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Play 20, Slaughter of the Innocents; Death of Herod


1 Then looking back, the Steward goes to Herod, saying

2 Those men with gold crowns will never beat me again

3 Lines 15–16: Make screech owls hoot, knave and rascal, / When their children bleed under swaddling clothes

4 Then the knights go to kill the male children, and let the first woman say

5 Lines 135–36: If any scoundrel blusters or complains against my decree / I will seize those rascals and kill them altogether

6 Now, my gentle and courteous knights, listen to me right now

7 Foo­d for the loveliest lord that is living on earth

8 Thoug­h a little pint might cost a thousand pounds

9 He thinks he surpasses all princes in power!

10 Herbs, grass, and strong trees — [I] take them all the same

11 I [would] give him such a tripping up [that] he will lie still forever

12 Here while they blow trumpets Death suddenly kills Herod and the two knights. And the Devil captures them

13 Lines 276–77: All of you in this crowd shall end up just like I am — I swear to you!


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

Plays or pageants depicting the slaughter of the innocents seem to have been spread throughout the British Isles. Besides the six existing plays, there are records of performances in Beverley, and possibly in Cambridge and in Edinburgh (Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Rec­ords of Britain). All of the extant plays are based upon Matthew 2:16–20, but the Chester (Play 10), Digby Candlemass, and N-Town versions include the holy family’s flight into Egypt (Mat­thew 2:13–15), a subject which is a separate and preceding play for Towneley (Play 15) and York (Play 18). Each version possesses its own characteristics, however. In York Play 19, Herod concludes that the soldiers have missed the Christ-child; in Chester Play 10, Herod realizes that his own son has been killed with the other male children; Towneley Play 16 ends with Herod’s triumph; and the Digby version is presented as a St. Anne’s Day play that includes a Purification scene as well as a comic messenger named Watkyn. N-Town, Chester, and Digby all conclude with Herod’s death (Acts 12:20–23). (Evidently, the historical Herod of Ascalon and his grandson, Herod Agrippa, have been conflated in these versions; see Hussey, "How Many Herods in the Middle English Drama?" p. 252.) It is interesting to note that the N-Town Banns describes two separate plays—the Slaughter and the Death of Herod. Clearly, the compiler made several changes as he chose to include the Purification. See Spector, S 2:477.

The play is composed of thirteeners, octaves, and one sestet.

1, s.d. This stage direction indicates that this play was, at one point, part of, or was intended to follow, the Magi Play (see S 2:477).

9–10 I ryde on my rowel . . . Rybbys ful reed, with rape shal I rende! Herod’s tyrannical rage at being thwarted by the kings is rich with violent sexual puns, as he boasts: "I ride on my spike-wheel spurs, potent in reign (with pun on the reining in of the horse); I shall rend (tear, impale) the horse’s sides (ribs) until they are bloody, red with my rape (blows)." The next line anticipates the slaughter of the women and children whom he plans to pierce and stab with his spear, and effeminizes the pretty kings with their gold crowns whom he will stab as well. In line 34 he then returns to the bloody impaling of ribs, now of the children he plans to impale by the beasts’ stalls, as he announces his plans for the slaughter. To en­hance his potency Herod speaks in heroic alliterative verse.

11 Popetys. Glossed here as "children," but clearly ironic as it is usually a term of endearment.

13 gomys with gold crownys. Spector notes: "‘The gold-crowned children will never thrive,’ or ‘The children will not profit from (bribery with) gold crowns.’ The reference is less probably to the Magi, the men with gold crowns, whom Herod tries to intercept and kill in Pseudo-Matthew. gomys has been altered, perhaps to gollys. If glossed ‘gulls, unfledged birds’ (i.e., the Innocents), this would be consistent with Herod’s avian imagery in this stanza" (S 2:477).

31 sheltrownys. A sheltroun was a battle formation (MED). Spector takes these lines as referring to the crying mothers, but this is not likely (see S 2:478).

32 Conceivably, raftys is derived from riften, meaning to tear, cleave, or rend, though I have followed MED’s suggestion of raftys for "spear," adapted here to the point of a spur.

48 fool. Spector glosses as "rascal" (S 2:587). But MED cites this line under fole n.1a (male colt), with the specialized meaning (n.1a[e]) "young child," "mere child," which is surely the sense here.

58 qwenys. Derogatory term; "low-class women" or whores (MED).
therlys. "piercings" (MED). See Spector, S 2:478.

65–66 sharpe / As an harpe. See Rastall (Heaven Singing, pp. 49–50) on what the sense of a sharp harp might imply. Perhaps "it is the penetrating power of the instru­ment that makes the metaphor a usable one; and that its carrying sound-quality was regarded as one of the harp’s virtues. This may point towards a metal-strung clarach rather than a gut-strung harp as the instrument best known to an East Anglian audience." But it is more likely that the playwright shortened one of two ME words that have nothing to do with music, namely arpago or arpagoun, meaning a grappling hook or "harpoon" (MED), which gets at the vicious behavior of the soldiers better than harp does.

67 See the explanatory note to line 58.

73 Awake, Joseph. The angel addresses the Holy Family situated in a different play­ing area of the stage, perhaps opposite to Herod’s palace.

139 I shal hem down dynge. Herod imagines himself to be a powerful death figure, heedless that Death stands near him, watching.

143 dyner. Herod celebrates the butchery with a feast, a grand meal for his knights accompanied by pomp and circumstance. We, as audience, are acutely aware of another silent presence, namely Mors, who is, even as Herod boasts, orchestra­ting the greatest feast of all — Death’s feast. See the explantory note to line 139.

153, 232 blowe up . . . Blowe up. This particular minstrel plays a horn or a wind instrument. John Stevens compares Herod’s use of minstrels for revelry here with the beginning of the Magi Play (18.19). "Herod has music wherever a king or duke would in real life. . . . Minstrelsy is part of ‘the sweet fruition of an earthly crown’" ("Music in Mediaeval Drama," p. 88).

168 ff. Spector observes that Mors’ or Death’s speeches bear comparison with those in Castle of Perseverence, lines 2778–2842 (see S 2:478).

189 ken. MS: kan. If the word is ken, then there is clever wordplay: ken can mean "to recognize" but also "to engender" (MED). It is also possible that kan is correct and that the no that follows ought to be ne or not (and sporte is not reflexive) in which case the line would read: "Death cannot play."

196 hete. Most likely "fever," but "a blow" is also possible. Line 200, "I shal hym owt swete," would seem to make "fever" more likely. See also Spector, S 2:478, and Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, trans. Ryan, 1:58–59. There is a pos­sibility that Herod suffers symptoms of the plague or other European pan­dem­ics, something of which even fifteenth-century East Anglians might well have been aware. See McEvedy, "Bubonic Plague," pp. 3–4.

220–22 boys . . . boy. Abusive terms (see S 2:479).

233–34 All oure! . . . I shall hem brynge onto my celle. As Mors slays each knight and then Herod, Diabolus gathers them together in a Dance of Death to trail them out of the staging area, leaving Mors alone to address the audience with his chilling moral (lines 246 ff.).

244–45 Of oure myrthis now shal ye se / And evyr synge "Welawey!" The devil, under the watchful eye of Mors, captures the souls of Herod’s court as they are smitten one by one, and, in a Dance of Death, leads them to Hell where they will dance to a dif­ferent tune: "Note the nature of the perversion of heavenly mirth: it results not in the joyful singing of the mirthful person but in someone else meta­phorically singing sadly" (Rastall, Minstrels Playing, p. 86).

265–66 These lines are also found in other works such as Everyman (see S 2:480).


Abbreviations: Bev: Medieval Drama, ed. Bevington (1975); Bl: Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block (1922); S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.n.: stage name.

Before 1 MS: rubricated 1 in red erased before play number 20.

1–5 MS: large play number 20 in right margin.

7 fayr. So S. MS, Bl: fay.

9, s.n. MS: without rubrication.

13 gomys. So S, Bl. MS: reviser altered it to gollys ("gulls," referring to the chil­dren).

gete. MS: ne gete. and thei added above the line by reviser.

ageyn. So Bl, MS. S: geyn.

22–27 MS: three lines are written as one, actually a sestet.

28 kythe. MS: reviser canceled and wrote scharpe above.

craftys. MS: reviser canceled and wrote knyvys above.

31 scheltrownys. MS: schelchownys, changed to schelchowthys by reviser. S: schel­chownys. Bl: schel chownys.

shray. MS: shar shray.

32 rowncys. MS: reviser canceled and wrote your speris.

raftys. MS: reviser canceled it and wrote long (?) above.

34 barne. MS: reviser canceled word and revised it to child above the line.

37–72 MS: two lines written as one.

39 clymbyn. MS: a word canceled before.

knytys. MS: ky knytys.

42 Chosyn. MS: cof Chosyn.

48 fool. MS: foal may also be a possible reading.

51 MS: Angelus written in left margin in another hand.

105–28 MS: written two lines as one, in short-lined octaves.

108 werld. MS: werdl.

MS: reviser added go hom wardys in right margin.

130 werd. So MS, Bl, S. Bev: werld.

131 helle. MS: hevyn helle.

135 do. MS: or bragger do.

138 neyther. So S. MS, Bl: neythey. Bev: neither.

141 myn. So MS, Bl, S. Bev: mine.

148 thowsand. So S, Bev. MS, Bl: Ml.

160 thee. So Bev. MS, Bl, S: the.

162, 170 werde. So MS, S, Bl. Bev: werlde.

179 Yon. MS: letter canceled before.

185 take hem. So MS, Bl, S. Bev: I tak hem.

186 dent. MS: des dent.

188 ly. So MS, Bl, S. Bev: lie.

202 MS: unnecessary capitulum.

224 unhende. MS: un hende with kende written above by reviser.

227 asavyd. So MS, S, Bl. Bev: a-sayvd.

234 celle. MS: d celle.

255–58 MS: two lines written as one.

269 mery. MS: me mery.

274 nyth. MS: d nyth.

284 MS: remainder of fol. 104v (58 mm). Top of fol. 105r has one line: all men dwellyng upon the repeated from previous folio. The rest is left blank.
  [Tunc respiciens, Senescallus vadyt, ad Herodem dicens:1; (see note); (t-note)


















SENESCALLUS Lord, I have walkyd be dale and hylle
And wayted as it is youre wyll.
The kyngys thre stelyn awey full styll
Thorwe Bedleem londe.
They wyl nevyr, so mot y thee,
Com in the lond of Galylé
For to se youre fayr ceté
Ne dedys of youre honde!

HERODES REX I ryde on my rowel, ryche in my regne!
Rybbys ful reed, with rape shal I rende!
Popetys and paphawkys I shal puttyn in peyne!
With my spere prevyn, pychyn, and to pende
The gomys with gold crownys ne gete nevyr ageyn!2
To seke tho sottys, sondys shal I sende.
Do howlott howtyn, hoberd and heyn,
Whan here barnys blede undyr credyl bende!3
Sharply, I shal hem shende —
The knave childeryn that be
In all Israel countré!
Thei shul have blody ble,
For on I calde unkende!

It is tolde in Grw:
His name shulde be Jhesu
To have hym, ye gon —
Hewe the flesch with the bon
And gyf hym wownde!

Now, kene knyghtys, kythe youre craftys,
And kyllyth knave chylderyn and castyth hem in clay!
Shewyth on youre shulderys scheldys and schaftys!
Shapyht amonge scheltrownys a shyrlyng shray,
Doth rowncys rennyn with rakynge raftys
Tyl rybbys be torent with a reed ray!
Lete no barne beleve onbete baftys
Tyl a beggere blede be bestys baye!
Mahound, that best may!
I warne yow, my knyghtys,
A barn is born, I plyghtys,
Wolde clymbyn kynge and knytys
And lett my lordly lay!

Knyghtys wyse,
Chosyn ful chyse
Aryse! Aryse,
And take youre tolle!
And every page
Of twey yere age
Or evyr ye swage
Sleyth ilke a fool.

On of hem alle
Was born in stalle,
Folys hym calle
Kynge in crowne!
With byttyr galle
He shall down falle!
My myght in halle
Shal nevyr go down.

MILES 1 I shall sle scharlys
And qwenys with therlys,
Here knave gerlys
I shal steke!
Forth wyl I spede
To don hem blede
Thow gerlys grede
We shul be wreke!

MILES 2 For swerdys sharpe
As an harpe
Quenys shul karpe,
And of sorwe synge
Barnys yonge!
They shul be stunge
Thurwe levyr and lunge!
We shal hem stynge.

ANGELUS Awake, Joseph, and take thi wyff,
Thy chylde also; ryd belyff,
For Kynge Herowde, with sharpe knyff,
His knyghtys he doth sende!
The Fadyr of Hevyn hath to thee sent
Into Egypte that thu be bent,
For cruel knyghtys thi childe have ment
With swerde to sle and shende.

JOSEPH Awake, good wyff, out of youre slepe,
And of youre childe takyght good kepe
Whyl I youre clothis ley on hepe
And trus hem on the asse.
Kynge Herowde the chylde wyl scloo!
Therfore, to Egypte muste we goo.
An aungel of God seyd me soo
And therfore lete us passe!
by; (t-note)
have sneaked
Through Bethlehem
may I prosper
city; (t-note)
Nor deeds; hand

ride spurring, potent; (see note); (t-note)
Ribs; red, in haste
Children; suckling babies; (see note)
test, pierce, and stab
(see note); (t-note)
those sots, messengers

kill them

one I consider traitorous

Greek; (t-note)

Found to be
through the bone

brave knights, show; (t-note)
male; them
shields; spears
troop formations a shrill outcry; (see note); (t-note)
Make horses run; piercing spurs; (see note); (t-note)
ribs be torn; all in blood
baby; be left unbeaten on the backside; (t-note)
knave; by the beasts’ stall
Mohammed; can [do this]
baby; I swear
Would climb over; knights; (t-note)
lessen; rule

the choicest ones; (t-note)

two years of
Before; cease
Slay every baby; (see note); (t-note)

One of them
a stall
Fools call him; (t-note)
Crowned king

in this hall

whores (women); piercings; (see note)
Their boys
stab (stake)

To make them
Though the babies cry

swords; (see note)
Women; wail; (see note)

Young babies
Through liver
pierce them

wife; (see note)
ride at once



take good care
tie them

said so to me

  [Tunc ibunt milites ad pueros occidendos, et dicat Prima Femina:4






























FEMINA 1 Longe lullynge have I lorn!
Alas, qwhy was my baron born?
With swappynge swerde now is he shorn,
The heed ryght fro the nekke!
Shanke and shulderyn is al totorn!
Sorwyn I se behyndyn and beforn,
Both mydnyth, mydday, and at morn!
Of my lyff I ne recke!

FEMINA 2 Serteynly, I sey the same!
Gon is all my good game —
My lytyll childe lyth all lame,
That lullyd on my pappys.
My fourty wekys gronynge
Hath sent me sefne yere sorwynge!
Mykyl is my mornynge,
And ryght hard arne myn happys.

MILES 1 Lorde in trone:
Makyght no mone!
Qwenys gyn grone
In werld aboute!
Upon my spere
A gerle I bere!
I dare well swere —
Lett moderys howte!

MILES 2 Lord, we han spad
As ye bad.
Barnis ben blad
And lyne in dych.
Flesch and veyn
Han tholyd peyn,
And ye shul reyne
Evermore rych!

HERODUS REX Ye shul have stedys
To youre medys,
Londys and ledys,
Fryth and fe!
Wele have ye wrought!
My fo is sought,
To deth is he brought!
Now come up to me.

In sete now am I sett as kynge of myghtys most!
All this werd, for ther love to me, shul thei lowt!
Both of hevyn and of erth and of helle cost,
For dygne of my dygnyté, thei have of me dowt!
Ther is no lord lyke on lyve to me wurth a toost —
Nother kyng nor kayser in all this worlde abought!
If any brybour do bragge or blowe agens my bost,
I shal rappe tho rebawdys and rake them on rought5
With my bryght bronde!
Ther shal be neyther kayser nere kynge
But that I shal hem down dynge,
Lesse than he at my byddynge
Be buxum to myn honde.

Now, my jentyll and curteys knyghtys: herke to me this stownde!6
Good tyme sone me thynkygh at dyner that we were.
Smertly, therfore, sett a tabyll anon here ful sownde
Coverid with a coryous cloth and with rych wurthy fare,
Servyse for the lovelyest lorde that levynge is on grownde!7
Beste metys and wurthyest wynes loke that ye non spare!
Thow that a lytyl pynt shulde coste a thowsand pownde,8
Brynge alweye of the beste — for coste, take ye no care!
Anon that it be done!
SENESCALLUS My lorde, the tabyl is redy dyght!
Here is watyr — now wasch forthryght.
Now blowe up, mynstrall, with all youre myght!
The servyse comyth in sone.

HERODES REX Now am I sett at mete,
And wurthely servyd at my degré!
Com forth, knyghtys! Sytt down and ete,
And be as mery as ye kan be!
MILES 1 Lord, at yowre byddynge we take oure sete.
With herty wyl obey we thee!
Ther is no lorde of myght so grett
Thorwe all this werde in no countré
In wurchepp to abyde.
HERODES REX I was nevyr meryer here beforn
Sythe that I was fyrst born
Than I am now ryght in this morn!
In joy I gynne to glyde!

MORS Ow! I herde a page make preysyng of pride —
All prynces he passyth, he wenyth, of powsté!9
He wenyth to be the wurthyest of all this werde wyde —
Kynge ovyr all kyngys, that page wenyth to be!
He sent into Bedlem to seke on every side
Cryst for to qwelle yf thei myght hym se,
But of his wykkyd wyl, lurdeyn, yitt he lyede!
Goddys Sone doth lyve; ther is no lorde but he:
Over all lordys he is kynge!
I am Deth, Goddys masangere.
Allmyghty God hath sent me here,
Yon lordeyn to sle, withowtyn dwere,
For his wykkyd werkynge.

I am sent fro God: Deth is my name!
Allthynge that is on grownd I welde at my wylle,
Both man and beste and byrdys, wylde and tame.
Whan that I come them to, with deth I do them kylle:
Erbe, gres, and tres stronge — take hem all in same!10
Ya, the grete myghty okys, with my dent I spylle!
What man that I wrastele with, he shal ryght sone have schame!
I geve hym such a trepett, he shal evyrmore ly stylle,11
For Deth ken no sporte.
Wher I smyte, ther is no grace,
For aftere my strook, man hath no space
To make amendys for his trespace,
But God hym graunt comforte.

Ow, se how prowdely yon kaytyff sytt at mete!
Of Deth hath he no dowte — he wenyth to leve evyrmore!
To hym wyl I go and geve hym such an hete
That all the lechis of the londe, his lyf shul nevyr restore!
Agens my dredful dentys it vaylyth nevyr to plete
Or I hym part fro, I shal hym make ful pore!
All the blood of his body I shal hym owt swete!
For now I go to sle hym with strokys sad and sore
This tyde.
Bothe hym and his knyghtys all —
I shal hem make to me but thrall,
With my spere, sle hem I shall,
And so cast down his pride.

HERODES REX Now kende knyghtys, be mery and glad!
With all good diligens shewe now sum myrth,
For, be gracyous Mahound, more myrth never I had!
Ne nevyr more joye was inne from tyme of my byrth,
For now my fo is ded and prendyd as a padde!
Above me is no kynge on grownd nere on gerth!
Merthis therfore make ye, and be ryght nothynge sadde!
Spare nother mete nor drynke, and spare for no dyrthe
Of wyne nor of brede,
For now am I a kynge alone!
So wurthy as I may ther be none!
Therfore, knyghtys, be mery echone,
For now my fo is dede!

MILES 1 Whan the boys sprawlyd at my sperys hende
By Sathanas, oure syre, it was a goodly syght!
A good game it was, that boy for to shende
That wolde abene oure kynge and put yow from youre ryght!
MILES 2 Now trewly, my lorde the kynge, we had ben unhende
And nevyr non of us able for to be a knyght
If that any of us to hem had ben a frende
And asavyd any lyff agen thi mekyl might
From deth hem to flytt.
HERODES REX Amonges all that grett rowthte
He is ded — I have no dowte!
Therfore menstrell, rownd abowte
Blowe up a mery fytt!
lullabies; wasted
smiting sword; cut
head; from the neck
Legs; shoulders; torn
Sorrow; behind
midnight, midday
care nothing

For certain, I say
slept; breasts
weeks of labor
seven years of sorrow
Great; mourning
are my fortunes

Make; complaints
Women (whores) begin to wail
Around the world; (t-note)



have fulfilled
Babies have bled

suffered pain

shall; steeds
For your reward
Landed property (landholdings)
Property and goods
Well; done

On throne
world; shall they bow; (t-note)
hell’s coast; (t-note)
Out of respect; fear
alive; toast
Neither; caesar

neither emperor nor; (t-note)
shall strike them down; (see note)
obedient; my hand; (t-note)

dinner; (see note)
now; ample
costl­y; dishes

all of
Do it now
all ready

play, minstrel; (see note)

worthily; for my rank

hearty; (t-note)

Throughout; world; (t-note)
to continue
I have never been merrier
right now
Into joy I begin to pass

a knave; proud boasts; (see note)

imagines [himself]; (t-note)
knave thinks
Bethlehem to seek
to kill
rogue, yet he lies
God’s Son

God’s messenger

rogue; slay, certainly; (t-note)

on earth; wield
beast; birds
But when
oaks; blow I destroy; (t-note)
knows; (see note)

stroke; time

scoundrel sits at his meal
fear; live
give; a fever; (see note)
blows it avails; plead
Before I leave him
sweat out of him

At this time; (t-note)

make them my slaves
slay them


by; Mohammed
in me
captured like a toad
anywhere on earth



When; spear’s end; (see note)
have been
discourteous; (t-note)

to him
[had] saved; life against; great; (t-note)
him to save

Play; tune; (see note)

  [Hic dum buccinant Mors interficiat Herodem et duos milites subito. Et Diabolus recipiat eos.12











DIABOLUS All oure! All oure! This catel is myn!
I shall hem brynge onto my celle!
I shal hem teche pleys fyn
And showe such myrthe as is in helle!
It were more bettyr amongys swyn
That evyrmore stynkyn ther be to dwelle.
For in oure logge is so gret peyn
That non erthely tonge can telle!
With yow I go my way!
I shal yow bere forth with me
And shewe yow sportys of oure gle!
Of oure myrthis now shal ye se
And evyr synge “Welawey!”

MORS Of Kynge Herowde all men beware
That hath rejoycyd in pompe and pryde,
For all his boste of blysse ful bare
He lyth now ded here on his syde.
For whan I come, I cannot spare
Fro me no whyht may hym hyde!
Now is he ded and cast in care
In helle pytt evyr to abyde!
His lordchep is al lorn.
Now is he as pore as I:
Wormys mete is his body;
His sowle in helle ful peynfully
Of develis is al to-torn.

All men dwellyng upon the grownde:
Beware of me be myn councel,
For feynt felachep in me is fownde.
I kan no curtesy as I yow tel,
For be a man nevyr so sownde,
Of helth in herte nevyr so wel,
I come sodeynly within a stownde!
Me withstande may no castel
My jurnay wyl I spede.
Of my comyng no man is ware,
For when men make most mery fare,
Than sodeynly I cast hem in care
And sle them, evyn indede.

Thow I be nakyd and pore of array
And wurmys knawe me al abowte,
Yit loke ye drede me nyth and day,
For whan Deth comyth, ye stande in dowte!
Evyn lyke to me — as I yow say —
Shull all ye be here in this rowte!13
Whan I yow chalange at my day,
I shal yow make ryght lowe to lowth
And nakyd for to be
Amongys wormys, as I yow telle!
Undyr the erth shul ye dwelle,
And thei shul etyn both flesch and felle
As thei have don me.
ours; chattel; (see note)
cell; (t-note)
teach him fine games

among swine

lodge; pain
no earthly tongue

carry you
(see note)

sheer bliss

creature can hide
hell’s pit (grave)
Worm’s food
devils; torn to pieces

on earth
by my
know; courtesy; you
by; sound
suddenly in an instant; (see note)
No castle can withstand me
make successful
act most merry; (t-note)
suddenly; in distress

poorly attired
worms gnaw
Yet look [that]; fear; (t-note)
when; in fear

When I challenge you
shall make you bow low

done to me; (t-note)


Go To Play 21, Christ and the Doctors