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Item 36, The Legend of the Resurrection: Introduction


1 F. Foster provides a table of these correspondences in her edition of The Northern Passion (2:96, n. 2). The borrowings are drawn from two different parts of The Northern Passion. One small group of lines (6–10) in the Resurrection corresponds to lines 762–65 of the Passion (i.e., lines 811–14 in F. Foster’s edition). The majority of the remaining correspondences are between lines 537–95 of the Resurrection and lines that are not present in Ashmole 61’s copy of The Northern Passion (as Rate seems to have deliberately abridged the section describing the Resurrection) but that appear in most other manuscripts (F. Foster’s lines 2027–74). This section describes the decision of the knights to tell Pilate the truth about the Resurrection, and their subsequent agreement to conceal it.

2 On the tradition of this comic portrayal, see Woolf, English Mystery Plays, pp. 273–75. See also Sugano, N-Town Plays

3 The connection was first noticed by Ernst Falke, who suggested the poem was the source of the play (Die Quellen des sogenannten Ludus Coventriae, pp. 84–85). Woolf pointed out that the influence could easily run the other way and that a lost source is a more likely explanation (English Mystery Plays, p. 407, n.22).

4 Mirk, Mirk’s Festial, pp. 151–55.

5 For another view of the relationship between Resurrection texts and the Eucharist, see Beckwith, “Absent Presences.”

6 See The Northern Passion (item 28), lines 1889–90. The relevant passages in the gospels are Mark 16:11 and Luke 24:11.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Though The Legend of the Resurrection is a unique text, surviving in no other manuscript, it is not an unusual one. Many legends about the aftermath of the Passion circulated in the later Middle Ages, drawing from the canonical gospels, the various apocryphal works of the early Church, and scholarly Latin narratives such as Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica. The most popular legends recount the Harrowing of Hell and the fate of Pontius Pilate; legends of the Resurrection and the appearances of Christ were almost as popular, surviving in both narrative and dramatic texts.

The only source for Ashmole 61’s Legend of the Resurrection that has been positively identified is The Northern Passion (item 28). The influence of the latter can be seen in approximately forty lines which are borrowed directly, but many of the Legend’s events do not appear in The Northern Passion.1 The Legend may also derive from the late medieval mystery plays, which usually included several scenes involving the Marys at the sepulcher and some of the appearances of Christ to the disciples after the Resurrection. The Legend shares an odd detail, the names of the four knights who guard the sepulcher, with a play in the N-Town Cycle (formerly known as the Ludus Coventriae). In the Legend and the N-Town “Guarding of the Sepulcher” play the knights make similarly extravagant boasts and are painted as broadly comic figures.2 The two texts may share the same source (perhaps a lost French Passion text) or the Legend may be partly based on the N-Town play.3

The Legend shares more than just a possible source with Middle English drama: like the diverse dramatis personae of the urban cycle plays, the Legend features a wide range of characters, from the farcical knights to the majestic risen Christ, as well as the appealingly human Mary Magdalene and the doubting apostle Thomas. Middle English drama often balances vivid, naturalistic dialogue with lyrical monologues proclaiming the divine significance of the events underway, as in the thirty-five line speech of Christ as he rises from the sepulcher. In this proclamation, Christ announces the completion of the Redemption and reminds the audience once again of the Crucifixion.

These two themes, completion and remembrance, structure the entire story presented here. The Emmaus episode, in which Christ (disguised as a traveler) reminds the grieving disciples of the prophecies of his Resurrection, repeats the theme of fulfillment announced by Christ’s own earlier declaration that the prophecies of Daniel and Jeremiah have come to pass (lines 149–60). And nearly every episode recalls some earlier moment in Christ’s ministry or Passion: Mary Magdalene kneels in emotional submission, hoping to anoint Christ’s wounds just as she did at her sister Martha’s house in Bethany; the travelers to Emmaus recognize Christ just as he breaks bread in a clear recollection of the Last Supper; the appearance to Thomas involves a re-crucifixion of Christ, as his wounds are newly opened to save one more sinner.

Christ’s body and its availability as tangible (or at least visible) proof of God’s mercy remains at the center of this story. Despite the knights’ boasts that they will guard it hand and foot, the body rises and is made manifest to believers. Easter and the Resurrection also ushered in a period of optimism and confidence within the cycle of the Church’s liturgical year. On Easter, a large candle was placed in the choir of medieval churches, where it stood for forty days until Ascension Day. As John Mirk explains in his Festial, this light signified “that Christ, the which ys the chef lyght yn holy chyrch and hathe thes fourty deyes oponly apperyd to hys dyscyplys by mony wayes and taght hom the faythe.”4 Though medieval belief in the Eucharist meant that Christ’s body was always available in the mystery of the transformed sacrament, the symbolism of the Paschal Candle made Christ’s physical presence, the proof and the promise of salvation, visible to all who believed.5

Manuscript Context

The Legend of the Resurrection was likely composed partly on the basis of The Northern Passion (see above), and the two texts share a number of other close connections. Both mix the gospels with enlivening legendary material and narrate events in a similar style, influenced by popular romance and the demands of oral performance. The Legend’s tail-rhyme stanzas further emphasize this relationship to romances like Sir Isumbras, The Erle of Tolous, and Lybeaus Desconus (items 5, 19, and 20). The Legend can also be compared to the other texts in Ashmole 61 that celebrate important days in the Church’s liturgical year, including The Knight Who Forgave His Father’s Slayer, Sir Cleges, The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, The Northern Passion, and Saint Margaret (items 18, 24, 25, 28, and 37).

The text’s precise location in the manuscript appears to be a matter of convenience or happenstance. Though it clearly belongs within the large group of devotional texts where it appears, it seems to share few obvious connections to the texts that immediately precede and follow it, The Adulterous Falmouth Squire and Saint Margaret (items 35b and 37).


No other manuscript preserves a copy of this text; this is particularly unfortunate because Ashmole 61’s text is demonstrably defective in several ways. Some of these defects were very likely in Rate’s copy-text, and others are probably due to his inattentive copying. Several lines have been omitted, and others present strained or obscure readings. The repetition at line 210 of lines 182–210 suggests that Rate’s concentration was not at its height in copying this text.

A more complicated problem is created by the discontinuity in the manuscript’s text at line 358, when it leaps from Mary Magdalene’s announcement to the apostles to the middle of the Emmaus episode. The manuscript presents these lines in the following order: 210–358, 420–73, 371–419, 359–70, 474–605. Horstmann presents one solution to the problem by simply switching the block of text that runs from the beginning of the Emmaus episode to the Doubting Thomas scene, but this in turn creates another odd juncture between lines 473 and 359, where the text seems to repeat itself. The text reads considerably more coherently if the exchange between Peter and Thomas in lines 359–70 is considered as a response to Mary Magdalene’s announcement; this avoids, for example, the oddity of having Thomas introduced as “one discypull that ther was / Of Ynde his name was Thomas” fifteen lines after he has first spoken, as he does in Horstmann’s arrangement. These two stanzas, lines 359–70, could conceivably belong after the return of the Emmaus pilgrims to Jerusalem (i.e., at line 437), but two further pieces of evidence suggest that Thomas first expresses his doubts in response to Mary Magdalene’s testimony. Two gospels describe the apostles as initially dubious of Mary’s report, and lines 359–60 are taken from The Northern Passion, where they are used to describe the apostles’ reaction to Mary Magdalene’s report, not that of the travelers to Emmaus.6 Several more stanzas may be missing from the text, and in any case, readers ought to view the arrangement presented here as provisional.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl. “Nachträge zu den Legenden.” Pp. 441–47.

Reference Works

NIMEV 3980
MWME, 544–5
Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Pp. 308–09.
See also Beckwith (2000), Bowers (1963), Furnivall (1896), O. Pickering, Sheingorn (1987), Spector, Sugano, and Woolf (1972) in the bibliography.

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