The N-Town Plays (also called the Hegge Cycle and the Ludus Coventriae cycle) are a cycle of 42 medieval Mystery plays from between 1450 and 1500.
The manuscript is now housed in the British Library, London (BL MS Cotton Vespasian D.8). As its name might suggest, though, it was once the property of the 17th-century antiquarian Sir Robert Bruce Cotton and was housed in his large library. Cotton's librarian, Richard James, quickly examined the manuscript and erroneously assumed that it contained the Biblical plays performed in Coventry during the 15th and 16th centuries, thus naming them the Ludus Coventriae or "the Play Called Corpus Christi". He was mistaken in both cases, but that mistake has proven very difficult to correct; the name Ludus Coventriae persists in the secondary and critical literature well into the 20th century. A further complication of the N-Town plays was made by Hardin Craig who, in his Medieval Drama (1955), called the collection the Hegge Plays after their former owner, Robert Hegge. The name Hegge Plays only briefly caught on, and the most common way to refer to these plays now is The N-Town Plays, after the reference in the last stanza of the opening proclamation that the play was to be played at "N-Town"; when the plays toured from town to town, N. (meaning nomen, the Latin for name) would be replaced by the name of the town the cycle was playing in at any given time.
The plays of the N-Town cycle vary from simple, almost liturgical, recitations of Biblical texts (as in the Moses play of the Ten Commandments, the Jesse play with its kings and prophets, and the Pentecost play) to highly complex and fast moving short dramas on Biblical themes that have a naturalism and liveliness (as in the Death of Herod and the Woman Taken in Adultery) almost unique in early drama. These plays can all be played from a wagon or a single booth stage. On the other hand, the two Mary Plays and the Passion Play were written for what is often called "place and scaffold" production in the round using "scaffolds" or raised stages and also the "platea" or the "place" between the stages.
The true nature of the manuscript has been hidden by the fact that the scribe arranged all the episodes in "chronological order" starting with Creation and ending with Judgment, simulating an episodic play presenting salvation history as in the two northern civic cycles from York and Chester. As he did this he buried the Mary Play inside the Nativity sequence and copied the Passion Play into place between the Raising of Lazarus and the Resurrection appearances. It has taken painstaking paleographic and codicologic examinations of the manuscript to determine what the scribe actually did. To further complicate the matter, at some point in the history of copying out these plays, the proclamation was attached to them. Although the proclamation does not match the plays that follow, someone, possibly the scribe of this manuscript, placed numbers in the margin of the text against incidents that correspond to the description of the "pageants" in the proclamation. This does not affect the single episode pageants but it breaks up the flow of the Passion Play and has obscured the very existence of the Mary Play for centuries.
A final scribal feature of this manuscript is the stage directions which reflect a curious mixture of intent. They seem to be recording performance detail while, at the same time, facilitating the reading of the manuscript as a meditation text rather than using it as a text to be enacted. The stage directions are in Latin in the pageants, in the Mary Play they are a mix of English and Latin and in the Passion Play they are almost entirely in English. They seem to function as much as an aid to help a reader visualise the action as actual practical instructions to a director. The details of costume and action in the stage directions in the Passion Play suggest a description of an actual performance. The liturgical music is specified in the Mary Play and Assumption Play by including the opening words of each piece or the "incipit" in the stage directions. On the other hand, the stage directions in many of the pageants are quite laconic.
All scholars who have worked with this manuscript agree that it belongs in the east Midlands. Some attempt has been made to place it as far north as Lincoln (it was even called the Lincoln cycle by some scholars for a period and is still performed in the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral), but the general consensus places the manuscript in East Anglia. Stephen Spector cautiously writes "The linguistic evidence indicates that the codex was recorded principally or exclusively by scribes trained in East Anglia" (Spector, xxix) Meredith more positively asserts that The Mary Play comes from Norfolk (Meredith, 6). However, since the eclectic nature of the MS. has been recognised, scholars have been hesitant to insist that all the plays copied into this anthology were played in the same place.
The date "1468" appears in the hand of the major scribe at the end of the Purification play (f 100v). This, then, is the earliest possible date for the copying of the text. Spector has concluded on the basis of dialectal evidence that the plays cannot predate 1425 and on the basis of the watermarks on the paper that the paper used by the main scribe comes from the period 1460-77. It is possible, again on the basis of the paper, that the Assumption play, written separately by a different scribe and bound into the main MS., was copied slightly earlier. We are safe to assume that the MS. dates from the second half of the third quarter (ca. 1463-75) of the 15th century. This makes it the oldest MS. to contain a large number of Biblical plays. Although we know there were plays performed elsewhere from the late 14th century, the York manuscript was written down in the 1470s, the Towneley MS. after the turn of the 16th century and all the versions of the Chester plays after 1596.
The majority of the plays that make up the N-Town Cycle are based (some rather tenuously) on the Bible, while the others are taken from Roman Catholic legend, apocryphal sources and folk tradition. The Marian plays place a strong emphasis on the early life of the Virgin, as well as on the relationship between her and Joseph (which plays heavily upon the popular medieval old man with a younger wife trope). The Trial of Mary and Joseph play has been identified as a pastiche of the East Anglian ecclesiastical court system.
Some recent published editions of the N-town plays include:
A facsimile of the manuscript from the British Library was also published: The N-Town Plays: a facsimile of British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D VIII. Ed. Peter Meredith and Stanley J. Kahrl. Leeds: University of Leeds School of English, 1977.