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of Corpus Christi (which lasted from 1250 to 1584) and had to
provide in turn a Miracle-play each year, on the feast of Pente-



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146 THE ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW.

cost. In London the actors were confined to the guild of parish
clerks or vergers/

When these guilds were numerous in a town, it became cus-
tomary, in order to afford each of them an opportunity to act, to
expand the original drama representing one Scriptural scene or a
single incident in a Saint's life, so that, in the words of a recent
writer, "from the Creation to the Day of Judgment no principal
event was omitted." The actors were necessarily numerous,
sometimes as many as four hundred took part in a single play.*

The place where the plays were acted varied considerably.
When the actors were exclusively ecclesiastics, the church or
the guild chapel, or at least the convent refectory, appears to have
been the theatre. Mr. Clarke gives the following interesting de-
scription of the performance of Miracle-plays at this period :

<< The Office of Easter was performed in churches at Easter- time to illustrate
to the people the story of the Resurrection. Three priests, representing the three
Maries, slowly advanced up the church to where a grave had been prepared. An
angel sitting by the side of the grave asks them whom they seek, and the women
reply that they seek Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified. The dialogue and action then
follow the Gospel story, till finally a priest personating the Saviour appears, and
announces His Resurrection. This is a signal for the choir to join in with a joyous
Alleluia, and the play ends with the singing of the Te Deum, The Office of the
Shepherds was performed on Christmas Eve. A cradle was placed on the altar, and
beside it an image of the Virgin Mary. A number of the clergy represented the
Sepherds, carrying crooks and having with them real sheep and dogs. Some of the

^ Vide Stowe*s Chronicle, In Rome the Confraternity of Gonfalone performed
yearly a Passion Play. At Florence we read that << the longer dramas were acted in
dumb show in the great pageants on St. John*s Day.'' No less a personage than
Lorenzo di Medici was author of the play of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (still extant).
Fifteenth century editions of Balcari's plays on St. John Baptist visited by Christ in
the desert, and on St. Panuntius, are to be seen at the British Museum, London, and
at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Various guilds were formed in the thirteenth cen-
tury for the purpose of acting miracle -plays in honor of the Blessed Virgin, notably,
** La Confririe de Notre Dame du Puy,'* at Valenciennes, which seems to have been
philanthropic, as well as religious, from one of it^ statutes which enjoins that '* if any
one or more brethren shall fall into poverty . . . either through misfortune,
loss, or old age, or infirmity, all the rest shall severally be held bound to give them
an alms of six denarii a month, and on their saint's day the four princes (t.^., stage-
managers) shall each of them give a plentiful portion of food."

^ Six himdred and eighty- five persons took part in the last Passion Play at
Ober-Ammergau, of these fifty were women, and two hundred were children. One
hundred and twenty-five had speaking parts.



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MIR A CLE PL A KS*. 1 47

Shepherds feign to sleep, some to watch their flocks, when suddenly all are aroused
as a sweet-voiced boy, dressed as an angel, mounts the pulpit, and from there, after
a blast from the trumpeters, announces the birth of Jesus. Thereupon a number of
singing boys, posted in the galleries in the clerestory [ ? triforium], and representing
the multitude of the heavenly host, begin to sing, * Glory to God in the highest, and
on earth peace, good will toward men.* The Shepherds proceed up the church to
the manger, where other priests personating the midwives, show the child Jesus, and
bid them proclaim His birth to the people. The Shepherds adore the Child and His
Mother, and then march through the church singing a hymn of praise.**

Pope Innocent III, A. D. 12 10, prohibited the performance of
plays in church and forbade clerics from taking part in them.
From that time onwards they were more and more written in the
vernacular, put on a secular garb, and were acted in the church-
porch or churchyard. Later still, a moveable stage was taken
about from market-place to street comer by the craftsmen of the
several guilds. This stage was of curious construction. It was
placed on wheels, and had usually three stories, the lowest repre-
sented hell,* under the form of a huge dragon from whose gap-
ing mouth devils emerged ; the middle one portrayed purgatory
and earth ; the topmost represented heaven with the throne of
God surrounded by angels and saints. It is interesting to note a
relic of the primitive form of the theatre in the modem terms of
** the gods " — ^applied to those in the gallery or topmost seats, and
so nearest to the part of the stage that represented heaven — and
"the pit," used to designate the lowest tiers which faced the storey
that took the place of hell.

In the course of time, the plays came to be acted in large
open-air spaces. Traces of these theatres remain in the " Plans
aux Guairs," still to be seen in Cornwall (especially within sight of
the sea). A modem writer thus graphically describes a t>'pical
mediaeval scene: " The bare granite plain," he says, "of St. Just,
in view of Cape Cornwall, and of the transparent sea, which beats
to-day against the magnificent headland, was the theatre. We
can conjure up,*' he continues, "that mighty gathering of people
from many miles around, hardly showing like a crowd in that
extended region, . . . with their booths or tents, absolutely
necessary when so many people had to remain three days on the

• Thus a contemporary play has the quaint stage-direction : " Here enters the
Prince of Devils in a stage, with Hell underneath the stage."



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148 THE ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW.

spot/*^ would give a character to the assembly . . . like that
we hear of the religious revivals in America." Descending into
the theatre, one stands on a perfectly flat area, 1 30 feet in diameter,
the surrounding wall rising to a height of eight or nine feet. On
its inner side you can trace with difficulty rows of seats for spec-
tators, arranged like the tiers of an amphitheatre — now all grass-
grown and moss-covered. Looking again down the centre of the
enclosed space, you may discern a shallow trench running to it
from the circumference, at right angles to the entrances, which
run due south. This trench ends in a spoon-shaped pit, about
three feet deep. No doubt, time is responsible for this shallow-
ness, and it is supposed that the trench, much deeper than at
present, formed a convenient exit from the pit to the green-room
— ^a true name then, for its floor was green with grass ; its only
adornment, natural vegetation — when the actors had been thrust
into hell or the grave, represented indifferently by the lowest j>or-
tion of the stage.*^

The " properties ** of the plays (scenery, dresses, etc.), were of
the simplest kind. As in the Elizabethan dramas that superseded
them, " a few flowers [according to J. R. Green] served to indi-
cate a garden ; crowds or armies were represented by a dozen
scene-shifters with swords and bucklers ; heroes rode in and out
on hobby horses ; and a scroll on a post told whether the scene
was at Athens or at London ; " so in the present case the audi-
ence had to draw extensively on their imaginations. Yet here
and there we find an attempt at more elaborate appliances. Real
flames were used on occasion for Hell and the Last Judgment, as
the following quaint items in a mediaeval account-book testify:
" item, payd for keeping fire at Hell's mouth, 4d. ; and for setting
the world on fire, 5d." *'

*® The plays often lasted for days together. At Valenciennes, in 1547, one
took as many as twenty-four days. On^s, le Roy, ^tudes^ etc., chap. iv.

" The writer is indebted for these particulars of a typical Cornish Plan aux
Guairs (as for the quotation immediately preceding them), to an interesting article
that appeared a few years ago in the Pall Mall Magazine.

" A Short History of the English People. 1885. P. 419.

" Thomas Sharpens Dissertations on Pageants y pp. 26, 36 ; cf. also pp. 56, 68,
74 : "item, payd for girdle for God, 4d. ; item, payd to Fawston for hanging Judas,
4d. ; item, payd to two wormes [y/r] of conscience, i6d.*'



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MIR A CLE PLA YS, 1 49

The costumes of the actors were in keeping with the sim-
plicity of the stage scenery. Everyday dress was worn, although
oftentimes of richer material than usual. Hence an unconscious
realism was imparted to the drama, akin to the realism of painters
of the Florentine school, who depict New Testament characters
in mediaeval garb. The Apostles, and holy women of the Gos-
pels, arrayed in the robes of their contemporaries, were seen by
the spectators of the Miracle-plays to be real personages of flesh
and blood, as truly as the living actors who represented them.
We have an instance of this in Herod, " dressed," Mr. Clark tells
us, " as a Saracen and carrying a formidable sword."

The female characters were taken by youths — a custom that
lingered on in the English drama until the middle of the seven-
teenth century. Masks were worn on such occasions, as appears
from the inventory of the expenses of a Miracle-play at Guildford,
in which occurs the curious entry — "item, seventeen virgins'
heads."

Having said so much about the accessories of the mediaeval
drama by way of introduction, we proceed to consider the plays
themselves. They became popular in England as early as the
twelfth century, when, a contemporary chronicler, William Fitz-
stephen, informs us that " the most noble city of London, instead
of profane theatrical spectacles, had plays of a more sacred kind,
representations of miracles wrought by holy confessors or repre-
sentations of the torments by which the constancy of th« martyrs
were glorified." In the following century, after the institution of
the Feast of Corpus Christi by Urban IV (A. D. 1262), the plays
were performed universally throughout the country and were
often the occasion — notably in the case of the Corpo di Christo, an
Italian version of a miracle of a bleeding host, — for a popular
outbreak against the Jews. Nowhere in Europe did they take
so firm a hold of the people. We may, therefore, confine our-
selves to the English Miracle-plays as typical of the rest. There
are three principal collections of them extant, called respectively,
the Coventry, the Chester, and the Widkirk or Townley Mys-
teries. The first named was edited by Mr. Halliwell for the
Shakespearean Society in 1841 ; the second by Mr. Markham;
and the third, in the possession of the Townley family, by Mr.



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ISO THE ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW.

Hunter for the Surtees Society. They have been only privately
printed, but we have their substance in Mr. Payne Collier's very
full History of Dramatic Poetry, The Coventry Collection, as
given by him,^* contains a prologue, seven plays from the Old,
and thirty-five from the New Testament. The MS. dates at least
from the reign of Henry VII. The Widkirk volume has thirty
plays, — seven from the Old, and twenty-three from the New Testa-
ment. It is older than the preceding, being written about the
time of Henry VI. The Chester Collection, the smallest, though
not the least important of the three, contains twenty-four plays,
viz., five from the Old Testament, sixteen from the New, and three
others on Ezekiel, Anti-Christ, and the Last Judgment The MS.
comes down to us from about the year 1600, but, as in the case of
the Coventry and Widkirk collections, the date must be taken
to refer to the copy preserved, and not to the originals^ which
belong to a much earlier period.

The plays, it need scarcely be said, vary greatly in literary
merit and general interest. As a rule, they begin with the crea-
tion of man and end with the Last Judgment;" but here their
similarity from a literary standpoint ceases. Some consist of the
bare Scriptural narrative; others permit a wide latitude. They
were true dramatic representations, and as such were colored, en-
larged, enlivened as freely as any historical subject dramatized by
Shakespeare. Thus we find interposed in one of the Old Testa-
ment plays of the Coventry Series a heated dialogue between Noah
and his wife ; in another occurs " the broad farce of the roguish
shepherd who steals a sheep out of the fold, and then tries to
hide it in bed, as a child — a venerable joke very dear to the
mediaeval mind — introducing the announcement of the birth of
Christ to the shepherds of Bethlehem."" Herod, again, was repre-
sented usually as a passionate, headstrong character, often
attended by a child armed with a bladder on the end of a stick,

** He proves their Scriptural source by giving the titles of the various plays.
" They go," he says, ** through the principal incidents of the Old and New Testa-
ments." (O/. aV., Vol. II., p. 137.)

^ Vidt Payne Collier's Annals of the Stage and History of Dramatic Poetry ^
Vol. II, pp. 137-9.

" Irish Eccles. Record, August, 1 882.



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MIRACLE PLA YS, 15 1

with which to belabor him whenever his rage gave signs of abat-
ing. The Shakesperean expression " to out-Herod Herod " is an
interesting survival of the extravagance with which this part was
wont to be acted. In this connection the passage in the Canter-
bury Tales will be remembered, where Chaucer speaks of Abso-
lom, the wicked hero of the Miller's tale :

" Some tyme, to scheme his lightness and maistrye,
He playeth Herod on a scaffold hye."

The plays increased in literary finish as time went on. The
earlier ones were little more than Scriptural narrative broken
into dialogue, whilst the later ones show a gradually increasing
dramatic conception, leading on in due development, through the
Moralities or allegorical plays, and Elizabethan Masques, to the
regular drama which culminated in Shakespeare. We will illus-
trate their real beauty of style, overlaid though it be with clumsi-
ness or grotesqueness, by a brief allusion to one or two typical
plays. We begin with the Origo Mundi, a play dealing with the
creation of the world. It is of it that so unbiassed a critic as
Wilkie Collins wrote : " Let us honestly confess that, though we
took it up (not unnaturally) to laugh over the clumsiness and
eccentricity of the performance, we now lay it down (not incon-
sistently) recognizing the artless sincerity and elevation of the
design — just as in the earliest productions of the Italian school of
painting we first perceive the false perspective of a scene or the
quaint rigidity of a figure ; and only afterwards discover that
these crudities and formalities roughly enshrine the germs of deep
poetic feeling, and the first struggling perceptions of grace, beauty
and truth."

Take, for instance, the scene where Adam, bowed with years
and sorrow, sends his son to the gates of Paradise to beg his
release from the weariness of living :

" O dear God ! I am weary.
Gladly would I see once
The time to depart ;
Strong are the roots of the briars
That my arms are broken
Tearing up many of them."



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152 THE ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW.

** Seth, my son, I will send
To the gates of Paradise forthwith,
Ask of him if there will be for me
Oil of mercy at the last,
From the Father, the God of Grace.'*

Seth answers that he does not know the road to Paradise.
" Follow," says Adam —

** Follow the prints of my feet, biimt ;
No grass or flower in the world grows
In that same road where I went,
I and thy mother surely also.
Thou wilt see the tokens."

The diction of these stanzas may be primitive, but their sim-
plicity and pathos seem to the present writer exquisitely beautiful.
Undoubtedly fine, too, if somewhat rugged in metre, is the story
in the Coventry play on the Passion of the blind soldier Longius,
who is traditionally said to have pierced Christ's side and to have
been forthwith miraculously healed of his blindness by the Blood
that poured forth from the sacred wound. In the quaint words
of the stage direction :

" Then let the blood flow upon the lance, down to the hands of
t/u soldier Longius^ and then he shall wipe his eyes^ and he shall
see ; and he says :

" Lord, forgive me, as I pray Thee
On my knees ;
What I did I know not
For I did not see.

And if I had seen, I would not have done it.

Though I had been killed ;

For, as I know surely. Very Son of God Thou art

In the world boro

Of a virgin pure — a son certainly

Thou art to the Father God.

My great bad deeds — forgive me, O Father,

By thy virtue.**

Apart from a real beauty of style, arising almost entirely from
a kind of artless simplicity — and we know that the highest form
of art lies in the art of concealing art — ^the plays are noticeable



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MIR A CLE PL A YS. I S 3

for their dramatic ingenuity, their display of imagination, and, to
be candid, their frequent coarse and vulgar buffoonery.'^

We proceed to illustrate these salient characteristics in order :

1. And, first, as to their ingenuity. Mediaeval audiences dif-
fered at bottom but little from the audiences of to-day. The crowds,
standing in the open air, with no protection from the summer heat
or the autumnal gale, would be likely to be noisy at the beginning
of the play, in much the same way as their descendants in the
galleries of the modem theatres, and, like them, to raise cries of
annoyance at those who came in late to the better places, disturb-
ing their view of the stage, so that the opening act became little
more than mere dumb show. How did mediaeval playwrights
meet the difficulty ? Very simply and effectively. Instead of, as
now, sending on a few minor characters to occupy the unquiet
time, they began their play by a prologue containing words of
warning ; it was spoken by the expositor ludiy a saint, or an angel,
or even a Virgil. The Widkirk dramatist employs no less a per-
sonage than Augustus Caesar to begin a long speech with these
emphatic and highly significant words :

" Be still, bestys, I command you
That no man speak a word here now,

But I myself alone.
And if you do, I make a vow.
This brand about your neck shall bow.

Therefore be still as stone."

And much more to the same purpose, which doubtless had its
effect."

2. The miracle-plays did not only excel in quaint and blunt
talk ; they also had their poetic and imaginative side.^' Let us
take, for instance, the scene — z, favorite one — where Abraham is
about to sacrifice his only son Isaac. In the Widkirk Mystery,
the patriarch exclaims :

'^ At an earlier period we have dwelt upon the essentially religious feature of the
plays. It will be sufficient to recall their origin and subject-matter to see how per-
meated they were with religion. The fact that they invariably began with the Veni
Sonde Spiritm and ended with the Te Deum is sufficiently significant.

^ Irish EccUs, Record, August, 1882. In the title-cut of Lorenzo di Medians,
SS, Giovanni e Paolo^ the angel who speaks the prologue is represented as standing
behind the two saints in a pulpit.

»Cf. Irish EccUs. Record, 1. c.



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£54 THE ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW.

" What water shoots in both mine eyes !
I were lever than all earthly win*
That I have found him more unkind.
But no defaut I found him in.
I would be dead for him, or pride
To show him this I think great sin.''

The corresponding play in the Chester Collection does not
venture to so natural a burst of feeling, but makes Abraham more
far-seeing with the vision of faith :

Isaac — " If I have trespassed in any degree,
With a yard you may beate me.
Put up your sword if you will,
For I am but a child."

Abraham — " Oh ! my dear sonne, I am sorry
To do thee this great annoy,
God*s commandments do must I,
His works are aye full mild."

The lines that follow are very natural and pathetic :

Isaac — " Would God my mother were here with me,
She would kneel down upon her knee,
Praying for you. Father, if it might be, for to save my life.'*

The stage direction ends the scene effectively thus :

" Here let Abraham make a pass as though he would slay and cut off his head
with his yword. Then let the angel come and take the sword by the end and stay it.**

We have another example of the same characteristic in the
thirty-first play of the Coventry series, where the subject is
Pilate s Wife's Dream, closely connected with the twenty-second
mystery, which contains a council in hell, not dissimilar from the
scene of Paradise Lost, although of course the language is much
simpler. In the former mystery, Satan is portrayed at the moment
of the Passion as fearing what will come of Christ's descent into
hell. He bids a devil to prepare chains with which to bind Him,
who replies in anger :

" Out upon thee, we conjure thee
That never in helle we may him see ;
For and he once in helle be,
He shall our power best." *^

* ** I would prefere to all worldly gain."
" Destroy.



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MIRACLE PLA YS, 15S

Satan then attempts to save Christ's life by means of Pilate's
wife's dream. In the twenty-second play Satan opens the council
that precedes the Temptation, by complimenting his fellow-devils
thus:

" Now Belyalle and Beelzebub, ye dear worthy devils of hell
And wisest council among all the route,
Hark now what I say, a tale I shall tell,
That troubleth sore my stomach, thereof I have great doubt. *'

When the form of temptation has been decided, Satan is dis-
patched with suitable blessings.

Beelzebub^ BelyalU—

** Now lovely Lucifer, in hell so dark " All the devils that be in hell

King and lord of sin and pride. Shall pray to Mahound'' as I thee tell.

With some mist his wits to merke ( sic) That thou mayst speed this journey well

He send thee grace to be thy guide. And comfort thee in this deed."
And evermore be thy speed ! "

3. It, remains to consider the humorous aspect of the plays.
That they at times degenerate into coarse buffoonery cannot, we
fear, be denied. Old Testament subjects were made into laugh-
able comedies, e. g.^ in the Coventry mystery, to which we have
already referred, Noah attempts to make his wife enter the Ark.
Whereupon she swears by Christ and the Baptist — strange
anachronisms — that she will not leave her " good gossips." Noah
bids her " behold the heavens, and how all the cataracts, both
great and small, are open, and how the seven planets have quitted
their stations, and thunders and lightnings are striking down the
strong halls and bowers, castles and towers." She still refuses to
move, and the wrangle continues for some time, until finally she
is persuaded by coaxing and threats to give way.

Even in the plays based on scenes from the New Testament
there was almost invariably a distinct comic element, as e,g,y
when Mary St Magdalene (a favorite subject) dances before her
mirror. Judas in particular was looked upon as a comic char-
acter — a peculiarity that survives to-day at Ober-Ammergau, in
Bavaria, where at the first performance of the Passion Play last
year, the writer observed that the appearance on the stage of the

•*/. /., Mahomet, a personage that frequently figiu^s in Mirade-plays by a
strange anachronism.



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1 56 THE ECCLESIASTICAL RE VIE W.

betrayer was the signal for a burst of laughter — not from the
English or American visitors, but from the German villagers who
occupied the cheap seats — culminating in the scene where Judas
hangs himself in despair. An explanation (ingenious, but hardly
satisfactory or convincing), given afterwards to the writer, was,
that the prevalent sin in the valley of Ober-Ammergau being
meanness, not untouched with dishonesty, the part of Judas was
purposely so acted as to convey a significant rebuke to the spec-
tators, whose laughter became nervous and spasmodic, springing
from the consciousness that they were being personally addressed,
not at all from irreverence. It seems, however, far more probable
that the part of Judas was the traditional humorous feature of
the play. This indeed would seem to be the only explanation of
sundry additions to the Scriptural narrative, as, for example, one
in which Judas is made to haggle over the thirty pieces of silver



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