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old England, and in giving to the national mind its character and form. And perhaps later ages, and ourselves as the children of a later age, are more indebted to those rude labours of the Clergy in the cause of religion, than we are aware, or might be willing to acknowledge.
In its course through several ages, the Drama took different forms from time to time, as culture advanced. The earliest form was in what are commonly called Mysteries, though the older and better term is, Plays of Miracles, or Miracle-plays. These were founded, for the most part, on the events of Scripture, though the apocryphal gospels and legends of saints and martyrs were sometimes drawn upon for subjects or for embellishments. In these performances no regard was paid to the rules of natural probability; for, as the operation of the Divine power was assumed, this was treated as a sufficient ground or principle of credibility in itself. Hence, indeed, the name Marvels, Miracles, or Miracle-plays, by which they were commonly known.
The earliest instance that we can refer to of a Miracleplay in England, was near the beginning of the twelfth century. Matthew Paris, in his Lives of the Abbots, written as early as 1240, informs us that Geoffrey, Abbot of St. Albans, while he was yet a secular person brought out the Miracle-play of St. Katharine at Dunstaple ; and that for the needed decorations he sought and obtained certain articles " from the Sacristy of St. Albans.” Geoffrey, who was from the University of Paris, was then teaching a school at Dunstaple, and the play was performed by his scholars. On the following night, his house was burnt, together with the borrowed articles ; which he regarded as a judgment of Heaven, and thereupon assumed a religious habit. Warton thinks the performance to have been about 1110: but we learn from Bulæus that Geoffrey became Abbot of St. Al. bans in 1119; and all that can with certainty be affirmed is, that the play was performed before he took on him a religious character: it may have been somewhat earlier or somewhat later than 1110. Bulæus also informs us that the thing was not then a novelty; but that it was customary for teachers and scholars to get up such exhibitions.
Our next piece of information on the subject is from the Life of Thomas a Becket, by William Fitzstephen, as quoted in Stowe's Survey of London, 1599. Becket died in 1170, and the Life was probably written about twelve years after that event. Fitzstephen gives a description of London, and after referring to the public amusements of ancient Rome, he continue thus : " In lieu of such theatrical shows and performances of the stage, London has plays of a more sacred kind, representing the miracles which holy confessors have wrought, or the sufferings whereby the firmness of martyrs has been displayed."
It appears that about the middle of the next century itinerant actors were well known; for one of the regulations found in the Burton Annals has the following, under the date of 1258: “Actors may be entertained, not because they are actors, but because of their poverty; and let not their plays be seen, nor heard, nor the performance of them allowed, in the presence of the Abbot or the monks." There was some difference of opinion among the Clergy as to the lawfulness of such exhibitions ; and in an Anglo-French poem written about this time they are censured with much sharpness, and the using of them is restricted to certain places and persons. An English version, or rather paraphrase, of this poem was made by Robert Brunne in 1303. The writer sets forth, among other things, what pastimes are allowed to "a clerk of order,” declaring it lawful for him to perform Miracle-plays of the birth and resurrection of Christ in churches, but a sin to witness them “on the highways or greens." He also reproves the practice, then not uncommon, of aiding the performance of Miracle-plays by lending horses or harness from the monasteries, and especially declares it sacrilege if a priest or clerk lend the hallowed vestments for such a purpose.
The doctrine of transubstantiation seems to have been especially fruitful in this kind of performances. The festival of Corpus Christi, designed for the furthering of this doctrine, was instituted by Pope Urban IV. in 1264. Within a few years from that date, Miracle-plays were annually performed at Chester during Whitsuntide : they were also introduced at Coventry, York, Durham, Lancaster, Bristol, Ca nbridge, and divers other towns; so that the thing became a sort of established usage throughout the kingdom. A considerable variety of subjects, especially such as relate to the incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection of the Saviour, was embraced in the plan of these exhibitions; the purpose being, if we may credit Robert Brunne; to extend an orthodox belief in those fundamental verities of our re. ligion.
A very curious specimen of the plays that grew out of the Corpus Christi festival has been lately discovered in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the manuscript being certainly as old, it is said, as the reign of Edward IV. For our knowledge of it we are indebted to Mr. Collier, who says “it is perhaps the only specimen of the kind in our language.” It is called The Play of the Blessed Sacrament, and is founded on a miracle alleged to have been wrought in the forest of Arragon, in 1461. The scene of action was doubtless imaginary, and the legend much older than the date assigned ; the time of the miracle being drawn down near that of the representation, in order that the spectators inight be the more impressed with the reality of the events. In form, it closely resembles the Miracle-plays founded on Scripture ; our Saviour being, as was common in such plays, one of the characters: the others are five Jews, a Bishop, a Priest, a Christian merchant, a physician, and his servant. The merchant, having the key of the church, steals away the Host, and sells it to the Jews for £100, under a promise that they will become Christians, in case they find its miraculous powers verified. They then put the Host to various tests. Being stabbed with their daggers, it bleeds, so that one of the Jews goes mad at the sight. They next attempt nailing it to a post, when one of them has his hand torn off as he goes to driving the nails: whereupon the doctor and his man come in to dress the wound, but, after a long comic scene betwixt them, are driven out as quacks and impostors. The Jews then proceed to boil the Host, but the water forthwith turns blood-red. Finally, they cast it into a heated oven, which presently bursts asunder, and an image of the Saviour rises and addresses the Jews, who make good their promise on the spot. They kneel to the Bishop; the merchant confesses his crime, declares his penitence, is admonished, and forgiven under a strict charge never again to buy or sell. The whole winds up with an epilogue from the Bishop, enforcing the moral of the play, which of course turns on the doctrine of transubstantiation.
There are three sets or series of Miracle-plays extant, severally known as the Towneley, the Coventry, and the Chester collections. The first includes thirty plays, and the manuscript is supposed to be as old as the time of Henry VI. The second consists of forty-two plays, said to have been performed at Coventry on the festival of Corpus Christi. The manuscript of them appears to have been written as early at least as the time of Henry VII. The third series, called Chester Whitsun Plays, numbers twenty-four. These are extant in three manuscripts, the oldest of which was made by Edward Gregory, who at the end calls himself “a scholar of Bunbury,” and adds that the writing was finished in 1591. The three sets have all been printed within a few years under the patronage of the Shakespeare Society.
Mr. Markland makes out a strong probability that Miracle-plays were first acted at Chester in 1268, only four years after the establishment of the Corpus Christi festival. From that time, they were repeated yearly, with some interruptions, till 1577. The Towneley series probably belonged to Widkirk Abbey: at what time they grew into use there and at Coventry, is not certainly known. But we have abundant evidence that such exhibitions formed a regular part of Eng. ish life in the reign of Edward III., which began in 1327. For Chaucer alludes to “plays of miracles” as things of common occurrence, and in The Milleres Tale he makes it a prominent feature of the parish clerk, “this Absolon, that joly was and gay,” that he performed in them :
“Sometime, to shew his lightnesse and maistrie,
He plaieth Herode on a skaffolde bie."
And in 1378, which was the first year of Richard II., the choristers of St. Paul's, London, petitioned the king to pro hibit some ignorant persons from acting plays founded on Scripture, as conflicting with the interest of the Clergy, who had incurred expense in getting up a set of plays on similar subjects. And we learn from Stowe, that in 1391 the parish clerks of London performed a play at Skinner's Well, near Smithfield, which lasted three days, and was witnessed by the king, the queen, and nobles of the realm. Stowe also informs us, that in 1409 there was a great play at the same place, “which lasted eight days, and was of matter from the creation of the world.”
We have already spoken somewhat of the part which was taken by the Clergy in these old dramatic performances. Something further on this point may well be added. It is recorded of Lydgate, monk of Bury, that he wrote a series of plays from the creation. And the register of the Guild of Corpus Christi at York, which was a religious fraternity, mentions, in 1408, books of plays, various banners and Aags, beards, vizards, crowns, diadems, and scaffolds, belonging to the society; which shows that its members were at that time concerned in the representation of Miracle-plays. It appears that a few years afterwards these performances, be cause of certain abuses attending them, were discontinued: hut in 1426 William Melton, a friar, who is called “a professor of holy pageantry,” preached several sermons in fa