Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 6. Popular survivals

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

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 6. Popular survivals

The roots of such a growth as the English drama lay, and must have lain, deeper than in the imported remnants of more or less alien civilisations which interwove their fibres with the national life. Of that life itself, religious beliefs and conceptions were of the very essence, though among these a considerable proportion were survivals of earlier periods, into which Christianity had not entered as a conquering, and, at times, a destructive, force. In the earliest of the succeeding chapters it will be shown in what directions the study of folk-lore has thrown light on the influence of these survivals upon the growth of the drama in England. By far the most important process in the present connection is the gradual conversion of popular festivals, ancient or even primitive in origin, with their traditional ritual of dance and song, into plays; though it is their action, rather than its vocal accompaniment, which, in the case of these festivals, has exercised any significant influence on English drama. Elements of the pagan festivals in question are discoverable even in feasts whose origin can be directly traced to the services of the Christian church, but which grew into universally recognised occasions of fun and licence, when no extravagance was accounted out of place or season by “laughter, holding both his sides.” Such, above all, was the feast of Fools, associated, in the first instance, with the ritual of the feast of the Circumcision (New Year’s eve and day), and then developed into something very like the Saturnalia, or New Year’s festival of pagan Rome. It survived in England till near the close of the fourteenth century, though, as early as the thirteenth, it had attracted the censures of the spirit of reform in the austere person of bishop Grosseteste. Still more protracted was the life in England of the kindred feast of Innocents, which cannot be shown to have had any integral connection with the ritual of Innocents’ Day, but which was soon appended to it as suiting the day on which the Boy bishop, elected by his fellow choir-boys on the feast of St. Nicholas, took office. The topsy-turvydom of this celebration, to which there are other parallels (as late as 1566 a “Christmas Abbess” was elected by the nuns at Carrow), was naturally of a more harmless kind and more amenable to discipline, and, in consequence, less provocative of prohibitions. Dramatic performances became a regular accompaniment of this festival, and, though the French or Anglo-Norman St. Nicholas plays which have been preserved (including one by Hilarius) cannot be regarded as examples of the literary monastic drama belonging to our literature, it may safely be concluded that out of these performances grew those of the chapel boys and schoolboys to which, as developed in the Elizabethan age, a special chapter is devoted in the next volume. The general influence of these festivals and their associations must have tended to foster the element of humour and satire—the comic element—which was to assert itself with enduring success in the course of the growth of the religious, and, later, in that of the regular, drama in England. Even at court, the authority of the Christmas lord or lord of Misrule survived the appointment of a permanent official with the title of master of the revels (1545), and a conflict between the real and the mock authority naturally ensued.