Back to top

Play 16, Shepherds


1 The angel says to the shepherds: "Glory to God in the highest"

2 Then the shepherds will sing "The star of the heavens has uprooted," whereupon they go to look for the Christ

3 When you win this world with your wide wounds


Abbreviations: S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.d.: stage direction.

As part of the Nativity sequence, shepherds' plays were popular and common. Even though all of the English versions — York Play 15, Towneley Plays 12 and 13 (the First and Second Shepherds Plays), Chester Play 12, and part of the Coventry Shearmen and Taylors' Pageant (lines 192–312) — are based on Luke 2:8–20, they all contain substantial elaborations on the biblical account. All of the versions perform the angels' song, the shepherds' inability to understand the song, their trip to Bethlehem, their appreciation of the Christ- child's poverty, and Mary's blessing upon them. Curiously, as Spector notes (S 2:472), N-Town is the only version that omits the shepherds' gifts. Woolf calls the N-Town Shepherds the "most severe and reserved" of all of the English plays (English Mystery Plays, p. 183). (But see note to lines 90–102, below.)

This N-Town Shepherds Play shows substantial revision, likely for its independent production after the manuscript's final compilation. The play is written in thirteeners, octaves, and quatrains.

Before 1, s.d. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Compare Luke 2:14 and Dutka, Index of Songs, pp. 28–29, for the complete lyrics.

5 The seven sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony, the latter two being "not common to all." In essence, the seven (a number signifying totality and the measure of human life) sacraments are signs or forms of a mysterious and invisible reality: they are special graces that carry one from the cradle to the grave. The angel may be pointing to God's grace provided in Christ's incarnation and the various ecclesiastical graces that are being provided for everyone's corporeal existence. See Pelikan, Christian Tradition, 3:208–14.

7 Therfore, I synge a joyful stevene. See Rastall's lengthy note on the passage to suggest that although the Angelus begins with a paraphrase of the Gloria the text is perhaps sung by the solo angel, rather than a heavenly host, though subsequently the three shepherds seem to have heard different voices. Perhaps the singing by more voices occurs after the shepherds discuss the prophecies (16.14–61). See the plural verb cantent in16.61, s.d. Rastall suggests a reordering of the lines that ties the musical components together more coherently (Minstrels Playing, pp. 83–84).

15 shene shyne. Spector glosses this as "brilliant radiance" (S 2:472).

21 brenne thryes. Boosras' having sighted the star three times attests to the veracity of his statement. This triple sighting may also suggest perfection, completeness, realized unity, and the Trinity (Peck, "Number as Cosmic Language," p. 77).

26–29 Compare Numbers 24:17 and, below, 18.159–66. In Biblia Pauperum, pl. c, Balaam's prophecy is cited as a figuration of the Epiphany.

32 carpynge of a croyse. The cross spoken of by Moses may also allude to the brazen serpent of Numbers 21:4–9 referred to in John 3:14–15, where Jesus likens himself to the serpent raised in the wilderness by Moses. See the Biblia Pauperum, pl. e, which juxtaposes the image of the elevated serpent with the crucifixion and Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac (Genesis 22:7–8). The verse "Lesi curantur serpentem dum speculantur" (the wounded are cured when they look upon the serpent, i.e., Jesus on the Cross) appears beneath the panel depicting Moses' observation of the riddle (Biblia Pauperum, pp. 39, 81, 124).

39 skye. This is apparently a unique usage of the word, to mean "star," but the word can also refer to a specific astrological configuration (MED).

46–49 The exact passage in Amos is unclear. Amos 8:1–2, 9:11, and 9:13 have all been proposed (see S 2:472). Amos 9:14–15 is also possible.

54–57 Compare Daniel 7:13–14, though no specific mention of meddling "with a mayde" is given, only that of a night "one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven . . . even to the ancient of days."

62–70 There is clearly comic inversion as the illiterate shepherds here, as in the Chester Shepherds' Play (7.358–447, s.d.), seem to understand and learn Latin very quickly. See Woolf, English Mystery Plays, p. 190. In the later Chester Play, the shepherds seem to pick up Latin by osmosis. In this N-Town version, there is some comedy in the shepherds' bumbling attempts at interpreting the angels' song. It is possible that the playwright is invoking the linguistic results of the fall, that is, the vernacular's inherent inferiority to the church's Latin. The shepherds attempt to match their imperfect yet natural understanding to the angel's perfect message. In the City of God, Augustine (11.18) recalls that the shepherds decide to see "this word" (hoc verbum) which has come to pass (Luke 2:15). John Alford states: "On one level verbum represents the fusion of deed and word, and one another the fusion of Christ and his gospel" ("Grammatical Metaphor," p. 744).

65, 69 Gle, glo, glory . . . Gle, glo, glas, glum. The First and Second Shepherds try to understand the angelic Latin, riffing on a phoneme or perhaps are trying to decline what they heard, struggling with what has entered their heads, both confident that their ears have worked accurately. The Third Shepherd seems to make better sense of the event, though it is the first shepherd who recalls the prophesy of "Boosdras" (line 74). That the shepherds struggle with the Latin, does not mean that they are not intelligent. See the note to lines 62–70, above.

74 prophecye of Boosdras. See Isaias 63:1: "Who is this that comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this beautiful one in his robe." This passage goes on to compare the red garments to theirs who tread at the wine press (Isaias 63:2), and the visitation of the Holy One to the shepherds (Isaias 63:11). The dye of the blood-red winepress was in turn seen to anticipate the Eucharistic blood of the Crucifixion (see Hours of Catherine of Cleves, pl. 87, on Christ as a winepress).

82–89 Lete us folwe with all oure myght . . . This songe begynne. The Second Shepherd suggests that they sing as they travel to Bethlehem, making mirth, worship, song, and melody as they go. Such a journey might provide a physical transition as they literally carry the sight lines of the audience from one acting station to another. But Rastall notes that the marginal stage direction at line 89 seems to require that they sing the Stella celi extirpavit in place and only then progress to Bethlehem (Minstrels Playing, p. 85). Whatever the case, the actors would do well to permit their shepherds to sing harmoniously at this point; though they may be clowns, who initially respond to the angels somewhat foolishly, they are, nonetheless, inspired by the voices of heaven and are engaged in a beautiful mission.

89, s.d. Stella celi extirpavit. Compare Dutka, Index of Songs, pp. 37–38. Here the human comedy moves to the sublime as the pre-Edenic Word becomes performative amidst the simple shepherds as they participate in the eloquent presence of Glory, Mary, and the babe itself. Rastall notes the Stella celi is one of several Mary-antiphons in use in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries that never found a regular place in service books nor had a set tune associated with them. Probably it would have received a plainsong performance rather than being sung polyphonically. "The text is in fact a prayer for protection against plague. Granted that such a prayer was always necessary at the time, it is not at all clear why it should be considered appropriate in a shepherds' play" (Rastall, Minstrels Playing, p. 104).

90–102 Heyle, floure of flourys . . . perle . . . blome . . . With thi blody woundys . . . Whan thu wynnyst this worlde with thi wyde wounde / And puttyst man to Paradys with plenty of prys. In the joyous hailing spirit of all the prophecies that come instantaneously to life in the celebratory vision of the shepherds, their Stella celi song and spontaneous response is, perhaps (contra S 2:472), the greatest gift possible for the babe. They give their understanding that reaches from the blooming of the peerless primrose to the confounding of the devil through Christ's brilliant wounds that restore humankind to Paradise. They honor the Word with words of insight and music that participate in the fullness of revelation, experienced this fully by no one else in the N-Town Plays, which seems hardly as "severe and reserved" as Woolf suggests (English Mystery Plays, p. 183). (See the headnote to this play and also the note to lines 119–26, below.)

119–26 Joseph's request for more merry comfort from the shepherds is tribute to the eloquence of their gift — Beth not stylle / But seyth your wylle / To many a man: / How God is born / This mery morn. His two-stress quatrains (aaab/cccb) quicken the eagerness of his response. Perhaps in line 126 it would seem appropriate that he refers to Christ as the Good Shepherd, who can find whoever the lost one might be (see Luke 15:3–7).

127–50 In this farewell sequence by the shepherds the trio again praises the child Jesus, somewhat aware of his divinity (e.g., as Harwere of Helle, line 129, who will defeat the fiend who would impinge upon his ryght, line 134) yet now focusing our attention upon his humanity with the change in versification, lines 135 ff. The innocence thereby renders the child Lorde of grett pousté (line 141), or kynge of alle (line 142), albeit a fayre mullynge (line 144), a beloved infant still without words other than mumblings. See Vulgate Psalm 83 on the power of suckling infants to confound and destroy God's enemies.

151–54 Now ye herdmen . . . My sone shal aqwyte yow . . . Amen. As in the other shepherds' plays, Mary graciously accepts the gifts of the herdsmen — all their hailing and heartfelt farewells. Rastall points out that here, in the last speech of the play, "Mary refers to the shepherd's homage and to their singing," which could mean that they did, in fact, sing as they walked to the new station (contrary to the Latin marginal stage direction) and that they "were still singing when they arrived; or that they sang another song while they were at the stable; or that we are to suppose that Mary heard their singing from a distance. There is no evidence for the second of these; and as there is really nothing to choose between the first and last, the question must be resolved according to the director's staging of the episode" (Minstrels Playing, p. 85).


Abbreviations: Bl: Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block (1922); S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.d.: stage direction.

Before 1, s.d. Gloria in excelsis Deo. MS: crossed out in fainter ink, possibly by the reviser who altered other parts of this play.

5–8 MS: large play number 16 in right margin.

6 thorwe. So S. MS: þowe crossed out, altered to thorough (?) above the line.

9 hygh. MS: hyʒ , but reviser added an e to the end.

13 sleytys slygh. MS: sleytys partially erased; hye written over slyʒ , followed by wysdam I saye in a reviser's hand.

14 breme is written to the right of the line in a different hand, perhaps as a comment on the brightness of the gret lyght in the line following. The passage has evidently caught the attention of the reviser, who is experimenting with wording. See note to the next line.

15 shyne. MS: bryght written above the line by reviser.

16 selkowth. MS: selkowth nearly erased with mervelus written above it. Reviser also added a before syne.

24 tokenynge. MS: one letter canceled before.

28 sone. MS: sone with child written above in reviser's hand.

30 lytyl. MS: lyty with a final l added by reviser.

31–34 MS: reviser has written man þat after herde above the line, crossed out Moyse, written saying above the line, and added amys after the line. In line 32, the reviser has crossed out carpynge, replacing it with spekyng above, has crossed out born, replacing it with xuld be borne at the right. The revision reads:
I am an herde man þat hattyht sayyng amys.
I herde spekyng of a child of blys
Of Moyses in his law
Of a mayd a child xuld be borne.
62–102 MS: lines 74–89, s.d. appear first, but are marked B. Lines 62–73 appear second, but are marked A. Lines 90–102 appear third in this passage and are marked C. The text reflects the ordering as marked. Bl renders the order in the manuscript, ignoring the compiler's attempt to reorder the material. Thus, in her edition, line 61 is followed by lines 74–89, which are then followed by lines 62–73.

67 inum. MS: invm, v correcting another letter.

72 shal. MS: xal xal.

77 bale. MS: reviser canceled bale and replaced it with sorrow.

78 shodyr. Bl: shadyr. MS: shodyr, with not let written above the line.

79 Buske. MS: reviser canceled Buske, replacing it with Go at left.

99 MS: fol. 90v marked 90 in left margin.

119–34 MS: written two lines as one, divided by punctuation.

After 154 MS: remainder of fol. 91r blank (85 mm), except for scribbling. Fol. 91v contains several names, all in later hands:
W William dere
William dere
John Hasycham
Joh Taylphott of parish
Bedonson wee that will no
when we paie when we would
we shal find nay
And [scribble] Evosund
John [at the bottom of the page]
  [Angelus ad pastores dicit: “Gloria in excelsis Deo."1



















ANGELUS Joye to God that sytt in hevyn
And pes to man on erthe grownde!
A chylde is born benethe the levyn
Thurwe hym many folke shul be unbownde!
Sacramentys ther shul be sefne,
Wonnyn thorwe that childys wounde.
Therfore, I synge a joyful stevene:
The flowre of frenchep now is founde,
God that wonyght on hygh.
He is gloryed, mannys gost to wynne;
He hath sent salve to mannys synne;
Pes is comyn to mannys kynne
Thorwe Goddys sleytys slygh.

PASTOR 1 Maunfras, Maunfras, felawe myne —
I saw a grett lyght with shene shyne!
Yit saw I nevyr so selkowth syne
Shapyn upon the skyes!
It is bryghtere than the sunnebem;
It comyth ryght ovyr all this rem!
Evyn above Bedleem
I saw it brenne thryes.

PASTOR 2 Thu art my brother, Boosras.
I have beholdyn the same pas!
I trowe it is tokenynge of gras,
That shynynge shewyght beforn:
Balaam spak in prophesye
A lyght shuld shyne upon the skye
Whan a sone of a mayd Marye
In Bedleem were iborn.

PASTOR 3 Thow I make lytyl noyse,
I am an herde that hattyht Moyse.
I herde carpynge of a croyse,
Of Moyses in his lawe,
Of a mayd, a barne born.
On a tre he shulde be torn,
Delyver folkys that arn forlorn —
The chylde shulde be slawe.

PASTOR 1 Balaam spak in prophecie:
Out of Jacob shuld shyne a skye,
Many folke he shulde bye
With his bryght blood —
Be that bryght blod that he shulde blede.
He shal us brynge fro the develys drede
As a duke most dowty, in dede,
Thorwe his deth on rode.

PASTOR 2 Amos spak with mylde meth:
A frute swettere than bawmys breth,
His deth shulde slen oure sowlys deth
And drawe us all from helle.
Therfore, such lyght goth beforn
In tokyn that the childe is born
Whiche shal save that is forlorn,
As prophetys gonne spelle.

PASTOR 3 Danyel the prophete thus gan speke:
Wyse God from woo us wreke,
Thi bryght hevyn thu tobreke
And medele thee with a mayde.
This prophecye is now spad.
Cryst in oure kend is clad:
Therfore, mankend may be glad
As prophetys beforn han seyd.

[“Gloria in excelsis Deo" cantent.

PASTOR 1 Ey, ey, this was a wondyr note
That was now songyn above the sky!
I have that voys ful wele, I wote —
Thei songe “Gle, glo, glory."

PASTOR 2 Nay, so mot y the, so was it nowth!
I have that songe ful wele inum;
In my wytt weyl it is wrought:
It was “Gle, glo, glas, glum."

PASTOR 3 The songe methought it was “Glory."
And aftyrwarde, he seyd us to
Ther is a chylde born shal be a prynce myghty!
For to seke that chylde, I rede we go.

PASTOR 1 The prophecye of Boosdras is spedly sped.
Now leyke we hens as that lyght us lede.
Myght we se onys that bryght on bed —
Our bale it wolde unbynde —
We shulde shodyr for no shoure.
Buske we us hens to Bedleem boure
To se that fayr fresch flowre,
The mayde mylde in mynde.

PASTOR 2 Lete us folwe with all oure myght,
With songe and myrth we shul us dyght
And wurchep with joye that wurthy wyght,
That Lord is of mankynne.
Lete us go forthe, fast on hye
And honowre that babe wurthylye —
With merthe, songe, and melodye.
Have do! This songe begynne.

(see note); (t-note)
on the earth
the heavenly lights
seven; (see note); (t-note)
Won through; child’s wounds; (t-note)
song; (see note)
Dwells; (t-note)
glorified, man’s spirit
healing; man’s
Peace; mankind
Through God’s sly devices; (t-note)

Shepherd 1; my fellow; (t-note)
Brilliance; (see note); (t-note)
wonderful a sign; (t-note)
Made in

burn thrice; (see note)

I think; grace; (t-note)
is shown
spoke; (see note)

When; (t-note)

Though; (t-note)
herder called Moses; (t-note)
talk; cross; (see note)
are lost

star; (see note)

from fearing the devil
Through; a cross

spoke; mild manner; (see note)
child; balm’s breath
slay our soul’s
lead us

have declared

(see note)
woe deliver us
break open

Let them sing, “Glory to God in the highest."

wonderful song; (see note); (t-note)

I remember; voice; I think (ascertain)
They sang; (see note)

so might I thrive; not
understood; (t-note)
mind; recorded
(see note)

said to us
to seek; suggest

speedily done; (see note)
let’s go
once; fair [child]
troubles; (t-note)
shudder; rain shower; (t-note)
Hurry; Bethlehem town; (t-note)

follow; (see note)
shall prepare

with devotion

Hurry up!

  [Tunc pastores cantabunt “Stella celi extirpavit" quo facto ibunt ad querendum Christum. 2; (see note)













PASTOR 1 Heyle, floure of flourys, fayrest ifownde!
Heyle, perle, peerles primerose of prise!
Heyl, blome on bedde! We shul be unbownde
With thi blody woundys and werkys full wyse!
Heyl, God grettest! I grete thee on grownde!
The gredy devyl shal grone grysly as a gryse
Whan thu wynnyst this worlde with thi wyde wounde3
And puttyst man to Paradys with plenty of prys!
To love thee is my delyte.
Heyl, floure fayr and fre,
Lyght from the Trynyté!
Heyl, blyssyd mote thu be!
Heyl, mayden fayrest in syght!

PASTOR 2 Heyl, floure ovyr flowrys fowndyn in fryght!
Heyl, Cryst kynde in oure kyth!
Heyl, werker of wele to wonyn us wyth!
Heyl, wynnere, iwys
Heyl, formere and frende
Heyl, fellere of the fende
Heyl, clad in oure kende!
Heyl, Prince of Paradys!

PASTOR 3 Heyl, Lord ovyr lordys that lyggyst ful lowe!
Heyl, kynge ovyr kyngys thi kynrede to knowe!
Heyl, comely knyth, the devyl to overthrowe!
Heyl, flowre of alle!
Heyl, werkere to wynne
Bodyes bowndyn in synne!
Heyl, in a bestys bynne,
Bestad in a stalle.

JOSEPH Herdys on hylle
Beth not stylle
But seyth youre wylle
To many a man:
How God is born
This mery morn —
That is forlorn
Fyndyn he can.

PASTOR 1 We shull telle
Be dale and hylle
How Harwere of Helle
Was born this nyght,
Myrthis to melle
And fendys to quelle,
That were so felle
Agens his ryght.

PASTOR 2 Farewel, babe and barne of blys!
Farewel, Lord that lovely is!
Thee to wurchep thi feet I kys.
On knes to thee I falle,
Thee to wurchepe I falle on kne.
All this werd may joye of thee!
Now farewel, Lorde of grett pousté!
Ya, farewel kynge of alle.

PASTOR 3 Thow I be the last that take my leve,
Yit, fayre mullynge, take it nat at no greve.
Now, fayre babe, wele mut thu cheve!
Fayr chylde, now have good day.
Fareweyl, myn owyn dere derlyng:
Iwys, thu art a ryght fayr thyng!
Farewel, my Lorde and my swetyng!
Farewel, born in pore aray.

MARIA Now ye herdmen, wel mote ye be,
For youre omage and youre syngynge
My sone shal aqwyte yow in hefne se,
And geve yow all ryght good hendynge.
Hail; flowers; found; (see note)
pearl, peerless primrose; price
bloom; freed
bloody wounds; works
to the earth
horribly as a boar

in Paradise; riches

excellent; (t-note)


in the woodlands
noble one; country
good fortune to dwell with us
victor, indeed
destroyer of the fiend



beasts’ stable

Shepherds; (see note); (t-note)

Whoever is lost

shall; (see note)
In valleys and hills
the Harrower

Mirth to bring
fiends; kill


world; rejoice
great power

fair darling; do not grieve
may you fare

sweet one
poor estate

may; (see note)
reward; from heaven’s throne

Go To Note for Play 17