Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 9. Mysteries and their sources: traditional and original elements; mingling of comic with tragic incidents

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

§ 9. Mysteries and their sources: traditional and original elements; mingling of comic with tragic incidents

From the last period of the Middle Ages—otherwise than for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—we have an abundance of texts and documentary statements. We can perceive how, at this time, in England, just as in Germany and France, the great advance of town life caused religious drama likewise to progress with increasing vigour, the plays constantly assuming larger dimensions. Historians of literature, from Dodsley onwards, usually call these large dramas of the late Middle Ages by the name, given them in France, “mysteries”; whereas, in England, the simple word “play” was generally used. The treatment of facts from Bible story is much the same in England and in other countries; additions, intended either to adorn the argument poetically or to furnish the actions of the dramatis personae with a psychological foundation, are here, as elsewhere, not of the author’s own invention, but are taken over from ecclesiastical literature, for the most part from the works of contemplative theologians absorbed in meditation on the work of salvation, the passion, the pains of the Blessed Virgin, or from the sermons of enthusiastic preachers, whose brilliant imagination, in its lofty flight, brought before their audience all the different stages of our Lord’s life and passion.

Thus, in the York Mysteries, use is made of one of the most famous works of contemplative literature, the Meditations of St. Bonaventura; from this source, for instance, are borrowed the following details: Joseph, at Christ’s birth, observes how the ox and the ass press close to the crib in which the Child lies, in order to protect it by their warm breath from the cold; and Mary adores the new-born as Father and Son. Some decorative additions, too, can be traced back to the works of medieval Bible commentators—above all, to the must erudite and famous work of this sort, the Postilla of Nicholas of Lyra. The appearance of Mary Magdalene, for instance, in the mystery called by her name, surrounded by the seven deadly sins, is founded on Lyra’s interpretation of the words in the Gospel of St. Mark (xvi, 9) as to the seven devils driven out of her by Jesus. When the Gospel of St. John tells us (viii, 7) how Christ, after the adulteress had been brought before Him, wrote something with His finger on the ground, but, during the writing, looked up and said to the scribes: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” whereat the scribes went away one after another, Lyra explains that Christ had written the secret sins of the scribes in the sand; and this explanation is followed by the authors of the mysteries. Some additions, again, are from the apocryphal Gospels. Thus, for instance, in the York Mysteries, the standards in Pilate’s house bow of themselves at the entrance of Christ. In this way, many agreements between French and English plays can be accounted for, which used to be wrongly explained by the supposition that English poets had used French models; as a matter of fact, these coincidences are either accidental or due to the identity of intellectual aliment and conformity of religious thought throughout the whole of society in the Middle Ages. Only in the case of several purely theatrical effects can it be supposed that they came over from France, where the art of stage management was more developed than anywhere else.

On the whole, however, in considering these mysteries, we cannot escape the impression that, neither in Germany nor in France and England, were the later Middle Ages a period of great poetical splendour. True, in England, authors of mysteries attach a great value to artistic metrical form; so early as the miracle of duke Moraud, manifold and complicated forms of stanzas are used; but this is an artistic embellishment which is not necessarily advantageous to the vivid interchange of dramatic speech. It would, however, be unjust to judge these plays altogether from a literary standard. The authors, apparently, had scarcely any other intention than, by recasting traditional materials from their narrative form into a dramatic mould, to make concrete representation possible; they had but little thought of their productions as procuring literary enjoyment by reading. Only once is any reference made in any English play to a reader: namely, in a play on the lowering of Christ from the cross, intended for performance on Good Friday and, therefore, preserving a more severe style. It was composed about the middle of the fifteenth century; but, in the MS., which dates from the beginning of the sixteenth century, the play is preceded by a prologue, exhorting pious souls to read the tract ensuing. It is equally characteristic that, in England, during the whole of this period, no authors of religious dramas are known by name, and that not a single play appears to have been printed.

In England, as everywhere, it is in comic scenes that writers of mysteries are most original. Here, of course, they could not borrow anything from theological authors, and they moved in a domain much more appropriate to the spirit of the later Middle Ages than the tragical. If, in the fragmentary remains of the English religious drama of earlier times, the element of burlesque is entirely missing, this, assuredly, can be nothing else than mere accident; the mingling of comic with tragic elements, which is characteristic of the romanticism of the medieval drama, must, beyond doubt, here as elsewhere, have been accomplished at a period when Latin was still the language, and the church the place, of these performances; the protests of some rigorous moralists against religious drama, mentioned above, are, unmistakably, to be explained in the main, in England as well as in other countries, by this intrusion of the comic element. Some comic effects in English mysteries belong to the common and international stock of literary property: such, for instance, as the merry devil Tutivillus or Titinillus, whose special task it is to watch and denounce women who talk in church. Another comic intermezzo, a grotesque dance, performed by the Jews, with accompaniment of music, round the cross on which Christ hangs, is to be met with not only in the Coventry Mysteries, but, likewise, in some German mystery plays. Other comic devices, chiefly in the Mary Magdalene mysteries and some of those in the shepherds’ scenes of the Christmas plays, seem to be borrowed from France. But, besides these, in England as well as in other countries, it is precisely in comic scenes that national traditions were developed. A scene especially characteristic of English mysteries is the quarrel between Noah and his shrewish wife, who obstinately opposes her husband’s will when he is about to take the whole family into the newly built ark.