late Middle Ages. Other East Anglian cities or towns such as Thetford, Kersey, Lynn, and Hoxne were known for their images of Mary or St. Edmund. Many of the architectural works mentioned before — such as churches, chapels, religious houses, and hospitals — were built to commemorate saints or the dearly departed. Many build­ings, both secular and ec­clesiastic, contained memorial works of religious art such as stained glass, wood carvings, mural paintings, roof bosses, and baptismal fonts. Private citizens, re­ligious houses, parish organizations, and religious guilds formed a dense network of pious patron­age that manifested itself in many ways, including the production of devotional manu­scripts, the formation of chantries and guilds, the support of anchorites, the repair and con­struction of churches and altars, and even the fostering of religious drama.

“Late medieval society was diverse and in some respects highly mobile. To this extent, it was in tension with a system of parishes defined geographically. The guilds, often created in explicit response to social change, served to ease this tension.”
— Gervase Rosser, “Com­munities of Parish and Guild,” p. 35.
Religious guilds, perhaps responsible for the N-Town compilation, had many roles that contributed to the complex social and religious setting that gave rise to this problematic manuscript. Late medieval religious guilds, in England and in Western Europe, served three basic functions: to perpetuate devotion to the saints, usually through the maintenance of a guild’s torch or candle; to intercede for the soul of a departed brother or sister, often through funerals and through memorial masses; and finally to edify the local community through the guilds’ regulations, celebrations, and charitable works.7 Most of these religious guilds were created as ancillary organizations to support the parishes’ or religious houses’ ongoing activities. These guilds’ funds supplied the lights in churches and chapels, constructed or repaired buildings, supported charitable activities, and paid for the guild’s annual feast or ale. While these organizations were ostensibly benign and charitable in nature, they also represented, for some authorities, economic and political power. Henry V believed that the guilds were both an economic and judicial threat, so in 1436, he re­quired them to register with both the justices of the peace and the local authorities. Evi­dently, the king realized that the religious guilds controlled not only considerable wealth, but also the members who contributed to that wealth. Many guilds had provisions that “disputes between members be brought before guild leaders rather than legal authorities.”8 These same guilds possessed ordinances that dictated the behavior of their members. It is possible that the unique N-Town Trial of Mary and Joseph Play (Play 14) mirrors such guild ordinances and proceedings. While it seems odd that the government would wish to control such religiously orthodox organizations, it does make sense that the king might feel threatened by popular groups, whether they be orthodox or Lollard. Incidentally, East Anglia was also known during this period for its Lollard preachers and occasional religious dissenters. Both N-Town Passion Play 1 (Plays 26–28) and the Cleophas and Luke Play (Play 38) refer to such heretics and expect the audience to recognize — and perhaps even identify with — the tensions created by religious divergence. In such a complex religious landscape, it seems likely that contem­porary East Anglian audiences included people of diverse sympathies, who may well have interpreted these plays in different ways.

The number and the rising influence of East Anglia’s religious guilds also attested to the increasing interest in lay devotional activities during the late Middle Ages. As the wool in­dustry became more lucrative and as more of the middle class shared economic wealth, rising literacy, interest in religious arts, and a desire for a more personal religious instruc­tion became more prominent in the area. Not only do the N-Town Plays teach medieval reli­gious fundamentals such as Bible stories, the proper order of contrition, the Ten Com­mand­ments, the Seven Deadly Sins, instructions on proper devotional practice at Mass (from The Lay Folks’ Mass Book), and the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy, the plays some­times model this same religious piety and literacy through such sequences as Mary and Elizabeth’s Latin and English recitation of the Magnificat in the Visit to Elizabeth Play (Play 13). It is worth noting here that the N-Town Plays often stress the role of female piety and literacy, an emphasis that may also be reflected in the local religious guilds’ egalitarian rules that fre­quently allowed female membership and ignored social standing and occupation; there were even a few exclusively female guilds.9 It is certainly possible that parts of the N-Town Plays were performed by religious or parish guilds; it is likely that the plays were, indeed, performed by several guilds in different East Anglian towns.

“The letter N is placed for the nomen of the town, which was to be filled up as occasion required, by the person making the proclamation.”
— John Payne Collier, History of English Dramatic Poetry, 2:156.
Apart from this contextual information, our paucity of evidence about the N-Town Plays stands in sharp relief to other surviving late medieval English religious play texts. The York, Chester, Coventry, and Norwich plays, as well as the documents from these other cities, depict a rich if incomplete picture about the religious plays produced by craft guilds such as the York Pinners (nail-makers) who were responsible for the Crucifixion Play. In general, civic authorities set aside a day on which the participating craft guilds, sometimes in co­operation with religious houses and religious guilds, would contribute a play in order to participate in the outdoor celebration. Because of England’s wet climate, the celebratory date would usually be during the summer — often a religious holiday such as Corpus Christi Day or Pentecost but sometimes a secular occasion such as Midsummer’s Day. Many of these dra­matic occasions took the form of long biblical cycles in which a series of plays depicted sub­jects beginning with the creation of the world and Old Testament stories, continuing through New Testament stories, and ending with the Last Judgment, or Doomsday. From the late Middle Ages into the seventeenth century, dramatic cycles such as these were per­formed in a number of cities and towns across the British Isles.

There are records of such performances (but no play texts) from cities and towns such as Beverley, Newcastle upon Tyne, London, Hereford, and Dublin. Often, there were mean­ingful con­nections between the craft guilds producing the plays and their respective play material: as mentioned earlier, the York Pinners’ guild put on the Crucifixion Play; in Chester, the Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee produced the Noah Play, and the Bakers put on the Last Supper. In these urban contexts, craft guilds would agree to produce a play com­plete with script, costumes, props, pageant wagon or stage, and actors; the guilds would submit their scripts to the civic authorities for appropriateness (which is the raison d’être for the York Register); the civic authorities would decide on the times, order, and location of the plays in the city; and then the craft guilds would produce and process the plays through­out the town all day, sometimes more than once. It was a great event and a commercial boon for the city, for before the plays were performed, banns riders would advertise the plays in sur­rounding towns and areas, and merchants would undoubtedly do brisk business all day. The theme for the day was not only a religious commemoration of the body of Christ, of Pen­te­cost, of the Trinity, etc., but it was also one of civic, communal, and guild pride. For exam­ple, the post-Reformation Chester Banns mention Randle, meaning Ranulf Higden, quite probably as a way of creating a kind of faux antiquity and authority for the Chester plays as they came under increasing attack from reformist elements both within and without the city. The Banns also address Sir John Arneway, the mayor of Chester, the participating guilds and their respective plays, and the specific performance day. The play manuscripts from York, Chester, Coventry, and Norwich denote the craft guild or guilds that produced each play. In other words, there are clear relationships between the dramatic texts from these cities and the organizations that produced the individual plays. No such clarity is evi­dent for Towneley or N-Town, however, because they probably represent very different kinds of texts.

The Towneley manuscript mentions the Yorkshire town of Wakefield twice and alludes to local places a handful of times.10 But there is little evidence that a small town such as Wakefield could have put on such a large cycle of plays. And, judging from the decorative nature of the Towneley manuscript (almost a coffee-table book), it is possible that it had com­memorative value for the patron who ordered it. In fact, there is very little evidence that the manuscript had any connection to theatrical performance. In the John the Baptist Play, next to a canceled stanza (folio 66), the marginal note “corrected and not playd” appears to be the single piece of theatrical evidence. The latest editor of the Towneley Plays, Martin Stevens, admits that the manuscript’s stage directions “have little practical value” and that the manuscript “may have existed for some of its early life as a literary text that had little direct connection with the actual performance of plays.”11 Recent research has tended to push the date for the Towneley manuscript more towards the middle of the sixteenth cen­tury and suggests that it — somewhat like the earlier N-Town manuscript — is a deli­berate attempt to create an artificial cycle, an anthology of plays once performed in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The collection itself may date from a time when the performance of bib­lical plays was already being actively scrutinized and even suppressed by local authorities.

The N-Town manuscript, however, lacks the somewhat problematic references to guilds and places that we find in a few of the Towneley Plays. Instead, the manuscript promises a performance “A Sunday next . . . / At six of the belle . . . / In N. town” (Banns, lines 525–27). These lines are not a great help in determining the home or the agencies re­sponsible for the play. Although vague and reliant upon the variable “N. town,” these lines can neverthe­less tell us much about the nature of drama in East Anglia at the time. Beside the N-Town manuscript, there are thirteen other surviving dramatic texts from East Anglia, four of which are fragments. Only two of the thirteen reveal a locality, the Nor­wich Grocers’ Play and The Croxton Play of the Sacrament. The Norwich Play is clearly an urban craft-guild play similar to those found in Chester and in York, but the reference in the Sacrament Banns may indicate only one of many places where the play was performed. Similarly, the Banns that introduces The Castle of Perseverance leaves blanks in the vexillators’ or banner-bearers’ speeches where a place name should be: “At . . . on the grene . . . / . . . Ye manly men of . . . , ther Crist save you all!”12 Such intentional lacunae indicate that — except for the Nor­wich Play — most surviving East Anglian dramatic texts were purposely written to be variable or even anonymous, to suit the needs of different patrons or producers, individuals, towns, parishes, religious houses, and religious guilds as the occasions required. Many scholars have suggested that the N-Town Plays and these other East Anglian plays, because of their variable nature, were meant for traveling players, but this may not be the case for many of the plays. Some of the plays require large casts and staging equipment impractical for small traveling companies. In East Anglia the surviving evidence suggests the prevalence of traveling playbooks or play­books meant for borrowing.13 Apparently in the late Middle Ages and the early modern per­iod, East Anglian dramatic games assumed local and even regional collaboration among various civic and religious agencies: “Often parishes and religious houses paid visiting play­ers; sometimes a town sent its own players to neighboring towns. Towns contributed money, props, costumes, or even playbooks toward neighboring towns’ games, and these theatrical networks frequently emanated from a central location, a hub.”14 This pattern of regional collaboration is quite unlike that organizational pattern found in York and Chester. While there may have been few set rules about how this col­laboration would take shape, it is clear that even playbooks were lent out and copied. Such lending may explain the two copies (in the Digby and Macro manuscripts) of the play of Wisdom as well as the eclectic nature of the N-Town Plays. In this particular East Anglian context — quite apart from the civic-guild or­ganizations of York, Chester, and even Nor­wich — the piece­meal nature and the “incon­sistencies” of the N-Town Plays begin to make more sense.

The compilation or collection of manuscript booklets, part of the N-Town manuscript’s physical condition, were popular in Western Europe before the rise of middle-class literacy and the widespread use of printed books. Occasionally, these are called “miscellanies” or “commonplace books.” As more families could read and could afford to have booklets copied, it also became the custom to collect or to bind them together. Sometimes the bound booklets had nothing to do with one another: they simply found themselves together, bound for the owner’s convenience. There are many early modern compilatios with a bewildering array of papers bound together in one book. For example, Bodleian MS Tanner 407, a com­monplace book from Norfolk (c. 1471–99), contains legal documents, historical facts, in­ven­tories, devotional poetry, medical information, churchwardens’ accounts, an epilogue to a play, and three stanzas from an entirely different play.15

Sometimes, if the owners had many booklets on many different subjects, then the book­lets were bound together according to subject matter, need, or function. There is another compilatio of drama, the Macro Plays (Folger MS V.a.354), which contains three plays — The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom, and Mankind. While the Castle booklets date to the first third of the century, the remainder of the manuscript is roughly contemporary (c. 1470) to the N-Town compilation and is also from East Anglia. It is probable that the Macro manuscript, like N-Town, was a collection of local or regional drama. The play Wisdom also appears in another East Anglian compilatio, Bodleian MS Digby 133, also known as the Digby Plays. This Digby manuscript contains three other plays, but also treatises by Galileo and Roger Bacon as well as other scientific tracts and tables, embodying the way in which the use and copying of booklets during this period could create eclectic but fluid anthologies. These examples give us a glimpse at the literary and professional context in which the N-Town compiler was working. The compiler was, in short, keeping a library of plays in an orderly anthology, al­though one that was never fully completed, at least to the compiler’s satisfaction.

The manuscript’s status as a compilation makes its date and purpose problematic, for such manuscripts could often be assembled over a period of time, using material and texts drawn from different places, and by their very nature these texts often comprehended many different intentions. The most significant piece of information that exists for the N-Town manuscript, suggesting that it was being compiled and used between 1460 and 1520, is the date 1468 which appears at the end of the Purification Play (Play 19), a play that was added at some later point to the manuscript. In actuality, no one can be sure what the date means. It could be the date when the compiler incorporated the play into the manuscript; it could be a date that was on the exemplar from which the compiler copied; it could be a commem­orative date of the last or of a future performance of the Purification Play. This discussion about the dating raises the larger and perhaps more important issue of the manuscript’s purpose, about which no one can be sure. However, quite a bit can be inferred from various details in the manuscript. There were likely three distinct purposes for the N-Town manu­script: 1) it was a library or anthology of either local or regional plays; 2) it carried devotional import for the owner or compiler; and 3) sig­nificant parts of it functioned as playbooks for performances after their compilation into the larger manuscript.

First of all, it is evident that the compiler wanted to collect and to maintain a library of drama that could be performed. We can be fairly certain from marginal notations and prompt notes that portions were performed after the anthology was compiled. If the com­piler had wanted to keep a collection of plays for antiquarian, commemorative, or pri­vate reading purposes, then there would have been little need to retain the stage directions as he was copy­ing. The compiler is also responsible for many alterations in the manuscript. Of these changes, perhaps most telling is his adding an alternative ending to the Visit to Elizabeth Play (Play 13). It seems unlikely that the compiler would offer alternatives unless there had been some im­pulse to have the drama performed, although it is possible that such alternatives could have been used as a means of enhancing pious meditation on a devotional subject. In ad­dition, the com­piler or the patron seems to have had a personal interest in the manu­script and its develop­ment. Even though it is not as highly decorated with gold leaf or painted illu­minations as the Elles­mere Canterbury Tales or even as ornate as the Towneley manuscript, the N-Town manuscript is relatively neat, marked with dif­ferent lettering styles (some letters in red ink), and fairly orderly. The compiler paid consid­erable attention to detail, even if he was not entirely successful at incorporating all of the plays neatly into the manuscript. In other words, she or he kept to a program of collecting the “best” plays available that would fit into the Creation-to-Doomsday cosmic historical narrative.

But the manuscript was not just a collection of drama for the compiler. There are five mar­ginal additions that permit a glimpse into the compiler’s more personal interests. These nota­tions, usually in a more decorative lettering, are genealogies of Adam to Noah and Noah to Lot, the dimensions of Noah’s ark and the depth of the flood, a genealogy of Christ’s relatives through Mary’s mother Anne, a table and genealogical notes explaining the rela­tion­ships of the five Annas, and a calendar note giving the day of St. Joseph, the day of Adam’s cre­a­tion, and the day of Mary Magdalene’s Translation.16 What appears on folios 37r and 37v of the manuscript is a gene­alogy of St. Anne (written in tex­tura quad­rata script) that has been added after the fact to fill a gap between the Root of Jesse Play (Play 7) and the beginning of the Mary Play (Plays 8–11, 13). Although this genealogical table adds no useful theatrical information for a producer or for actors, the table must have carried signi­fi­cance for the compiler, especially since he was adding the Mary Play into the lar­ger compila­tion. While these may seem odd marginalia for a script, they seem nor­mal for a compilatio. It would appear that these notations were significant topics for the com­piler, and that he felt these would add authority to the dramatic texts, rather like foot­notes in scholarly edi­tions. It would also appear, then, that the compiler regarded the play ma­terial he was ac­cruing as ma­terial for devotional reading as well, and — quite possibly — saw little dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two.

Even if the compiler treated the N-Town manuscript as a devotional work, it did not remain so for long. Stephen Spector has identified a reviser, Scribe C (c. 1470–1520), who made substantial changes to the Shepherds Play (Play 16), the Magi Play (Play 18), the Slaugh­ter of the Innocents Play (Play 20), the Baptism Play (Play 22), and to the end of Passion Play 2 (Plays 29–34). Most of his revisions were to modernize diction, interpolate lines, parts, and whole sections, but also to alter stage di­rections and to provide prompt notes for actors. Spec­tor suggests that this reviser may have even designated a break in the performance in Passion Play 2.17 Again, this additional layer of revisions suggests that portions of the manuscript may have been performed well into the sixteenth century.

Even though the manuscript appears mostly in the hand of one scribe, the one who com­piled the various plays, the manuscript changed substantially over a period of time. Not only did the main scribe incorporate new plays into the manuscript, but at least two later revisers altered or restored material (probably for later performances), all of which implies that there were at least four parts to the N-Town manuscript’s compilation.

At some early point, there was a large cycle of plays which the Banns adequately describe. These plays were written in thirteener stanzas (such as those found in the Banns) and per­haps some of the plays were written in octaves. These plays would include: the Creation of Heaven/ Fall of Lucifer (Play 1), the Creation of the World/Fall of Man (Play 2), most of Cain and Abel (Play 3), most of Noah (Play 4), Moses (Play 6), the Root of Jesse (Play 7), some of Joseph’s Doubt (Play 12), the Trial of Mary and Joseph (Play 14), the Nativity (Play 15), the Shepherds (Play 16), the Magi (Play 18), the Slaughter of the Innocents (Play 20), Christ and the Doctors (Play 21), most of the Baptism (Play 22), the Temptation (Play 23), the Woman Taken in Adul­tery (Play 24), the Raising of Lazarus (Play 25), the Announcement to the Marys (Play 36), Appearance to Mary Magdalene (Play 37), Cleophas and Luke (Play 38), the Ascension (Play 39), Pentecost (Play 40), and Judgment Day (Play 42, most of which is now lost).

The second assemblage of material, or booklet, that the scribe added to the manuscript was the Mary Play, which contains episodes or scenes of Joachim and Anne (Play 8), Presen­ta­tion of Mary in the Temple (Play 9), the Marriage of Mary and Joseph (Play 10), the Par­liament of Heaven/Salutation (Play 11), and possibly part of the Visit to Elizabeth (Play 13). All of this material is written in long-lined octaves.

Sometime later, the scribe revised Joseph’s Doubt (Play 12) and added the Purification Play (Play 19) that bears the date 1468. These revisions, written in ten-line stanzas, were added to the existing Nativity sequence of plays. The scribe afterwards added two booklets, the two Passion Plays (Plays 26–34). It is clear from the Banns and from other parts of the manuscript that these plays had lived lives independent of the compiled manuscript. Con­templacio’s pro­logue introduces a set of two Passion Plays that were performed in alternate years, certainly not related to the Passion material described in the Banns. While there are some affinities with the Mary Play (e.g., the use of Contemplacio as a prologue), many sty­listic features are quite different in the Passion Plays. Most obvious are the stanzas that appear mostly in oc­taves and quatrains.

At some even later point, the scribe finally added another booklet, the Assumption of Mary Play (Play 41), not mentioned in the Banns, a play that is in another scribe’s hand­writing, although the compiler seems to have made some corrections to it.

The beginning of the Nativity Play (folio 82r of Play 15; see Illustration 2) offers a glimpse into the intricacy of the compiler’s work. In order to discuss the changes that the com­piler made, we must begin by examining lines 187–90 of the Banns, the quatrain that ineptly sum­marizes the play. First of all, we must note that most of the plays in the Banns are described by thir­teener stanzas and that the Banns descriptions that appear in quatrains always compensate for added or altered material such as the Mary Play or the two Passion Plays. In this case, the Banns neglects most of the Mary Play, but picks up its narrative (in quatrains) with the Trial of Joseph and Mary (Play 14, but incorrectly numbered 13 in the Banns) and the Nativity (correctly numbered 15). But strangely enough, the only Nativity event described in the Banns is Joseph’s attempt to find a midwife: the arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of Christ are ignored. From the erroneous numbering and the quatrain play summaries, it is evident that the scribe needed to alter both the Banns and the Nativity Play to accom­modate the newly acquired Mary Play material.

There are two unusual aspects to folio 82r, the opening lines of the Nativity. First of all, this folio contains four different types of stanzas: the opening nine-line stanza (possibly a trun­cated thirteener stanza) followed by an octave, a quatrain, a couplet, and finally two more quatrains (the last of which continues on folio 82v). It seems as if the scribe was at­temp­ting to incorporate material from at least two different exemplars. It is possible that the nine-line stanza is a remnant of a thirteener, and the scribe went to some effort to make the nine-line stanza look like an octave, the predominant stanza in the play. In the manu­script, he wrote lines six and seven on the same line: “I that am a pore tymbre-wryth • born of the blood of Davyd.” The point which separates the two lines (“wryth • born”) is the same punc­tuation that he uses in other parts of the manuscript when he wished to squeeze two or three lines into one. The ensuing octave may have come from one of the other exemplars (or book­lets), and seemed to fit here near the beginning of the play. The quatrain, couplet, and sub­se­quent quatrains are likely attempts to reconcile the material written in thirteeners with the material written in octaves. Quatrains and couplets, which are more common in the two Passion Plays (and used occa­sionally in the Banns), often bridge larger sections of material. It is clear that the compiler was reconciling various exemplars in order to accommodate the newly acquired Mary Play, hence the incorrect numbering of the Trial of Joseph and Mary in the Banns.

It is also interesting to note the unusual rubrication here at the beginning of the Nativity. While it has the customary large red initial and the large red play number in the right margin, Joseph’s name, as the first speaker, is rubricated with a red capitulum and writ­ten in textura quadrata. This same rubrication style is used for only five other plays in the man­u­script: Noah (Play 4), Joseph’s Doubt (Play 12), the Trial of Mary and Joseph (Play 14), the Purifi­ca­tion (Play 19), and Judgment Day (Play 42). Noah contains a genealogical table written in textura quadrata (folios 21r–22v); the Trial of Joseph and Mary, the Nativity, the Puri­fication, and Judgment Day all were likely revised to accommodate new material. The first three were altered by the inclusion of the Mary Play, and Judgment Day had to make room for the Assumption of Mary (Play 41).

“In staging their faith by means of a variety of theatrical traditions, local scribes, actors and producers gave expression to the diverse and complex culture that was late-medieval East Anglia.”
— Victor I. Scherb, Staging Faith, p. 202.
Since it is clear that the N-Town manuscript developed over a period of time with ma­ter­ial from different playbooks, likely from different areas and institutions in East Anglia, it should also be apparent that the different booklets or exempla of the manuscript could represent a variety of staging possibilities. In the course of compiling the manuscript, it is possible that the scribe suppressed unusual or outlandish theatrical styles of staging, cos­tuming, or props so that the manuscript would retain its usefulness as a “text for bor­row­ing.” As Meredith con­cludes: “In N-Town we have a scribe adapting, blending and revising to produce an all-in­clusive play apparently adequate to anyone’s needs.”18 Even though many different cities or towns in East Anglia have been suggested for the per­formance of the N-Town Plays — Lin­coln, East Harling, Bury St. Edmunds, Thetford, etc. — in light of Meredith’s conclusion, finding such locations may be impossible, or even a moot point. As James Stokes has found in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk, late medieval playing places can be churchyards, village greens, town squares, marketplaces, taverns, inns, manors, par­ish churches, monasteries, ca­the­drals, tournament grounds, and desig­nated outdoor play­ing areas. Even though Meredith’s and Stokes’ conclusions lead us to few specifics (but exciting possibilities) about the staging of the N-Town Plays, we can none­theless make useful obser­vations about the manuscript’s dif­ferent exempla and how they (at some point) may have been performed.

Those plays which the Banns adequately describes — written mostly in thirteener stan­zas and short-lined octaves: the Banns through the Root of Jesse (up to Play 7), some of Jo­seph’s Doubt (Play 12), the Trial of Mary and Joseph through the Magi (Plays 14–18), the Slaughter of the Innocents through Lazarus (Plays 20–25), the Announcement to the Marys through Pentecost (Plays 36–40), and Judgment Day (Play 42) — can be associated with the N-Town Game, a play “cycle” that became the framework for the eventual manuscript. There are two meanings for “game” in the MED that aid our understanding of this type of performance. Not only was an East Anglian game a theatrical play in our contemporary sense, but this “game” could also have referred to a tournament, a jousting, or a battle. James Stokes’ work with the dramatic records of Lincolnshire sheds more light on such events and game places. Stokes found open-air “game places” or “playing places” in Lin­colnshire that doubled as battlegrounds “associated . . . with the processes of justice.”19 His more recent research on REED’s Norfolk and Suffolk volumes reveals even more of these “gaming” sites in East Anglia proper. A clear example would be the East Anglian Castle of Perseverance, a play that conflates the notions of theatrical playing, of the spiritual battle be­tween good and evil, and of human or divine judgment. Perseverance, which self-referentially uses the term “game” eight times, was probably performed in one such a judicial playing place. It is also likely that the N-Town Game, this early version of the N-Town manuscript, which itself uses the term “game” sixteen times, was considered by its audiences in the same light as Perseverance: that is, a theatrical play (or script) that traveled, relied on banns criers, and combined entertainment with depictions of spiritual combat and judgment.20

At some point, these plays were likely performed as a long “cycle” of plays, possibly occu­pying two days or more. These plays have much in common dramaturgically, calling for small casts of three to eight players, requiring very little in terms of props or staging. They would likely have been played in an open area where various loci such as heaven, hell, the temple, paradise (or a garden), and a hill could be defined or built. At most, these plays would have needed just a few scaffolds and a hellmouth. In general, the stage directions for these plays are in Latin, are terse, occasionally invoke music, and rarely give more than obvious and necessary direction. The most unusual and detailed from this group of plays describe the course of Noah’s ark about the playing area (Play 4, line 141, stage direction; hereafter 4.141, s.d.), Moses’ reaction to the burning bush (6.16, s.d.), and Jesus’ writing in the sand as the Pharisees await his judgment on the woman taken in adultery (24.196, s.d., 208, s.d., and 232, s.d.).

The Mary Play, an added booklet (Plays 8–11, 13), very likely came from a source dif­ferent from the first group of plays. Dramaturgically speaking, the Mary Play requires more resources than the other plays written in thirteeners and short octaves. The cast for this play is not necessarily bigger, but the play requires a temple, a heavenly locus, a heavenly choir, and con­siderably more music and liturgical singing, possibly suggesting that, in an earlier form, this Mary Play was performed indoors, possibly in a church. Scherb notes:
The scenic units apparently include the houses of Joachim and Anna, Mary and Joseph, and Zacharias and Elizabeth. . . . The largest and sturdiest locus would have to be the temple, oc­cu­pied by nearly twenty actors at one point and reached by a staircase of fifteen steps. . . . In a manner similar to the smaller-scale stage plays, the dramatic structure works to focus the spec­tator’s attention on a series of contemplative (and often spectacular) stage pictures. Some of these must have been remarkable: “Here the aungel descendith; the hefne syngyng” (78/173 s.d.). Similarly, the meeting of Joachim and Anna at the golden gate, Mary’s ascen­sion up the temple steps, Joseph’s flowering rod, or Mary’s conception all form sig­nificant devotional moments.21
Mary’s conception in the Annunciation, as several other scenes in this play group, is also the­atrically spectacular. The stage direction reads: “Here the Holy Gost discendit with thre bemys to our Lady, the Sone of the Godhed nest with thre bemys to the Holy Gost, the Fadyr godly with thre bemys to the Sone. And so entre all thre to her bosom” (11.292, s.d.). In this scene, the Holy Ghost descends from the heavens, and Mary’s heart or womb is theatrically pierced with gilt beams of wood or metal. The audience must have been transfixed. As Scherb implies, there is a clear cloistered interiority to this play, and, as he states, the staging attempts to move the audi­ence to affective devotion.

At some later point the two Passion Plays were added to the manuscript (Plays 26–34), and, with them, a place-and-scaffold stage more akin to that found in Castle of Perseverence than to anything else in the N-Town manuscript. The two N-Town Passion Plays that were blended into the manuscript are large, expansive, outdoor plays that call for numerous scaffolds or struc­tures: scaffolds for Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate; an upper room; a moot ­hall; Jesus’ tomb; a hellmouth with massive gates. In addition, there needs to be a park-like place, angel ma­chinery, and a Golgotha. Bevington’s place-and-scaffold staging in the round is certainly possible, but need not be the case.22 It seems that nearly any place-and-scaffold arrangement (linear, semi-circular, as examples) could work. But perhaps that flexi­bility and adaptability to the local playing place is the manuscript’s point. As Martial Rose observes:
The unity of the Passion Plays, and the uniformity of the staging methods discernable through­out, argue a centrally-organized system of production, rather than a dispersed system in which trade-guilds were responsible for each separate play in the mystery cycle.23
In other words, these were plays that called for either a wealthy producing organization (such as a large religious house or cathedral) or considerable local or regional collaboration. The latter seems more likely.

The casts required are correspondingly large: Passion 1 has over thirty parts; Passion 2 has forty-two: even if doubling were observed, each play would need a minimum of seven­teen players. These plays were meant to be impressive, grand, and spectacular: in the pro­logue, Satan, dressed as a fifteenth-century lord, attempts to recruit souls for his army; dur­ing his entry in to Jerusalem, Jesus is greeted by flowers and a children’s choir; Mary Mag­dalene is exorcized of her seven demons in the upper room; Judas skulks between the upper room and the Jews’ moot hall during the Last Supper; in Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested by a fully armed band of late fifteenth-century soldiers; Jesus is dragged from one leader’s scaf­fold to the next during his judgment; as the Crucifixion is concluding, Jesus harrows hell as a two-step process: once to cast out demons, and once to release the good souls. Besides the scale and scope of these events, these Passion Plays display considerable theatrical so­phis­tication and attention to detail.

First of all, these plays depict simultaneous action by interrupting scenes, such as in this stage direction from the Last Supper:
Here the buschopys partyn in the place, and eche of hem takyn here [their] leve by contenawns, resortyng eche man to his place with here meny, to make redy to take Cryst. And than shal the place ther Cryst is in shal sodeynly unclose rownd abowtyn, shewyng Cryst syttyng at the table, and hese dyscypulys, eche in ere degré, Cryst thus seyng . . . (27.348, s.d.)
As the Jewish leaders have concluded their conspiratorial meeting, a curtain which encloses the upper room suddenly reveals Christ with the disciples. We know that the playwright is pre­scribing simultaneous action because Judas “shal gon ageyn to the Jewys” (27.465, s.d.), but Jesus’ Last Supper discourse will continue for another one hundred lines while Judas meets with the Jewish leaders. Another example of this simultaneous action occurs with the Burial and Guard­ing of the Sepulcher play (Play 34) that is sandwiched between the bipartite Har­rowing of Hell.

The extensive stage directions (in English) for these Passion Plays also call for costuming and acting details unseen in other contemporary English drama. Annas’ and Caiaphas’ cos­tumes are prescribed:
Here shal Annas shewyn hymself in his stage beseyn after a busshop of the hoold [old] lawe in a skarlet gowne. And over that, a blew tabbard furryd with whyte and a mytere on his hed after the hoold lawe, twey doctorys stondyng by hym in furryd hodys, and on beforn hem with his staff of astat. And eche of hem on here hedys a furryd cappe with a gret knop in the crowne, and on stondyng beforn as a Sarazyn, the wich shal be his masangere. (26.164, s.d.)

Cayphas shewyth himself in his scafhald, arayd lych to Annas, savyng his tabbard shal be red furryd with white, twey doctorys with hym arayd with pellys aftyr the old gyse and furryd cappys on here hedys. (26.208, s.d.)
Clearly, there must be some point to the symbolic specificity of these costumes. As Lynn Squires notes, there is still some ambiguity about what the costuming is suggesting.24 The “gret knop” in late medieval costuming usually indicates a Jewish figure or leader, but Squires sees the phrase “hoold lawe” as problematic, possibly referring to Judaism, but also possibly referring to a recent (late fifteenth-century) change in the robes for English judges. Both the detail and the ambiguity make such stage directions richly suggestive. Even though the East Anglian audience knows it is watching a Passion Play, it may also be receiving subtle contemporary allusions to the volatile judicial and political climate in East Anglia during the Wars of the Roses. Hence, in the course of the Passion Play 2, Jesus is enduring the end­less machinations of a first-century Jewish or Roman legal process that looks suspiciously like a late fifteenth-century East Anglian assize court.

The Passion Plays also contain another layer of theatrical detail that is unusual in the man­uscript, that of acting direction. As opposed to other plays in the N-Town manuscript, actors are sometimes directed specifically how to act. Judas, as he leaves the Last Supper to conspire with the Jewish leaders, “rysyth prevely” (27.268, s.d.); Jesus kisses his dis­ciples’ feet “mekely” (27.527, s.d.); at the opening of Satan and Pilate’s wife, Satan enters the playing place “in the most orryble wyse” (31.1, s.d.); and after her encounter with a demon, Pilate’s wife “shal come beforn Pylat leke a made woman” (31.57, s.d.). Perhaps the most intricate acting direction appears in the Burial, after Jesus’ side is pierced by Longeus, who will accidentally or “avantorysly . . . wype his eyne” (34.100, s.d.). Far from demonstrating the Passion Plays as closet drama, these stage direc­tions show the profound understanding the playwright had of theatrical practice, and per­haps showed his need to keep directing the action as these plays may have traveled from place to place or from producer to producer.

Somewhat later in the manuscript’s development, the Assumption of Mary Play (on dif­ferent paper, in another scribe’s hand, and in a somewhat different dialect) was added to the com­pilation. Since this play is not mentioned at all in the Banns, we can assume that it was an independent play that the compiler added later to the compilation. The dif­ferences from the other plays in the N-Town manuscript are clear: the stanzas (mostly thirteeners and octaves) have different rhyme and metrical patterns; the play’s expositor is called the “Doctor” (not Con­templacio or a vexillator); and this play has a very large cast of at least six­teen players, not including the choruses of martyrs and angels. Furthermore, the Assump­tion requires spec­tacular machinery that does not exist in other N-Town Plays such as the mechanical “whyte clowde” (angel machinery? cars that look like clouds?) that transports the apostle John to Mary’s door. While other plays in the manuscript (Mary Play and the Passion Plays) call for angel machinery, this play does, too, but with a substantial dif­ference. Toward the end of the play, just before Mary’s soul is taken up to Heaven, the stage direc­tion says: “Hic dissendet Dom­inus cum omni celesti curia” (41.311, s.d.). Either God and his court are descending a stairway together, or they are being lowered in some sort of scaffold that can hold all of them.25 Finally, it seems that the Assumption playwright was designating an indoor performance. The term or­gana is used in two stage directions, “hic cantabunt or­gana” (41.313, s.d.), and “Et hic assendent in celum cantantibus organis” (41.521, s.d.). It is inter­esting to note that the playwright uses the verb “cantare” with the plural noun “organa.” Francis Galpin explains that this particular com­bi­nation of terms can refer either to a sta­tionary church organ or to a particular style of sing­ing with an accompanying organ.26 In either case, a stationary organ (as opposed to a portative organ) is being described. Hence, the Assumption Play was, at least initially, designed for an indoor performance.

After the N-Town manuscript was compiled in its final form, two later hands (called Revisers A and B by the facsimile editors) revised several portions for their own per­for­mances. Reviser A (c. 1490–1500) added speeches for the Marriage of Mary and Joseph (folios 51–52) and marked Episcopus’ speeches: it appears that he was preparing a separate Betrothal Play for performance. Reviser B (c. 1490–1520) interpolated speeches into the Magi Play (folios 95–96) and an opening leaf for the Baptism: this was likely restorative work. But he also revised portions of the Shepherds, the Magi, and the Slaughter of the Inno­cents, possibly for a Nativity play. It is interes­ting to note that this reviser prescribed his own two-day Easter performance with the Burial, the Harrowing of Hell 2, and the Res­ur­rection on the first day; and the Three Marys, Mary Magdalene, and Cleophas and Luke on the second. Meredith and Kahrl, in their facsimile edition, remark that this reviser was clearly preparing a prompt copy meant for production (N-Town Plays: A Facsimile, p. xxiv). It is evident that the man­uscript, even after its “final” compilation, was used for various occasional performances, pos­sibly into the early sixteenth century.

“The continued study of N-Town’s text and spectacle and pursuit of its origins may not bring the N-Town plays home; but these efforts surely will extend even further our knowledge about the rich cultural imagination that created East Anglian biblical drama at the end of the Middle Ages.”
— Theresa Coletti, “N-Town Plays.”
Scholars for hundreds of years have complicated the critical treatment of the N-Town Plays in a variety of ways. To date, the N-Town Plays have been called by seven different names, many of them used concurrently. The manuscript’s first known owner was a Robert Hegge (c. 1597–1629), who may have inherited it from his father, Stephen. So, the plays have been known as the “Hegge Plays” or “Hegge Cycle.” Another name, the British Li­brary’s manuscript descriptor given by Richard James, is “MS Cotton Vespasian D.viii,” so called the “Cotton Plays” because it was donated by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, and because it was in the bookcase with the bust of the Emperor Vespasian (and happened to be book num­ber eight on shelf D of that case). Mr. James may have assumed that the plays were from Coventry, a city well known in the Elizabethan age for its religious plays. James’ as­sump­­tion led to two of the manuscript’s other names, “the Coventry Plays” and “Ludus Cov­en­triae.” In 1656, William Dugdale wrote that the manuscript contained New Testament plays that were performed by the Grey Friars of Coventry. This misleading description cod­ified the name “Ludus Coventriae” until the 1990s. The present name, “The N-Town Play,” was proposed by W. W. Greg in 1914, but was not used by scholars until the late 1960s and was not considered a standard title until the mid-1980s. Stephen Spector codified this name in 1991 with his excellent edition for the Early English Text Society. Still, it is important to note that this METS edition follows Meredith and Kahrl’s title “The N-Town Plays” (with an “s”) to recognize the various independent parts of the manuscript.

The critical desire to fix a proper name upon the plays has been paralleled by the crit­ical search for a fixed point of origin. From the mid-seventeenth century until the first quar­ter of the nineteenth, the plays were believed to be from Coventry; then, from 1825 until about 1914, philologists thought the plays were from Lincoln, north and west of East Anglia. In the twentieth century, however, linguists have confirmed that the scribe’s dialect is from East Anglia, but that observation did not help scholars who were seeking dramatic records.27 For those studying the plays at York and Chester, there appears to be a neat network of civic, guild, and religious records that scholars could correlate with the respective guild plays. For N-Town, however, there appear to be no such records that provide any infor­mation about the plays. To begin with, there is not even the name of one town. Many loca­tions in East Anglia have been suggested: Bury St. Edmunds, East Harling, Thetford, and Lynn, but finding such a “home” for the N-Town Plays may be beside the point, at least for now, for compilations such as the N-Town probably grew out of different scribal and dra­matic tra­di­tions than the plays associated with York, Coventry, and Chester.

If manuscript books such as the N-Town Plays are “‘fluid, developing entities,’ cobbled together piecemeal depending on the exemplars available,” then our notions of authorship, a cycle of religious plays, and even our present notions of what a book is may not apply.28 Rather than thinking of the N-Town manuscript as an imperfect example of an urban cycle, readers may find it more valuable to see it as an incomplete, eclectic, regional anthology that is the collaborative product of scribes, playwrights, revisers, actors, readers, and pro­ducers.29 In sum, what may have once been the N-Town Plays’ shortcoming, in its lack of a home and corresponding documentation, is now grounds for proclaiming it a substantial late medieval work of art, perfectly suited to postmodern sensibilities. If the current New Historicist and Cultural Studies program to which many scholars now subscribe is “to restore drama to the rich field of its social origins, insisting on its embeddedness in . . . histories,” then “N-Town Plays” may be the best title (at least, for now) for this set of plays so depen­dent upon its pur­posefully variable nature.30 Perhaps such a title and all the possibilities it implies may pro­vide students, scholars, actors, and directors with a large, rich, and fertile field in which to exercise their own creative and collaborative insights and imaginations.


This text is coordinated for ease of cross-reference with Spector’s The N-Town Play: Cotton MS Vespasian D.8 (1991); but it also consults Meredith and Kahrl’s The N-Town Plays: A Facsimile of British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D VIII (1977), Block’s Ludus Coventriae; or the Plaie called Corpus Christi (1922), Meredith’s The Mary Play from the N.Town Manuscript (1987) and The Passion Play from the N.Town Manuscript (1990), Greg’s The Assumption of the Virgin: A Miracle Play from the N-Town Cycle (1915), and Bevington’s Medieval Drama (1975). Since most scholars will be familiar with Spector’s edition, the line numbers in this edition correlate with his. But I do recognize Meredith’s attempts to identify the two Passion Plays and the Mary Play as playbooks that were brought into an existing manuscript and have maintained running line numbers marked by asterisks for those larger play sequences. Those numbers do not always correspond with Meredith, however.

Stanzaic forms such as thirteeners, octaves, quatrains, couplets in the manuscript are indicated in the textual notes and reflected in the text.

Spelling, Punctuation, and Fonts
In general, the Middle English spelling in the text follows the original with the following exceptions:
  • Thorns (þ ) are represented by th; yoghs are changed to y, g, or gh; the East Anglian x for words such as xal has been changed to sh as in shall.
  • Many confusing spellings or words for contemporary readers — such as the Middle English here for Modern English her, ME off for ModE of are rendered in ModE. The ME the which could be either thee (pronoun) or the (article) will be rendered thee and the, according to the meaning in the line.
  • Since u for late medieval scribes could represent either ModE v or u, I have followed modern spelling practices. For example, ME doue will be rendered dove.
  • The letter w is occasionally rendered u, especially after a vowel.
  • Ordinal and cardinal numerals written as Roman numerals in the manuscript are spelled out as ME words.
  • Punctuation has been added following modern practice.
  • Words specifically referring to God and specific theological terms are capitalized.
  • Latin words and stage directions are printed in italics.
Speakers’ Names and Stage Directions
  • Spelling of speakers’ names will be regularized to whichever form is most commonly used in the play or play section, but when that same speaker takes on another function or role, the manuscript will be followed. For example, in the Lazarus Play, Consolator 4 also plays the role of Nuncius later in the play.
  • Some speakers’ names in the manuscript, such as Quartus Judeus, are reduced (Judeus 4).
  • Stage directions are indented, set off by one initial square bracket, and in italics. In general, stage directions will be glossed within the text, not in the margins or at the foot of the page.
Line Numbering
For the most part, the line numbering in this text accords with Spector’s. As Spector practices in the two Passion Plays (Plays 26–34), I have also kept a running count of the total lines for those larger play sequences. In addition, I have kept a running count of the total lines for the proposed Mary Play (Plays 8–11, 13), but I have not included the Joseph’s Doubt Play (Play 12). Meredith notes that this play was likely inserted into the existing Mary Play.31 So, the numbering for the proposed Mary Play leaps over the Joseph’s Doubt Play and resumes for the Visitation scene which concludes the Mary Play. There are Latin lines in the Mary Play that are not part of the stanzaic or rhyme scheme (as in the Presentation of Mary and the Parliament of Heaven) that Spector, somewhat inconsistently, does not count. In end notes, textual notes or ex­planatory notes, these un­counted lines will be designated by the previously numbered line followed by lowercase letters, such as 45a, indicating the first uncounted line (according to Spector) after line 45.

Go To Corresponding Material between N-Town and Other Late Medieval English Plays