E. K. Chambers (essay date 1945)
SOURCE: "Medieval Drama," in English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, 1945. Reprint by Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1947, pp. 1-65.
[In the following excerpt, Chambers summarizes the background of the miracle plays, discussing performance season and location; the literary, ecclesiastical, and cultural sources used; the use of humor in the plays; the history of written records of the dramas; and their literary merit.]
Miracle plays are traceable during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in some forty English localities, predominantly perhaps in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Others can be added from sixteenth-century documents. They were known also in Scotland, and at Dublin in Ireland, which was much under the influence of English customs. The fact that most of the surviving texts represent performances of a particular type has perhaps rather obscured the variety of organization which the records disclose. It is probable that, when the plays were detached from the liturgy, the financial responsibility was often taken over from the established clergy by some of those religious and social gilds which contributed so largely to the development of medieval public life. In London this arrangement seems to have prevailed to the end. Here a gild of St. Nicholas, composed of parish clerks, gave performances, possibly with the assistance of boys from the cathedral school of St. Paul's, in the open at Skinners Well, near Clerkenwell in the suburbs. The plays are first noticed in 1300, when the Abbess of Clerkenwell complained to the king of the damage done to her fields and crops by the crowds who attended the 'miracles', as well as the wrestling bouts which the citizens were accustomed to hold in the same locality. The plays, however, continued. Stow says that they were given annually. The chroniclers record elaborate performances in various years from 1384 to 1508, lasting from four to seven days, and covering the whole span from the Creation to the day of Judgement. In 1508, however, they seem to have been given near St. Paul's. They took place in summer, twice at least on a day dedicated to St. John Baptist. London, however, had also, as in the days of William Fitzstephen, saints' plays. There was one on St. Catherine in 1393, and others at St. Margaret's Church, Southwark, on the feasts of St. Margaret and St. Lucy, in the fifteenth century. Outside London, SS. George, Thomas of Canterbury, Laurence, Dionysius, Susanna, Clara, and no doubt many others, were similarly commemorated. Some of these plays seem still to have been given in churches, and others are recorded in churchwardens' accounts well into the sixteenth century. Presumably, however, they were now detached from the liturgy, and the sacred edifice merely served to shelter them. At Hedon, in Yorkshire, in 1391, we find the town chamberlain making a payment to Master William Reef and his companions for playing on Epiphany morning in the Chapel of St. Augustine. Probably these companions were a gild. There are occasional notices also of plays in a gild hall, or by schoolboys at the manorhouse of some person of local importance. But in the main miracle plays were an out-of-doors affair. Many of the small religious and social gilds disappeared during the Black Death, and by the fifteenth century the control of the plays, in the larger towns outside London, seems generally to have passed to the local governing body, itself often in some aspects by origin a gild of the merchant gild type. At Norwich, however, the gild of St. Luke remained responsible for the plays at least to 1527. Many of the performances seem to have been occasional only, given in the market-place or in some convenient 'croft' or 'stead'. At Aberdeen they were on Windmill Hill; at Lincoln in the cathedral close. More interesting, from the literary point of view, is the emergence of a type of play which was not stationary but ambulatory, taking the form of a procession up and down the streets, with pauses here and there for the repetition of scene after scene at traditional spots. So used, the plays seem to have become, like the simpler processions of the Rogation days, popularly called Gang Week, a sanctification of the old perambulations of the pagan cults which took place at critical seasons of the agricultural year, in winter when the ploughing began, and again in the heats of summer when the crops were growing. At Hull, on Plough Day, a play of Noah was given on a stage in the form of a ship, which was also carried about the town in a ceremony which clearly represents a maritime version of the agricultural rite. Normally, however, the processional miracle plays took place in summer. At Chester and Norwich, where an early practice seems to have been preserved, they were at Whitsuntide. It is not clear whether Whitsun plays at Leicester and New Romney were processional or stationary. But elsewhere a new date was provided by the papal confirmation in 1311 of the feast of Corpus Christi, tentatively contemplated in 1264. This fell in May or June and was essentially a processional observance, in which the Host itself was carried around and displayed with ceremony at appointed stations. And to it in various ways the miracle plays often became attached. Many gilds of Corpus Christi were founded. One at Bury St. Edmunds, which claimed in 1389 to have existed from time beyond memory, was bound by its constitution to honour the occasion with an interlude. Corpus Christi plays now become traceable all over the country, but perhaps predominantly in the north and east, during a period of more than two centuries. They are found also in Scotland. At Aberdeen they were Haliblude plays. The Reformation hit them hard, but a last survival is recorded at Kendal, about 1612. Some of the performances were stationary and perhaps occasional only. But in many large towns, including most of those from which the surviving texts come, the processional type prevailed. It was so at York, Wakefield, Beverley, Doncaster, Newcastle, Ipswich, Coventry, and Worcester. The organization seems to have been much the same in all these places so far as the records enable us to judge. It was adopted also at Chester during the period which our information covers, although here the Whitsun date was retained. A general control was exercised by the council of the town. Subject to its approval, which would naturally be withheld in times of pestilence or public disturbance, the plays were given annually. The actual performance of them was still in the hands of gilds. These, however, were not of the old type, but were trade or craft gilds which, while still often retaining a religious and social side, were primarily organizations for the promotion and regulation of local industries. A cyclical theme, which usually extended from the Creation to the Last Judgement, was divided into a series of scenes, for the production of each of which a particular gild took responsibility. The performance was given on large wagons, which followed
each other in regular sequence to station after station about the town, at which scene after scene was repeated. These wagons were known as pageants. The origin of this term, which was also often used as an alternative to 'play' for the scenes themselves, is not quite clear. It may be derived from a Latin pagina, either in the sense of the page of a book or in that of a framework. There was some super-structure representing a domus or sedes for the actors, with a hell and the like, but it must have been rather sketchy, to allow of a view from all sides, and we know little about it, beyond a late Chester description which says that the performers had 'a highe place made like a howse with ij rowmes, beinge open on ye tope: in the lower rowme they apparelled & dressed them selues; and in the higher rowme they played; and they stoode vpon 6 wheeles'. The cost of maintaining and housing the pageants and of paying the actors fell upon the crafts, each member of which was bound to make an annual contribution for the purpose. This involved a good deal of work for the governors, as industries rose or fell and claimed to have or be relieved from a share in the performances. Such changes are often recorded in town documents or have left their marks on the structure of the surviving texts. These are mainly of late date and preserved in registers kept by the corporations, themselves compiled from 'originals' in the hands of the crafts. The plays flourished. Vexillatores, or banner-bearers, rode about in advance, reading banns which announced the subject-matter of the scenes. Spectators thronged in from neighbouring villages. Corpus Christi day became a great public holiday, which brought much profit to a town, although perhaps more to its hostelers and victuallers than to the productive trades on which the main financial burden fell. As a result, the religious procession tended to become overshadowed. This was sometimes met by shifting the plays, or even the procession itself, to a neighbouring day. But elsewhere, for example at Dublin, we find no more than a symbolical riding with the Host of personages taken from biblical or legendary narratives, perhaps formerly the themes of plays given in full. At Lincoln, on St. Anne's day, at Beverley on that of the Purification, and at Aberdeen on Candlemas, there were similar ridings which seem to have ended with plays, possibly still liturgical, in the churches. The enduring human instinct for mimesis is capable of many manifestations. It must be added that in course of time the term 'Corpus Christi play' seems to have been applied to any representation of the Passion and Resurrection, at whatever date it was given. It was so at Chester, where the civic plays seem to have been always at Whitsun, although in the middle of the sixteenth century the colleges and priests had an independent one of their own on Corpus Christi day. At Lincoln in the fifteenth century there were occasional plays, apparently distinct from the procession on St. Anne's day, among which a ludus de Corpore Christi took its turn with others. When the governors of a town, in the fourteenth century, wanted to establish a dramatic cycle, they would naturally turn for a text to some local ecclesiastic, able to compose in English metre and free from theological prejudices against miracle plays. He might be a gild priest, or more probably, in a large place, a brother from some monastery, such as St. Werburgh's at Chester. The tradition of the liturgical drama would be behind him. And for its expansion he would have a considerable library at his disposal. He could gloss the narrative of the Bible itself with much legendary material that had grown up around it throughout the ages. Perhaps he would not have read the earlier works from which this took its start, such as the Vita Adae et Evae, the Evangelium Nicodemi, which comprised the Acta Pilati and the Descensus Christi ad Inferos, the Evangelium Matthaei, with its De Nativitate Mariae, the Transitas Mariae. But he would certainly be familiar with some of the great medieval compilations, such as the Allegoriae in Vetus Testamentum of Hugo de St. Victor, the Historia Scholastica of Peter Comestor, the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, the Estoire de la Bible of Hermann de Valenciennes. He might know the Meditationes on the life of Christ ascribed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Bonaventura of Padua, as well as the pseudo-Augustinian Sermo de Symbole and the De Antichristo of Adso of Toul. There were vernacular poems, too, on which some of these sources had already had their influence, the Middle English Harrowing of Hell, the Genesis and Exodus, the Cursor Mundi, Northern Passion, based on the Passion des Jongleurs, a similar Southern Passion, the Life of Saint Anne, the so-called Stanzaic Life of Christ, an English Gospel of St. Nicodemus, versions of the Holy Rood legend, and many lyrical poems, some of them of the planctus type. There was abundance of material, instructive and entertaining, to draw upon. Some of it, however, might not be available until well into the fourteenth century. The probability that some cycles of late origin may have borrowed or adapted plays from others already in existence must also be kept in mind. No doubt the earliest writers aimed primarily at edification. But the folk, on a holiday, had also to be entertained. They could be moved by the tragedy of the divine sacrifice, and perhaps exalted by the scheme of creation and redemption. But they found their relief in episodes which involved an element of humour, in the unwillingness of Noah's wife to enter the Ark, in the homely banter of the shepherds before the angel came, in the ranting of the potentates, Octavian, Herod, Pilate, in the 'bobbing' of the Redeemer by the torturers, in the dice-play of the soldiers over his garments, in the downfall of the tax-gatherers and other unpopular elements of society at the Last Day. Sometimes a play became so farcical in action, if not in language, that it had to be pruned or abandoned. At York the midwives were cut out of the Nativity, and the antics of Fergus at the bier of the Virgin provoked such unholy mirth that the responsible craft became unwilling to repeat them. It must be added that the texts of such plays as survive have come down to us in a very corrupt state. The earliest are of the middle of the fifteenth century; others are as late as the end of the sixteenth. Some have been completely rewritten. The older ones have often been patched in metres incongruous with those in which they were originally written. Much corruption has also been introduced by the characteristic unreliability in transcription of medieval scribes, often increased by blundering attempts to reproduce old linguistic forms which had become unintelligible. Many single lines and even longer passages have evidently been omitted, to the detriment both of sense and once more of metre. Whoso would read the plays to-day must often go darkling.
Of the many craft-plays, whose existence we can infer from records, edacious time has left us comparatively few examples. We have cycles, practically complete, from Chester, York, and Wakefield, two very long plays from Coventry, one from Newcastle, one from Norwich, and one other, the origin of which is unknown. The loss of the Beverley plays, which existed in 1377 and were already an ancient custom in 1390, and about which we have many details, is particularly regrettable, since they might link with the churchyard representation of a Resurrection about 1220.
Probably the earliest surviving cycle, at least by origin, is that from Chester. On this we have abundant material, but unfortunately it is nearly all of very late date, and has in part come to us through the hands of writers who blended an antiquarian interest in the history of their town with a Puritan dislike of the ecclesiastical tradition to which the plays belong. Performances, probably becoming no longer annual, had continued during the sixteenth century. The latest upon record were in 1572 and 1575, and both of these brought the mayors under whom they were given into trouble with the diocesan authorities and the Privy Council. An alleged revival in 1600 is likely to rest upon a misunderstanding. We have five texts of the cycle, dated from 1591 to 1607. According to Dr. W. W. Greg, who has carefully studied their interrelation, they are all ultimately derived, through one or more intermediate transcripts, from an official register, perhaps of the later half of the fifteenth century. One, however, in the Harleian collection, although the latest in date, seems to rest upon an earlier version of the register than the others. They include all the plays of which we have any record, except an Assumption, which existed in 1500 and 1540, but may never have been registered. We have also a separate text of the Antichrist, apparently from a prompter's copy, written about 1500, and late ones of the Trial and Flagellation from an original, and of a fragment of the Resurrection. We have two sets of banns, which record the crafts and the subjects of their plays. One is from an official document of 1540, but the dislocation of its metre by the incorporation of changes shows that it must have been by origin of much earlier date. The other probably represents a performance which may be as late as 1572. But in its fullest form it has been much glossed with side-notes of Protestant comment, which may be due to one Robert Rogers, an archdeacon and prebend of Chester, who died in 1595. A final passage has been thought to suggest that an indoor representation was at one time contemplated. But this must remain very doubtful. Finally there are several copies of a late list of plays, showing them as twenty-five in all, but not including the Assumption, and indicating their distribution over the three days of performance. It is certain that during the course of over two centuries, through which the plays lasted, they had grown in number. There were only twenty or twenty-one about 1475, and twenty-four about 1500. Professor F. M. Salter has attempted to trace an earlier development by exploring craft records for indications of changes of responsibility, which can be correlated with the metrical irregularities of the early banns. As a result he infers that those banns were originally composed about 1467, and that the cycle then consisted of only eighteen plays. A discussion of his argument in detail would be inappropriate here, but some such development is likely enough.
One change, of which there is a fairly full record, may be cited, both for the light which it throws upon the handling of contentious citizens and because it involves something of a puzzle. In 1422 a dispute arose between the Ironmongers and the Carpenters or Wrights, both of whom claimed to have the assistance of a group of small crafts, headed by the Coopers, in the production of their plays. It came before the portmoot, who referred it. for arbitration to a jury. As a result it was decided that neither contention should be accepted, but that the Coopers and their fellows should have an in-dependent play of the Flagellation of Christ, while the Ironmongers should take the Crucifixion, which immediately followed it, and the Wrights should similarly have their own play, which, at any rate later, was the Nativity. It seems to have been long before this arrangement was recorded in the register, and then the method adopted was a very rough one. In the Harleian MS the Trial and Flagellation and the Crucifixion still form one play of the Passion, which is ascribed to the Ironmongers. In the other cyclical manuscripts they are also written as one play, but inserted stage-directions and additional lines show that in fact they were meant to be played as two. They are two also in all the late lists. The puzzle arises from the fact that the late banns once more treat them as one. This has led to a theory, espoused by Dr. Greg, that the change of 1422 was not a division but an amalgamation. It seems to me inconsistent with the terms of the arbitration, and also with the existence of a separate copy of the Trial and Flagellation alone, preserved by the Coopers Gild and dated in 1599. I take it that the writer of the late banns was misled by the Harleian MS or some other transcript of the unrevised register.
The twenty-five plays of the Chester cycle, as we have them, cover the whole range of the divine scheme for humanity. Pre-Christian history is represented by a Fall of Lucifer, a Creation and Fall, a Noah, a Cain and Abel, an Abraham and Melchisedek, an Abraham and Isaac, a Prophetae, with Moses, Balaam and Balak, and Balaam's Ass. A Nativity group includes an Annunciation, a Visit to Elizabeth, Joseph's Trouble, further prophecies of Sibylla to Octavian, a Nativity with midwives, a Pastores, a Magi and Herod, with yet more prophecies, an Oblation of the Magi, a Slaughter of the Innocents, a Death of Herod, a Purification. To the missionary life of Christ belong a Disputation with the Doctors, apparently a late addition and borrowed from York, a Temptation, an Adulteress, a Healing of the Blind, a Raising of Lazarus. The Entry into Jerusalem, the Cleansing of the Temple, the Visit to Simon the Leper, and the Conspiracy of the Jews with Judas are dealt with, rather briefly, in a single play. The Last Supper and Betrayal at Gethsemane occupy another. Then come the Passion proper, a Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection with the Quem Quaeritis, a Peregrini, the Ascension, the Pentecost. The legends of the end of the Virgin are untouched. But eschatology contributes the Prophets of the Day of Doom, an Antichrist, and the Day of Doom or Judicium itself. The sixteenth-century tradition, in its earliest form, assigned the origin of the plays to the time of John Arneway, who was mayor during 1268 to 1277, and apparently the actual writing of them to Henry Francis, a monk of St. Werburgh's Abbey in Chester, who was said to have obtained an indulgence from the Pope for all who beheld them in peace and devotion. Later notices substitute Randulph Higden, also of St. Werburgh's, as the author. These statements do not hold together. Higden, best known by his Polychronicon, took the vows in 1299 and died in 1364. Francis was senior monk of the abbey in 1377 and 1388. I have suggested elsewhere that Arneway may have been confused with Richard Erneis or Herneys, who was mayor from 1327 to 1329. This is not an impossible date for the initiation of a processional cycle. The ascription to Higden, however, is not very plausible. His was, no doubt, a famous name in the annals of the abbey. But all his known or suggested writings are in Latin, and in the Polychronicon he tells us that in his day English in paucis adhuc agrestibus vix remansit. He may have exaggerated, but probably his own vernacular was Norman French. The metre of the Chester plays differs from that of the other dramatic cycles preserved to us by its uniformity. It is a Romance metre of the type known as rime couée or tail-rhyme, written normally in eight-lined stanzas, in which two pedes of three four-stressed lines rhyming together are each followed by a three-stressed cauda. The caudae rhyme with each other. The pedes may have a common rhyme, but more often do not. The rhythm is normally iambic. There is little alliteration, except in occasional passages, which may have undergone revision. The technical formula for the metre is aaa4b3ccc4b3 or aaa4b3aaa4b3. Obviously it is of a rather lyrical character, better adapted to romantic narrative than to drama, since it does not lend itself well to the quick exchange of speech and reply which dialogue often requires. But it is capable of some modification to suit changes of theme or tone or speaker, by reducing the number of lines in the pedes, or the number of stresses throughout. The intervention of a supernatural speaker, for example, is sometimes so marked. The early banns appear to have been originally written in the same stanza as the plays. It has been suggested that this metrical uniformity points to a wholesale rewriting of the plays at some stage in their history. I do not see any reason for this. What really wants explanation is the variety of form found elsewhere. Certainly the Chester stanza would have been available for a playwright as early as 1327; it had already been used for narrative romances in the north. It must be added that, in some of the plays, the original metre has certainly been patched with others by later hands. There are bits in couplets, in quatrains and octaves of cross-rhyme, variously stressed, even in rhyme-royal and its probably earlier four-stress equivalent. These signs of revision are particularly noticeable in the Fall of Lucifer and the Pastores. The episode between Christ and the Doctors, which was apparently borrowed from York and attached rather inappropriately to the Purification, is in cross-rhyme. A speech of Christ at the Resurrection, in a rather unusual form of cross-rhyme, with alternate four-stressed and three-stressed lines, may possibly be taken from some contemporary lyric poem.
I have an impression that behind the Chester cycle, as it has come down to us, lies a play of a more primitive type, the themes of which have been rather clumsily incorporated, with the result that discrepancies have been left in the action, which the late transcribers of the text have variously attempted to remove. The influence of the old play is clearest in those scenes in which an Expositor, also called Preco, Doctor, Nuntius or Messenger, comments to the 'Lordinges' of the audience on the significance of the topics represented. He calls himself Gobet on the Grene, and his demands for 'room' to be made, with the fact that both he and later the character Antichristus come in riding, suggest a stationary performance on a green or other open space, rather than one on moving pageants. The appearances and speeches of the Expositor indicate that the primitive play contained at least a Noah, an Abraham, a Prophetae, with Moses, Balaam and Balak, and Balaam's Ass, a Nativity, which was given on a second day and brought in the Magi as well as Octavian and Sibylla, and a Prophets of Doomsday. Probably it had also both a Doomsday itself and an Antichrist. The Expositor does not appear in the extant texts of these, but he foretells them. There is nothing to suggest any treatment in the primitive play of the missionary life of Christ or of the Passion and its sequels up to Pentecost. It is true that the Expositor is also in the Temptation and Adulteress episodes, but here I think he may have been borrowed by a later writer. The whole emphasis of the primitive play seems to have been on prophecies of the coming of Christ and of the Last Judgement. And here it fell into line with such earlier work as the Tegernsee Ludus de Antichristo and the Anglo-Norman Adam of the twelfth century, the Benediktbeuern and Riga Prophetae of the thirteenth, and the Rouen Prophetae of the fourteenth. Its Expositor looks very much like the Riga interpres. It might have been written as late as the fourteenth century, either in Latin or in French or in English, and if in Latin or French, it is conceivable, I suppose, that it might have been the work of Higden, although I attach little importance to the traditional ascription of the Chester plays to him. As to other possible sources available for a Chester playwright, little can be said. There was plenty of Latin material to be drawn upon. A phrase or two of French for a potentate is an insufficient basis on which to establish a connexion with any continental mystère known to us. Nor has any use of the fourteenth-century English Cursor Mundi been clearly demonstrated, although that encyclopaedic work was itself of northern origin. The so-called Stanzaic Life of Christ, apparently written at Chester in the first half of the same century, and in part at least based upon Higden's Polychronicon, may have contributed something.
It is difficult to arrive at any very clear estimate of the literary value of plays which were never intended to be read, and cannot be given life by the gestures and intonation of the actors. The Chester plays retain some attractiveness through their lyrical form, where that has not been blurred by the activities of revisers and scribes. Broadly speaking, they preserve more than the other vernacular cycles of the devotional impulse, which brought medieval drama as a whole into existence. Their preoccupation with prophecies, whether read into Old Testament narratives or derived from legendary sources, of the Redemption and the Day of Doom has already been made clear. They are also much concerned with the exposition of religious formularies, such as the Ten Commandments, and of Jewish and Christian ritual observances, such as the Sabbath, Circumcision, or the feast of First Fruits. The dramatic action is generally simple and straightforward, without much attempt to exploit the psychological possibilities of the themes dealt with. The human element, for example, in the relations between Joseph and Mary, which gives so much interest to the later cycles, is here little elaborated. There is some pathos, however, in the Abraham and Isaac play. The fundamental inhumanity of that story was, of course, not apparent to our medieval ancestors. The element of farce has as yet hardly obtruded itself. Lucifer takes his downfall with comparative submission. Cain is restrained in his attitude towards his brother. Balaam's Ass is not unduly exploited. The midwives in the Nativity remain decent. Noah's wife is already a little recalcitrant when she is asked to enter the Ark. She must have her gossips with her. But the point is not overelaborated, and a change of metre for 'The Good Gossippe's Song' suggests a late addition. There is some realism about the construction of the Ark in this play, and more in the Pastores, with its humorous Tudd, and Trowle the Garcius, and the rustic banquet. But certainly the Pastores has been largely rewritten. The Pilate of the Trial is a more dignified figure than in the later cycles. But the accusers revile the Redeemer as a 'jangellinge ['talking idly'] Jesu', a 'dosyberde' ['simpleton'], a 'babelavaunte' ['babbler'], and a 'shrewe'. And the buffeters and scourgers do their work with a vigour which is accompanied by a characteristic shortening of the metre.
The York plays are probably of later origin than those at Chester, but how much later we do not know. There are many records of them in the civic Memorandum Book, which begins in 1376. The plays are first mentioned in 1387, but appear then to be well established. In 1394 they were given at stations antiquitus assignatis. Their fame invited a visit by Richard II in 1397. Two valuable lists of them compiled by a town clerk, one Roger Burton, are of 1415 and perhaps 1420-2. They come to us in a register written about 1475, and occasionally added to later. Here they are forty-eight in number, but blanks left in the manuscript and various annotations in a late-sixteenth-century hand show that a Marriage at Cana and a Visit to Simon the Leper have been omitted, and that some revised versions, together with loquela magna et diversa elsewhere, had never been registered. One of the annotations is addressed to a Doctor, and it may be inferred that they date from 1579 when a revival, the first since 1569, was contemplated, and the council directed that the book should be submitted to the Archbishop and Dean of York for approval. Probably this performance never took place. The council may well have taken alarm at the trouble brought upon Chester mayors by their revivals of 1572 and 1575. Records show that, at one time or another, there were independent plays on the Washing of Feet, the Casting of Lots, the Hanging of Judas, and the Burial of the Virgin, which no longer exist, although fragments of some of them may be incorporated in what we have. Evidently, therefore, the total number of pageants was much greater than at Chester, although individually the York plays are shorter. The second play on the Creation, in fact, consists of no more than a single long speech of eighty-six lines by the Almighty. A good deal of splitting up must have taken place. Moreover, the plays were given on a single day, against the three days of Chester. It was certainly a crowded one. The performances began at 4:30 in the morning. The Peregrini, which came late, had to be shortened because of the number of plays still to follow ('for prossesse of plaies that precis [presses] in plight, ['due order'])', and the Burial of the Virgin was suppressed in 1432, not only on account of the ribaldry which it evoked, but because it could not be given during daylight. It is not surprising that in 1426 the Minorite William Melton, while commending the plays, pointed out that they threw the religious Corpus Christi procession into the background, and suggested that they should be transferred to the following day. It was, however, the procession itself which got so displaced.
Evidently the York texts of the cycle as we have them are not all of one date. Dr. Greg accepts a grouping which involves three periods of literary activity. The first, which he would put about 1350, produced 'a simple didactic cycle, carefully composed in elaborate stanzas and withal rather dull'. This he supposes the work of a single author or a single small school. In a second period it was elaborated by more than one hand. An element of humour was introduced with Noah and the Shepherds, and to this period also belongs 'the work of a writer who is distinguished as being the only great metrist who devoted his talents to the English religious drama as we know it'. The third stage he would also ascribe to a single author, who worked largely on the Passion, and whom he would put not earlier than 1400.
He is a very remarkable though uneven writer. A metrist he certainly is not: he writes in powerful but loose and rugged alliterative verse. He also writes at great length and with much rhetoric and rant. But he is a real dramatist, and his portrait of Pilate is masterly.
I agree largely with this analysis. Certainly the cycle is sharply differentiated from that of Chester by its variety of metrical form. A nucleus of early work is, however, to be found in twelve plays, which are all written in the same stanza of cross-rhyme. It is bipartite, with a four-stressed octave for frons, and for cauda a three-stressed quatrain on different rhymes. The technical notation is abababab4cdcd3. This stanza has sometimes been called the 'Northern Septenar', under a misapprehension, since it is not derived from the Latin septenarius. It is found in the earliest version of the narrative English Gospel of Nicodemus, which was a source for the northern playwrights, and may have been written as early as the first quarter of the fourteenth century. If to the plays composed in this metre we add six in simple quatrains or octaves of cross-rhyme, which are at least as early, we seem to get the outlines of the greater part of an original cycle. It was, as Dr. Greg says, didactic, herein resembling that of Chester, although it had no Expositor, and laid less stress upon the element of prophecy. From it survive its Adam and Eve in Eden, Building of the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Exodus, Annunciation, Pastores, Tres Reges, Doctores, Transfiguration, Adulteress and Lazarus, Last Supper, Crucifixion, Harrowing of Hell, Apparition to the Magdalen, Ascension, Pentecost, Assumption, and Judicium. I do not know why Dr. Greg ascribes the octaves of the Judicium to his metrist. The original Creation has been split up into short plays, and most of it rewritten. If there was a Cain and Abel, it is buried under a late farce. An addition has been made to the Pastores. Parts of a Purification survive in a metrical chaos. Most of the Passion has also been rewritten, although a few early fragments remain embedded. There must always have been a Resurrection, but the existing one is of later type than the plays of the nucleus.
For literary quality in the York plays we must look mainly to Dr. Greg's metrist and his dramatist, whom we may also call a realist. As to the latter I have little to add, except that, while he is chiefly to be traced in his revision of the Passion, he also prefixed a new opening to the Tres Reges, apparently with the purpose of turning one play into two, and that, while his conspiracy, Agony, and Betrayal and Condemnation are written in a stanza which may be a development from that employed in the early nucleus, the rest of his work is completely incoherent as regards metrical form. He seems to have picked up and dropped one type of stanza after another, as it suited him at the moment. No doubt the resulting scribal confusion has added to the chaos. Apart from the survival of certain fragments of earlier versions, which he left standing, there is no difficulty in determining the extent of his contributions. They are sharply differentiated from the plays of the nucleus by the combination in them of rhyme with alliterative stress. Herein they fall into line with the alliterative revival in narrative poetry, which developed during the later medieval period, and, although its origin may have been elsewhere, acquired great popularity in the north. The affinity with the narrative writers is very clear in the Condemnation, where the cauda is separated from the frons of the stanza by the introduction of a one-stress line, known technically as a 'bob'. There is, indeed, a varying amount of alliteration even in the earlier York plays, far more than in those of the Chester cycle. But here it is merely sporadic and ornamental, and the rhythmic movement of the verse remains iambic, with a normal sequence of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Certainly there are variations. Often the first unstressed syllable is omitted, or an unstressed syllable follows the last stressed one, in what is called a feminine ending. Some lines, as a result, are more naturally read with a trochaic than with an iambic rhythm. Or, again, a stressed syllable may carry two unstressed syllables before it. In alliterative verse this is normal and the number of unstressed syllables may even be greater than two. As a result, the rhythm becomes an anapaestic rather than an iambic one. Alliteration is now used to emphasize the stressed syllables, although it may also occur elsewhere. It often fails, and is sometimes noticeably stronger in the frons than in the cauda of a stanza.
The determination of the exact extent of the work to be ascribed to the York metrist is a much more difficult problem. Dr. Greg finds him in the Fall of Lucifer and the Death of Christ. Possibly he has also touched that part of the Condemnation which deals with the Remorse of Judas. In these plays he is doubtless a reviser. But I think that we must also give him the Peregrini, the Death of the Virgin, and the Assumption, which may not have been handled in the original cycle. These five plays, in different stanza-forms, one of which has a 'bob', are all alliterative. But the alliteration is far less tumultuous than that of the realist, and often falls off in the caudae of the stanzas. The unstressed syllables, moreover, rarely exceed the limits of an anapaestic rhythm. I am inclined to suggest that a clue to the presence of the metrist may often be traced in a marked tendency to concatenation, the linking up of the beginning of one stanza with the end of that which preceded it by the repetition or slight variation of verbal phrasing. This also is a feature of the non-dramatic poems of the alliterative revival. An outstanding example is the fourteenth-century Pearl. Isolated concatenations may of course merely arise from the natural give and take of dialogue and carry no significance as evidence of authorship. But it is otherwise when whole poems or continuous groups of stanzas are similarly connected. Concatenation has there become a deliberate literary device. It is so used in the York Condemnation, Peregrini and Assumption, but not in the Death of Mary. Our metrist was clearly a versatile writer, and did not tie himself to a single form. Possibly we can go further and find him again in plays which, although in metres other than that of the nucleus, are not, like the five already considered, alliterative. There are four in a stanza-form derived from rime couée by dropping two lines of the second pes. The technical description is aaa4b2a4b2. The result is markedly lyrical in character, with a dying fall. Often the first four lines are by one speaker, whom another answers in the last two, with something of the effect of the liturgical versus and responsio. Of these four plays, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve and the Resurrection have a good deal of concatenation, the Incredulity of Thomas a little, and the Temptation none. I think we must ascribe them to the metrist. It is conceivable that he is also responsible for the rather lyrical Adam and Eve in Eden and for the Way to Calvary, both of which are in forms also derived, although differently, from rime couée. But there is no clue of concatenation to help us here. And as to the authorship of six remaining plays, I can offer no decided opinion. The Flight to Egypt has an elaborate stanza not paralleled elsewhere in the cycle. Its technical description is ababcc4dd2e2ff3. That of the Fall of Adam and Eve is abab4 c2bc4dcdc3, and that of Joseph's Trouble, the Nativity, the Baptism and the Entry into Jerusalem abab4c2b4c2, with a dying fall, and in Joseph's Trouble and the Entry a tendency to antiphonal speech and reply, which may perhaps again suggest the metrist. The Nativity alone has a little concatenation. Whatever its authorship, there is a good deal of literary merit in this last group. The Entry, with its healing of the blind and lame and its final Hails, is an effective dramatic pageant. And Joseph's Trouble, the Nativity, and the Flight are humane plays, in which the relations between Joseph and the Virgin are touched with a delicate psychology.
From Roger Burton's two lists of the plays and of the companies responsible for them, when compared with some annotations in later hands, with various records in the civic Memorandum Book, and with the state of the register as it has come down to us, it is possible to infer that a good deal of redistribution and probably incidental revision took place between the years 1415 and 1432. We know that in the latter year the Burial of the Virgin was laid aside, and that at the same time the Goldsmiths asked for relief from one of two Magi plays which they had hitherto given, on the plea that mundus alteratus est super ipsos. This seems to give a likely date for the alliterative opening to the Magi written by the realist. His Condemnation may be ascribed to 1423, when an order was made for the combination in a single play of an older version of the theme, together with plays on the Hanging of Judas, the Scourging, and the Casting of Lots, which had apparently been detached from it later than 1415. But there is no Hanging of Judas in the register. Perhaps this episode, in which Judas se suspendebat et crepuit medius, had proved too realistic to be witnessed with due sobriety. If then the realist was active between 1415 and 1432, we may perhaps put the metrist in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.
It must be added that, besides the Corpus Christi play, York had another, known as the Creed play. This ludus incomparabilis was in the hands of a gild of Corpus Christi, founded in 1408. It had been given by one of its wardens, William Revetor, by a will of 1446, and in 1455 the original manuscript was so worn that it had to be transcribed. It dealt with the articles of the Catholic faith, as set forth in the Apostles' Creed, to which, according to tradition, each apostle had contributed a clause. It was given, instead of the Corpus Christi play, in every tenth year, not on Corpus Christi day, but at the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula on 1 August, which coincided with the harvest festival of Lammas tide. Possibly it consisted of a group of saints' plays. Several performances are recorded during the sixteenth century. But one contemplated in 1568 was abandoned, because Dean Matthew Hutton, to whom the book had been submitted, found things in it which did not agree with the sincerity of the gospel. To it may have belonged the interlude of St. Thomas, the papistical language of which had led to a prohibition by Henry VIII. Of a play on St. Denis of York, bequeathed in 1455 to the church which bore his name, no details are preserved. A Paternoster play will be considered later. Evidently the dramatic instinct of the northern city was strong.
The Wakefield cycle, like that of York, has come down to us in a register, written in a hand which may be as late as 1485. There are some gaps, one of which may have contained a Pentecost, or a play on the end of the Virgin. There is no Nativity, which is unusual, but there is no gap at this point. There are thirty-two plays in all, some of which are very long. Two at the end are misplaced additions. A few annotations have been made up to the end of the sixteenth century. In 1814 the manuscript was owned by the Towneley family, of Towneley Hall near Burnley in Lancashire, and the collection was long known as the Towneley Plays. It was supposed, according to varying traditions, to have come either from Whalley Abbey near Burnley, or from Wydkirk or Woodkirk Abbey near Wakefield, and it was conjectured that the plays might have been given at a fair held at Widkirk from an early date. There is of course no evidence that a cycle was ever given either in an abbey or at a fair, and none that one existed at Burnley. In the manuscript itself there is much to point to Wakefield as its origin. At the head of it is written in large red letters
In dei nomine amen
Assit Principio, Sancta Maria, Meo. Wakefeld.
This, on the face of it, looks like a title to the whole collection, but there is no separate title for the first play, as there is, again in red, for those which follow. That to the third play runs 'Processus Noe cum filiis, Wakefeld'. The others name no locality. Against four of the plays sixteenth-century hands have added 'Barkers', 'Glover Pag', 'Litsters' [(listers), 'dyers'], Pagonn', 'lyster play', 'fysher pagent', which at least affords evidence that those plays belonged to a craft cycle. In the Secunda Pastorum are two topographical allusions, which might fit either Woodkirk or Wakefield. One is to 'Horbery shrogys', ['bushes'] and Horbury is a village two or three miles from Wakefield. The other is to 'the crokyd thorne', which might indeed be anywhere, but might be a 'Shepherd's Thorn' at Mapplewell, near Horbury. So the matter stood when the E.E.T.S. edition of the plays was published in 1897. Since then, further evidence has accumulated, which leaves little doubt that the plays must be credited to Wakefield itself. The Mactacio Abel has the phrase, 'bery me in gudeboure at the quarell hede', and Wakefield had, as early as the fourteenth century, a lane called Godiboure, near which was a quarry. I do not accept the inference that Godiboure is a corruption of 'God i' the bower', and was so named because the plays were performed there. Other records have accumulated which show that, in the sixteenth century, Wakefield had in fact a Corpus Christi play. They begin in 1533 and end in 1566, when the Ecclesiastical Commission laid down such strict limitations as to what might be shown that the plays were probably not given. In 1556 they were to be on Corpus Christi day, but in 1566 at Whitsun. I think we may now safely regard the plays in the Towneley MS as a Wakefield cycle. It must, however, have come into existence at a much later date than either the Chester or the York cycle. During the fourteenth century Wakefield was a place of no importance. A poll-tax return of 1377 shows only one franklin and forty-seven tradesmen, spread over seventeen occupations, who were rich enough to be contributory. They cannot have formed gilds able to maintain plays. There was not much increase by 1395. But during the fifteenth century the town prospered and became a head-quarters of the wool trade. A church built in 1329 remained without its tower to about 1409. By 1458 it had been taken down and rebuilt. One can hardly put the initiation of a cycle earlier than about 1425. If so, it may have been fairly complete, on the model of existing cycles elsewhere, from the beginning. I doubt whether it is worth while trying to analyse its development into three stages, as at York, although here too, as at York, there was certainly a comparatively late period of revision. It is clear that five of the plays have been borrowed, more or less wholesale, from York itself. They are the Exodus, here called Pharao, the Doctores, Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, and the Judicium. But they have been differently treated. The Exodus is not much altered. In the other plays passages have been paraphrased, sometimes in different metres, and others have been added. The Resurrection has a long speech for the risen Christ, of which parts are also found in the Chester Resurrection and in an independent lyric. The Judicium has been worked over by a late hand at Wakefield itself. In the borrowings from York there is much textual corruption. Dr. Greg does not think that it amounts to more than might be expected from the normal habits of medieval scribes. Others have suggested that it points to oral transmission, perhaps through the subornation of York actors. But there is nothing to show that certain 'parts' are better represented than others. A reward given at York in 1446 to a ludens from Wakefield, which is sometimes cited in this connexion, can of course have no significance. He was probably only a wandering minstrel. The Wakefield debt to York may not have been wholly confined to the five plays already named. A large part of its Conspiratio is, like three of those, in the characteristic York stanza of twelve lines, with a four-stress frons and a three-stress cauda. This may also have been the original form of the York Conspiratio, which has been rewritten in an alliterative variant of it by the realist. But I reject altogether a much discussed theory which supposes the York and Wakefield cycles, as we have them, to have gradually developed, through revisions, many of which can now only be conjectured, from a common 'parent cycle'. Apart from the amount of guess-work involved, it is clearly put out of court by a recognition of the fact that the origin of the Wakefield cycle must have been anything from a quarter to half a century later than that of its York predecessor. It is true that parallels of phrasing may often be traced in plays, other than those which Wakefield has admittedly borrowed. They are particularly noticeable in the two plays on Joseph's Trouble. Often they may be due to a common use of narrative sources, such as the Northern Passion, the Gospel of Nicodemus, or, in the case of Joseph's Trouble, some poem on St. Anne and the Virgin, other than those which have reached us. But occasionally they amount to two or three consecutive lines and, as the Wakefield writers were evidently familiar with the plays at York, they may easily have retained in their memories some noteworthy passages. Whether there was also borrowing from other towns, such as Beverley, we cannot say. The Prophetae, with a Sybilla, and scriptural passages annotating the text, is not unlike the manner of Chester.
From the literary point of view, the Wakefield cycle is the best which is preserved to us. The simpler plays use a considerable number of stanza forms, with a predominantly iambic rhythm, and less sporadic alliteration than those of York. And there is a greater tendency to vary the form for different episodes or different speakers within a play. Some of those in couplets and octaves are rather stiff and dull. On the whole the rime couée and its derivatives predominate. There is not much use of the cross-rhymed quatrain, either alone or with a cauda, except in the Flight to Egypt, which combines cross rhyme and rime couée in an elaborate stanza with a bob line, of which the technical description is ababaabaab3c1b2. There is some good poetry in the rime couée group, which shows itself particularly, as at York, in those plays which deal with a human theme in the varying relations between Joseph and the Virgin. The Annunciation, in particular, as Dr. Pollard has pointed out, is 'full of tenderness', and I will quote, after him, the beautiful verse which describes the occupation of Mary in the service of the Temple.
This touch comes from the Evangelium Pseudo-Matthaei, probably through one of the St. Anne poems. But the outstanding achievement of the Wakefield plays is to be found in the contributions of a single writer, who is generally known as the Wakefield Master. There is no tenderness about him, and no impulse to devotion. He is a realist, even more than his contemporary of York, a satirist with a hard outlook upon a hard age, in which wrong triumphs over right, but he is saved by an abundant sense of humour. His contribution consists in the main of five plays, all written in a characteristic metre of his own. This too has a 'bob' in it. Its technical description is abababab2c1dddc2. The two-stressed lines give it an exceptional rapidity of movement. There is a good deal of alliteration, but this does not fall with such regularity on the stressed syllables as to constitute an alliterative metre, comparable to that of the York realist. The rhythm, however, is markedly anapaestic, and may even be called plus-quam anapaestic, since a stressed syllable often carries with it more than two unstressed ones. The five plays are the Noah, the Pastores, a second Pastores, the Magnus Herodes or Innocents, and the Buffeting. In the Noah the biblical theme of the salvation of mankind through the preservation of a single family, who are ultimately to produce the Redeemer, is transformed by this writer into what can only be called a fabliau of the recriminations and bouts of fisticuffs which take place between Noah and his wife, from the first building of the Ark to the ultimate return of the dove. The first Pastores is much dominated by what may be called a democratic outlook upon the disturbed conditions of the fifteenth century as they affected the rustic working classes. Gyb complains of the 'mekyll vncyl' [much unhappiness] of the world. His sheep are rotted; his rent is not ready. John Home joins him, with laments against boasters and braggers, who do 'mekyll wo' to poor men with their 'long dagers'. Slaw-pace, bringing corn from the mill, enters and chaffs them. Jack garcio chaffs them all. They club their poor food together for a meal. Our writer has taken hints from the York play and given them life. Good wine of Ely brings some comfort and the shepherds sleep, after a rustic prayer. An Angel wakes them with news of the Nativity, and bids them go to Bethlehem. They comment, see the star, recall prophecies, and try to sing. The star leads them. And at Bethlehem the tone changes, and the simple gifts of the shepherds, a little spruce coffer, a ball for play, a bottle to drink from, are rather touching. Not content with this effort, our poet essayed another, which is even more audacious. The opening theme is much the same, with complaint of the weather, of the 'gentlery men' who tax the poor, and of the behaviour of wives, especially their own. The world is 'brekyll [brittle] as glas', and floods drown the fields. Daw's master and the dame bully him, but he will repay them with bad work. The sheep are left in the corn, but the shepherds will sing a part-song. Now enters Mak, a king's yeoman, with a southern tongue. There is mistrust of his honesty. He is a sheep-stealer. His wife drinks and has too many children. And now follows what can only be described as an astonishing parody of the Nativity itself. While the others slumber, Mak steals a sheep and carries it to his wife Gill, who hides it in a cradle, to look like a new-born child. Mak returns to the shepherds, and, when they wake, says that he has dreamed that his wife has had a child, and must go home. The others arrange to count their sheep and to meet at 'the crokyd thorne'. One is missing and they pursue Mak. There is nothing in his house but empty platters and a cradled child. After a vain search, they go, and return to give the child sixpence. But it proves to have the long snout of a sheep. They can only laugh at the joke, and content themselves with tossing Mak in a canvas. Then comes the angelic message and the visit to Bethlehem, with its gifts. Again the tone has changed.
Our poet can lyricize, as well as satirize, when he chooses. But one wonders why Wakefield wanted two Pastores plays, and what was actually performed there. In the Magnus Herodes the Master finds himself in his element with the vaunts of Herod and his knights, and in the battle of the mothers to defend their children. And so too in the Buffeting, where the Tortores lay on with many insults, as well as blows, and Caiaphas is as violent as Herod and as free-spoken as any Shepherd.
In these five plays the writer is unaided, and there is nothing to suggest that he was a reviser, except of himself. But he also inserted forty-two stanzas of his characteristic metre into the York Judicium, to be spoken by Tutivillus and a group of fellow-demons, in scarification of the unjust souls, whose records they bring. Herein is much social criticism, of fraudulent taxgatherers, perjurers, extortioners, simoners, lechers, and adulterers, and of the extravagance in dress of men and women. But it is...
(The entire section is 23654 words.)