7.e. Joseph's Trouble


1 Lines 35–36: You need not suggest that I had any part in this [conception]

2 Lines 74–75: People are accustomed to leaving young children / at the temple for their education

3 All of them wove silk, with which to provide for themselves


ABBREVIATIONS: Chester: The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. Lumiansky and Mills (1974); CT: The Canterbury Tales, ed. Benson (1987); DSL: Dictionary of the Scots Language; Elliott: The Apocryphal New Testament, ed. Elliott; EP: The Towneley plays, ed. England and Pollard (1897); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: Huntington MS HM 1 (“the Towneley manuscript”); N-Town: The N-Town Plays, ed. Sugano (2007); OED: Oxford English Dictionary; REED: Records of Early English Drama; SC: The Towneley Plays, eds. Stevens and Cawley (1994); s.d.: stage direction; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases; York: The York Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Davidson (2011).

The sequence of Nativity-related plays in the Towneley manuscript is famously disordered: the incomplete Prophets pageant is followed not only by a blank leaf (see the final note to 7.a) but also by the Pharaoh play, which should precede it; there are two Shepherds plays, but no Nativity itself. Moreover, the works that immediately precede those two Shepherds plays, including the Prophets but excluding the Pharaoh play, appear to constitute a separate, cohesive sequence. These works are written mostly in variations of the same tailrhyme stanza form (rhymed aabaab or aabccb), probably by a single author; prior to the compilation of the manuscript, they likely formed a single play, divided into short pageants or scenes, possibly for processional performance. However, the sequence as a whole could easily have been performed by five actors taking multiple roles, including four men, one of whom would play the role of Elizabeth (who is twice said to have conceived “in elde” — see lines 7.c.135 and 7.d.11), and a boy who would play Sibyl, Mary, and the messenger. The original sequence could conceivably have concluded with a now-lost Nativity pageant, but might well have been performed as an Advent play, as is, with an ending that looks forward to the ecclesiastical celebrations of Christmas rather than dramatizing that central event.

Reconstituting the sequence, however, requires more than removal of the misplaced Pharaoh play. According to the text as it stands in the manuscript, Elizabeth would have to be more than nine months’ pregnant by the time of her visit with Mary (see the final note to 7.c). The Joseph’s Trouble episode, treated in the manuscript as part of the Annunciation play, was likely a separate pageant and intended to follow rather than precede the Salutation. Its misplacement can be explained by the existence of a series of exemplars that were unbound, untitled, and thus easily confused: according to this scenario, the original Prophets pageant, possibly already damaged and incomplete, was accidentally copied prior to the Pharaoh play, while the Joseph’s Trouble pageant was copied as if part of the Annunciation, and followed by the Salutation. The Salutation (rather than the Joseph’s Trouble pageant) might originally have been part of a single pageant along with the Annunciation (as occurs in York); it is perhaps significant that these two pageants together (with a total of 244 lines) are almost exactly the same length as Caesar Augustus (240 lines) and only slightly longer than Joseph’s Trouble (219 lines).

The Caesar Augustus pageant, too, may be misplaced, as Stevens and Cawley argue (SC p. 472): tradition (as recorded in the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine 1:40) held that Caesar learned of the birth of Christ on the day of the Nativity; however, the same tradition held that Caesar raised an altar in his honor, whereas this Emperor is conflated with King Herod in seeking to kill Christ as a rival. Moreover, Christ explicitly has not yet been born in this play (see line 7.b.71). The pageant could very effectively be placed between the Salutation and Joseph’s Trouble, filling the time gap between these episodes; however, it remains entirely possible that the pageant should follow The Prophets, and to precede the Annunciation, as it does in this edition.

4 hyr body is grete and she with childe. Prior to his entrance here, Joseph has been absent for “neyn monethes” (line 127); according to the Protevangelium of James 9:2, he has been working in construction (see Elliott, p. 61) and, on his return, finds that Mary is in the sixth month of her pregnancy (Elliott, p. 62, 13:1).

11–12 I myght well wyt . . . lykyng of man. That is, he might have known that a young woman would be attracted to a man in his prime, unlike himself, who is now old (see line 13), and incapable of amorous “gams” or sport (line 15). The tradition that Joseph was an old man prior to the betrothal and chosen by a miraculous intervention (as outlined in Joseph’s second monologue — see note to line 73–108 below) stems from the Protevangelium of James 9:1–2 (Elliott, pp. 60–61).

24 wytt who owe that foode. That is, he wishes to know who fathered that child. The word “owe” here and in line 32 is in the subjunctive, and could be translated as “should acknowledge (the child) as his own” (see MED ouen (v.), sense 1d).

25 Hayll, Mary. See Gabriel’s greeting at 7.c.77, and the accompanying note.

46 if thou speke thiself to spyll. That is, if you speak such that you destroy yourself, by ruining your reputation.

66 For doyll what shall I do. This line, like the monologue that follows, is clearly addressed not to Mary but to the audience. In a wagon or single scaffold staging, Joseph might potentially leave Mary behind on the stage to wander among the audience; in line 199 he claims to have “walkyd aboute lyke a fon” (or fool).

73–108 And how we met . . . . A sory man then was I. Joseph’s account of the betrothal is ultimately derived from the Protevangelium of James, but filtered through later sources such as the Golden Legend; in the Protevangelium 9.1 (Elliott, p. 60), for example, a dove miraculously flies from the rod, rather than flowers blooming much as in the biblical story of Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17:8), as narrated in York 13.32. The scene is dramatized at length, complete with flowering rod, in N-Town 10: Marriage of Mary and Joseph, part of the unique Mary Play embedded in that collection.

85 She wold none othere for any sagh. That is, she did not want any husband other than God, no matter what others told her.

118 to fynd them on. The verb “find” here is used in the sense of “provide for” (see MED finden (v.), sense 15a, which cites this line) — in this case meaning to provide for themselves, by means of their work. According to the Protevangelium 10 (Elliott, p. 61), Mary and her companions were specifically engaged in making a veil for the temple.

151–53 But Marie . . . . never so nere. These lines constitute half of a regular stanza; the other half is apparently missing. The missing lines likely referred to the need to expose Mary’s supposed adultery as a violation of the law (see Leviticus 20:10), although that would mean her death, as pointed out in lines 156–57 — lines that now seem obscure and out of place.

156 The law wyll it be so. See note to lines 151–53, above.

172 Do wa Joseph and mend thy thoght. In most sources (including Matthew 1:20–24) and medieval representations, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream as he sleeps. Although Joseph could potentially lie down immediately after he concludes his monologue, the lack of any mention of sleep or tiredness is unusual; having the angel speak directly to Joseph, on the other hand, would effectively serve to raise his stature.

179 She hase consavyd the Holy Gast. This line is faintly underlined, with “note this very” written in the right margin by a later hand; SC suggest that the word “well” might have been cut off in rebinding, and argue that the comment must “point to a theological objection” (p. 478n333); however, as mentioned in the Introduction, p. 8, it could well suggest a positive response.

214 light as lynde. That is, as light as a leaf upon a linden tree. Proverbial. See Whiting L139.

215–19 He that may . . . . my lyfys ende. In the manuscript this line is followed by “Explicit Annunciacio beate Marie,” moved in this edition to the ending of the Annunciation scene itself (see the final note to 7.c). While the original sequence might potentially have included a now-lost pageant representing the Nativity, Joseph’s final lines of prayer and benediction provide a suitable conclusion. That said, these lines could well have been followed by a song — specifically an Advent or Christmas hymn. Some important musical cues in the York manuscript, for example, were added only later (including singing both by the Angel and by Mary in the Annunciation pageant; see York 12:166, 253), and by an observer of the performance rather than by a copyist; a musical conclusion may similarly have been treated as extra-textual in the exemplar available to the Towneley scribe.


ABBREVIATIONS: EP: The Towneley Plays, ed. England and Pollard (EETS, 1897); Facs: The Towneley Cycle: A Facsimile of Huntington MS HM 1, ed. Cawley and Stevens; MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: Huntington MS HM 1 (base text); SC: The Towneley Plays, ed. Stevens and Cawley (EETS, 1994); s.d.: stage direction; Surtees: The Towneley Mysteries, ed. Raine; York: The York Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Davidson (2011).

71 I thynk no. MS: second I crossed out before no.

116 foure. MS: iiij. EP: my.

127 Neyn. So EP. MS: ix.

179 She hase consavyd the Holy Gast. MS: this line is faintly underlined; in the right margin, a later hand has written note this very — anything further being cut off due to the page being trimmed. See Explanatory Note.

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7.e. Joseph's Trouble

from: The Towneley Plays  2017








[fol. 30r]













[fol. 30v]











[fol. 31r]












[fol. 31v]









Allmyghty God, what may this be?
Of Mary my wyfe mervels me:
Alas, what has she wroght?
A, hyr body is grete and she with childe.
For me was she never fylyd;
Therfor myin is it noght.

I irke full sore with my lyfe
That ever I wed so yong a wyfe;
That bargan may I ban.
To me it was a carefull dede.
I myght well wyt that yowthede
Wold have lykyng of man.

I am old, sothly to say.
Passed I am all prevay play;
The gams fro me ar gane.
It is ill cowpled of youth and elde.
I wote well, for I am unwelde,
Som othere has she tane.

She is with chyld, I wote never how.
Now who wold any woman trow?
Certys, no man that can any goode.
I wote not in the warld what I shuld do,
Bot now then wyll I weynd hyr to
And wytt who owe that foode.

Hayll, Mary, and well ye be.
Why, bot woman, what chere with thee?
The better, syr, for you.
So wold I, woman, that ye wore,
Bot certys, Mary, I rew full sore
It standys so with thee now.

Bot of a thyng frayn thee I shall:
Who owe this child thou gose withall?
Syr, ye and God of heven.
Myne, Mary? Do way thi dyn.
That I shuld oght have parte therin
Thou nedys it not to neven. 1

Wherto nevyns thou me therto?
I had never with thee to do.
How shuld it then be myne?
Whos is that chyld, so God thee spede?
Syr, Godys and yowrs, withouten drede.
That word had thou to tyne,

For it is right full far me fro,
And I forthynkys thou has done so
Thise ill dedys bedene,
And if thou speke thiself to spyll
It is full sore agans my wyll,
If better myght have bene.

At Godys wyll, Joseph, must it be,
For certanly bot God and ye
I know none othere man,
For fleshly was I never fylyd.
How shuld thou thus then be with chyld?
Excuse thee well thou can.

I blame thee not, so God me save,
Woman maners if that thou have,
Bot certys, I say thee this:
Well wote thou, and so do I,
Thi body fames thee openly
That thou has done amys.

Yee, God he knowys all my doyng.
Wé, now, this is a wonder thyng.
I can noght say therto
Bot in my hart I have greatt care,
And ay the longer mare and mare.
For doyll what shall I do?

Godys and myn she says it is.
I wyll not fader it; she says amys.
For shame, yit shuld she let
To excuse hir velany by me?
With hir I thynk no longer be;
I rew that ever we met.

And how we met ye shall wyt sone.
Men use yong chyldren for to done
In temple for to lere; 2
Soo dyd thay hir to she wex more
Then othere madyns wyse of lore.
Then byshopes sayd to hir,

“Mary, thee behowfys to take
Som yong man to be thi make,
As thou seys other hane,
In the temple which thou wyll neven.”
And she sayd, “none bot God of heven,”
To hym she had hir tane.

She wold none othere for any sagh.
Thay sayd she must, it was the lagh;
She was of age thertill.
To the temple thay somond old and ying,
All of Juda ofspryng,
The law for to fulfill.

Thay gaf ich man a white wand
And bad us bere them in oure hande
To offre with good intent.
Thay offerd thare yerdys up in that tyde.
For I was old I stode besyde;
I wyst not what thay ment.

Thay lakyd oone, thay sayde in hy.
All had offerd, thay sayd, bot I,
For I ay withdrogh me.
Furth with my wande thay mayd me com;
In my hand it floryshed with blome.
Then sayde thay all to me,

“If thou be old, mervell not thee,
For God of heven thus ordans he:
Thi wand shewys openly;
It florishes so withouten nay
That thee behovys wed Mary the may.”
A sory man then was I.

I was full sory in my thoght.
I sayde for old I myght noght
Hir have never-the-wheder;
I was unlykely to hir so yong.
Thay sayde ther helpyd none excusyng
And wed us thus togeder.

When I all thus had wed hir thare,
We and foure madyns home can fare
That kyngys doghters were.
All wroght thay sylk to fynd them on; 3
Marie wroght purpyll, the oder none
Bot othere colers sere.

I left thaym in good peasse, wenyd I.
Into the contré I went on hy
My craft to use with mayn;
To gett oure lyfyng I must nede.
On Marie I prayd them take good hede
To that I cam agane.

Neyn monethes was I fro that myld;
When I cam home, she was with chyld.
Alas, I sayd, for shame.
I askyd ther women who that had done
And thay me sayde an angell sone
Syn that I went from hame.

“An angell spake with that wyght
And no man els, bi day nor nyght,
Sir, therof be ye bold.”
Thay excusyd hir thus sothly
To make hir clene of hir foly
And babyshed me that was old.

Shuld an angell this dede have wroght?
Sich excusyng helpys noght,
For no craft that thay can.
A hevenly thyng forsothe is he
And she is erthly; this may not be,
It is som othere man.

Certys, I forthynk sore of hir dede
Bot it is long of yowthhede
All sich wanton playes,
For yong women wyll nedys play them
With yong men if old forsake them;
Thus it is sene always.

Bot Marie and I playd never so sam.
Never togeder we usid that gam;
I cam hir never so nere.

She is as clene as cristall clyfe
For me, and shal be whyls I lyf.
The law wyll it be so,
And then am I cause of hir dede;
Forthi then can I now no rede.
Alas, what I am wo.

And sothly if it so befall
Godys son that she be with all,
If sich grace myght betyde,
I wote well that I am not he
Which that is worthi to be
That blyssed body besyde,

Nor yit to be in company.
To wyldernes I will forthi
Enfors me for to fare,
And never longer with hir dele,
Bot stylly shall I from hir stele
That mete shall we no mare.

Do wa, Joseph, and mend thy thoght.
I warne thee well and weynd thou noght
To wyldernes so wylde.
Turne home to thi spouse agane;
Look thou deme in hir no trane,
For she was never fylde.

Wyte thou no wyrkyng of werkys wast;
She hase consavyd the Holy Gast,
And she shall bere Godys son.
Forthy with hir in thi degré
Meke and buxom looke thou be,
And with hir dwell and won.

A, Lord, I lofe thee all alon
That vowches safe that I be oone
To tent that chyld so ying,
I that thus have ungrathly gone
And untruly taken apon
Mary, that dere darlyng.

I rewe full sore that I have sayde
And of hir byrdyng hir upbrade,
And she not gylty is.
Forthy to hir now wyll I weynde
And pray hir for to be my freynde
And aske hir forgyfnes.

A, Mary, wyfe, what chere?
The better, syr, that ye ar here.
Thus long where have ye lent?
Certys, walkyd aboute lyke a fon
That wrangwysly hase taken apon.
I wyst never what I ment.

Bot I wote well, my lemman fre,
I have trespast to God and thee.
Forgyf me, I thee pray.
Now all that ever ye sayde me to,
God forgyf you, and I do
With all the myght I may.

Gramercy, Mary, thi good wyll,
So kyndly forgyfys that I sayde yll
When I can thee upbrade.
Bot well is hym hase sich a fode,
A meke wyf withouten goode;
He may well hold hym payde.

A, what I am light as lynde.
He that may both lowse and bynde
And every mys amend
Leyn me grace powere and myght
My wyfe and hir swete yong wight
To kepe to my lyfys ende.

[fol. 29v]
large; (see note)
By me; violated

feel deeply troubled by

business; curse

know; youth; (see note)

sexual intimacy
games; gone


know not

go to her
owns; child; (see note)

(see note)

I will inquire [of] you

Stop your noise


Why name


has nothing to do with me
regret that
destroy; (see note)

except for




say nothing

more and more
sorrow; (see note)

speaks falsely


(see note)

until she grew

you should
As you see others have done


(see note)
for that


wands; time

lacked; in haste


flourished; bloom

you should; maid

because of my age

maidens; go; (t-note)

(see note)
various other colors

I thought
in haste


mild one; (t-note)






Certainly; regret
because of youth

together; (see note)

cut crystal

(see note)



Force myself to go

stealthily; steal
(see note)


consider; treachery

Blame no doing of idle deeds
conceived by; (see note); (t-note)



attend to; young
dealt with

deeply regret that which
birthing; reproached

Therefore; go



thank you [for]

[who] has such a person
without possessions
well-paid (lucky)

linden tree; (see note)
(see note)


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