George Raleigh Coffman.

A new theory concerning the origin of the miracle play . . online

. (page 1 of 9)
Online LibraryGeorge Raleigh CoffmanA new theory concerning the origin of the miracle play . . → online text (page 1 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

925 m



B 3 SMfl S7fl


Kill I

2II|p lltttufrBitg 0f Qlljiragn


A New Theory Concerning the
Origin of the Miracle Play





(department of ENGLISH)



Cite (Hallf^intt T^xtsa



®l|p llnittprattij of Ollitra^n


A New Theory Concerning the
Origin of the Miracle Play





(department of ENGLISH)



Cite Cullegiate l^xsss




Chapter I, Definition i

Chapter II, Analysis of Traditional Theories

The Theory of Evolution 9

The Farced Epistle Theory 13

The School Saints' Theor}'- 17

Chapter III, The Mediaeval Point of View

Prefatory 24

The Cult of the Saints 25

Pilgrimages to Saints' Tombs 30

Festivals of Saints 32

Mediaeval Monasteries 37

The Mediaeval Renaissance 40

Chapter IV, St. Nicholas and His Miracle Plays

The Cult of St. Nicholas 45

Significance of the Evidence 49

Origin of the Miracle Play 58

Chapter V, The Resurrection of Lazarus, and the Con-
version of St. Paul

The Resurrection of Lazarus 67

The Conversion of St. Paul 70

Chapter VI, St. Catherine and Her Play 72

Summary of Evidence 79


It was my original plan in this problem relating to the early
Miracle Play, (i) to make a critical inquiry into the various
theories advanced concerning its origin, (2) to study the influences
which led to the formation of saints' plays, (3) to reconstruct the
lost St. Catherine play performed at Dunstable, England, before
1119,(4) to study the early St. Nicholas plays in relation to con-
temporary school plays, and (5) to examine later records and
Miracle Plays in England to show that contrary to the statements of
some historians of the drama the type persisted there and did not
give its name to the cyclic and other religious plays. My study of
the first of these propositions in relation to the second and third
led me to reject the current theories and to propose in detail the
one summarized in the closing pages of this dissertation. This re-
sulted in a necessary subordination of the fourth and a complete
exclusion of the fifth. These I expect to make subjects for further
investigation. Dr. Weydig's dissertation, Beitrdge cur Geschichte
des Mirakelspiels in Frankreich, necessitated my devoting an
initial chapter to an analysis and rejection of his definition of
Miracle Play, and to the establishing of another as the basis for
my work.

In a word, the thesis of this dissertation is that circumstances
and conditions of the eleventh century explain the origin of the
Miracle Play, not only as to its type, but also as to its form and
spirit. In this connection, I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness
to Professor Joseph Bedier, whose studies on the origins of the
Chanson de Geste (e. g., Les Legendes Epiques) have influenced
very greatly my method of investigation, and whose thesis I have
just now paraphrased to fit my particular problem. Professor Karl
Young of the University of Wisconsin kindly read my dissertation
last summer and gave many helpful suggestions. It is a pleasure
also to express my thanks to Professor J. W. Thompson of the
History Department of the University of Chicago for suggesting
some of the material in the third chapter. To Professor Karl
Pietsch of the Romance Department I am grateful for constant
helpfulness relative to mediaeval materials. I am obliged to Pro-
fessors C. R. Baskervill, A. H. Tolman, T. A. Knott, and R. M.


Lovett, and to my colleague, Professor G. F. Reynolds, for their
kindness in reading my dissertation in manuscript. I appreciate
too the co-operation of Miss Gettys of the University library, who
secured for me books from other libraries. And finally I wish
especially to thank Professor J. M. Manly for suggesting the study
and thereby opening a rich field for further investigation, for the
use of his books and unpublished notes, and for his invaluable
criticism and unwearied encouragement; to Professors Manly and
G, L. Kittredge I owe much for inspiring in me a love for the life
and literature of the middle ages.

For the convenience of the reader I have added at the close
a special index to bibliographical matter cited in the footnotes.

Missoula, Montana, December 15, 1914.


In the present study I purpose to discuss the origin of the
Miracle Play. At the outset I shall briefly define the type.^

As a prefatory suggestion, an important fact to remember is
that the type to be defined became a popular fashion in dramatic
literature during the middle ages. Hence one must guard against
considering as the type special plays which are included within it.
It is essential, further, in defining this term to make a clear and
logical distinction between miracle (Lat. miraculum, Fr. miracle)
referring only to the content of mediaeval literary productions, and
miracle referring to the dramatic form as well as to the content.

In a recent dissertation upon the history of the Miracle Play
in France, Dr. Otto Weydig proposes a definition which demands
our attention, for it illustrates the failure to observe the principles
just stated. The definition which he proposes is as follows: The
Miracle Play is the dramatic development of a general, human event
whose tragic conflict is brought to a solution through the divine
appearance and miraculous intervention of a saint -.

A limitation which he makes to certain particular saints will
be mentioned and considered a little later. The method by which
he arrives at his definition is that of collecting illustrations of the
use of the word miracle in connection with the presentation of
mediaeval plays, and giving an uncritical interpretation to these
examples. An analysis of his citations will make this clear.

The first example which he gives us is from the Fleury group
of St. Nicholas plays. It is in the opening sentence of the argument
preceding the third play, and reads thus : "Aliud miraculum de
sancto Nicolao et quodam Judaeo, etc."^

^Historians of the drama have confused greatly the actual use of this
term in England down to the Elizabethan period. A critical inquiry into such
usage is much needed, but is aside from the purpose of this dissertation.
However, I hope soon to complete and publish such a study.

^Beitrdge zur Geschichte des Mirakelspiels in Frankreich. Das Niko-
lausmiraket (Jena Diss., Erfurt, 1910), pp. 9-10: "Das Mirakelspiel ist die
dramatische Entwicklung einer allgemein Begebenheit, deren tragischer
Konflikt durch das meist iiberirdische Erscheinen eines Heiligen (resp. der
Jungfrau Maria) und dessen Eingreifen zur Losung gebracht wird."

^E. Du Meril, Les Origines Latines du Theatre Moderne (1897), p. 286,


Dr. Weydig'' cites this as an early and definite reference to
miracle, meaning dramatic form. But compare with his illustration
the following from the table of contents in the Legendarium Aiistri-
aciim, relative to the life of St. Nicholas : "Miraculum de Adeodato
puero," "Miraculum de vase aureo,"^ or with this from the cata-
logue of saints" material in manuscripts in the Ambrosian library :
"De beato Nicholao miracula",^ or with this, relative to St. Cath-
erine, taken from a similar catalogue of the Brussels royal library:
"Aliud miraculum de reliquiis beatae Katherinae in mare projectis
sed per angelum collectis.'"'

Now no one would think of arguing that these are references
to miracle plays, yet they are of • exactly the same kind as Dr.
Weydig's example. The word miracle in all these cases indi-
cates, not the type or dramatic form, but only the content of the

Dr. Weydig's second example is as far from the point as the
first; and his interpretation is fully as uncritical. He calls
attention to Jean Bodel's use of the word miracle in his pro-
logue to "Li Jeus de S. Nicolai" (vv. 108-111) :
"Car canques vous nous verres faire
Sera essamples sans douter
Del miracle representer
Ensi con je devise 1 'ai."

He regards this as showing that, although Jean Bodel called
his drama "Li Jeus de S. Nicolai," "jeus" was employed only
in the sense "par personnages," while the actual title was miracle.^

■"See Wedig, p. 4.

^ Analecta Bollandiana, Vol. XVII (1898), p. 209. In this and the
following cases, examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely.

-Ibid., XII (1892), p. 352.

~' Catal. Codd. Hagiog. Bibl. Reg. Bruxcl. (1886), p. 166. Take also the
use of the word miracle in the farced epistle for the feast of St. Stephen
(Du Meril, op. cit., p. 411) :

Saint Esteinvres pleins de bonte

einz a la peuple doctrine
et par miracles demonstre
cement il vienge a sauvete.
• Op. cit., p. 8.


Here, again, critical analysis shows that the important and
characterizing word, which refers to the dramatic form, is not
miracle but representer. This becomes evident if one compares
it with the verbs livre, chantier, and reciter in a passage, simi-
lar in significance, from Wace's life of St. Nicholas. They occur
at the close of Wace's account of the miracle in which St.
Nicholas restores to life three scholars murdered by an inn-
keeper (vv. 226-229) :®

"Por ceo que as clers fist tiel honor

Font li clerc feste a icel jor,

De bien lirre, de bien chantier

E des miracles recitier."
Thus miracle in Jean Bodel, as well as in Wace, refers, not to
the dramatic form of the entertainment, but to the superhuman
act of St. Nicholas. ^°

The next two examples which I take from Dr. Weydig are
like in kind to those just given, the principal difference being

^ La Vie de Saint Nicholas, ed., Dr. N. Delius, (Bonn, 1850).

"A ncytable error of the same kind as this one which Dr. Weydig makes,
occurs in Creizenach's interpretation of the word miraculorum in an extract
from the Lichfield statutes {Lichfield Statutes of Hugh de Nonant, 1188-1198;
quoted by E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage (1903), Vol. II, p. 377) :
"Item in nocte Natalis representacio pastorum fieri consueuit et in diluculo
Paschae representacio Resurreccionis dominicae et representacio peregrinorum
die lunae in septimana Paschae sicut in libris super hijs ac alijs compositis

continetur De officio succentoris et providere debet

quod representacio pastorum in nocte Natalis domini et miraculorum in nocte
Paschae et die lunae in Pascha congrue et honorifice fiant." Professor Creize-
nach (Geschichte des neiicren Dramas' (igii), Vol. i, p. 159) in a footnote
to the following, cites this as a case of loose usage : "Im iibrigen mtissen wir,
wenn in den Quellen von Mirakelspielen die Rede ist, uns stets daran erin-
nem, dass im mittelalterlichen Sprachgebrauch die dramatischen Gattungs-
begriffe nicht streng auseinandergehalten werden." On the contrary, the
word miraculorum as employed here is not at all a case of loose usage. The
correct interpretation is, as Professor Manly has suggested to me, that the
term applied to the dramatic presentation is not miraculorum but representa-
cio. Thus there is a "representacio pastorum peregrinorum. . .

. . miraculorum." Miracidoruui here refers to the marvels or miraculous
events which formed the subject matter of the play. E. K. Chambers, also,
(II, 104 footnote) cites this as standing for "representacio", but misquotes.
His text reads "miraculum in nocte Paschae" instead of "miraculorum etc."


that they are chronologically later. The former of the two, the
opening words of Rustebeuf's play, Theophile, reads "Ci com-
mence le miracle de Theophile;" and the latter, the heading over
each of the Miracles de Notre Dame of the fourteenth century,
runs "Cy commence un miracle de Notre Dame." ^^

These he regards as indicating a distinct and independent type
of drama. Obviously, they do nothing of the sort. The ref-
erences are to the content and not to the dramatic form of the
plays. As an illustration of this same usage, take the title of
a thirteenth century group of narrative miracles de Notre Dame
de Chartres written by a Jehan le Marchant. It reads, "Ci com-
mencent les miracles Nostre Dame ^- quel fit par siglise de Char-
tres feire."

In fact, the "Ci commence un miracle" is merely a translation
of the conventional title to the mediaeval Latin narrative
miracle, "(Hie) incipit miraculuin etc." A case in point is
"Incipit miraculum de adolescente quem sancta virgo Maria de
inferno liberavit."^'

The only instance which Dr. Weydig cites of usage in the
fifteenth century relating to the drama is an extract from the
statutes of the church of Toul, France, which reads "Fiunt ibi
moralitates vel simulacra miraculorum cum farcis."^*

In this case the dramatic type under consideration is not
miracle but morality; and an explanation of the representations
included in this type is simulacra iniraculorum, i. e. imitations,
not of Miracle Plays but of marvels or miraculous events. ^^

" Op. cit., p. 8.

" Le Livre des miracles de Notre Dame de Chartres, ecrit en vers au Xllle

siecle par Jehan le Marchant, public par M. G. Duplessis.

(Chartres, 1855).

"A. Mussafia, Ueber die von Gaiitier de Coincy beniitsten Quellcn
(Denkschriften der k'dnigl. Akad. der Wissenschaft in Wien, phil-hist. Classe
[1894], XLIV, p. 17). Further examples of the use of incipit in this same
general sense are "Incipit relatio de miraculis eiusdem prothomartyris (St.
Stephen)" {Cat. Codd. Hctgiog. Bibl. Reg. Brux., I, p. 75), "Incipit vita Sancti
Florini confessoris" {ibid., I, p. 122), "Item alia incipit relatio de translatione
Sancti Albani martyris" {ibid., I, p. 199). Professor Manly tells me that
this convention is almost universal.

"From E. Du Meril {op. cit.), p. 59, footnote. See Weydig, p. 10.

"That Du Cange {Glossarium ad Scriptores Mediae et Infimac Lafini-
tatis, ed. 1885, II, p. 515) regards this as the interpretation is shown by his


Thus in all Dr, Weydig's material which we have analyzed
miracle refers only to the content of the literary productions

But there are in mediaeval records two references to the
Miracle Play as a dramatic type. These make clear what the
technique is and afford a sound basis for a working definition.
One of the two is the remaining example employed by Dr. Weydig ;
it is a reference to a lost St. Catherine play performed at
Dunstable, England, about iioo. To secure logical division in
my analysis I have purposely avoided considering this reference
earlier. Before taking it up, I quote, as pertinent in this dis-
cussion, Dr. Weydig's limitation of Miracle Play to certain, par-
ticular saints. It runs as follows : "As saints only St. Nicholas
and the Virgin Mary come actively into consideration."^®

Dr. Weydig's reference is the well-known one from Matthew
Paris,^'' a monk of St. Albans, England, who about 1240 wrote,
and compiled from the work of preceding historians, a history of
his monastery. The information of immediate importance to us in
the passage quoted below is that Geoffrey, while a schoolmaster at

definition glossed under moralitas: "Actio scenica informandis moribus
destinata, ut putabant ; quamquam in ea sacra mysteria sanctorumque facta
ridicule agerent, nostris moralite." Then as an illustration, follows the

passage in question : "Vide infra in Pius 2. Stat. mss. Eccl.

Tull. an. 1497 fol. 67r: Fiunt ibi moralitates vel simulacra miraculorum cum
farcis et similibus jocalis, semper tamen honestis."

"Weydig, op. cit., p. 10.

^"^ I insert the entire passage from Matthew Paris because the evidence
which it contains is important, not only here, but elsewhere in our study.
Vitae Abbattim St. Alhani (London, 1684), p. 1007. "Iste (Gaufridus) de
Caenommania unde oriundus erat, venit vocatus ab Abbate Richardo, dum
adhuc saecularis esset (This Geoffrey was Abbot of St. Albans from 11 19 to
1 146), ut scholam apud Sanctum Albanum regeret. Et cum venisset, concessa
fuit schola alio Magistro, quia non venit tempestive. Legit igitur apud
Dunestapliam expectans scholam Sancti Albani sibi repromissam, ubi quen-
dam ludum de Sancta Katerina (quem miracula vulgariter appellamus) fecit.
Ad quae decoranda, petiit a sacrista Sancti Albani, ut sibi Cape Chorales
accomodarentur, & obtinuit. Et fuit ludus ille de Sancta Katherina. Casu
igitur nocte sequenti, accensa est domus magistri Gaufridi, & combusta est
domus cum libris suis, & Capis memoratis. Nesciens igitur quomodo hoc
damnum Deo & Sancto Albano restauraret, seipsum reddidit in holocaustum


Dunstable, made (fecit) and had presented a play of St. Catherine
of the type of drama commonly known about 1240 as "miracula."
Though Dr. Weydig in his second chapter expresses doubt as to
whether or not we have here to do with an actual Miracle Play,
we nevertheless have the evidence before us for examination and
analysis. This evidence contains three facts significant for us
in connection with Weydig's definition: first we have a reference
to a type of drama known as "miracula," not merely to an indi-
vidual play; second, the saint who is honored in this dramatiza-
tion is other than St. Nicholas or the Virgin Mary ; and third, the
play, beyond a reasonable doubt, represented not the divine
appearance or miraculous intervention of a saint, but either the
disputation of Catherine before the Emperor Maximinius with
the philosophers, or her passion — or possibly included both.^*

Thus, as a result of this examination of Dr. Weydig's evidence
we see that the only example which concerns the Miracle Play
as a type rather than the content of individual plays absolutely
fails to justify his definition. That the miracles of St. Nicholas
had much to do with fixing the name of this type of drama is
very probably true, but that is another thing from saying that
his miracles and those of the Virgin Mary constitute the type.^^

The other reference which I suggested above is also well
known. It is to the passage from William Fitz- Stephen's in-

Deo, assumens habitum Religionis in domo Sancti Albani. Et haec fuit
causa, quare tantum adhibuit diligentiae, ut Capas chorales in eadem, postea
in Abbatem promotus, faceret pretiosas."

"For the evidence by which I reach this conclusion I refer the reader
to my chapter, St. Catherine and her Play.

"Subject to the same general criticism as Dr. Weydig's is the following
definition by L. Petit de Julleville, Les Mystcres (1880). I, p. 107: "On
appelait miracle, au moyen age, le recit de quelque fait surnaturel attribue
a la Vierge ou aux Saints. Quand la narration, se transformant etait mise
en drame, comme c'est ici le cas (he is writing concerning Rustebeuf's
Theophile) le drame conservait le meme nom."

Fully as arbitrary as Weydig's is Professor Wilh. Cloetta's Sonntags-
beilage zur Vossischen Zeitting, July 21, 1895, pp. 9-12: "Sie (die Mirakel)
fiihren immer ein einziges Wunder vor. das von der betrefTenden heiligen
Person zur Zeit, als sie nicht mehr auf Erden wollte, verrichtet worden ist".


troduction to the life of Thomas a Becket,^° consisting of a brief
survey of London (c. 1190). In this, as the reader will recall,
he writes of the plays of London, contrasting them with those of
ancient Rome. He states that London has in place of theatrical
spectacles, in place of scenic plays, more sacred plays, represen-
tations of miracles which holy confessors have wrought, or rep-
resentations of passions by which the constancy of martyrs has
become renowned. Here we have as a dramatic type, saints' plays :
the two main groups of it are, representations of miracles, and rep-
resentations of martyrdoms. Into the second group falls the St. Cath-
erine play, a Miracle Play. On the basis of the evidence here pre-
sented relative to dramatic form, I propose the following defini-
tion as already phrased by another :2^ "The miracle play is the
dramatization of a legend setting forth the life or the martyrdom
or the miracles of a saint." The final evidence for the establishing
of this definition will be found in later chapters.

^° Vita Sancti Thomae Cantauriensis Archiepiscopi et Martyris. See
Materials for the History of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury
(Rolls Series, 1877), Vol. Ill, p. 9.: "Lundonia pro spectaculis theatralibus,
pro ludis scenicis ludos habet sanctiores, repraesentationes miraculorum quae
sancti confessores operati sunt, seu repraesentationes passionum quibus
claruit constantia martyrium".

'^See J. M. Manly, Mod. Phil. IV (1906-1907), p. 585. A similar but
more general wording of this definition is given by A. W. Ward, Hist. Eng.
Dram. Lit. (1809), I. pp. 41-42: "Properly speaking, mysteries deal with Gos-
pel events only Miracle-plays, on the other hand, are more espe-
cially concerned with incidents derived from the legends of the Saints of the

Analysis of Traditional Theories
The earliest Miracle Plays, according to the records, are
those of St. Nicholas and St. Catherine. Of St. Nicholas^ there
are preserved eight plays in four different manuscripts. Accord-
ing to internal and external evidence none of these plays is later
than the middle of the twelfth century. The two accepted as the
earliest are preserved in an eleventh century manuscript from
Hildesheim (Prussia).^ One of these is a dramatized version of
the well-known legend in which St. Nicholas gave dowries to three
sisters who were considering entering upon lives of shame to save
their father from want. The other has as its theme the miraculous
intervention of the saint in restoring to life three young scholars who
had been murdered by an innkeeper at whose house they were stop-
ping over night. An Einsiedeln' (Switzerland) manuscript of the
early twelfth century contains a dramatized fragment of the latter
part of this same legend. The part preserved opens with the
appearance of St. Nicholas at the home of the innkeeper. In
a Fleury (France) manuscript of the thirteenth century are four
complete plays which have this saint as their hero.* The sub-
jects of two are the same as of those just mentioned. The
third is of a Jew who entrusted his property to an image of St.
Nicholas, which he had left to guard his house. Later when
he returned and found that the robbers had stolen his goods, he

^This does not include some later St. Nicholas plays outside the limits
of the present study.

^ British Museum, Additional Ms. 22414. Text with introduction and
notes by Ernst Diimmler Zeitschr. f. deut. Alt., Vol. XXXV (1891), pp.
401-407. Further discussion by Ernst Diimmler and E. Schroder, ibid.,
XXXVI (1892), pp. 238-240. See also Weydig, op. cit., pp. 53 ff. for discus-
sion of the eight plays.

' Einsiedeln Hs. Nr. 347. Text with introduction by P. Gall Morel,
Anzeiger f. Kunde d. deutschen Vorzeit, YI, Neue Folge (1859), cols. 207-210.

* Bibliothique d'Orleans No. 201 (olim 178). Texts: E. de Coussemaker,
Drames Liturgiques (1861) pp. 83-142; E. Du Meril, -op. cit., pp. 254-271,
276-284; Thomas Wright, £0^/3; Mysteries (1838), pp. 1-21. The date of the
manuscript as indicated above is, of course, not to be understood as the date
of the plays.


threatened to beat the image, but St. Nicholas intervened and
forced the robbers to return the property. As a sequel the Jew
became a Christian. The fourth miracle represents how St.
Nicholas brought back to Getron and Euphrosina their son,
Adeodatus, who had been kidnaped by a pagan king, Marmori-
nus. The last play of this group of eight was written by a scholar
named Hilarius^ and treats the same theme as the third Fleury
miracle. In this play a Barbarian takes the place of the Fleury
Jew. With regard to the St. Catherine play, I have already stated
that we have only a chance reference to it.^ Its latest possible
date is 1119, the time at which Geoffrey, its author or manager,
became abbot of St. Albans ; and it is most probably several years

Waiving for the moment the unsettled question of whether or not
this period produced other Miracle Plays than those just indicated,
we turn to the actual question at issue. It is one of historical

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryGeorge Raleigh CoffmanA new theory concerning the origin of the miracle play . . → online text (page 1 of 9)