Play 14, The Nativity
Play 14, THE NATIVITY: 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 earlier history of this pageant, dramatizing the third Joy of Mary, is problematic in part on account of erasures in the Ordo paginarum, which in its present form also suggests a direct connection with the next pageant of the Offering of the Shepherds.1 Were these two plays presented as a single drama in tandem, as appears to have been the case with the Masons’ and Goldsmiths’ Herod and Magi pageants? There is also reference in the Ordo paginarum to a midwife, following the Protevangelium a common character in earlier narratives of the Nativity but missing in the extant text. Further, the Nativity is based in part on the iconography introduced by the Revelations of St. Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden that was prevalent only after c. 1420, as, for example, in an illustration in the Speculum humanae salvationis.2 Its biblical source is mainly Luke 2:6–7.3 That the play as it stands still was not a final version is suggested by the entry in the civic records in 1567 which specifies that John Clerke is to enter into the Register plays not previously included along with “of the Tylars the lattr part of their pageant.”4 The verse form is a seven-line stanza. The Tile Thatchers who produced the play were craftsmen involved in the building trades, specializing mainly in the tile roofs that were the norm in late medieval York.
1–28 Seeking such a desolate location for the night’s lodging was necessary on account of overcrowding in the city of Bethlehem, though the biblical explanation for the lack of space in any of the inns — that is, the census allegedly ordered by the emperor — is not cited. The stable is primitive, with a broken roof, which would have appealed to the sponsoring guild, and walls that have fallen down. The scene seems very much like a Flemish painting such as the Dijon Nativity by the Master of Flemalle to which Robinson has called attention (Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft, p. 124 and fig. 1).
39–44 wolde I fayne we had sum light . . . bryng. It is “right myrke” (the traditional time is midnight), and Joseph will go for a light and will also look for a source of “fewell,” presumably wood for a fire to heat the cold stable, but not to enlist the help of midwives as in earlier versions of the story. Joseph, having returned, holds a candle in the Dijon Nativity and in some other representations of the birth of Jesus such as a stained glass panel, possibly by a York glass painter, at Great Malvern (Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, p. 278, fig. 136).
50–56 The birth of Jesus, as described by St. Birgitta (Life and Selected Revelations, p. 203; Cornell, Iconography of the Nativity, pp. 1–15). Mary would have been kneeling here with her hands held in a gesture of prayer, as suggested by St. Birgitta. She presumably remained in this posture through the recitation of the Hail lyrics that follow. The birth has been painless, for Jesus has been conceived without sin, and the Child appears as if miraculously on the ground before her. She only picks up the Child at lines 64–66, and wraps him in a “poure wede.”
78 what light is this. Joseph’s amazement at the radiance from the Child which overwhelms the light of the candle he is carrying. The source of the light is the aureole surrounding the infant, who will be the light of the world; see Birgitta, Life and Selected Revelations, p. 203. At Barcelona in 1453, a tableau vivant of the Nativity presented Jesus as an infant, nude and “glowing with light” (Meredith and Tailby, Staging, p. 72). Special lighting effects are surveyed by Butterworth, Theatre of Fire, pp. 55–78.
91 this foode. In addition to the literal meaning (i.e., the actual Child) here, King supports a “sacramental reading” that links the Child with the food of the Eucharist, particularly appropriate for a pageant presented on Corpus Christi (York Mystery Cycle, p. 103). A Eucharistic reading was previously suggested by Robinson, who cites the carol “Wylyam northe of York” that identified the Child as “blyesful fowde” (Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft, p. 77; Greene, ed., Early English Carols, no. 36). This would have been particularly appropriate in the play if, as King suggests, the newborn was taken up from the ground in a gesture reminiscent of the Eucharistic liturgy.
97 a starne to be shynyng. Conventional imagery and, as noted, consistent with prophecy (Numbers 24:17), but certainly part of the stage set.
106 floure fairest of hewe. Compare Isaias 11:1.
108–12 Hayle . . . floure. Hail lyrics, as in the Magi and Purification plays. The lines express reverence for Jesus as Creator, King, and Savior. He is the one, the Mirour of Mans Salvacioune explains, who at his birth was given to the world as “a soverein preste” whose flesh was like a “shelle” in which “was hidde his deitee” (lines 1078–80). Joseph’s lines echo the idea, implicit in the Christmas Vigil liturgy, of the coming into time of the Redeemer who will judge the world, as King points out (York Mystery Cycle, p. 98), but these lyrics also are reminiscent of the texts of prayers designed to be spoken at the time of the elevation at Mass as an affirmation of God’s presence (see Robbins, “Levation Prayers,” and Rubin, Corpus Christi, pp. 155–63).
122–33 beholde thes beestis mylde . . . warm hym with. In Love’s Mirror, the ox and the ass in the stable kneel down and place their mouths on the manger so as to warm the Child since they understood that on account of the cold he “hade nede to be hatte in that manere” (p. 37). These two animals are conventional in iconography (see, for example, the Bolton Hours, fol. 36) and are derived from the Hebrew text and the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 3:2 (“in the midst of two beasts will thou be known”), Isaias 1:3 (“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib”), Pseudo-Matthew, and other sources (see Schiller, Iconography, 1:60–61).
149 My God, my Lorde, my Sone so free. Robinson (Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft, p. 74) notes that these words echo St. Birgitta’s Revelations: “Bene veneris deus meus, dominus meus et filius meus” (see Birgitta, Life and Selected Revelations, p. 203).
Play 14, THE NATIVITY: 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).
1 All. Reg: large initial A, perhaps by LH.
47 For. So LTS, RB; Reg: Fo; Bevington: Of.
71 what. So LTS, RB; Reg: what what, with initial what canceled.
75–77 Reg: lines written at right; insertion by Scribe B.
154, s.d. Added by later hands in Reg: hic caret pastoribus and sequitur postea. Another addition, visible under ultraviolet light: . . . with haste.
Play 14, THE NATIVITY: EXPLANATORY NOTE FOOTNOTES
Footnote 1 See RB, pp. 426–27.
Footnote 2 Wilson and Wilson, Medieval Mirror, p. 156.
Footnote 3 See especially Robinson, Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft, pp. 60–80.
Footnote 4 REED: York, 1:351.
The Tille Thekers
Go To Play 15, The Offering of the Shepherds