15. John the Baptist
Play 15, JOHN THE BAPTIST: FOOTNOTES
1 Here begins John the Baptist
2 Lines 187, 189: In the name of the Father and the Son / And the most high Spirit
3 Here he delivers to him the Lamb of God
4 Here ends John the Baptist
Play 15, JOHN THE BAPTIST: EXPLANATORY NOTES
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).
John the Baptist (son of Elizabeth and thus cousin to Jesus; see lines 17–18) is accorded notable attention in Christian writing, and his baptism of Jesus is the earliest event represented in all four gospels: Matthew 3, Mark 1:1–11, Luke 3:1–22, and John 1:6–34. Baptism plays are extant for both N-Town and York, but this one, with its cancelled stanza mentioning the sacraments (see note to lines 193–200 below), is uniquely problematic. That stanza, and the play as a whole, is unusually explicit about the form of baptism, which appears to be post-Reformation. The inclusion of a lamb as gift (lines 209–11) is also unusual; the Lamb of God is a prominent iconographical symbol of John the Baptist, but constitutes an unlikely presence at the baptism.
14–15 My fader Zacary ye knaw / That was dombe. Zacharias, husband of Elizabeth and father to John, is one of the prophets represented in the Christmas lectio (see the first note to 7.a); he is named in the Annunciation pageant (7.c.136) but is otherwise not represented in any of the Towneley plays. For the story of Zachary and his muteness, see Luke 1:18–22 and 59–64.
18 Awntt unto Mary. Elsewhere Elizabeth is referred to as Mary’s cousin (following Luke 1:36), although this is an ambiguous term effectively meaning “relative” (see 7.c.134 and 7.d.23). Referring to her as “aunt” may be intended to stress the age difference, Elizabeth being much older than Mary (Luke 1:7 refers to her as being “well advanced in years”).
19 as the son shynys thorow the glas. A common simile for the conception of Christ and virgin birth; see 7.c.37 and note.
21–22 Yit the Jues inqueryd me has / If I be Cryst. In John 1:19–23, John the Baptist answers such a query by quoting Isaiah 40:3 to describe himself as a “voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23; see also Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, 15). This self-description is conspicuous by its absence here, given that it is quoted in the Harrowing of Hell (22.65–66) and in other Baptism plays (see York 21.24–30 and N-Town 22.1–2). However, the following stanza similarly emphasizes John’s role as “messyngere” and “forgangere” (lines 25, 28; see also 102).
26 alkyn mys may mend. That is, who can amend every kind of fault, fix all that is wrong.
39 frely foode. This punning Eucharistic reference (food/child) is also used at line 164 (and in other plays; see 7.d.85 and note).
49–50 I am not worthy for to lawse / The leste thwong that longys to his shoyne. That is, I am not worthy to untie the least of his shoelaces; see John 1:27.
68 dos thi dever every deyll. That is, you do your duty entirely. The presence of the angels is not biblical but common in medieval iconography of the baptism. John hears but apparently does not see them (line 74) until Jesus refers to them (line 145), explicitly giving them symbolic value in relation to his dual nature.
78 That that shall never be . . . I shall go meyt that lord. That is, in order that he not come to me, I shall go to meet him. See Matthew 3:14–15.
85–88 By this . . . . yit is it myrk. John here links the baptism of Jesus to that of infants — a practice that was strongly affirmed in Cranmer’s Ten Articles of 1536 (and later revisions) against some Protestant trends toward adult baptism. The linkage itself might seem “myrk” or obscure, as John says of “this law” (line 88); however, John’s assertion is likely also connected to Mark 10:13–16, the Gospel passage read at baptism (in Anglican as well as Catholic tradition): when his disciples attempt to prevent people from bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed, he tells them that “the kingdom belongs to such as these” and so to let the children come to him (as he is to come to John for baptism).
91 Here is no kyrk. John has just referred to bringing children “to kyrk” (line 86), whereas the angel’s response affirms that “Godys wyll” (line 94) may alter this standard requirement. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer laid out the formula for baptism of infants at home (section 6, “Of Them that be Baptized in Private Houses in Tyme of Necessitie”) as might be followed by midwives when the life of a child appeared to be in danger; in 1604 that text was revised to exclude lay baptism.
109 For reprefe unto mans rytt. SC gloss as the final word as “writ” (p. 542n109) although such a spelling is otherwise unattested. Rather, the sense here seems to be that having sinless God being baptized by a man, even in fulfilment of God’s law and ordinance (lines 110–11), overturns human expectation and religious rite.
115 oyle and creme. Holy oil (known as oil of catechumens, also used at confirmation) was used in the initial blessing, before baptism with water, following which one was anointed with chrism (normally a mixture of olive oil and balsam, or balm). However, at line 194 John explicitly refers to anointing Jesus with “oyle and creme” immediately after the baptism, and thus only to chrismation; the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) similarly makes reference to “puttyng on the Crysome, and enoyntyng” (section 6, “Of the Administracion of Publyke Baptisme to be Used in the Churche,” omitted by 1552), but not to any initial use of holy oil.
127 A knyght to baptyse his lord kyng. This line translates an Epiphany week antiphon commemorating the baptism of Christ (there being no separate feast day set aside until 1955); the line continues the theme of John’s sense of unworthiness to baptize Jesus (see the note to line 109, above), most plainly stated at line 177.
185–90 I baptyse thee . . . . on he. The familiar Trinitarian formula, here translated from the Latin, is associated with baptism in Matthew 28:19; see also line 248 (and note) and the note to 3.363–64.
193–200 Here I thee anoynt . . . . now is it spent. This entire stanza is framed in black, with a bracket in the left margin, and — like one stanza in the Resurrection play that deals with the sacraments (23.345–50) — cancelled with criss-crossed lines in red (but apparently not the same red ink as used for the rubrication of the MS, including the signature for this quire, unusually in red; citation?). Beside the stanza another hand has written “corected & not playd” (apparently in the same ink used to frame the stanza). However, this comment may represent a later reader’s attempt to explain the curious cancellation itself, rather than pertaining to any actual performance. The only doctrinally objectionable portion of the stanza amounts to one easily alterable (and apparently altered) word in line 197 (see the next note below); the reference to anointing in line 194 could potentially have been seen as problematic by some in the sixteenth-century, but this repeats an earlier, apparently unobjectionable phrase — see line 115 and note.
197 Ther ar sex othere and no mo. SC argue that “the reason for the cancellation of these lines is that they mention the sacrament of Baptism and vi othere” (p. 543n193–200), yet this is not entirely clear, even in relation to the MS reading. The v of vi is badly formed and barely visible over an erasure (which takes up slightly more space than necessary for what remains). The phrase “no mo” compounds the problem, as no one involved in the religious controversies of the period asserted that there were more than seven sacraments. However, some did assert that there were three: the Ten Articles published by Thomas Cranmer under Henry VIII in 1536 treats both penance and the Eucharist as “sacraments” along with baptism (see the note to lines 85–88, above). The original text here may plausibly have read “Ther ar two [or ij] othere and no mo.” The erasure and correction could thus represent an effort to create Catholic orthodoxy within a Protestant text, rather than the other way around as SC and others have assumed. The subsequent cancellation could be due to a realization that the phrase no mo now appeared problematic — an issue that would not have affected the most likely Protestant emendation, to “Ther is one othere and no mo.” Still, the sole other stanza in the MS that has been similarly crossed out in red ink refers to the doctrine of transubstantiation (see 23.345–50 and note); whether or not a recusant Catholic might be responsible for the erasure and perhaps the outlining as well, a subsequent Protestant reader is apparently responsible for the red ink.
209–11 This beest . . . . is the lamb of me. The lamb might possibly take the form of a wax tablet (as SC suggest, p. 543n212+SD) or a banner, but the standard iconography of John the Baptist features him holding or standing beside a lamb (or ram).
217–18 the lamb of God / Which weshys away syn of this warld. These lines translate John’s exclamation upon seeing Jesus the day after the baptism in John 1:29.
222 An angell had me nerehand mard. This line seems at odds with the previous dialogue: while the angelic presence clearly frightened John, none of their lines indicates a threat.
227–28 And to all . . . not yit gloryfyde. These lines echo John 7:39–40 but in context, spoken to a post-biblical (but pre-judgment) audience, relate to the idea of belief without need of empirical evidence; as doubting Thomas states, “I trow it not or that I se” (25.552).
248 I blys thee with the Trynyté. The gesture required here is likely the standard sign of the cross, associated with the Trinitarian formula of blessing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also with Jesus’ death as just mentioned (lines 242–43).
256 oost. The audience stands in for the attending multitude.
264 Thi moder is of hell emprise. “Empress of Hell” is one of the traditional (but largely British) titles of the Virgin Mary, indicating her powers of intercession in relation to the judgment of souls.
276 Pryde, envy, slowth, wrath, and lechery. Of the traditional seven deadly sins (see 3.75–77 and note), this list lacks only gluttony and covetousness (avarice), both of which were likely named in the next line, which now reads (framed in black, written over an erasure in a different hand following the word “Here”): “Gods service, more and lesse.” There is little potential doctrinal controversy in naming these sins, so the erasure might represent a forgotten or abandoned correction, the lacuna being filled in later by someone who simply found an easy rhyme.
Play 15, JOHN THE BAPTIST: TEXTUAL NOTES
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).
28 And as. So EP, SC. MS: As as.
After 72 MS: the signature “Li” (L1) in the bottom right-hand corner is, unusually, written in red, as are the other signatures for this gathering (this is, for L2–4). The only other red signature is for S1; see the note to 26. After 411, and the Introduction, p. 9.
125 to me to bryng. So SC. MS: to bryng to me, with slated double strokes above each instance of to, indicating the transposition.
127 baptyse his lord kyng. So EP, SC. MS: bapsyse his lordyng kyng with the first yng crossed out in red.
181 for drede. So EP, SC. MS: for ferde drede, the second word being partly erased.
197 sex. MS: vj, the v being barely visible. The entire stanza (lines 193–200) is cancelled; see Explanatory Notes to lines 193–200 and 197.
210, s.d. Hic tradat ei agnum dei. SC place this stage direction after line 212, but it more likely belongs here, as per EP; in the MS it is written to the right of the dialogue, between lines 209–10 and 211–12 (each written as one line).
272 Thou may us mende more then we weyn. MS: another hand has written In the name of in the middle of the bottom margin below this line, upside down, with any further words cropped off.
277 Gods service, more and lesse. MS: these words are written over an erasure, and (with the initial word Here) framed with black lines; see Explanatory Note to line 276.