7.c. The Annunciation


1 Here begins the annunciation

2 Lines 101–02: My Lord shall also give to him / the seat of his ancestor David, at his will

3 Lines 152–54: Go, my friend, / to the one who sent you / for the sake of humankind

4 Here ends the annunciation of the blessed Mary


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.

1–76 Sythen I have mayde . . . . and weynd. God’s opening speech, unlike the rest of the Advent sequence, is written in couplets. It may be a later addition, but appears to be written specifically for this sequence, given the specific reference to the prophets who speak in the Prophets pageant (see the final note to 7.a), as well as to what follows here. The speech explicitly blames the fall of Adam on Eve as well as on Satan in the form of an “edder” (line 25), and explains that salvation must therefore come through the Incarnation of God as man (“the last Adam” according to 1 Corinthians 15:45), born of a pure maiden (Mary as the antithesis of Eve), and sacrificed on a wooden cross (corresponding to, and by tradition raised from the seed of, the Tree of Life, which here as in some other medieval sources is conflated with the Tree of Knowledge with its forbidden fruit). This idea of salvation as the perfect antithesis to original sin involving “man, maiden, and tree,” is given an especially memorable formulation in lines 32–34. The biblical source for the play is Luke 1:26–38.

9 Oyll of mercy. See note to 3.66.

12 fyfe thowsand yeris and more. The number is commonplace. In the Harrowing of Hell pageant, Adam states that he has been in hell for “four thowsand and sex hundreth yere” (22.27; see York 37.39), having lived on earth for 930 years, according to Genesis 5:5.

18 preson. The prison he refers to is hell (see line 13), to which all the souls of the dead were condemned after the fall. See also line 23.

37 os son thrugh glas. Sunlight shining through glass is a common analogy for the virginal conception and birth of Christ; see also 15.19.

69–70 She shall conceyf . . . and hyr heryng. It was a poetic and theological commonplace that Mary conceived through the ear upon hearing the angel’s message, Christ being the word of God itself, made flesh (see John 1:1, 14).

77 Hayll, Mary. The angel’s greeting from Luke 1:28 (which does not name Mary) gave rise to the popular hymn and prayer (Ave Maria in Latin) that forms the basis of the rosary. See also 7.e.25.

96 He shall take cyrcumsycyon. See Luke 2:21. Circumcision was demanded of Abraham and all his male descendants (eight days after birth) as a sign of the covenant between him and God (see Genesis 17:10–14). The circumcision of Jesus, celebrated as an official feast of the church on 1 January, was also a popular subject in art, and more than one supposed church relic was claimed to be the original Holy Prepuce — the single part of the physical body of Jesus left on earth following his ascension into heaven.

128–29 He shall umshade and fulfyll / That thi madynhede shall never spyll. That is, the Holy Spirit will protect your virginity and ensure that it remains intact. The MED defines umshaden (v.) as meaning specifically for the Holy Spirit “to overshadow (the Virgin Mary), descend upon,” this being the sole cited instance of the verb. However, umshaden is closely related to the verb umshadwen, which the MED defines as meaning “to protect,” which is another meaning of “overshadow” (see also OED umshade (v.) and overshadow (v.), sense 2).

134 Elesabeth, thi cosyn. See Luke 1:36, and 7.d.23 and note, below. The term “cousin” can refer to virtually “any relative by blood or by marriage” (see MED cosine (n.)).

138 The sext moneth of hyr conceytate. See Luke 1:26.

140–42 No word . . . . all shall hald. That is, God will keep his word in all things.

After 154 Explicit Annunciacio beate Marie. In the manuscript, this rubric follows the scene of Joseph’s Trouble, here treated as a separate pageant and placed after the Salutation. In the text as in the biblical source, Elizabeth is explicitly in the sixth month of her own pregnancy when Mary conceives (see line 138). By the time that Mary’s body is visibly "great and she with child" as she is prior to Joseph’s opening monologue in Joseph’s Trouble (see 7.e.4 and note), Elizabeth must already have given birth; indeed, according to Luke 1:56, Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months (presumably until the birth). The Salutation therefore belongs between these two scenes, rather than after them.


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).

7–74 Then I hym . . . . wythouten dere. MS: this entire page (fol. 28v) is written unusually as two vertical columns.

12 fyfe. So EP. MS: v.

18 preson. So SC, MS. EP: person.

52 said. MS: written above the line in a different hand.

77 Gabriel (speech heading). MS: this speech heading was initially written close to the preceding lines (in couplets) near the top of the page, but was cancelled by the red rule separating the speeches and rewritten closer to the edge of the page to better align with the lines and speech headings below.

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7.c. The Annunciation

from: The Towneley Plays  2017



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Gabriel, the archangel

Incipit annunciacio. 1

Sythen I have mayde all thyng of noght,
And Adam with my handys hath wroght
Lyke to myn ymage att my devyse,
And gyffen hym joy in Paradyse
To won therin as that I wend,
To that he dyd that I defend;
Then I hym put out of that place,
Bot yit I myn I hight hym grace.
Oyll of mercy I can hym heyt
And tyme also his bayll to beytt,
For he has boght his syn full sore
Thise fyfe thowsand yeris and more,
Fyrst in erthe and sythen in hell.
Bot long therin shall he not dwell;
Outt of payn he shall be boght.
I wyll not tyne that I have wroght.
I wyll make redempcyon
As I hyght for my preson,
All wyth reson and with right,
Both thrugh mercy and thrugh myght.
He shall not therfor ay be spylt,
For he was wrangwysly begylt.
He shall out of preson pas
For that he begyled was
Thrugh the edder and his wyfe:
Thay gart hym towch the tree of lyfe
And ete the frute that I forbed,
And he was dampned for that dede.
Ryghtwysnes wyll we make;
I wyll that my son manhede take,
For reson wyll that ther be thre:
A man, a madyn, and a tre;
Man for man, tre for tre,
Madyn for madyn, thus shal it be.
My son shall in a madyn light,
Agans the feynd of hell to fight,
Wythouten wem, os son thrugh glas,
And she, madyn as she was.
Both God and man shall he be,
And she, moder and madyn fre.
To Abraham I am in dett,
To safe hym and his gett,
And I wyll that all prophecye
Be fulfyllyd here by me,
For I am Lord and lech of heyle.
My prophetys shall be funden leyle:
As Moyses sayd, and Isay,
Kyng David and Jeromy,
Abacuk and Daniell,
Sybyll sage that sayde ay well,
And myne othere prophetys all;
As thay have said it shall befall.
Ryse up, Gabriell, and weynd
Unto a madyn that is heynd,
To Nazareth in Galilee,
Ther she dwellys in that cytee,
To that vyrgyn and to that spouse,
To a man of David house,
Joseph also he is namyd by,
And the madyn name Mary.
Angell must to Mary go,
For the feynd was Eve fo —
He was foule and layth to syght,
And thou art angell fayr and bright —
And hayls that madyn, my lemman,
As heyndly as thou can.
Of my behalf thou shall hyr grete:
I have hyr chosen, that madyn swete;
She shall conceyf my derlyng
Thrugh thy word and hyr heryng.
In hyr body wyll I lyght
That is to me clenly dyght.
She shall of hyr body bere
God and man, wythouten dere.
She shall be blyssyd wythouten ende.
Grayth thee, Gabriell, and weynd.

Hayll, Mary gracyouse.
Hayll, madyn and Godys spouse;
Unto thee I lowte.
Of all vyrgyns thou art qwene,
That ever was or shall be seyn,
Wythouten dowte.

Hayll, Mary, and well thou be.
My Lord of heven is wyth thee
Wythouten end.
Hayll, woman most of mede.
Goodly lady, have thou no drede,
That I commend.

For thou has fonden all thyn oone
The grace of God that was out gone
For Adam plyght.
This is the grace that thee betydys:
Thou shall conceyve within thi sydys
A chyld of myght.

When he is comen, that thi son,
He shall take cyrcumsycyon.
Call hym Jesum.
Mightfull man shall be he that
And Godys son shall he hat
By his day com.

My Lord also shall gyf hym tyll
Hys fader sete David at wyll, 2
Therin to sytt.
He shall be kyng in Jacob kyn;
Hys kyngdom shall never blyn,
Lady, well thou wytt.

What is thi name?
Godys strengthe and his angell
That comys to thee.
Ferly gretyng thou me gretys:
A child to bere thou me hetys?
How shuld it be?

I cam never by mans syde
Bot has avowed my madynhede
From fleshly gett;
Therfor I wote not how
That this be brokyn as a vow
That I have hett.

Nevertheles, well I wote
To wyrk thi word and hold thi hote.
Mightfull God is,
Bot I ne wote of what manere;
Therfor I pray thee, messyngere,
That thou me wysh.

Lady, this is the prevaté:
The Holy Gost shall light in thee,
And his vertue
He shall umshade and fulfyll
That thi madynhede shall never spyll
Bot ay be new.

The child that thou shall bere, madame,
Shall Godys son be callid by name;
And se, Mary,
Elesabeth, thi cosyn that is cald geld,
She has conceyffed a son in elde
Of Zacary,

And this is, who wyll late,
The sext moneth of hyr conceytate
That geld is cald.
No word, lady, that I thee bryng
Is unmyghtfull to heven kyng,
Bot all shall hald.

I lofe my Lord all-weldand.
I am his madyn, at his hand
And in his wold;
I trow bodword that thou me bryng.
Be done to me in all thyng
As thou has told.

Mary, madyn heynd,
Me behovys to weynd.
My leyf at thee I take.
Far to, my freynd,
Who thee can send
For mankynde sake. 3

Explicit annunciacio beate Marie. 4

Since; out of nothing; (see note)


live; as I thought
Until he did that which I forbade
remember; promised
promise; (see note)
to mend his misery
paid for
(see note); (t-note)

forget that [which] I have made

promised; prisoner; (see note); (t-note)

be destroyed forever
wrongfully beguiled


stain, as sun; (see note)


physician of healing


a foe to Eve

greet; beloved

conceive; (see note)



Prepare; go

(see note); (t-note)




Because of Adam’s sin
befalls you

circumcision; (see note)

be called

give to him

of Jacob’s kind

you promise [to] me




know not



protect; (see note)
remain unaltered

barren; (see note)
in old age
By Zacharias

seek [to know]
sixth; pregnancy; (see note)

(see note)
impossible for



I must go
leave of you

(see note)

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