The Coventry Plays

Only two play-texts are known to have survived from Coventry’s famous and once-comprehensive cycle of late medieval mystery plays,

The Weavers’ Pageant exists in two manuscripts, Coventry City Record Office Accessions 11/1 and 11/2. The manuscript of the Shearmen and Taylors’ pageant was destroyed in the fire at the Birmingham Free Reference Library in 1879, but fortunately a printed transcript of it had been published by the Coventry antiquarian Thomas Sharp in a limited edition in 1817, and in his Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries Anciently Performed at Coventry in 1825.

The CD-ROM of the Coventry plays
will reproduce high quality photo-facsimiles of these two surviving manuscripts of the Weavers’ pageant, as well as related manuscript and printed materials, including both versions of Sharp’s editions of the Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, complete with the words of the Coventry Carol and other songs.

The Manuscripts
Coventry Record Office Accession 11/2 is the base text of the Weavers' pageant, prepared for the guild in 1534 by Robert Croo at a cost of five shillings. On the penultimate page of the manuscript there is the following colophon:
Tys matter nevly translate be Robert Croo/
In the yere of owre lord god M1vCxxxiiijte /
then beyng meyre Mastur palmar beddar/
and Rychard smythe an ... Pyxley/
masturs of the weywars thys boke yendide/
the seycond dey of marche in yere above seyde.

Coventry Record Office Accession 11/1 is two leaves from an earlier version of the Presentation in the Temple, written in a fifteenth-century secretary hand in brown ink, on two leaves of handmade paper. Croo seems to have been working from this original for the first half of the play at least. These pages show all the signs of being fragments of an earlier prompt copy.

Other Coventry Manuscript Records on the Plays
The survival of these two manuscripts, plus six fifteenth-century deeds pertaining to the land on which the Weavers' pageant house was built, the ordinances of the guild dated 31 Henry VI (1 September 1452 - 31 August 1453), account books from 1523, rent-gatherers' accounts from 1521, and registers of apprentices from 1550 - 1700, mean that the records of the Coventry Weavers' are extensive, if not always informative, for the period in which the play was performed.

The package has been designed in such a way that the user can move easily from manuscript to manuscript, calling up as much help in the way of codicological and background information, as well as transcriptions of the texts, as (s)he needs, on screen.
It will accordingly be useful both to experienced scholars and to students who have never worked with manuscripts before. The former will have unimpeded access to the manuscripts in their studies, and the latter will be able to call up the support they need to experience and understand a medieval manuscript at first hand.

The playbook is sprinkled with interesting marginalia offering tantalising glimpses of its early use. Even its binding reveals secrets: the pastedowns, now bound-in as fly-leaves, are ff. v, ii, a woodcut, and f.vii of an edition of the Expositio hymnorum secundum vsum Sarum, printed by Pinson in 1498. The package allows the user to reconstruct them in their original position complete with graffiti.

Later History of the Manuscripts
With the demise of Candlemas as a liturgical feast of any importance after the Reformation, the subject matter of the Weavers’ pageant lost interest. Consequent neglect meant that the manuscripts survived quietly in the continuous possession of the guild, latterly known as the Company of Broadweavers and Clothiers, who are still the owners.

The other more popular materials from the Coventry cycle, including the Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, which is a long Nativity play, passed into the Staunton Collection at Longbridge House, and from there to the Free Reference Library of Birmingham, where they perished in a fire in 1879.

Thomas Sharp, Coventry’s early nineteenth-century antiquarian, an assiduous transcriber (and hero of the Directors of the Project) is solely responsible for the survival of all the other materials we have relating to the Coventry cycle. He published the Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors twice, first on its own in 1817 in a limited edition of 12 copies only, then in his Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries anciently performed at Coventry (Coventry: Merridew, 1825). He discovered the Weavers' pageant and records too late for their inclusion in the Dissertation, but later published it in an Abbotsford Club edition of 1836. That text, the now rare 1817 text, and extracts from Sharp’s personal annotated proof copy of his Dissertation, now in the British Library, are all also digitally reproduced as part of the same package.

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