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Morality Play

3.73  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,403 Ratings  ·  237 Reviews
Barry Unsworth, author of the Booker Prize-winnings "Sacred Hunger," turns to 14th-century England with a novel of foul doings in the time of "The Name of the Rose."In "Morality Play," Barry Unsworth, indisputably the finest writer of literate historical fiction alive today, brings 14th-century England to vibrant life, transporting us back to this "distant mirror" to show ...more
Paperback, 188 pages
Published September 6th 2001 by Penguin Books, Limited (UK) (first published 1995)
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Glenn Russell
Dec 22, 2014 Glenn Russell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Black Death gripped Europe in the years 1348-1350, wiping out nearly half the population in cities and frequently every man, woman and child in villages and towns. People could be healthy in the morning, feverish at noon, covered in boils, spitting blood and writhing in agony in the evening and meet their death that very night. Not even close to understanding the true biological cause of this blackest of plagues and perceiving the ugly, stinking buboes popping up on family and neighbors as t ...more
I loved this murder mystery which is set against a backdrop of the Black Death and the other terrible events of the fourteenth century. If you're thinking "I don't like murder mysteries", perhaps give this one some consideration as it is not your average murder mystery.

What we have is a group of itinerant actors who stop at a certain town for the purpose of burying a dead comrade, and to perform some plays in order to earn some money to survive. Taking the place of the deceased actor is Nicholas
May 18, 2015 Teresa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The best of historical fiction is said to comment on the time during which it was written, not just the time being written about. Here, though, the focus is perhaps on a universal theme, the idea that nothing ever changes, especially concerning those in power controlling or suppressing the truth for their own benefit.

If you're looking for a mystery (which I didn't read this as), the story might seem formulaic. The nature of the crime and the perpetrator came at me from a mile away and many char
Apr 14, 2013 Maureen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
this was my introduction to the historical novels of barry unsworth and i really appreciate his idea of telling a story set in the past. he doesn't overwhelm the reader with his precious research; rather he provides in morality tale a whodunnit set in the middle ages. his style of historical writing is like a high-end manicure: the story is buffed and polished, and then painted with two or three coats of in the colours of the era, in the reflection of historical context in which he has chosen to ...more
Ivonne Rovira
May 26, 2015 Ivonne Rovira rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play proves to be equal parts Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael and learned explication of medieval life. Please don’t let that put you off! This brief, thoroughly entertaining novel won the Booker Prize, and you’ll see why almost immediately.

Wayward priest Nicholas Barber ran away from his diocese during the springtime. Having run afoul of a cuckolded husband, at Christmas time he has fled afield and crosses paths with a traveling acting troupe just at the moment when one
Jun 03, 2012 Kinga rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well, well, well, Barry... Didn’t think we would meet again after that ghastly horror that ‘The Land of Marvels’ was. But this wasn’t half bad.

The book takes place in late fourteenth century and tells the story of Nicholas, a fugitive monk ,who joins a travelling troupe. As the narrator says:

“It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on.”

Now, writing a literary crime fiction novel revolving around medieval theatre is a very original concept in itself. Unsworth moves very
Jul 22, 2012 Simon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book, and thought it was well executed, but it left me a little cold. It was a little too studied, a little too self-conscious in its use of the theatre as key to life trope that permeates the book. Also, given the book's brevity, we don't get very full pictures of its characters. No doubt psychology isn't what the author is after - morality plays themselves are a long way from Ibsen, or even Shakespeare - but there's enough of it in there to make you feel the want of more.


This is a historical novel set in a small rural town in fourteenth century England: it is winter, the landscape is snow-laden, the climate is freezing cold, and the Black Death is a constant presence.

This is a pretty nice, atmospheric novel, decently researched and written, with credible characters and a good and engaging storyline, with sparks of real originality: however it does not have the intellectual depth nor the ambitious scope of the "Name of the Rose", for example.

Overall, this is a
Ned Hayes
Morality Play is a tight taut tale of a troupe of actors in 14th century England who enter a new village and find out about the murder of a local boy. In a twist unusual to their station in the culture and their tenuous place in life, they actually become involved in this local crime.

In fact, they choose to create an original play (which was strange to do in the period) around the crime, in order to put the facts before the local village population. In the time period, this brave attempt to por
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth tells the story of a troupe of actors in 14th century England who become involved in the murder of a young boy. As they investigate the crime for the purposes of producing a play based on it, they become increasingly aware of the inconsistencies that pervade the case against the girl accused by the authorities. The actors soon find themselves well over their heads, embroiled in a mystery that involves far more than a peasant boy's death, a play whose actors are th ...more
MORALITY PLAY Hist. Mys-Nicholas Barber-England-1300s) – G+
Unsworth, Barry – Standalone
Doubleday, 1995, US Hardcover – ISBN: 0385479530

First Sentence: It was a death that began is all and another death that led us on.

Young priest Nicholas Barbar has run away from his safe but boring position at Lincoln Cathedral to join a company of players. Deciding to do something different than has been done before, they decide to make a play out of the real murder which has just occurred. A young boy was fou
Sandra Bašić
Žao mi je što je knjiga pisana izvornim a ne modernim eng. jezikom pa je kao takva i prevedena. Prošlo vrijeme "izbodeno" aoristom i imperfektom ubilo mi je volju za čitanjem pa sam prestala pratiti sadržaj a počela brojiti koliko ću puta u rečenici dobiti "bijaše" i sl. inačice dragog nam glagola biti. "Maltretiranje"jezikom ovakvog tipa dozvoljavam samo Bibliji, ovo je bilo pravo mučenje. Šteta, jer knjiga uopće sadržajno nije loša.

Film je popravio dojam (naravno, britanski je) pogotovo moj o
3.5 stars. This started a little slow for me, but really picked up as it went along. I listened to much of it and the narrator did a nice job adding to the story without going over the top. The characters were players(actors) in 14th century England so the added dramatic quality worked well. This was one of those books that made me do a bit of research to familiarize myself with the time period. An unusual and interesting way to present a murder mystery and I enjoyed it. I will look into more by ...more
Oct 27, 2013 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent medieval mystery involving a renegade priest, Nicholas Barber, who, having broken his vow of chastity, has run away from his diocese of Lincoln. He tells us his story of how one bleak December he has joined with a troupe of travelling players and his life with them. They give what is termed 'morality plays': on Biblical subjects, and good triumphing over evil. They are on their way to Durham, the castle of the lord of the area, Sir Robert de Guise, to provide entertainment at the lo ...more
Aug 17, 2010 Bryn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With the Black Death very much a presence, a young monk who has fled his work runs into a groups of travelling players. One of their number has died, it’s winter and they can’t bury him. The monk joins their numbers as they continue, bearing the dead man with them. The small troupe walks into a murder mystery, and the darkness descends.

This is an exquisitely crafted tale, moody, dark and very clever. One of the things I especially liked is that there is no deliberately setting out to solve the m
Mar 21, 2008 Laurensvt rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
A traveling troupe of actors in 13th century England finds itself entangled in the politics of a small town. Straying from their usual bible stories -- the only acceptable material for plays -- they perform a recent local murder to enhance ticket sales. As they play the murder night after night, they come to realize the accused murderer is innocent. One of the best things about this book is that it brings you into the setting more than anything I've ever read. It's one of my favorite books of al ...more
May 05, 2015 Tony rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
MORALITY PLAY. (1995). Barry Unsworth. ***1/2.
Unsworth maintains his run of historical novels, but this time his novel turns into a mystery. The setting is 14th century England, and the protagonists are the members of a players group. Back then, roaming groups of individuals went from village to village enacting plays that mostly dealt with situations from the Bible. In this case, we find that although those dramas were their stock in trade, they changed their story this time and led us into the
Feb 06, 2014 Alissa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
An interesting look into the fourteenth century through a group of players. Which were people who traveled and put on simple plays for whoever would watch and with the reenactment of a murder, things got complicated. Kept my attention just by not being what I usually read. Highly recommended.
Jul 19, 2007 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well plotted and concisely written examination of art's relationship to life told in the form of a historical mystery. Imagine the players from Hamlet wandering into The Name of the Rose and sorting things out.
Lea Heuvelkat
Dec 20, 2014 Lea Heuvelkat rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Geloofwaardig, boeiend beeld over een reizend acteursgezelschap in de duistere middeleeuwen, de donkere tijd waar dood alom tegenwoordig is. Slim, meeslepend en mysterieus. Om te herlezen.
Sarah Wingo
I found this book really interesting, well thought out, and stylistically accurate to the period in which it is set. The main reason I'm not giving it a higher rating is because I had a very hard time really getting into it. The entire story is told from the first person narrative of a former priest turned player. It isn't until about 60% of the way in that the story really picks up and I became truly interested in how it would turn out. The narration is slow and deliberate which felt stylistica ...more
Andrew Watson
Jan 14, 2008 Andrew Watson rated it really liked it
This book had been sitting on my bookshelf for longer than I care to imagine. For some bizrarre reason, it leapt out at me when I was looking for my next book to read. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it did, for the most part. This is really more of a three and a half star book; enjoyable, but not exactly memorable. I like the premise of the travelling players solving the mystery of the deaths of several children. The atmosphere of the age is caught wonderfully without ...more
Sep 06, 2009 Trish rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 29, 2012 Abner rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I read this book some time ago, just recommended it to a friend, and wanted to get it on my shelf here, since it still sticks with me - a brilliant historical thriller that's about story-telling, about constructing and presenting truth - well, constructing and presenting truth in the form of an improvised play. Yeah, I like this kind of novel, like McEwan's Atonement, novels that are about the the creation of fiction, about that line between what is truth and what is fiction. OK, enough meta-ana ...more
Jan 28, 2016 Mark rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My introduction to Unsworth and I was mighty impressed.
Jul 15, 2015 Mac rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An enlightening and enjoyable read on several levels.

In Morality Play, Unsworth provides illuminating insights into history without being didactic; for instance, the novel offers insights into the horrors of the plague, the poverty of the 14th century, the nature--and absence--of justice at that time, and the uneasy relationship between church and state. It was a brutish era, and Unsworth makes it vivid.

Additionally, the story is a murder mystery with numerous twists and turns revealed at a comf
Aug 19, 2014 David rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having already read his "The Rage of the Vulture" I was prepared for a finely crafted mystery with a good deal of color for the time of the event. In this case the time is the 14th century, with suitable clothing and places yet with language of the time of composing this fiction.

To quote one reviewer, "Unsworth moves very well within the constraints of the world view of the times, and his characters are accurate representations of medieval mentality where fear is the most familiar feeling of all
Jun 18, 2014 Lobstergirl rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi

This was one that I plucked off the library shelf pretty much at random. I do that occasionally. There I was in the "U's", finger extended, plucking. I had read Unsworth's Sacred Hunger and liked it, and this had an appealing opening paragraph, and was only 206 pages. If I hated it, not too much time lost.

It was Booker short-listed, so I was half expecting the worst.

It was a decent read. The first person narrator, a 23-year-old priest, is playing hooky from his job, commits adultery, and ends up
Lindsey Brown
MORALITY PLAY reads like a Chaucer fable, already expounding its ending with the beginning sentence -- "It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on." At only 204 pages of actual text, much of this spent in description of medieval play actor's movements, MORALITY PLAY was a quick but engaging read, through the focus of an errant priest-turned-player, and his brief experience among his new troupe. From their foray in a town where a recent questionable murder has happened, the ...more
Rick Patterson
Mar 27, 2014 Rick Patterson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Because it is told from the point of view of Nicholas Barber, renegade priest who has found himself in the company of travelling players, this 14th-century mystery unfolds like the opposite of a morality play: rather than following conventional plots with time-honored gestures and monologues, we are caught up in something entirely unexpected, with just enough information provided to suggest where the tale is taking us through the maze even as we are taking the steps ourselves. The twist in this ...more
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Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham, and he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, B.A., 1951.

From 1951-53, in the British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, he served and became second lieutenant.

A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British Council
More about Barry Unsworth...

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“I glimpsed the man's face with the shine of death on it. They laid him down there in the open. They had brought him there to be close to his death, I understood this also at the same moment. For who would wish to see a companion gasp his last on a jolting cart? We desire to keep the dying and the newly dead close before our eyes so as to give them full meed of pity. Our Lord was brought down to be pitied, on the Cross He was too far away.” 4 likes
“This praise, though far from fulsome, gave me pleasure and that is to my shame. But there was something in him, some power of spirit, that made me want to please him. Perhaps, it occurs to me now, it was no more than the intensity of his wish. Men are distinguished by the power of their wanting. What this one wanted became his province and his meal, he governed it and fed on it from the first moment of desire. Besides, with the perversity of our nature, being tested had made me more desire to succeed, though knowing the enterprise to be sinful.” 4 likes
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