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THE COLLECTIVE STORY OF THE ENGLISH CYCLES

IN the miracle plays of our forefathers the mirth, the proverbial philosophy, the social aims, the aesthetic and religious ideals of the middle ages still live for us. At first, these plays existed as units, each commemorating some episode in the life of Christ or of the saints, or some important fragment of Old Testament history. But gradually they coalesced in this town and that into a cycle or sequence (of anywhere from five to fifty dramatic compositions), covering in one vast survey the whole of sacred history and prophecy, as told in scripture and in ecclesiastical legend, from the Fall of the Angels to the Day of Judgment. The cycle of York stands to one of its component pageants as the minister itself to chapel, cloister, nave, or crypt. And the same simple, patient, practical mystics built both cycle and cathedral. If we would know how our fathers lived and dreamed we should study their temples of dramatic verse as well as their aspirations in stone.

The collective story of sacred plays falls readily into five groups. The first is that of the Creation and of Old Testament History. It presents in kaleidoscopic spectacle God making the angels and the universe, Lucifer and his hosts aspiring and descending; the creation of Adam and Eve, the temptation and the expulsion from Paradise; the promise of the Oil of Mercy; the birth of the first children of men; their instruction in worship and industry; then, the blood of Abel crying from the ground, the curse upon Cain, his wanderings, and his death like a hunted thing at the hands of Lamech; Adam in his old age weary of delving, and sick unto death, sending Seth to the angel who keeps Paradise to obtain that Oil of Mercy if he may; Seth's vision of the Tree in the Garden and of the unborn Christ, and his return to Adam with the kernels of the fruit whence should spring the wood of the Cross; Adam's joy, his pious resignation and his death, and the planting of the holy kernels; Enoch's walk with God; the corruption of mankind, and God repenting him of his creation; the mission of Noah, the building of the Ark and the history of the Flood; the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedec; the sacrifice of Isaac; Jacob and his wily mother cheating Esau of his birthright and blessing; the wanderings of Jacob and the vision at Bethel; the Israelites in Egypt, the plagues, and the passage of the Red Sea; Moses and the chosen people in the wilderness, the giving of the laws, and the discovery of the Sacred Rods sprung from the "pippins" of Seth; Balaam on his errand of imprecation,

    "Go forth, Burnell, go forth, go!
    What the Devil, my ass will not go!"--

the Angel in the way, and Balaam's prophecy of the Star to come out of Jacob, the sceptre out of Israel; then, the transplantation of the Holy Rods by David; the royal psalmist's sin with Bathsheba; Soloman building the Temple, and cutting down the Kingly Tree,--the beam that the builders rejected; and of that beam Maximilla prophesying that Christ should hang thereon; the bridge over Cedron; and finally, the procession of the prophets who foretell the Christ: Balaam and Isaiah, --Jesse, David, and Solomon, and chosen rulers of the disrupted kingdom,--Jeremiah and Jonah and Daniel and Micah, and other righteous,--a glorious pomp preceding the Dawn, and singing in many tones

Virgo concipiet
Et pariet filium, nomen Emanuel;
Egredietur virga de radice Jesse
Et flos de radice ejus ascendet.

As the Processus Prophetarum closes the prologue of the cosmic history, so it also opens the divine Mystery of the Atonement. This is itself a unit, but it falls into three dramatic groups,--the Nativity, the Ministry, and the Passion of Christ.

The Nativity casts its nimbus before: with the angelic prophecy of a daughter,

Which shall hight Mary, and Mary shall bear Jesus
Which shall be Savior of all the world and us,

the childless home of Joachim and Anna is glorified. The days pass, and the promised maid is born. "All in white as a child of three," she mounts the steps of the Temple, to be dedicated "to Godde's service" and to chastity. Then follow the choice of a husband for the maiden turned fourteen, the flowering of old Joseph's rod, and the betrothal; the departure of Joseph from his "little bride," and the fair one with her virgins working on the curtain for the temple of the Lord; then, Gabriel on his high embassy, and the Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, the visit to Elizabeth, and the salutation of the Mother of our Lord; then, Joseph's return and his trouble about Mary, and the trial scene in the Temple where, miraculously, the Virgin is vindicated and her detractors are put to shame; next, royalty and the palace,--Caesar Augustus taking counsel with Cyrenius against the coming of the Child; the Emperor and the Sibyl, her prophecy of Christ; then, the riches of poverty,--the journey to Bethlehem, the stable, the birth of Christ, and the sign shown to the midwives; Emperor and Sibyl again, Christ's birth announced and the Emperor converted; the shepherds and the star; the Magi and the star, and Herod on his throne; after that the Temple,--the purification of Our Lady, the presentation of the Child and the Nunc dimittis of Simeon; then, the offering of the Magi; Herod deceived and furious, the flight of Joseph, Mary, and the Child into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents; again, the palace, and high revel of Herod and his knights,--to them Death entering to strike, and the Devil issuing from Hell to claim his own.

Here ends the group of the Nativity, and the active Ministry of Christ begins: the Temple, and Christ with the doctors, disputing; the baptism in the Jordan; the mountain of temptation; the marriage in Cana of Galilee; the transfiguration; the absolution of the adulteress; the healing of the blind in Siloam; the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and the cure of blind Bartimaeus.

Then follows the group of plays of which the focus is the Passion: the entry into Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the Temple; Jesus in the house of Simon the leper and Mary Magdalen anointing him "aforehand for his burying"; the conspiracy of the Jews, the treachery of Judas, and the Last Supper; the garden of Gethsemane,--the agony, the betrayal, the flight of the disciples; the trial before Caiaphas, the buffeting, the denial of Peter; the trial before Pilate, and the dream of Pilate's wife; the trial before Herod; the second accusation before Pilate, the remorse and self-murder of Judas, and the purchase of the Field of Blood; the condemnation and the scourging; the recovery of the cross-wood from the brook Cedron, the forging of the nails for the cross, and the leading of Christ up to Calvary; the ministrations of Simon the Cyrenian and Veronica; the lamentation of Mary and the daughters of Jerusalem; the crucifixion; the casting of lots for the seamless coat; the promise to the pentitent thief; and the undying triumph of the Saviour's death. The miracle, then, by which the centurion receives his sight; the descent from the cross, and the burial; the harrowing of hell; the imprisonment of Joseph and Nicodemus, and the setting of the watch; the resurrection, the discomfiture of the Jews, and the release of the prisoners; the angels--to the Maries: "Whom seek ye?" (Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, Christicolae?); the appearance of the risen Christ--to the Magdalene, to the pilgrims for Emmaus, to the Eleven; the rebuke to Thomas, the promise of the Holy Ghost, and the ascension.

Here end the passion plays, properly so-called; and the last division begins,--the History of the Living Church: the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost; the meeting of Veronica and Tiberius, the conversion of the Emperor, the condemnation and death of Pilate; the ministry of the apostles; the death and burial, the assumption and coronation of the Mother of our Lord; the piety and martyrdom and miracles of the saints--Paul and Magdalene, Christina and Catharine, and of others a numerous host; the miracles of Our Lady; the miracles of the Blessed Sacrament; the signs of Judgment; the coming of Antichrist and his destruction.--Doomsday.

From this river of history, ecclesiastical and profane, of apocrypha, apocalypse, and legend, the medieval playwrights of pageants, single or cyclic, drew the waters of poetic life. The miracles of the saints, indeed (except one or two of the Virgin and those of St. Paul and Mary Magdalene), and the histories of certain Old Testament heroes, such as Daniel and Tobit, are not included in any of the English cycles; but they are in the French. And one and another of them occurs in independent form in the annals of medieval English drama. I have already mentioned the St. Katharine of Geoffrey, and the Daniel and St. Nicholas of the twelfth century Hilarius. A Tobit was acted at Lincoln in 1564 and 1567; the Deaths of the Apostles and a play of Sts. Crispin and Crispinianus, in Dublin, in 1528; a St. Meriasek in Cornwall; and plays of numerous others--St. James, St. Andrew, St. Laurence, St. Susanna, St. Lucy, St. Margaret--in various places. It has been recently announced by Mr. Chambers that the "dumb show of St. George," of which the subtle J. P. Collier says that it was presented by Henry the Fifth for the entertainment of Emperor Sigismund of "Almayne" was nothing more than a "soteltie" or ornamented cake; but the probability still remains that many a miracle of the patron saint preceded by centuries of mummings of St. George which obtain in England even at the present day. Plays of St. Paul and Mary Magdalene form part of the Digby cycle; and a miracle of the Blessed Sacrament is preserved in the well-known Croxton play, which was composed between 1461 and 1500. This latter day episode of the history of Christ's saints represents the desecration by Jews of a wonder-working wafer, their discomfiture and ultimate conversion, and is a striking example of the transition from the sacred and didactic drama to the realistic and comic play of contemporary life.

The five groups of plays into which the collective miracles, above enumerated, may be resolved, are, as we have noticed, but three, in effect; that of pre-christian history and legend, that of Christ's ministry, and that of his church. Of these, the first is the prologue to the swelling theme of the second, the essential drama of the Atonement--God born into the world; living, suffering, dying for man; harrowing hell, rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven; and to that the third is the epilogue.

This article was originally published in Plays of Our Forefathers. Charles Mills Gayley. New York: Duffield & Co., 1907. pp. 118-24.

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