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7.a. The Prophets


1 The pageant of the prophets

2 God will raise a prophet from among our brothers; / everyone that will not listen to that prophet / shall be banished from his people. / No prophet is without honor except in his own country (see Acts 3:22, Luke 4:24)

3 All kings shall adore him; all nations shall praise him (see Psalm 71:11)

4 Lines 118–20: The reason that I play the harp and make mirth (melody) / is that he will take on human form; / I tell you this beforehand [in prophecy]

5 Show us your mercy, lord, and give us your salvation (Psalm 84:8)

6 The sign of judgment: the ground will be wet with dew; / the king of future generations will come from heaven, / truly present in the flesh, to judge the world (see note)

7 Lines 188–89: All shall be more or less / of the same age, each one [at the Last Judgment]

8 When the holy of holies comes, your anointing will cease (see Daniel 9:24)


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).

The sequence of Nativity-related plays in the Towneley manuscript is famously disordered: the incomplete Prophets pageant is followed not only by a blank leaf (see the final note to 7.a) but also by the Pharaoh play, which should precede it; there are two Shepherds plays, but no Nativity itself. Moreover, the works that immediately precede those two Shepherds plays, including the Prophets but excluding the Pharaoh play, appear to constitute a separate, cohesive sequence. These works are written mostly in variations of the same tailrhyme stanza form (rhymed aabaab or aabccb), probably by a single author; prior to the compilation of the manuscript, they likely formed a single play, divided into short pageants or scenes, possibly for processional performance. However, the sequence as a whole could easily have been performed by five actors taking multiple roles, including four men, one of whom would play the role of Elizabeth (who is twice said to have conceived “in elde” — see lines 7.c.135 and 7.d.11), and a boy who would play Sibyl, Mary, and the messenger. The original sequence could conceivably have concluded with a now-lost Nativity pageant, but might well have been performed as an Advent play, as is, with an ending that looks forward to the ecclesiastical celebrations of Christmas rather than dramatizing that central event.

Reconstituting the sequence, however, requires more than removal of the misplaced Pharaoh play. According to the text as it stands in the manuscript, Elizabeth would have to be more than nine months’ pregnant by the time of her visit with Mary (see the final note to 7.c). The Joseph’s Trouble episode, treated in the manuscript as part of the Annunciation play, was likely a separate pageant and intended to follow rather than precede the Salutation. Its misplacement can be explained by the existence of a series of exemplars that were unbound, untitled, and thus easily confused: according to this scenario, the original Prophets pageant, possibly already damaged and incomplete, was accidentally copied prior to the Pharaoh play, while the Joseph’s Trouble pageant was copied as if part of the Annunciation, and followed by the Salutation. The Salutation (rather than the Joseph’s Trouble pageant) might originally have been part of a single pageant along with the Annunciation (as occurs in York); it is perhaps significant that these two pageants together (with a total of 244 lines) are almost exactly the same length as Caesar Augustus (240 lines) and only slightly longer than Joseph’s Trouble (219 lines).

The Caesar Augustus pageant, too, may be misplaced, as Stevens and Cawley argue (SC p. 472): tradition (as recorded in the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine 1:40) held that Caesar learned of the birth of Christ on the day of the Nativity; however, the same tradition held that Caesar raised an altar in his honor, whereas this Emperor is conflated with King Herod in seeking to kill Christ as a rival. Moreover, Christ explicitly has not yet been born in this play (see line 7.b.71). The pageant could very effectively be placed between the Salutation and Joseph’s Trouble, filling the time gap between these episodes; however, it remains entirely possible that the pageant should follow The Prophets, and to precede the Annunciation, as it does in this edition.

Before 1 The Caesar Augustus pageant, too, may be misplaced, as Stevens and Cawley argue (SC p. 472): tradition (as recorded in the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine 1:40) held that Caesar learned of the birth of Christ on the day of the Nativity; however, the same tradition held that Caesar raised an altar in his honor, whereas this Emperor is conflated with King Herod in seeking to kill Christ as a rival. Moreover, Christ explicitly has not yet been born in this play (see line 7.b.71). The pageant could very effectively be placed between the Salutation and Joseph’s Trouble, filling the time gap between these episodes; however, it remains entirely possible that the pageant should follow The Prophets, and to precede the Annunciation, as it does in this edition.

42 In thyse same tables. Moses is represented as holding the two stone tablets inscribed with the ten commandments; see Exodus 24:12 and Deuteronomy 9:10–11. The commandments themselves are listed in Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21, and the author recounts them in lines 50–84.

43–45 Ye that thyse . . . . is fyrst to com. That is, you who hold these commandments in your hearts shall be the first to be called to heaven (at the final judgment).

67–72 The fyft commandys . . . . ne for hate. The biblical order of the commandments against adultery and murder is here reversed; compare Exodus 20:13–14 and Deuteronomy 5:17–18.

90 And have now all good day. This line would seem to indicate an exit from the stage, not merely an end to Moses’ speech. The prophets may appear only individually, in procession, rather than together on a single stage.

97 Jesse son ye wote I am. The name of King David’s father (see Matthew 1:6) matters in this context due to its association with the common medieval image of the “Jesse tree” (the likely origin of the concept of a “family tree”) tracing the lineage of Jesus back to Jesse, based on the (different) genealogies of Matthew 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38 in relation to Isaiah 11:1: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.” See also 14.15 and note.

107 And theron a knot knytt. That is, remember it well, tying a mental knot around the words — knotted threads being used as reminders.

109–50 Myrth I make . . . . us all free. King David, the supposed author of the Psalms and associated specifically with the harp in 1 Kings 16:16–23, should sing these lines, as he suggests in line 104 (“syng you a fytt;” compare line 157), accompanying himself on the harp; it is possible that the singing should continue through to line 156, but the interruption of the Latin quotation after line 150 makes this a logical point to resume speaking.

121–23 thider shall he ren . . . Unto the hyest sete. See Psalm 18:6–7: “and he … hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way: His going out is from the end of heaven, And his circuit even to the end thereof: and there is no one that can hide himself from his heat.”

153–56 We may not . . . . all abyde. SC turn the last half of this stanza into a question, emending line 154 to read “when is thi will . . . ?” (SC p. 69). However, the lines may be read as a continuation of the previous line: God’s will is that hell’s inhabitants must wait for salvation to come to them at the harrowing of hell, in the person of Christ (the subject of play 22).

After 162 Iudicii signum . . . . ut iudicet orbem. The Sibyl’s opening speech in Latin is ultimately derived from the third-century Sibylline Oracles; these particular lines are from a passage in Book 8 (attributed to the Erythraean Sibyl) that was famously shown by Augustine (City of God 18.23) to form an acrostic (in the original Greek) on the name of Jesus. The same Latin passage occurs in the lectio and in other relevant sources (see Young, pp. 10, 13, 22). In the Chester Nativity pageant (6.349–72), the Sibyl addresses her prophecy directly to the Emperor Octavian — that is, Caesar Augustus, who according to tradition met with the Tiburtine Sibyl — who ultimately orders the worship of Christ rather than of himself.

188–89 All shal be . . . Of oone eld ichon. Augustine asserted that, when the dead are resurrected, all would be the same age as Christ at his own resurrection, regardless of their age when they died (City of God 22.15). They are usually portrayed this way in medieval representations of the Last Judgment.

205 Then shall hell gape and gryn. The verb gryn here literally refers to grinning, showing the teeth; Hell was traditionally represented as a monstrous mouth.

229 Flesh with fleshe will be boght. Implicit here is the idea of Christ as a second Adam (see 1 Corinthians 15:45–47), and redemption as equal exchange or repayment; see also the more elaborate parallelism of “Man for man, tre for tre, / Madyn for madyn” in the Annunciation pageant (7.c.32–35), likewise part of the Advent sequence.

After 234 Evermore withoutten end. The text ends after this line, with room on the page for perhaps three additional lines, followed by a blank leaf (fol. 20, two pages). A sixteenth-century hand has scrawled the first line of the previous page (that is, line 187 of this play) at the top of the first empty page (the recto), while the opening of the misplaced play of Pharaoh — “Incipit Pharao” (and likely more) — has been written but then erased from the other side of the blank leaf (the verso), perhaps to make additional room for the completion of the Prophets pageant, which has no explicit and is apparently unfinished. However, it is worth noting that these two blank pages (the first of which is neatly but unusually lined) would allow sufficient room for the entirety of the extant Salutation pageant. Still, it seems significant that God’s opening speech in the Annunciation pageant (see 7.c.46–50) names all four prophets who speak in the extant text (Moses, David, Sibyl, and Daniel), along with three others (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk). What follows, then, to give a sense of what might be missing, are speeches in Latin by those three additional prophets, along with (my own) English translations, based on the same presumed liturgical source as the rest, namely, the lectio for the Christmas Matins service, as edited by Young (pp. 19–20, slightly emended):

Isaiah: Ecce virgo concipiet [et] pariet filium, [et] vocabitur nomen eius Emanuel, quod est interpretatum: Nobiscum Deus. [“Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God be with us’” (Isaiah 7:14).]
. . . .
Jeremiah: Hic est Deus noster, [et] non æstimabitur alius absque eo qui in[v]enit omnem viam scientiæ, [et] dedit eam Iacob puero suo [et] Israel dilecto suo. Post hæc in terris visus est, [et] cum hominibus con[v]ersatus est. [“This is our God, and no other can be compared to him, who found the whole way to knowledge, and gave it to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. After this, knowledge appeared on earth and lived among the people.” (Baruch 3:36–38).]
. . . .
Habakkuk: Domine, audi[v]i auditum tuum [et] timui, consideravi opera tua et expa[v]i. In medio duorum animalium cognosceris. Opera tua, Deus, [et] verbum caro factum est. [“Lord, I have heard your word and am afraid; I have considered your works and am terrified. Between two animals you will be recognized. And by your work, God, the word is made flesh.”]

(The last part of this final quotation is derived from John 1:14; the rest is a variant of Habakkuk 3:2 that, together with Isaiah 1:3, is the source of the tradition that the infant Jesus was laid between an ox and ass.)


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).

27 Christ. So SC. MS: Trust.

60 Thou art worthi grete. MS: u inserted above the line, and gr after art crossed out.

93 rightwisnes. MS: righwisnes.

112 will his Son. So SC. MS: will that his son.

230 wroght. MS has boght before this word (repeating the last word of the previous line), lightly crossed out.

234 Evermore withoutten end. MS: the text ends after this line, leaving enough room on the page for additional lines, followed by a blank leaf. See the Explanatory Note to this line and the first Textual Note to the Pharaoh play.


[fol. 17v]








[fol. 18r]























[fol. 19r]











[fol. 19v]











Sibyl the Prophet

Processus prophetarum. 1

Prophetam excitabit deus de fratribus vestris;
Omnis anima que non audierit prophetam illum
Exterminabitur de populo suo.
Nemo propheta sine honore nisi in patria sua. 2

All ye folk of Israell
Herkyn to me: I will you tell
Tythyngys farly goode.
All wote ye how it befell
Wherfor Adam was dampnyd to hell,
He and all his blode.

Therfor will God styr and rayse
A prophete in som man dayes
Of oure brethere kyn,
And all trowes as he says
And will walk in his ways
From hell he will theym twyn.

When his tyme begynnys to day
I rede no man fro hym dray,
In way ne stand on strut,
For he that will not here his sagh
He be shewed as an outlagh
And from his folkys be putt.

I warne you well that same prophete
Shall com hereafterward full swete
And many mervels shew;
Man shall fall till his feete
For cause he can bales beete
Thrugh his awn thew.

All that will in trowth ren
Shall he save, I warne you then;
“Christ” shall his name be.
Bot all over will man prophete ken
With worship amangys men,
Bot in his awne countré.

Herkyns all, both yong and old:
God that has all in wold
Gretys you bi me.
His commaundementys ar ten;
Behold, ye that ar his men,
Here ye may theym se.

His commaundementys that I have broght,
Looke that ye hold thaym noght
For tryfyls ne for fables,
For ye shall well understand
That God wrote theym with his hand
In thyse same tables.

Ye that thyse in hart will hald
Unto heven shall ye be cald
That is fyrst to com,
And ye that will not do so
Till hell pyne mon ye go
And byde a bytter dome.

Do now as I shall you wys.
The fyrst commaundement is this
That I shall you say:
Make no God of stok ne stone,
And trow in none God bot oone
That mayde both nyght and day.

Anothere bydys thou shall not swere
For no mede ne for no dere
Falsly bi Godys name;
If thou swere wrongwosly
Wit thou well and wytterly
Thou art worthi grete blame.

The thyrd is thou shall well yheme
Thi holy day and serve to wheme
God with all thi hart.
The fourt commaundement is bi tayll
Fader and moder worship thou shall
In povert and in qwarte.

The fyft commaundys thou shall forsake
Fornycacyon and take thee a make,
And lyf in rightwys state.
The sext commaundys thou shal not be
Mansloer for gold ne fee
Ne for luf ne for hate.

The seventh commaundys that thou shall leve
And nather go to stele ne reve
For more then for les.
The aght bydys both old and yong
That thay be traw of thare tong
And bere no fals witnes.

The nenth bydys thee, bi thi lif,
Thou desyre not thi neghburs wife
Ne mayden that is his.
The tent bidys thee for no case
Desyre not wranwosly thyng thi neghbur has;
Do thus and do no mys.

I am the same man that God chase
And toke the ten commaundementys of peasse
In the Monte Synay;
Thise wordys I say ar no les.
My name is callyd Moyses,
And have now all good day.

Omnes reges adorabunt eum; omnes gentes servient ei. 3

Herkyn all that here may
And perceyf well what I shall say,
All with rightwisnes.
Loke ye put it not away
Bot thynk theron both nyght and day,
For it is sothfastnes.

Jesse son ye wote I am;
David is my right name,
And I bere crowne.
Bot ye me trow ye ar to blame;
Of Israel both wyld and tame
I have in my bondon.

As God of heven has gyffyn me wit
Shall I now syng you a fytt
With my mynstrelsy.
Loke ye do it well in wrytt
And theron a knot knytt,
For it is prophecy.

Myrth I make till all men
With my harp and fyngers ten,
And warn theym that thay glad,
For God will his Son down send
That wroght Adam with his hend
And heven and erth mayde.

He will lyght fro heven towre
For to be mans saveyoure
And save that is forlorne.
For that I harp and myrth make
Is for he will manhede take,
I tell you thus beforne. 4

And thider shall he ren agane
As gyant of mych mayne
Unto the hyest sete.
Ther is nawther kyng ne swayn
Then nothyng that may hym layn
Ne hyde from his hete.

He shall be lord and kyng of all;
Tyll hys feete shall kyngys fall
To offre to hym, wytterly.
Blyssyd be that swete blome
That shall save us at his com;
Joyfull may we be.

Riche gyftys thay shall hym bryng
And till hym make offeryng
Kneland on thare kne.
Well were hym that that lordyng
And that dere derlyng
Myght bide on lyfe and se.

Men may know hym bi his marke:
Myrth and lovyng is his warke;
That shall he luf most.
Lyght shall be born that tyme in darke
Both to lawd man and to clark:
The luf of rightwys gost.

Therfor both emperoure and kyng,
Ryche and poore, both old and ying,
Temper well youre gle
Agans that kyng lyght downe
For to lowse us of pryson
And make us all free.

Ostende nobis domine misericordiam tuam
Et salutare tuum da nobis. 5

Thou shew thi mercy, Lord, tyll us,
For to thou com, to hell we trus;
We may not go beside,
Lord, when thi will is for to dele
Tyll us thi salve and thi hele
Whom we all abyde.

Now have I songen you a fytt;
Loke in mynd that ye have it,
I rede with my myght.
He that maide us all with his wytt
Sheld us all from hell pytt
And graunt us heven lyght.

Iudicii signum: tellus sudore madescit;
E celo rex adveniet per secla futurus
Scilicet in carne presens ut iudicet orbem. 6

Whoso wyll here tythyngys glad
Of hym that all this warld made,
Here me wytterly.
Sibill sage is my name.
Bot ye me here, ye ar to blame;
My word is prophecy.

All men was slayn thrugh Adam syn
And put to pyne that never shall blyn
Thrugh falsnes of the feynd.
A new kyng comes from heven to fyght
Agans the feynd to wyn his right;
So is his mercy heynd.

All the warld shall he deme
And that have servyd hym to wheme
Myrth thaym mon betyde;
All shall se hym with thare ee,
Ryche and poore, low and hye;
No man may hym hyde.

Bot thay shall in thare flesh ryse
That every man shall whake and grys
Agans that ilk dome;
With his santys many oone
He shall be sene in flesh and bone
That kyng that is to com.

All that shall stand hym before
All shal be les and more
Of oone eld ichon. 7
Angels shall qwake then for ferd
And fyre shall bren this mydyll erd —
Yei, erth and all ther apon.

Shall nothyng here in erth be kend
Bot it shall be strewyd and brend,
All waters and the see.
Sythen shall both hill and dale
Ryn togeder, grete and smale,
And all shall even be.

At hys commyng shall bemys blaw
That men may his commyng knaw.
Full sorowfull shall be that blast;
Ther is no man that herys it
Bot he shall qwake for all his witt
Be he never so stedfast.

Then shall hell gape and gryn
That men may know thare dome therin
Of that hye justyce.
That ill have done to hell mon go,
And to heven the other also
That has been rightwys.

Therfor I rede ilka man
Kepe as well as he can
Fro syn and fro mysdede.
My prophecy now have I told.
God you save, both yong and old,
And help you at youre nede.

Cum venerit sanctus sanctorum cessabit uncio vestra. 8

God that maide Adam and Eve
Whils thay dyd well he gaf thaym leve
In Paradise to dwell;
Sone when thay that appyll ete
Thay were dampned sone and skete
Unto the pyne of hell

Thrugh sorow and paynes ever new.
Therfor wyll God apon us rew
And his son downe send
Into erth, flesh to take;
That is all for oure sake,
Oure trespas to amend.

Flesh with fleshe will be boght
That he lose not that he has wroght
Wyth hys awne hend;
Of a madyn shal he be borne
To save all that ar forlorne,
Evermore withoutten end.


(see note)

Why; damned

all who believe


to dawn
advise; draw away
nor stand contentiously in the way
hear his words


Because; relieve misery




who controls all things

idle tales

tablets; (see note)

hold; (see note)

To hell’s punishment you must go
await; judgment


wood nor
trust in no

reward; injury

Know; certainly
worthy of; (t-note)




(see note)

Neither; nor

steal; rob
true; tongue


chose; [fol. 18v]

Mount Sinai

(see note)



Jesse’s son; know; (see note)

Unless you trust me


write it down well
(see note)

(see note)

made; hands

that which

hasten; (see note)
giant; much strength

nor anything; conceal himself


Might live to see


unlearned; clerk
the spirit of righteousness

Tune; music
release us from

until; we go to hell
do otherwise; (see note)
to give



(see note)

hear good news


hear me

suffering; end


those who; [his] satisfaction
shall befall

hide himself

quake; tremble
very judgment
his many saints

(see note)


scattered and burned


trumpets blow

open; (see note)

[Those] who; must


advise every

soon and hastily

take pity

(see note)
that which; (t-note)


(see note)


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