The Oxford Medieval Mystery Plays 2025

Call for Actors, Directors, Costume Makers, and Musicians!

Would you like to take part in a medieval dramatic experiment? Directors, actors, costume makers and musicians wanted!

The next cycle is going to take place on 26 April 2025 at St Edmund Hall

These plays were a very popular form of drama in the Middle Ages – with different groups performing short plays telling stories from the Bible. To take part in the next performance, email Professor Henrike Lähnemann, Fellow at St Edmund Hall Fellow and Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics, and Professor Lesley Smith, Fellow and Tutor in Politics and Senior Tutor at Harris Manchester College, Co-Directors of the Oxford Medieval Studies Programme at TORCH, under the address medieval@torch.ox.ac.uk.

More information and an overview of what was performed in 2019, 2022, and 2023 at https://www.seh.ox.ac.uk/mystery-cycle

Staging Marguerite des Navarre’s ‘Comédie de Innocents’

Report by Elisabeth Dutton, Université de Fribourg, on the staging of the Comédie des Innocents, by Marguerite de Navarre. Presented by les perles innocentes as part of the Medieval Mystery Cycle 2023 at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford (see there for a synopsis of the play and the cast list).

The play at first reading seemed to me a fairly conventional dramatization of the story, not so different from the story as told in the English mystery plays, for example– the idea that Herod kills his own son is found in the Golden Legend and thus well established in European tradition.  But Marguerite gives particular force to female characters, not just the feisty mothers and Nurse who care for the slaughtered babies, but also most importantly Rachel, whose lengthy lament, a rhetorical tour de force, is really the climax of Marguerite’s script. In a play which shows mothers and Herod violently deprived of their children, and which foreshadows God’s loss of his own Son, the Old Testament matriarch Rachel powerfully gives voice to the grief of women, King, and ultimately God. She also raises a protest against tyranny and abuse that feels all too contemporary.   

I knew that I needed an actress for Rachel who could be at once strong and feminine, and utterly absorbing to the audience, and I was delighted that Elisa Pagliaro agreed to play the role.  I wanted the speech to be supported by some haunting music, and am grateful that Lucy Matheson found a medieval French setting of the Vox in Rama, and agreed to sing it for us for the performance in Oxford. The effect of Marguerite’s verse, delivered by Elisa directly to the audience, with Lucy’s haunting song underneath, was very powerful indeed, and quite unlike anything I had experienced in other dramatisations of the Innocents.  Its power took us all a little by surprise. 
There was a completely different reading and understanding of the Comédie des Innocents – in particular of Rachel’s lament – from the very first time I independently read it, and the way I felt and understood it on the day of the performance in Oxford.

Elisa Pagliaro on performing Rachel’s lament

The original play is 1075 lines long: in order to fit into our allotted 20 minutes, Aurélie Blanc cut more than half of its lines, while expertly maintaining a sense of the versification.  Aurélie was also essential to my vision of the play from the start, as I needed her exceptional talents for the roles both of Herod and of God.  As a travelling troupe, we had to keep our costs down through maximal doubling – and the structure of the various scenes required that God be doubled with the royal tyrant, as well as one of the mothers.  This doubling was in fact rather pointed, as Aurélie writes: 

The main challenge when participating in this play was to take on three roles: I played God, then Herod, and then one of the women whose child is killed by the soldiers. During the play, I did not have much time to go from one character to another. I struggled with those transitional moments because God, Herod, and Woman 1 seemed so different from each other. I tried to find what their main characteristics were so I could focus on these while changing roles. God and Herod are both rulers, both authoritative and confident (at least at times in the case of Herod). However, Herod is more frantic, chaotic, and changeable than God. Surprisingly perhaps, I found the character of God harder to play. It was much easier to relate to Herod with his mood swings and emotional outbursts! As for the Woman, she seemed completely unlike the other two characters. Her tender love for her child is her main concern throughout her scenes. Thinking about these characters helped me understand them, but I felt that things truly came together when I realized that all three were parents and all three lost their child
God’s worry for his son is what prompts him to send an angel to Joseph and Mary, it is the reason motivating his first speech. Understanding this helped me relate to God: when playing him, I did not have to try to pretend to be all powerful and all knowing, I had to focus instead on thinking about saving a person that I loved. Herod’s motivations are more selfish, but he also acts with his son in mind: he wants his son rather than Jesus to rule over his kingdom after him. Once I saw this, I found it much easier to play his shock and grief when his dead son is presented to him. And Woman 1, of course, was always a character focused on her child. Understanding these connections between my three characters was really helpful to me. These people no longer seemed entirely different from each other but were united by the same love and the same grief. This love and grief could stay with me throughout the play as I moved between God, Herod, and Woman 1. 

Aurélie Blanc on playing God, Herod and a grieving mother

Aurélie’s performance of all three roles was extraordinary.  And the requirements of the doubling also lay behind the blocking of the piece, which came to me very early on in rehearsals.  I wanted to find a way to use the whole of Teddy Hall’s front quad: early drama, I believe, always exploited its venues to the full, and it’s good to make actors do hard physical work. Then, the actors would have no ‘offstage’ space for changing, and in any case they wouldn’t have time to do anything other than change ‘onstage’; but the audience needed to recognize clearly their changes of role, so we associated role with place (an idea most clearly demonstrated in medieval drama by the extant stage plan of the Castle of Perseverance, with its ‘skaffolds’ for the God, the World, the Flesh and the Devil.)  

I enjoyed the sense of empowerment that came from filling the front quad with our voices and bodies.

Helene Wigginton on performing in a medieval venue

God begins the play in a scene of heavenly harmony, commanding his angels. We established him standing on the well in the centre of the quad (scriptural associations of wells are a pleasing coincidence).  In each of the four corners of the quad we placed a black storage stool, containing costume changes, and Mary and Joseph began sitting on the stools to God’s right, while Herod was to occupy the stool on God’s left.  The effect was formal and stylized, which matches the verse. The angels could move freely between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’, delivering messages and also distributing chocolates to the audience (we are a Swiss troupe, after all); when the angel actors had to become soldier-tyrants, they went to the other ‘left’ stool to swap their wings for helmets. 

As the scene shifted from heaven to Herod’s court, Aurélie left her golden cape on the well and donned regal robes on Herod’s ‘throne’: since Herod then issues quick-fire commands to doctors and soldiers, frantic activity ensued as all the other actors rushed backwards and forwards across the playing area to obey his orders. The pace contrasted with the calm order of heaven, and the audience had a disconcerting sense that the focus was pulled ‘off-centre’ with Herod’s power.  Tyranny pulls all things out of joint.  

The babies (dolls with soft torsos) were slaughtered using a sword and two spears, mainly because I am haunted by the image of ‘naked infants spitted upon pikes’.  We used this device once before, in a staging of the Middle English Digby Killing of the Children, and it provoked horrified laughter in the audience.  I was fascinated that the effect in Marguerite’s play was completely different: there was no laughter, but there was genuine horror. I think this is partly because, whereas the Digby play includes a Fool character among Soldiers, who all seem rather dim, Marguerite writes her killers concisely and explicitly as Tyrants.

Carmen Vigneswaren-Smith on her role as soldier: ‘the audience flinched back from my spear, gasped and covered their mouths in surprise at the murder of the babies, and I was suddenly reminded of what the familiarity of rehearsal can make you forget — that it was in fact a brutal massacre that we were acting out.’ One woman in the audience clutched her own baby to her. Audience members commented that their stomachs were knotted.

The sense of horror was not entirely dispelled by the final song, which was a Christmas song, since the play would originally have been performed on the feast of the Innocents, December 28th. The script states that it should be sung to “Si j’ayme mon amy”: for our performance, Sandy Maillard, founder of the all-female choir Fa Mi Cantar, adapted a tune of that name found in the songbook of Françoise de Foix, Countess of Châteaubriant, 1495-1537, celebrated beauty and lover of King Francis I (the songbook is now British Library MS Harley 5242.) It is a strangely unnerving ending to a powerfully disconcerting play.  

The sixteenth-century French seemed to present no obstacle to the audience’s engagement, and we are grateful to have had such an opportunity to explore its quality.  Our production was probably different in many ways from any performance Marguerite might have seen or even envisaged, but we hope that our all-female production, delivered with precise attention to the words she wrote, may have captured something of their spirit, which seems that of an almost feminist protest against tyranny. 

Cf. also the blog post on the whole cycle by Alison Ray

Workshop: Voice Projection & Staging Medieval Mystery Plays

Monday 6 March 2023 (Week 8), 4.30–6pm, at St Edmund Hall, Pontigny Room

In this workshop, we will be offering voice projection exercises and practical advice for the Medieval Mystery Cycle. All actors and directors interested in taking part are invited to attend! Beyond general exercises, there will also be an opportunity to work out staging constellations on site at St Edmund Hall (as well as an opportunity to enjoy tea and cake).

The workshop will be led by Dr Jim Harris, the Medieval Mystery Cycle’s Master of Ceremonies and Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum. Let us know if you’re able to join us by emailing Michael Angerer, the graduate convenor.

Workshop: Staging & Enacting Medieval Mystery Plays

Friday 3 February 2023 (Week 3), 5–6.30pm, at St Edmund Hall, Old Dining Hall

Join this workshop for tips and guidance on how to adapt medieval mystery plays for modern performance, a workshop for directors and actors alike. Whether you have already signed up to this year’s Medieval Mystery Cycle on 22 April 2023 or are interested but still unsure how to put together a play or how to act, all are welcome! The focus of the workshop will be on how to cut a medieval play script down to an accessible version (of up to 20 minutes), but there will also be an opportunity to match actors and directors and to discuss any other practical questions you might have on site at St Edmund Hall – and to enjoy tea and cake!

The workshop will be led by David Wiles, Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Exeter and a veteran director of the Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle. Let us know if you’re interested in joining by emailing Michael Angerer, the graduate convenor.

Meanwhile, we’re still looking for groups to join the Medieval Mystery Cycle: have a look at the original blog post with the sign-up link!

The Medieval Mystery Cycle is back!

The next performance of the Medieval Mystery Plays is held on Saturday 22 April 2023 at St Edmund Hall, 12noon-3:30pm. All welcome! The full programme is available here.

12.00: Extracts from Piers Plowman (Swonken ful harde) Middle English
12.30: The Nativity and Salutation (English Faculty) Middle English
13.00: The Innocents (Les perles innocentes) 16th-century French
—13.30 BREAK—
14.00: The Passion (Sorores Sanctae Hildae) Latin and German
14.30: The Harrowing of Hell (Medieval Germanists) Middle High German
15.00: The Last Judgement (Past and Present Teddy Students) Modern English

Welcome to the third incarnation of the Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle! As in 2019 and 2022, this highlight of the Oxford medieval calendar offers a variety of plays in different medieval and modern languages, staged at several stations in the beautiful grounds of St Edmund Hall. Cycles of plays retelling stories from the Bible were a popular form of entertainment in the Middle Ages, which we are only too happy to revive for modern audiences. Admission is free and you are welcome to turn up at any time.

Read the original call for participation: Sign-up is now open for the Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle! Just follow this link to propose a play and to join one of the highlights of the Oxford Medieval Studies calendar, which will be held on Saturday 22 April 2023 at St Edmund Hall.

Following a hugely popular medieval tradition, we are looking for groups to perform a series of short plays retelling stories from the Bible. We are keen to cover a wide variety of (medieval) languages, but you don’t have to be a theatre professional or even a medievalist – all you need is lots of enthusiasm for what is above all a fun and unique experience. In the last years, plays have included:

  • The Creation and Fall
  • The Killing of Abel
  • Noah
  • Abraham
  • The Annunciation and Visitation
  • Shepherds
  • Wise Men
  • Herod the Great
  • John the Baptist
  • Lazarus
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Harrowing of Hell
  • The Resurrection
  • The Last Judgement

Feel free to propose other plays, or even to write your own – as long as the topic is not already taken, so don’t wait too long! You can see which plays have already been proposed here.

We have previously had plays in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, but offers for plays in other languages, including Welsh, Dutch, Latin, or Hebrew are also very welcome! Some mystery plays are easily accessible online: this includes plays in Middle English (the York, Towneley, and N-Town plays), Old French (the Seinte Resurreccion), Middle High German (the Innsbrucker Osterspiel), or Old Spanish (the Auto de los Reyes Magos). And don’t worry if you don’t have enough actors or haven’t found a group yet: we can help you put out a call for actors and link you up with other people interested in participating. All you have to do is get in touch.

For inspiration, have a look at the mystery cycles of the last few years! You can even watch recordings of the cycles in 2019 and 2022 on YouTube. (Or, alternatively, you can watch the much more professional recordings of the 1985 National Theatre Mysteries.) A small budget is available for props and costumes.

Watch the 2022 medieval English master’s students rising from the tomb as multiple Lazari!

Timeline:

  • Sign up now by following this link or emailing Michael Angerer, the Medieval Mystery Cycle convenor!
  • We will hold a workshop on how to cut longer plays on Friday of Week 1 in Hilary Term at 3–5pm (20 January 2023) on site at St Edmund Hall. This is open both to fully fledged groups and aspiring directors. [Edit: This workshop has been postponed to Friday of Week 3 at 5–6.30pm (3 February 2023)]
  • We will hold a workshop on voice projection at the end of Hilary Term.
  • You will have the opportunity to rehearse on location at St Edmund Hall during Week 0 of Trinity Term.
  • Dress rehearsals will take place on the morning of Saturday of Week 0 of Trinity Term (22 April 2023).
  • The Mystery Cycle will be performed from 12–5pm on Saturday 22 April 2023, with two half-hour breaks for tea, coffee, and cake.

Cake sale: we are also looking for people to bake cake and help run a charity cake stall on the day – if you’re interested, please get in touch!

Graduate Students: OMS is hiring!

OMS is one of the largest forums in the world for interdisciplinary research on the Middle Ages, bringing together over 200 academics and a large body of graduate students. If you would like to be involved behind the scenes, we have three exciting (paid) opportunities to get involved! Though these are advertised as three separate posts, we welcome applications from students who would like to combine two or even all three posts:

1) OMS Social Media Officer: The Social Media Officer is in charge of connecting all of Oxford’s medievalists via the OMS Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and also occasionally posting on here, the OMS blog. You will be responsible for posting across these platforms to advertise OMS events, opportunities and news. You will work closely with the OMS directors (Profs Henrike Lähnemann and Lesley Smith), the Communications Officer (Dr Luisa Ostacchini) and the Events Coordinator. Familiarity with social media advertising is beneficial but not essential: this is an ideal way to gain technical know-how about social media, advertising and marketing that can be used in your academic career and beyond. The post usually comprises an hour or two a week. To read more about the post from the out-going postholder, Llewelyn Hopwood, including tips and tricks for social media success, see his blog post here.

2) OMS Events Coordinator: The Events Coordinator ensures that all of our in-person and online OMS events run smoothly. You will organise the google calendar, oversee the OMS Teams and YouTube Channels, respond to email queries about events, set up Zoom streaming events, assist in the real-time running of events (mostly hybrid and online, but also in-person), and serve as a point of liaison point between events organisers and the rest of the OMS Team. You will work closely with the OMS directors (Profs Henrike Lähnemann and Lesley Smith), the Communications Officer (Dr Luisa Ostacchini) and the Social Media Officer. Some familiarity with Teams and Zoom is necessary, but you by no means need to be an expert in these software packages as you can learn on the job. The post usually comprises an hour or two a week. To read more about the post from the out-going postholder, Tom Revell, including insight into the exciting range of events he helped to facilitate, see his blog post here.

3) Graduate Convenor for the Medieval Mystery Cycle 2023: the graduate convenor will take the mantle of the operation from Dr Eleanor Baker by organising the Medieval Mystery Cycle, which takes place on 22 April 2023. You will liase with the various Mystery Players and directors, help to coordinate workshops, and ensure that the plays run smoothly on the day. Experience in events organisation and a love of theatre are beneficial, but not essential. You will work closely with the OMS directors (Profs Henrike Lähnemann and Lesley Smith), the Communications team, and Mystery Players from across the university and beyond. To get a sense for the scope of the project, and to see the plays performed in previous years, see seh.ox.ac.uk/mystery-cycle.
Payment for all of these roles is at the standard rate for graduate students, and is billed by timesheet — up to a maximum of six hours per week per role, although actual hours will usually comprise one or two hours per week per role.

Please send expressions of interest to Co-Directors Henrike Lähnemann and Lesley Smith by 30 September 2022, 12noon, at medieval@torch.ox.ac.uk, including a one-page CV and a cover email explaining why you are interested in the job(s) and what experience you bring to it.

Header image: Matthew Paris Elephant from Parker MS 016II fol 152v (See the manuscript online via Parker Library on the Web)

Call to Action: Medieval Mystery Cycle 2023

Following the successful Medieval Mystery Cycle 2.0, plans are underway for the third iteration of what has fast become an Oxford tradition. Please reserve the date of 22 April 2023 (Saturday before Trinity Term) and spread the word! We are looking for actors, directors, musicians, prop makers, and above all a graduate convenor who will take on the mantle of Eleanor Baker in masterminding the operation. Have a look at seh.ox.ac.uk/mystery-cycle for getting a sense of the scope and watching the plays performed in 2019 and 2022.

Please send expressions of interest for the Graduate Convenor by 30 June 2022 to Co-Directors Henrike Lähnemann and Lesley Smith under medieval@torch.ox.ac.uk

Catch-up: Oxford Medieval Mystery Plays 2022

Following a two-year pandemic break, it was a joyous occasion for all to be able to attend in-person the second annual performance of the Oxford Medieval Mystery Plays hosted by St Edmund Hall on 23 April last week. The production was led by Professor Henrike Lähnemann, St Edmund Hall Fellow and Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics, and Professor Lesley Smith, Fellow and Tutor in Politics and Senior Tutor at Harris Manchester College, and expertly managed by Dr Eleanor Baker, Project Support Officer for the Post-GCSE Inspire Programme at St John’s College and medieval literature specialist. The full cycle was live-streamed by Natascha Domeisen and is available for watching on the St Edmund Hall Youtube Channel and also linked in to the website dedicated to the Oxford Medieval Mystery Plays.

We’ll be your guide to every play: Mystery Cycle organisers (left) and Jim Harris as Master of Ceremonies (right)

Featuring 11 plays in 6 languages (Middle and Modern English, Spanish, French, German and Latin), the ‘spectaculum’ opened with a performance of period music by the Anonymous Minstrels before The Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano rang the Chapel bell to mark the opening of the Mystery Cycle. We were introduced to each play through prologues prepared by the linking verses creator, Prof David Maskell, and wonderfully performed by our Master of Ceremonies, Dr Jim Harris, who guided attendees across college to each play location. These prologues were essential not only to the day’s enjoyment, but also to making the medieval materials accessible to a modern audience providing plot summaries and descriptions of what we were about to see through rhyming verse!

A marvellous boat will shortly appear: Scenes from the Killing of Abel (Left) and Noah’s Ark (right)

The Mystery Plays presented Biblical stories from Creation to the Resurrection, and were brought to life by an incredible cast of actors, academics and students with links to Oxford Medieval Studies. The Faculty of English kicked things off in the Old Dining Hall with the stories of Creation and the Fall, accompanied by a digital video featuring manuscript illustrations by Prof Dan Wakelin. We were then led into the front quad to witness the Holloway Mystery Players perform the killing of Abel, followed by the story of Noah’s Ark by Medieval Studies students, which receives an honorary mention here for the best props of the event, including fabric waves and an inflatable parrot standing in for the dove. The morning concluded with the sung Magnificat in a play of the Visitation by Jasmine and the Kilnsians.

You’ll see a dog but it’s a sheep: Timmy waits for his cue (left) and James Howarth as King Herod (right)

Following a short tea break, the play cycle continued in the atmospheric churchyard of St Peter-in-the-East (now College Library). The Pastoral Players provided comic relief as grumpy shepherds and a thief in the Shepherd’s Play, with the Principal’s dog Timmy stealing the show as a reluctant ‘sheep’ and kindly supported by Prof Kathy Willis and her daughter Alice. The entertainment continued with the story of the Wise Men performed by the Wise Women in Spanish, and the Massacre of the Innocents with College Librarian James Howarth playing Herod the Great alongside the 5th Week Blues.

Now to a new location for John the Baptist’s decollation: A scene of the saint’s beheading (left) and the Lazari players (right)

The best special effects of the cycle featured in the playgroup Les Soeurs de Sainte-Hilde, with their version in French of St John the Baptist’s arrest and grisly beheading (read a reflection on the process of directing a play in French by Prof. David Wiles, the director of the play). This was followed by the English MSt students performing the story of Lazarus, with 6 players of Lazarus rising from the churchyard to great effect. Undergraduate students then performed a Middle English depiction of the Crucifixion from the York Mystery Cycle dating from the 14th century. The Mystery Plays concluded with a delightful performance in Middle High German, Latin and English by the Mercantile Minstrels, with mischievous merchants, a fight scene, and a chorus of angels merrily announcing the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection.

Christ ist erstanden: The Crucifixion (left) and the announcement of the Resurrection (right)

This year’s Mystery Play Cycle was incredibly fun and a fantastic opportunity to engage with medieval culture through the wide-ranging skills of staff and students of Oxford Medieval Studies. The day ended with an exhibition display of works relating to the Easter story in the Old Library. A filming crew worked hard throughout the day to provide a livestream of events for online viewers, that can now watched back on St Edmund’s Hall YouTube Channel. We’re excited to see the continuation of what surely now has become an Oxford tradition!

Dr Alison Ray is a medievalist and the archivist at St Peter’s College, Oxford.

The Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle 2022

23 April 2022, 12noon to 5pm. A cycle of medieval mystery plays performed by various groups around St Edmund Hall. A multilingual medieval experience not to be missed! All welcome (free of charge)! Performed by a variety of groups with links to Oxford Medieval Studies. Full information https://www.seh.ox.ac.uk/mystery-cycle
Directors: Henrike Lähnemann & Lesley Smith, Manager: Eleanor Baker

Programme

The cycle will be streamed via the St Edmund Hall Youtube Channel. Just tune in any time to follow the unfolding drama!

At 12 noon, the chapel bell will ring for the prologue, followed by Creation in the Old Dining Hall. From there the story of mankind will unfold, with the Old Testament being acted out in the Front Quad and the New Testament in the churchyard around St Peter-in-the-East.

Front Quad –
11:45-12:00 midday Musical Entertainment
12:00-12:05 Introduction
12:10-12:40 1. Creation and the Fall of Adam (Faculty of English)
12:45- 12:55 2. The Killing of Abel (Holloway Mystery Players)
1:00 – 1:25 3. Noah (Medieval Studies Students)

Churchyard –
1:30 – 1:50 4. The Visitation (Jasmine and the Kilnsians)
1:55- 2:20 5. The Shepherds’ Play (The Pastoral Players)
2:25- 2:40 6. The Magi (The Wise Women)
2:45 – 2:55 7. Herod the Great (The 5th Week Blues)
3:10 – 3:30 8. John the Baptist (Les Soeurs de Sainte-Hilde avec la participation de quelques paysans d’Iffleï)
3:35 – 3:55 9. Lazarus (Medieval Masters)
4:00 – 4:15 10. The Crucifixion (The Manic Medievalists)
4:20-5:00 11. The Resurrection (The Mercantile Minstrels)

CALL FOR PERFORMERS

THE EXECUTION OF JOHN THE BAPTIST [IN MEDIEVAL FRENCH]

This will be a contribution to the festival of 20-minute medieval plays performed in the gardens of St Edmund Hall on Saturday April 23, with a subsequent performance in Iffley churchyard on the morning of Sunday April 24.

John the Baptist preaches to the masses about the corruption of those who rule the state, King Herod throws a birthday party, and young Salome induces him to promise her any gift she chooses. The gift is of course John’s head, and medieval theatre delighted in the use of stage blood. The language is accessible enough to speakers of modern French, and we will concentrate on rhythm and expression rather than antique vowel sounds.

Rehearsals will be one evening a week through term. Some of the cast will be actors from Iffley village. If you’d like to join in, and bring to life a text that has probably not been played for 500 years, please e-mail the director David Wiles at d.wiles@exeter.ac.uk, or come along to St Edmund Hall on Thursday 20 Jan at 6.00 (where the porter will direct you).