Here's What "Mystery" Dramas Were Like 500 Years Ago

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Everyone loves a good mystery. They even loved mysteries five hundred years ago. It’s just that, then, a “mystery” was nothing like the mysteries we devour today. Learn what the original mysteries were.

Today a “mystery” could mean anything from a police procedural to one of those old-fashioned dramas in which sweet elderly English people drink tea as they solve the goriest and most sordid crimes ever to tear apart a picturesque Cornish fishing village. It’s good stuff. And if you ever get transported back to an actual Cornish fishing village in the 1500s, you’ll be glad to know that you can still go out and see a mystery.


It just won’t be the mystery that you expect. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is, at the time, the word “mystery” had a different connotation—a “He works in mysterious ways” connotation. Plays were mostly quick affairs that illustrated scenes from the Bible, the lives of the saints, or basic morality tales. The ones dealing with the Bible were the mysteries, because they dealt with “the central mystery of the Redemption of the world, as accomplished by the Nativity, the Passion, and the Resurrection.”

At least that’s one take on it. Another is that “mystery,” at the time, didn’t come from a word meaning secret or esoteric, it came from the word “misterium,” which in Latin means “occupation”. Mysteries, then, were just like any other play, except they were put on by the local guilds for the entertainment of the local town. The fact that it sounds like the modern “mystery” is just coincidence.


How did a miracle mystery become a murder mystery? According to G J Meyer, who wrote a history of the Tudor reign, it started when the world stopped agreeing on what constituted the right religion, and so miracle plays became not only politically dangerous but, in some places, actually prohibited. That didn’t directly give rise to actual murder mysteries, but it did take us a step away from quick and simple morality plays and into long, involved dramas that were more murder than miracle.