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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

§ 15. Ludus Coventriae

A collection of plays standing altogether apart is preserved in a MS. of 1468, with the much later title Ludus Coventriae; whence they are generally known as Coventry Plays. Their Coventry origin is a matter of doubt on the ground of their language, and the collection has certainly nothing whatever to do with the Corpus Christi plays of the Coventry crafts (preserved in fragments), which were of high fame in the fifteenth century and were several times honoured by the presence of English kings. Where and how this text was performed is quite unknown. It is preceded by a prologue, in which the stanzas are recited alternately by three standard-bearers (vexillatores) and contain an invitation to witness the performance to be given on the following Sunday at some town unnamed. According to this prologue, the play is to consist of forty pageants; but, to this, the divisions of the text fail to correspond. Evidently we have before us no processional, but a “standing” play, made up of elements originally not forming a whole; nevertheless, this is the only text that does not show any verbal correspondences with other collected mysteries. By their didactic spirit, the Coventry Plays are allied to the Chester Plays; in the former, too, we have an intermediary between actors and public, who appears in a doctor’s robes under the name Contemplatio. The text of the plays is overcharged with curiosities of medieval theology; when, for example, Mary, three years old, mounts the fifteen steps of the Temple, the priest allegorically explains these steps as the way from Babylon to the heavenly Jerusalem. But, even here, a realistic tendency is not altogether absent; as, for instance, when the author dramatises the events of the apocryphal Gospel of pseudo-Matthew, where Mary is brought into court for suspected infidelity; in the history of the adulteress, too, occur some very realistic additions. The soldiers at Christ’s tomb are depicted with admirable humour.