Skip to content Accessibility statement

Being Human: Recreating the sounds of 16th century York

Posted on 15 November 2016

Lecturer in Sound Production, Dr Mariana Lopez, is bringing the sounds of 16th century York back to life in an installation that highlights the connections between oral histories and the challenges of modern-day life.

The sound installation is part of the UK’s Being Human Festival, which aims to highlight the ways in which the humanities can inspire and enrich everyday lives. 

‘The Soundscapes of the York Mystery Plays,’ invites visitors to listen to the recreated soundscapes of the 16th century, as well as recordings of the modern performances of the plays. 

Dr Lopez, from the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television, gives us the top five sounds you might expect to hear on the streets of 16th century York:

Bells from parish churches and the Minster:

The sound of church bells served to regulate life within monasteries as well as the activities of lay communities.  Within religious institutions different bells were used to communicate different meanings, such as time for prayer, calls for assemblies and meal announcements. 

Church bells were a key aspect of the soundscape of towns since the bells of parish churches functioned not only as an indication of passage of time but also as a means to express the power of a church over an area of the town.  Bells were also used by civic authorities to announce battles, public ceremonies and indicate curfew. 

The fact that bells were used for such specific functions meant that the unexpected ringing could be used to indicate danger, death or a miracle. 

Animals, including pigs, would have wandered through the streets: 

Pigs would have been something that people saw every day in York streets.  They would either be urban raised pigs or brought in from the countryside and would root around in waste grounds.  They gave the streets a distinctive smell and sound!  Evidence suggests that cats were a regular presence in York as well and their burial suggests they were considered as pets, as they are today.

The sound of wagon wheels, songs, and parties along the York Mystery Plays’ pageant route:

The Mystery Plays were a series of plays with a religious theme that were performed in York from the 14th to the 16th century using wagons that were manhandled through the streets.  The pageant route is the predetermined route followed by the wagons.  The Mayor and aldermen would have had parties during the performance and would have watched the plays from the windows.

As part of the plays, you would also hear what was known as Gregorian Chant, or plainchant, which is characterised by its monophonic texture and slow melodic lines.  Polyphonic pieces were also common, where there was more than one melodic line.

The Soundscapes of the York Mystery Plays takes place at Bedern Hall, York, on Friday, 18 November to Monday, 21 November, between 7.30pm to 8.30pm.  Dr Lopez will give an opening lecture on Friday, 18 November at 7.30pm.

To book a place at the event please visit:


Media enquiries

Samantha Martin
Deputy Head of Media Relations

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322029