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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

§ 4. The vernacular in Medieval Drama

The use of the vernacular as the language of religious drama was not brought about in England by any process analogous to that observable in continental countries. For the normal development of the English language was interrupted by the Norman conquest, in consequence of which the chief offices in bishoprics and abbeys were occupied by men of foreign origin. Thus it happened that the oldest vernacular dramas written in England belong not to English, but to French, literary history: the play of Adam and the play of the Resurrection, the oldest two dramatic poems in the French language, were, according to general opinion, composed in England in the twelfth century. Only a very small number of dramatic works and accounts of performances have been preserved belonging to the long period which begins with the introduction of the vernacular into medieval drama and ends at the point at which it had reached its height—that is, from about 1200 to 1400—in England, as well as in Germany and France. The material is insufficient for reconstructing the process of growth, and the historian must needs limit his task to that of a mere recorder. Later monuments, however, suffice to indicate how, in this domain too, the native English element regained its superiority. A remarkable document has been discovered recently at Shrewsbury, which shows how, in English literature also, the vernacular drama was prepared by the insertion of vernacular verses in Latin songs. The MS., written in a northern dialect, is not a complete play, but consists of three parts written out in full in both English and Latin, with the respective cues: namely, the part of one of the three Maries at the tomb, the part of a shepherd at Christ’s nativity and the part of a disciple on the way to Emmaus. The English words paraphrase the Latin by which they are preceded; but they are not, like the Latin, provided with musical notes. As the vernacular found its way into Latin texts, declamation simultaneously took its place by the side of song, which, till then, had been the only form in use. Here, we observe a remarkable analogy to the Easter play of Treves, which represents the same transitional stage in the history of the German drama.