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Play 8, The Building of Noah's Ark


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 Shipwrights’ pageant is a demonstration of the craft’s skills as God orders Noah to build a ship and then informs him to go about his work. The complexity of the task seems to call for non-speaking workmen to help Noah, but in the text of the play he says, “Al be myselfe I will assaye” (line 96). As Richard Beadle suggests in “Shipwrights’ Craft,” the author of the play evidently was very familiar with clinker-built ship construction, and must have had close relations with the shipbuilders themselves. The shipwrights’ occupation went into severe decline in the course of the fifteenth century when the Ouse became less navigable due to silting and the larger seagoing ships became the norm. The text of the pageant in the Register has been extensively corrected by a later hand, identified in at least in part as John Clerke’s (see RB, pp. 420–21). The story of Noah and the Flood appears in Genesis 6–8, adapted from earlier Babylonian mythology after the return from exile of the Jews in Babylon in the fifth century B.C.E. It appears in the lessons and responsories for Septuagesima and Sexagesima. The eight-line stanza adopted in the play also is used in a number of other pageants in the cycle.

14–24 synne is nowe reynand so ryffe . . . I wille al newe. As in the biblical account, God repents that he ever made humankind on account of the wickedness of everyone except Noah, who is solemn and pure of heart (see line 33). Hence God decides to make a new beginning. Noah and his family are to be saved, the others drowned in the waters of the great Flood. This provides the motive for both the present play and the Fishers and Mariners’ pageant of the Flood which follows, but there is also a common reading of their story as foreshadowing the Last Day, dramatized as the concluding pageant in the cycle by the Mercers.

50 I am full olde and oute of qwarte. When the ark is finished, Noah will be six hundred years of age, but his argument with God over his ability as an old man to perform the task inspires some lively dialogue.

74–80 The directions for building the ship are accurately presented. The trees must be carefully selected and squared before boards and batten are cut. It is important that the seams be masterfully joined “and naylid wele” so that they do not come apart when the boat is floated. Instead of nails in the modern sense, rivets would presumably have been used; see the diagram in C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, esp. pp. 8–9, figs. 11–12.

81–86 The ark specified by God is immensely large in size. Beadle suggests that it would have “a displacement of some 40,000 tons” (“Shipwrights’ Craft,” p. 58). No wonder it would take a hundred years to build (see lines 114–15)!

97–111 The listing of tools suggests that these were borrowed from members of the craft. Noah begins by laying on a chalk line and pretending to work on a board, then using a tool to join it to the ark, which must of course have been prefabricated. The Cornish Creacion specifies “Tooles and tymber . . . redy, with planckys to make the Arcke” (line 2254 s.d.). Since normally the interior ribs were added last, these would not be needed. Then Noah picks up a caulking tool to cement (as if with pitch) the boards to seem to make them water-tight. In the next stanza, he explains that the boards will be held in place with rivets fitted into roves (large metal washers) and flattened; these are easily seen in depictions of clinker-built ships. A set of ship builders’ tools from the wreck of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose shows mallets, augurs, measuring sticks, and other implements of the type perhaps displayed in the York play; see C. Davidson, Technology, Guilds, fig. 15.

114 A hundereth wyntres away is wente. Diller remarks about this scene that it “is remarkable for skipping a hundred years in a single line” (Middle English Mystery Play, p. 92)!

127–41 Dyverse stages must ther be . . . lyffes to laste. In the visual arts, the ark often had three levels, which were determined by the symbolism of the vessel as a representation of the Church. Like the Church at the Day of Judgment, the ark was a providentially chosen means to safety when all the world would be destroyed.


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).

Many erasures and corrections are present in this pageant.

20 ever. Reg: erasure to remove e at end of word.

27 above. Reg: a bove, as corrected by LH.

29 noght. Reg: not written above noght by LH.

45 doo. Reg: added by LH over erasure.

59 sownkyn. Reg: letter o added in text.

74 skwyn. Reg: correction overwritten by LH.

75 betwene. Reg: corrected by LH.

81 lang. Reg: originally long (corrected).

83 strang. Reg: originally strong (corrected).

86 do. Reg: added, over an erasure, by LH.

99 Reg: must written above bud by LH.

101 gynn. Corrected by Scribe B in Reg; originally gyn.

102–03 Lines written in right margin in Reg; they had been erroneously entered after line 110 (deleted).

104 Line following is missing in Reg.

106 ever. Reg: erasure to remove final e at end of word.

110 the bowe ther. This edition; Reg, LTS: ther bowe ther; RB: ther the bowe.

113 force. Reg: an e was added as a correction.

119 bowde. Attempted emendation in Reg (to bollde).

120 nere an. Reg: corrected by LH, over erasure.

122 yit. Interlined by LH: must. Reg: correction over erasure.

124 must. Reg: correction over erasure.

126 that. Reg: interlined by LH in Reg.
sam. Reg: a final e at end of word erased.

127 must. Reg: correction by LH, over erasure.

131 fere. Reg: correction, in red ink, in right margin by Scribe B.

143 awey be. So RB; Reg: awey be away be (away be canceled).

147 Following helpe in Reg, extraneous w deleted.

The Shipwrites































DEUS    Fyrst qwen I wrought this world so wyde,
Wode and wynde and watters wane,
Hevyn and helle was noght to hyde,
Wyth herbys and gyrse thus I begane.
In endles blysse to be and byde,
And to my liknes made I man,
Lorde and syre on ilke a side
Of all medillerthe I made hym than.

A woman also with hym wroght I,
Alle in lawe to lede ther lyffe.
I badde thame waxe and multiplye
To fulfille this worlde, withowtyn striffe.
Sythn hays men wroght so wofully
And synne is nowe reynand so ryffe,
That me repentys and rewys forthi
That ever I made outhir man or wiffe.

Bot sen they make me to repente
My werke I wroght so wele and trewe,
Wythowtyn seys will noght assente
Bot ever is bowne more bale to brewe.
Bot for ther synnes thai shall be shente
And fordone hoyly, hyde and hewe.
Of tham shal no more be mente,
Bot wirke this werke I wille al newe.

Al newe I will this worlde be wroght
And waste away that wonnys therin;
A flowyd above thame shall be broght
To stroye medilerthe, both more and myn.
Bot Noe alon, lefe shal it noght,
To all be sownkyn for ther synne;
He and his sones, thus is my thoght,
And with there wyffes away sall wynne.

Nooe, my servand, sad an cleyn,
For thou art stabill in stede and stalle,
I wyll thou wyrke, withowten weyn,
A warke to saffe thiselfe wythall.

NOE   O, mercy Lorde, qwat may this meyne?

DEUS    I am thi Gode of grete and small
Is comyn to telle thee of thy teyn
And qwat ferly sall eftir fall.

NOE   A, Lorde, I lowe thee lowde and still
That unto me, wretche unworthye,
Thus with thy worde, as is thi will,
Lykis to appere thus propyrly.

DEUS    Nooe, as I byd thee, doo fulfill.
A shippe I will have wroght in hye;
All yf thou can litill skyll,
Take it in hande, for helpe sall I.

NOE   A, worthy Lorde, wolde thou take heede,
I am full olde and oute of qwarte,
That me liste do no daies dede
Bot yf gret mystir me garte.

DEUS    Begynne my werke behoves thee nede,
And thou wyll passe from peynes smerte;
I sall thee sokoure and thee spede
And giffe thee hele in hede and hert.

I se suche ire emonge mankynde
That of thare werkis I will take wreke,
Thay shall be sownkyn for thare synne;
Therfore a shippe I wille thou make.
Thou and thi sonnes shall be therein,
They sall be savyd for thy sake.
Therfore go bowdly and begynne
Thy mesures and thy markis to take.

NOE   A, Lorde, thi wille sall ever be wroght
Os counsill gyfys of ilka clerk,
Bot first of shippecraft can I right noght;
Of ther makyng have I no merke.

DEUS    Noe, I byd thee hartely have no thought:
I sall thee wysshe in all thi werke,
And even to itt till ende be wroght;
Therfore to me take hede and herke.

Take high trees and hewe thame cleyne,
All be sware and noght of skwyn,
Make thame of burdes and wandes betwene,
Thus thrivandly and noght over thyn.
Luke that thi semes be suttilly seyn
And naylid wele that thei noght twyne.
Thus I devyse ilk dele bedeyne;
Therfore do furthe, and leve thy dyne.

Three hundred cubyttis it sall be lang
And fyfty brode, all for thy blys,
The highte of thyrty cubittis strang,
Lok lely that thou thynke on this.
Thus gyffe I thee grathly or I gang
Thi mesures that thou do not mysse.
Luk nowe that thou wirke noght wrang;
Thus wittely sen I thee wyshe.

NOE   A, blistfull Lord, that al may beylde,
I thanke thee hartely both ever and ay,
Fyfe hundreth wyntres I am of elde,
Methynk ther yeris as yestirday.
Ful wayke I was and all unwelde.
My werynes is wente away,
To wyrk this werke here in this feylde
Al be myselfe I will assaye.

To hewe this burde I wyll begynne,
But firste I wille lygge on my lyne.
Now bud it be alle in like thynne,
So that it nowthyr twyne nor twynne.
Thus sall I june it with a gynn,
And sadly sett it with symonde fyne;
Thus schall I wyrke it both more and myne
Thurgh techyng of God, maister myne.

. . .
More suttelly kan no man sewe:
It sall be cleyngked ever ilka dele,
With nayles that are both noble and newe;
Thus sall I feste it fast to feele.
Take here a revette and there a rewe,
With the bowe ther nowe wyrke I wele.
This werke I warand both gud and trewe.

Full trewe it is who will take tente,
Bot faste my force begynnes to fawlde;
A hundereth wyntres away is wente
Sen I began this werk, full grathely talde,
And in slyke travayle for to be bente
Is harde to hym that is thus olde.
But he that to me this messages sent,
He wille be my beylde, thus am I bowde.

DEUS    Nooe, this werke is nere an ende
And wrought right as I warned thee,
Bot yit in maner it must be mende;
Therfore this lessoun lerne at me.
For dyverse beestis therin must lende
And fewles also in there degree,
And for that thay sall not sam blende,
Dyverse stages must ther be.

And qwen that it is ordand soo
With dyverse stawllys and stagis seere,
Of ilka kynde thou sall take twoo,
Bothe male and femalle fare in fere.
Thy wyffe, thy sonnes, with thee sall goo,
And thare thre wyffes, withowten were:
There eight bodies withowten moo
Sall thus be saved on this manere.

Therfore to my biddyng be bayne:
Tille all be herberd haste thee faste
Eftir the seventh day sall it rayne
Tille fowrty dayes be fully paste.
Take with thee geere, sclyk os may gayne,
To man and beeste thare lyffes to laste.
I sall thee socoure for certeyne
Tille alle thi care awey be kaste.

NOE   A, Lorde, that ilka mys may mende,
I lowe thi lare, both lowde and stille;
I thanke thee both with herte and hende
That me wille helpe fro angrys hill.
Abowte this werke now bus me wende
With beestys and fewlys my shippe to fill.
He that to me this crafte has kende,
He wysshe us with his worthy wille.
Wood; waters dark


every side
middle-earth; then

Since [then] have
reigning so completely; (see note)

bound; (t-note)
undone entirely (wholly); hue

flood; (t-note)
destroy; less
leave; (t-note)
sunken (drowned)


somber and [morally] clean
(i.e., all places)
will (order); slacking


difficulty (pain)
marvelous thing shall; happen

love (praise)

Deigns; personally


have limited ability

physically unfit; (see note)
would prefer to do; work
need make me

give; health; head; heart

hostility [to me]
sunken (drowned); (t-note)


Us; gives to

mark (ability)


square; not at an angle; (see note); (t-note)
boards; battens; (t-note)
skillfully; thin
seams; carefully sealed
aspect altogether
go forth; (i.e., say nothing more)

(see note); (t-note)

strong; (t-note)
give; truly before I go
intelligently since; direct



weak; lacking in strength


board; (see note)
lay; line (for measuring)
must; of regular thickness; (t-note)
separate or warp
join; tool; (t-note)
firmly seal; caulk; (t-note)

[line missing, see note]
skillfully; join [seams]
clenched in every part; (t-note)

rivet; rove
[ship’s] bow; (t-note)

pay attention
fail; (t-note)
(see note)
Since; truly told
such effort; engaged

supporter; very confident; (t-note)

improved; (t-note)

mix together; (t-note)
levels (decks); (see note); (t-note)

when; ordered
every kind (species)
going in company; (t-note)


harbored (lodged)

such as may be needed

(i.e., done with); (t-note)

praise thy teaching
resentfulness; (t-note)
must; go

Go To Play 9, The Flood