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Play 12, Joseph's Doubt


Abbreviations: MP: Mary Play, ed. Mere­dith (1987); PL: Patrologia Latina, ed. Migne; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.n.: stage name; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases.

As the main scribe was incorporating the Mary Play into the larger manuscript, it is likely that he worked Joseph's Doubt about Mary into the Marian material. Dramatically, this was an interesting move, but editors such as Meredith (MP, p. 124) and Spector (S 2:460, 540) argue that this play was never part of the larger Mary Play. It is possible that Joseph's Doubt is an earlier play that the main scribe was reluctant to excise or is a later play (or a revision about the same vintage as the Purification Play) that he wished to place into the man­uscript. The Banns does describe this play (lines 170–82), announcing it immediately after the Annunciation. Although it interrupts the central material of the Mary Play as it precedes the Visit to Elizabeth, there is a kind of appropriateness at this point as the secular world breaks in upon Mary's revery. According to John 10, Christ is the door — the door of the sheepfold and the door to heaven. Mary, likewise, is just such a door, well closed and guarded, especially during her preg­nancy. The primary scriptural text behind the idea is Ezechiel 44:2: "And the Lord said to me: This gate also shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut for the prince." The passage was glossed by Christian commentators, such as Ambrose, as a sign of the Virgin Mary ("Mary is the door which was closed and not to be opened" — De instiutione Virginis, PL 16:320 [my translation]). This link of the closed door or gate with Ezechiel comes as no surprise here, since "Ezechiel" made the point earlier in the Root of Jesse Play, when he, anticipating Mary as centerpiece and thereby introducing the Mary plays (8–13), asserts: "I, Ezechiel, have had also [a vision] / Of a gate that sperd [closed] was trewly / And no man but a prince myght therin go" (7.46–48). See Gibson's fine essay "'Porta haec clausa erit,'" which includes detailed discussion of the trope in Latin commentaries and fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English vernacular literature, and several manuscript illuminations of the idea. E.g., "She was eke the gate, with the lokeʒ breght . . . Of whech sumtime the prophete had a sight / Ezekiel in his vision / Wheche stoode euere close" (Lydgate, Life of Our Lady, lines 328–32). The keeper of the gate is also prominent in Marian lore in representations of the Visitation. The opening of the door can have sexual connotations, the point here being that Mary is pregnant though the door has remained locked, a point which is addressed comically through the "undo the door" motif as Joseph returns. See Vasvari, "Joseph on the Margin," pp. 170–83, on secular analogues to the sacred cuckolding from French farce, fairy tale (the Snow Child), and fabliaux, to the Mérode Altar triptych, books of hours, and various paintings of the life of Joseph that include his tools and several mousetrap jokes.

This play material of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity is placed vari­ously in the different English play versions: "Doubts of Joseph" plays are found in the Coventry Shearmen and Taylors' pageant; Chester Play 6 (at the beginning of the Nativity); in Towneley Play 10 (after the Annunciation but before the Visitation); and in York Play 13 (after the Visitation but before the Nativity). Even though the play is based on Matthew 1:18–25, this N-Town version draws heavily from apocryphal sources such as the Protoevan­gelium and Love's Mirrour.

1–20 An octave followed by three quatrains.

1 Undo youre dore, undo. The undo-the-door trope is common in Middle English romances (see especially the Squire of Low Degree, which, with its repetition [lines 5 and 8] enacts a comic affect that is to be taken quite seriously). That the door is locked against the husband by a pregnant wife heightens Joseph's doubts as he attempts to un­der­stand the mystery that has just been laid out so magnificently in the previous play. But as Joseph demonstrates love for his wife even though he cannot under­stand the events and returns to the wilderness rather than harm her, he merits the revelation that the angel bestows upon him so that he may re­turn in faith to ac­com­pany his pregnant wife in public as they go to visit Eliza­beth. That the "undo the door" command is repeated twice more (lines 5 and 8) suggests "Trinitarian significance" to Gibson, "'Porta haec clausa erit,'" pp. 151–52.

3, s.n. Susanna is one of the maidens left with Mary in the Marriage of Mary and Joseph Play, lines 357–58.

8 "Open the door — his will should be done!" Mary behaves as the obedient wife eager to welcome him into this new world in which she finds herself. See Coletti ("Purity and Danger," p. 83) on the way that Mary's virginal status and the physi­cality of her pregnant body challenge "traditional ideologies of gender" along with "contradictions sustained within the sex and gender system."

16 But as the sonne. Mary, the lantern of God, outshines the sun. Her countenance is initially blinding to Joseph.

21–48 Two thirteener stanzas followed by a couplet.

26 Thi wombe to hyghe. Joseph, unable to look her in the face, observes her womb, which he reads both rightly and wrongly. His response probably evokes laugh­ter — the audience, who appreciate the incongruity even as he does and does not — "Ow, dame, what thinge menyth this?" (line 34). For an extended discussion of the literary, theatrical, and figurative art stagings of Joseph as cuckold in a fabliau world, see Vasvari, "Joseph on the Margin," pp. 163–89. Woolf puts the matter adroitly when she obseves, "the fabliau world exists only in Joseph's imagination, while Mary still lives in the spotless and serene world of the Annunciation" (English Mystery Plays, p. 173). See also Moll, "Staging Disorder," p. 148.

34 what thinge menyth this. See note to 7.41–44 above. Mary not only embodies the Temple of the Old Testament and the New Testament Church, but her son will become the fulfillment of both. In this regard, as Owst notes, she is the perfect woman (Literature and the Pulpit, p. 21).

42 Compare York Play 13, line 103, and Towneley Play 10, line 195.

49-83 A thirteener stanza followed by a nine-line stanza, followed by another thirteener.

55–56 Olde cokwold, thi bow is bent / Newly now after the Frensche gyse. See Vasvari's dis­cussion of the stanza and Joseph's shame (lines 71 ff.) in terms of secular literary and visual types ("Joseph on the Margin," pp. 170–73). On the bending of the bow and French guise as representation of lechery, see Spector (S 2:461), citing Baird and Baird ("Fabliau Form," p. 160) and Handlyng Synne (lines 4151–52), among other references.

81–83 Proverbial language. See Whiting B604.

84–117 A quatrain followed by three ten-line stanzas.

96–97 The Mosaic punishments for adultery are found in Leviticus 20:10, Deuter­onomy 22:22, Ezechiel 16:40, and John 8:5. See also Spector, S 2:461.

118–46 A nine-line stanza followed by two ten-line stanzas.

127 sesyd. See Meredith on the legal diction here with regard to an overlord's rights (MP, p. 132n127).

133 respyt. Both Meredith and Spector suggest that despyte might make more sense in this context. For their fuller explanations, see MP, p. 133n133–36, and S 2:462.

147–79 A thirteener stanza followed by two ten-line stanzas.

149 Good sere. It is clear that Joseph does not recognize the angel because he is so occupied by his own embarrassment at feeling cuckolded. This scene parallels Abraham's visit from Melchizedek at which point Abraham (also unaware of his visitor's identity) learns that he will be the father of the nation of Israel (Genesis 14:18–15:6).

166 ful of grace. This line could be Joseph's acknowledgment of Mary's special status as the Mother of God. Compare with 11.216a–23.

172–73 Compare Matthew 1:21–22.

174 that syttys on hye. Though the phrase is common to indicate theologically that high heaven where Jesus dwells, here the observation might be taken more literally to indicate the presence of an actor representing God in a lofty stage-place, overseeing the whole play.

180–212 A thirteener stanza followed by two ten-line stanzas.

185 Youre swete fete, now lete me kys. Joseph's action here foreshadows Mary Magda­lene's intentions after the Resurrection in 37.40–41.

213–24 An octave followed by a quatrain.


Abbreviations: Bl: Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block (1922); G: Assumption of the Virgin, ed. Greg (1915); H: Ludus Coventriae, ed. Halliwell (1841); S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.n.: stage name. 1–2 MS: large play number 12 in right margin.

1, s.n. JOSEPH. MS: Speaker's name written in textura quadrata script.

12 MS: how hast (the start of line 21) written and canceled between lines 12 and 13.

13, s.n. MS: Maria written in right margin in another hand.

14 yow. MS: yw yow.

28 MS: at the bottom of fol. 67r is a large G written in another hand.

47 MS: no capitulum.

51 be. So MS. S: by.

62 thus. MS: so thus.

72 to. MS: two letters canceled before.

89 no. MS: that it not.

91 sene. MS: sone.

97 her. MS: w her.

99 vengeabyl. MS, H: vegeabyl.

102 Tokyn. MS: nevyrtheles tokyn (eyeskip from line 104).

125 on me. MS: omme corrected to on me by cancellation of the final minim of first m.

133 respyt. So MS. G, S: despyt.

181 MS: a different hand has written an A in the bottom right hand corner of the page; an F is in the bottom left.

212 MS: at the bottom of fol. 70r is a D in a different hand.

214 aunge. So MS, Bl. S: aungel.

217 shulde. MS: shulde shulde.

After 224 MS: remainder of fol. 70v (119 mm.) blank.













































JOSEPH How, dame, how! Undo youre dore, undo!
Are ye at hom? Why speke ye notht?
SUSANNA Who is ther? Why cry ye so?
Telle us youre herand, wyl ye ought?
JOSEPH Undo youre dore, I sey yow to!
For to com in is all my thought.
MARIA It is my spowse that spekyth us to!
Ondo the dore — his wyl were wrought!

Wellcome hom, myn husbond dere!
How have ye ferd in fer countré?
JOSEPH To gete oure levynge, withowtyn dwere,
I have sore laboryd for thee and me.

MARIA Husbond, ryght gracyously now come be ye!
It solacyth me sore, sothly, to se yow in syth.
JOSEPH Me merveylyth, wyff! Surely, youre face I cannot se,
But as the sonne with his bemys, quan he is most bryth!

MARIA Husbond, it is as it plesyth, oure Lord that grace of hym grew.
Who that evyr beholdyth me veryly,
They shal be grettly steryd to vertu.
For this gyfte and many moo, good Lord, gramer­cy.

JOSEPH How hast thu ferde, jentyl mayde
Whyl I have be out of londe?
MARIA Sekyr, sere, beth nowth dysmayde,
Ryth aftyr the wyl of Goddys sonde.
JOSEPH That semyth evyl, I am afrayd:
Thi wombe to hyghe doth stonde!
I drede me sore I am betrayd.
Sum other man thee had in honde
Hens sythe that I went.
Thy wombe is gret; it gynnyth to ryse!
Than has thu begownne a synful gyse!
Telle me now in what wyse
Thyself thu ast thus schent!

Ow, dame, what thinge menyth this?
With childe, thu gynnyst ryth gret to gon?
Sey me, Mary — this childys fadyr, ho is?
I pray thee, telle me and that anon!
MARIA The Fadyr of Hevyn and ye it is;
Other fadyr hath he non.
I dede nevyr forfete with man, iwys.
Wherfore I pray yow, amende youre mon:
This childe is Goddys and youre!
JOSEPH Goddys childe — thu lyist, in fay!
God dede nevyr jape so with may!
And I cam nevyr ther, I dare wel say,
Yitt so nyh thi boure.

But yit I sey: Mary, whoos childe is this?
MARIA Goddys and youre, I sey, iwys!

JOSEPH Ya, ya, all olde men to me take tent
And weddyth no wyff, in no kynnys wyse,
That is a yonge wench, be myn asent,
For doute and drede and swych servyse!
Alas, alas, my name is shent!
All men may me now dyspyse
And seyn: “Olde cokwold, thi bow is bent
Newly now after the Frensche gyse!”
Alas, and welaway!
Alas, dame, why dedyst thu so?
For this synne that thu hast do,
I thee forsake and from thee go
For onys evyr and ay!

MARIA Alas, gode spowse, why sey ye thus?
Alas, dere hosbund, amende your mod!
It is no man, but swete Jhesus!
He wyll be clad in flesch and blood,
And of youre wyff be born!
SEPHOR Forsothe, the aungel thus seyd he
That Goddys Sone in Trynité
For mannys sake, a man wolde be
To save that is forlorn.

JOSEPH An aungel? Allas, alas — fy for schame!
Ye syn now in that ye to say,
To puttyn an aungel in so gret blame!
Alas, alas, let be, do way!
It was sum boy began this game
That clothyd was clene and gay,
And ye geve hym now an aungel name!
Alas, alas, and welaway
That evyr this game betydde!
A, dame, what thought haddyst thu?
Here may all men this proverbe trow:
“That many a man doth bete the bow;
Another man hath the brydde.”

MARIA A, gracious God in hefne trone,
Comforte my spowse in this hard cas!
Mercyful God, amend his mone
As I dede nevyr so gret trespas.

JOSEPH Lo, lo, serys! What told I yow?
That it was not for my prow
A wyff to take me to.
An that is wel sene now,
For Mary, I make God avow,
Is gret with childe — lo!
Alas, why is it so?
To the busshop, I wole it telle
That he, the law, may here do,
With stonys her to qwelle!

Nay, nay, yet God forbede
That I shuld do that vengeabyl dede!
But if I wyst wel qwy!
I knew never with her, so God me spede,
Tokyn of thynge in word nor dede
That towchyd velany!
Nevyrtheles what forthy,
Thow she be meke and mylde,
Withowth mannys company,
She myght not be with childe!

But I ensure, myn was it nevyr!
Thow that she hath not don her devyr,
Rather than I shuld pleynyn opynly!
Serteynly yitt had I levyr
Forsake the countré forevyr
And nevyr come in her company!
For and men knew this velany,
In repreff thei wolde me holde.
And yett, many bettyr than I,
Ya, hath ben made cokolde!

Now alas, whedyr shal I gone?
I wot nevyr whedyr nor to what place,
For oftyntyme sorwe comyth sone
And longe it is, or it pace.
No comforte may I have here!
Iwys, wyff, thu dedyst me wronge!
Alas, I taryed from thee to longe!
All men have pety on me amonge,
For to my sorwe is no chere.

MARIA God, that in my body art sesyd,
Thu knowist myn husbond is dysplesyd
To se me in this plight!
For unknowlage, he is desesyd.
That he myght knowe thee ful perfyght.
And therfore, help that he were esyd
For I have levyr abyde respyt
To kepe thi sone in privité,
Grauntyd by the Holy Spyryt,
Than that it shulde be opynd by me.

DEUS Descende, I sey, myn aungelle,
Onto Joseph for to telle
Such as my wyl is.
Byd hym with Mary abyde and dwelle,
For it is my Sone ful snelle
That she is with, iwys.
ANGELUS Almyghty God of Blys,
I am redy for to wende
Wedyr as thi wyl is,
To go, bothe fer and hynde.

Joseph, Joseph, thu wepyst shyrle!
Fro thi wyff, why comyst thu owte?
JOSEPH Good sere, lete me wepe my fylle!
Go forthe thi wey and lett me nowght!
ANGELUS In thi wepynge, thu dost ryght ylle!
Agens God thu hast myswrought!
Go chere thi wyf with herty wylle
And chawnge thi chere — amend thi thought!
Sche is a ful clene may!
I telle thee, God wyl of her be born
And sche, clene mayd as she was beforn,
To save mankynd, that is forlorn.
Go, chere hyr, therfore I say!

JOSEPH A, Lord God, benedicite!
Of thi gret comforte, I thank thee
That thu sent me this space.
I myght wel a wyst, pardé,
So good a creature as she
Wold nevyr a don trespace,
For sche is ful of grace.
I know wel I have myswrought!
I walk to my pore place
And ask forgyfnes — I have mysthought.

Now is the tyme sen at eye
That the childe is now to veryfye
Which shal save mankende,
As it was spoke be prophesye.
I thank thee, God — that syttys on hye —
With hert, wyl, and mende —
That evyr thu woldyst me bynde
To wedde Mary to my wyff.
Thi blysful sone, so nere to fynde,
In his presens to lede my lyff.

Alas, for joy, I qwedyr and qwake!
Alas, what hap now was this?
A, mercy, mercy, my jentyl make!
Mercy! I have seyd al amys!
All that I have seyd here, I forsake!
Youre swete fete, now lete me kys!
MARIA Nay, lett be my fete, not tho ye take!
My mowthe, ye may kys, iwys,
And welcom onto me!
JOSEPH Gramercy, myn owyn swete wyff!
Gramercy, myn hert, my love, my lyff!
Shal I nevyr more make suche stryff
Betwyx me and thee!

A, Mary, Mary, wel thu be,
And blyssyd be the frewte in thee,
Goddys Sone of myght!
Now, good wyff, ful of pyté,
As be not evyl payd with me
Thow that thu have good ryght.
As for my wronge in syght
To wyte thee with ony synne,
Had thu not be a vertuous wythe,
God wold not a be thee withinne.

I knowlage I have don amys.
I was never wurthy, iwys,
For to be thin husbonde.
I shal amende aftere thys,
Ryght as thin owyn wyl is,
To serve thee at foot and honde,
And thi chylde bothe to undyrstonde,
To wurchep hym with good affeccyon.
And, therfore, telle me, and nothynge whonde,
The holy matere of your concepcyon.

MARIA At youre owyn wyll, as ye bydde me.
Ther cam an aunge hyght Gabryell
And gret me fayr and seyd “Ave”!
And ferthermore to me gan tell
God shulde be borne of my bodé,
The fendys powsté for to felle.
Thorwe the Holy Gost, as I wel se,
Thus God in me wyl byde and dwelle.

JOSEPH Now I thank God with spech and spelle
That evyr, Mary, I was weddyd to thee!
MARIA It was the werk of God, as I yow telle.
Now blyssyd be that Lord so purveyd for me.
Hey; Open up; (see note); (t-note)
(see note)

done; (see note)

fared; far
earn; doubt

come in; (t-note)
comforts; truly; sight; (t-note)

Except; (see note)

more; great thanks

fared; (see note)
the country
Surely, sir, be not
God's message

too high; (see note)
I greatly fear
at hand; (t-note)
Here while I was away
big; begins to grow
Then; begun; business
you have; disgraced

(see note)
Getting yourself so great
Tell; child's father, who

did; transgress; indeed
God's; yours; (see note)
God's; lie, truly
play; maiden

Yet; nigh; womb

God's and yours; indeed

listen to me; (see note)
under no circumstances
young; by; advice; (t-note)

cuckold; (see note)
just as the French do!


once and for all

good; (t-note)



give; angel's

believe; (see note)

heaven's throne; (see note)
never did

good; (t-note)

And; (t-note)
I swear

bishop; I will
fulfill the law; (see note)
to kill; (t-note)

vengeful; (t-note)
If only I knew; why
exchanged with her
A token; (t-note)
touched sin
Notwithstanding this


assure you
Though; duty
complain openly
Certainly; I'd prefer

For if

been made a cuckold

where; go; (see note)
I don't know
before it passes

Indeed; did
pity; (t-note)
sorrow; cheer

is possessed; (see note)

not knowing; troubled
you perfectly
rather remain in waiting; (see note); (t-note)
in secrecy


carrying, indeed
to go
far and wide

weep shrilly; (see note)
(see note)
hinder me not
weeping; ill
done wrong
good will
change; mood
pure maid

a virgin

bless me

understand, by God
have done
(see note)

thought wrongly

plainly seen
prove true
Who; (see note)
(see note)

quiver; (see note)
what happened; (t-note)
gentle mate
all amiss

sweet feet; (see note)
feet; those
kiss, indeed

Many thanks


Do not be angry
obvious wrong
accuse you; any
been; person
have been within you

acknowledge; amiss

be better


hold back

(see note)
angel named; (t-note)
greeted me; “Hail”
began to tell me
devil's power; vanquish

speech and words

provided; (t-note)


Go To Play 13, Visit to Elizabeth