English Mystery Cycle Dramas The Medieval Worldview And The Mystery Cycles

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The Medieval Worldview And The Mystery Cycles

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Katharine Lee Bates (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: "Miracle Plays—Dramatic Values," in The English Religious Drama, The Macmillan Company, 1913, pp. 168-200.

[In the following essayoriginally a lecture delivered in July, 1893Bates discusses the role of the apocryphal gospels in certain sections of the mystery cycles, emphasizing what she perceives as the restraint evidenced by the plays' authors in light of the pervasive influence of these legends on the popular interpretation of scripture. Bates views the plays as sincere depictions of what the medieval mind perceived as the true history of the world, free of literary "consciousness."]

There are two ways of regarding our old Miracle Plays. Many students of English literature think of them confusedly, contemptuously, as the primal dramatic chaos out of which the Elizabethan stage rose, not by process of evolution, but by divine fiat,—"Let there be Shakespeare," and there was Shakespeare. Others see in this five-centuried growth not merely the dramatic elements, but those displayed on a grand scale and already shapen into a huge, roughhewn, majestic Gothic drama. They see in the Miracle Play not merely collision, but tremendous clash of conflict; not merely scheme, but inevitable development of event from event, and these events colossal; not merely life-like characterisation, but realised humanity, deviltry, and Divinity; not merely passion, but all the passion that surged through the great, child-like, mediæval heart. The upholders of this second view must to a large degree ignore detail, often uncouth, often unseemly, often ridiculous, and persistently fix attention upon the mass of the Miracle structure, the sweep of outline, and dignity of design. They must have limitless forbearance for the halting, tedious, undeveloped speech,—that most beggarly attire with which the vast idea is clothed upon. No poet ear listened for the cadences that should form a fitting music for the splendid spectacle. No poet brain brooded the mighty thought until mighty language was born to compass it. Feeble linguists, uncertain melodists, dull versifiers, toiled over those tattered play-books, whose inherent drama was no one man's invention, no one nation's achievement, but the life-pulse of mediæval Christendom.

The composite authorship of the cycles is, indeed, a critical problem of delightful difficulty, which has already claimed much attention from scholars, Ten Brink's analysis being the most thorough up to date, and will undoubtedly claim more. The relation of group to group, with all the concomitant study of interpolations, adaptations, and possible foreign originals, is a subject that will not fail of patient and persevering investigation. Meanwhile it is, we trust, permissible to note with the naked eye, over the click of all these crowding German microscopes, the general aspects of the dramatic conglomerate.

What is the stuff of these old Miracle Plays? From what quarries was their varied material taken? These bright-hued pageants, where the silent story of rich-stained glass and fresco came to life in breathing, moving figures, have indeed been designated a living Biblia Pauperum, but many of the dramatis personsœ are unknown to Hebrew annalist or evangelist. It is in the Cornwall Plays, however, that we meet with the largest admixture of legend, and the statement may be admitted that the Keltic peoples, as a rule, gave in their Mysteries more place to fable, while the Teutonic held more closely to the Biblical text. Our English Miracles sprang from a Saxon-Norman stock, in some cases, notably in that of the Coventry Plays, under strong French influence, and so present a blending of record and of legend, the record predominating. Without going into the minutiæ of the subject, the chief sources of Miracle material in England may be ranked as the Vulgate, the Apocryphal Gospels, and the manners of the time; especially among the poorer classes.

The handling of Old Testament subjects was, as...

(The entire section is 23,387 words.)