Play 10, Abraham and Isaac
Play 10, ABRAHAM AND ISAAC: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: AV: Authorized (“King James”) Version; Meditations: Meditations on the Life of Christ, trans. Ragusa and Green; MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; RB: Richard Beadle, ed., York Plays; REED: Records of Early English Drama; YA: Davidson and O’Connor, York Art; York Breviary: Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesie Eboracensis; York Missal: Missale ad usum insignis ecclesiae Eboracensis.
References to the Ordo paginarum are to REED: York, 1:16–27.
The Parchment Makers were a specialized leather craft whose members appear in the list of freemen of the city after 1350, while the Bookbinders, who probably lived in the liberties controlled by the Minster rather than the city, seem never to have sought the freedom of the city. Their play, written in twelve-line stanzas used in nearly a quarter of the pageants in the cycle, is based on Genesis 22, which tells the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, with some details from previous chapters. However, it also is influenced by the Middle English Paraphrase of the Old Testament.1 The story was regarded as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.2 In demonstrating the typological relationship, the woodcut in the Biblia Pauperum shows Abraham poised to sacrifice his son immediately to the left of a depiction of Christ on the cross. In the York pageant the point is underlined by the fact that Isaac is not a young child but of the age of Jesus at the time of his ministry and Crucifixion (line 82: “Thyrty yere and more sumdele”). In a city with a high mortality rate (church records show that over the years the pageants were played, deaths exceeded births, with a precipitous decline in population that could not be stemmed by immigration), the loss of a son would have been a potential calamity. The civic predicament was such that here especially the play would have been expected to be particularly compelling — indeed, narrating a terrifying story that, as Søren Kierkegaard would demonstrate in Fear and Trembling, pitted the ethical against the higher demands of loyalty to God. The play presents a very human and compelling story, made all the more so in this telling. But the outcome is happy, for Abraham is also the patriarch from whom, through Isaac, both Judaism and Christianity would spring, as indicated in the final speech of the angel that reinforces God’s earlier promise. In the York lectionary, the story of Abraham appears in responsories in the days leading up to Lent.
13–20 God has told the patriarch Abraham that his progeny will be like the sands of the sea, and in Genesis 17 has made a covenant with him that includes the rite of circumcision in order to satisfy “the lawe.”
14 telde under a tree. Compare Middle English Metrical Paraphrase: “Abraham was tyllyd under A tre” (ed. Kalén and Ohlander, line 554).
15–16 my seede shulde be multyplyed / Lyke to the gravell of the see. Compare Middle English Metrical Paraphrase: “Ose gravell in the se is multyplyd, / So sall I multiplye thi sede” (ed. Kalén and Ohlander, lines 476–77).
29–40 Because she was barren, Sarah gave her handmaid Agar to Abraham as a second wife, and with her he had a son Ishmael, who is only said in the pageant to be handsome. See Genesis 16.
65 ANGELUS. In the pageant God communicates with Abraham through the angel, his messenger, rather than directly, as in Genesis.
71 lande of Vyssyon. The “land of vision” will be the place chosen by God where, upon a mountain, the sacrifice, by burning, is to take place (Genesis 22:2). The three-day journey is biblical, as are the servants (line 94) who accompanied Abraham and Isaac.
151 My sone, this wode behoves thee bere. In iconography, as for example in the Biblia Pauperum, Isaac carries the bundle of wood for the sacrifice. Sometimes the wood is bundled into the shape of a cross to underline the typological connection with Christ carrying the cross to the place of his execution.
161–62 Isaac becomes increasingly concerned about the lack of a sacrificial animal, especially since clearly Abraham is becoming more and more agitated. At last, at line 188, Abraham can no longer hold back the truth that he is about to sacrifice his own son, and he will do it at God’s command.
194–96 Isaac is terrified at the thought of being dismembered and burned, but he nevertheless is willing to allow himself to be sacrificed — just as Jesus, suffering the terror of his Agony in the Garden, will give himself up to his Father’s will, even death on the cross. By line 270, Isaac will be deeply fearful and will report that his “flesshe waxis faynte.”
212 My force youre forward to withstande. As noted above in the headnote to this pageant, at line 82 Isaac is described not as a child but as “sumdele” more than thirty years of age. While differing opinions concerning his age were put forward in the Middle Ages, the reason for depicting Isaac thus is that he “was fygur of Crystys passyon long er he wer borne” (Mirk, Festial, p. 78). See Wells, “Age of Isaac”; Woolf, “Effect of Typology,” p. 811; and C. Davidson, From Creation to Doom, pp. 52–54. Isaac’s “force” or strength is thus plausibly much greater than his aged father’s.
213 beste that ye me bynde. In the pageant it is Isaac who suggests that he should be bound. Later, he will ask that a kerchief be placed over his eyes as well (line 288).
229 Nowe kysse me hartely. The son is asked to show normal reverence for a parent with a kiss, as would be expected of offspring even into adulthood. Isaac later will ask his father for forgiveness for any trespasses he may have done in speech, deeds, “or any waye” (lines 255–58).
271 take youre swerde. Abraham’s sword is a standard item in iconography, usually shown lifted by him to strike his son on the altar. Yet there is further delay, until at last it must be raised to strike at lines 301–03, when the angel calls to him and orders him to desist. In most examples in the visual arts (e.g., the Biblia Pauperum, p. 96), the angel grasps his arm to prevent the sword from striking. In glass, possibly with connections to the York school of glass painting, in the Priory Church at Great Malvern, the angel appears only to be admonishing the patriarch who holds the uplifted sword, but here Abraham has his left hand on the head of Isaac, who is blindfolded and kneeling as in prayer (Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, pp. 170–71, fig. 80).
304 Take here a schepe. The substitute for the son Isaac, in Christian theology mirroring the Son of God, the Lamb of God who will be a substitute for all humankind. In the pageant, the actual sacrifice of the sheep, surely not a live animal but rather a representation that Abraham and his son could pretend to burn, must have been very perfunctory, for at lines 329–32 the father and son are already prepared to return home.
365 Rabek. For the more complex story of Isaac’s love for and courtship of Rebecca, see Genesis 25.
Play 10, ABRAHAM AND ISAAC: TEXTUAL NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: Bevington: David Bevington, ed., Medieval Drama (1975); Köbling: E. Köbling, “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik der York Plays”; LTS: Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., The York Plays (1885); RB: Richard Beadle, ed., The York Plays (1972) (incorporating numerous emendations from other sources); RB2: Richard Beadle, “Corrections to The York Plays,” in Gerald Byron Kinneavy, A Concordance to the York Plays (1986), pp. xxxi–xxxii; s.d.: stage direction; Sykes: A. C. Cawley, ed., “The Sykes MS of the York Scriveners’ Play”; Towneley: Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley, eds., The Towneley Plays.
The base text for this edition is London, British Library, MS. Add. 35290, called the “Register” in the York civic records and here identified by the abbreviation Reg. Some variations in lineation from the manuscript are not noted here; see RB and Beadle and Meredith’s The York Play: A Facsimile. In most cases the line numbering in the present text is consistent with RB. Lineation of alliterative verse throughout is based on Reg, with line numbering adjusted accordingly to account for half lines. Scribes are identified as follows: Scribe A; Scribe B: main scribe; JC: John Clerke; LH: later scribal hand (unidentified).
15 schulde be. RB: shulde be; Reg, LTS: schulde.
multyplyed. Reg: Final letter added by LH.
25 Abram. So LTS, RB; Reg: Abraham.
70 over. So LTS; RB: our.
90 Reg: following that, I interlined by LH.
95 asse. So RB; Reg, LTS: Assee.
108 send. Reg: emended by LH, originally sand.
agayne. Reg: added by Scribe B.
145 Reg: added in right margin by LH: Abram.
165 Reg: in right margin, probably by JC, apparently in error: father wold God / I shuld be slayne (deleted).
235–38 Reg: at right, by LH: hic; also illegible text, erased.
268 Reg: in right margin, JC has added: Nowe have I chose / whether I had lever etc. Also: My nowne swete son / to slo or greve my / God for ever.
271 Reg: to right, hic caret added by LH.
272 Methynke. So RB; LTS: Me thynke; Reg: Ye thynke.
281–82 Reg: by LH at right: Hic caret.
297 Reg: added by LH in right margin: hic.
327 he. Reg: interlined, by LH, in red.
362 lawez. Reg: corrected by LH.
369 ISAAC. Reg: repeated in right margin, by LH.
Play 10, ABRAHAM AND ISAAC: EXPLANATORY NOTE FOOTNOTES
Footnote 1 See Middle-English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Kalén and Ohlander, and Beadle, “Origins of Abraham’s Preamble.”
Footnote 2 See Daniélou, From Shadows to Reality, pp. 115–30; Mirk, Festial, pp. 76–78; and the surveys in Woolf, “Effect of Typology,” and C. Davidson, History, Religion, and Violence, pp. 124–48, esp. 126–31.
The Parchemyners and Bokebynders
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