Alfred W. (Alfred William) Pollard.

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

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which the protracted exhibition of Christ's Passion could not
fail to excite. On the same principle the rough sport of the
Shepherds is made to introduce the touching scenes of the
Manger Bed at Bethlehem, and it is to this desire for dramatic
relief that we owe the story of Mak and his sheep-stealing, our
first English Comedy.


If of all the sacred dramas of whose performance in England
we possess a record the full text had been handed down to us,
the field for investigation would have been so vast as to frighten
rather than attract enquirers l . There is, however, at least one

1 This seems to have happened in France, where, according to
Mr. Stoddart's Bibliography, fifteen MSS. containing plays or cycles,
extending from 4000 to 37,000 lines apiece, are still awaiting a printer.


play of which the most faint-hearted student must bitterly regret
the loss. ' Once on a time V we are told, ' a play setting forth
the goodness of the Lord's Prayer was played in the city of
York ; in which play all manner of vices and sins were held up
to scorn, and the virtues were held up to praise.' This play is
alluded to by Wyclif 2 , and we have a few details respecting a
gild which was formed in York for the special purpose of its
maintenance. In her introduction to the York Plays, Miss Lucy
Toulmin Smith describes a compotus Roll of this gild Oracionis
domini, 'dated Michaelmas, 1399, which shows that there were
then over 100 members and their wives, and that they possessed
rents and receipts amounting to 26 $s. n^d.' The Roll
contains a special mention of a ludus Accidie ' holding up to
scorn ' the vice of gluttony. The gild was dissolved by
Henry VIII, but in 1558 the play was performed at the ex-
pense of the city in place of the Corpus Christi plays, and this
happened again in 1572. In that year, however, Grindal was
Archbishop of York, and demanded that a copy of the play
should be submitted to him: The copy was sent, and its return
requested three years later, but thenceforward we hear of it no
more. The loss is irreparable, for this is the earliest Morality
Play of which we have any mention, and must have been written
nearly a century before the Castell of Perseverance, its earliest
extant successor. Besides the play of the Lord's Prayer, we
know of the performance at York of a Creed Play, which also
must have been rather a Morality than a Miracle play. ' It was
performed,' Miss Smith tells us, 'about Lammas-tide every
tenth year, and five such performances, beginning in 1483, are
recorded; the last of these, in 1535, superseded the usual
Corpus Christi plays. A performance was proposed in 1568,
but the question was referred to Dean Hutton, whose opinion
was adverse, and we know nothing more as to the play.'

The loss of these two plays of the Lord's Prayer and the
Creed cannot be too deeply regretted ; we may be grateful,

1 English Gilds, by Toulmin Smith, p. \yj, Preamble to ordinances
of Gild of the Lord's Prayer. (Quoted by Miss Toulmin Smith).

2 ' & herfore freris han taujt in Englond )>e Paternoster in Engliscsh
tunge, as men seyen in )>e playe of Yorke,' De officio pastorali. Cap. XV.
(written about 1378), ed. F. D. Matthew for E. E. T. S.


however, even for the bare record of their existence, which helps
us to a clearer notion of the origin and nature of the Morality
play than we could otherwise obtain. In its later development
the Morality became dull, narrow, and essentially sectarian, and
its heavy didactics were only relieved by the insertion of scenes
of low humour, of which the humourousness is far from apparent.
But in its earlier days the Morality was not wholly unworthy to
be ranked with the Miracle plays, to which it formed a comple-
ment. The Miracle play takes as its basis the historical books
of the Bible and the legends of the Church, but these alone do
not furnish a complete answer to the questions ' What must I
do What must I believe to be saved?' and in the two centuries
during which the popularity of the sacred drama was at its
height, various plays were written in which the moral and
sacramental teaching of the Church are assigned the prominence
which in the Miracle play is occupied by its history. We know
that in the play of the Lord's Prayer ' all manner of vices and
sins were held up to scorn, and the virtues were held up to
praise,' and in the contest between the personified powers of
good and evil, the Seven Cardinal Virtues and the Seven Deadly
Sins, for the possession of man's soul, we have the essence of
the Morality play. This contest naturally involved the use of
personifications, for the medieval playwright was too simple-
minded to anticipate the method of Ben Jonson, by representing
men and women living human lives with human relationships,
and at the same time embodying a single humour or quality, to
the exclusion of all others. We must not, however, regard the
use of personification as involving a dramatic advance. It was
essential to the scheme of the Morality, and must have been
present no less in the fourteenth century plays, of which we hear
at York, than in their successors. In itself, as tending to didac-
ticism and unreality, personification is wholly undramatic, and
the popularity of the later Morality significantly coincides with
the dullest and most barren period in the history of English

It is remarkable that most of the early Morality plays which
have come down to us, together with the contemporary Miracle
plays, to which they exhibit the closest affinity, are connected
with the East-Midland district, throughout which, during the


fifteenth century, the popularity of the religious drama appears
to have been very great. Reasons have already been assigned
for connecting with this district the cycle of Miracle plays
usually attributed to the Grey Friars of Coventry, and in this
cycle the influence of the Morality is shown in the personifica-
tions in the Council in Heaven (quoted in our specimens), and
in the appearance of Death at the Court of Herod, and also in
the unflinching didacticism which devoted an entire scene to an
exposition of the Ten Commandments. The play of S. Mary
Magdalen, from which also extracts are given in this volume,
shows even stronger proofs of the influence of the Morality in
the appearance of Good Angel and Bad Angel, and of the
World and the Flesh as no less real personages than the Devil
himself. Again, the Croxton play of the Sacrament, which
should certainly be connected with the Norfolk rather than with
any other Croxton, although not a Morality and introducing no
personifications, is yet allied to the Morality in its endeavour to
bring the sacramental teaching of the Church within the scope
of the religious drama. The subject of the play and its treat-
ment by the dramatist are both so painful that it is difficult to
award this drama the attention which, as dealing with a modern
legend and introducing almost contemporary characters, it in
some respects deserves. The medieval hatred of the Jews gave
rise to a succession of legends of their obtaining possession of
the Consecrated Host, and by fire and sword endeavouring to
torture afresh the Christ believed by medieval theology to be
there present. In a Yorkshire church a fresco has recently
been uncovered in which is commemorated such an attempt on
the part of some Flemish Jews in the fourteenth century. The
Croxton play 1 deals with a miracle ' don in the forest of Aragon.
In the famous cite Eraclea, the yere of ow r lord God m.cccc.lxi.'
It introduces Aristorius, a Christian merchant, who for one
hundred pounds procures the Host for the Jews ; Ser Isoder,
his chaplain ; Jonathas, Jason, Jasdon, Masphat and Malchus,
five Jews, of whom the first is the chief; a Bishop, and a Quack

1 Edited by Mr. Whitley Stokes, from the MS. in Trinity College,
Dublin, in the Appendix to the Transactions of the Philological Society
for 1860, 6l.


Doctor 1 , with Colle, his servant, who are called in to heal the
hand of Jonathas, withered as a result of his sacrilege, and
indulge in much buffoonery. The play has absolutely nothing
to recommend it. It is without dignity, pathos or dramatic
power, and its incongruous humour is of the lowest kind. Only
one other point need be noted in connection with it, that its
performance, although localised at Croxton (whether perma-
nently or not, we cannot say), was announced throughout the
neighbouring villages by vexillatores or banner-bearers, of the
same kind as those who advertised the plays of the itinerant
actors who represented the ' Coventry ' cycle and the Castell of

We at length approach the consideration of the earliest extant
Morality play, the Castell of Perseverance, the importance of
which consists not only in its antiquity, but in the completeness
with which it developes the central ideas underlying all the
plays of their class.

The cause of our comynge you to declare
says the second banner-bearer,

Every man in hymself for sothe he it may fynde,

Whou mankynde into this world born is ful bare

And bare schal beryed be at the last ende ;

God hym gevyth two aungel ful _j/ep and ful _yare

The goode aungel and the badde to hym for to lende

The goode techyth hym goodnesse, the badde synne and sare,

Whanne the ton hath the victory the tother goth behende be skyll

The goode aungel coveytyth evermore man's salvacion

And the badde bysyteth hym euere to hys dampnacion,

And God hathe gevyn man fre arbitracion

Whether he wyl hym[self] save hy[s soul ?].

His comrades take up the story :
Spylt is man speciously whanne he to synne assent,
The bad aungel thanne bryngeth hym iiij enmys so stout
The werlde, the fende, the foul Fflesche, so joly and jent,
Thei ledyn hym fful lustyly with synnys al abowt.

1 The appearance of the Quack Doctor is particularly interesting,
because of his survival in the Christmas mummings and plays of St.
George and the Dragon, which are still acted in some country villages.


To trace the spiritual history of Humaniim Gemis (Mankind,
or the Typical Man) from the day of his birth to his appearance
at the Judgment Seat of God, to personify the foes by whom his
pathway is beset, the Guardian Angel by whose help he resists
them, and the ordinances of Confession and Penance by which
he is strengthened in his conflict, this was the playwright's object ;
and, however dramatically impossible, it was certainly a worthy
one. The opening pageant of Mundus, Belyal and Caro, the
World, the Devil, and the Flesh, each boasting of his might ; the
appearance of Humanum Genus, naked save for the chrism cloth
on his head, and conscious of his helplessness ; the first struggle
for his soul of his Good and Bad Angels, and the victory of the
latter, make up an impressive prologue, which ends with the
lament of Bonus Angelus, chanted to music :

Mankynde hath forsakyn me,

Alas, man, for love of the !

Ya for this gamyn and this gle

Thou schalt grocchyn and grone.

In the next division of the play Mankind is presented to
Mundus, to whom he professes allegiance, and is confided to the
care of Pleasure, Folly, and Backbiting ( Voluptas, Stultitia,
Detraccid], and ultimately to Belial and Caro, and the Seven
Deadly Sins, each of whom enters with an appropriate speech.
Then Mankind's Good Angel calls to his aid Confessio and
Schrift, and with the help of Penitencia the sinner is converted
and reconciled, and safely lodged in the Castle of Perseverance,
there to await the fresh assaults of his enemies. These are not
long delayed. In what we may call Act III, Detraccio brings
the news of Mankind's conversion to Caro, and after brief
counsel they report what has happened to Mundus. But if the
forces of Hell are mustering, those of Heaven are not idle.
Can/as, Abstinencia, Castitas, Solicihido, Largitas, and //-
militas, successively come on the scene, each with his exhortation.
That of Solicitude is perhaps the best worth quoting, and may
serve as a specimen of the rest :

In besynesse man loke thou be

With worthi werkes goode and thykke,

To slawthe if thou cast the

It schal the drawe to thoutes wyckke.


It puttyth a man to pouerte

And pullyth hym to peynys prycke.

Do sumwhat alwey for love of me

Thou thou schuldyst but thwyte a stycke,

With bedys sumtyme the blys,
Sum tyme rede and sum tyme wryte
And sum tyme pleye at thi delyte
The devyl the waytyth with dyspyte

Whanne thou art in Idylnesse.

But the Deadly Sins are advancing to the attack, led by
Belial, whose banner is borne by Pride, while Caro is apparently
on horseback, and Gula flourishes a long lance. The Virtues
meet their assault with roses : , the emblem of Christ's Passion,
and the Vices are driven back. Then Mundus calls Avaritia
or Covetyse to the rescue, and by him Humanum Genus is lured
from the Castle. Old Age is creeping upon him, and he yields
to its besetting sin :

Penyman best may spede,
He is a duke to don a dede ;

is his argument, and, despite the laments of his Good Angel an4
the warnings of Solicitudo and Largistas, he gives himself over
to sin, and the division of the play ends with the exultation of
Mundus over his fall.

In Act IV (the divisions are my own) Humanum Genus
receives his reward in the shape of a thousand marks. To the
gift, however, there is a stipulation attached :

Lene no man hereof for no karke,
Thou he schuld hange be the throte,
Monk nor frere, prest nor clerke,
Ne helpe therwith chyrche nor cote

Tyl deth thi body delve.
Thou he schuld sterve in a cave,
Lete no pore man therof have,
In grene gras tyl thou be grave

Kepe sum what for thi selve.

1 Thus Ira, after threatening Patientia with ' styffe stones,' presently
cries out :

I am al beten blak and bio

With a rose that on rode was rent.


The money is hid in the ground and there abides. But Death
is making ready to strike Humanum Genus down, and Mundus
sends Garcia to claim the money as his inheritance.

What devyl 1 thou art not of my kyn,
Thou dedyst me nevere no maner good,
I hadde lever sum nyfte or sum cosyn
Or sum man hadde it of my blod :
I trowe the werld be wod

is the exclamation of Humanum Genus, but he laments in vain.
Bereft of his goods and in terror for his soul, he awaits Death,
and amid his prayers to Misericordia and the gibes of his Bad
Angel his spirit takes its flight, to become in the 'fifth Act' the
subject of an argument in heaven between Misericordia, Justitia,
Verttas, and Pax, similar to the one quoted from the 'Coventry'
plays. ' Lete hym drynke as he brewyit ' is the plea of Justice,
but Mercy appeals to Christ's Passion, and the decision of Pater
sedens in trono is merciful.

The Castell of Perseverance cannot escape the charge of
prolixity. At a rough guess it contains about 3500 lines, nearly
as many as all but the longest of Shakespeare's tragedies. The
language, again, is without grace, and too often sacrifices clear-
ness to the desire for alliteration. But with all its faults the play
is a fine one, dealing with man's salvation in no unimpressive
fashion, and distinguished by a logical development and unity
of purpose, which is found in the great cycles of Miracle plays
when regarded as dramatic entities, but nowhere else. As the
stage directions, quoted in the short Introduction in the Notes,
sufficiently show, it was intended to be presented with something
of the elaborateness of the Miracle plays, and it is altogether a
very noteworthy production. The manuscript of which it forms
part, and which by the kindness of its owner, Mr. Gurney, and
of Dr. Furnivall, I hope soon to have the honour of editing for
the Early English Text Society, contains also two other plays,
the examination of which need not detain us long '. They are
full of interesting points, but are inferior in every way to the

1 Both of these plays, as also the Castell of Perseverance, are analysed
in vol. ii. of Collier's History of English Dramatic Poetry. From having
once belonged to Mr. Cox Macro they are often alluded to as the ' Macro


play we have been considering. The first of them is called by
Mr. Collier Mind, Will, and Understanding, but by Dr.
Furnivall * A Morality of the Wisdom that is Christ. Ever-
lasting Wisdom discourses to Anima on the means of grace,
Mind, Wyll, and Understanding declare themselves as the
three parts of the soul, and are seduced by Litcyfer in the guise
of a ' proud gallant.' When they have loudly expressed their
determination to be wicked Wisdom re-enters, and with Wisdom
Anima, now ' in the most horrible wyse, fowlere than a fende,'
and with little devils running from under her skirts. Mind,
Wyll, and Understanding are converted, and Wisdom delivers
a long discourse on the nine works specially pleasing to God.
A curious passage on the evils of the age, especially the practice
of maintenance, forms the most noteworthy portion of the text of
the play, but it is probable that the spectators were best pleased
with the rich dresses of the actors, and the dumb shows by
which the representation was diversified. Thus in one part of
the play a procession was formed of the Five Wyttes (or, as we
should say, five senses) as ' five vyrgynes, with kertyllys and
mantelys, and chevelers and chappelettes,' singing an anthem,
' and they goyng befor, Anima next, and her folowynge Wysdom,
and aftyr hym Mynde, Wyll, and Undyrstondynge, all iii in
wyght cloth of golde, cheveleryde and crestyde in sute ;' and in
another place there enters a dumb show of ' six dysgysyde in
the sute of Mynde,' viz. Indignation, Sturdiness, Malice, Hasti-
ness, Revenge (or Wreche) and Discord, ' with rede berdes and
lyons rampaunt on here crestes and yche a warder in his honde.'
Apart from these scenic diversions the play must have been dull
enough, for of dramatic action there is none, and the speeches
are terribly long and didactic.

The third play in Mr. Gurney's MS., called by Mr. Collier
Mankind, is cast upon somewhat more dramatic lines. It
consists of a struggle between Mercy and Mischief for the soul
of Mankind. Mischief is aided by Nought, New Gyse and
Nowadays, whose assaults Mankind repulses by a threat to
' ding ' them with his spade. But when Titivillus, a more potent
devil, appears on the scene, Mankind yields to his temptations,

1 In his edition for the New Shakspere Society of a part of the play
as it survives in the Digby MS.



declaring ' Of labure and preyere I am nere yrke of both.'
Mischief triumphs over Mercy, and Mankind is nearly persuaded
to hang himself, but is rescued and reconciled by Mercy. This
play is probably of a later date than its two companions, and
forms a connecting link between the earlier Moralities and
their later development, of which we shall soon have to speak.

Of the plays that have been handed down to us in printed
editions, that of Everyman claims the first place alike in popu-
larity and in merit. We know that it was printed at least
four times early in the 1 5th century, twice by Richard Pynson
and twice by John Skot. Though planned on a far less extensive
scale than the Castell of Perseverance, it is distinguished by the
same breadth of motive as the earlier play, and both in language
and treatment it is thoroughly dramatic. Its plot, as Prof.
Ten Brink has noted, is derived from the old Buddhist parable
known to Europeans through the legend of Barlaam and
Josaphat. The extracts given in the present volume are so long,
comprising nearly half the play, that no further analysis is
needed. It is sufficient here to note its prominent introduction
of Catholic teaching on the subject of the seven sacraments,
and its exaltation of the priesthood.

For preesthode excedeth all other thynge ;

To us holy scripture they do teche

And converteth man fro synne heven to reche ;

God hath to them more power gyven

Than to any aungell that is in heven.

11. 728, sqq.
And again

Ther is no emperour, kyng, duke ne baron,
That of God hath commissyon,
As hath the leest preest in the worlde beynge,
For of the blessed sacramentes pure and benigne
He bereth the kayes, and thereof hath cure
For mannes redempcion, it is ever sure.

11. 709, sqq.

Prof. Ten Brink is inclined to place this play as early as the
reign of Edward IV, and it is certain that it must have been
composed before the end of the I5th century.

Only once again, in 'a proper new interlude of the World and
the Child, otherwise called Mundus et Infans] .do we find the


Morality concerned with issues that touch the whole of human
nature. Though called a 'new interlude' when printed by
Wynkyn de Worde in 1522, this remarkable play, by its lan-
guage, its strong alliteration, and its bragging speeches, cast
almost in Herod's vein, is manifestly of a much earlier date,
and cannot be assigned to a later reign than that of Henry VII.
It traces the career of man through its successive stages of
Infancy, Boyhood, Youth, Manhood, and Age. In Infancy he
is called by his mother Dalliance, in Boyhood Mundus gives
him the name of Wanton, in Youth he is called Love- Lust and
Liking. When 'one and twenty winter is comen and gone'
Mundiis thus addresses him :

1 Now welcome, Love- Lust and Lykynge
For thou hast ben obedyent to my byddynge
I encreace the in all thynge
And myght[i]y I make the a man.
Manhode Myghty shall be thy name.
Bere the prest in every game,
And wayte well that thou suffre no shame,
Neyther for londe nor for rente :
Yf ony man wolde wayte the with blame,
Withstonde hym with thy hole entent
Full sharpely thou bete hym to shame
With doughtynesse of dede :
For of one thynge, Manhode, I warne the
I am moost of bounte,
For seven kynges sewen me
Bothe by daye and nyght.
One of them is the kynge of pryde,
The kynge of envy, doughty in dede,
The kynge of wrathe that boldely wyll abyde,
For mykyll is his myght.
The kynge of covet[ise] is the fourte :
The fyfte kynge he hyght slonthe,
The kynge of glotony hath no Jolyte
There poverte is pyght :
Lechery is the seventh kynge,
All men in hym have grete delytynge,
Therfore worshyp hym above all thynge,
Manhode with all thy myght.

1 Qnoted from the Roxbnrghe Club reprint of 1 8 1 7.


Manhood promises obedience to Mundus in all things, but now
Conscience comes on the scene and Manhood is persuaded,
though not without considerable reluctance, to profess himself
his servant. His conversion, however, is very half-hearted,
for he says of Mundus,

But yet wyll I hym not forsake,

For mankynde he dothe mery make :

Thonghe the worlde and conscyence be at debate,

Yet the worlde will I not despyse,

For bothe in chyrche and in chepynge,

And in other places beynge,

The world fyndeth me all thynge

And dothe me grete servyse.

Weakened by this determination to serve two masters, Mankind
falls an easy victim to the wiles of Folly, and it is not until his
name is changed to Age that he learns the lessons x of Perse-
verance, and receives from him his final appellation, Repentance.
There is little action about the play, and such rough eloquence
as it may have originally possessed, is sadly marred by the
obvious imperfections of the form in which it has come down to
us. It remains, however, a notable play, and stands a head
and shoulders higher than any of its successors.


In the prologue to Everyman we are told that the drama
is 'by figure a moral play.' As we have already noted, when
Wynkyn de Worde printed the World and the Child, he called
it, according to the fashion of the day, an Interlude. The
change of name aptly marks the great difFerences between the
earlier moral dramas, conceived and carried out on the scale of
the Castell of Perseverance, and their later and in every way
inferior successors 2 , whose history we must now consider.

1 The lessons, it should be noted, include a long exposition of the
twelve articles of the Creed.

2 The wonderful Scotch Morality by Sir David Lyndsay, called The
Satire of the Three Estates, must be excepted from any accusation of
inferiority, but as belonging to Scotch literature and not to English it
forms no part of our subject. An excellent analysis of it will be found
on pp. 271-276 of Morley's First. Sketch of English Literature.


These later plays seldom greatly exceed a thousand lines in
length, they required no stage accessories, and could mostly be
performed by four or five players dividing the parts amongst