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Play 21, The Baptism of Christ


1 Then two angels will sing “Come Holy Spirit”


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 lesson from Matthew 3:13–17 recounting the Baptism of Christ was read in the York rite at Mass on the first Sunday after the Octave of Epiphany1 — that is, one week prior to the reading of the lesson from Luke which tells the story of Christ in the Temple which formed the subject matter of the previous pageant. Further elaboration crucial to the play is found in the other gospels, especially John 1:29–34. The Baptism and John the Baptist, the saint who effected it, were popular in York. The Minster’s fabric rolls reveal that it had several relics, and the saint was frequently depicted in ecclesiastical art in the city. Enough remains so that it is possible to determine how St. John was expected to appear.2 In glass such as a panel of c. 1470 in the church of Holy Trinity Goodramgate, he is shown as he would have appeared in the desert: he wears a camel skin with head attached, with a cloak over it, and holds a roundel before him with the symbolic Agnus Dei.3 Because the Barbers were involved in the healing arts, their sponsorship of the Baptism play, depicting the institution of a Sacrament designed to heal the spiritual defects of humankind, seems appropriate. The York playtext, representing its status at or near the end of the third decade of the fifteenth century, would probably be rewritten during the time John Clerke came to supervise the production of the cycle, as his notations in the manuscript seem to imply. The verse is in seven-line stanzas.

3–4 yf I preche . . . of thy comyng. John was famous as a preacher and recognized by the Christian community as a prophet; see the Baptist’s words in John 1:23: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias.” These words are quoted in lines 27–28 of the pageant. Modern scholarship regarding John the Baptist has cast new light on his activities and on the prevalence of ritual washing in first-century Palestine, and the question remains whether the secretive Mandaean religious minority that survived in Iraq until modern times may be traced to the cult of John the Baptist.

29–49 As King notes, John’s speech here tends increasingly “to vanquish historical verisimilitude” and to rely on manuals of instruction such as the Lay Folks’ Catechism (York Mystery Cycle, p. 172). The necessity of baptism for salvation is indicated.

50–71 John is told what he already in part knows, but now he is provided with specifics by the two angels. The description of the descent of the Holy Spirit along with the sound of the loud and passionate voice of the Father may be regarded as a stage direction for what is to happen at lines 149–54: a dove will descend and the voice of the Father will proclaim, perhaps in Latin, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; compare Love, Mirror, p. 67), omitted from the extant text of the play. The voice of the Father probably was heard without his actual presence as represented by a visible actor.

84–105 Jesus continues to explain baptism as an example (myrroure) for all men (i.e., all people) that is necessary for entering “endless blys.”

101–05 The vertue of my baptyme dwelle / In baptyme watir evere and ay . . . Haly Gaste. Water used for baptism was considered holy even though the lengthy Continental rite of consecration was not present in English rites. Christian baptism was regarded as efficacious for the washing away of original sin and as a seal to signify being “Christ’s own forever.” For a brief description of the English rite, see Dudley, “Sacramental Liturgies,” pp. 219–27.

120–21 What riche man gose from dore to dore / To begge at hym that has right noght? Proverbial, and here expressing John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus. John will tremble with fear at what he has been asked to do (see lines 141–42). Woolf speaks of the “feeling of devout unwillingness” (English Mystery Plays, p. 219).

149–50 I baptise thee here in the name / Of the Fadir and of the Sone and Holy Gost. The Trinitarian formula required in baptism, following the York Manual. Jesus would appear to be standing in the river Jordan, but there is no reason to believe that he would be nude, as in representations in glass at Holy Trinity Goodramgate or St. John Ousebridge, the latter now inserted in a window in the Minster (YA, pp. 66–67, fig. 17). Blue cloth might have been used to represent the water rising up to Jesus’ waist, and the posture of standing as if in the water would have been retained surely. Water probably would have been poured over his head from a shell by John. The anointing with oil and chrism which appear in the Towneley play are missing here.

154 s.d. Tunc cantabunt duo angeli Veni creator spiritus. Hymn for Whitsunday; see York Breviary, 1:503; translated by Dutka in Music, pp. 119–20. For York music, see Hymni, fols. 32v–35r; compare Liber usualis, pp. 885–86, for the usual musical setting, which may differ slightly from that used in the English rites. Rastall suggests that professional singing men may have been hired to sing, but the music, especially if abbreviated to the first stanza, would have been within the reach of amateurs, either from the Barbers’ own guild or another (Heaven Singing, pp. 331–32). It is a devotional moment.

157 The dragons poure. Compare Psalm 73:13 (AV 74:13): “thou didst crush the heads of the dragons in the waters.” As King observes, this passage was adapted in an antiphon for the Epiphany season (York Mystery Cycle, p. 43, citing York Breviary, 1:193).The power of the dragon has now suffered defeat through the means of the baptism of Christ since he is sinless prior to the act. Yet that defeat may not be immediately obvious, and much more will be required of Jesus — that is, his death on the cross. The Baptism may be regarded as part of the elaborate trick that God is playing on Satan through hiding Jesus under the cover of his humanity.

162–68 Jesus reminds the audience that trusting and believing in him are necessary along with the ritual of baptism in order to “come to blisse.” On the other hand, those who fail “schal be dampned.”


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 Reg: at right, in LH: De novo facto.

48 with. So RB; Reg: wth; LTS: w[i]th.

49 Reg: mark X at left; below, at bottom of page, in JC’s hand: Her wantes a pece newely mayd for saynt John Baptiste.


52–53 thys day. Thus entered at beginning of line 53, canceled, moved to end of line 52 and emended to thys. A later hand was responsible to adding day after thys.

59 JOHANNES. Omitted by Scribe B in Reg; Joseph later designated, corrected by ?JC.

71 Lacuna noted, as indicated by marginal note at right of line by LH in Reg: Hic caret.

83 Reg: later scribe wrote Her wants a pece newely mayd for saynt John Baptiste.

84 In right margin in Reg, probably referring to lacuna in text: De novo facto.

88 The. So RB; Reg, LTS: By.

94 And. So RB; Reg, LTS: I.

101 vertue. Reg originally read wittnesse (deleted); vertue interlined by LH.

104 alway. So RB; in Reg, misplaced at beginning of next line.

107 At right, hic caret (deleted) in Reg.

114 Lorde. So LTS, RB; Reg: Lorede.

131 Thrughe baptyme clere. In red at right by Scribe B in Reg.

141–44 Lines not in correct order in Reg, and lines 141 and 143 entered twice; correct order indicated by letters a to d at left in Reg in red.

154, s.d. cantabunt duo angeli . . . spiritus. Stage direction, in red by Scribe B in Reg.

175, s.d. In JC’s hand in Reg, hic caret finem; below, in same handwriting: This matter is newly mayd and devysed wherof we have no coppy regystred.


Footnote 1 York Missal, 1:34.

Footnote 2 YA, pp. 61–67 and 184.

Footnote 3 Inventory of the Historical Monuments, vol. 5, pl. 57; Knowles, “East Window of Holy Trinity.” For a survey of the iconography in relation to the York play, see C. Davidson, From Creation to Doom, pp. 80–85; and for England generally, Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, pp. 89–92, and Nichols, Seeable Signs, esp. pp. 193–206.

The Barbours































JOHANNES   Almyghty God and Lord verray,
Full woundyrfull is mannys lesyng,
For yf I preche tham day be day
And telle tham, Lorde, of thy comyng,
That all has wrought,
Men are so dull that my preching
Serves of noght.

When I have, Lord, in the name of thee
Baptiste the folke in watir clere,
Than have I saide that aftir me
Shall he come that has more powere
Than I to taste;
He schall giffe baptyme more entire
In fire and gaste.

Thus am I comen in message right
And be forereyner in certayne,
In wittnesse bering of that light
The wiche schall light in ilka a man
That is comand
Into this worlde, nowe whoso can
May undirstande.

Thez folke had farly of my fare
And what I was full faste thei spied.
They askid yf I a prophette ware,
And I saide nay, but sone I wreyede;
High aperte
I said I was a voyce that cryede
Here in deserte.

Loke thou make thee redy, ay saide I,
Unto oure Lord God most of myght,
That is that thou be clene haly
In worde, in werke, ay redy dight
Agayns oure Lord,
With parfite liffe that ilke a wight
Be well restored.

For if we be clene in levyng,
Oure bodis are Goddis tempyll than
In the whilke he will make his dwellyng;
Therfore be clene, bothe wiffe and man.
This is my reed.
God will make in yowe haly than
His wonnyng steed.

And if ye sette all youre delyte
In luste and lykyng of this liff,
Than will he turne fro yow als tyte
Bycause of synne, boyth of man and wiffe,
And fro you flee,
For with whome that synne is riffe
Will God noght be.

I ANGELUS   Thou, John, take tente what I schall saye.
I brynge thee tythandis wondir gode:
My Lorde Jesus schall come thys day
Fro Galylee unto this flode
Ye Jourdane call,
Baptyme to take myldely with mode
This day he schall.

John, of his sande therfore be gladde
And thanke hym hartely, both lowde and still.

JOHANNES   I thanke hym evere, but I am radde
I am noght abill to fullfill
This dede certayne.

II ANGELUS   John, thee aught with harte and will
To be full bayne

To do his bidding, all bydene;
Bot in his baptyme, John, take tente,
The hevenes schalle be oppen sene.
The Holy Gost schalle doune be sente
To se in sight,
The Fadirs voyce with grete talent
Be herde full right,

That schall saie thus to hym forthy
. . .
JOHANNES   With wordes fewne
I will be subgett nyght and day
As me well awe
To serve my Lord Jesus to paye
In dede and sawe.

Bot wele I wote, baptyme is tane
To wasshe and clense man of synne,
And wele I wotte that synne is none
In hym, withoute ne withinne.
What nedis hym than
For to be baptiste more or myne
Als synfull man?
. . .

JESUS   John, kynde of man is freele
To the whilke that I have me knytte,
But I shall shewe thee skyllis twa
That thou schallt knawe by kyndly witte
The cause why I have ordand swa,
And ane is this:
Mankynde may noght unbaptymde go
Te endless blys.

And sithen myselffe have taken mankynde
For men schall me ther myrroure make
And have my doyng in ther mynde,
And also I do the baptyme take.
I will forthy
Myselfe be baptiste for ther sake
Full oppynly.

Anodir skill I schall thee tell:
My will is this, that fro this day
The vertue of my baptyme dwelle
In baptyme watir evere and ay,
Mankynde to taste,
Thurgh my grace therto to take alway
The Haly Gaste.

JOHANNES   All myghtfull Lorde, grete is thi grace;
I thanke thee of thi grete fordede.

JESUS    Cum, baptise me, John, in this place.

JOHANNES   Lorde, save thy grace that I forbede
That itt soo be,
For Lorde, methynketh it wer more nede
Thou baptised me.

That place that I yarne moste of all,
Fro thens come thou, Lorde, as I gesse,
How schulde I than, that is a thrall,
Giffe thee baptyme, that rightwis is
And has ben evere?
For thow arte roote of rightwissenesse
That forfette nevere.

What riche man gose from dore to dore
To begge at hym that has right noght?
Lorde, thou arte riche and I am full poure,
Thou may blisse all, sen thou all wrought.
Fro heven come all
That helpes in erthe, yf soth be sought,
Fro erthe but small.

JESUS   Thou sais full wele, John, certaynly,
But suffre nowe for hevenly mede
That rightwisnesse be noght oonlye
Fullfillid in worde, but also in dede
Thrughe baptyme clere.
Cum, baptise me in my manhed
Appertly here.

Fyrst schall I take, sen schall I preche,
For so behovis mankynde fulfille
All rightwissenesse, als werray leche.

JOHANNES   Lord, I am redy at thi will,
And will be ay
Thy subgett, Lord, both lowde and still,
In that I may.

A, Lorde, I trymble ther I stande,
So am I arow to do that dede,
But save me, Lord, that all ordand,
For thee to touche have I grete drede
For doyngs dark.
Now helpe me, Lorde, thurgh thi Godhede
To do this werk.

Jesus, my Lord of myghtis most,
I baptise thee here in the name
Of the Fadir and of the Sone and Holy Gost.
But in this dede, Lorde, right no blame
This day by me,
And bryngis all thase to thy home
That trowes in thee.
true; (t-note)
(see note)


feel (show forth)



wonder; matter

(see note)

wholly pure

perfect life


wholly then
dwelling place


endemic; (t-note)

   pay attention to; (see note); (t-note)
tidings wondrously good
Galilee; stream (river)


afraid; (t-note)


seen (displayed)

To be seen
great passion

[lacuna, see textual note]


I know well

[lacuna, see textual note]

nature; frail; (see note); (t-note)
two reasons
human intelligence
ordered so; (t-note)


man’s nature

Another reason

(see note); (t-note)

receive; (t-note)
Holy Spirit

preparation; (t-note)



are in subjection

sinned never

(see note)
from him; absolutely nothing





as true healer


tremble where; (t-note)

(see note)



  Tunc cantabunt duo angeli Veni creator spiritus.1; (see note); (t-note)




JESUS   John, for mannys prophete, wit thou wele,
Take I this baptyme, certaynely;
The dragons poure ilk a dele
Thurgh my baptyme distroyed have I,
This is certayne,
And saved mankynde, saule and body,
Fro endles payne.

What man that trowis and baptised be
Schall saved be and come to blisse.
Whoso trowes noght, to payne endles
He schal be dampned sone, trowe wele this.
But wende we nowe
Wher most is nede the folke to wisse,
Both I and you.

JOHANNES   I love thee, Lorde, as sovereyne leche
That come to salve men of thare sore;
As thou comaundis I schall gar preche
And lere to every man that lare
That are was thrall.
Now, sirs, that barne that Marie bare,
Be with you all.

power in every way; (see note)

(see note)

damned soon, trust well

healer (savior)
heal; their misery
(i.e., so shall I go to preach)
teach; lore
child; bore

Play 22, The Temptation In The Wilderness