Back to top

Play 19, Purification


1 We have received your mercy, O God (compare Psalm 47:10)

2 "Now you dismiss your servant, O Lord," and so on


Abbreviations: S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.d.: stage direction; s.n.: stage name.
Plays that retold the story of Candlemass, or Mary's purification in the Temple, Simeon's long wait for the Messiah, and Anna's prophecy were performed throughout the British Isles. We have six extant play texts: Chester Play 11, a large portion of the Coventry Weav­ers' Pageant (lines 176–718), York Play 17, Towneley Play 17, the Digby Candlemass Play, and N-Town's. The Towneley and York plays concentrate on Simeon and Anne's prophecies regarding the Christ-child. Chester and Coventry curiously conflate Candlemass with Christ's meeting with the doctors of the temple, which, according to Luke 2:41–52, hap­pened twelve years later. In the Chester and Coventry versions, Mary and Joseph (mostly Mary) dispute their son's identity with the temple doctors. The Digby version combines Mary's purification rites in the temple with the massacre of the innocents. Spector notes that this particular N-Town play is not mentioned in the Banns and interrupts the plot and chronology of the Magi and Slaughter of the Innocents plays (S 2:476). The topos of the sacrificial firstborn appears repeatedly in the Old Testament. It appears first with Abra­ham's offering of Isaac found in Genesis 22:1–14. It is significant that the angel allows Abra­ham to "buy back" his son, that is, to sacrifice a ram in Isaac's place. This same topos occurs in the Passover of Exodus, when the firstborn of Egypt are sacrificed, but those of the Israelites are saved through blood redemption (Exodus 11:4–6, 12:1–13:15; Deuteronomy 26:1–13).

The play consists of ten-line stanzas, an unusual form in the manuscript that is also found in Joseph's Doubt. Because of the Purification's place in the manuscript and its stan­zaic form, Spector suggests that this play was added later to the collection. It is noteworthy that the date at the end of the play, 1468, has been used by scholars to date the whole manu­script even though no one is certain of the date's significance.

18 Sancta sanctorum. Literally, the Holy of Holies inside the temple. When Solomon completed the temple, which was begun by his father David, the priests could not enter the inner sanctum because the glory of the Lord filled it (3 Kings [1 Kings] 8:13–21 and 2 Paralipomenon [Chronicles] 6:1–11 and 7:1–22). God blesses the temple but also promises Solomon that David's line will continue as part of the covenant. It is clear to Simeon and Anna that they are witnessing the fulfillment to that prophecy.

21–40 The pathos of Simeon's speech lies in the tension between "the aged Symeon's eagerness to be rid of life but yet greater longing to see the Christ-Child" (Woolf, English Mystery Plays, p. 197). This version balances Simeon's hope in the Trinity (implied in the existence of the Christ-child) in the third stanza (lines 21–30) with the feebleness of his faculties and limbs in the fourth, as he inches his way toward death (lines 31–40). The other English versions allude to his age, but they all display Simeon's unalloyed confidence that he will see the Messiah before he dies.

46 temple ther thu dwellyst inne. Simeon's speech (lines 1–40) and the angel's allusion to the temple recall 2 Peter 1:13 and 2 Corinthians 5:1–8. Both biblical passages correlate the earthly temple with corporeal existence. See also the previous note.

68 bye mankende. See the headnote for the long Old Testament tradition of atone­ment. While animal sacrifice was part of the tradition (for various transgressions and offerings), there are exceptional cases in which God requires the sacrifice of the firstborn son.

82 offeryd. See the headnote for the tradition of Old Testament sacrifice.

88–90 Compare Luke 2:35: "And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed."

91–94 Compare Luke 2:38: "Now she . . . spoke of him to all that looked for the re­demption of Israel."

91–96 The only sestet in the play, possibly a partial ten-line stanza.

98 fourty days. Luke 2:22 states that Mary's purification after giving birth to Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law. Leviticus 12:1–5 mandates the male child's circum­cision on the eighth day and the mother's purification (keeping her from the temple) lasting thirty-three days, a total of forty days.

115–16 Compare Luke 2:24 ("offer a sacrifice . . . a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons") and Leviticus 12:6–8 ("a young pigeon or a turtle for sin . . . and if her hand find not sufficiency, and she is not able to offer a lamb, she shall take two turtles or two young pigeons"). Medieval sources noted that doves were offerings of the poor while lambs were offered by the rich (S 2:476).

136, s.d. Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam. On the several relationships of this psalm text to the Latin liturgy, see Rastall, Minstrels Playing, p. 105.

137–45 This passage begins with the extra-metrical Latin line. The lines following the Latin line are a version of Vulgate Psalm 47:10–12, but are also used in the Sarum Missal (see S 2:476 and Woolf, English Mystery Plays, p. 390n44).

146, s.d. The song is known as "The Canticle of Simeon" and is sung at compline and as an antiphon (Dutka, Index of Songs, p. 35). It is also sung in the Chester Play 11 after line 167. See also Rastall's note on ways and uses of performance of the song in liturgy (Minstrels Playing, p. 106).

147 Now lete me dye. The nunc dimittis is an ancient device defining the long suffering servant/watchman who waits in good faith until the mission is complete. It is found even in Homer's Odyssey, where the hero's dog Argus waits twenty years for his lord, then, when he comes, wags his tail and dies peacefully.

156 And kepe wel: this man is savacyon. See textual notes for this line. The manuscript places punctuation after wel and clearly separates man from is. Spector renders the line: "And kepe wel this, man's savacion." Block renders it: "And kepe wel — this man is savacion." In Block's and in my version, "keep" recalls the things (events) that Mary ponders in her heart. Spector's version would make the phrase adjec­tival, and thus less of a declaration. In his line, "keep" would mean "to guard or to watch." There appears to be a foreshadowing of the Passion and Crucifixion in the direct equation between Christ's flesh and salvation for humankind.

163–66 An introduction to the feast of Candlemass, celebrated on 2 February. It is the last feast in the Christmas liturgical cycle.

177–80 Compare Numbers 18:15–16: "the redemption of it shall be . . . for five sicles of silver." See also Spector, S 2:175 and 2:476.

181, s.n. CAPELLANUS. The chaplain.

203–06 Mary offers the fowls on the altar (line 196 s.d.), but it is clear that her words un­knowingly presage Christ's offering his own life.

After 206 MS: 1468. The date could be the date of this play's inclusion into the manu­script, a commemorative date of the play's performance, the first or last date of the play's performance, the date of the manuscript's completion, etc.


Abbreviations: Bl: Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block (1922); Da: Corpus Christi Play, ed. Davies (1972); S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.d.: stage direction; s.n.: stage name.

Before 1 MS: a cross sign is in the top left of fol. 97v.
1, s.n. SYMEON. MS: Symeon Justus, written in larger script, textura quadrata.

2–5 MS: large play number 19 in right margin.

4 were. So S. MS, Bl: we.

28 down. So S. MS, Da: dow.

30 MS: Angelus is written in the left margin in another hand, possibly a stage prompt.

41 MS: cum do written at right, with the remainder cropped. Possibly a later stage direction for the angel to come down (?).

46 temple. So S. MS, Bl: templ.

64 whow. MS, S, Bl: whov.

73 MS: a cross or t deleted before And.

80, s.d. MS: the stage direction adds et prophetissa which makes sense only if the next speaker were to be Anna.

81 undyrstod. MS: a letter has been canceled before.

91, s.n. PROPHETISSA. MS: Prop, remainder cropped.
fende. MS: altered to fynde by another hand.

103–06 MS: two lines written as one, separated by double slashes.

136a This is an extra-metrical Latin line written in textura quadrata that intro­duces the next eight lines.

144 uterest. So S. MS, Bl: vnterest.

146, s.d. MS: the Latin lyric is written in textura quadrata.

156 And kepe wel: this man is savacyon. MS: And kepe wel . þis man is savacyon. Bl: And kepe wel — this man is savacion. S: And kepe wel þis, man's savacyon.

Below 157 MS: To all mankyndys below the line.

162 evyn. MS: letter canceled before word.

178 here. So S. MS, Bl: he.

194 servyse. MS: written above the line.

After 206 MS: 1468 written at right. Remainder of fol. 100v (64 mm) left blank.






























SYMEON I have be prest in Jherusalem here
And tawth Goddys lawe many a yere,
Desyrynge in all my mende
That the tyme were neyhand nere
In which Goddys Son shul apere
In erthe to take mankende,
Or I deyd that I myght fynde
My Savyour with myn ey to se.
But that it is so longe behynde,
It is grett dyscomforte onto me.

For I wax olde and wante my might
And begynne to fayle my syght,
The more I sorwe this tyde,
Save only as I telle yow ryght:
God of his grace hath me hyght
That blysful byrth to byde.
Wherfore now here besyde
To Sancta sanctorum wyl I go
To pray God to be my gyde,
To comfort me aftyr my wo.

[Here Symeon knelyth and seyth:

A, gode God in Trinité:
Whow longe shal I abyde thee
Tyl that thu thi Son thu doth sende,
That I in erth myght hym se?
Good Lord, consydyr to me!
I drawe fast to an ende,
That or my strenthis fro me wende.
Gode Lorde, send down thi Son
That I, with my ful mende,
Myght wurcheppe hym if I con.

Bothe with my fete and hondys to,
To go to hym and handele also
My eyn to se hym in certayn,
My tonge for to speke hym to
And all my lemys to werke and do,
In his servyse to be bayn.
Send forth thi Son, my Lord sovereyn,
Hastely, anon withowte teryenge,
For fro this world I wolde be fayn!
It is contrary to my levynge.

ANGELUS Symeon, leff thi careful stevene,
For thi prayer is herd in hevene.
To Jherusalem fast now wynne,
And ther shalt se, ful evene,
He that is Goddys Son, for to nemene.
In the temple ther thu dwellyst inne —
The dyrknes of orygynal synne
He shal make lyght and clarefye.
And now the dede shal begynne
Whiche hath be spokyn be prophecye.

SYMEON A, I thanke thee, Lord of Grace,
That hath grauntyd me tyme and space
To lyve and byde thys.
And I wyl walk now to the place
Where I may se thi Sonys face,
Which is my joye and blys.
I was nevyr lyghtere, iwys,
To walke nevyr here beforn!
For a mery tyme now is
Whan God, my Lord, is born.

ANNA PROPHETESSA Al heyl, Symeon! What tydyngys with yow?
Why make ye al this myrth now?
Telle me whedyr ye fare.
SYMEON Anne, prophetes, and ye wyst whow
So shulde ye — I make a vow —
And all maner men that are,
For Goddys Son — as I declare —
Is born to bye mankende!
Oure Savyour is come to sesyn oure care!
Therfore, have I grett merth to wende.

And that is the cawse I hast me
Onto the temple, hym to se,
And therfore lett me not, good frende.
ANNA Now blyssyd be God in Trinyté
Syn that tyme is come to be!
And with yow wyl I wende
To se my Savyour ende
And wurchepp hym also
With all my wyll and my ful mende.
As I am bound, now wyl I do.

[Et tunc ibunt ambo ad templum.

SYMEON In the temple of God, who undyrstod,
This day shal be offeryd with mylde mood
Which that is kynge of alle
That shal be skorgyd and shedde his blood,
And, aftyr, dyen on the rood,
Withowtyn cawse to calle;
For whos Passyon ther shal beffalle
Swych a sorwe bothe sharpe and smerte
That as a swerd perce it shalle,
Evene thorwe his moderys herte.

ANNA PROPHETISSA Ya, that shal be as I wel fende,
For redempcyon of all mankende,
That blysse for to restore,
Whiche hath be lost fro oute of mende
As be oure fadyr of oure owyn kende,
Adam and Eve beffore.

MARIA Joseph, my husbond, withowtyn mys,
Ye wote that fourty days nere is
Sythe my sonys byrth ful ryght.
Wherfore, we must to the temple, iwys,
Therfore to offre oure sone of blys
Up to his Fadyr in hyght.
And I in Goddys sight
Puryfyed for to be,
In clene sowle with al my might
In presence of the Trinyté.

JOSEPH To be purefyed have ye no need
Ne thi son to be offeryd, so God me spede;
For fyrst thu art ful clene,
Undefowlyd in thought and dede.
And anothyr, thi son, withowtyn drede,
Is God and man to mene.
Wherefore it nedyd not to bene
But to kepe the lawe on Moyses wyse
Whereffore we shal take us between
Dovys and turtelys for sacrefyce.

[Et ibunt ad templum.

SYMEON All heyl, my kyndely comfortour!
ANNA PROPHETISSA All heyl, mankyndys creatoure!
SYMEON All heyl, thu God of Myght!
ANNA PROPHETISSA All heyl, mankyndys Savyour!
SYMEON All heyl, bothe kynge and emperour!
ANNA PROPHETISSA All heyl, as it is ryght!
SYMEON All heyl, also Mary bryght!
ANNA PROPHETISSA All heyl, salver of seknes!
SYMEON All heyl, lanterne of lyght!
ANNA PROPHETISSA All heyl, thu modyr of mekenes!

MARIA Symeon, I undyrstand and se
That bothyn of my sone and me
Ye have knowynge clere.
And also in youre compané,
My sone desyryth for to be,
And therffore have hym here.

[Et accipiet Jhesum.

SYMEON Welcome, prynce withowte pere!
Welcome, Goddys owyn sone!
Welcome, my Lord so dere!
Welcome, with me to wone!

Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam. 1

Lord God, in magesté:
We have receyvyd this day of thee,
In myddys of thi temple here
Thy grett mercy as we may se.
Therfore thi name of grett degré
Be wurchepyd in all manere
Over all this werde, bothe fer and nere,
Yevyn on to the uterest ende;
For now is man out of daungere
And rest and pes to all mankende.
been [a] priest; (t-note)
taught; God’s; (t-note)
near at hand; (t-note)
Before I died

grow; lack; strength

called me

the Holy of Holies; (see note)

(see note)
How; await

take pity on me

strength; go
[So] that; mind
can; (t-note)


for certain


from; gladly be
way of life

stop your sad speech; (t-note)

you shall see
to speak of
(see note); (t-note)

been; by


lighter, indeed



where you are going
prophetess, if you knew why; (t-note)
As you should
manner of

buy (redeem) mankind; (see note)
end our woes
in traveling

I hurry

don’t hinder me; (t-note)

I go


And then both of them go to the temple; (t-note)

truth be told; (t-note)
(see note)
He who is
scourged; [will] shed
die on the cross
Without reason

sorrow; painful; (see note)
through; mother’s heart

well find; (see note); (t-note)
(see note)

time out of mind
by; father; own kind

know; it is nearly; (see note)
Since my son’s; exactly
son of bliss
on high
God’s; (t-note)

Nor; God help me

without a doubt
to mediate between

according to Moses
for the two of us; (see note)
Doves and turtledov­es

And they (Mary and Joseph) go to the temple

mankind’s creator


healer of sickness

mother of meekness


And he (Simeon) welcomes Jesus

God’s own son

to dwell

(see note); (t-note)

(see note)


great reverence

world; far
Even; most distant; (t-note)

peace; mankind

  [“Nunc dimittis seruum tuum Domine,” et cetera. 2 The psalme songyn every vers, and therqwyl Symeon pleyth with the child and qwhan the psalme is endyd, he seyth: (see note); (t-note)













Now lete me dye, Lorde, and hens pace,
For I, thi servaunt in this place,
Have sen my Savyour dere,
Whiche thu hast ordeyned beforn the face
Of al mankynde this tyme of grace,
Opynly to appere:
Thi lyth is shynand clere
To all mankyndys savacyon.
Mary, take youre childe now here
And kepe wel: this man is savacyon.

ANNA PROPHETISSA Ne I rowth nere to dye also,
For more than fowre skore yere and to
This tyme hath bede to se,
And sythe that it is come therto,
What Goddys wyl is with me to do,
Right evyn so mot it be.
JOSEPH Take here these candelys thre —
Mary, Symeon, and Anne —
And I shal take the fowrte to me
To offre oure child up, thanne.

MARIA Hyest Fadyr, God of powere:
Your owyn dere Son I offre yow here.
As I to your lawe am sworn.
Receyve thi childe in glad manere,
For he is the fyrst, this childe so dere,
That of his modyr is born.
But thow I offre hym yow beforn,
Good Lord, yit gyf me hym agen,
For my comforte were fully lorn
If we shuld longe asondyr ben.

[Mari leyth the childe on the autere.

JOSEPH Sere prest of the temple, now
Have here fyff pens unto yow,
Oure childe agen to take.
It is the lawe, as ye woot how.
CAPELLANUS Joseph, ye an do ryght anow
As for youre childys sake.
But othere offerynge yett must ye make.
And therfore take youre sone, Mary,
In meche joye ye may awake
Whylys he is in youre company.

MARIA Therto I am ful glad and fayn
For to receyve my childe agayn,
Ellys were I to blame;
And afterewarde, for to be bayn
To offre to God, in ful certayn,
As in my sonys name
With fowlys, bothe wylde and tame,
For in Goddys servyse I shal nevyr irke.
JOSEPH Lo, Mary, have here tho same
To do thi dewtys of Holy Kyrke.

[And ther Mary offeryth fowlys onto the autere and seyth:

MARIA Allmyghtyfful Fadyr, mercyful Kynge:
Receyvyth now this lytyl offrynge,
For it is the fyrst in degré
That youre lytyl childe so yynge
Presentyth today be my shewyng
To youre hygh magesté.
Of his sympyl poverté,
Be his devocyon and my good wylle,
Upon your awtere receyve of me
Youre sonys offrynge, as it is skylle.
die; hence pass; (see note)


light; shining
mankind’s salvation

guard him well; salvation; (see note); (t-note)

Nor am I reluctant to die; (t-note)
four score and two years
lived to see
may; (t-note)
three candles; (see note)


yet give him to me again
would be lost
be apart

Sir priest; (see note)
five pence; (t-note)

have done the right thing; (see note)



most certainly
God’s service; get weary; (t-note)
those same ones
duties; Holy Church

(see note)
son’s; fitting; (see note); (t-note)


Go To Play 20, Slaughter of the Innocents; Death of Herod