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Many licentious pleasantries, as Mr. Warton has observed, were sometimes introduced into these religious representations. “This might imperceptibly lead the way to subjects entirely profane, and to comedy; and perhaps earlier than is imagined. In a Mystery of The Massacre of the Holy Innocents, part of the subject of a sacred drama given by the English fathers at the famous Council of Constance, in the year 1417, a low buffoon of Herod’s court is introduced, desiring of his lord to be dubbed a knight, that he might be properly qualified to go on the adventure of killing the mothers of the children of Bethlehem. This tragical business is treated with the most ridiculous levity. The good women of Bethlehem attack our knight-errant with their spinning-wheels, break his head with their distaffs, abuse him as a coward and a disgrace to chivalry, and send him to Herod as a recreant champion with much ignominy. -- It is certain that our ancestors intended no sort of impiety by these monstrous and unnatural mixtures. Neither the writers nor the spectators saw the impropriety, nor paid a separate attention to the comick and the serious part of these motly scenes ; at least they were persuaded that the solemnity of the subject covered or excused all incongruities. They had no just idea of decorum, consequently but little sense of the ridiculous : what appears to us to be the highest burlesque, on them would have made no sort of impression. We must not wonder at this, in an age when courage, devotion, and ignorance, composed the character of European manners; when the knight going to a tournament, first invoked his God, then his mistress, and afterwards proceeded with a safe conscience and great resolution to engage his antagonist. In these Mysteries I have sometimes seen gross and open obscenities. In a play of The Old and New Testament, Adam and Eve are both exhibited on the stage naked, and conversing about their nakedness; this very pertinently introduces the next scene; in which they have coverings of fig leaves. This extraordinary spectacle was beheld by a numerous assembly of both sexes with great
Cover their nakedness with leaves, and converse with God. God's curse. The serpent exit hissing. They are driven from Paradise by four angels and the cherubim with a flaming sword. Adam appears digging the ground, and Eve spinning. Their children Cain and Abel enter: the former kills his brother. Adam's lamentation. Cain is banished,” &c. Warton's History of English Poetry, Vol. I. p. 243.
composure: they had the authority of scripture for such a representation, and they gave matters just as they found them in the third chapter of Genesis. It would have been absolute heresy to have departed from the sacred text in personating the primitive appearance of our first parents, whom the spectators so nearly resembled in simplicity; and if this had not been the case, the dramatists were ignorant what to reject and what to retain.”
“I must not omit,” adds Mr. Warton, “an anecdote entirely new, with regard to the mode of playing the Mysteries at this period, (the latter part of the fifteenth century,] which yet is perhaps of much higher antiquity. In the year 1487, while Henry the Seventh kept his residence at the castle of Winchester, on occasion of the birth of prince Arthur, on a Sunday, during the time of dinner, he was entertained with a religious drama called Christi Descensus ad inferos, or Christ's Descent into Hell. It was represented by the Pueri Eleemosynarii, or choir-boys, of Hyde Abbey, and Saint Swithin's Priory, two large monasteries at Winchester. This is the only proof I have ever seen of choir-boys acting the old Mysteries : nor do I recollect any other instance of a royal dinner, even on a festival, accompanied with this species of diversion. The story of this interlude, in which the chief characters were Christ, Adam, Eve, Abraham, and John the Baptist, was not uncommon in the ancient religious drama, and I believe made a part of what is called the Ludus PASCHALIS, or Easter Play. It occurs in the Coventry Plays acted on Corpus Christi day, and in the Whitsun-plays at Chester, where it is called the HARROWING OF HELL. The representation is, Christ entering hell triumphantly, delivering our first parents, and the most sacred characters of the old and new testaments, from the dominion of Satan, and conveying them into paradise.—The composers of the Mysteries did not think the plain and probable events of the new testament sufficiently marvellous for an audience who wanted only to be surprised. They frequently selected their materials from books which had more of the air of romance.
The subject of the Mysteries just mentioned was borrowed from the Pseudo-Evangelium, or the fabulous Gospel, ascribed to Nicodemus : a book, which together with the numerous apocryphal narratives, containing infinite innovations of the evangelical history, and forged at Constantinople by the early writers of the Greek church, gave birth to an endless variety of legends concerning the life of Christ and his
apostles; and which, in the barbarous ages, was better esteemed than the genuine gospel, on account of its improbabilities and absurdities."
“ But whatsoever was the source of these exhibitions, they were thought to contribute so much to the information and instruction of the people on the most important subjects of religion, that one of the popes granted a pardon of one thousand days to every person who resorted peaceably to the plays performed in the Whitsun week at Chester, beginning with the creation, and ending with the general judgment; and this indulgence was seconded by the bishop of the diocese, who granted forty days of pardon : the pope at the same time denouncing the sentence of damnation on all, those incorrigible sinners who presumed to interrupt the due celebration of these pious sports. It is certain that they had their use, not only in teaching the great truths of scripture to men who could not read the Bible, but in abolishing the barbarous attachment to military games, and the bloody contentions of the tournament, which had so long prevailed as the sole species of popular amusement. Rude and even ridiculous as they were, they softened the manners of the people, by diverting the public attention to spectacles in which the mind was concerned, and by creating a regard for other arts than those of bodily strength and savage valour.”
I may add, that these representations were so far from being considered as indecent or profane, that even a supreme pontiff, Pope Pius the Second, about the year 1416, composed and caused to be acted before him on Corpus Christi day, a Mystery, in which was represented the court of the king of heaven.
These religious dramas were usually represented on holy festivals in or near churches. 66 In several of our old scriptural plays," says Mr. Warton,
some of the scenes directed to be represented cum cantu et organis, a common rubrick in a missal. That is, because they were performed in a church where the choir assisted. There is a curious passage in Lambarde’s Topographical Dictionary, written about the year 1570, much to our purpose, which I am therefore tempted to transcribe. In the dayes of ceremonial religion, they used at Wytney (in Oxfordshire) to set fourthe yearly in maner of a shew or interlude, the resurrection of our Lord, &c. For the which purposes, and the more lyvely heareby to exhibite to the eye the hole action of the resurrection, the priestes garnished out certain smal! VOL. I.
puppettes, representing the persons of Christ, the Watchman, Marie, and others; amongest the which, one bore the parte of a waking watchian, who espinge Christe to arrise, made a continuall noyce, like to the sound that is caused by the metynge of two stickes, and was therefore commonly called Jack Snacker of Wytney. The like toye I myself, beinge then a childe, once saw in Powles Church, at London, at a feast of Whitsuntyde; wheare the comynge downe of the Holy Ghost was set forthe by a white pigeon, that was let to fly out of a hole that yet is to be sene in the mydst of the roofe of the great ile, and by a longe censer which descendinge out of the same place almost to the verie grounde, was swinged up and downe at such a lengthe, that it reached with thone sweepe, almost to the west-gate of the churche, and with the other to the quyre staires of the same ; breathinge out over the whole churche and companie a most pleasant perfume of such swete thinges as burned therein. With the like doome-shews they used everie where to furnish sondrye parts of theire church service, as by their spectacles of the nativitie, passion, and ascension,” &c.
In a preceding passage Mr. Warton has mentioned that the singing boys of Hyde Abbey and St. Swithin's Priory at Winchester, performed a Mystery before King Henry the Seventh in 1487; adding, that this is the only instance he has met with of choir-boys performing in Mysteries ; but it appears from the accompts of various monasteries that this was a very ancient practice, probably coeval with the earliest attempts at dramatick representations. In the year 1378, the scholars, or choristers of Saint Paul's cathedral, presented a petition to King Richard the Second, praying his Majesty to probibit some ignorant and unexperienced persons from acting the HISTORY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, to the great prejudice of the clergy of the church, who had expended consisiderable sums for a publick presentation of that play at the ensuing Christmas. About twelve years afterwards, the Parish Clerks of London, as Stowe informs us, performed spiritual plays at Skinner's Well for three days successively, in the presence of the King, Queen, and nobles of the realm. And in 1409, the tenth year of King Henry IV. they acted at Clerkenwell for eight days successively a play, which “
was matter from the creation of the world,” and probably concluded with the day of judgment, in the presence of most of the nobility and gentry of England.
We are indebted to Mr. Warton for some curious circumstances relative to these Miracle-plays, which “appear in a
roll of the Churchwardens of Bassingborne, in Cambridgeshire, which is an accompt of the expences and receptions for acting the play of Saint GEORGE at Bassingborne, on the feast of Saint Margaret, in the year 1511. They collected upwards of four pounds in twenty-seven neighbouring parishes for furnishing ihe play. They disbursed about two pounds in the representation. These disbursements are to four minstrels, or waits, of Cambridge, for three days, vs. vid. To the players, in bread and ale, iijs. ijd. To the garnement-man for garnements and propyris, that is, for dresses, decorations, and implements, and for play-books, xxs. To John Hobard, brotherhoode preeste, that is, a priest of the guild in the church, for the play book, ijs. viiid. For the crofte, or field in which the play was exhibited, js. For propyrte-making, or furniture, js. ivd. For fish and bread, and to setting up the stages, ivd. For painting three fanchoms and four formenters, words which I do not understand, but perhaps fantoms and devils ---- The rest was expended for a feast on the occasion, in which are recited
Four chicken for the gentilmen, ivd.' It appears by the manuscript of the Coventry plays, that a temporary scaffold only was erected for these performances.”
In the ancient religious plays the Devil was very frequently introduced. He was usually represented with horns, a very wide mouth, (by means of a mask,) staring eyes, a large nose, a red beard, cloven feet, and a tail. His constant attendant was the Vice, (the buffoon of the piece,) whose principal employment was to belabour the Devil with his wooden dagger, and to make him roar for the entertainment of the populace.
As the Mysteries or Miracle-plays “frequently required the introduction of allegorical characters, such as Charity, Sin, Death, Hope, Faith, or the like, and as the common poetry of the times, especially among the French, began to deal much in allegory, at length plays were formed entirely consisting of such personifications. These were called MoRALITIES. The Miracle-plays or MYSTERIES were totally destitute of invention and plan : they tamely represented stories, according to the letter of the scripture, or the respective legend. But the MORALITIES indicate dawnings of the dramatick art: they contain some rudiments of a plot, and even attempt to delir.cate characters, and to paint manners. From hence the gradual transition to real historical personages was natural and obvious.” Dr. Percy, in his Account of the English Stage, has