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The following article is reprinted from Plays of Our Forefathers. Charles Mills Gayley. New York: Duffield and Co., 1907. pp. 83-90.


With the miraculous Mary-plays of France, the English miracle plays are not to be confounded. Like the French mystères, their material is primarily scriptural; their origin ... is liturgical.

Mr. Leach, in his contribution to the Furnivall Miscellany on English Plays and Players, says that from first to last, both at Lincoln and at Beverley, "the miracle plays were in the hands of the civic authorities and the craft guilds, assisted, of course, by the secular clergy, but with no mention of the monks or regular canons," and again that the origin of the English play must be sought in the same quarters, not "in country monasteries and among the religious, professionally so called." To prove this, he relates the account, from a writer of abour 1220, of a contemporary representation of the Lord's Resurrection. That representation was given, as usual, by masked performers, not in the church but in the churchyard, "a customary institution, therefore, long before the foundation of the feast of Corpus Christi led to the concentration in one play of the various religious dramas already presented to the public." Mr. Leach is probably right in concluding that since there were no monks in Beverley or near it, this was not a monkish play. But this isolated instance of about 1220 does not prove, nor do Mr. Leach's instances of municipal control from the middle of the next century, that the regular clergy, i.e., monks and friars, had nothing to do with the origin of the English play; nor that the plays at Lincoln and Beverley were from first to last in the hands of the civic authorities, merely "assisted" by the secular clergy. These two towns do not stand for all England; and all that is proved is that, in these towns, as we already knew was the case in other towns, the guilds had control of the plays after the middle of the fourteenth century; and that as early as 1220 the Resurrection Play, evidently of the kind ordinarily acted in the church, is acted in the churchyard for lack of room in the ecclesiastical edifice. It is reasonable to suppose that this play was written by the secular clergy, not the people, and that, if any assistance in acting was given at all, it was given by the people to the clergy, and not vice versa.

Of course, the popular development of the miracle plays was largely due to their representation extra fores at an early period in their career, and to the speedy co-operation of laymen and the gradual control by the municipality. But we cannot be at all sure that monks did not sometimes participate in the preparation of these plays. For not to speak of the internal evidence of occasional ecclesiastical authorship, which may as probably have been monkish as not, we have at this day dramatic offices which were written and used by monks both before and after the conquest; we know that it was found necessary, according to the Annales Burtonenses, to forbid abbots and monks, as early as 1258, to witness plays (if the plays were profane, that is but a stronger indication of monastic fondness for the art); and we are told that a Carmelite friar called Robert Bason was a well-known playwright in 1314, and that one William Melton of the Friars Minors was, in 1426, most influential in the regulation of the Corpus Christi plays at York. The latter is denominated in the city registers Professor Paginae Sacrae, which I would still persist in translating Professor of Holy Pageantry, although a critic of my Historical Account of English Comedy asserts that the Sacra Pagina could not possibly have been anything but "Holy Writ." Considering that numerous manuscript pageants close with the words Explicit Pagina, one cannot readily abandon the surmise that Melton was one of those who from time to time (like Robert Croo of Coventry), revised, or perhaps even composed, paginae for the public. What contribution, if any, this eloquent preacher made to the York cycle we do not know, nor whether Baston contributed. The latter was of Scarborough, and a man of note, for he accompanied Edward II on his expedition into Scotland; and it is recorded by Bale that he was the author not only of poems and rhymes, but of Tragaediae et Comaediae Vulgares. Of course, these may have been narratives; otherwise, I suspect with Collier that plays in the vulgar written by a friar would most probably be miracles. The story of Higden's connection with the Chester plays as author, translator, or adapter, has recently received additional confirmation. And it is not at all unlikely that another monk, Sir Henry Francis, added to them, or revised. But while we need not accept vague rumours of monkish authorship, accumulated evidence would certainly indicate its occasional existence. These considerations make me chary of eliminating monkish participation altogether; also of accepting the conjecture of municipal control "from first to last."

To the secular clergy is undoubtedly due most of the credit for popularising the religious spectacles. The Manuel de Pechiez of the first half of the thirteenth century attributes not only the contrivance but the acting of miracles to "les fous clers," who performed them not only for purposes of devotion in the church, which was permissible, but, which was reprehensible, before crowds in public squares and churchyards; and Robert le Brunne, in his English version of the Manuel in 1303, holds up for like reprobation the acting of such sacred subjects "by clerks of the order" on the public ways and greens. It was a sacrilege to convert the mysteries of the passion, properly represented in the church for purposes of devotion, to material of amusement and unholy gain. From the beginning of the second quarter of the fourteenth century mention is still frequently made in contemporary literature of miracles as "clerkes pleis" and of clerks as actors in them. I have no doubt that about this period, if not somewhat earlier, the guilds were beginning to co-operate with the clergy in processional pageants, and possibly in formal plays, of the Corpus Christi; but as yet guilds had nothing like complete control. As late as 1378 we find a close religious corporation, that of the scholars and choristers of St. Paul's, resisting the encroachment of laymen upon their privilege of enacting Old Testament histories at Christmas time; and the corporation appears to have been successful.

Whether monks at any time had a hand in the inception or performance of these plays may remain an open question. We may be sure, however, that the craft plays as we have them are the result of collaboration through generations by the secular clergy of collegiate churches, parish clerks, town clergy, town clerks, secular clerks of the universities, and grammar-school masters, and by the occasional guild playwright and the craftsman improviser. Such participation as the clistered orders may have had is more than counterbalanced by the long-continued collaboration of the secular and the lay.

It must not be supposed, however, that after the industrial crafts had taken them up these miracles ceased to be cultivated by the clerical and semi-clerical orders, or to be acted in ecclesiastical precincts. The guild of which we first are informed that its functions were to cultivate processional and artistic as well as devotional and philanthropic ends was semi-clerical rather than secular. IT is that of the Parish Clerks of London, incorporated by Henry III about 1240. Of these clerks, Hone, in his Ancient Mysteries, says that they were under the patronage of St. Nicholas, and that it was an essential part of their profession not only to sing, but to read, -- an accomplishment almost solely confined to the clergy; so that, on the whole, they seem to come under the denomination of a semi-religious fraternity. "It was anciently customary," Hone tells us, "for men and women of the first quality, ecclesiastics and others who were lovers of church music, to be admitted into this corporation; and they gave large gratuities for the support and education of many persons in the practice of that science. Their public feasts were frequent, and celebrated with song and music." According to Warton their profession, employment, and character naturally dictated to this spiritual brotherhood the representation of plays, especially those of the spiritual kind. We do not know how early this semi-religious guild took to acting; but it is certain that in 1391 they had been playing cyclic miracles at Skinners' Well (Clerkenwell) for many years, since they enjoyed, at that time and place, the presence of the king, queen, and nobles of the realm during a performance which was of great éclat and lasted for three days. In 1409 the Clerkenwell plays were still so popular that "most part of the nobility and gentry of England" attended during a dramatic cycle which lasted eight days. It is noteworthy that Stow, the historian, calls these interludes at Skinners' Well of 1391 an "example of later time," informing us that "of old time" the parish clerks of London were accustomed yearly to assemble at Clerkes' Well near by, "and to play some large history of Holy Scripture." Since Clerkenwell is mentioned by Fitz-stephen in his description of London as a place frequented by scholars and youth, I think it practically certain that the sacred plays of which he elsewhere speaks as acted in London, between 1170 and 1182, were played then by these parish clerks and at the same place.

As to the purely industrial guilds, we have earlier mention of their participation in secular than in religious processions and the pageants that attended them. "Triumphant shows," as Stow calls the "royal entries" into London and other great towns, consisted of processions in which some citizens rode and others presented "pageants and strange devices." Davidson, in his English Mystery Plays, argues that these pageants were, in England as in France, stationary, and so continued until the sixteenth century. But most of his examples are drawn from France. While the pageants in 1236 in London for Eleanor of Provence may have been stationary, those in 1293 for Edward I were presented by the guild of fish-mongers, moving through the streets. Of the pageants in 1377 for Richard II, some were progressive, others stationary. I see nothing to prove that such pageants were, in England, taken from the Bible story at an earlier date than 1430, though they may have been to some extent in France. As to the dramatic quality of the shows, though they were at first, after the fashion of the French, bas-reliefs of living figures, they rapidly took on the braver qualities of the mumming and masking; and as to the mumming and masking, we know that they before long added to themselves speech and gesticulation like the regular drama. Lydgate, for instance, accompanied with verses the allegorical pageants for Mayings and royal entries in 1430 and after. It is largely because the guilds of the city could not well afford to support religious plays in addition to these expensive shows, that the London of those days did not contribute as much to the development of the religious drama as did the provinces.

The procession out of which grew most of the cyclic craft-plays was, as we know, that of Corpus Christi. In this gorgeous religious parade both clergy and laity marched, and in the pageants representing the principal events in sacred history, they undoubtedly at first cooperated -- a powerful means for the secularisation of the scriptural drama. These pageants, falling more exclusively into the hands of the crafts, must have gained in importance so rapidly as to imperil the success of the procession itself. For we notice that in 1327, only sixteen years after the re-enforcement of the Corpus Christi celebration by the Council of Vienne, there was founded in London a fraternity of Corpus Christi of the Skinners' Company, the express function of which was to foster the religious procession. Semi-religious guilds similar to that of the London Skinners are recorded ad existing in Coventry, Cambridge, and in Leicester 1348-9. In York, it was not until 1426 that the pageants displayed by the industrial guilds or crafts were finally separated from the religious processions. That the semi-religious fraternities did not, however, confine themselves to processional activity appears from the history of the Parish Clerks of London. It is thought by some, indeed, that the Ludus Filiorum Israel, Cambridge, 1350, was acted by the Corpus Christi guild of that town, but I agree with Davidson and his authorities that it was more likely a school play. The next religious plays, acted by the crafts, of which I have been able to find notice are the Corpus Christi cycles of Beverley, in 1377, and of York, in 1378, and the Paternoster Play of York, in 1384, acted by a special fraternity; but at those dates the plays were evidently of long standing. Though we cannot trust the traditional attribution of the Chester plays to 1268, it is probable, as I have elsewhere shown, that the popular presentation of them was in the hands of the guilds before 1352, and maybe as early as 1327. We must not imagine, however, that the church took its hand altogether off the plays. In many places the clergy of the collegiate church or cathedral continued to co-operate as a guild; for instance the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral as late as 1483.

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