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Morality Play

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  3,090 ratings  ·  301 reviews
It is the late 14th century, a dangerous time beset by war and plague. Nicholas Barber, a young and wayward cleric, stumbles across a group of travelling players and compounds his sins by joining them. Yet the town where they perform reveals another drama: a young woman is to be hanged for the murder of a 12-year-old boy. What better way to increase their takings than to m ...more
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Published February 1st 2012 by Audible Studios (first published 1995)
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3.74  · 
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 ·  3,090 ratings  ·  301 reviews

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

A grand historical book, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, about a band of poor travelers, performing plays in the times of the Middle Ages, stumbling into a crime scene that will place them in unforeseen circumstances....
Enjoyed it immensely, last two days I breathlessly read through it.
Great book indeed. Beautiful read. The top of historical reads.
Glenn Russell
Mar 05, 2014 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 th
Amalia Gavea
"It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on."

In 2004, I watched a beautiful film starring Willem Dafoe and Vincent Cassel, among others, titled "The Reckoning". Since then, I was trying to find the book that inspired the movie. It wasn't until 2015 that my search finally ended and two years later, I can say that Unsworth created a very memorable and darkly beautiful novel.

Nickolas is a young priest that has broken his vows of chastity. Running away from his diocese, he c
Paul Bryant
Oct 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
When you reread an old favourite you run the risk of finding out it wasn't that great, but that didn't happen here. Not at all. Brilliant medieval sort-of-quasi-murder-mystery in which an entire troop of strolling players turns into a collective detective - that's a good enough idea right there but it's not the main one here - which is no less than the dawning of modern self-consciousness - I know, sounds very pompous. But it's not, it's so neatly expressed and it sends a shiver through your ver ...more
May 17, 2015 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
Ivonne Rovira
Dec 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 29, 2010 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
May 04, 2012 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
Sometimes the best discoveries start as chance events. I saw this book in a second hand shop and thought little more than "oh Barry Unsworth, he's the one who wrote Sacred Hunger, that might be interesting". As it turned out this was an inspired choice.

This is on one level a tautly plotted murder mystery, secondly fourteenth century social history, and thirdly and perhaps deepest an investigation of the birth of modern theatre.

The narrator, a fugitive monk bored with his work, stumbles upon a
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
Petruccio Hambasket IV
Did you think the theme was overdone, too 'Umberto Eco-ish', too antiquated? Did you find the writing clunky and otherwise awkwardly direct?

So did I.

And then I didn't. And then I read the whole thing in one sitting.

Early on in the tale a group is outside lamenting their dead friend while being spied on by a runaway priest. The priest notes how the winter mist coming from everybody's mouth resembles the devotional fumes of funeral incense; almost immediately I realized I would like this book i
Jan 03, 2012 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
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
Kate Vane
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Nicholas Barber is a fourteenth-century cleric who has left his position in Lincoln Cathedral through youthful restlessness. He is therefore a fugitive, and a hungry one, when he happens upon a group of players and they allow him to join them. Their journey takes them through a town where a woman is about to be hung for murder. They decide to perform a play about her crime but somehow the story refuses to fit the form.

There is so much packed into this beautifully crafted short novel. It is alive
Sep 28, 2013 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
Rachel Schultz
Jul 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“God is not served by self-deceiving.”

Really so good!! My fav parts were the SPOOKY ones!
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
Jul 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Honestly, it took about 40 pages for this book to really engage my attention. Once it did, though, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Couldn't wait to get back on the subway so I'd have time to sit and read, and never figured out "who done it" on my own. A very unique murder mystery. Thank you, Maureen, for recommending it and for giving it to me.
Angus McKeogh
Apr 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent period piece. Medieval times. Plague. Bodies stacking up. A traveling band of actors. A monk on the run. A murder. A condemned girl. The writing was phenomenal. The story was engaging. The setting was flawless. I really liked this book. Luckily it’s my first Unsworth, and he has a glut of other extremely interesting sounding historical novels. A new author. I’m well chuffed.
Aug 17, 2010 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 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
Dave Morris
You'd think from the blurb that it's a period whodunit, but it's more interesting than that. Driven by necessity, a group of medieval travelling players hit on the idea of creating a new play based on a local murder. In character they stumble quite close to the truth, surprising themselves as much as the real culprit.

The style is "Booker prose", meaning elegant but requires a sweet tooth, but I liked Unsworth's precise descriptions of the players' gestures and physical performance, which are vi
The narrator is a wayward priest who has connections enough that he could achieve the middle ranks of clergy in the late 14th century. He finds himself among travelling players, convinces them to take him along. We learn about aspects of this low-paid, lower-caste people and their craft as well as their moments of art and creativity.

There is a story--a drama--that I cannot tell here as it is the story. I am interested in the imagined history. Very accessible. Worth a read for all those who have
This story is set in 14th century England and evokes aspects of medieval life in all its grimness and squalor. The tone and style seem authentic to the period, and although the story moved along slowly for such a short novel, the mystery or drama - when it finally reached its climax - was well thought out.
The bulk of the novel is devoted to the life of the players, incl. various hand gestures and their meanings as well as the ability to improvise verse and rhymes. Relatively interesting though
Jul 15, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book has engaging characters and a not terribly believable setting. Accurate or not in the details of life in the dark ages, it gives a picture of life in a feudal society, interestingly different from ours but with characters who fit well with modern norms. The plot is predictable but well developed and pleasurable to watch unfold. I recommend it heartily for pleasure reading.
Jul 18, 2007 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.
Feb 02, 2014 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.
Dec 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on."

When Nicholas, a runaway priest, joins a group of players in 14th century Britain, he does not know that he would soon solve a murder most foul. Is the young woman that was convicted really guilty? Who killed 12 year old Thomas Wells? And what about the monk? An excellent, intelligent and short story. The beginning is a bit slow but it becomes more and more exciting.

"There was only God inside the barn, sitting on the straw, dri
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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
“I knew little of the world, as the Justice had seen, but I knew that we can lose ourselves in the parts we play and if this continues too long we will not find our way back again.” 5 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.” 5 likes
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