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NAÏVETÉ OF THE MIRACLE PLAY
227 community must have rendered it a matter of general public interest : with what anxiety Corpus Christi day must have been looked forward to ; how bright and brilliant the show must have been under favourable auspices; how grievous the disappointment of bad weather ; how free the criticisms of the respective guilds on the doings of their colleagues and rivals ; and, in spite of ludicrous blunders and deliberate travesties, how important an educational influence the performances must have been for the unlettered man. How far misrepresentation, innocent or otherwise, could be carried, especially when a farcical element entered into the performance, may be illustrated by a scene in the mystery of Mary Magdalen (a play with much affinity to the morality, and where, though in rhyme, alliteration is systematically employed), where the Emperor Tiberius is exhibited in the act of holding a solemn service for the worship of Mahomet. The heathen priest of “Mahound ” (by a singular irony of fortune the inveterate enemy of idolatry was all over Europe taken for an idol himself) is attended by a clerk, and is as particular as any clergyman of the Greek or Latin rite about the correctness of his vestments and the due decoration of his altar :
Now, my clerke Hawkyn, for love of me,
Loke, boy, thou do it with a brayd.1 The boy misbehaves himself, and is beaten, but upon being taken into favour again, is thus addressed by his master :
Now, boy, to my awter I wyll me dresse,
On xall my westment and myn aray.
Lyke as lengyth for the service of this day.
Glabriosum ad glumendum glumandinorum :
Grant you grace to dye on the galowes. This recalls Bruce's benediction (in English) to the Abyssinian monks, “Lord send you all a halter, as he did to the Acab Saat,” a turbulent ecclesiastic who had been hanged some time previously. “To which they, thinking that I was recommending them to the prayers of the departed patriarch, devoutly responded, Amen ! so be it !”
Another source of misrepresentation in the religious drama was the necessity for adapting it in some respects to the comprehension of the ignorant. “As,” remarks Mr. Courthope, “many of the spectators would not have understood the term “high priest,' Annas and Caiaphas are called * bishops. When Pilate is first approached by the leaders of the Jews he tells
i Loud noise.
them they must bring their cause before him in parliament.' In order to
obtain a place for setting up the cross, negotiations have to be entered into
\ with a'squire,' who gives a lease of Calvary, but is cheated in the transaction." Author
Of the authors of these plays little is known. The difficulty which they ship of the religious
evidently experience in dramas
accommodating their matter to the restraints of metre and rhyme, which occasionally renders them very obscure, seems to show that they were not practised writers, and the dogmatic purpose and unity of plan apparent in the York mysteries in particular would almost justify the attribution of most of them to a single author, who may have been either a layman or a cleric. The freedom of some might seem to exclude clerical authorship, but the manners of the age and the intimate association of clergy and laity must be taken into account. Many of the pieces which have come down to us as performed at different places may have been derived from some common source, now lost. At a very late
period we encounter a From “ The Harrying of Hell”
hired professional poet, British Museum Arundel MS.
John Green, who is paid
by the men of Coventry five shillings for his play, exactly the amount awarded to the trumpeter. Early
Perhaps the oldest example of an English mystery that has come down to Mysteries
us is The Harrying of Hell, founded on perhaps the only Christian legend which it is safe to ascribe to a Buddhist origin. Though a rhymed dialogue this is scarcely a dramatic piece, and would hardly have borne acting. It is simply a dispute between Christ and Satan, in the course of which Satan is
The Chester Mysteries
informed that he has thrown ames ace, and which terminates by the Saviour's triumph and return from Hades with the ransomed souls of the patriarchs of the old dispensation. The so-called Digby Mysteries include the drama on Mary Magdalen already mentioned.
There are four series of mystery plays composed for consecutive representation at Corpus Christi or some other high festival : the Chester, the York, the Townley, and the Coventry. A fifth, the Beverley, only known from the records of the town, is lost, but may have been merely another version of the York. Other towns probably had their sets of performances, which perhaps they borrowed from their neighbours. There are several notices of performances of separate plays at Lincoln and other places.
The Chester Mysteries may probably be the oldest now in existence, but there is some doubt as to their history. In a note upon a manuscript, backed by a local tradition, but both too recent to carry much weight, they are said to have been written by a priest named Randal Higgenet, who seems an apocryphal personage, under the mayoralty of Sir John Arneway, 1327–28. Arneway was, however, in fact mayor from 1268 to 1276, and his name seems to be an error for Richard Ernes. It is nevertheless possible that plays of earlier date were incorporated into a series prepared for continuous representation by the guilds about 1328. It speaks for the antiquity of such representations at Chester that these were there held not on Corpus Christi as usual but at Whitsuntide, as though the performance dated from an earlier period than the institution in 1311. There are twenty-five plays in all, some, such as that on the history of Balaam and his ass, upon subjects not treated elsewhere. The performances continued to the end of the sixteenth century, and were witnessed in 1594 by Archdeacon Rogers, whose account is one of our most reliable sources of information respecting the mechanical conduct of the show. He says that nine plays were performed on the Monday, nine on the Tuesday, and seven on the Wednesday. None were of any great length.
The York series of Mysteries is one of the most valuable of any, and the most extensive, including forty-eight pieces. The manuscript from which it is derived originally belonged to the Corporation of York, and hence has an official character. It remained in the custody of the Corporation until 1579, when it was submitted to Archbishop Sandys for correction, and his Grace locked it up. It has been most ably edited by Miss Lucy Toulmin Smith, who dates it about 1440, but the plays are probably a full century earlier. The first mention of performances at York is in 1378; and in 1415 Roger Burton, city clerk, compiled a catalogue of the performances then habitual and of the guilds by which they were produced. The dramatic taste was strong at York, and plays independent of the guilds were occasionally performed, among others one on the Lord's Prayer, alluded to by Wycliffe. The course of the representations is the same as elsewhere, being a series of scenes comprehending all the most dramatic incidents of Scripture history from the Creation to the Day of Judgment.