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LECTURE NOTES VI

MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE [3]


MEDIEVAL DRAMA
Sources:
Primary Sources:
The York Corpus Christi Plays nr.22: The Temptation in the Wilderness, ed. CL (Kalamazoo,
Michigan: MIP, 2011) also at: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/dcyp22f.htm
The York Plays modernized version C.N. Scoville and K.M. Yates, (Toronto, 2003),
http://www.reed.utoronto.ca/yorkplays/york.html
Everyman in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, ed. Kermode, F., J. Hollander et al.,
(Oxford: OUP, 1973), pp. 388-411
Secondary sources
Baugh, A.C., ed., A Literary History of England (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948), pp.
273-287
Daiches, D., A Critical History of English Literature, vol.1 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1969),
pp. 208-216
Day, M.S., History of English Literature to 1660 (Doubleday, 1963), pp. 110-122
Fletcher, R.H., A History of English Literature (Boston: Badger, 2007 [1919]), pp. 103-115
Hardison, O.B., Christian Rites and Christian Drama in Medieval England (1965)
Moody, W.V., Lovett, R. M., History of English Literature (New York: Scribner,1918), pp.103110
Woolf, R., The English Mystery Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972)
Illustrations:
Luminarium: http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/medievaldrama.htm
A. Medieval Drama. General Aspects
1. The origins of medieval drama:
(i) Christian liturgy
(ii ) ancient vegetation rites and rites of fertility that survived at the level of popular culture
(iii) May games and carnival practices based on the idea of the world topsy-turvy, i.e., the
reversal of ranks and of conventional or serious situations: the May king and queen, parodies of
mass (missa subdiaconorum), mock trials, etc.
2. Medieval theatre and Christian liturgy
(i) The theatrical dimension of liturgy:
- the Christian liturgical ritual made use of the legacy of the classical theatre
- the celebrant of the liturgy (like an actor) described the life of Christ in ritualic gestures to the
congregation (the audience)
(ii) The pedagogical aim of early medieval representations:
- in the beginning, the plays were meant to familiarize the illiterate people with the main aspects
of Christian religion and its basic text, the Bible, and thereby to complement the sermon
- short plays [tropes] were performed by clerics inside the church on Easter
- initially their topics focused on Crucifixion, later on Nativity and then on topics from both the
Old and the New Testaments
- a change in the performance occurred with the institution of the celebration of the Corpus

Christi, in the 13th c., which took place after Easter, in the first Thursday after Trinity (May or
June) and which was marked by a solemn procession during which the Holy Sacrament was
displayed. On this occasion, after the passage of the procession, on each station, theatrical
performances were held by members of the various guilds on pageants [wagons] which followed
one another
- subsequently these pageants came to be assembled together in the town square, which was often
before the church and the audience could move from one play to another.
3. Staging and actors:
- the plays were acted on large wagons or pageants
these had three levels representing: hell, earth and heaven, a central place [loca], where a throne
was usually placed, and an extending scaffolding for additional acting area [platea]
- the actors were initially members of the clergy; later, they were craftsmen belonging to various
guilds [weavers, dyers, etc.];
afterwards the players came to be specialized actors paid by the guilds
4. Main themes and types of plays:
(a) Mysteries:
Themes
- mysteries are concerned with subjects that cover the interval between the Creation of the World
and the Last Judgment
- these are inspired from major events from the Old and New Testaments: the Genesis and the Fall
of Lucifer, the Creation and the Fall of Man, the Flood [Noah], Abraham and Isaac, as well as
scenes from the Gospels: the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion, the
Resurrection, and the Last Judgment
- initially acted inside the church, in preparation for Easter liturgy, the oldest, original plays
[tropes], were short dialogues, between the priests or deacons representing between the three
Marys and the Angel at Christs empty tomb
- afterwards the subjects were extended to other celebrations, and became diversified and the
places of performance moved to streets [procession stations] or town squares
- the quem quaerities plays [tropes] derive from Mark 16: 1-7; Mathew 28:1-7
28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene
and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came
and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
28:3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 28:4 And for fear of him the
keepers did shake, and became as dead men.
28:5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which
was crucified.
28:6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
28:7 And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you
into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. (Matthew, 28: 1-7

Play: [trope]:
[The three Marys at the tomb are met by an Angel]
Angel: Who is it that you are looking for, o Christian women? (Quem quaeritis o, christicole?)
Women: Jesus of Nazareth, o heavenly one!
Angel: He is not here; he is arisen as he foretold,
Go announce that he is risen from the sepulchre.
- by the 13th c. the Orleans version of the tomb scene is divided into three episodes: the three

Marys at the tomb, the race of Peter and John, the appearance of Christ in the garden to Mary
Magdalen
- the English versions will elaborate further
Texts [cycles of mystery plays]:
- the Cornwall cycle (in Cymric); the York Cycle; the Chester Cycle; the Wakefield Cycle;
the Townsley Cycle or Ludus Coventriae
- a cycle could contain the entire range of plays, from Creation to last Judgment, as many as fifty
plays
Types [New Testament]:
the New Testament mystery plays (in the order of their appearance) include:
(i) The Quem Qaerities plays:Christs resurrection
(ii) The Peregrini:Christ reveals himself to his disciples on the road to Emmaus
(iii) The Pastores: the account of the shepherds at the manger (Christ's nativity)
(iv) The Magi: the adoration of the three magi
(v) The Herodes: combination of the Pastores and Magi which focuses on Herodes
(b) Miracles:
Themes:
- miracle plays appeared later, as a new kind of (semi-liturgical) dramas,
- they deal with the lives and miracles performed by the saints:
Texts:
- Saint Magdalene
(c) Moralities:
Themes:
- derive from the fight agon (Gr. contest, fight) between Christ and Satan over the human soul
in which Christ is portrayed in the tradition of St. Paul, as the athlete who defeats his enemy
- in moralities or allegorical performances the religious conflict between Christ and Satan was
translated into the fight between Virtue and Vice
- these personified debates also offer meditations on life from the perspective of the inevitability
and inexorability of death
- in these cases the battle between Vice and Virtue is further extended to other allegorical
characters representing the seven deadly sins (Pride, Sloth, Avarice, Anger, Envy, Greed, Lust)
and the corresponding seven virtues (theological: Charity, Faith, Hope; cardinal: Prudence,
Patience, Fortitude, Justice)
- mans life is depicted as a series of encounters or choices with these characters, which affect
directly the possibility of his salvation in the afterlife
Texts:
- The Castle of Perseverence, Everyman
(d) Interludes
- late medieval comical plays, mostly farcical, in which Vice becomes a comical character, an
amusing rascal, which eventually acquires the features of buffoon or a clown
C.TEXTS;
York Plays: The Smiths Play: The Temptation [excerpt, modern English]
[The passage dramatizes the episode in the Bible [Matthew 4:1-11;Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13]

which Christ, while fasting in the desert, is tempted by the devil three times, Satan asks Christ to
show his divinity by turning stones into bread, to throw himself down from a height, committing
suicide, in order to be rescued by the angels, and to become a follower of Satan and obtain
absolute power over the universe. Christ resists these three temptations. The excerpt below refers
to the first temptation.]
Mt 4: 1-11
[1]Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. [2] And when he
had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry. [3] And the tempter coming said
to him: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. [4] Who answered
and said: It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from
the mouth of God. [5] Then the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle
of the temple, [6] And said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written:
That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest
perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. [7] Jesus said to him: It is written again: Thou shalt
not tempt the Lord thy God. [8] Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and
shewed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, [9] And said to him: All these
will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me. [10] Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan:
for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve. [11] Then the
devil left him; and behold angels came and ministered to him. [English version:Douay Rheims
Bible]
DEVIL [to JESUS]:
[] Thou! Wise man, and so well-read!
If thou possess, at all, Godhead,
Bid now that these stones be bread,
Here, on this ground.
Then they may feed thee in this stead-And those around!
For thou hast fasted long and lean;
I wish now that some food were seen
For auld acquaintance, us between.
Yourself knows how!
There shall no man know what I mean
But I and thou.
JESUS:
My Father, who all sorrow can slake,
Honour evermore to thee I make!
And gladly I suffer, for thy sake,
Such villainy-And thus temptations for to take
From my enemy.
Thou cursed wight, thy wits are wood.
It is written, it is understood,
A man feeds not his health and mood
With bread alone;
God's own words are spiritual food
For men, each one.

If I have fasted long, yet still


I feel no hunger yet so ill
That I will break my Father's will
In any degree.
Thy bidding I will not fulfil;
That warn I thee.
DEVIL:
Ah! Such words no devil knows!
He's not hungry, I suppose.
Source The York Plays [excerpt] modernized version C.N. Scoville and K.M. Yates, (Toronto,
2003), http://www.reed.utoronto.ca/yorkplays/york.html