Glossary Home Genre

Mystery Play

Mystery plays were developed in medieval Europe and focused on representations of the Bible. They were originally performed in churches and then moved out into public squares and marketplaces.

Various stories were performed in churches, often accompanied by an antiphonal song. Mystery plays are often conflated with miracle plays. The two are, in fact, different forms, but the names are usually used interchangeably.

Mystery plays were famously banned throughout Europe during the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th century. Chester, a city whose mystery play cycle is described below, was the last of all cities to concede to the ruling. 

Mystery Play Definition, History, and Examples


History of Mystery Plays 

Mystery plays originated as early as the 5th century when they were introduced into church services. They employed light embellishment of Biblical texts and eventually introduced chants that were inspired by the church services. 

The plays grew in popularity until traveling companies formed and began moving from town to town performing for everyday people. The popularity of the plays meant that they moved outside the confines of the church and into the open. They were performed in common areas, like public squares and marketplaces. 

Definition of Mystery Play 

Mystery plays are religious performances based on Biblical stories, such as the Fall of Adam and Eve and the Last Judgement. These plays were traditionally written and directed by monks and performed within a church setting

The first mystery plays were performed in Latin, based on the church services at the time. It was not uncommon for the plays to be prefaced with a description of what the audience was going to see in vernacular language. Today, scholars believe that the early directors and writers of mystery plays were likely monks or other religious figures. 

Common Mystery Plays 

  • The Last Judgement 
  • Fall of Adam and Eve
  • The Creation of the World 
  • The Story of Cain and Abel
  • The Wise Men
  • The Second Shepherd’s Play 
  • Birth of Jesus 
  • Flight into Egypt


Examples of Mystery Plays

The York Mystery Plays 

The best-known collection of mystery plays that have survived to contemporary times is the York cycle, known by its full name as “York Corpus Christi Plays.” They are a set of forty-eight plays that depict scenes from the Bible, ranging from the creation of the world to the Last Judgement. These plays were usually performed on the feast day of Corpus Christi (between May 23 and June 24). 

A surviving manuscript of the plays from the mid-to-late 1400s is stored at the British Library. Scholars don’t know a great deal about these first mystery plays but there is a record of a performance organized and financed by the York Craft Guilds in the late 1300s. 

The plays within this series use different verse forms, including various rhyme schemes and regular rhythmic patterns. 

The York plays are one of four groups of surviving mystery and miracle plays. Another surviving set, the Chester Mystery Plays, can be explored below.

Chester Mystery Plays 

This cycle of mystery plays originated in Chester, England, and dates to the early 15th century. During the peak period of popularity for Chester mystery plays, the performances had diverted from their original, strict Biblical origin. They included more dramatic elements and were less in line with the church’s direct wishes. 

Chester is famous as the last city in England to concede to the 16th-century ruling outlawing the performance of mystery plays. The plays were revived in 1951 and have been presented every five years since. 

Mystery Play or Miracle Play? 

Miracle plays of medieval Europe are today defined as re-enactments of saints’ miracles. Specifically, these miracles were concerned with everyday peoples’ lives rather than intense, Biblical events. Mystery plays, on the other hand, focused on Biblical events alone. These were often far removed from the lives of everyday people but were more suited for church services and feast days. 

Scholars believe that during the peak popularity of both mystery and miracle plays that the performers and writers used a variety of terms to describe their productions. 

FAQs 

What is a mystery play? 

A mystery play is a religious play that depicts a scene from the Bible. These plays originated in medieval Europe and still exist in a slightly different form today. The best-known performances take place in York every five years.

Are miracle plays and mystery plays the same thing? 

No, while today the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different. Mystery plays focus on scenes from the Bible, while miracle plays depict saints’ miracles within everyday peoples’ lives. 

What is mystery plays in literature?

In literature, a mystery play is a performance of scripture from the Christian Bible. These performances originated in medieval Europe and were, at first, performed inside churches. Later, as their popularity grew, they moved outside into common areas and became more dramatized until they were banned in the 16th century.

Why are mystery plays called mystery plays?

The word “mystery” is a derivation of the Latin “ministerium.” It references a connection to clergy from different religious groups and then was later used to describe the plays themselves. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Carol: a song that is sung during a festive period, such as Christmas, although not exclusively. They are usually religious in nature.
  • Devotional Poetry: refers to poems that express worship or prayer. They’re most commonly religious in nature.
  • Homily: a speech delivered by a religious person, usually a priest, in front of a group of people.
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Bibliomancy: a literary divination practice. It uses a sacred text, such as the Bible, as a method to predict the future.
  • Psalm: a sacred song of worship, such as those featured in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.
  • Morality Play: a genre of theatre popular in the medieval and Tudor period. 


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