Alfred W. (Alfred William) Pollard.

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

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cycle as a whole is referred by Miss Toulmin Smith to the years
1340-1350. The plays are forty-eight in number, and they
follow the Bible narrative very closely, though with the occasional
introduction of apocryphal legends from the pseudo-gospels and
similar sources. It will be convenient, therefore, to take the
York cycle as our standard of comparison, and in order to give
the fullest idea of its contents the Ordo Paginarum of 1415
is here subjoined in a translation, that of Drake (the author
of the Eboracuni], slightly emended from the Latin text printed
by Miss Toulmin Smith.

1 An article by Dr. A. Hohlfeld m.Anglia, Bd. xi. (1881) has recently
given a foretaste of the interesting results which might be obtained from
a systematic study of the relations of the four cycles.



'The order of the Pagents of the Play of Corpus Christi, in the time
of the mayoralty of William Alne, in the third year of the reign of King
Henry V., anno 1415, compiled by Roger Burton, town clerk.

iGod the Father Almighty creating and forming the
heavens, angels and archangels, Lucifer and the
angels that fell with him to hell.

/ God the Father, in his own substance, creating the
| earth and all which is therein, by the space of five
' days.

God the Father creating Adam of the clay of the
earth, and making Eve of Adam's rib, and inspiring
them with the breath of life.

God forbidding Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of

Adam and Eve and a tree betwixt them ; the serpent
deceiving them with apples ; God speaking to them
and cursing the serpent, and with a sword driving
them out of paradise.

Adam and Eve, an angel with a spade and distaff
assigning them work.

2. Plasterers

3. Cardmakers

4. Fullers

5. Coopers

6. Armourers







and Mariners

( Abel and Cain offering victims in sacrifice.

( God warning Noah to make an Ark of floatable
( wood.

INoah in the Ark, with his wife ; the three sons of
Noah with their wives ; with divers animals.


11. Hosiers

12. Spicers



14. Tylers

15. Chandlers

( with wood and an angel.

Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness ; King
Pharaoh ; eight Jews wondering and expecting.
A Doctor declaring the sayings of the prophets of the
future birth of Christ. Mary ; an angel saluting her ;
Mary saluting Elizabeth.

( Mary, Joseph wishing to put her away ; an angel
( speaking to them that they go to Bethlehem.

JMary, Joseph, a midwife ; the Child born, lying in a
manger betwixt an ox and an ass, and an angel
J speaking to the shepherds, and to the players in the
^ next pageant.

The shepherds talking together, the star in the East ;
an angel giving the shepherds the good tidings of the
Child's birth.



1 6, 17. Orfevers f

[Goldsmiths] 1

Goldbeaters )


41. [Misplaced in\

the MS.]
Formerly the
Hospital of
St. Leonards,
now the Ma-

1 8. Marshals

[Shoers of

19. Girdellers

20. Spurriers

[Bridle makers]

21. Barbers
[Omitted in the


22. Fevers


23. Curriers

[Omitted in the


24. Plumbers

25. Skinners ...

The three kings coming from the East, Herod asking
them about the child Jesus ; the son of Herod, two
counsellors, and a messenger. Mary with the Child,
a star above, and the three kings offering gifts.

Mary with the Child, Joseph, Anna, the midwife with
young pigeons ; Simeon receiving the Child in his
arms, and two sons of Symeon.

Mary with the Child, and Joseph fleeing into Egypt
at the bidding of an angel.

Herod commanding the children to be slain ; four
soldiers with lances ; two counsellors of the king, and
four women lamenting the slaughter of the children.

The Doctors, the Child Jesus sitting in the Temple in
their midst, questioning and answering them. Four
Jews, Mary and Joseph seeking Him, and finding
Him in the Temple.

Jesus, John the Baptist baptizing Him.

Jesus, Mary, bridegroom with bride, the Ruler of the
Feast with his household, with six water-pots, in
which the water is turned into wine.

Jesus upon the pinnacle of the Temple, Satan tempt-
ing Him, with' stones, and two angels ministering.

Peter, James and John ; Jesus ascending into the
mountain and transfiguring Himself before them ;
Moses and Elias appearing, and a voice speaking
from a cloud.

Jesus, and Simon the Leper asking Jesus to eat with
him ; two disciples, Mary Magdalen washing the feet
of Jesus with her tears and wiping them with her hair.

Jesus, two Apostles, the woman taken in adultery,
four Jews accusing her.

I Lazarus in the tomb, Mary Magdalene, Martha, and
I two Jews in wonderment.

Jesus upon an ass with its foal, xii Apostles following
Jesus, six rich and six poor men, eight boys with
branches of palms, singing JSenedictus, &c., and
Zacchceus climbing into a sycamore-tree.



26. Cutlers

27. Bakers

28. Cordwaners

29. Bowyers
[Arrow- feather-


30. Tapisers

31. Littesters ...

32. Cooks

33. Tilemakers
[Workers in

Horse Hair ?]
[Bowlmakers ?]

34. Tunners

35. Pinners

Pilate, Caiaphas, two soldiers, three Jews, Judas
f selling Jesus.

The paschal lamb, the Lord's supper, the xii Apos-
tels, Jesus girt with a linen towel washing their feet ;
the institution of the Sacrament of Christ's Body in
the New Law ; the communion of the Apostles.

Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, fourteen armed soldiers,
Malchus, Peter, James, John, Jesus, and Judas kissing
and betraying Him.

Jesus, Annas, Caiaphas, and four Jews persecuting
and scourging Jesus. Peter, the woman accusing
Peter, and Malchus.

Jesus, Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, two counsellors and

four Jews accusing Christ.

Herod, two counsellors, four soldiers, Jesus and three

) Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, two Jews, and Judas bringing
\ back to them the thirty pieces of silver.

1 Jesus, Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, six soldiers carrying
spears and ensigns, and four others leading Jesus from
Herod, desiring Barabbas to be released and Jesus to
be crucified, and then binding and scourging him,
placing a crown of thorns upon his head ; three
soldiers casting lots for the vest of Jesus.

Jesus, covered with blood, bearing His cross to Cal-
vary ; Simon of Cyrene, Jews compelling him to bear
the cross ; Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Apostle
John informing her of the condemnation of her
Son and of His journey to Calvary ; Veronica wiping
blood and sweat from the face of Jesus with the nap-
kin on which is imprinted Jesu's face ; and other
women lamenting Jesus.

The Cross, Jesus stretched upon it on the earth, four
Jews scourging and dragging Him with ropes, and
afterwards uplifting the Cross and the body of Jesus
nailed to it, on Mount Calvary.



The cross, two thieves crucified, Jesus hung on the
I cross between them, Mary the mother of Jesus, John,
36. Butchers I Mary, James and Salome. Longeus with a lance, a

Poulterers j slave with a sponge, Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, a cen-
turion, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus laying
^ Him in the tomb.

37. Sellers



[Makers of

Saddle Trees]

38. Carpenters ...



"Wine drawers

[Brokers ?]
[Illuminators ?]



of cloths]

Jesus despoiling Hell, twelve spirits, six good and six

Jesus rising from the tomb, four soldiers armed, and
the three Maries lamenting. Pilate, Caiaphas [and
Annas. A young man clad in white, sitting at the
tomb, talking to the women].

Jesus, Mary Magdalene with spices.

Jesus, Luke and Cleophas in the guise of pilgrims.

Jesus, Peter, John, James and other apostles,
feeling the wounds of Jesus.





f Mary, John the Evangelist, two Angels, and eleven
/ Apostles ; Jesus ascending before them and four
( angels carrying a cloud.

!Mary, two Angels, eleven Apostles, and the Holy
Spirit descending on them, and four Jews in wonder-

Jesus, Mary, Gabriel with two angels, two virgins and
three Jews of the kindred of Mary, eight Apostles,
and two devils.

, _ i Four apostles carrying the bier of Mary ; Fergus
[Omitted in MS.] ) , . , * ... .

J < hanging upon the bier, with two other Jews, I and
Linen-weavers / ,-,

I one angel] .

Mary ascending with a crowd of Angels, eight Apos-
, ties, and Thomas the Apostle preaching in the
( desert.

44. Potters

45. Drapers

46. "Weavers



I Mary, Jesus crowning her, singing with a crowd of
E 1 angels.

Jesus, Mary, twelve Apostles, four angels with trurn-

48. Mercers ... ^ pets and four with a crown, a lance and two scourges;
four good spirits and four evil spirits, and six devils.

The next cycle which we have to consider is that of the
Towneley Plays, so called from the only known manuscript in
which they exist having been long in the possession of the
Towneley family, from whom it has now passed into the hands
of Mr. Bernard Quaritch. This cycle is also frequently quoted
as that of the Widkirk, Woodkirk, or Wakefield plays. The
authority for the name Widkirk is a tradition of the Towneley
family (recorded by Mr. Douce in the Towneley Catalogue for
1814), by which the plays are supposed to have formerly 'be-
longed to Abbey of Widkirk, near Wakefield, in the County of
York.' Widkirk, however, is an obvious mistake, as there is no
such place near Wakefield, nor is any Abbey of Widkirk known
to have existed in any part of England. There is, however, a
place called Woodkirk, about four miles to the north of Wake-
field, and here there was a cell of Augustinian Canons, in
dependance on the house of St. Oswald, at Nostel. We must
agree, therefore, with the Rev. J. Stevenson, the first editor of
these plays, that 'whatever weight there may be attached to
the supposition or tradition respecting the original possession,
must be given to the claim of this Cell of Canons at Woodkirk.'
With Wakefield the connection of these plays is beyond a
doubt. Thus at the head of the first play in the series is
written in a large hand ' Wakefelde, Barkers ; ' at the head of
the second ' Closer Pag[eant] ;' at the head of the third 'Wake-
feld,' and before the play of the Travellers to Emmaiis ' Fysher
Pageant.' There is also an allusion (in the second play of the
Shepherds) to the ' shroges,' or rough moorland of Horbery, a
village two or three miles to the south-west of Wakefield.
Plainly, therefore, several of these plays were acted by the
Trades of Wakefield, and it is probable that the monkish
compiler of the Towneley or Woodkirk cycle borrowed them
from a cycle, now lost, which used to be performed at Wake-
field. But the correctness of the assignment of the whole

c 2


Towneley cycle to Wakefield is made very improbable by the
fact that five 1 of the plays are substantially the same with
Nos. n, 20, 37, 38, 48, in the York cycle. We may therefore
safely regard this cycle as a composite one, though the language
of the plays, despite some diversities, makes it improbable that
the compiler travelled out of Yorkshire in search of his originals.
The cycle, as we have it, consists of thirty-two plays, of which
two, The Raising of Lazarus and The Hanging of Judas,
are inserted at the end of the MS. out of their right order.
Twelve quires have been lost from the MS. at the end of the
Creation, and another twelve after the Ascension, besides
other probable losses. We can only note, therefore, that in our
text there is nothing to answer to the York Plays 22, 23, 24
part i, 25-27, 29, 39, 44-47 ; but it is most probable that if a
complete manuscript should ever be recovered its contents
would be found to correspond very closely indeed to the York
cycle. As compared with the other plays which have come
down to us, these two Northern cycles are distinguished by
their vigour and originality. They have little pathos, but much
humour, and are especially rich in those interpolations on the
Scripture narrative, in which the dramatists felt themselves
freed from the restraints by which they were hampered in
dealing with sacred personages.

Of the origin of the Chester cycle something has already
been said, and a short account of the extant MSS. will be found
in the notes to the two extracts here printed. The MSS. are
all of them late, but they appear to be based on a text of the
beginning of the fifteenth century. The composition of the
cycle probably dates from some fifty or sixty years earlier.
The fame of cycles appears to have spread to Chester, and to
have awakened the ambition of a local playwright. As regards
metre and form the cycle shows exceptional unity. It is mainly
written in eight-line stanzas, the author, as Dr. Hohlfeld points
out, at the beginning of each play making a manful attempt to
content himself with two rimes (aaabaaab), but soon drifting
into the use of three (aaabcccb). In some of the Chester plays

1 The Departure of the Israelites from Egypt ; Christ -with the
Doctors in the Temple ; The Harrowing of Hell ; The Resurrection, and
The Judgment,


(notably for that of Jesus in the Temple) we can trace the
influence of the Yorkshire cycles, and the play on the sacrifice
of Isaac was borrowed either from, or from the same original
as, the Broome play, printed by Miss Toulmin Smith. But if
it be true, as Professor Ten Brink suggests, that the Chester
cycle is both less important and less original than those of
York and Woodkirk, and that its best, both of pathos and
humour appears to be borrowed, it must be allowed on the
other hand that its author was possessed of an unusual share of
good taste. There is less in the Chester plays to jar on
modern feelings than in any other of the cycles. The humour
is kept more within bounds, the religious tone is far higher, and
though the plays are not spoilt by any obtrusive didacticism such
as we find in the Coventry cycle, the speeches of the Expositor
at the end of each play show that a real effort was made to
serve the religious object to which all Miracle plays were
ostensibly directed. On a comparison of the contents of this
cycle with that of York we note that fresh subjects are intro-
duced in the histories of Lot and of Balaam, in the play on
Ezekiel, which contains prophecies of the end of the world
and the Fifteen Signs of Doom, and in the very curious em-
bodiment of the medieval legends on the coming of Antichrist.
On the other hand, there is no play of the Exodus, the plays on
the history of the Blessed Virgin are represented only by a
Salutation and the Nativity of Christ (in the course of which
the Emperor Octavian is introduced giving his orders for all
the world to be taxed), and there is no play on the Assumption.
Like those of York, the Chester plays were enacted by the
members of the Trade- Gilds, not, however, on the feast of
Corpus Christi, but at Whitsuntide.

The third cycle of plays which we have to consider is con-
tained in a manuscript, the greater part of which was written in
the year 1468, and which now belongs to the Cottonian Collec-
tion in the British Museum. On the fly-leaf of this manuscript,
which was probably purchased by Sir Robert Cotton about
1630, is written in the handwriting of his librarian, Dr. Richard
James, the following note: Contenta Novi Testamenti scenice
expressa et actitata olirn per nwnachos sive fratres mendicantes :
vulgo dicitur hie liber Lttdus Coventrice, sive Ludus Corporis


Christi : scribitur metris Anglicanis. We know from numerous
contemporary allusions that a cycle of Corpus Christi plays was
performed by the Grey Friars at Coventry, and the identifica-
tion of these plays with those of the Cottonian MS. has won a
general, though rather uneasy, acceptance.

The lengthy prologue to these plays contains at its end a

A Sunday next, yf that we may,

At six of the belle, we gynne oure play

In N towne ;

which points to the performances of a strolling company, and
the upholders of the Coventry theory are driven to conjecture
that the increasing popularity of the plays of the Trade-Gilds of
the city (of which only two specimens have come down to us)
drove the Franciscans to take their cycle elsewhere. In the
present state of our knowledge it is dangerous to dogmatize I
can only express my own belief that further investigation will
lead to the decisive connection of this cycle, not with Coventry,
but with the Eastern counties. As Prof. Ten Brink has pointed
out (Gesch. der alt. Eng. Lift. 275), the dialect and scribal
peculiarities of these plays belong rather to the North-East
Midlands than to the neighbourhood of Coventry, and in the
fifteenth century, to the early part of which the composition of
this cycle must be attributed, it was in the East-Midlands that
the writers of Miracle plays and Moralities were most busily at
work. In language, in metre, in tone, in the elaborate stage
directions, in the proclamation of the play by the wandering
banner-bearers or vexillatores, this cycle appears to bear close
affinities to the later Miracle plays, such as the Croxton play on
the Sacrament, and the play of Mary Magdalen, and with the
early Moralities such as the Castell of Perseverance, all of
which are of East-Midland origin, and to the East-Midlands I
feel sure that it will eventually be assigned '. As divided by its
editor, Mr. H alii well Phillipps, the cycle consists of forty-two
plays, which, as we learn from a passage in the twenty-ninth,

1 It is worth noting in this connection that the beautiful speech of
Christ on the Resurrection morning, beginning ' Earthly man that I have
wrought,' is taken almost word for word from the old East-Midland
dramatic poem of the Harrou'ing of Hell.


were not all of them performed in any one year. Comparing
the plays with those of the York cycle, we note that a long
didactic play on the Giving of the Law takes the place of that of
the Exodus (n), that the thirteenth York play is expanded into
a series of seven, dealing with the history of S. Joseph and the
Blessed Virgin up to the time of the Nativity, that there is no
play on the Transfiguration, and that the three York plays on
the Death of Mary, her Appearance to St. Thomas, Assumption
and Coronation, are represented by a single long play on the
Assumption. In this cycle the didactic speeches elsewhere
assigned to a 'Doctor' or 'Expositor' are delivered by an
allegorical personage called Contemplacio. Death is personi-
fied, and a play on the Salutation is prefaced by a long prologue
in heaven, in which the speakers are (besides Deus Pater and
Deus Filius), Veritas, Misericordia, Justicia, and Pax 1 . This
tendency towards the personification of abstract ideas is a mark
of late date in the history of the Miracle play, and helps to link
this cycle to the earlier Moralities, of which we shall soon
proceed to speak. Taken as a whole 2 , these so-called Coventry
plays show the least dramatic power of any of the four cycles
which we have examined. Their interest is mainly didactic,
and they are especially concerned with the doctrine of the Holy
Trinity and of the honour due to the Blessed Virgin. But they
are not without vigour, and their refusal of humorous episodes
is not to be reckoned against them.


In the English Miracle plays which we have been examining,
as in the religious dramas of other European countries, two
distinct centres of interest offer themselves for examination.
The student of the history of religious thought will investigate
the respective influences in the composition of these plays of the
Bible narrative, the Apocryphal Gospels, and the Medieval
Legends. He will be interested in the position assigned to the

1 This scene, which forms one of our extracts, closely resembles one at
the end of the Castell of Perseverance. A similar heavenly conference
occurs in the French Mystere du Vieil Testament in a play on the
sacrifice of Isaac.

2 Some exceptions must be made. Thus the plays on the Woman
taken in Adultery and the Death of Herod are both vividly dramatic.


Blessed Virgin, in the reality with which the truths of the
Christian Faith have been apprehended, and in the underlying
meaning of the irreverence and prurience with which the most
sacred subjects are occasionally handled. This is a line of
investigation well worthy of pursuit, but which the scope of this
volume absolutely forbids. Such an investigation must take as
its field the whole remains of the religious drama in this
country, viewed in connection with the contemporary literature
both at home and abroad. Nor could its results be adequately
supported except by selections at least ten times as long as
those which are here presented. For us, therefore, the interest
of these plays comes primarily from their dramatic side, and
their importance in the history of medieval thought can only be
made the subject of incidental illustration. It is this principle
which has come to our help in the selection of typical extracts,
which otherwise would have been a task of almost insuperable
difficulty. Thus our first extract (The Creation, and Fall of
Lucifer) may be taken as exemplifying the power of these
primitive playwrights in developing a great historical situation ;
the second, that of Noah's Flood, their development of a
humorous incident (the controversy between Noah and his
wife) within the limits of the Miracle play proper; while our
third extract, on the Sacrifice of Isaac, exhibits the treatment of
the most tragic and pathetic incident, with one exception, with
which the playwrights were concerned. They may thus be
taken as representing the nearest approach which the religious
drama could properly make to the Histories, Comedies, and
Tragedies of the great days of Elizabeth, an approach so
distant as to demonstrate that had all foreign influences been
excluded, the development of the drama in England would have
been almost indefinitely delayed. Yet our fourth extract, the
Shepherd's Play (No. 2) from the Towneley manuscript, may
give us reason to believe that, however great the time which
would have been needed for its unaided evolution, the seed, at
least of Comedy, had reached a considerable stage of develop-
ment before the influence of classical and Italian models quick-
ened the progress of the drama to a speed in which the shares
of its respective factors becomes difficult to distinguish.

In any exhaustive treatment of the history of the Miracle


play, one of the most important lines of investigation would be
concerned with the characters with whom the medieval dramatist
felt himself free to deal as he pleased. These characters are
almost exclusively those of persons to whom neither Scripture
nor legend ascribed either name or individuality. Cain's
' Garcio ' or Servant, Noah's Wife, the Detractors of the Blessed
Virgin, the Shepherds, the Soldiers sent to slay the Holy
Innocents, the Pharisees who brought before Christ the Woman
taken in Adultery, the Woman's Lover, the Beadle of Pilate's
Court, the Workmen who set up the Cross, the Soldiers who
watch at the Tomb, it is in the treatment of these nameless
characters that some of the most dramatic touches are be-
stowed. They are obviously introduced for the sake of relief,
and in the York plays it is in the intervals of the torturing and
crucifixion of Christ that these interludes, all more or less
humorous, are most frequently introduced. Pilate toys with his
wife in open court, and to the intense amusement of the
spectators is reproved by his Beadle, just before Jesus is led
in fresh from the buffettings in the Hall of Annas ; the despair
of Judas is followed by a scene in which a Squire is cheated of
his title-deeds to Calvary-Locus ; the soldiers who set up the
Cross wrangle together through a hundred lines over their
work. These interludes are to us at times inexpressibly painful,
but dramatically they are good art, and were welcomed by
their spectators as a relief to the extreme tension of feeling