On the Narratology of Concept-Being, Lecture Four: The Hour of Incensing

by Joseph Nicolello

“In our time many artists, I think, are aware, although not all are so unwise to say so, that they address themselves to a public whose ever-increasing appetite for art is matched by a progressive atrophy of the receptive organs.”

Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (8)

“They that live in fear are never resolute, secure, never merry, but in continual pain: that, as Vives truly said, no greater misery, no rack, no torture like unto it; ever suspicious, anxious, solicitous, they are childishly drooping without reason, without judgment, especially if some terrible object be offered, as Plutarch hath it. ”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (227)

 “If it’s true that men are such beasts, this must account for the fact that most women are animal lovers.”

Doris Day


Part First

“Golden Legend, Pastoral Counsel:

“de Voragine, Mirk & Second Shepherd’s Play

‘Drede ye nothing, grete joy I bringe,

Quod erit omni populo,

Forwhy to you Christe is borne now,

Testante evangelio.’

James Ryman, Medieval English Lyrics (229)

            The Second Shepherd’s Play is an exemplary albeit contentious production in the canon of late medieval drama, merging the sacred and profane in a manner prone to surprise uninitiated audiences in a twofold sense: first, by giving equal weight to both the human and divine aspect of Christianity; and second by building upon biblical narrative for its own narratological sake. This is reinforced by the attributable differences among the shepherds, constructing multilayered life in the play[1] in a time where public processions were – while distinguished from the plays –of the utmost importance.[2] Thus, through textual analysis of Mirk and de Voragine the authorial frame of reference for the play will be made clearer, thereby enhancing the SSP altogether for historians, literary scholars, theatrical historians both new and familiar with the play.

Despite a loose biblical familiarity the SSP is a distinctive case, as bawdy in the realm of the Nativity would be uncommon even by today’s standards, where one can count on a pro- or anti-Christian sentiment but seldom anything else; aesthetic intuition has been replaced by polarity. The precision of cosmic locality required to effectively bring the Magi, for instance, to aesthetic fruition with a humanism unmarred by either religious or irreligious dogma. Thus, considering SSP a complicatedly precise model for unique aesthetic achievement, it is wagered that we shall better transcend the surface level should we better understand the most influential literary forces preceding its composition in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea[3] and John Mirk’s Festial. With a brief overview of these texts undergone, we shall see just where and how their collective influence lies within the first half of SSP.Our intention is to take a look at some of the theatrical happenings prior to the advent of Marlowe, so that given the chance to, say, propel a new translation of Balthasar’s El Criticon into being, on the way to better understanding the science of poetics. By this I mean that we have what is essentially a corpse before us, and yet with the proper surgical techniques, we can move beyond the nauseating moral propagandas of among other berated tropes begotten through the mental illness of pharmaceutical digitality, the wincing vanishment that is at the end of a tolerance enacted by corporate reason, to reject the mental slavery of the age, and aesthetically, philosophically proceed like vagabonded children of Athanasius, moving into the replenished aura of a Lazarus of the soul. For just because a new direction is out sight does not it is nonexistent; the predicate of censorship is dependence upon dejection. Conflict is prescribed to the masses so that they shall war with one another while still in mental and physical chains, rather than recognizing said mutual chains and turning their collective energies to the minority of key-bearers. The problem is that corporations no longer suggest reality but create it; hence the pocket of critical hope in the art of prudence that may lead to a recognizing of the inadvertently increased worth of that which has been theoretically abolished, as the dangers of manufactured hatred and manufactured subcultures pale in comparison to the light that is present within even the smallest group of beings who have somehow – through operative grace – escaped the cave that is technological nihilism. And if such thoughts are far from our minds when we ask today, What is called literature?, we should find something else to do. To put it another way, here in our Easter Parade, or May Procession, of the Early Lectures, One who is afraid to suggest that reality remains even when the masses have stopped believing in it has no business studying the literary cognition of martyrdom.

            The Golden Legend was at its height a household item, whose popularity rivaled the Bible. It is a work of Latin hagiography composed of 153 lives, in accordance with Jn. 21:11[4]: “The time of the Golden Legend is a time for fishing for men to be transformed into Christians devoted to God and to salvation… Christ gives a new start to the time of men” (Le Goff 24).

            de Voragine conceived time and the world as a movement carrying men toward God and [that] salvation was a time of festivity (Le Goff 25). Subterranean origins of hidden, cultic mourning transformed into state religion and public displays of veneration. For with the Christianization of Rome, the cult of the saints turned from a nocturnal period of mourning and remembrance into a lived calendrical matter of space and time, and thus a state (Strayer 5). With the annual recurrence of Feast Days came the need for ornament and variation on the lives.

Therefore, if the SSP strays from strict biblical narrative, so did the imagination of the Wakefield Master’s likeliest influence[5], who spoke thusly of Mary in his final recorded sermon (Lest we conflate cosmic locality with insincerity in either text):

            “I began this current book by her inspiration and I have continued to the end to pay the debt with her help” (Epstein 271).

            The Golden Legend, then, was something like a series of textual action films in its day[6]. As such, context and content herein lead us to a clearer understanding of audiences and methodologies in SSP’s construction, production, and performance. But before surveying the play through the lens of de Voragine we must survey the work of an author chronologically between the Golden Legend and the play, John Mirk.

            Mirk, an Augustinian priest from Shropshire, England wrote with ‘ordinary, unexceptional’ (Ford 2) English peoples in mind. That the Festial borrows heavily from the Golden Legend is without question. Thus we have in Mirk textual communication aimed less at the priestly class with the chance for household incidentality than with the masses themselves, as with SSP and related drama(s).

Mirk’s narrative effectiveness is also marked by a compositional proximity to 1381’s absolute chaos.[7] The Festial’s historical circumstances touch of the linguistic-typological therein, as Mirk differs from Wyclif on the question of biblical authority, with Mirk wagering that biblical narratives (and the Bible itself) are not attributable directly to God but a blend of merely human communications and revelations which parallel those of the saints (Ford 121-3). Thus, for Mirk hagiographical narrative is of parallel distinction with the Gospels, and the saints’ lives match the Bible itself in authority, written for an audience traumatized by the Revolt and its causal, eschatological crises. With this established, we are now ready to trace influence and typology via the Golden Legend and the Festial within the SSP.

Mirk’s “[6] De natiuitate Christi” (23) makes for exceptional parallel reading, launching into angelic musicality with a language plain enough for shepherds, or townsfolk audience to easily understand and be moved by:

“Gode crysten men, as 3e sen and heren, [th]ys day al Holy Church maketh melody and myrth in mynde of [th]e blessed burth of oure Lord Ihesu, veri God and mon… boren of hys modur Seynt Mary… pees to men of good wylle… For when he was boren, angeles songon [th]us: ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ (23).

With its emphasis on Christ’s birth bringing peace between God and man, Fr. Mirk establishes a tone of warmth, cordiality, enhanced by forthcoming song. The Wakefield Master has a reason for conveying emotion through song; the majority of the play is something like slapstick medievalism until the angel begins to sing – then the play’s preceding pages, acts fall into their holier place, in time for biblical culmination.

The Golden Legend also uses auditory methods to further illuminate the Nativity for readers: “So the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, announced the birth of the Savior, and told them how they could find them, whereupon a host of angels sang: ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will.’ The shepherds went and found everything just as the angel had told them” (41).

We furthermore see that the Wakefield Master employs this biblical musicality and as something of an anchor[8] which the play’s narrative leads into and moves away from. In the case of the Golden Legend, the narrative following the angel’s singing is unexpectedly severe, moving to the Latin Fathers (in Jerome) rather than strict biblical chronology or – as in the Wakefield Master – a behind the scenes sort of dialogue between the shepherds. The result is historical theology:

“[A]s the day of the Lord’s birth drew near, Octavian built public roads throughout the his empire and remitted all the Romans’ debts… even the sodomites gave witness by being exterminated… as Jerome says: ‘A light rose over them so bright that all who practiced this vice were wiped out; and Christ did this in order that no such uncleanness might be found in the nature he had assumed’” (41).

Yet Mirk also details an overwhelming light, i.e., ‘the Light of the World’:

“Wherfore Cryst was boren at mydnyght and turned [th]e darkness of nyght into daylight, schewing [th]at [th]enne was [boren] of ryghtwysnes and comen for to lyghten alle [th]at weren combret wythinforth wyth darkness of synne” (Powell 25).

On stage, post-angelus, the Wakefield Master returns instead to the simple humanity of the Magi[9]; the viewer of this play with a knowledge of the Golden Legend and John Mirk would thus have known that the SSP was in fact about Chaucerian shepherds[10] – but perhaps some of the most renowned shepherds in history in the Magi:

THIRD SHEPHERD. He spake of a bairn

                               In Bedlam, I you warn.

FIRST SHEPHERD: That betokens yond star;

                                     Let us seek him there (Broadview 170).

An established reciprocity allows both texts coincide with the stage to allow the Wakefield Master something like close-commentary. This sets the facts, lore in synchronic place, thereupon building in his own manner where parallels abound upon close-reading. His subjectivity may work in tandem with his aesthetic intuition, but it is never fully removed from focal theatrical point(s).

For instance, the ‘cleansing’ light recorded in the Golden Legend indicates that a literal and figurative night on earth gave way to Christmas on Earth. De Voragine and Jerome feel obligated to annihilate those with ‘impure’ affiliations, although it is not that this instance’s specificity is of surprise or concern[11] – what is important is the illustration of something like a global baptism of light emanating from the Nativity.

Mirk, then, takes this physiological absolution and sets it not into an application to warn against sin, but to remind his listeners of the power of Christ’s redemption:

“[Th]erfore y rede of a womon [th]at was defouled wyth [th]e synne of lechery and almost fel in despeyre… heo [th]oght on [th] passyon of Crist, heo wyst wel [th]at was vnkynde to hym [th]at suffred so much for hure… heo cryed to Crist” (27-8).

Mirk’s pastoral tone emanates from his sermon(s), intact with rhetoricity[12]. We consider the Nativity and begin with the biblical context. We then experience the play and its cosmic locality, thus reconsidering the prospect of biblical subplot, and the lives of characters.

From there, it is as if like clockwork de Voragine answers the call. He writes for the priestly class, and a poverty of historical-theological knowledge will certainly hinder prospective reading of the Golden Legend. But it is a necessary stepping stone on the way to Mirk, who is thence a stepping stone to the stage, where for all its unconventionality the mysteries and riddles of Scripture literally and figuratively become three-dimensional.

That the play is not a straightforward, solemn affair has been made clear; its authorial clay molds the text to work either as a straightforward, surface-level imaginative splendor or the dialectical result of an immense historical, structural, sociological, and psychological understanding while evading prolixity[13]. We become fascinated with just how these people did live, and what their human crises were. In the Lockean sense this is not the task of Scripture, but of the magistrate; the Aristotelian rather than the Platonic by way of Scripture fulfilling the unseen and the magistrate (Guild, etc.) taking care of the visible. Thus, de Voragine’s citation of Bernard in his Annunciation of the Lord (196) is noteworthy in its containing the range of emotions SSP seems to carry upon its shoulders in its depiction of cosmic locality:

“Truly full of grace, because from her fullness all captives receive redemption, the sick receive healing, the sorrowful consolation, sinners forgiveness, the righteous grace, the angels joy, and finally the whole Trinity receives glory and the Son of man the substance of human flesh” (197).

Whereas the Wakefield Master has the benefits of displaying simplicity in the flesh before an audience he would not be hard pressed to gauge, his literary devices depend on the idea that townsfolk, in fact, can come face to face with the Lord. On the theatrical level this a matter of conviction; should the author ill-prepare his actors, even the best of them shall shine as persons while leaving the performative totality lacking. But on the textual level the author must take universality and give it personalness. The Golden Legend does this with surgical precision, oscillating between typological warnings and exemplars of Imitatio Christi.

In this regard Mirk once again serves as a go-between for de Voragine and the Wakefield Master. His pastoral ability to take the holiest of narratives and present them to the flock(s) abounds throughout his sermons; there is a recurring structural tonality wherein Mirk seems to address God, clergy, and townsfolk at once, especially where the Holy Family is concerned:

“[Th]ys day, gode men, ys kalled [th] puryfycacyon of oure Lady, [th]at ys in Englys, [th]e clansyng of oure Lady… wyth hure offryng and wyth hure sone, and offren for a rych a lombe and for a pore a payre and turtures or too bryddes… cast holy watur on hure and clanseth hure, and so takut[h] hure by [th]e honde and bryngeth hure into [th]e chyrche, 3euyng hure leue to comen into [th]e chyrche and to gon to hure husbonddus bed… Holy Chyrche also maketh mynde [th]ys day of candelys offryng” (55-7).

By speaking of holiness in daily life, the flock is given the concepts and tools to reenact the Holy Family in thought and deed. Water, bed, candle; daily items are reinjected with a sanctity that is less ecclesiastical in the sermons of Mirk, but of various bonds between God and man. This sentiment, in theatrical thought and expression, is given the aforementioned three-dimensional life on stage. Through Mirk the audience members have learned how to enrich daily living with contemplation and remembrance of things past; the Bible as a unit does not carry the impression of unobtainability in the Festial, but is an invitation to pious living.

The Wakefield Master balances this sentiment with humor and realistic portrayal of the way relations between married couples transpire, boredom and underappreciation amongst workers, and comedy as in the snoring shepherds. Higher level mindfulness, as in prayer and the sacraments, dialectically converge with the more rudimentarily banal aspects of existence, to provide an honest portrait of life for attendees. This image is crystallized by the characters’ proximity to God; at last the audience comes to comprehend that scriptural persons lived lives just as they. They are therefore impelled to thanksgiving and an annually reaffirmed call to “holynes, goodnes, mekenes” (17).

Our shepherds depart from the Nativity with instructions from the Virgin to remember her, the child on her knee, and his keeping them from woe. Grace, declares the First Shepherd, has found them. They exit singing in joyous answerability to their having met Christ, the Holy Mother, words and act illumined by the then-contemporaneous idea of Christ’s Seven Leaps.

Yet we see here a striking difference between de Voragine and the Wakefield Master as to how the Nativity narrative concludes, with the former’s systematic emphasis on what can be learned, or what is ‘useful’ about Christ’s birth: “Firstly, it served to confound the demons; [s]econdly, it is useful to us in obtaining pardon from our sin; [thirdly] by curing our infirmities; [l]astly, by humbling our pride” (42). De Voragine cites Augustine, for whom Christ is ‘an example, a sacrament, and a medicine… which heals the tumor of our pride.’ Pastoral message and sign is not only enhanced by proximity to the Latin Fathers, but it seemingly takes a given scenario and enhances its historical, rhetorical, philosophical, theological, and poetical qualities in one fell swoop.

Mirk sustains a local sense. The Lord, he maintains, is shepherd and vindication of religious and laity. His closing words on the Nativity redeem melancholic desperation, hope, and prayer, and moreover, Christ’s openness:“Wherfore heo cryed to Crist, prayng hym for hys childhood [th]at he wolde haue mercy on hyre and for3euen hyre hure trespass. [Th]en anon heo herde a voys on hegh and seyde: ‘[Th]I trespas ys for3eue’” (28).

But in a thing of beauty de Voragine saves audience-proximity, inclusion, and a refurbished dialogical relation to and in Mirk and the Wakefield Master until the very end of his sixth Legend: “In one way Christ’s birth was like our own, namely, that he was born of a woman and came forth through the same portal, but in another way it was unlike ours, because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (43). Therefore, the audience’s knowledge of God indicates both similarity and otherness; for harmony does not beget codependency, and the tree of discipleship is forever watered with the holy blood of martyrs.

Grand narrative merges with a lighter intimacy; it paves the way for SSP.


Part Second

            “The Hour of Incensing:[14]

“Intertextual Narratives of de Voragine and Mirk in the Mary Play

“The king’s attempt on the apostles brought swift retribution: the avenging minister of divine justice overtook him at once, immediately after his action against the apostles, as the narrative of the Acts records. He had set out for Caesarea, and there on an important feast day, adorned with magnificent royal robes, he mounted on a dais, and standing in front of his throne delivered a harangue which the entire audience received with thunderous applause, as the utterance of a god, not a man; and the inspired record tells us that instantly he was struck by an angel of the Lord, was eaten by worms, and expired.”

Eusebius, II.X.

            Despite the possibility that the Mary Play was borne of both lay and monastic material as property of St. Anne Guild (Lipton 90-2), such unbiblical, theatrical Catholicity was not without immediate[15] and historical[16] foe. Yet perhaps neither vanquished the plays themselves (Gardiner 76-7); their durability may well then owe a debt to sources from which the play built off of. [17] As such, a close reading of de Voragine and Mirk can guide us in shedding light upon the play’s compositional influences, and what audiences were likely already acquainted with in a textual (GL) and pastoral (Mirk) sense. As the play moves from ‘cosmic locality’ to, per Ashley, a “cosmology of purity” (Lipton 92), it is thus wagered that in analyzing source material for the Mary Play through aspects of intertextuality in light of the historical moment (And by deeming famous biblical accounts self-evident)[18] that we’ll better comprehend the referentially inventive devices, and thus see the play’s authorial method in construction through a clearer glass.

            The Golden Legend attributes the authorial origins of Mary’s life, and thus its imaginative history’s beginnings, with Blessed Jerome. Jerome had “read the story in some book… and many years later recorded what he recalled” (537). His emphatic rendering of Mary as descendant of the Davidic line is unpacked by de Voragine as a matter of the apostles’ exclusive concern with male genealogy; it also fired the opening shot to further contemplate the roles of Joachim and Anne, who feature prominently in the Mary Play (537-44), and whose love tested by infertility foreshadows the trial of Joseph and Mary. Through Jerome and Bede we also learn that St. Anne’s second husband was Joseph’s brother Cleophas. GL further contests that Bede provides evidence for Mary’s dual tribal status: at once of the priestly tribe and the royal tribe in order that Christ, Priest of Priests and King of Kings, would be born (537-8).

            Despite this probable familiarity with de Voragine, Mary’s authoritative learnedness undoubtedly caught viewers off guard. If the playwright anticipated an accessibility by way of inventing aspects for scenes lacking concrete biblical source-value, they could not have haphazardly presenting such a striking image of the Blessed Virgin (Broadview 245).

            Side by side, N-Town’s St. Anne and Joachim appear to us as organic extensions of de Voragine. Consider Joachim’s at the feast of the Dedication in prose: “They lived for twenty years without offspring [before deciding that if God would grant them a child, that they would model it as a servant of God]… When the priest saw [Joachim] he angrily ordered him away and upbraided him… he went and lived with the shepherds” (537-8).

            N-Town: JOACHIM: This feast to Jerusalem must go we/To make sacrifice to God eternal… If of his mercy he will a child us devise/We shall offer it up into the temple to be God’s man; ISAKAR: How durst thou among fruitful presume and abuse?  … thine offering I refuse! [There should be no more barren people” (44-5, 64-5;103 [106]).

Joachim’s crisis is lifted by angelic visitation. Among the shepherds, an angel appears to him in a moment of solitude, prophesying, “God punishes not nature but sin, and therefore, when he closes a woman’s womb, he does this to miraculously open it later on…  not the fruit of carnal desire but divine generosity… And let this be a sign to you: when you arrive at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, Anna your wife will be there waiting for you” (GL 539). 

In the Mary Play, both parents are granted angelic visitation and directions to the Golden Gate. Joachim is told, “In token, when thou come to Jerusalem to the Golden Gate/Thou shalt meet Anne… her sorrows to rebate” (Broadview 198-200). Shortly thereafter Anne is told, “At the Golden Gate thou shalt meet him [humbly]/And in great gladness return to your house… and Mary shall bear Jesus” (221-4).

            Despite a host of opportunities to illustrate Joachim and Anne, John Mirk is free of any material warranting the exactness with which the aforementioned line up. His St. Anne (26 July), Assumption of the Virgin (15 August), Assumption of the Virgin (Second sermon), and Nativity of the Virgin (8 September) contain just the briefest mention of “an husband [of Anne’s that] was called Ioachym” (194.48), and later “hur holy fadur, Seynt Ioachym” (221, 57.7). Parallel and reference in narrative will have to wait for Mary’s birth, and thereby presence in the world.

            The play’s second part introduces us to a three-year old Mary, who memorably recites the 15 Psalms (et sic deinceps usque ad finem quindecim psalmorum). Despite contextual discrepancies, there are numerological parallels:

            “Around the Temple there were fifteen steps, corresponding to the fifteen Gradual Psalms… Mary advanced steadily in all holiness” (GL 538). The playwright appears to have undergone a burst of creative energy, injecting grand narrative between Voraginian numerology. de Voragine’s general commentary that Mary advanced in ‘all’ holiness; that her sacred soliloquy before the Bishop is fruit of two briefer, formerly incidental seeds.

            Relatively early in the third act of the Mary Play (733; p. 266n2) the Broadview editors note that the lines of dialogue between Joseph and the Descendants of David “have been inserted into the manuscript at a later hand.” This makes sense. But the second part of the note, “probably [italics mine] a later interpolation… to emphasize Joseph’s comic unsuitability” deserves enquiry. It is not a matter of doubting the medieval topoi of comic husbandry, nor that the Davidic aspect is one means of bringing to life an otherwise narratively and historically modest biblical figure in Saint Joseph.[19]

            The play’s author was obligated to flesh out Joseph after his remarkable treatment of Joachim. Joseph’s typology shares too many aspects of Joachim for expansion to go uncompleted: “Able to be married that is not I, so may I theen. I have be maiden ever and evermore will been… to take a young wife! But nevertheless, no doubt of, we must go forth to town” (Broadview 737-42). Arguably comedic instances follow; but it is just one aspect of Joseph’s development which could also be considered charming due to humility rather than sheer comedy. His Davidic genealogy of virtues also foreshadows the play’s Contemplacio, Veritas, Justicia in the Parliament of Heaven (Broadview 267-9).

But humility on its own is obvious. It is therefore the correlation of virtue to Davidic Descendance illustrated by de Voragine that the play’s author may have invoked: “Humility, beauty of all virtues, replenished so strong in him, that the more better he waxed, so, as David, the more he showed himself meek and humble” (O’Neil207); “[H]e was greatly beloved of God and was with him in all his works, for he saw in him the meekness of David, the chastity of Joseph, and the riches of Solomon” (O’Neil 157). That Davidic lineage therefore provides Joseph with exemplary meekness prepares Joseph for his imperceptible undertaking; like Joachim publicly rejected in Jerusalem before him, Joseph now must bear the brunt for God: to tell his contemporaries not that he is unable to conceive, but that his teenage wife has been impregnated by neither himself nor any mortal. Perhaps from a psychological point of view no man has ever been worse-equipped to make a case (That can only be fulfilled in Christ’s Resurrection, which Joseph did not live to witness). Despite this, de Voragine makes the case that specific Davidic virtues enable typology to manifest itself in the miraculous.

             For his part, Mirk has little to say about Joseph and his entrance into Mary’s life. If we read aspects of the play’s third act as a call to ecclesiastical obedience through theological history, it comes from Mirk. His rendering of Joseph’s poverty leading him to sell an ox in order proceed with Mary (Ford 108-9) directly corresponds to 1381; they revolutionaries could have spared themselves much death and sorrow had they followed Joseph’s lead, itself borne of Christ’s birth: “But for he hadde no monay, he tok a nox wyth hym for te selle… her durst not leue oure Lady byhynde hym, for ho was so nygh tyme of burthe… God 3eveth pees to hem [th]at ben men and wymen of good wylle and kalleth hem hys children” (6. Nativity; pp. 24-5).

              Little known in canonical sainthood is Brother Bartholomew, to whom Voragine attributes Mary’s vision of the crowd (in what might be imaginatively coined as her ‘Triumphal Entry into Bethlehem’, redemption for Joachim and Christological presaging)[20] from a reading of the Book of the Infancy of the Savior:[21]

“As [Joseph and Mary] drew near to Bethlehem (as Brother Bartholomew, drawing upon the Book of the Infancy of the Savior, testifies in his compilation, the Virgin saw part of the populace rejoicing and part lamenting… those who rejoice are the Gentiles… those who grieve are [Jews], rejected by God in accordance with their deserts” (GL 38).

Now that the playwright has established the Virgin Mary in a myriad of arresting typological, imaginative-apocryphal, and symbolic ways, the viewer or reader experiences further angelic visitation in Gabriel. But rather than a prelude to a climax in Christ’s birth, or even a cliffhanger in the couple’s starting out by foot, we are granted dialogue between Mary and John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. We now turn our attention to these last pages of the script; with what we have learned thus far from Mirk, de Voragine, and others, the strikingly modern, poetical-intuition of the writer comes into focus.

            As Mary informs Joseph that Elizabeth is now pregnant the couple rejoices for Zachariah and his wife. They have overcome God’s accursed sterility not unlike Anne and Joachim, with God’s grace. Contemplation returns with Davidic commentary (1420), recalling Zechariah’s being struck mute (Lk. 1:20; Broadview 1428-39); and it is at this very moment that the playwright once again strays from biblical familiarity for a dialogical sequence between Mary and Elizabeth.

            de Voragine’s [86.] The Birth of Saint John the Baptist also takes a theoretical turn at this narrative point (GL 329). From the Voraginian point of view, the first of several possibilities for Zechariah’s having been punished comes from Bede. Bede wagers that Zechariah was struck dumb because he voiced his doubt: CONTEMPLATION: Sovereigns, understandeth that King David here/Ordained four and twenty priests of great devotion/In the temple after their lot appear. They were cleped summi sacerdotes [High priests] for their ministration/And one was an old priest named Zechariah… He, seeing his unworthiness and age, not believed so” (Broadview 1420-31).

            It would thus appear that de Voragine’s ever-present concern with the Davidic genealogy of virtue is at work here, in the spirit of Bede: Zechariah was humble enough to consider himself unworthy despite being a high priest, ordained by David on behalf of the lots God Himself ordains. But his virtue is incomplete; rather than keep silent or enter prayer, he makes his doubt external.

            The other aspects of Zechariah are more general than intertextual: retaining his voice at the birth of John the Baptist, the miracle is doubly obvious; silence imposed by the Law; muteness was a sign received (GL 329-30). It thus appears that the Bedean option was for the playwright had he considered a way to lay the groundwork of his longest play.

            Mary’s recitation of the Latin Magnificant coincides with Elizabeth’s English. Both women intone the Holy Ghost, Father, God’s Son and the Trinity, as Mary is referred to as Mother of God within “this psalm of prophecy” (1524). Elizabeth is presumably six months pregnant:

MARY: But, cousin Elizabeth, I shall you here keep/And this three months abide here now/Till ye have child to wash, scout, and sweep/And in all that I may to comfort you. (1528-31)

It appears that the playwright has once more turned to de Voragine’s The Birth of John the Baptist, and namely another reference to a Latin Father:

“She hid herself for five months, as Ambrose says about this, having felt shame at having a child at her age… she might seem to have indulged in lustful pleasure despite her years…Yet she also rejoiced at being rid of the reproach of sterility… the same angel who announced the coming of the Lord announced the coming of John” (GL 330).

Joseph is relegated to the background, Zechariah taciturn. Mary and Elizabeth thank God with “heartfelt will” for three months (1558). The audience is reminded of the holy persons these women carried in their bodies, with de Voragine noting John the Baptist’s nine special, singular privileges,[22] things that all students of the bible know well and therein have a chance to contemplate Elizabeth herself, and the mysterious months which she and the Blessed Virgin spent together. Their strength is further uplifted by the incidental nature of their husbands; for Mary’s child is Joseph’s to look after, but the Lord’s in creating, while Elizabeth’s husband cannot even do so much as speak until John the Baptist is born. More still, this culmination of all preceding events, scenes, is perfectly described by Kinservik in his article on theological and dramatic resolution in the N-Town plays: “Without suggesting that Mary is more important than Christ, the Assumption play shows her to be of equal significance in the story of salvation. The typological construction of the play recalls Christ’s Passion in order finally to resolve the conflicts that led to Christ’s crucifixion.”[23] Rosemary Woolf’s observation that by the 15th c. theatrical representation and perception in mind assessed that “the history of salvation must begin, not with the Annunciation as had previously been done, but with the story of Joachim and Anna”[24] leads the scholar to reconsider medieval epistemology when working with the Mary Play in terms of intertextual historicity. For there are elements of de Voragine and Mirk within this and other various works of late medieval drama; but to what extent did this moving into the future by reaching into the texts of the past and biblical genealogy represent a general state of evolving consciousness among the audience and viewership alike?

If we cannot answer such an enormous question here it is nonetheless worth noting that Mary and Elizabeth appear at the apex of this insight on behalf of the century in general, and specifically within the mind of the playwright. Suppression of valid inquiry – who came before Mary? Who came before that? And that? – may incur a hindsight of wrath; but historical-intertextual examination is not dangerous because there lacks a definitive, crystallized beginning point, but rather because by disrupting societal narrative, control is loosed; be it gender roles, feminine ascendancy, revealed documents, archaeological findings: they, like role reversal in putting Joseph and Zechariah aside to focus on first St. Anne and the Blessed Virgin, and later the latter with Elizabeth, question accepted narrative. More importantly, through this process, it is unconsciously revealed that dogmatic viewpoint is nonetheless one point of view.

Building upon apocrypha and the Fathers, the Golden Legend offers readers the possibility of reframing, hypothesizing, swapping. Yet like Mirk’s sermons, the legends are a matter of a sole speaker or reader, whereas with the advent of the stage, a process unfolded that could not be controlled by the very force capable of ceasing flow of information. Now the embers of “Seynt Ionys fyre” (Mirk 166-70) could be collected and thereby unified in new methods of both writing and experiencing scriptural scenes.

A final instance of Mary and Elizabeth’s uniting that inimitably shows the summit of feminine holiness on display is Mary’s breath filling John the Baptist with the Holy Spirit (1450-55). Rather than de Voragine or Mirk, it has been wagered[25] that Nicholas Love is here the playwright’s strongest influence.[26]

The breath that contains the Holy Spirit – Mary’s – for John the Baptist parallels the breath of God, breathing humanity into life (Gn. 2:7). As the Mother of God breathes life into the one whom Christ will in time call “the greatest of all living men” (Mt. 11:11; Lk. 7:28), Elizabeth feels her son kneel within the womb in reverence to the Lord. By ending with this image, “For this comfortablest coming, good God, gramercy!” (1546), the playwright paves the way for Contemplation’s Epilogue and portrays a powerful image for the scholar who revisits the text having immersed themselves in research prior. Whether or not this was intended in a precise way is both unknowable and irrelevant in light of the text’s systematic redistribution of past masters and authorial imagination. It thereby enables the author to construct a vision that while novel is routed in a tapestry of past and then-contemporaneous sources at providential work.

As in the medieval tradition reading or seeing the play is one part. Living it through intertextual historiography is culmination,[27] and for the believer perhaps the Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin. The late medieval stage production is a twofold mode of study: its surface may well suffice in one, performative, sense. But in the other the history of its theoretical conception, theatrical construction establishes its place in the annals of Marian representation and literary history.


            Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Book of Troilus and Criseyde. Princeton University Press, 1926.

Epstein, Steven A. The Talents of Jacopo da Varagine. Cornell University Press, 2016.

Fitzgerald & Sebastian (eds.), et al. The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2013.

Gardiner, S.J., Harold. Mysteries’ end: an investigation of the last days of the medieval religious stage. Vol. 103. Yale Univ. Press, 1946.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. Ceremony and Civility: Civic Culture in Late Medieval London. Oxford University Press, 2017.

            Le Goff, Jacques. In Search of Sacred Time. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Lindenbaum, Sheila. “Rituals of Exclusion.” Festive Drama, edited by Meg Twycross, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 54 – 65.

Lipton, Emma. Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval Literature. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Love, Nicholas. Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Ed. Michael G. Sargent. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

Meredith, Peter. Meredith, Peter. “‘Establishing an expositor’s role: Contemplacio and the N. Town manuscript’, in The Narrator, the Expositor, and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre, ed. by Philip Butterworth (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 289–306.” The Practicalities of Early English Performance: Manuscripts, Records, and Staging. Routledge, 2018. 139-156.

—. “The Towneley pageants.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, et al., 2008, pp. 152-82.  

Mirk, John. Festial. Early English Text Society, 2011.

            O’Neil, S.J., George (ed.). The Golden Legend: Lives of the Saints. Cambridge, 1914.

            Powell, Susan (ed.) John Mirk’s Festial, Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ryman, James. “Now the Most High is born.” Medieval English Lyrics, edited by R.T. Davies, University Press, 1988, p. 229.

Strayer, Joseph S. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton University Press, 2016.

de Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend. Princeton University Press, 2012.

            Woolf, Rosemary. The English Mystery Plays. Univ of California Press, 1972.

[1] First Shepherd covers the malaise of the social order; the Second Shepherd covers marital conflict; the Third Shepherd covers employer and employee. Moreover, contemporary audiences can at once identify with each of these (If not, of course, to the letter, then to the remarkable human unchangeability despite technological ascendancy). The characteristic crises indicate a theatrical totality: trial and reconciliation. Enlivening Chaucerian associations, content and harmony, and comic failure reaffirm the Holy Spirit: “Laughter becomes in this pageant a sign of man’s goodwill” (Meredith 172-6).

[2] “Performative actions [in late medieval English towns] were the great teachers of hierarchical order and an honored tradition… These were not empty theatrical effects, but were part and parcel [of creating power]… civil and royal social spaces were the main arteries of the cities (Hanawalt 8-9).

[3] Hereafter simply, [the] Golden Legend.

[4] “[A]scendit Simon Petrus et traxit rete in terram plenum magnis piscibus centum quinquaginta tribus et cum tanti essent non est scissum rete .”

[5] Covering among other historical themes de Voragine’s bibliography apart from the Golden Legend, Steven A. Epstein unpacks issues de Voragine faced in his many sermons (268-70). Among them include how Mary would, literally rather than allegorically or typologically, defeat Satan; using unbiblical picture-thoughts such as elephants for biblical scenarios where words failed to systemize more pressing theological matters (It must also be kept in mind that Voragine was a Dominican in the same era as Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Hence, dogmatic architectonics were anything but off the table.

[6] At least according to one religious historian, Aviad Kleinberg, with whom contemporary Voragine scholarship seems to agree. See also Donna Trembinski’s review: “Flesh Made Word: Saints’ Stories and the Western Imagination.” Canadian Journal of History 44.3 (2009): 496.

[7] For the sake of time elucidation has been nixed by way of 1381, although Hanawalt’s recent survey of the late fourteenth century’s crises is concrete in austerely compact terms (42-7). 

[8] Another legalistic, visible anchor is surveyed in Sheila Lindenbaum’s critique of James, cognizant of the power public celebration and its opposite held. Lindenbaum’s demand for ‘actual practice’ may well take the economic and political totality of the religious-ideological state apparatus into critical account, thereby rendering performativity on the stage merely incidental to the structural performativity taking spectacular, hierarchical place amidst the stage.

[9] The shepherds’ poverty is not portrayed solely for the sake of relatability if we see the Wakefield Master as a disciple of John Mirk. For Mirk equates poverty with divinity in both Christ’s birth and the Last Judgement (Ford 83-5). Thus, in their lack of distinction and the responsibilities that go with it, the townsfolk are theoretically abler to receive and respond to the call of discipleship when and if it should by grace come upon them.

[10] Without knowledge of the texts the SSP’s author referred to for imaginative, narrative inspiration, the play is seen as some fictional persons – in the spirit of Chaucer – who come upon the Nativity. Having closely read both de Voragine and Mirk, the shepherds themselves take on the possibility of having been the author’s humanizing of the famed Magi. One is thinking of, among other things, the shepherds’ early evoking of a Christ they’ve yet to know, as well as the reference to ‘magic’ – as in the case of Nennius and other historical texts, magicians play the typological role of wizards, neither saved nor altogether useless.

[11] In a word, I seek to neither devalue Jerome, de Voragine, nor casually reference the annihilation of all ‘sodomites’ at the time of Christ’s birth without acknowledging its contemporary call for alarm. Rather, the author is working but a place of historical-theological understanding; that dogmatic consensuses metamorphosize with time, and that regardless of extremity the unflinchingly religious would considered morality and tolerance as something encoded on what Bernard Lonergan calls the “higher level of thinking”; i.e., ‘in the world but not of it.’

[12] For instance, Mirk’s narrative cleverly entwines obedience with sentiment in the Holy Family’s portrayal as returning to Bethlehem (to pay a head-tax). Like de Voragine, a remote historical example is interwoven into the work of Mirk; this allows narratology to go on unperturbed while refraining from polemic, and at the same time advising listeners, readers on the necessity of obedience and the multilayered futility of revolt (Ford 109-10).

[13] As had Chaucer: “But fle we now prolixitee best it/For love of God, and lat us faste go/Right to th’ effect, withouten tales mo” (Troilus 1564-66).

[14] ELIZABETH: “The angel appeared the hour of incensing” (Broadview 1474).

[15] “The depiction of marriage in the N-Town plays should be understood in the context of the controversial role it played in East Anglian religious politics… where Lollard heretics made more direct challenges to clerical authority… The plays’ theatrical promotion of marriage would have appealed not only to Lollard extremists but also to moderate constituencies, such as the wealthy merchant patrons of the numerous parish churches in East Anglia and the members of East Anglia’s many religious guilds.” Lipton, Emma. Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramentl Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

[16] See William Prynne’s mammoth Histrio Mastix: The Players Scourge, or, Actors tragoedie (1633).

[17] Lack of index in the two-volume Festial have made it difficult for the linguistic novice to read all of Mirk’s recorded sermons. Nonetheless an earnest effort has been made, and through it a direct reference to de Voragine: “I rede in Legenda Aurea how a Iew com to a chyrch…” (257). As a bare-bones documentation, Mirk’s audience would have to some measure known Mirk’s intimate knowledge of de Voragine.

[18] Passages that even the general reader can clearly identify as biblical, as opposed to insights thoroughly imaginative have thus not been taken into consideration, opting for genealogy, details of events sans biblical scope, etc.

[19] While things Marian and the concept of Mariology are synonymous with Catholicism, a scarcer study exists in Josephology. Its seminal, albeit virtually unknown text is Fr. Francis L. Filas, SJ’s Joseph: The Man Closest to Jesus: The Complete Life, Theology and Devotional History of St. Joseph. St. Paul Editions, 1962.

[20] Mt. 21:1–11; Mk. 11:1–11; Lk. 19:28–44, and Jn. 12:12–9.

[21] The apocryphal text is officially listed as The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour; its referential usage by de Voragine provides us with a chronology predating even the Latin Fathers, thereby potentially marking the birthplace of imaginative narratives: apocrypha.

[22] : The same angel announcing he and Christ; leaping in Elizabeth’s womb; Mary lifting him from the earth; unlocking Zechariah’s tongue; first to confirm baptism; pointed out Christ with his finger; baptized Christ; Christ praised him above all others; he foretold Christ’s coming to the souls in Limbo (GL 330).

[23] Kinservik, Matthew J. “The struggle over Mary’s body: Theological and dramatic resolution in the N-Town assumption play.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95.2 (1996): p. 192.

[24] Woolf, Rosemary. The English mystery plays. Univ of California Press, 1972, p. 161.

[25] Meredith, Peter. “‘Establishing an expositor’s role: Contemplacio and the N. Town manuscript’, in The Narrator, the Expositor, and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre, ed. by Philip Butterworth (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 289–306.” The Practicalities of Early English Performance: Manuscripts, Records, and Staging. Routledge, 2018. 139-156.

[26] Love, Nicholas. Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Ed. Michael G. Sargent. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

[27] DeGregorio, Scott. “Texts, topoi and the self: a reading of Alfredian spirituality.” Early Medieval Europe 13.1 (2005): 81-5. In these pages of his essay DeGregorio describes the twofold matter of medieval texts: to read and to live. For my purposes, this intertextual historiography is a lesson in both literature and history; as the stage literally brings a script alive, I wager that this research process mirrors the anonymous playwright’s in its imaginative accumulation of building upon both established and obscure idea of narrative and representation.