THE MIRACLE PLAYS AND OTHER POEMS OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY.
The oldest form of regular dramatic representation in England was the
Miracle Plays, improperly called Mysteries, after the French. To these
plays the people of England, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
owed a very large portion of what religious knowledge they possessed, for
the prayers were in an unknown tongue, the sermons were very few, and
printing was uninvented. The plays themselves, introduced into the
country by the Normans, were, in the foolish endeavour to make Normans of
Anglo-Saxons, represented in Norman French until the year 1338, when
permission was obtained from the Pope to represent them in English.
The word Miracle, in their case, means anything recorded in Scripture.
The Miracle Plays had for their subjects the chief incidents of Old and
New Testament history; not merely, however, of this history as accepted
by the Reformed Church, but of that contained in the Apocryphal Gospels
as well. An entire series of these Miracles consisted of short dramatic
representations of many single passages of the sacred story. The whole
would occupy about three days. It began with the Creation, and ended with
the Judgment. That for which the city of Coventry was famous consists of
forty-two subjects, with a long prologue. Composed by ecclesiastics, the
plays would seem to have been first represented by them only, although
afterwards it was not always considered right for the clergy to be
concerned with them. The hypocritical Franciscan friar, in "Piers
Ploughman's Creed," a poem of the close of the same century, claims as a
virtue for his order--
At markets and miracles we meddleth us never.
They would seem likewise to have been first represented in churches and
chapels, sometimes in churchyards. Later, when the actors chiefly
belonged to city-guilds, they were generally represented in the streets
It must be borne in mind by any who would understand the influence of
these plays upon the people, that much in them appearing to us grotesque,
childish, absurd, and even irreverent, had no such appearance in the eyes
of the spectators. A certain amount of the impression of absurdity is
simply the consequence of antiquity; and even that which is rightly
regarded as absurd in the present age, will not at least have produced
the discomposing effects of absurdity upon the less developed beholders
of that age; just as the quaint pictures with which their churches were
decorated may make us smile, but were by them regarded with awe and
reverence from their infancy.
It must be confessed that there is in them even occasional coarseness;
but that the devil for instance should always be represented as a baffled
fool, and made to play the buffoon sometimes after a disgusting fashion,
was to them only the treatment he deserved: it was their notion of
"poetic justice;" while most of them were too childish to be shocked at
the discord thus introduced, and many, we may well hope, too childlike to
lose their reverence for the holy because of the proximity of the
There seems to me considerably more of poetic worth scattered through
these plays than is generally recognized; and I am glad to be able to do
a little to set forth the fact. I cannot doubt that my readers will be
interested in such fragments as the scope and design of my book will
allow me to offer. Had there been no such passages, I might have regarded
the plays as but remotely connected with my purpose, and mentioned them
merely as a dramatic form of religious versification. I quote from the
Coventry Miracles, better known than either of the other two sets in
existence, the Chester Plays and those of Widkirk Abbey. The manuscript
from which they have been edited by Mr. Halliwell, one of those students
of our early literature to whom we are endlessly indebted for putting
valuable things within our reach, is by no means so old as the plays
themselves; it bears date 1468, a hundred and thirty years after they
appeared in their English dress. Their language is considerably
modernized, a process constantly going on where transcription is the
means of transmission--not to mention that the actors would of course
make many changes to the speech of their own time. I shall modernize it a
little further, but only as far as change of spelling will go.
The first of the course is The Creation. God, and angels, and Lucifer
appear. That God should here utter, I cannot say announce, the doctrine
of the Trinity, may be defended on the ground that he does so in a
soliloquy; but when we find afterwards that the same doctrine is one of
the subjects upon which the boy Jesus converses with the doctors in the
Temple, we cannot help remarking the strange anachronism. Two remarkable
lines in the said soliloquy are these:
And all that ever shall have being
It is closed in my mind.
The next scene is the Fall of Man, which is full of poetic feeling and
expression both. I must content myself with a few passages.
Here is part of Eve's lamentation, when she is conscious of the death
that has laid hold upon her.
Alas that ever that speech was spoken
That the false angel said unto me!
Alas! our Maker's bidding is broken,
For I have touched his own dear tree.
Our fleshly eyes are all unlokyn, unlocked.
Naked for sin ourself we see;
That sorry apple that we have sokyn sucked.
To death hath brought my spouse and me.
When the voice of God is heard, saying,
Adam, that with my hands I made,
Where art thou now? what hast thou wrought?
Adam replies, in two lines, containing the whole truth of man's spiritual
condition ever since:
Ah, Lord! for sin our flowers do fade:
I hear thy voice, but I see thee nought.
The vision had vanished, but the voice remained; for they that hear shall
live, and to the pure in heart one day the vision shall be restored, for
"they shall see God." There is something wonderfully touching in the
quaint simplicity of the following words of God to the woman:
Unwise woman, say me why
That thou hast done this foul folly,
And I made thee a great lady,
In Paradise for to play?
As they leave the gates, the angel with the flaming sword ends his speech
This bliss I spere from you right fast; bar.
Herein come ye no more,
Till a child of a maid be born,
And upon the rood rent and torn,
To save all that ye have forlorn, lost.
Your wealth for to restore.
Eve laments bitterly, and at length offers her throat to her husband,
praying him to strangle her:
Now stumble we on stalk and stone;
My wit away from me is gone;
Writhe on to my neck-bone
With hardness of thine hand.
Adam replies--not over politely--
Wife, thy wit is not worth a rush;
and goes on to make what excuse for themselves he can in a very simple
and touching manner:
|Our hap was hard, our wit was nesche,
||soft, weak, still in use in
|To Paradise when we were brought:
My weeping shall be long fresh;
|Short liking shall be long bought.
The scene ends with these words from Eve:
Alas, that ever we wrought this sin!
Our bodily sustenance for to win,
Ye must delve and I shall spin,
In care to lead our life.
Cain and Abel follows; then Noah's Flood, in which God says,
They shall not dread the flood's flow;
then Abraham's Sacrifice; then Moses and the Two Tables; then The
Prophets, each of whom prophesies of the coming Saviour; after which we
find ourselves in the Apocryphal Gospels, in the midst of much nonsense
about Anna and Joachim, the parents of Mary, about Joseph and Mary and
the birth of Jesus, till we arrive at The Shepherds and The Magi, The
Purification, The Slaughter of the Innocents, The Disputing in the
Temple, The Baptism, The Temptation, and The Woman taken in Adultery,
at which point I pause for the sake of the remarkable tradition embodied
in the scene--that each of the woman's accusers thought Jesus was writing
his individual sins on the ground. While he is writing the second time,
the Pharisee, the Accuser, and the Scribe, who have chiefly sustained the
dialogue hitherto, separate, each going into a different part of the
Temple, and soliloquize thus:
Pharisee. Alas! alas! I am ashamed!
I am afeared that I shall die;
All my sins even properly named
Yon prophet did write before mine eye.
If that my fellows that did espy,
They will tell it both far and wide;
My sinful living if they outcry,
I wot not where my head to hide.
Accuser. Alas! for sorrow mine heart doth bleed,
All my sins yon man did write;
If that my fellows to them took heed,
I cannot me from death acquite.
- would I were hid somewhere out of sight,
That men should me nowhere see nor know;
If I be taken I am aflyght afraid.
In mekyl shame I shall be throwe. much.
Scribe. Alas the time that this betyd! happened.
Right bitter care doth me embrace.
All my sins be now unhid,
Yon man before me them all doth trace.
If I were once out of this place,
To suffer death great and vengeance able,
- will never come before his face,
Though I should die in a stable.
Upon this follows The Raising of Lazarus; next The Council of the
Jews, to which the devil appears as a Prologue, dressed in the extreme
of the fashion of the day, which he sets forth minutely enough in his
speech also. The Entry into Jerusalem; The Last Supper; The Betrayal;
King Herod; The Trial of Christ; Pilate's Wife's Dream come next; to the
subject of the last of which the curious but generally accepted origin is
given, that it was inspired by Satan, anxious that Jesus should not be
slain, because he dreaded the mischief he would work when he entered
Hades or Hell, for there is no distinction between them either here or in
the Apocryphal Gospel whence the Descent into Hell is taken. Then
follow The Crucifixion and The Descent into Hell--often called the
Harrowing of Hell--that is, the making war upon or despoiling of
hell, for which the authority is a passage in the Gospel of
Nicodemus, full of a certain florid Eastern grandeur. I need hardly
remind my readers that the Apostles' Creed, as it now stands, contains
the same legend in the form of an article of faith. The allusions to it
are frequent in the early literature of Christendom.
The soul of Christ comes to the gates of hell, and says:
Undo your gates of sorwatorie; place of sorrow.
On man's soul I have memorie;
There cometh now the king of glory,
These gates for to breke!
Ye devils that are here within,
Hell gates ye shall unpin;
- shall deliver man's kin--
From woe I will them wreke. avenge.
* * * * *
Against me it were but waste
To holdyn or to standyn fast;
Hell-lodge may not last
Against the king of glory.
Thy dark door down I throw;
My fair friends now well I know;
- shall them bring, reckoned by row,
Out of their purgatory!
The Burial; The Resurrection; The Three Maries; Christ appearing to
Mary; The Pilgrim of Emmaus; The Ascension; The Descent of the Holy
Ghost; The Assumption of the Virgin; and Doomsday, close the series. I
have quoted enough to show that these plays must, in the condition of the
people to whom they were presented, have had much to do with their
This fourteenth century was a wonderful time of outbursting life.
Although we cannot claim the Miracles as entirely English products,
being in all probability translations from the Norman-French, yet the
fact that they were thus translated is one remarkable amongst many in
this dawn of the victory of England over her conquerors. From this time,
English prospered and French decayed. Their own language was now, so far,
authorized as the medium of religious instruction to the people, while a
similar change had passed upon processes at law; and, most significant of
all, the greatest poet of the time, and one of the three greatest poets
as yet of all English time, wrote, although a courtier, in the language
of the people. Before selecting some of Chaucer's religious verses,
however, I must speak of two or three poems by other writers.
The first of these is The Vision of William concerning Piers
Plowman,--a poem of great influence in the same direction as the
writings of Wycliffe. It is a vision and an allegory, wherein the vices
of the time, especially those of the clergy, are unsparingly dealt with.
Towards the close it loses itself in a metaphysical allegory concerning
Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest. I do not find much poetry in it. There is
more, to my mind, in another poem, written some thirty or forty years
later, the author of which is unknown, perhaps because he was an imitator
of William Langland, the author of the Vision. It is called Pierce the
Plough-man's Crede. Both are written after the fashion of the
Anglo-Saxon poetry, and not after the fashion of the Anglo-Norman, of
which distinction a little more presently. Its object is to contrast the
life and character of the four orders of friars with those of a simple
Christian. There is considerable humour in the working plan of the poem.
A certain poor man says he has succeeded in learning his A B C, his
Paternoster, and his Ave Mary, but he cannot, do what he will, learn his
Creed. He sets out, therefore, to find some one whose life, according
with his profession, may give him a hope that he will teach him his creed
aright. He applies to the friars. One after another, every order abuses
the other; nor this only, but for money offers either to teach him his
creed, or to absolve him for ignorance of the same. He finds no helper
until he falls in with Pierce the Ploughman, of whose poverty he gives a
most touching description. I shall, however, only quote some lines of
The Believe as taught by the Ploughman, and this principally to show
the nature of the versification:
Leve thou on our Lord God, that all the world wroughté;
Holy heaven upon high wholly he formed;
And is almighty himself over all his workés;
And wrought as his will was, the world and the heaven;
And on gentle Jesus Christ, engendered of himselven,
His own only Son, Lord over all y-knowen.
* * * * *
With thorn y-crowned, crucified, and on the cross diéd;
And sythen his blessed body was in a stone buried; after that.
And descended adown to the dark hellé,
And fetched out our forefathers; and they full fain weren. glad.
The third day readily, himself rose from death,
And on a stone there he stood, he stey up to heaven. where: ascended.
Here there is no rhyme. There is measure--a dance-movement in the verse;
and likewise, in most of the lines, what was essential to Anglo-Saxon
verse--three or more words beginning with the same sound. This is
somewhat of the nature of rhyme, and was all our Anglo-Saxon forefathers
had of the kind. Their Norman conquerors brought in rhyme, regularity of
measure, and division into stanzas, with many refinements of
versification now regarded, with some justice and a little more
injustice, as peurilities. Strange as it may seem, the peculiar rhythmic
movement of the Anglo-Saxon verse is even yet the most popular of all
measures. Its representative is now that kind of verse which is measured
not by the number of syllables, but by the number of accented
syllables. The bulk of the nation is yet Anglo-Saxon in its blind poetic
Before taking my leave of this mode, I would give one fine specimen from
another poem, lately printed, for the first time in full, from Bishop
Percy's manuscript. It may chronologically belong to the beginning of the
next century: its proper place in my volume is here. It is called Death
and Liffe. Like Langland's poem, it is a vision; but, short as it is in
comparison, there is far more poetry in it than in Piers Plowman. Life
is thus described:
She was brighter of her blee than was the bright sun;
Her rudd redder than the rose that on the rise hangeth;
Meekly smiling with her mouth, and merry in her looks;
Ever laughing for love, as she like would.
Everything bursts into life and blossom at her presence,
And the grass that was grey greened belive. forthwith.
But the finest passage is part of Life's answer to Death, who has been
triumphing over her:
|How didst thou joust at Jerusalem, with Jesu, my Lord,
|Where thou deemedst his death in one day's time! judgedst.
|There wast thou shamed and shent and stripped for aye!
When thou saw the king come with the cross on his shoulder,
On the top of Calvary thou camest him against;
Like a traitor untrue, treason thou thought;
Thou laid upon my liege lord loathful hands,
|Sithen beat him on his body, and buffeted him rightly,
|Till the railing red blood ran from his sides; pouring down.
|Sith rent him on the rood with full red wounds:
To all the woes that him wasted, I wot not few,
Then deemedst (him) to have been dead, and dressed for ever.
|But, Death, how didst thou then, with all thy derffe words,
When thou pricked at his pap with the point of a spear,
And touched the tabernacle of his true heart,
|Where my bower was bigged to abide for ever?
When the glory of his Godhead glinted in thy face,
|Then wast thou feared of this fare in thy false heart;
|Then thou hied into hell-hole to hide thee belive;
Thy falchion flew out of thy fist, so fast thou thee hied;
|Thou durst not blush once back, for better or worse,
But drew thee down full in that deep hell,
|And bade them bar bigly Belzebub his gates. _greatly,
|Then thou told them tidings, that teened them sore;
|How that king came to kithen his strength,
And how she had beaten thee on thy bent,
and thy brand taken,
|With everlasting life that longed him till. belonged to him.
When Life has ended her speech to Death, she turns to her own followers
Therefore be not abashed, my barnes so dear, children.
Of her falchion so fierce, nor of her fell words.
She hath no might, nay, no means, no more you to grieve,
Nor on your comely corses to clap once her hands.
I shall look you full lively, and latch full well, _search for:
And keere ye further of this kithe, above [lay hold of._
the clear skies.
I now turn from those poems of national scope and wide social interest,
bearing their share, doubtless, in the growth of the great changes that
showed themselves at length more than a century after, and from the poem
I have just quoted of a yet wider human interest, to one of another tone,
springing from the grief that attends love, and the aspiration born of
the grief. It is, nevertheless, wide in its scope as the conflict between
Death and Life, although dealing with the individual and not with the
race. The former poems named of Pierce Ploughman are the cry of John the
Baptist in the English wilderness; this is the longing of Hannah at home,
having left her little son in the temple. The latter seems a poorer
matter; but it is an easier thing to utter grand words of just
condemnation, than, in the silence of the chamber, or with the well-known
household-life around, forcing upon the consciousness only the law of
things seen, to regard with steadfastness the blank left by a beloved
form, and believe in the unseen, the marvellous, the eternal. In the
midst of "the light of common day," with all the persistently common
things pressing upon the despairing heart, to hold fast, after what
fashion may be possible, the vanishing song that has changed its key, is
indeed a victory over the flesh, however childish the forms in which the
faith may embody itself, however weak the logic with which it may defend
The poem which has led me to make these remarks is in many respects
noteworthy. It is very different in style and language from any I have
yet given. There was little communication to blend the different modes of
speech prevailing in different parts of the country. It belongs,
according to students of English, to the Midland dialect of the
fourteenth century. The author is beyond conjecture.
It is not merely the antiquity of the language that causes its
difficulty, but the accumulated weight of artistically fantastic and
puzzling requirements which the writer had laid upon himself in its
composition. The nature of these I shall be enabled to show by printing
the first twelve lines almost as they stand in the manuscript.
Perle plesaunte to prynces paye,
To clanly clos in golde so clere!
Oute of oryent I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere;
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smothe her sydes were!
Quere-so-euer I iugged gemmes gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure:
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere,
Thurh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot;
I dewyne for-dolked of luf daungere,
Of that pryuy perle with-outen spot.
Here it will be observed that the Norman mode--that of rhymes--is
employed, and that there is a far more careful measure in the line that
is found in the poem last quoted. But the rhyming is carried to such an
excess as to involve the necessity of constant invention of phrase to
meet its requirements--a fertile source of obscurity. The most difficult
form of stanza in respect of rhyme now in use is the Spenserian, in
which, consisting of nine lines, four words rhyme together, three words,
and two words. But the stanza in the poem before us consists of twelve
lines, six of which, two of which, four of which, rhyme together. This we
should count hard enough; but it does not nearly exhaust the tyranny of
the problem the author has undertaken. I have already said that one of
the essentials of the poetic form in Anglo-Saxon was the commencement of
three or more words in the line with the same sound: this peculiarity he
has exaggerated: every line has as many words as possible commencing with
the same sound. In the first line, for instance,--and it must be
remembered that the author's line is much shorter than the Anglo-Saxon
line,--there are four words beginning with p; in the second, three
beginning with cl, and so on. This, of course, necessitates much not
merely of circumlocution, but of contrivance, involving endless
He has gone on to exaggerate the peculiarities of Norman verse as well;
but I think it better not to run the risk of wearying my reader by
pointing out more of his oddities. I will now betake myself to what is
far more interesting as well as valuable.
The poem sets forth the grief and consolation of a father who has lost
his daughter. It is called The Pearl. Here is a literal rendering, line
for line, into modern English words, not modern English speech, of the
stanza which I have already given in its original form:
Pearl pleasant to prince's pleasure,
Most cleanly closed in gold so clear!
Out of the Orient, I boldly say,
I never proved her precious equal;
So round, so beautiful in every point!
So small, so smooth, her sides were!
Wheresoever I judged gemmes gay
I set her singly in singleness.
Alas! I lost her in an arbour;
Through the grass to the ground it from me went.
I pine, sorely wounded by dangerous love
Of that especial pearl without spot.
The father calls himself a jeweller; the pearl is his daughter. He has
lost the pearl in the grass; it has gone to the ground, and he cannot
find it; that is, his daughter is dead and buried. Perhaps the most
touching line is one in which he says to the grave:
O moul, thou marrez a myry mele.
(O mould, thou marrest a merry talk.)
The poet, who is surely the father himself, cannot always keep up the
allegory; his heart burns holes in it constantly; at one time he says
she, at another it, and, between the girl and the pearl, the poem is
bewildered. But the allegory helps him out with what he means
notwithstanding; for although the highest aim of poetry is to say the
deepest things in the simplest manner, humanity must turn from mode to
mode, and try a thousand, ere it finds the best. The individual, in his
new endeavour to make "the word cousin to the deed," must take up the
forms his fathers have left him, and add to them, if he may, new forms of
his own. In both the great revivals of literature, the very material of
poetry was allegory.
The father falls asleep on his child's grave, and has a dream, or rather
a vision, of a country where everything--after the childish imagination
which invents differences instead of discovering harmonies--is
super-naturally beautiful: rich rocks with a gleaming glory, crystal
cliffs, woods with blue trunks and leaves of burnished silver, gravel of
precious Orient pearls, form the landscape, in which are delicious
fruits, and birds of flaming colours and sweet songs: its loveliness no
man with a tongue is worthy to describe. He comes to the bank of a river:
Swinging sweet the water did sweep
With a whispering speech flowing adown;
(Wyth a rownande rourde raykande aryght)
and the stones at the bottom were shining like stars. It is a noteworthy
specimen of the mode in which the imagination works when invention is
dissociated from observation and faith. But the sort of way in which some
would improve the world now, if they might, is not so very far in advance
of this would-be glorification of Nature. The barest heath and sky have
lovelinesses infinitely beyond the most gorgeous of such phantasmagoric
idealization of her beauties; and the most wretched condition of humanity
struggling for existence contains elements of worth and future
development inappreciable by the philanthropy that would elevate them by
cultivating their self-love.
At the foot of a crystal cliff, on the opposite side of the river, which
he cannot cross, he sees a maiden sitting, clothed and crowned with
pearls, and wearing one pearl of surpassing wonder and spotlessness upon
her breast. I now make the spelling and forms of the words as modern as I
may, altering the text no further.
|"O pearl," quoth I, "in perlés pight,
|Art thou my pearl that I have plained?
|Regretted by myn one, on night?
|Much longing have I for thee layned
|Since into grass thou me a-glyghte;
||didst glide from me.
|Pensive, payred, I am for-pained,
|And thou in a life of liking light
|In Paradise-earth, of strife unstrained!
||untortured with strife.
|What wyrde hath hither my jewel vayned,
||destiny: carried off.
|And done me in this del and great danger?
|Fro we in twain were towen and twayned,
I have been a joyless jeweller."
|since: pulled: divided.
|That jewel then in gemmés gente,
|Vered up her vyse with even gray,
Set on her crown of pearl orient,
And soberly after then gan she say:
|"Sir, ye have your tale myse-tente,
To say your pearl is all away,
|That is in coffer so comely clente
As in this garden gracious gay,
|Herein to lenge for ever and play,
|There mys nor mourning come never--here,
|Here was a forser for thee in faye,
If thou wert a gentle jeweller.
"But jeweller gente, if thou shalt lose
|Thy joy for a gem that thee was lef,
Me thinks thee put in a mad purpose,
|had left thee.
|And busiest thee about a reason bref.
For that thou lostest was but a rose,
|That flowered and failed as kynd hit gef.
||nature gave it.
|Now through kind of the chest that it gan close, nature.
|To a pearl of price it is put in pref;
|And thou hast called thy wyrde a thef,
||doom, fate: theft.
|That ought of nought has made thee, clear!
||something of nothing.
|Thou blamest the bote of thy mischef:
|Thou art no kyndé jeweller."
When the father pours out his gladness at the sight of her, she rejoins
in these words:
"I hold that jeweller little to praise
|That loves well that he sees with eye;
|And much to blame, and uncortoyse,
|That leves our Lord would make a lie,
|That lelly hyghte your life to raise
||who truly promised.
|Though fortune did your flesh to die;
To set his words full westernays
|That love no thing but ye it syghe!
|And that is a point of surquedrie,
|That each good man may evil beseem,
|To leve no tale be true to tryghe,
But that his one skill may deme."
Much conversation follows, the glorified daughter rebuking and
instructing her father. He prays for a sight of the heavenly city of
which she has been speaking, and she tells him to walk along the bank
until he comes to a hill. In recording what he saw from the hill, he
follows the description of the New Jerusalem given in the Book of the
Revelation. He sees the Lamb and all his company, and with them again his
lost Pearl. But it was not his prince's pleasure that he should cross the
stream; for when his eyes and ears were so filled with delight that he
could no longer restrain the attempt, he awoke out of his dream.
My head upon that hill was laid
|There where my pearl to groundé strayed.
|I wrestled and fell in great affray,
And sighing to myself I said,
|"Now all be to that prince's paye."
After this, he holds him to that prince's will, and yearns after no more
than he grants him.
"As in water face is to face, so the heart of man."
Out of the far past comes the cry of bereavement
mingled with the prayer for hope: we hear, and lo!
it is the cry and the prayer of a man like ourselves.
From the words of the greatest man of his age, let me now gather two rich
blossoms of utterance, presenting an embodiment of religious duty and
aspiration, after a very practical fashion. I refer to two short lyrics,
little noted, although full of wisdom and truth. They must be accepted as
the conclusions of as large a knowledge of life in diversified mode as
ever fell to the lot of man.