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The Theatre In England - Liturgical Drama And Miracle Plays Before The 14th Century

( Originally Published 1902 )



Historical sketch — Twelfth century : earliest liturgical dramas : the Feast of Fools, the Carol, the Feast of the Ass—The first Miracle Play in England : Lucius de Sancta Katharine—Works of Hilarius in England —Miracle of Saint Nicholas—Dramatic representations in London—General character of performances at the close of the twelfth century—Thirteenth century : performances in the grave-yards and market-places—First professional actors—The drama in London : Society of Parish-Clerks at the Guildhall—Ceremony of the Boy Bishop.

WHILE Clovis, at the end of the fifth century, was creating the Frankish Empire, with Paris for its capital, the Angles and Saxons had founded the Heptarchy in Britain, thus dividing England into seven kingdoms (449-607). In the ninth century the Danish pirates, profiting by the internecine dissensions in England, invaded the country, and soon conquered it entirely. In 878 they were driven out by Alfred, and England was freed from their yoke till about the end of the tenth century. At this epoch the Danes renewed their ravages, and again possessed themselves of the whole country, till eventually their leader, Cnut, reigned paramount over England and Denmark (1014-1036). After his death Edward the Confessor, of the line of Alfred, was recalled to the throne. But England soon fell under the yoke of another race of Norsemen—the Normans, whose leader, William the Conqueror, won the battle of Hastings (1066).

In England, as in France, the Church was the cradle of the Drama. The first allusions to the subject are later by some few years than the Norman Conquest ; whence it has, rightly or wrongly, been concluded that religious drama had not existed in England prior to this epoch. How-ever this may be, it is certain that from the early half of the twelfth century, Liturgical Drama was celebrated with great pomp within the Church, particularly at Christmas and at Easter. The first form which the Easter Play assumed was that of a ceremony in which the crucifix was solemnly buried on Good Friday, and again disinterred at Easter amid a pompous ritual. Most commonly the sepulchre in which the crucifix was deposited was a wooden erection placed within a recess in the wall or upon a tomb, but according to the interesting article, Sepulchre, in Parker's Glossary of Architecture, several English churches still contain permanent stone structures especially built for the purpose. Among these churches are those at Navenby and Heckington, Lincolnshire ; Hawton, in Nottinghamshire; Northwold, in Norfolk ; and Holcombe Burnell, in Devonshire. In Durham Cathedral, on Good Friday, there was a ' marvellous solemn service,' and at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, it survived to the end of the fifteenth century. A curious document, still extant, gives the account of the delivery to the vicar of that parish, by a certain ' Maister Canynge,' on July 4, 1470, of ' a new sepulchre well gilt with golde and a civer thereto,' with mention of ' 4 knights armed, keeping the sepulchre, with their weapons in their hands ; that is to say, 2 axes and 2 spears, with 2 pavés.'

Of the Feast of Fools, so popular in France at the same period, traces are said to be found in England; but the first information respecting it dates from nearly two centuries later. Mr. Douce read a paper, in May, 1804, before the Society of Antiquaries, which showed that it had been celebrated in the reign of Henry iv. (about 1399), about which time also it is thought to have been abolished.

Little again is known of the Carols of this period ; but it is supposed that they were not, as in France, accompanied by disorderly dances, but were merely religious chants.

Brand affirms that the Feast of the Ass was kept in the English as in the French Church, but on Palm Sunday instead of Christmas Day, as on the Continent.

' Upon Palme Sondaye they play the foies sadely, drawynge after them an Asse in a rope,
when they be not moche distante from the Woden Asse that they drewe.'
A woodden Asse they have, and image great that on him rides,
But underneath the Asse's feete a table broad there slides,
Being borne on wheels, which ready dress, and al things meete therefore,
The Asse is brought abroad and set before the Churche's doore....
The people cast the branChes as they passe,
Some part upon the image and some part upon the Asse ;
Before whose feete a wondrous heape of bowes and branChes ly :
This done, into the church he strayght is drawne full solemly.'

In regard to Miracle Plays properly so-called, the first that has come down to us by name is the Latin Miracle of S. Katharine.

Matthew Paris, writing about 1240 in the Vitae Abbatum, mentions the Ludus de S. Katharina, composed by Geoffrey the Norman, who died 1146, Abbot of S. Albans.

Geoffrey, a member of the University of Paris, had been invited to England to take charge of the school at S. Albans. Arriving too late, he solaced himself with the representation of the Ludus de S. Katharina at Dunstable, about the year 1110.

The English monk Hilarius (pupil of the celebrated Abelard), also gave performances of his Latin religious plays in England. These are the Historia de Daniel visitanda and the Suscitatio Lazari (mentioned in ` The Theatre in France,' ante, p. I00). He was also the author of a Miracle of S. Nicholas, the subject of which is the theft of a treasure, and its restitution by the robbers, owing to the miraculous interposition of the saint. This play is noteworthy for the old French refrain contained in each strophe. One stanza runs as follows

' Hic res mess misi
Quas tibi commisi,
Sed eas amisi.
Ha, Nicholax ! Si ne me rent ma chose
Tu of comparras.'

Since Hilarius was the pupil of Abélard, who died in 1142, his plays were probably written and acted about the middle of the twelfth century. It would thus be in the reign of Henry ir. that the first religious plays composed by an Englishman were written.

We have little information about the dramatic representations of this period, and it is not known in what towns they were given. But we learn from William Fitzstephen (who wrote about 1182) that there must have been dramatic representations in London at this time, for in his Life of Saint Thomas â Becket he contrasts with the theatrical spectacles of Rome the ' holier plays' of London, in which were represented the miracles and sufferings of the confessors and martyrs of the Church.

It is certain that during the twelfth century numbers of Miracle Plays were composed by priests and monks, who were the actors of their own works. But by the end of that century the English clergy had lost a great part of their influence over these performances. The schools had their own patron saints, in whose honour the scholars began to act plays in their private halls.

In proportion as the popularity of the miracle plays increased, and stage accessories grew in importance, performances in the churches presented increasing difficulties. The churchyards for some time took the place of theatres, but the desecration of the graves by the crowds who came to witness the performance put a stop to this. The stage was then removed to the market-place, and now the members of the town corporations fulfilled the office of actor in company with the clergy, and even with the histriones (or jugglers) who were impressed into the service.

From the beginning of the thirteenth century, in fact, these histriones had constituted themselves into troops, who travelled through the country and gave public performances along with those of the trade guilds.

In London the most distinguished interpreters of the miracle plays were the members of the Society of the Parish-Clerks of London. Stow tells us that they were incorporated into a guild or fellowship by Henry iii., about 1240, under the patronage of S. Nicholas. ` It was anciently customary for men and women of the first quality, ecclesiastics and others who were lovers of church music, to be admitted into the corporation. In these ignorant ages the Parish-Clerks of London might justly be considered as a literary society. It was an essential part of their profession not only to sing, but to read (an accomplishment almost solely confined to the clergy). Their public feasts were frequent, and celebrated with singing and music, most commonly at Guildhall Chapel or College. As yet their dramatic repertory comprised only detached plays on subjects from the Scriptures, and written either in French or Latin.

The most curious form of religious drama within the Church was the Feast of the Boy-Bishop, which, according to Warton, was very popular from the thirteenth century. This highly national function was, however, nothing more than a reproduction of the Feast of Fools, Oriental or French in origin. On the 6th of January in each year, the choristers of the cathedrals were in the habit of choosing one of their number to be Bishop. Clad in episcopal robes, the new prelate was led in great pomp to his seat in the cathedral, where the canons took their places round him. He next proceeded to the altar of the Holy Trinity and the Saints, which he blessed, and then returned to his seat to officiate at the service like an ordinary bishop. He ended the ceremony with a short discourse. The Festival of the Boy-Bishop was held only in the collegiate churches.

On December 7, 1229, the Boy-Bishop officiated at vespers before Edward 1., in the chapel of Heton near Newcastle-on-Tyne. Henry VIII prohibited the ceremony in 1542 ; but the edict was repealed, and it went on till 1556.



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