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Medieval document throws light on origins of York Mystery Plays

Posted on 14 February 2007

A ‘lost’ medieval gild roll which yields important clues about the origins of the York Mystery Plays has been uncovered by experts at the University of York.

The 600-year-old roll belonging to the Pater Noster Gild (the Gild of the Lord’s Prayer) was among a collection of historical documents given to the University by Raymond Burton, but its true significance only came to light following detailed study by archivists at the Borthwick Institute.

For more than 100 years, the roll was thought to be lost until it was discovered among the documents purchased by Raymond Burton from a London antiquarian books dealer. It is the only Pater Noster Gild roll to survive. A transcript and commentary is published in the latest edition of Northern History.

The four-feet-long parchment roll - a record of the accounts of the Pater Noster Gild for 1399 to 1400 - is in remarkable condition, save for a number of minor water stains and some abrasion damage that has caused the disappearance of the ink in one section. But Borthwick Institute conservator, Trevor Cooper, used UV light to decipher the imprint of the missing text.

[The gild roll] is a fascinating snapshot of life in medieval York

Dr Philippa Hoskin

The roll gives information about dues collected from members, rents paid and received for properties and the amounts paid for food and drink for the annual gild feast. It also provides details about the Pater Noster Play which is believed to be the forerunner of the York Mystery Play and is an indication of the Gild’s significance in York’s history. The roll confirms theories that the Pater Noster Play was actually a series of playlets based on the Seven Deadly Sins.

The Pater Noster Gild Roll was last seen for certain in the 19th century and was referred to in a book about the York Mystery Plays published in 1885. For more than 100 years, it was thought to be lost, a number of attempts to rediscover it proving unsuccessful

Apart from the clues about the Pater Noster Guild play, the roll contains intriguing details about the gild’s members, and details the sumptuous fare purchased for the annual gild feast, a clear indication the powerful influence Pater Noster Gild members had in the city.

The food and drink purchased for the feast was vast and included beef, veal, port, mutton, 30 geese, 12 suckling pigs, 12 dozen pullets and 29 dozen doves as well as 800 eggs, two gallons of honey and spices such as cinnamon, saffron, cloves and mace. Water was brought from the Ouse for six old pence, probably for cooking, the food being washed down by 29 gallons of wine and 198 gallons of ale.

Archivist, Dr Philippa Hoskin, said: "It is a wonderful document. Apart from the clues it gives us about the origins of the Mystery Plays, it is a fascinating snapshot of life in medieval York. The roll gives us important information about more than 150 Gild members which will help us to learn more about their social networks and at the start of the 15th century."

University Librarian Elizabeth Heaps said: "We are enormously grateful for the continuing generosity and vision of Raymond Burton in donating this exciting document to the University."

Notes to editors:

  • Photocall: 12.30pm Thursday 15 February, Borthwick Institute, University of York. Dr Philippa Hoskin and Trevor Cooper will be available for photographs and filming with the Pater Noster Gild Roll. Report to Reception and ask for David Garner 01904 432153.
  • The Borthwick Institute for Archives is one of the biggest archive respositories outside London. During its 50-year history it has collected archives from around the world, from the 12th century to the present day. Every year it welcomes thousands of visitors to use its archive materials. In January 2005 the Borthwick Institute opened to the public in a new, purpose-built building, situated adjacent to the J.B. Morrell Library on the University of York’s Heslington campus. This new building was made possible due to a generous grant of £4.4 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
  • Northern History, a review of the history of the North of England and the Borders, is published by Maney Publishing for the School of History at the University of Leeds.

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153