Its no mystery

I had heard that “Mystery Plays” were once popular entertainment at Christmas and given some of the scary storytelling traditions in the dark days of winter, I expected these mysteries to be like the ones we enjoy today. A dead body appears and we –the audience, reader or viewer—try to figure out who the killer is. But the mystery plays from the “old days” didn’t really have a great deal of mystery about them, at least if you were a good Christian. They were all based on tales from the Bible. So yes, there is a dead body (lots of them, actually) but we know “whodunit” if we know our scripture. If we don’t, the mystery play will teach us. And I assume that’s why they became popular in the first place. The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, but back before the invention of the printing press, there weren’t many copies and few people could read them even if they had access to them. Tales from the Bible were read in church, but in Latin, so if you were just showing up at Mass for your weekly blessing and didn’t really understand the language of the clergy, you might not understand what was being read. And even if you did, it was more fun to see it acted out before your eyes. The mystery plays actually predate modern theatre, so if you wanted to see live drama (of the fictional variety) it was Biblical stories or nothing at all. When the plays began in the 10th Century, they were performed in church, presumably by clergy, and soon they began to be performed in public marketplaces. Most of the story would be acted out in Latin, but there would be an introduction in the local language – so it was probably a little like going to the opera is today. Audiences would understand the gist of the story, but have no idea what anyone was actually saying. By 1210, the Pope had become so suspicious of these popular plays that he issued an edict forbidding clergy from performing in public. This did not end the plays, as he intended, but transferred them into secular hands, usually the town guilds. They kept with the Biblical themes of the stories, but added a few comic embellishments. Supposedly term “mystery play” does not, as I’d thought, refer to liturgical mysteries, but to the guild control of the plays. It is said to derive from the Latin “misterium” which means occupation. The guilds, of course, were members of specific occupations. Different guilds sometimes performed or sponsored stories related to their occupation. For instance, the carpenters guild might sponsor a play about the building of Noah’s ark while the baker’s guild who host the story of the loaves and fishes. The Nativity became a popular theme for plays, especially as Christmas developed as a time of feasting and amusement. The amusement started to get the upper hand. One of the best known surviving mystery plays is The Second Shepherd’s Pageant which takes the Christmas story to a whole new level. It fears “Mak the sheep stealer” and his wife and draws parallels between stolen mutton and the Lamb of God. It’s not hard to see how professional theatre began to evolve and eclipse the stories with little mystery. But the fabulous theatre of the Elizabethan and Jaobean periods owes a great debt to the mystery plays, because they really warmed up the audience. While the mystery playIt’s no Mystery I had heard that “Mystery Plays” were once popular entertainment at Christmas and given some of the scary storytelling traditions in the dark days of winter, I expected these mysteries to be like the ones we enjoy today. A dead body appears and we –the audience, reader or viewer—try to figure out who the killer is. But the Mystery Plays from the “old days” didn’t really have a great day of mystery about them, at least if you were a good Christian. They were all based on tales from the Bible. So yes, there is a dead body (lots of them, actually) but we know “whodunit” if we know our scripture. If we don’t, the Mystery Play will teach us. And I assume that’s why they became popular in the first place. The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, but back before the invention of the printing press, there weren’t many copies and few people could read them even if they had access to them. Tales from the Bible were read in church, but in Latin, so if you were just showing up at Mass for your weekly blessing and didn’t really understand the language of the clergy, you might not understand what was being read. And even if you did, it was more fun to see it acted out before your eyes. The Mystery plays actually predate modern theatre, so if you wanted to see live drama (of the fictional variety) it was Biblical stories or nothing at all. When the plays began in the 10th Century, they were performed in church, presumably by clergy, and soon they began to be performed in public marketplaces. Most of the story would be acted out in Latin, but there would be an introduction in the local language – so it was probably a little like going to the opera is today. Audiences would understand the gist of the story, but have no idea what anyone was actually saying. By 1210, the Pope had become so suspicious of these popular plays that he issued an edict forbidding clergy from performing in public. This did not end the plays, as he intended, but transferred them into secular hands, usually the town guilds. They kept with the Biblical themes of the stories, but added a few comic embellishments. Supposedly term “mystery play” does not, as I’d thought, refer to liturgical mysteries, but to the guild control of the plays. It is said to derive from the Latin “misterium” which means occupation. The guilds, of course, were members of specific occupations. Different guilds sometimes performed or sponsored stories related to their occupation. For instance, the carpenters guild might sponsor a play about the building of Noah’s ark while the baker’s guild who host the story of the loaves and fishes. The Nativity became a popular theme for plays, especially as Christmas developed as a time of feasting and amusement. The amusement started to get the upper hand. One of the best known surviving mystery plays is The Second Shepherd’s Pageant which takes the Christmas story to a whole new level. It fears “Mak the sheep stealer” and his wife and draws parallels between stolen mutton and the Lamb of God. It’s not hard to see how professional theatre began to evolve and eclipse the stories with little mystery. But the fabulous theatre of the Elizabethan and Jaobean periods owes a great debt to the mystery plays, because they really warmed up the audience. While the mystery plays are not mysteries we think of, they educated and entertained people. Now we demand more, and so we have mysteries with suspense where readers and audiences are challenged to solve a puzzle. My mystery Worth its Weight in Old is set just before Christmas, so if you’re looking for a puzzle with a hint of yuletide mystery, read an excerpt and see if it puts you in the spirit. s are not mysteries we think of, they educated and entertained people. Now we demand more, and so we have mysteries with suspense where readers and audiences are challenged to solve a puzzle. My mystery Worth its Weight in Old is set just before Christmas, so if you’re looking for a puzzle with a hint of yuletide mystery, read an excerpt and see if it puts you in the spirit.

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