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MIRACLES AND MYSTERIES.
to an uncertain tradition, it was as early as 1268 that the trading companies began to play in England ; and we know that in 1258 the performances of strolling actors had been prohibited in monasteries. We may also assume that about this date English was beginning to supplant Latin and Norman French in the Miracles. By the year 1398, when the Brothers of the Passion founded a sort of permanent theatre in Paris for the representation of their Mysteries, it is clear that the religious drama had already for a long space of time passed out of the hands of the clergy in France. In England at the same date a similar change had certainly taken place. The Guilds in the great towns were now performing Cyclical Miracles upon their own account, employing the craftsmen of their several trades, or else engaging the services of professionals, called ' players of price.'' So much matter of a comic and satirical nature, alien to the original purpose of edification, had been mixed up with the performance, that the Church at this epoch was rather anxious to restrain than to encourage the participation of the clergy. Chaucer's portrait of the Jolly Absolon
Sometime to show his lightnesse and maistrie
gives a hint of abuses to which the ancient custom had become liable. After much moralising and preaching against the practice, it was finally forbidden to the clergy in the first half of the sixteenth century by Wolsey and Bonner.
' The speech of the Tertius Vexillator, which closes the Prologue of the Coventry Play, seems to point to a performance by strolling players, as the insertion of N in lieu of the place where the Miracle was to be shown indicates that it was not performed at Coventry alone.
After this fashion, the English Miracle sprang from the Liturgical Drama, substituted Norman French for Latin, and English for Norman French, outgrew ecclesiastical control, and engrafted on its solemn art the feats of skill and humours of the strolling players. Originally instituted as a means of education by the clergy, it preserved the religious character impressed upon it to the last ; but in its passage from the cloister to the market-place, and by its substitution of the mother tongue for a learned language, it became emphatically popular and national. The elements of independent comedy and pathos, of satire and of allegory, the free artistic handling of historic characters, the customs of the stage, and the spectacular contrivances, with which it familiarised the nation, contained the germ of what was afterwards our drama. When the Middle Ages melted into the Renaissance, the substantial fabric of the Christian Miracle fell to pieces ; but those portions of the structure which had previously been held for accidents and excrescences were then found adequate to the creation of a new and selfsufficing art. Dogma disappeared. The mythology and history of Christian faith retreated once more to the church, the pulpit, and the study. Humanity was liberated ; and our playwrights dealt with man as the material of their emancipated art.
This evolution corresponds exactly to the passage which society effected from the vast and comprehensive systems of medieval feudalism into the minor but more highly organised, more structurally complicated, modern States.
THREE ENGLISH CYCLES.
The three Cycles of Miracles' which have come down to us are known severally as those of Widkirk, Chester, and Coventry, from the places where they were performed. They are composed in English, with embedded fragments of Latin and of French, betraying their descent from older originals written in those languages. We must in truth regard these vast collections as the accretions of many previous essays in religious drama, the mature form assumed by a long series of literary experiments. In spite of their colossal rudeness, they are clearly no primitive works of art, but the final outcome of a slowly developed evolution. Like the architectural monuments of the Middle Ages, no single author claims them for his own. They are the work of numberless unknown collaborators contributing to one harmonious whole. In point of style and diction, the Widkirk plays bear traces of the oldest origin, and are ascribed by scholars to the reign of Henry VI. Those of Chester, in their present form, are certainly more recent. We learn from the Banes, or proclamation which introduced them to the public, that they were first exhibited during the mayoralty of Sir John Arnway in 1 268. Another clamation, dated 24 Henry VIII., ascribes their composition to Sir Henry Frances, a monk of Chester, who obtained from Pope Clement (Clement V. 1305-1314 ?) one thousand days of pardon for every person resorting in peaceable manner with good devotion to hear and see the said plays from time to time.'
A note to one of our MSS. of the Chester Miracles further informs us that Ralph Higden, compiler of the • Polycronicon,' was thrice at Rome before he could obtain leave of the Pope to have them in the English tongue. Since Higden died in 1363 or 1373, we are left to suppose that for nearly a century after their first production they continued to be acted in Latin, or perhaps more probably in French. There were many reasons why the Papal Curia should regard the use of English in these popular performances with jealousy. Langland, Wickliff, and the Lollards, satirists of manners, poets eager for ecclesiastical reforms, bold democratic sectaries, were proving in the fourteenth century that England was no passive handmaid of the Church of Rome. But Higden won his point, if we may trust this tradition ; and the English redaction of the Miracles, upon this supposition, can be referred to some time near the middle of the fourteenth century. It should, however, be observed that the whole of this constructive criticism rests upon the very frailest basis. The Banes, published in 1600, ascribes the authorship to 'one Don Rendall, monk of Chester Abbey;' and a note appended to the proclamation of 1515 gives it to 'Randall Higgenett, a monk of Chester Abbey,' naming 1327 as the date of the first version. This confusion of Higden and Higgenett, Ralph and Randal, excites suspicion ; and all that remains tolerably certain is that the plays were instituted at the end of the thirteenth, and produced in English some time in the fourteenth century. They continued to be regularly acted at Whitsuntide until 1577, and were revived in 1600, which is the date of our extant version.
WIDKIRK, CHESTER, COVENTRY.
The Coventry Miracles have descended to us in a MS. of 1468, entitled · Ludus Coventriæ, sive Ludus Corporis Christi.' In form and style they are less archaic than those of Widkirk and even of Chester, while certain passages in the plays themselves enable us to assign their composition, in part at all events, to the reign of Henry VII. They were played at the festival of Corpus Christi by the Grey Friars of Coventry.
The Widkirk plays consist of thirty pieces, the Chester of twenty-four, the Coventry of forty-two. All of them embrace the history of man's creation, fall, and redemption, stories from the Old Testament, the life of Christ, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Judgment of the world. The Apocryphal Gospels as well as the New Testament are largely drawn upon. They dispose of the same matter in different ways, use different metrical structures, and exhibit many other points of divergence. For example, the Coventry Miracles contain an Assumption of the Virgin, and the Chester a Coming of Antichrist, which are not to be found in either of the corresponding cycles. Alliterative verse is used in combination with short rhyming lines, modelled upon French originals. A form of stanza, imitated from Latin hymnology, gives singular richness by its thrice-repeated rhymes to many scenes in the Chester plays. Of this structure I will here extract a specimen from the speech of Regina Damnata in the Chester Doomsday:
Alas! alas ! now am I lorn!
This bitter bale to abide !