In This Article N-Town Plays

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • The Old Testament Plays
  • New Testament Ministry and Post-Passion Plays

Medieval Studies N-Town Plays
by
Douglas Imada Sugano
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0136

Introduction

The N-Town plays, formerly known as the Hegge plays and as Ludus Coventriae, are anomalous among the late medieval English cycle dramas. While their dramatic subject matter parallels that found in York, Chester, and Towneley, N-Town’s historical context reveals different origins. York and Chester are cycles that can be traced to civic agencies in their production; Towneley has some evidence of civic production. N-Town has no marks of any civic agency: in fact, the most significant evidence about provenance in the banns is a variable that is not a location at all, but simply the term “N-Town.” For this reason, from the 18th century through the 1980s, scholars concentrated on “finding a home” for N-Town. What we do know about the plays, however, distinguishes them dramaturgically and generically from the other English cycle plays. The manuscript has a date, 1468. The paper, the different scribal hands, and the two dialects found in the manuscript argue for scribes, revisers’ hands, and composition somewhere in the middle of East Anglia. The impending Records of Early English Drama volumes on Norfolk and Suffolk could provide more specific historical context and more dramaturgical specifics to our understanding of the N-Town manuscript. Various scholars have suggested homes such as Bury St. Edmunds, King’s Lynn, Thetford, even Lincoln. It becomes clear, however, because the manuscript eschews mentioning place names, that part of the point of the N-Town Manuscript is its flexibility. Likely, it was a dramatic commonplace book meant for different parish churches or religious guilds to borrow or to emend as needed. In this way, N-Town shares scribal and stylistic dramaturgical features with other East Anglian plays such as the Digby and Macro plays. In the N-Town manuscript, there is a main scribe, other scribal hands, another dialect, evidence of revision, and whole booklets that have been moved in and out of the manuscript. There are at least five steps to the manuscript’s composition: the banns and an older cycle of plays; the inclusion of the Mary Plays; revision to Joseph’s Doubt and the addition of the Purification Play (the 1468 date); the inclusion of the two Passion Plays; and the inclusion of the Assumption Play. These changes and even later revisions in other hands suggest that the manuscript was used, even into the early 16th century, as a dramatic text. For these reasons, the second-level headings for N-Town reflect these changes in the manuscript over time.

General Overviews

All of these works assume some foundational unity for the N-Town manuscript although they do not agree on the reasons for its unity. Older overviews generally accept an evolutionary development of cycle drama (i.e., starting with the liturgy of the High Middle Ages and adapting more secular and vernacular elements as time passed). Appreciating N-Town’s scholasticism, the older works also view N-Town as a unitary work and group N-Town with the other civic-guild cycles. In contrast, more recent critics tend to regard N-Town as a complex social artifact from East Anglia but also assume the manuscript’s piecemeal construction as well as relationships to religious (not civic) guilds.

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