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other plays are prohibited, both on holidays and work days (according to the law), upon which the gloss saith that the representation in plays at Christmas of Herod and the Three Kings, and other pieces of the Gospel, both then and at Easter and other times, is lawful and commendable."
A few examples of the kind of teaching imparted in these plays will give a better idea of the purpose they served in pre-Reformation days than any description. There can be no reasonable doubt that such dramatic representations of the chief mysteries of religion and of scenes in the life of our Lord or of His saints served to impress these truths and events upon the imaginations of the audiences who witnessed them, and to make them vivid realities in a way which we, who are not living in the same religious atmosphere, find it difficult now to understand. The religious drama was the handmaid of the Church, and was intended to assist in instructing the people at large in the truths and duties of religion, just as the paintings upon the walls of the sacred buildings were designed to tell their own tale of the Bible history, and form "a book" ever open to the eyes of the unlettered children of the Church, easy to be understood, graphically setting forth events in the story of God's dealings with men, and illustrating truths which often formed the groundwork for oral instruction in the Sunday sermon.
Whatever we may be inclined to think of these simple plays as literary works, or however we may be inclined now to smile at some of the characters and "situations," as to the pious spirit which dictated their composition and presided over their production there can be no doubt. "In great devotion and discretion," says the monk and chronicler, " Higden published the story of the Bible, that the simple in their own language might understand."1 This was the motive of all these mediaeval religious
plays. As a popular writer upon the English drama says: "There is abundant evidence that the Romish ecclesiastics in the mystery plays, especially that part of them relating to the birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ, had the perfectly serious intention of strengthening the faith of the multitude in the fundamental doctrines of the Church, and it seems the less extraordinary that they should have resorted to this expedient when we reflect that, before the invention of printing, books had no existence for the people at large."1
The subjects treated of in these plays were very varied, although those which were performed at the great feasts of Christmas and Easter generally had some relation to the mystery then celebrated. In fact, the mystery plays of the sacred seasons were only looked upon as helping to make men realise more deeply the great drama of the Redemption, the memory of which was perpetuated in the sequence of the great festivals of the Christian year. In such a collection as that known as the Towneley Mysteries, and published by the Surtees Society, we have examples of the subjects treated in the religious plays of the period. The collection makes no pretence to be complete, but it comprises some three and thirty plays, including such subjects as the Creation, the death of Abel, the story of Noah, the sacrifice of Isaac and other Old Testament histories, and a great number of scenes from the New Testament, such as the Annunciation, the Visitation, Caesar Augustus, scenes from the Nativity, the Shepherds and the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, various scenes from the Passion and Crucifixion, the parable of the Talents, the story of Lazarus, &c
Any one who will take the trouble to read these plays as they are printed in this volume cannot fail to be impressed not only with the vivid picture of the special scene in the Old or New Testament that is presented
1 Penny Cyclopedia. Art., "English Drama."
to the imagination, but by the extensive knowledge of the Bible which the production of these plays must have imparted to those who listened to them, and by the way in which, incidentally, the most important religious truths are conveyed in the crude and rugged verse. Again and again, for instance, the entire dependence of all created things upon the Providence of Almighty God is declared and illustrated. Thus, the confession of God's Omnipotence, put into the mouth of Noah at the beginning of the play of " Noah and his Sons," contains a profession of belief in the Holy Trinity and in the work of the three Persons: it describes the creation of the world, the fall of Lucifer, the sin of our first parents, and their expulsion from Paradise. In the story of Abraham, too, the prayer of the patriarch with which it begins :—
"Adonai, thou God very,
gives a complete resume of the Bible history before t he days of Abraham, with the purpose of showing that all things are in the hands of God, and that complete obedience is due to Him by all creatures whom He has made.
The same teaching as to the entire dependence of the Christian for all things upon God's Providence appears in the address of the soul to its Maker in the " morality" of Mary Magdalene, printed by Mr. Sharpe from the Digby Manuscript collection of religious plays :—
"Anima: 'Sovereign Lord, I am bound to Thee;
When I was nought, Thou made me thus glorious;
When I stand in grace, Thou boldest me that tide;
When I fall, Thou raisest me mightily;
When I go well, Thou art my guide;
When I come, Thou receivest me most lovingly;
Thou hast anointed me with the oil of mercy
Thy benefits, Lord, be innumerable:
Wherefore laud endless to Thee I cry;
Recommending me to Thy endless power endurable.'"
The more these old plays which delighted our forefathers are examined, the more clear it becomes that, although undoubtedly unlearned and unread, the people in pre-Reformation days, with instruction such as is conveyed in these pious dramas, must have had a deeper insight into the Gospel narrative, and a more thorough knowledge of Bible history generally, not to speak of a comprehension of the great truths of religion, than the majority of men possess now in these days of boasted enlightenment. Some of the plays, as for example that representing St. Peter's fall, exhibit a depth of genuine feeling, of humble sorrow, for instance, on the part of St. Peter, and of loving-kindness on the part of our Lord, which must have come home to the hearts as well as to the minds of the beholders. At the same time, the lesson deduced by our Saviour from the apostle's fall, namely, the need of all learning by their own shortcomings to be merciful to the trespasses of others, must have impressed itself upon them with a force which would not easily have been forgotten.
In that most popular of all representations—that of Doomsday—" people learnt that before God there is no distinction of persons, and that each individual soul will be judged on its own merits, quite apart from any fictitious human distinctions of rank, wealth, or power. Thus, as types, appear a saved pope, emperor, king and queen, and amongst the damned we also find a pope, emperor, king and queen, justiciar and merchant." And the words of thankfulness uttered by the Pope that has obtained his crown betrays " no self-satisfaction at the attainment of salvation; on the contrary, the true ring of Christian humility betokens a due appreciation of God's unutterable holiness, and our unworthiness to stand before His face till the uttermost blemish left by sin has been wiped away" by the healing fires of Purgatory. No less clearly is the full doctrine of responsibility taught in the lament of the Pope, who is represented as having lost his soul by an evil life, and as being condemned to eternal punishment. The mere fact of a pope being so represented was in itself, when the office was held in the highest regard, a lesson of the greatest importance in the teaching of the true principles of holiness. In a word, these mystery plays provided a most useful means of impressing upon the minds of all the facts of Bible history, the great truths of religion, and the chief Christian virtues. The people taught in such a school and the people who delighted in such representations, as our forefathers in pre-Reformation days unquestionably did, cannot, even from this point of view alone, be regarded as ignorant of scriptural or moral teaching.