Alfred W. (Alfred William) Pollard.

English miracle plays, moralities, and interludes : specimens of the pre-Elizabethan drama online

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Biblical, and those drawn from the Old Testament the ones
taken from the New. The theory, however, is not one to be
hastily accepted, partly because the motives of reverence to
which it is assigned appeal far more to the modern mind than
to mediaeval simplicity, and partly because it hardly fits in
with the existence of the liturgical dramas for Christmas and
Easter, to which attention has already been drawn. On the
other hand, it may be taken as certain that the sacred drama
had no independent origin on English soil, but was introduced
into this country after the Norman Conquest. It is thus
probable that towards the beginning of the twelfth century the
miracles of the saints formed the favourite theme of the French
playwrights in England, and that the English preference for the
word miracle over that of mystere was due to the fact that it
was to this class of play that English audiences were first

1 The Ludtis de Sancta Katharina at Dunstable, pageants on the
subject of the lives of St. Fabyan, St. Sebastian and St. Botulf, per-
formed in London, plays at Windsor and Bassingbourne on St. George,
and the Ludi beatce Christina: at Bethersden, Kent, are the only Miracle
Plays, in the scientific use of the term, of which I can find mention of
the performance in England, and none of these unfortunately now survive.
The classification of the play of St. Paul in the Digby MS. is perhaps
doubtful ; the play of St. Mary Magdalene, from which extracts are given
in this volume, as introducing the character of Christ and the Resur-
rection, is at least in part a mystery. But, as remarked in the preface
to it in my notes, this interesiing play unites in itself all the features
which are commonly assigned respectively to Miracle Plays, Mysteries
and Moralities.


Of Miracle Plays written in Latin none now exist of which
it can be said with any probability that they were acted in
England. An early play on the subject of the creation and fall
of Adam, which was stated by its first editor, M. Luzarche, to
be written in Anglo-Norman, is now regarded as purely Norman,
and although it is highly probable that French plays were
written and acted in England during the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries, we are in possession of no trustworthy evidence on
the subject. According to statements made at the end of the
sixteenth century in the Banes or proclamation of the Chester
Plays, this great cycle dates in some form from the mayoralty
of John Arneway (1268-1276). Its composition is attributed to
1 Randall Higgenett, a monk of Chester abby,' and the story is
confused by the assignment of Arneway's term of office to the
years 1327-28. An attempt has been made to reconcile these
statements by supposing that the plays were originally acted in
French at the earlier of the two dates, and that ' Randall
Higgenett,' who has been somewhat rashly identified with
Ralph Higden, the Chronicler, subsequently translated them
into English. The theory is supported by some minor evidence,
but is discredited by the language of the plays, and by the
relations in which they stand to other cycles. It was probably
not in the West, but in the East- Midlands 1 , that Miracle Plays
were first acted in English, though we may assign the probable
date of their first performance to a period very little later
than the mayoralty of Sir John Arneway. The Harrowing of
Hell, an East-Midland poem in dialogue, quoted in full in our
Appendix, though not itself a Miracle Play, undoubtedly shows
that dramatic influences had been at work before its composi-
tion, and three extant manuscripts of it date from the reign of
Edward II. The East-Midland play of Abraham and Isaac
(also quoted from in the Appendix), discovered by Miss Lucy
Toulmin Smith, at Broome Hall in Suffolk, may be assigned
to the fourteenth century, and about the year 1350 a Ludtis
Filioriim Israel was performed at Cambridge. Passing from
the East-Midlands northwards, \ve are confronted with the
great York cycle of plays dating from about 1360, with the

1 In the geographical grouping of the plays I follow Professor Ten
Brink (Gcsch. der alt. eng. Lit. 251).


closely related ' Towneley ' or Woodkirk cycle of about the same
period, and with the lost Beverly cycle, some remnants of which
may possibly be preserved in the fragments lately printed by
Prof. Skeat l from an early fifteenth century MS. Further north
still we find another at Newcastle, of which one play (The
Building of the Ark] still remains. Westwards, again, in the
fifteenth century, Chester became a kind of dramatic metropolis
for Preston, Lancaster, Kendall and Dublin. Southwards, the
fame of Coventry gradually overshadowed that of all its rivals,
and we hear of plays performed at Tewkesbury, at Reading,
and at Witney. Throughout the fourteenth, the fifteenth and
the sixteenth centuries, we have continuous evidence of the
popularity 2 and frequent production of Miracle Plays in nearly

1 Academy, Jan. 4 and n, 1890.

2 The plays did not always meet with approval. I quote from a
Wycliffite sermon against them the apology which the preacher puts
into the mouths of their defenders. It gives a good summary of medie-
val views on the subject, and, inferentially, of the nature of the
preacher's attack.

' But here ajenis thei seyen that they pleyen these myraclis in the
worschip of God, and so dyden not these Jewis that bobbiden [mocked]
Crist. Also, ofte sithis by siche myraclis pleyinge ben men converted
to gode lyvynge, as men and wymmen seyng in myraclis pleyinge that
the devil by ther array, by the which thei moven eche on othere to
leccherie and to pride, makith hem his servauntis to bryngen hemsilf and
many othere to helle, and to han fer more vylenye herafter by ther
proude aray heere than thei han worschipe heere, and seeynge ferthermore
that at this worldly beyng heere is but vanite for a while, as is myraclis
pleying, wherthorn thei leeven ther pride, and taken to hem afterward
the meke conversacioun of Crist and of his seyntis, and so myraclis
pleyinge turneth men to the bileve, and not pervertith. Also ofte
sythis by siche myraclis pleyinge men and wymmen, seynge the passioua
of Crist and of his seyntis, ben movyd to compassion and devocioun
wepynge bitere teris, thanne thei ben not scornynge of God but wor-
schipyng. Also, prophitable to men and to the worschipe of God it is
to fulfillum and sechen alle the menes by the whiche men mowen scene
and drawen hem to vertues ; and sythen as ther ben men that only synne
by ernestful doynge wylen be convertid to God, so ther ben othere men
that wylen be convertid to God but by gamen and play ; and now on
dayes men ben not convertid by the ernestful doyng of God ne of men,
thanne now it is tyme and skilful to assayen to convertyn the puple by


every part of England. During this period we have record of
the performance of plays in at least thirty English towns and
villages, some of them quite small places. In London, in 1378,
the choristers of St. Paul's prayed for the suppression of the
performances of ' un expert people'; in 1391 the Parish Clerks
played for three days at Skinners' Well near Smithfield, and we
have record of another play at the same place in 1407, which
lasted no less than eight days. In 1416 a play of St. George of
Cappadocia was performed before Henry V. and the Emperor
Sigismund at Windsor, and in the following year the English
Bishops at the Council of Constance entertained first the
Burghers and afterwards their fellow-councillors with a Christ-
mas play, representing the Nativity, visit of the Magi, and
Slaughter of the Innocents. Similar references might be almost
indefinitely multiplied.

From the mention of the ludi sanctiores in William Fitz-
stephen (circ. 1182), to the prayer of the choristers of St. Paul's
in 1378, we have no reference to Miracle Plays in London.
During these two centuries a great change had been wrought
in the plays and the manner of their performance, with the
gradual evolution of which we are only imperfectly acquainted.
Originally, as we have seen, they were acted in, or in the
precincts of, churches, and by the priests and their assistants.
But the apparently instantaneous popularity of the plays led to
a demand for their extension, which gradually resulted in the
exclusion of the original performers from all participation in
them. In the shows and processions which formed so prominent
a feature in medieval life, allegorical personages and symbols
had from very early times played a part. In the procession of

pley and gamen, as by myraclis pleyinge and other maner myrthis.
Also, summe recreatioun men moten han, and bettere it is or lesse yvele
that thei han theyre recreacoun by pleyinge of myraclis than by pleyinge
of other japis. Also, sithen it is leveful to han the myraclis of God
peynted, why is not as wel leveful to han the myraclis of God pleyed,
sythen men mowen bettere reden the wille of God and his mervelous
werkis in the pleyinge of hem than in the peyntynge, and betere thei ben
holden in mennus mynde and oftere rehersid by the pleyinge of hem than
by the peyntynge, for this is a deed bok, the tother a qu[i]ck." MS. of
the end of the fourteenth century in library of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields,
quoted hi Wright and Halliwell's Reliquia Antique, vol. ii.


a gild the patron saint would form a prominent figure, and on
the occasion of royal entries and rejoicings his representative
would act as the spokesman of the craft from one of the gaily
decorated scaffolds, which were erected at different points along
the route. As the Miracle Plays grew in popularity and the
desire arose for greater elaboration in stage-effects, performances
in churches became increasingly impossible. The churchyard,
which was next tried, was equally unsuitable, for the crowds of
spectators desecrated the graves. Gradually, therefore, the
players left the church and its precincts, and performed in any
convenient open spaces about the town. When this practice
became the rule the members of the trade-gilds entered the lists
as competitors with the clergy, while the wandering jugglers or
histriones were ready to supplement by their aid the dramatic
deficiencies of either party. At the same time, now that the
plays were more and more dissevered from the services of
the Church, the Ecclesiastical authorities began to feel grave
doubts as to the advisability of the participation of the clergy in
such performances. In 1210 Pope Gregory had forbidden the
clergy to act in churches or at mummings, and the prohibition
was repeated by the Council of Treves in 1227. Strict Church
feeling on the subject is well summed up in a passage in the
Manuel de Pechd, written in Norman-French about the end of
the thirteenth century, and quoted here in its translation under
the name of the Handlyng Synne, by Robert Mannyng of
Brunne, in or about the year 1303.

' Hyt ys forbode hym yn the decre
Miracles for to make or se ;
For miracles, ?yf you begynne,
Hyt ys a gaderynt, a syght of synne.
He may yn the Cherche, thurgh thys resun,
Pley the resurrecyun ;
That is to seye, how god ros,
God and man yn myght and los,
To make men be yn beleve gode,
That he ros with flesshe and blode ;
And he may pleye withoutyn plyght
How god was bore yn thole nyght,
To make men to beleve stedfastly
That he lyght yn the vyrgyne Mary.


3yf thou do hyt in weyys or grenys.

A syght of synne truly hyt semys.' Ed. Furnivall.

The compromise which these lines represent was of no long
duration. The spirit of the times was all in favour of the open-
air performances in the highways and public greens, and no
English play which has been preserved to us contains any
marks of its representation by clerical actors.

Eight years after the appearance of Robert of Brunne's
Handlyng Synne, a great impetus was given to the Miracle
Plays by a degree of the Council of Vienne (1311). The feast
of Corpus Christi, instituted by Pope Urban in 1264, owing to
his death in the same year, had never been observed. Its
due celebration on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday was now
strictly enjoined, and was adopted by the trade-gilds in many
towns as their chief festival of the year. The custom of linking
several plays on kindred subjects into one grand performance
was now greatly extended, in order to provide each craft, or
group of crafts, with a separate scene. There was nothing in
the nature of the festival, as there is in those of Christmas and
Easter, to limit the thoughts of Christians to particular events
in the Bible narrative, and the fact that the Thursday after
Trinity Sunday mostly falls within a few weeks of the longest
day, also lent itself to the performance of those great cycles ' of
mater from the beginning of the world ' to the Day of Judgment,
four of which have come down to us as the most important
remains of the English religious drama.

The manner of performance of the Miracle Plays has often
been described. In order to enable as large a number of people
as possible to be spectators, each play was repeated several
times in different parts of the town, called ' stations,' and to this
end moveable scaffolds were constructed, which could be drawn
by horses from point to point. With this much premised, there
can be no difficulty in understanding the oft-quoted account
by Archdeacon Rogers (obiit, 1595), who witnessed one of
the last performances of the Whitsun plays at Chester, the year
before his death.

' Every company,' he writes, 'had his pagiant, or parte, which
pagiants weare a high scafolde with two rowmes, a higher and
a lower, upon four wheeles. In the lower they apparelled


them selves, and in the higher rowme they played, beinge all
open on the tope, that all behoulders mighte heare and see them.
The places where they played them was in every streete. They
begane first at the abay gates, and when the firste pagiante
was played it was wheeled to the highe crosse before the mayor,
and so to every streete ; and soe every streete had a pagiant
playinge before them at one time, till all the pagiantes for the
daye appoynted weare played : and when one pagiant was
neere ended, worde was broughte from streete to streete, that
soe they mighte come in place thereof excedinge orderlye, and
all the streetes have theire pagiantes afore them all at one time
playeinge togeather ; to se which playes was greate resorte, and
also scafoldes and stages made in the streetes in those places
where they determined to playe theire pagiantes.'

It will be noted that the word pageant, which is ultimately
connected with the Greek n-qy/ua, and is found spelt in every
conceivable way, is primarily applied to the moveable scaffold
on which the play was acted, and only secondarily to the
performance itself. In some cases, e.g. in that of the Trial
of Christ, for the proper performance of a play two scaffolds
would be required, and the actors would go from one to another,
as between the judgment halls of Pilate and Herod. Messengers
also would ride up to a scaffold through the town, and there are
stage directions such as that 'here Herod shall rage on the
pagond and also in the streete.' In the more elaborate per-
formances some attempt was made at scene shifting, as is
indicated by directions in the Coventry Play of the Last Supper.

' Here Cryst enteryth into the hous with his disciplis and etc the
Paschal lomb ; and in the mene tyme the cownsel-hous beforn seyd xal
sodeynly enclose, schewyng the buschopys, prestys, and jewgys syttyng
in here astat, lyche as it were a convocacyon.'

And again,

' Here the bnschopys partyn in the place, and eche of hem takyn
here leve, be contenawns, resortyng eche man to his place with here
meny redy to take Cryst ; and than xal the place ther Cryst is in xal
sodeynly unclose round abowt, shewyng Cryst syttyng at the table and
hese dyscypules eche in ere degre, Cryst thus seyng,' &c.

In simpler performances a different part of the stage was
accepted as a different scene, and actors who were not taking


part in the dialogue remained in view of the spectators. The
dresses, as was long the custom on the English stage, aimed
rather at splendour than appropriateness, save in the hideous
attire assigned to the demons. God was represented in a white
coat, and until the injurious effects of the process were under-
stood, the actor who played this part used to have his face

In the accounts of the gilds and municipalities there are
numerous entries for the purchase of these dresses, for the
housing and repair of the pagond, for meat and drink for the
actors during rehearsals, and for their fees for the performance.
In his Dissertation on the Coventry Mysteries (pp. 15, 16),
Mr. Sharp quotes in full the expenses incurred by the Smiths in
1490 in rehearsing and exhibiting their pageant of the Trial,
Condemnation, and Passion of Christ. They are as follows :

' This is the expens of the furste reherse of our players in Ester weke.

Imprimis in Brede, iiij d .

Itm in Ale, viij d .

Itm in Kechyn, xiij d .

Itm in Vynegre, j d .

Itm payd at the Second Reherse in Whyttson weke, in brede, Ale and
Kechyn, ij 8 . iiij d .

Itm for drynkynge at the pagent in having forth in Wyne and ale,
vij d .

Itm in the mornynge at diner and at Sopper in Costs in Brede, vij d .

Itm for ix galons of Ale, xviij d .

Itin for a Rybbe of befe and j gose, vj d .

Itm for kechyn to dener and sopp, ij 8 . ij d .

Itm for a Rybbe of befe, iij d .

Itm for a quarte of wyne, ij d .

Itm for another quarte for heyrynge of procula is gowne, ij d .

Itm for gloves ij 9 . vj d .

Itm spent at the repellynge of the pagantte and the expences of
havinge it in and furthe, xiiij d .

Itm in paper, ob.

Md payd to the players for corpus xisti daye.

Imprimis to God, ij 5 .

Itm to Cayphas, iij 8 . iiij d .

Itm to Heronde, iij 8 . iiij d .

Itm to Pilatt is wyffe, ij s .

Itm to the Bedull, iiij d .

Itm to one of the Knights, ij 8 .


Itm to the devyll and to Judas, xviij d .

Itin to Petur and malchus, xvj d .

Itin to Anna, ij s . ij d .

Itm to Pilatte, iiij s .

Itm to Pilatte is sonne, iiij d .

Itm to another knighte, ij 9 .

Itm to the Mynstrell, xiiij d .'

To meet these expenses a yearly rate, varying in the different
gilds from a penny to fourpence, was levied on every craftsman.
The spending of this rate (called pageant-silver), and of any
additions to it through fines, &c., was entrusted to pageant-
masters, who were annually elected, and had before leaving
office to account for all monies received. The payments to the
players (supers like the Bedull and Pilate's son, who received
fourpence, being excluded) began at Coventry at fourteenpence,
and reached in some cases as much as four shillings, no
inconsiderable sum in 1490, when a rib of beef could be bought
for threepence, and ale was twopence a gallon. At any rate
there was no lack of candidates for the honour of acting,
and one of the duties of the pageant-master was to examine
into the qualifications of these trade-folk actors. In York
this duty was taken up by the Council itself, who on April 3,
1476, ordained :

' That yerely in the tyme of lentyn there shall be called afore the maire
for the tyme beyng iiij of the moste connyng discrete and able players
within this Citie, to serche, here, and examen all the plaiers and plaies
and pagentes thrughoute all the artificers belonging to Corpus Xti
Plaie. And all such as thay shall fynde sufficiant in personne and
connyng, to the honour of the Citie and worship of the saide Craftes,
for to admitte and able ; and all other insufficiant personnes, either in
connyng, voice, or personne to discharge, ammove, and avoide.

' And that no plaier that shall plaie in the saide Corpus Xti plaie be
conducte and reteyned to plaie, but twise on the day of the saide playe
[i.e. shall not take more than two different characters] ; and that he or
thay so plaing plaie not overe twise the saide day, vpon payne of xlr. to
forfet vnto the chaumbre as often tymes as he or thay shall be founden
defautie in the same."

From this it will be seen that in the larger towns, at any rate,
the plays were most carefully rehearsed and prepared, and that
Shakespeare's caricature of the tradesman-amateur in Bottom


and his fellows cannot fairly be applied to these performances.
On this part of our subject it only remains to quote the York
Proclamation as to the performance of the Corpus Christi plays,
which not only illustrates the importance which was attached
to them, but gives us the interesting information that the plays
began between four and five a.m. The Proclamation belongs
to the year 1415, after the performance of the plays had been
transferred from the festival of Corpus Christi to its vigil. It
is given here as transcribed by Miss Toulmin Smith for her
edition of the York Plays.

' Proclamacio htdi corporis cristi facienda in vigilia carports cristi.

' Oiez &c. We comand of ye Kynges behalue and ye Mair and ye
Shirefs of yis Citee yat no mann go armed in yis Citee with swerdes ne
with Carlill-axes, ne none othir defences in distorbaunce of ye Kingis
pees and ye play, or hynderyng of ye processioun of Corpore Christi,
and yat yai leue yare hernas in yare Ines, saufand knyghtes and sqwyers
of wirship yat awe haue swerdes borne eftir yame, of payne of forfaiture
of yaire wapen and inprisonment of yaire bodys. And yat men yat
brynges furth pacentes yat yai play at the places yat is assigned yerfore
and nowere elles, of ye payne of forfaiture to be raysed yat is ordayned
yerfore, yatis to say x\s. And yat menn of craftes and all othir menn
yat fyndes torches, yat yai come furth in array, and in ye manere as it
has been osed and customed before yis time, noght haueyng wapen,
careynge tapers of ye pagentz. And officers yat ar keepers of the pees
of payne of forfaiture of yaire fraunchis and yaire bodyes to prison :
And all maner of craftmen yat bringeth furthe ther pageantez in order
and course by good players, well arayed and openly spekyng, vpon payn
of lesyng of Cs. to be paide to the chambre without any pardon. And
that euery player that shall play be redy in his pagiaunt at convenyant
tyme, that is to say, at the myd howre betwix iiijth and vth of the cloke
in the mornynge, and then all oyer pageantz fast followyng ilk one after
oyer as yer course is, without tarieng. Sub pena facienda camere \is.


In approaching the consideration of the four great cycles
of Miracle Plays still extant (the York, Towneley, Chester
and Coventry), it must be remembered that no one of them,
in the form in which it has come down to us, can be regarded
as a homogeneous whole, the work of a single author. So little
attention has as yet been devoted to these plays, that the
relations of the different cycles to each other, and of the


different parts of the same cycle to the whole, have as yet been
very imperfectly worked out 1 . It is plain, however, that the
dramatists borrowed ideas and sometimes whole scenes from
each other, and that the plays were frequently rewritten, often
to the great detriment of the original metre. The connection of
the plays with the trade-gilds was in itself a great cause of
confusion. Where a city was prosperous new gilds would arise,
and the original plays have to be subdivided in order to give
them a share in the performance. When, on the other hand,
the means or the enthusiasm of the gilds was on the decline, two
or more plays would have to be run together. The manuscript
of the York cycle, which dates from about 1430-40 contains
forty-eight plays : in 1415 there had been fifty-one, and another
list, probably a few years earlier, gives fifty-seven. The process
of subdivision had probably reached its height about the end of
the fourteenth century, and the tendency thenceforward would
be to amalgamation or excision. In the Chester cycle, of
which we have no extant manuscript earlier than 1591, the
number of the plays is only twenty-five, and marks of amal-
gamation are easily traced. Thus each cycle as it has come
down to us must be regarded rather as an organic growth than
as the work of a single author.

From whatever point of view we regard them, whether as
to antiquity, length, or serious interest, the York Plays, which
have been the last to receive the honours of print, have the first
claim on our attention. The date of the composition of the