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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.

III. The Early Religious Drama

§ 13. Towneley Mysteries

The so-called Towneley Mysteries are preserved in a MS. of the second half of the fifteenth century, and consist of thirty-two plays. They were, probably, intended to be produced by the crafts of Wakefield town, and it seems that, in this case, they were not played on movable scenes but on fixed stages erected along the route of the procession, so that the actors did not go to the spectators, but vice versa. The characteristic feature of this collection is a certain realistic buoyancy and, above all, the abundant display of a very robust kind of humour. Thus, the merry devil Tutivillus has found access into the last judgment scene (which, otherwise, is in accordance with the corresponding play in the York collection); the family quarrels in Noah’s household are nowhere else depicted so realistically; and, in the shepherds’ Christmas Eve scenes, the adventures of Mak the sheep-stealer take the foremost place. But the most grotesque figure of all is certainly Cain, who appears as the very type of a coarse and unmannerly rustic. According to medieval tradition, the reason why the Lord did not look graciously upon Cain’s offering was that Cain offered it unwillingly; and thence grew the commonplace of church literature, that Cain was the prototype of stingy peasants who tried to evade the obligation of paying tithes to the priests. Though moral teaching does not play a great part in mysteries, clerical authors repeatedly made use of the occasion to impress the payment of tithe upon peasants as an important moral duty; and nowhere is this done with so palpable a directness as here. Cain selects sixteen sheaves for his offering, and, in doing so, he feels more and more heavy at heart, until, instead of sixteen, he gives but two. And when, after the ungracious reception of his offering, he swears and curses, the Lord Himself appears and says that the recompense for the offering will be exactly according as Cain delivers his tithes in a right or in a wrong proportion. After this long-drawn-out scene, the murder of the brother is treated quite shortly, almost en bagatelle. Joseph, who, in the York Plays, was described with evident tenderness, here has a few humorous features. After receiving the order for the flight to Egypt, he complains of the troubles that marriage has brought upon him, and warns the young people in his audience not to marry. Again, the boisterous tone of the tyrants is in this drama accentuated with particular zest.