Integrating any of the N-Town plays into an undergraduate or a graduate syllabus can feel like a daunting task. When students ask the understandable questions of ‘who wrote these plays’, ‘where were they performed’, ‘who were their audiences’, or ‘why was this group of plays compiled together’, one can feel inadequate when shrugging shoulders and admitting that we simply don’t know, and we likely never will. But the N-Town manuscript is a tremendously rich teaching resource and while its lack of historical clarity can be a drawback, it can also open up rewarding grounds for discussion on late-medieval culture and performance practices.

I recently taught a class where we considered how movement was performed in the N-Town Raising of Lazarus episode (play 25). Approaching the play with this specific question in mind proved to be a fruitful entry point into drama for a group of students who had not had extensive engagement with the material before. Of course they still had the usual questions, but by considering these through a specific lens—movement in this case—I could direct those questions to a positive end. I stated from the outset that the purpose of the class was to begin to formulate useful research questions, not to emerge with a series of clear-cut answers. Answers can be vague: as scholars of the medieval period, we know this already. But a good research question can shape your thinking in more interesting and nuanced ways.

The question of movement was at the forefront of these discussions, including exits and entrances, gestures, how characters relate physically to each other, and the cultural importance of specific movements (such as the procession with Lazarus’s body from house to graveyard). We thought about movement across the playing space (which forces you to ask specific questions about this space, such as where Lazarus is when ill, and what kind of grave he emerges from when resurrected, etc.), as well as how we understand and interpret these movements if we were to consider the following possible contexts:

  • Were the N-Town plays (some or all) for public performance: in public spaces, indoor or outdoor; for a designated group (household, parish etc.)?
  • Was the function of this manuscript to be read—privately or in a group?
  • Do these various possibilities change the way we think about the play, its reception, and its contents?
  • How does the way we approach the question of movement change when we consider the play as something staged versus something read?


I have found that in teaching drama, bringing the wider cultural, historic, and iconographic context into account helps students to engage with the material. To that end, I presented this class with a few textual examples of the raising of Lazarus, including the biblical verse John 11.44 from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate (‘And presently he that had been dead came forth, bound feet and hands with winding bands; and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go’) and an excerpt from Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John 49.24:

Dost thou wonder how he came forth with his feet bound, and wonderest not at this, that after four days’ interment he rose from the dead? In both events it was the power of the Lord that operated, and not the strength of the dead. He came forth, and as yet is bound. Still in his shroud, he came forth at this time. What does that mean? While thou despiseth Christ, thou liest in the arms of death; and if thy contempt reacheth the lengths I have mentioned, thou art buried as well: but when thou makest confession, thou comest forth.[1]

The point here was not related to source material per say, though of course the gospel text is the ultimate authority over the medieval treatment of this episode, and giving the basic context is useful too. Regarding the gospel verse, I asked the students to identify the main actions which take place, what is special/unusual about the type of movement included (who is causing it?), as well as how they understood (pictured, made sense of) the movement described. I chose this example because Lazarus is stated to rise and emerge from his tomb while being bound at the joints by his grave-clothes. The gospel includes a paradoxical movement which requires the reader to do some work in order to make sense of these conflicting elements. Making students pay attention to the efforts they had to make to understand these details was an interesting discussion point, and I asked them to explain how they visualised movements under such odd circumstances.

The Augustinian verse showed a different way of apprehending movement, and making moral (as well as allegorical) sense of it. Augustine, and many more after him, interpreted Lazarus’s raising as an act of contrition, while the removal of his graveclothes signalled God’s grace, and Lazarus’s full absolution. It was an interpretative model most were unfamiliar with, and gave the students a sense of how movement could be understood or interpreted according to a different intellectual framework.

I also showed a series of paintings, which presented an artist’s solution to the problem of how Lazarus exited his grave. The first was from a twelfth-century Spanish fresco at the church of San Baudelio, León. It shows Lazarus elevating into a vertical position, but strangely captures a moment in which he is in the middle of raising, and assigns Christ the primary role in effecting bodily movement. A second image, from Giotto’s early fourteenth-century frescoed Scrovegni chapel in Padua, showed Lazarus outside of the tomb, bound like a mummy, and looking distinctly dead, also suggesting Christ is the agent of movement. The question of how each artist approached the issue of movement out of the tomb (achieved or in the process in each image) facilitated discussion and gave the students another way of thinking about this question.

The Healing of the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus (Castile-León, Spain, c.1129–34)
The Healing of the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus (Castile-León, Spain, c.1129–34)

Then to the play. This play is interesting to teach on so many levels, for the expression of illness by Lazarus, the grief of the sisters Martha and Mary, the role of the consolatores figures, the relative abundance of stage directions, and far more. The play in its fifteenth-century context necessitated a bit more cultural framing. Mary is the Magdalene in the vast majority of Lazarus plays, and this consolidation of roles needs to be explained. Lazarus’s relationship to the Office of the Dead (an integral part of funeral services where prayers were offered for the soul of the deceased, and could also be prayed at home, explaining its presence in books of hours) is also worth mentioning; he is regularly cited in the Office as a beacon of hope for the mourners of the departed—he was a figure of resurrection.[2]

I printed off several pages from the N-Town manuscript (N-Town facsimile BL Cotton Vespasian D V III f. 127v & 129r), which is available online on the British Library website. I asked the students to identify moments in sections of the play where movement was suggested. This involved looking for words related to movement (mostly verbs) or recognising stage directions, which are consistently underlined in red, and in Latin, which prompted questions related to the scribe and intended readers. The students also had their modern editions to hand (I used the TEAMS edition, ed. by Douglas Sugano, as it is the most accessible text available), and could see the editorial interventions made.

This preparatory work paved the way for dealing with the raising itself. In particular, I asked students to consider how the event compared, or did not, to the biblical account. I also asked what evidence the play offered in terms of how a player would raise from or emerge in some way from the tomb—the language used and stage directions given.

From that point I suggested the students think of themselves as directors. They have this scene to do, they have a player dressed in grave-clothes: how do they make this player emerge from the tomb? Does the biblical text, or the iconography, or even an interpretation of authorities such as Augustine, give them the tools to perform this movement dramatically? These questions related to other practical factors within the play, such as the type of grave Lazarus is buried in. The play often refers to the grave as a ‘pit’, and students had to think about what this word might imply. And again, the context of the play, its audience, changes how we understand these questions: whether it’s a group of readers or a parish pageant makes a difference.

Iconography contemporary with the N-Town manuscript was useful to bring in here. Fifteenth-century illuminations of Lazarus in books of hours show him draped in—as opposed to being bound by—his grave-clothes. The problems may not be the same therefore, though the stage direction Hic resurget Lazarus manibus et pedibus ad modum sepulti… [Here Lazarus rises with his hands and feet bound for burial…] suggests that the grave-clothes need to be taken into account.[3] Students were encouraged to use as many contextual pieces of evidence as possible to build a strong hypothesis of how this exiting of the tomb might be achieved, and what it might look like. But they also had to take into account the limits of human movement, which can be breached in text and image in ways that live performance cannot easily replicate. Those limits become more pertinent for a performance which is staged rather than read, but this does not negate the value of either dramatic form.

University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, BANC MS UCB 030, f. 111v
University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library MS UCB 030, f. 111v

This question-led approach engaged the students and, in general, gave them an easier entry point into a discussion of early drama. There is a difference between saying there’s nothing to be known and saying that questions are a useful way forward with something like the N-Town plays. You can lose students in ambiguity, but if you chose a carefully structured way in—in this instance ‘movement’—you can guide them through some fairly fraught ground. I’ve found that a vast survey of how and what we know and don’t know about early drama tends to overwhelm students who are learning about these practices for the first time. Such an alternative strategy might be a more productive way of engaging students, but it also allows teachers who are interested in a play for a particular reason to put drama on their syllabus even for a week or two of the semester, without overloading themselves with preparatory work.


[1] Tractates on the Gospel of John, ed. by Philip Schaff, trans. by John Gibb (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), ed. and rev. by Kevin Knight <>

[2] The Towneley Lazarus play is also fascinating to look at, as Lazarus speaks of the world beyond death for the majority of this play.

[3] Quotation and translation taken from The N-Town Plays, ed. by Douglas Sugano (Kalamazoo: MIP, 2007).


Sarah Brazil
University of Geneva

















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