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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. Secular Influences on the Early English Drama

§ 1. Strolling Performers: the Latin mimus and the Teutonic scop

BEFORE the religious origins of the English drama are specially considered, certain secular influences should be noted. The first of these is that of the minstrels, a heterogeneous class of composers and performers, drawn from several sources.

The theatrical history of the Roman empire is the story of the degradation of tragedy into pantomime, of comedy into farce. The tragic actor became the pantomimus who danced, first the lyric portions and, finally, the whole “book” of the play, to an accompaniment of music, for the pleasure of the more refined classes; while, in place of the comedy imported from Greece, the old Italian (Campanian) Fabula Atellana, united with the farcical [char], imported from Magna Graecia, became the amusement of the vulgar. Both pantomimus and mimus (the names being equally those of performer and performance) degenerated into sensuous displays, and performers, though their rivalries led to public brawls and they were the spoiled darlings of their admirers, fell back as a class, to the low social level from which the later republic and the earlier empire had done something to rescue them. The Christian church, naturally, was no friend to such exhibitions as the multilingual and degraded population had come to expect; but more important than the opposition of the church was the contempt of the barbarians of the later irruptions. The coming of the Lombards, in the sixth century, dealt the death-blow to the scotched art of public amusement.

Private amusement, however, in which these scenici had been as busily employed as on public stages, continued in all parts of the empire, and was the means of prolonging the existence of the class. Its members became confused and intermingled with the lower orders of entertainer, tumblers, rope-walkers, bear-leaders and so forth, and shared with them a precarious and a wandering existence. The evidence as to their dramatic répertoire in England is very slight; but the conclusion is reasonable that it decreased to the smallest dimensions and may, in time, have come to include little more than imitations of beasts and of drunken or half-witted men, combined with displays of such indecent buffoonery and ribald rimings as naturally delighted the medieval population in both castle and village. For several reasons, however, it is almost necessary to suppose that these tricks were linked together by some sort of dramatic interest, however rude. They are more amusing when so treated. Dialogue was certainly among the strollers’ accomplishments; and so was the use of marionettes, which implies not only dialogue but plot. The literature of medieval Germany and France contains several works, such as Le Roi d’ Angleterre et le Jougleur d’Ely, and Le Garçon et l’Aveugle, which seem to show the existence of a répertoire founded more or less on mere farce. And, by the fourteenth century, we find in England not only a mention in the Tretise of miraclis pleyinge of “other japis” distinct from miracles, but a fragment of the text of the Interludium de Clerico et Puella, a humorous little play, founded on the popular medieval story of Dame Siriz. There is, however, in England scarcely a trace of anything corresponding to the Schembartlaufen of the Meistersingers of Nuremberg, or such amateur organisations as the Enfants sans souci or the Basoche in Paris, which secured a healthy existence for farce. In the fourteenth century (1352), indeed, we find bishop Grandison of Exeter prohibiting a performance by the youths of the city in contumeliam et opprobrium allutariorum, a satirical attack on the cloth-dressers’ guild, who had been charging too high for their wares. But, for the most part, the early history of the comic element in secular drama in England is dark. It appears to have remained in the hands of the descendant of the ribald mimus, and seldom, if ever, to have achieved the honour of association with his betters. Until its appearance in literature in the work of John Heywood, its existence in England can only be inferred. Nevertheless, merely for preserving its existence, however rudely, the mimus deserves our gratitude. When English drama became secularised, the interlude found at least some sort of criticism of social types and of the actual world on which to work.

Another stream of tradition, affecting mainly the serious, as distinct from the comic, side of his répertoire, contributed to the formation of the medieval entertainer. This flowed from the minstrels, who were in England some centuries before the spread of Latin civilisation opened the country to invasion by mimi as well as by ecclesiastics. When the bard emerged from the communal singing of pagan races it is impossible to say; but the state of war for which, in their migrations westward, they exchanged their pastoral life brought into existence a class of heroes, and the existence of heroes accounts for the singing of cantilenae to celebrate their exploits. By the fifth century, there is plenty of evidence of the existence of a class of professional singers attached to the courts of great leaders. Such a singer was not despised, like the mimus and the joculator, his successors, but honoured, an owner of land and gold, the professional representative of an art in which his master himself was not ashamed to be his rival. Such a scop or minstrel was Widsith, who was both attached to a leader’s court and allowed to wander abroad. The complaint of Deor and the feast in Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf give other pictures of the Teutonic minstrel’s life. The duty of such a minstrel was to sing to the harp the praises of his lord and the delights of war, and, under the names of scop and gleeman, he was a prominent figure in unconverted England. In converted England, the ecclesiastic, as a man, encouraged this minstrelsy; as an official, he discouraged it; and, from the eighth to the eleventh centuries, its history is obscure. During these centuries began the gradual assimilation of Teutonic and Latin entertainer, of scop and mimus. During the same centuries in France, there grew up the distinction between the Norman trouvères, or minstrels of war, and the Provençal troubadours, who sang in the south their songs of love. The Norman conquest opened up England still further, not only to the trouvères or jongleurs, the Taillefers and Raheres who brought honour and glory to the exploits of feudal lords, but to entertainers of all kinds, from respectable musicians and reciters to the juggling, tumbling rogues who haunted the highways of Europe. Under this invasion, the English minstrel sank yet lower. He was forced to appeal, not to the great ones of the land, whose language he did not speak, but to the down-trodden of his own race; and the assimilation with the vagabond mime must be supposed to have become more complete. In the eyes of the church, at any rate, the confusion between the higher and the lower class of minstrel was always an accomplished fact; but her indiscriminate condemnation of both kinds was not, on the whole, to the disadvantage of the lower class, inasmuch as, in conjunction with the common taste of both noble and peasant for something a little more amusing than the court minstrel could supply, it helped to break down a class distinction between the various kinds of entertainer. To some extent, the court minstrel learned to be a buffoon; to some extent, the despised English minstrel learned the language and the stories of the conquerors, and began to translate the disputations, the jeux-partis and the tençons, which were popular in Norman castles, following them in time with the estrifs, among which The Harrowing of Hell formed an important link between the répertoire of the minstrels and the early drama, and may, indeed, be considered one of the sources of the morality. Aided, no doubt, by the goliardi or wandering scholars, vagabond disseminators of learning and wit, English minstrels formed at least part of the means of union between conquerors and conquered. In this, they may be contrasted with the Celtic minstrels, the harpers and the bards, who, though they sang their own heroes, as English minstrels had continued to sing of Hereward, did not, like the English minstrels, act, whether in intention or in fact, as peace-makers between the conquered, Wales, and the conqueror, England.