The Medieval Review 11.02.17

Beadle, Richard. The York Plays: A Critical Edition of the York Corpus Christi Play as Recorded in British Library Additional MS 35290. Vol. I. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xxxviii, 477. $110 ISBN 978-0-19-957847-4. .

Reviewed by:

Roger A. Ladd
University of North Carolina at Pembroke

In the sixteenth century, John Clerke, servant of the Common Clerk of York, spent four decades working with the city's Register of its Corpus Christi play; his notes are all over the manuscript (xxvii). Richard Beadle, though he has not of course been writing in the manuscript, has spent almost as many years working on that Register, and the plays it contains. He first edited the complete cycle in a 1982 edition published by Edward Arnold, and since then has collaborated with Peter Meredith on a facsimile edition of the manuscript (1983), and with Pamela King on a modern-spelling student edition (1984). The 1982 edition has long been the standard scholarly edition of the play, supplanting Lucy Toulmin Smith's 1885 York Plays, and guiding a generation of scholarship on medieval drama. Those of us who have worked with Beadle's 1982 The York Plays have reason to welcome his new edition for the Early English Text Society (EETS), which expands on the strengths of that earlier edition while addressing some of its flaws.

It must be stressed, however, that this review only addresses Volume I of this new two-volume edition. Unlike the two-volume EETS edition of The Towneley Plays by Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley published in 1994, this new edition of the York cycle is not appearing all at once. Internet booksellers show Volume II as promised for summer 2011, and one trusts that the second volume will not take the 28 years that Volume II of Priscilla Heath Barnum's EETS edition of Dives and Pauper required to follow her Volume I, Part I. It is also to be hoped that this new EETS edition will be able to address by far the greatest liability of Beadle's 1982 edition of the plays, its unavailability. Still, this review can only address the merits of the first volume on its own, with the expectation that Volume II will provide the explanatory notes and glossary that are lacking here. Given that the greatest flaw of the 1982 edition was the need for more detailed explanatory notes, Volume I alone holds up relatively favorably against Beadle's earlier edition.

Aside from the expectation that being part of a large and influential series will help this volume stay in print, publication with EETS does offer other advantages. Anyone who has worked with Beadle's 1982 edition will have noticed that the book has not physically aged well; even well-kept library copies tend to have brittle pages at this point, with substantial yellowing. EETS volumes have generally aged better. An EETS edition of the York cycle will also keep good company, along with a number of other solid editions of the Towneley plays, the Chester cycle, and other dramatic publications.

As an edition, with the understanding that the explanatory notes remain forthcoming, Beadle's new critical edition has much going for it. The prefatory material is clearly based on that of the 1982 edition, but has been considerably updated and expanded in those areas which made it into Volume I. Beadle's editorial focus has expanded somewhat, as well, in that he addresses the two other manuscripts that contain textual variants: the Sykes Manuscript, which contains the Scriveners' The Incredulity of Thomas, and the Towneley Manuscript, which includes five plays apparently adapted from York originals (Moses and Pharaoh, Christ and the Doctors, The Harrowing of Hell, The Resurrection, and Doomsday). While the bulk of the introduction addresses the York Register, containing all of the plays, the added discussion of the other versions is helpful here. The material on the dating of the Register is effectively updated here, making good use of Beadle's and others' scholarship on the city documents surrounding the recording of the plays. Other sections of the introduction, such as the later history of the register, have only been slightly revised, but the earlier versions of that material were already authoritative. Beadle has made some changes in terminology, notably having abandoned the word "gild" for the term "craft," the latter term being itself used in the manuscript. This edition does omit several introductory sections from the 1982 edition (Development of the Cycle, Mode of Performance, and Studies of the York Plays), which may be replaced by material intended for Volume II.

Beadle has also completely rethought the appendices of the edition. The 1982 edition had an appendix by John Stevens discussing the music in the Wefferes' (Weavers') Assumption of the Virgin, and a discussion of the plays' versification. This new EETS edition replaces Stevens' appendix on music with a more updated one by Richard Rastall (who had also written the note on that play in the 1983 facsimile edition), and also provides as appendices edited versions of the B- text of the Cardemakers' (Cardmakers') Creation of Adam and Eve, the Sykes manuscript version of the Escreueneres' (Scriveners') Incredulity of Thomas, and the fragmentary version of the Inholders' (Innholders') Coronation of the Virgin (which had been placed after the complete version in the 1982 edition). The separate texts of the Cardemakers' and Escreueneres' plays are particularly welcome, as Beadle's choice to record the variants only in the textual notes in the earlier edition was somewhat unwieldy.

Beadle has also made some changes in his editorial approach here. One major difference is the presentation of the crafts and play titles in the EETS edition. Where the 1982 edition had used the modern titles of the plays and modernized the names of the crafts producing them, this new edition preserves the manuscript's fifteenth-century spelling of the craft designations, and marks the modern titles clearly with square brackets to indicate their imposition. For three plays, the Gloueres' (Glovers') Sacrificium Cayme et Abell, the Pynneres' (Pinners') Crucifixio Christi, and the Bocheres' (Butchers') Mortificacio Christi, Beadle has also recovered Latin titles as they appear in the manuscript. The new edition shifts to Arabic numerals from Roman numerals to number the plays, as well, with considerably greater readability. One modern play name has changed; the Last Judgement is now labeled Doomsday.

Beadle's close attention to the manuscript is also evident in some of the other changes in his approach. Emendations from the manuscript are now clearly marked with square brackets in the text (like the modern play titles), with the exception of a few orthographic matters where letter-forms are not distinct (thorn/y and yogh/z). Another major difference is in the textual notes at the bottom of each page. They remain in the same place as they were in the 1982 edition, but their function has changed considerably. In 1982 Beadle used those notes to record places where his text varied from that of the manuscript, but also with a series of abbreviations he indicated how other editions and scholarship approached those readings. That latter information is now removed, and instead the textual notes focus primarily on where the readings of the edition vary from the Register, or from the other manuscripts when applicable. He has added some other information to the textual notes, however, including descriptions of decorated capitals. Descriptions of other page markings are somewhat expanded. He has further identified the hands of marginalia in a few cases, adding a few more confident attributions to John Clerke (e.g. 7, 100, 167). He has also been able to identify under ultraviolet light an additional erased phrase at the end of the Chaundelers' (Chandlers') The Shepherds (105). These shifts in the apparatus are not major, but they do help keep the reader's focus on the text's manuscript origins, without distracting too much from the experience of reading the plays. Beadle has similarly streamlined his handling of missing leaves in the manuscript; in the 1982 edition, he inserted descriptive notes in the middle of the play texts where material was missing; in this EETS edition he inserts a single line of ellipses to show missing text, and has a very brief note acknowledging the absence of a leaf (e.g. 37, 194, 319). Presumably Volume II will replace the missing descriptive notes with updated discussions.

In terms of the actual play texts, Beadle has made some changes, but not many. He has changed the layout; where the 1982 edition had a relatively complicated system of indentation within stanzas in most plays, this new edition indents only when a long line of poetry has not fit across the page. This does generally match the layout of the manuscript, though in the Cutteleres' (Cutlers') Conspiracy Beadle notes that "from this point onwards the long alliterative lines are usually divided at the mid-point, and the second half-line is written beneath the first, beginning with a capital letter" (213). Although the edition as a whole follows the lineation of the manuscript, here Beadle lineates on the basis of the metrical line, and acknowledges but does not follow the manuscript's layout. He has made an effort to keep lineation of the plays consistent with other editions, which is certainly helpful, but there is precedent for laying out the half-lines separately in Smith's 1885 edition, which uses brackets to indicate the metrically linked half-lines. Aside from the question of layout (and quibbles notwithstanding the plays are generally laid out sensibly), there are a few changed readings here and there (e.g. 28, 256, 368); generally they do not change the sense of the plays, though anyone engaging in extremely close reading of the text might do well to consult multiple editions (an area where the more comparative textual notes of the 1982 edition would be helpful).

There remain of course areas where another editor might have made different choices; for example, Beadle's decision to edit the repeated passages in Herod and The Magi in parallel here (112-21) suggests the possibility of doing the same with the A- and B-texts of The Creation of Adam and Eve, or with the Sykes and Register texts of The Incredulity of Thomas. On the whole, though, this edition is thorough, detailed, and straightforward to read. Volume II remains needed, to add explanatory notes and a glossary; given that the explanatory notes in Beadle's 1982 edition of the plays were not as detailed as one might wish, it seems probable that the new explanatory notes will add more obvious value than the re-editing of the text here has done. Even without those notes, however, one cannot recommend that scholars of these plays work with any other edition now that this volume has been published.