The Towneley Plays Project

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Note: All materials on this site are in draft form.


This on-line edition of five plays from the Towneley Corpus Christi cycle is the result of a collaborative research project begun in the winter of 1998. Professor Murray McGillivray's English 501.04 class--"Medieval Drama: The Towneley Plays (research practicum)"--offered students a "hands-on," research-intensive experience. Course members (senior undergraduate students) collaborated with Professor McGillivray and two graduate assistants to produce these on-line versions.

Most of the course work took place in teams comprised of three or four students. While there were some more formal, scheduled class meetings, the majority of research activities took place outside the traditional classroom.

The team members were engaged, throughout the course, in a number of diverse tasks. First of all, team members were obligated to transcribe their specific play from the facsimile of the Towneley manuscript--this required, often painstaking, perusal of esoteric character sets and Medieval vernacular.

Next, team members proofread their play texts against the original manuscript.

The majority of the following weeks of the course were then spent devising and implimenting electronic mounting schemes for the play texts. As each play was rife with challenging abbreviations, omissions, ornamentiations, marginalia, and other textual peculiarities, team members agreed it was vitally important to somehow, electronically, convey these uniquenesses to a reader. Team members thus decided to work in a number of different web formats, including HTML and XML. The XML versions of the plays, while as yet incomplete, will eventually offer a reader (via explicit and precise entities) a chance to experience, more fully, the plays' textual and stylistic nuances. For now, the HTML versions presented here enable a reader to gather a useful, if general, sense of the original manuscript's layout and form.

Finally, the team members spent the last weeks of the course engaged in the research and writing of annotations and glosses. Many of these resources are hyper-text linked directly to their appropriate plays, offering a reader an on-the-spot translator for more difficult words and phrases.

It is hoped that this web-site will act as an on-line introduction to five Towneley plays-- Noah, The First Shepherds' Pageant, The Second Shepherds' Pageant, Herod the Great, and The Buffeting.

(All editorial and html work in this site is the result of the combined efforts of Tina Arndt, Michael Bradford, Rick Cherewko, Marlo Edwards, Marta Juzwiak, Ellen Kartz, JD Kennedy, Kate Korman, Murray McGillivray, Geoff McKenzie, Anglea Misri, Rhonda Perry, Alex Rettie, Ian Samuels, Kathryn Sherbut, Marni Suey, Dave Teeuwen, and Paul Viccars.)

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The Towneley (Wakefield) Corpus Christi cycle refers to 32 pageants/plays which individually tell the story of the cycle of creation to the crucifixion. The works were almost always performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a sacred day occuring sixty days after Easter. These 15th century biblical dramas, or mystery plays--the name "mystery" deriving from the mestier (metier or trade) of their actors--were performed by craft guilds in conjunction with the church and other religious guilds. As the medieval year was extremely structured and both physically and mentally taxing, these plays often represented a rare means of celebration and relaxation.

It is thought that the first mystery plays were born as a result of needing to vivify the bible for the illiterate mass audiences. However, many of the Corpus Christi plays are themselves not strictly biblical in that they often document "legendary" Christian episodes, such as the harrowing of hell. Moreover, several of the Towneley (so named for an eighteenth century owner of the manuscript) plays, in particular Noah, are quite comical, even slapstickish, and suggest that many of the "authentic" biblical tales underwent droll revision during performance. There are other notable extant English cycles, including the York Cycle (48 pageants), the N Town cycle (43 pageants), and the Chester cycle (24 pageants).

Cycle plays were often performed on pageant wagons that would move throughout a city, enabling spectators to sit and view all relevant scenes/plays. Occasionally, as with the Chester cycle, the pageants would require a number of days to complete and as each pageant employed its own individual cast (with no part-doubling) there could be, in the Towneley (Wakefield) cycle for instance, approximately 243 actors performing on separate wagons.

Cycle plays thus hold great interest, not just for the student of drama or English literature, but for anyone interested in popular culture, economics, religion and politics generally.

For more on-line information re Mystery Plays, please see Mystery Plays.

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View scanned examples of the Towneley Character Set.

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To send an email in response to this site please write to Murray McGillivray.