Mysteries, Christian

Mysteries, Christian

otherwise called MIRACLES AND MORALITIES, or simply "Miracle Plays," were shows in the Middle Ages representing in rude dramatic form scenes from the Scriptures and from the apocryphal gospels. They were performed first in churches, and afterwards in the streets on fixed or movable stages. The actors were in the earliest times to which we can trace these shows generally monks, friars, and other ecclesiastics, and the aim was the religious instruction of the people by means of amusement. An examination of the inanimate fragments that remain to us of these plays is profitable only to those who can enter into the spirit of the age that called them forth, for it must be borne in mind by the intelligent inquirer that the coarse details in which they abound, and which shock our literary taste, were necessary to bring home to the people of those times the objects of their most serious and constant meditations — judgment, heaven, hell, the miracles and passion of their Lord, and the future of the soul of man. Nor must it be forgotten that the Church of the Middle Ages was not the first religious body to plant and promote religious sentiments by these means. The theatre, though the fact be singular, has taken its rise, wherever we can trace its origin, in religious sentimentalism. In Greece, from the very earliest ages to the days of Solon, religious feasts were accompanied by dances and performances. In the early Christian Church there was no doubt a strong tendency to perpetuate the levity of the heathen practices; and to prevent the introduction of the pagan theatre in its entirety the Church may have felt itself forced to abolish these relics of an abhorred practice by providing dramatic entertainment in which subjects derived from the Old or New Testament took the place of those of mythology — means less apparent than outspoken opposition, but then believed, no doubt, equally sure to effect the purpose. This accounts for the custom which prevailed at an early date of the reading to the congregation in the time of Easter the narrative of Christ's passion, the various parts distributed among different parties. Later these readings came to be accompanied by dialogue and gestures, and probably the readers officiated in a suitable costume. Other festal days were gradually taken up with representations of these mysteries. Indeed, some curious proofs of the transition from the narrative form of the Bible to the dramatic form of the mysteries are still extant. They consist of dialogues in verse between several speakers, bound together by a narration, also in verse, which formed a part analogous to the Greek chorus. They were evidently accompanied in some degree by music, for in most ancient manuscripts each line is surmounted by its musical notation.

In time ecclesiastical dramatic representations were separated from the divine offices, and, though still performed in churches, formed a distinct part of priestly teaching, and under the name of Mysteries were acted after the sermon. Mysteries were probably taken from Biblical, and miracle plays from legendary subjects, but this distinction in nomenclature was not always strictly adhered to. The general character of all early religious plays, whether called miracles or mysteries, was about the same. If any distinction was made, the miracles were distinguished as those which represented the miracles wrought by the holy confessors, and the sufferings by which the perseverance of the martyrs was manifested; of which kind the first specified by name is a scenic representation of the legend of St. Catharine. The mysteries, strictly so called, were representations often of great length, and requiring several days' performance, of the Scripture narrative, or of several parts of it, as, for instance, the descent of Christ into hell. We have an extant specimen of the religious play of a date prior to the beginning of the Middle Ages in the Christos Paschon, assigned, somewhat questionably, to Gregory Nazianzen, and written in the 4th century in Greek. Next come six Latin plays on subjects connected with the lives of the saints, by Roswitha, a nun of Gandersheim, in Saxony; these, though not very artistically constructed, possess considerable dramatic power and interest; they have been lately published at Paris, with a French translation. The performers were at first the clergy and choristers; afterwards any layman might participate. The earliest recorded performance of a miracle play took place in England. Matthew Paris relates that Geoffrey, afterwards abbot of St. Albans, while a secular, exhibited at Dunstable the miracle play of St. Catharine, and borrowed copes from St. Albans to dress his characters. This must have been at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century. Fitzstephen, in his Life of Thomas a Becket (A.D. 1183), describes with approval the representation in London of the sufferings of the saints and miracles of the confessors. Le Boeuf gives an account of a mystery written in the middle of the 11th century, wherein Virgil is introduced among the prophets that came to adore the Saviour; doubtless in allusion to the fourth eclogue. But there is a mystery earlier than this in the Provenial dialect, a curious mixture of Latin and the dialect of Southern France. It is on the subject of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, and probably belongs to the early part of the 11th century (comp. Demogeot, Histoire de la Litterature Francaise). Another mystery, entitled the Jeu de St. Nicholas, also of like antiquity, belongs to Northern France. Fitzstephen, in the reign of Henry II of England (born 1133, died 1189), dwells on the sacred plays acted in London representing the miracles or passions of martyrs. These plays, according to M. Raynouard (Journal des Savans [1828], page 297), were the earliest dramatic representations, and gave rise to the mysteries. This is not probable, however, as they were even then denominated mysteries or miracles both in England and on the Continent. The truth is, as Mr. Hallam has said, that "it is impossible to fix their first appearance at any single aera" (Introd. Europ. Lit. 1:123). The fact is that in the 11th century these plays are found in favor within the walls of convents, and on public occasions and festivals, both in England and on the Continent. Thus, in the 11th century, Hilarius, a disciple of Abelard, substituted for the prose of the old ritual for the Feast of St. Nicholas a dialogue in Latin rhyme, with refrains in the Langque d'oil. A monk of St. Benoit-sur-Loire, who flourished at a later period, treated the same history in simple Latin. Both these pieces were acted in the churches for nearly a century, when Jean Bodel, of Arras, founded upon them a drama, which was written entirely in French, and which was probably acted in the public squares of Arras, or in the hall of some large dwelling. This was, in all probability, the first instance of the emancipation of the drama from the Church. The trouvrres of the 13th century followed readily in the lead of Jean Bodel. Among others we may mention Adam de la Halle, the fellow townsman of Bodel, nicknamed Le Bossu d'Arras, and the witty enemy of the monks, the satirical Rutehbeuf.

The clergy were soon altogether superseded by the laity, who formed themselves into companies and guilds to act these pieces, and every considerable town had a fraternity for the performance of mysteries. Such associations, it should be stated, however, were established in a serious spirit of piety and beneficence, without any thought of antagonism to the Church; and that the Church failed to recognize any opposition is apparent in the fact that, on the establishment of the Corpus Christi festival by Pope Urban IV, in 1264, miracle plays were made its adjuncts. The change from clergy to laity was very desirable, for one reason especially. Hitherto the plays had usually been written in Latin, and the greater part was made intelligible to the people only through pantomime. But as this was unsatisfactory, and the spectators could not always get at the player's intent, there was an obvious inducement to make use of the vernacular language. This gave import to the people's tongue, and in this way the mysteries of the 14th and succeeding centuries play no unimportant part in the development of the modern languages (comp. Schlegel, Lect. Hist. of Mod. Lit. lect. 9-11). The most celebrated, though one of the latest founded (1350), of these fraternities was the Confrerie de la Passion et Resurrection de notre Seigneur. It was composed of Paris citizens, master masons, locksmiths, and others. The first scene of their representations was the village of St. Maur, near Vincennes. The provost of Paris refusing his license, the Confrerie applied to and received the authorization of Charles VI, who by letters patent, in 1402, gave permission to them to act "any mystery whatsoever either before the king or before his people, in any suitable place, either in the town of Paris itself or in its suburbs." Upon this they established themselves in the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, outside the Porte St. Denis. There on public holidays they gave representations of pieces drawn from the New Testament. Crowds both of clergy and laity flocked to them. The Church did all in its power to further their success, altering the hour of vespers to facilitate the attendance of the faithful at them. The Praemonstratensians, owners of the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, gladly let for them their spacious hall. The spectators sat on unwearied often until the night fell, and then the assembly broke up to meet again on the next Sunday for the continuation of the interrupted drama, which sometimes lasted for months at a time. The stage consisted of tiers of scaffolding raised one above another, the topmost tier, with its gilt balustrade, representing Paradise, and holding "chaire paree," which did duty as the throne of the Most High. "In pomp of show they far excelled our English mysteries," says Hallam; and the mixture of tragedy and comedy in the poetry appealed powerfully to the quick susceptibilities of an impressionable nation, which delights in nothing so much as in extremes and contrasts.

We have said that the laity intended no opposition to the Church, and that the clergy recognised no such opposition, and did not anticipate it; that by or even before the end of the 13th century the laity had robbed the clergy of a great part of their influence, and in the course of their 14th became the means of paralyzing it entirely. The length too, to which these performances were carried surpasses credence. No subject was deemed too sacred to be chosen as a theme, no subject too holy to be represented. Heaven was depicted, in which the Father was surrounded by his holy angels. Hell was portrayed by a dark and yawning cavern, from which issued hideous howlings, as of tormented souls; but whence also, with a curious inconsistency, came the jesters and buffoons of the sacred drama. Not only were all the Scripture characters freely introduced, but angels, archangels, Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, Belial, and even the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Some of these dramas lasted for a number of days, one of them covering the whole period of time from the creation of the world to the last judgment. No wonder, then, that these plays, which were originally designed as a means of instructing the people, and were performed in the churches, rapidly degenerated until they turned into a species of scandalously irreverent buffoonery. From being employed as a means of instruction, they were thus converted into a means of amusement; from being enacted in the churches and by the clergy, they came to be performed by strolling and vagabond players on temporary and portable stages constructed on wheels. Thenceforth the theatre took a wider scope; art labored to supply the ever-increasing weakness of religious impressions; creations of the poet's fancy appeared side by side with scriptural characters; popular scenes became by degrees more common, and hence little by little arose the drama of our own day — a light amusement intended for the pastime of an idle crowd.

The 14th and 15th centuries were fertile of religious dramas in many parts of Europe, and throughout the centuries immediately following they continued in full force. In Germany they were very popular. In France they did not prevail largely after the 15th century. In Italy they were very congenial to the people, whose delight in sensible objects is so intense, and societies for their performance were formed as in France. They were largely popular in the 15th century (comp. Roscoe, Life of Lorenzo, 1:402; Hallam, Lit. 1:124, 125), and they have in some of their forms been continued for the edification and amusement of the populace quite down to our own times (Ticknor, Hist. of Spanish Lit. 1:229, foot-note 3). In Spain they were likewise common, and their origin is so remote that " it can no longer be determined" (Ticknor. 1:230). There, however, the clergy were left to play these mysteries, as is apparent from the code of Alfonso X, which was prepared about 1260, and in which, after forbidding the clergy certain gross indulgences, the law goes on to say: "Neither ought they to be makers of buffoon plays, that people may come to see them; and if other men make them, clergymen should not come to see them, for such men do things low and unsuitable. Nor, moreover, should such things be done in churches; but rather we say they should be cast out in dishonor, without punishment to those engaged in them; for the church of God was made for prayer, and not for buffoonery; as our Lord Jesus Christ declared in the Gospel that his house was called the house of prayer, and ought not to be made a den of thieves. But exhibitions there be that clergymen may make, such as that of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, which shows how the angel came to the shepherds, and how he told them Jesus Christ was born;

and, moreover, of his appearance when the three kings came to worship him, and of his resurrection, which shows how he was crucified and rose the third day. Such things as these; which move men to do well. may the clergy make, as well as to the end that man may have in remembrance that such things did truly happen. But this must they do decently, and in devotion; and in the great cities where there is an archbishop or bishop, and under their authority, or that of others by them deputed, and not in villages, nor in small places, nor to gain money thereby." But though these earliest religious representations in Spain, whether pantomimic or in dialogue, were thus given, not only by churchmen, but by others, certainly before the middle of the 13th century, and probably much sooner, they passed entirely out of the control of those who intended them for religious and moral purposes, and though they were continued for several centuries afterwards, still no fragment of them, and no distinct account of them, now remain to us (see Ticknor, 1:231; and compare below).

In England they continued in full force for above four hundred years — a longer period than can be assigned to the English national drama as we now recognise it. Their height of popularity was in the 15th century. Of these mysteries, two complete series, which are supposed to belong to the 15th century (Hallam, Lit. 1:124 [105]), have lately been published from ancient manuscripts, the Townley Mysteries, performed by the monks of Woodchurch, near Wakefield, and the different leading companies of that town; and the Coventry Mysteries, performed with like help of the trades in Coventry, by the Gray Friars of that ancient city. Both of these collections begin with the creation, and carry on the story in different pageants or scenes until the judgment-day. The first two have been published by the Shakespeare Society, and the other by the Surtees Society. The Townley mysteries are full of the burlesque element, and contain many curious illustrations of contemporary manners. The Coventry mysteries were famous in England. Of these, Dugdale relates, in his History of Warwickshire, published in 1656, that, "Before the suppression of the monasteries this city was very famous for the pageants that were played therein, upon Corpus Christi day (one of their ancient fairs), which occasioning very great confluence of people thither from far and near, was of no small benefit thereto; which pageants being acted with mighty state and reverence by the Grey Friers, had theatres for the several scenes, very large and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the city, for the better advantage of spectators, and contained the story of the Old and New Testament, composed in the old Englishe rithme, as appeareth by an ancient MS. (in Bibl. Cotton. Vesp. D. VIII), entituled, Ludus Corporis Christi, or Ludus Coventriae." The celebrity of the performances may be inferred from the rank of the audiences; for at the festival of Corpus Christi in 1483 Richard III visited Coventry to see the plays, and at the same season in 1492 they were attended by Henry VII and his queen, by whom they were highly commended. Of them it is said, "Every company had his pagiante, or parte, which pagiantes were a highe scafolde with two rowmes, a higher and a lower, upon four wheeles. In the lower they apparelled themselves, in the higher rowme they played, being all open op the tope, that all behoulders might heare and see them. The places where they played them was in every streete. They begane first at the Abay Gates, and when the pagiante was played, it was wheeled to the High Cross before the mayor, and so to every streete; and so every streete had a pagiante playing before them, till all the pagiantes for the daye appointed were played; and when one pagiante was neere ended, worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe the mighte come in place thereof, exceedinge orderlye, and all the streetes had their pagiane afore them, all at one time, playing together, to se which playes was great resorte, and also scafoldes, and stages made in the streetes, in those places wheare they determined to playe their pagiantes." The first mystery performed in Scotland was at Aberdeen, in 1445, and was called the Haly Blade. One was called Candlemas Day, and another Mary Magdalene. The records of the town council of Edinburgh, in 1554, contain an order to pay Walter Bynning for making, among other theatrical implements, a mitre, a fool's hood, a pair of angel's wings, two angels' hair, and a chaplet of triumph. Other and coarser scenes were enacted by the Boy-bishop (q.v.), and at the Feast of Asses (q.v.).

Out of the mysteries and miracle plays sprang a third class of religious plays called moralities, in which allegorical personifications of the Virtues and Vices were introduced as dramatis personae. These personages at first only took part in the play along with the scriptural or legendary characters, but afterwards entirely superseded them. This change from mysteries to moralities corresponded to a remarkable modification of the public mind. Reason, eager to produce and combine ideas, had been substituted for the simple, unquestioning faith of the Middle Ages. Allegory, no longer the concrete and material rendering of undisputed facts, became a work of intelligence, abstraction, and analysis. Nature, her high and undying loveliness unguessed, appeared commonplace and insipid, and in' need of the fictitious combinations of imagination. The mind of man having shaken itself free from its old trammels, sometimes in its pride and joy abused its new-found freedom. The moralities were perhaps best promulgated in France, where a guild was established by Philip the Fair about 1303, with special privileges for. their representations. In one of such dramas, of which Demogeot furnishes an extract, the gay boon companions Eat-all, Thirst, Drink-to-you, and Salts Water, are politely invited by the rich and splendid Banquet. The ladies of the party are Daintiness, Gluttony, and Lust. The feast is all that can be desired, the guests are more than satisfied; when suddenly a band of enemies — Colic, Gout, Jaundice, Quinsy, and Dropsy — rush in and seize the assembled revellers by the leg or the throat or the stomach, as the case may be. Some are overwhelmed — some rush for succor to Sobriety, who calls Cure to help him. Banquet is condemned to death by the judge, Experience, and Diet is his executioner. The oldest- known English compositions of this kind are of the time of Henry VI; they are more elaborate and less interesting than the miracle plays. Moralities continued in fashion in England till the time of Elizabeth, and were there the immediate precursors of the regular drama. In France they were the precursors of the light play known as farce, which "may be reckoned a middle link between the extemporaneous effusions of the mimes and the legitimate drama" (Hallam, Lit. 1:26 [109]). And this seems the more natural result of the two. From such pieces as the one of which we give a synopsis above the step to farces was but a short one. Moralities could not long enchain a people on whom refinement of satirical wit is generally thrown away. The mysteries no longer made them weep — it would be well to make them laugh, and farce was invented. In Germany, especially, in the Alpine districts, they were composed and acted by the peasants. These peasant-plays had less regularity in their dramatic form, were often interspersed with songs and processions, and in their union of simplicity with high-wrought feeling were most characteristic of a people in whom the religious and dramatic element are both so largely developed. In the early part of the sixteenth century they began to partake in some degree of the comic character which has been their frequent tendency; and thus, although designed at first for the religious instruction of the people, they had long before the Reformation so far departed from their original character as to be mixed up in many instances with buffoonery and irreverence, intentional or unintentional, and to be the means of inducing contempt rather than respect for the Church and religion.

It is a mistake to suppose that the hostility of the Reformers was what suppressed these popular exhibitions of sacred subjects. The fathers of the Reformation showed no unfriendly feeling towards them. Luther is reported to have said that they often did more good and produced more impression than sermons. The most direct encouragement was given to them by the founders of the Swedish Protestant Church, and by the earlier Lutheran bishops, Swedish and Danish. The authorship of one drama of the kind is assigned to Grotius. In England, the greatest check they received was from the rise of the secular drama; yet they continued to be occasionally performed in the times of James I and Charles I, and it is well known that the first sketch of Milton's Paradise Lost was a sacred drama, in which the opening speech was Satan's address to the sun. A degenerate relic of the miracle play may yet be traced in some remote districts of England, where the story of St. George, the dragon, and Beelzebub is rudely represented by the peasantry. "In Spain," says Ticknor, "as late as 1840, something resembling a mystery of the earliest time was represented at Valencia during the shows of the Corpus Christi (comp. Lamarca, Tentro de Valencia, 1840, page 11). This, I suppose, is the dramatic entertainment which Julius von Minutoli witnessed in the Feast of the Sacrament at Valencia in 1853, and which he not only describes, but prints entire in the dialect of the country just as he heard it" (Hist. of Spanish Literature, 3:347, foot-note). In Mexico, too, the mysteries have been kept up to this day. Thus Bayard Taylor during his travels in that country, witnessed the performance of such a religious play.

But though the mysteries may still continue to be performed in Roman Catholic countries, it is nevertheless a fact that a Roman Catholic country struck the first blow for their extinction — this was done in the Roman Catholic south of Germany, where these miracle plays and mysteries had preserved most of their old religious character. They had begun to be tainted there, too, though only to a limited extent, with the burlesque element, which had brought them into disrepute elsewhere. In 1799 a manifesto was issued by the prince-archbishop of Salzburg condemning them and prohibiting their performance on the ground of their ludicrous mixture of the sacred and the profane, the frequent bad acting in the serious parts, the distraction of the lower orders from more edifying modes of instruction, and the scandal arising from the exposure of sacred subjects to the ridicule of free-thinkers. This ecclesiastical denunciation was followed by vigorous measures on the part of the civil authorities in Austria and Bavaria. One exception was made to the general suppression. In 1633 the villagers of Oberammergau, in the Bavarian highlands, on the cessation of a plague which desolated the surrounding country, had vowed to perform every tenth year Christ's passion, out of gratitude, and as a means of religious instruction — a vow which has ever since been regularly observed. The pleading of a deputation of Ammergau peasants with Max Joseph of Bavaria saved this mystery from a general condemnation, on condition of everything that could offend good taste being expunged. It was then and afterwards somewhat remodelled, and is perhaps the only mystery or miracle play which has survived to the present day. The last performance took place in 1870 (see its photographic representation in the Album of the Passion-play of Ober-Ammergau, by J.P. Jackson, Lond. and Mun. 1873, 4to). The inhabitants of this secluded village, long noted for their skill in carving in wood and ivory, have a rare union of artistic cultivation with perfect simplicity. Their familiarity with sacred subjects is even beyond what is usual in the Alpine part of Germany, and the spectacle seems still to be looked on with feelings much like those with which it was originally conceived. What would elsewhere appear impious is to the Alpine peasants devout and edifying. The personator of Christ considers his part an act of religious worship; he and the other principal performers are said to be selected for their holy life, and consecrated to their work with prayer. The players, about five hundred in number, are exclusively the villagers, who, though they have no artistic instruction except from the parish priest, act their parts with no little dramatic power, and a delicate appreciation of character. The New-Testament narrative is strictly adhered to, the only legendary addition to it being the St. Veronica handkerchief. The acts alternate with tableaux from the Old Testament and choral odes. Many thousands of the peasantry are attracted by the spectacle from all parts of the Tyrol and Bavaria, among whom the same earnest and devout demeanor prevails as among the performers. The following are some of the principal scenes given by a late eye-witness:

"1. The triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem; the children and people shouting 'Hosanna!' and strewing clothes and branches. This introduced the Saviour and the apostles, and formed in itself an admirable introduction to the whole. There were certainly no less than two hundred persons in the crowd, including seventy or eighty children.

2. The long and animated debates in the Sanhedrim, including the furious evidence of the expelled moneychangers, and later the interview with Judas, when the contract was ratified between him and the priests by the payment of the thirty pieces of silver. Nothing could be more characteristic, real, and unaffected than these.

3. The Last Supper, and the washing of the apostles' feet. Here the table was arranged on the model of the well-known picture of Leonardo da Vinci.

4. All the scenes in which Christ was brought successively before Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod; the ' Ecce Homo' (copied, it struck me, from Van Dyck), the scourging, etc. In some of these as many as two hundred and fifty persons were at once on the scene-infuriated mobs of priests, money-changers, Roman soldiers, etc. — and, violent as were the passions personified, there was not the least approach to rant, nor the slightest transgression into irreverence or improbability. In the course of these scenes a striking occurrence was the contrast of Barabbas — a brutal and squalid figure — with the noble form and countenance of the sacred sufferer the latter formed more after the model of those of Albert Durer than of any other painter; at least such was my impression. Both Pilate and Herod were admirably represented, but especially the former.

5. The whole long procession, at the slowest pace, from Pilate's house to Golgotha; our Lord and the thieves carrying their huge crosses; his interview with his mother and the other women of Jerusalem. This contained the legendary or traditional incident of the wiping of Christ's face by St. Veronica; but there was no attempt to show the miraculous impression of the sacred countenance on the handkerchief, which forms the point of the legend.

6. The last dreadful scene — the uprearing of the three crosses with their living burdens, and all the cruel incidents of that most cruel and lingering death" (Eadie, Ecclesiastes Cyclop. s.v.). Plays of an humble description, from subjects in legendary or sacred history, are not unfrequently got up by the villagers around Innspruck, which show a certain rude dramatic talent, though not comparable to what is exhibited at Ammergau. Girls very generally represent both the male and female characters. See, besides the authorities quoted in the article, Onesime le Rov, Etudes sur les Mysteres (Paris. 1837, 8vo), chapter 1; Edelstand du Meril, Origines du Theatre moderne (Paris. 1849, 8vo); Wright, Early Mysteries, etc. (Lond. 1838, 8vo); Collier, Hist. of Engl. Dramat. Poetry; Magnin, Les Origines du Theatre moderne (Paris, 1838); Devrient, Geschichte d. Schauspielkunst

(Leipsic, 1848); Hone, English Mysteries (Lond. 1823); Marriott, English Miracle-plays (Basle, 1856). The libretto has been published (Lond. 1890, 8vo). For monographs, see Volbeding, Index Programmatum, page 172.

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