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Childlike simplicity, realism, and tenderness will be evident in this, as in preceding poems, especially in the choice of adjectives. But indeed the combina
tion of certain words had become conventional; as “The hard tree,” “The nails great and strong," and such like.
I know I have spoiled the poem in half-translating it thus; but I have rendered it intelligible to all my readers, have not wandered from the original, and have retained a degree of antiqueness both in the tone and the expression.
THE MIRACLE PLAYS AND OTHER POEMS OF THE FOURTEENTH
The oldest form of regular dramatic representation in England was the Miracle Plays, improperly called Mysteries, after the French. To these plays the people of England, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, owed a very large portion of what religious knowledge they possessed, for the prayers were in an unknown tongue, the sermons were very few, and printing was uninvented. The plays themselves, introduced into the country by the Normans, were, in the foolish endeavour to make Normans of AngloSaxons, represented in Norman French1 until the year 1338, when permission was obtained from the Pope to represent them in English.
The word Miracle, in their case, means anything recorded in Scripture. The Miracle Plays had for their subjects the chief incidents of Old and New Testament history; not merely, however, of this history as accepted by the Reformed Church, but of
1 I owe almost all my information on the history of these plays to Mr. Collier's well-known work on English Dramatic Poetry.
that contained in the Apocryphal Gospels as well. An entire series of these Miracles consisted of short dramatic representations of many single passages of the sacred story. The whole would occupy about three days. It began with the Creation, and ended with the Judgment. That for which the city of Coventry was famous consists of forty-two subjects, with a long prologue. Composed by ecclesiastics, the plays would seem to have been first represented by them only, although afterwards it was not always considered right for the clergy to be concerned with them. The hypocritical Franciscan friar, in “Piers Ploughman's Creed,” a poem of the close of the same century, claims as a virtue for his order
At markets and miracles we meddleth us never.
They would seem likewise to have been first represented in churches and chapels, sometimes in churchyards. Later, when the actors chiefly belonged to city-guilds, they were generally represented in the streets and squares.
It must be borne in mind by any who would understand the influence of these plays upon
the people, that much in them appearing to us grotesque, childish, absurd, and even irreverent, had no such appearance in the eyes of the spectators. A certain amount of the impression of absurdity is simply the consequence of antiquity; and even that which is rightly regarded as absurd in the present age, will not at least have produced the discomposing effects of absurdity upon the less developed beholders of that age;
THE MIRACLE PLAYS.
just as the quaint pictures with which their churches were decorated may make us smile, but were by them regarded with awe and reverence from their infancy.
It must be confessed that there is in them even occasional coarseness ; but that the devil for instance should always be represented as a baffled fool, and made to play the buffoon sometimes after a disgusting fashion, was to them only the treatment he deserved : it was their notion of “poetic justice ;” while most of them were too childish to be shocked at the discord thus introduced, and many, we may well hope, too childlike to lose their reverence for the holy because of the proximity of the ridiculous.
There seems to me considerably more of poetic worth scattered through these plays than is generally recognized; and I am glad to be able to do a little to set forth the fact. I cannot doubt that my readers will be interested in such fragments as the scope and design of my book will allow me to offer. Had there been no such passages, I might have regarded the plays as but remotely connected with my purpose, and mentioned them merely as a dramatic form of religious versification. I quote from the Coventry Miracles, better known than either of the other two sets in existence, the Chester Plays and those of Widkirk Abbey. The manuscript from which they have been edited by Mr. Halliwell, one of those students of our early literature to whom we are endlessly indebted for putting valuable things within our reach, is by no means so old as the plays themselves ; it bears date 1468, a hundred and thirty