Back to top

15. John the Baptist


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


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.


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.




[fol. 65r]
















































[fol. 66v]















[fol. 67r]




John, the Baptist
Angel 1
Angel 2

Incipit Johannes baptista. 1

God that mayde both more and les,
Heven and erth at his awne wyll,
And merkyd man to his lyknes
As thyng that wold his lyst fulfyll,
Apon the erth he send lightnes,
Both son and moyne lymett thertyll,
He save you all from synfulnes
And kepe you clene both lowd and styll.

Emang prophetys then am I oone
That God has send to teche his law
And man to amend, that wrang has gone,
Both with exampyll and with saw.
My name, forsothe, is Baptyst John.
My fader Zacary ye knaw,
That was dombe and mayde great mone
Before my byrth, and stode in awe.

Elezabeth my moder was,
Awntt unto Mary, madyn mylde,
And as the son shynys thorow the glas,
Certys in hir wombe so dyd hir chyld.
Yit the Jues inqueryd me has
If I be Cryst; thay ar begyld.
For Jesus shal amend mans trespas
That with freylté of fylthe is fylyd.

I am send bot messyngere
From hym that alkyn mys may mend.
I go before, bodword to bere,
And as forgangere am I send
His wayes to wyse, his lawes to lere.
Both man and wyfe that has offende
Full mekyll barett mon he bere
Or tyme he have broght all tyll ende.

Thise Jues shall hyng hym on a roode —
Mans saull to hym it is so leyfe —
And therapon shall shede his bloode
As he were tratoure or a thefe,
Not for his gylt, bot for oure goode,
Because that we ar in myschefe.
Thus shall he dy, that frely foode,
And ryse agane tyll oure relefe.

In water clere then baptyse I
The pepyll that ar in this coste,
Bot he shall do more myghtely
And baptyse in the Holy Goost,
And with the bloode of his body
Wesh oure synnes, both leste and moost;
Therfor, me thynk, both ye and I
Agans the feynde ar well endoost.

I am not worthy for to lawse
The leste thwong that longys to his shoyne,
Bot God almyghty that all knawes
In erth thi will it must be done.
I thank thee, Lord, that thi sede sawes
Emong mankynde to groyf so sone,
And every day that on erth dawes
Feydys us with foode, both even and none.

We ar, Lord, bondon unto thee
To luf thee here both day and nyght,
For thou has send thi Son so fre
To save mans saull that dede was dight
Thrugh Adam syn and Eve foly
That synnyd thrugh the feyndys myght,
Bot Lord, on man thou has pyté,
And beyld thi barnes in heven so bright.

Harkyn to me, thou John Baptyst.
The Fader of heven he gretys thee weyll,
For he has fon thee true and tryst,
And dos thi dever every deyll.
Wyt thou well his will thus ist,
Syn thou art stabyll as any steyll,
That thou shall baptyse Jesu Cryst
In flume Jordan, mans care to keyll.

A, dere God, what may this be?
I hard a steven, bot noght I saw.
John, it is I that spake to thee;
To do this dede have thou none aw.
Shuld I abyde to he com to me?
That that shall never be, I traw,
I shall go meyt that Lord so fre,
As far as I may se or knaw.

Nay, John, that is not well syttand;
His Fader will thou must nedys wyrk.
John, be thou here abydand,
Bot when he commys be then not yrk.
By this I may well understand
That childer shuld be broght to kyrk
For to be baptysyd in every land;
To me this law yit is it myrk.

John, this place it is pleassyng,
And it is callyd flume Jordan.
Here is no kyrk, ne no bygyng,
Bot where the fader wyll ordan,
It is Godys wyll and his bydyng.
By this, forsothe, well thynk me than
His warke to be at his lykyng,
And ilk folk pleasse hym that thay can.

Sen I must nedys his lyst fulfyll,
He shall be welcom unto me;
I yeld me holy to his will
Wheresoever I abyde or be.
I am his servande, lowd and styll,
And messyngere unto that fre;
Whethere that he will save or spyll,
I shall not gruch in no degré.

John, Godys servand and prophete:
My fader that is unto thee dere
Has send me to thee, well thou wytt,
To be baptysyd in water clere;
For reprefe unto mans rytt,
The law I will fulfyll right here.
My Fader ordynance thus is it,
And thus my will is that it were.

I com to thee baptym to take,
To whome my fader has me sent,
With oyle and creme that thou shal make
Unto that worthi sacrament;
And therfor, John, it not forsake
Bot com to me in this present,
For now will I no farther rake
Or I have done his commaundement.

A, Lord, I love thee for thi commyng.
I am redy to do his will
In word, in wark, in alkyn thyng,
Whatsoever he sendys me tyll.
This bewteose Lord to me to bryng,
His awne servande, this is no skyll.
A knyght to baptyse his lord kyng,
My pausté may it not fulfyll.

And if I were worthy
For to fulfyll this sacrament,
I have no connyng, securly,
To do it after thyn intent.
And therfor, Lord, I ask mercy:
Hald me excusyd as I have ment.
I dar not towche thi blyssyd body;
My hart will never to it assent.

Of thi connyng, John, drede thee noght;
My Fader hisself he will thee teche.
He that all this warld has wroght
He send thee playnly for to preche
He knawys mans hart, his dede, his thoght;
He wotys how far mans myght may reche.
Therfor hedir have I soght;
My Fader lyst may none appeche.

Behold, he sendys his angels two
In tokyn I am both God and man;
Thou gyf me baptym or I go,
And dyp me in this flume Jordan.
Sen he will thus, I wold wytt who
Durst hym agan stand? John, com on than
And baptyse me, for freynde or fo,
And do it, John, right as thou can.

John, be thou buxom and right bayn
And be not gruchand in no thyng.
Me thynk thou aght to be ful fayn
For to fulfyll my Lordys bydyng,
Erly and late, with moyde and mayn.
Therfor to thee this word I bryng:
My Lord has gyffen thee powere playn,
And drede thee noght of thi conyng.

He sendys thee here his awne dere chylde;
Thou welcom hym and make hym chere.
Born of a madyn meke and mylde,
That frely foode is made thi fere.
With syn his moder was never fylde;
Ther was never man neghyd hyr nere.
In word ne wark she was never wylde;
Therfor hir Son thou baptyse here.

And securly I will thou knaw
Whi that he commys thus unto thee:
He commys to fulfyll the law
As pereles prynce most of pausté;
And therfor, John, do as thou awe
And gruch thou never in this degré
To baptyse hym that thou here saw,
For wyt thou well this same is he.

I am not worthy to do this dede;
Nevertheles I will be Godys servande.
Bot yit, dere Lord, sen I must nede,
I will do as thou has commaunde.
I tremyll and I whake for drede;
I dar not towche thee with my hande.
Bot certys, I will not lose my mede.
Abyde, my Lord, and by me stande.

I baptyse thee, Jesu, in hy,
In the name of thi Fader fre,
In nomine patris et filii,
Sen he will that it so be,
Et spiritus altissimi, 2
And of the Holy Goost on he,
I aske thee, Lord, of thi mercy,
Hereafter that thou wold blys me.

Here I thee anoynt also
With oyle and creme in this intent,
That men may wit whereso thay go,
This is a worthy sacrament.
Ther ar sex othere and no mo
The which thiself to erthe has sent,
And in true tokyn oone of tho,
The fyrst, on thee now is it spent.

Thou wysh me, Lord, if I do wrang;
My will it were for to do weyll.
I am ful ferd yit ay emang;
If I dyd right I shuld done knele.
Thou blys me, Lord, hence or thou gang,
So that I may thi frenship fele.
I have desyryd this sight ful lang;
For to dy now rek I no dele.

This beest, John, thou bere with thee;
It is a beest full blyst.

Hic tradat ei agnum dei. 3

John, it is the lamb of me,
Beest none othere ist.
It may were thee from adversyté,
And so looke that thou tryst;
By this beest knowen shall thou be
That thou art John Baptyst.

For I have sene the lamb of God
Which weshys away syn of this warld,
And towchid hym, for even or od.
My hart therto was ay ful hard.
For that it shuld be better trowed,
An angell had me nerehand mard,
Bot he that rewlys all with his rod,
He blys me when I draw homward.

I graunt thee, John, for thi travale,
Ay lastand joy in blys to byde,
And to all those that trowys this tayll,
And saw me not yit gloryfyde,
I shal be boytt of all thare bayll
And send them socoure on every syde.
My fader and I may thaym avayll,
Man or woman that leyffys thare pryde.

Bot John, weynd thou furth and preche
Agans the folk that doth amys,
And to the pepyll the trowthe thou teche.
To rightwys way look thou tham avys,
And as far as thi wyt may reche
Byd thaym be bowne to byde my blys,
For at the day of dome I shall thaym peche
That herys not thee, nor trowys not this.

Byd thaym leyfe syn, for I it hate;
For it I mon dy on a tre,
By prophecy full well I wate.
My moder, certys, that sight mon se;
That sorowfull sight shall make hir maytt,
For I was born of hir body.
Farwell, John, I go my gaytt.
I blys thee with the Trynyté.

Almyghty God in persons thre,
All in oone substance ay ingroost,
I thank thee Lord in magesté,
Fader and Son and Holy Goost.
Thou send thi Son from heven so he
To Mary mylde into this cooste,
And now thou sendys hym unto me
For to be baptysid in this oost.

Farwell, the frelyst that ever was fed.
Farwell, floure more fresh then floure de lyce.
Farwell, stersman to theym that ar sted
In stormes, or in desese lyse.
Thi moder was madyn and wed;
Farwell, pereles, most of pryce.
Farwell, the luflyst that ever was bred;
Thi moder is of hell emprise.

Farwell, blissid both bloode and bone;
Farwell, the semelyst that ever was seyn.
To thee, Jesu, I make my mone.
Farwell, comly of cors so cleyn.
Farwel, gracyouse gome; whereso thou gone,
Ful mekill grace is to thee geyn.
Thou leyne us lyffyng on thi lone;
Thou may us mende more then we weyn.

I wyll go preche both to more and les
As I am chargyd, securly.
Syrs, forsake youre wykydnes,
Pryde, envy, slowth, wrath, and lechery.
Here Gods service, more and lesse.
Pleas God with prayng, thus red I;
Be war when deth comys with dystres,
So that ye dy not sodanly.

Deth sparis none that lyf has borne;
Therfor thynk on what I you say:
Beseche youre God both even and morne
You for to save from syn that day.
Thynk how in baptym ye ar sworne
To be Godys servandys withoutten nay.
Let never his luf from you be lorne.
God bryng you to his blys for ay. Amen.

Explicit Johannes Baptista. 4



Zacharias; know; (see note)
dumb; lament

Aunt; (see note)
shines through glass; (see note)

Jews inquired of; (see note)

frailty; defiled

only as
(see note)
forerunner; (t-note)
guide; teach
much anguish must

hang; cross
soul; dear
As if

noble child; (see note)

people; countryside


fiend (devil); defended

loosen; (see note)
lace; belongs; shoes

seed sows
Feeds; evening and noon


[to] death was condemned


shelter your children

Father; greets
found; faithful
duty; (see note)

river; relieve; (t-note)

[fol. 65v]
heard a voice

trust; (see note)

Father’s will; do
wait here
(see note)
children; church


building; (see note)


Since; desire

yield; wholly

noble one


reproof; custom; (see note)

Father’s ordinance


oil and chrism; (see note)



beauteous; (t-note)
own; not right
(see note); (t-note)

knowledge, truly

touch; blessed

[fol. 66r]

desires; hinder

give; before

Dares; stand against

obedient; ready
ought; glad




noble child; companion


peerless; power


tremble; quake; dread; (t-note)

haste; (see note)



(see note)


(see note); (t-note)


afraid continuously
kneel down
before you leave

I care not at all

beast; (see note)


(see note)
until now; always
nearly harmed; (see note)

Everlasting; live
believe; (see note)

remedy; misery

leave their pride

do amiss

righteous; advise

judgment day; impeach
hear; believe


(see note)


sent; high

multitude; (see note)

most noble
flower; fleur de lis
pilot; beset
disease lies

empress of hell; (see note)

fair of body
gracious man
much; given
give us life as your gift
think; (t-note)

(see note)





Go To 16. Lazarus