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In order to make the reader acquainted with the origin of the
English stage, such as Shakespeare found that stage when he became connected with it, it is necessary to mention that a miracle-play, or mystery (as it has been termed in modern times) is the oldest form of dramatic composition in our language. The stories of productions of this kind were derived from the Sacred Writings, from the pseudo-evangelium, or from the lives and legends of saints and martyrs.
Miracle-plays were common in London in the and even as early as 1119 the miracle-play of St. Katherine had been represented at Dunstaple. It has been conjectured, and indeed in part established", that some of these performances were in French, as well as in Latin; and it was not until the reign of Edward III. that they were generally acted in English. We have three existing series of miracle-plays', all of which have been recently printed; the Towneley collection by the Surtees Club, and those known as the Coventry and Chester pageants by the Shakespeare Society. The Abbotsford Club has likewise printed, from a manuscript at
* See Hist. of Eng. Dram. Poetry and the Stage, Vol. ii.
Since the above was written, in 1844, a fourth series of Miracle-plays bas como to light: it is a M8. upon vellum of about the reign of Henry VI., and in all essential particulars it seems to accord with other collections of scriptural dramas. The Shakespeare Society would have printed it, uniformly with their volumes of the Coventry and Chester plays, but the owner, for some unexplained reason, was unwilling that it should appear in type, and thus we have been prevented from instituting any close comparison.
Oxford, three detached miracle-plays which once, probably, formed a portion of a connected succession of productions of that description.
During about 300 years this species of theatrical entertainment seems to have flourished, often under the auspices of the clergy, who used it as the means of religious instruction; but prior to the reign of Henry VI., a new kind of drama had become popular, which by writers of the time was denominated a moral, or moral-play, and more recently a morality. It acquired this name from the nature and purpose of the representation, which usually conveyed a lesson for the better conduct of human life, the characters employed not being scriptural, as in miracle-plays, but allegorical, or symbolical. Miracle-plays continued to be represented long after moralplays were introduced, but from a remote date abstract impersonations had, by degrees not now easily traced, found their way into miracle-plays: thus, perhaps, moral-plays, consisting only of such characters, grew out of them.
A very remarkable and interesting miracle-play, not founded upon the Sacred Writings, but upon a popular legend, and all the characters of which, with one exception, purport to be real personages, has been discovered in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, in a manuscript certainly as old as the later part of the reign of Edward IV.' It is perhaps the only specimen of the kind in our language; and as it was unknown to all who have hitherto written on the history of our ancient drama, it will not here be out of place to give some account of the incidents to which it relates, and of the persons concerned in them. The title of the piece, and the year in which the events are supposed to have occurred, are given at the close, where we are told that it is “The Play of the Blessed Sacrament“," and that the miracle to which it refers was wrought "in the forest of Arragon, in the famous city of Araclea, in the year of our Lord God 1461." There can be no doubt that the scene of action was imaginary, being fixed merely for the greater satisfaction of the spectators as to the reality of the occurrences ; and
"We are indebted for a correct transcript of the original to the zeal and kindness of the Rev. Dr. J. H. Todd, V.P., R.I.S.A.
• In another part of the MS. it is called “The Play of the Conversion of Sir Jonathas, the Jew, by Miracle of the Blessed Sacrament ;" but inferior Jews are converted, besides Sir Jonathas, who is the head of the tribe in the "famous city of Araclea."
doubt that a legend of the kind was of a much older date than that assigned in the manuscript, which was, probably, near the time when the drama was represented.
In its form it closely resembles the miracle-plays which had their origin in Scripture-history, and one of the characters, that of the Saviour, common in productions of that class, is introduced into it: the rest of the personages engaged are five Jews, named Jonathas, Jason, Jasdon, Masphat, and Malchus; a Christian merchant called Aristorius ; a bishop ; Sir Isidore a priest ; a physician from Brabant called “Mr. Brundyche," and Colle his servant'. The plot relates to the purchase of the Eucharist by the Jews from Aristorius for 100l. ; under an assurance also, that if they find its miraculous powers verified, they will become converts to Christianity. Aristorius, having got possession of the key of a church, enters it secretly, takes away the Host, and sells it to the Jews. They put it to various tests and torments : they stab "the cake” with their daggers, and it bleeds, while one of the Jews
goes mad at the sight. They next attempt to nail it to a post, but the Jew who uses the hammer has his hand torn off; and here the doctor and his servant, Mr. Brundyche and Colle, make their appearance in order to attend the wounded Jew; but, after a long comic scene between the quack and his man, highly illustrative of the manners of the time, they are driven out as impostors. The Jews then proceed to boil the Host, but the water turns blood-red, and, taking it out of the cauldron with pincers, they throw it into a blazing oven: the oven, after blood has run out" at the crannies," bursts agunder, and the Saviour, rising amid the fume, addresses the Jews, who are as good as their word, for they are converted on the spot. They kneel to the Christian bishop; and Aristorius having confessed his crime and declared his repentance, is forgiven after a suitable admonition, and a strict charge never again to buy or sell.
This very singular and striking performance is opened, as was usual with miracle-plays, by two Vexillators, who explain in alternate stanzas the nature of the story about
* This name may possibly throw some light on an obscure passage, in a letter dated about 1535, and quoted in "The History of Eng. Dram. Poetry, and the Stage,” i. 131, where a person of the name of Thomas Wylley informs Cromwell, Earl of Essex, that he had written a play in which a character called " Colle, clogger of Conscience,” was introduced, to the great offence of the Roman