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Play 24, Woman Taken in Adultery


1 I do not wish the death of the sinner. (See Ezechiel 33:11)

2 Here, the young man runs outside in his underwear with his boots untied and holding his pants in his hand, and the Accuser says:

3 Here Jesus, while they accuse the woman, should write continuously in the earth with his finger

4 Jesus responds with nothing, but continues to write on the ground

5 Here Jesus, bending down again, will write in the dirt; and all of the accusers, as if confused, will disperse into three directions


Abbreviations: Bev: Medieval Drama, ed. Bevington (1975); MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.d.: stage direction; s.n.: stage name.

Of all the existing dramatic versions of this episode, N-Town’s is the longest and most detailed. Both the Chester (second half of Play 12) and York (first half of Play 14) versions are combined with other play material: Chester’s is yoked to the Temptation; York’s is combined with the Raising of Lazarus. (In addition, York’s is incomplete.) All of these are based upon the Gospel account from John 8:1–11. As opposed to the other versions, the more graphic N-Town version also has comic characters such the scantily clad Juvenis and the salacious Accusator. While the N-Town Woman Taken in Adultery Play is not a dynamic drama, it does accomplish, as Gibson argues, “the imaging of scripture in human flesh that is the generating force of the medieval religious drama. The highest purpose of medieval biblical drama . . . was not explication of the word — not preaching or ministry at all — but the sacramental revelation of the mysterium or word made flesh” (“Writing before the Eye,” pp. 401–02, emphases hers).

This play is written entirely in octaves.

Before 1–1 “Here of the woman taken in adultery. / I do not wish the sinner’s death.” Com­pare Ezechiel 18:23 and 32, 33:11. Meredith relates this line to the Lenten liturgy.

7–8 “Weighed in the scales of heavenly truth, his mercy surpasses all harsh judgment many times over” (Bev, p. 461).

17–24 See Woolf, English Religious Lyric, pp. 214–18 (see also S 2:486).

19–20 Echoed in Demon’s Prologue to Passion Play 1 (26.61–62).

29–30 Bevington notes that these lines restate the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 (Bev, p. 462).

66 sporte. It is clear that the Pharisee and the Scribe are interested in salacious talk, if not actions, hence their frequent use of sporte and game in this play. The Accu­sator’s sporte could be a simple joke, but is more likely a prurient allusion to sexual activity (MED).

67–68 “I warrant that we’ll be well bribed to keep a secret (i.e. the prostitute whom we’re going to raid will try to bribe us not to expose her shame)” (Bev, p. 463).

69 qwene. At very least a lowborn woman, but more likely a prostitute (MED). Their low language reveals the scorn of common humanity perpetrated by the accusers.

71 tall. In Middle English, this is a clear double entendre perhaps describing his height (or handsomeness), but more likely alluding crudely to his imagined sex­ual en­dow­ment. According to the MED, big codfish (read phallus) were des­cribed as tall.

80 The hare fro the forme we shal arere. Another lascivious assertion by Accusator. I.e., “We will catch them in the act,” with more obscene connotations.

145–53 The Scribe and the Pharisee hurl a cartload of Middle English obscenities at the woman.

147 Com forth . . . bych clowte. A “bitch” cloth (MED), but also possibly “bloody rag.” Spector (S 2:486) suggests “‘rag of a whore,’ or perhaps ‘cursed rag.’” But see Gibson’s livelier reading (that echoes David Mills): “Come forth thou whore and stinking dog-turd” (“Writing before the Eye,” p. 404).

152 to kepe thi kutte. At very least, an admonition to cover her privates and to be more modest, but also a command for her to take better care of her pudendum. See Spector (S 2:486) for various euphemistic glosses on the phrase, such as “defend your virtue” or “keep one’s distance, be coy or reserved” (OED).

153–54 A, mercy! Mercy, serys, I yow pray! / For Goddys love, have mercy on me. Although Juvenis reveals himself to be a defiant, though comically exposed, clown, Mulier always responds with dignity and an earnestness that compels us to take her plight seriously and with compassion. Bevington puts the matter well when he observes: “The adulterous woman recalls Eve as fallen woman, and yet by her dignity in the face of compassion she also reminds us of the Virgin Mary bravely facing her detractors” (Bev, p. 460).

161–64 The woman’s desire to hide her dishonor and keep her public name unspotted is not a sign of hypocrisy, but rather concern over her friends and public com­panions whom she would not dishonor by association. See note 174-75.

174–75 To all my frendys, it shul be shame. / I pray yow, kylle me prevyly. Mulier’s prayer that she be put to death rather than dishonor her friends shows a humane consi­deration that sets her far above her hypocritical and vicious accusers.

183 That both the adulterer and the adulteress should be put to death has biblical authority; see Leviticus 20:10: “let them be put to death both the adulterer and the adultress.”

189 pay. Not only to recompense, but to strike as a punishment (MED).

225 colde stodye. This is a state of deep concentration or meditation, not unlike a trance. Jesus clearly sees beyond the trickery of the accusers’ activities.

232, s.d. scribet in terra. Gibson uses the enigmatic writing in the dirt as a trope “grained” in Scripture that opens up to the observer the mysterious nature of grace as it is “seen also by me” (1 Corinthians 15:8) as “Yon prophyte dede wryte befor myn eye” (line 236) (“Writing before the Eye,” pp. 404–05). Bevington (Bev, p. 461) suggests that Jesus, throughout the play, is situated in the platea of an arena theater, along with the audience, rather “than on a scaffold or pa­geant wagon.” See also 208, s.d.: “scrybyt in terra.”

233 ff. I am ashamyd. See note to 8.30 that deals with N-Town’s thoughtful presentation of the Jewish priesthood.

252 One theory is that Jesus was writing down the accusers’ sins in the dirt.

256 Thow I shuld dye in a stable. Clever use of irony that contrasts the Scribe’s greatest fear — ignominious death — and Jesus’ humble birthplace.

257 ff. Thow I be wurthy for my trespas. See Gibson’s salient point that Mulier “is human­ity in medieval symbolic theological discourse. . . . The whore is . . . Everyman” whose honest repentance wins “Christ’s tender mercies” even as the penitent does in the N-Town Judgment Play (“Writing before the Eye,” p. 405).

285, s.n. See the textual note to this line. It is interesting that a reviser decided to give Jesus’ last word in this play (amounting to a sermon) to a doctor.

297 Amen. See note to 15.321–22 on a response said by all.


Abbreviations: Bev: Medieval Drama, ed. Bevington (1975); 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.

1 Nolo mortem peccatoris. MS: this line is on the same line as the given title, so Bl and Da do not include it as part of Jesus' speech. Bev and S consider it the first line of the play. At the top margin in fol.121v, the main scribe has written gyn at Nolo morte. See Meredith, "'Nolo Mortem' and the Ludus Coventriae Play," pp. 38–54. So Bev, S.

4–8 MS: large play number 24 in right margin.

29 MS: fol. 121v marked 120 in left margin.

84 MS: at the bottom of fol. 122r is a capital K in another hand.

92 unstabyl. MS: altered from unstable.

122 MS: s shuldyr.

124, s.d. in deploydo. So S, Bev. MS, Bl: indeploydo.

129 If. So Bev, S. MS, Bl: I.

130 he. So Bev, S. MS, Bl: I.

132 hym. So Bl. MS, S: hem. Bev: him.

137 MS: lacks capitulum.

141 afray. So MS, Bl, S. Bev: a fray.

145 scowte. MS: scowtte, with deleting dot under first t.

175 prevyly. So MS, Bl. S: in this place.

183 us. So S, Bev. MS, Bl: ut.

191 teth. MS: several letters canceled before.

209, s.n. MULIER. MS: speaker's name omitted, but supplied by reviser.

216 Goddys. MS: d goddys.

234 aferde. MS: afed ferde.

254 vengeauns able. So MS, Bl, S. Bev: vengeaunsable.

257 my. MS: a letter has been canceled before.

273 tho. So MS, Bl, Bev. S: the.

285, s.n. JHESUS. MS: canceled and Doctor written in reviser's hand.

297 MS: at bottom of fol. 126r is a capital M in another hand. Fols. 126v and 127r are blank except for scribbles.

























[Hic de muliere in adulterio deprehensa.

JHESUS Nolo mortem peccatoris.1
Man, for thi synne take repentaunce.
If thu amende that is amys,
Than hevyn shal be thin herytaunce.
Thow thu have don agens God grevauns,
Yett mercy to haske, loke thu be bolde.
His mercy doth passe, in trewe balauns,
All cruel jugement be many folde.

Thow that your synnys be nevyr so grett,
For hem be sad and aske mercy.
Sone of my Fadyr, grace ye may get
With the leste teer wepynge owte of youre ey.
My Fadyr me sent, thee, man, to bye
All thi raunsom, mysylfe must pay.
For love of thee, mysylfe wyl dye.
Iff thu aske mercy, I sey nevyr nay.

Into the erth from hevyn above,
Thi sorwe to sese and joye to restore!
Man, I cam down all for thi love!
Love me ageyn — I aske no more.
Thow thu myshappe and synne ful sore,
Yit turne agen and mercy crave.
It is thi fawte and thu be lore:
Haske thu mercy and thu shalt have.

Upon thi neybore be not vengabyl
Ageyn the lawe if he offende.
Lyke as he is, thu art unstabyl,
Thyn owyn frelté evyr thu attende.
Evermore thi neybore helpe to amende,
Evyn as thu woldyst, he shulde thee.
Ageyn hym wrath if thu accende,
The same in happ wyll falle on thee.

Eche man to othyr be mercyable,
And mercy he shal have at nede.
What man of mercy is not tretable
Whan he askyth mercy, he shal not spede.
Mercy to graunt I com, indede.
Whoso aske mercy, he shal have grace.
Lett no man dowte for his mysdede,
But evyr aske mercy whyl he hath space.

SCRIBA Alas, alas! Oure lawe is lorn!
A fals ypocryte, Jhesu, be name —
That of a sheppherdis dowtyr was born —
Wyl breke oure lawe and make it lame!
He wyl us werke ryght mekyl shame!
His fals purpos — if he upholde —
All oure lawys he doth defame!
That stynkynge beggere is woundyr bolde!

PHARISEUS Sere Scrybe, in feyth! That ypocryte
Wyl turne this londe al to his lore!
Therfore I councell hym to indyte
And chastyse hym ryght wel, therfore!
SCRIBA On hym beleve many a score:
In his prechynge he is so gay,
Ech man hym folwygh ever more and more!
Agens that he seyth, no man seyth nay.

PHARISEUS A fals qwarel — if we cowde feyne —
That ypocrite to puttyn in blame!
All his prechynge shulde sone disteyne
And than his wurchepp shuld turne to shame.
With sum falshede to spyllyn his name,
Lett us assay his lore to spylle,
The pepyl with hym yff we cowde grame.

ACCUSATOR Herke, Sere Pharysew and Sere Scrybe:
A ryght good sporte I kan yow telle!
I undyrtake that ryght a good brybe
We all shul have to kepe councell:
A fayre yonge qwene hereby doth dwelle,
Both fresch and gay upon to loke,
And a tall man with her doth melle.
The wey into hyr chawmere ryght evyn he toke.

Lett us thre now go streyte thedyr,
The wey ful evyn I shall yow lede,
And we shul take them both togedyr
Whyll that thei do that synful dede.
SCRIBA Art thu sekyr that we shal spede?
Shall we hym fynde whan we cum there?
ACCUSATOR Be my trowth, I have no drede.
The hare fro the forme we shal arere.

PHARISEUS We shal have game and this be trewe!
Lete us thre werke by on assent.
We wyl her brynge evyn beforn Jhesu,
And of her lyff the truth present,
How in advowtrye hyr lyff is lent!
Than hym beforn whan she is browth,
We shul hym aske the trew jugement,
What lawfull deth to her is wrouth.

Of grace and mercy hevyr he doth preche,
And that no man shulde be vengeable.
Ageyn the woman, if he sey wrech,
Than of his prechynge he is unstabyl!
And if we fynde hym varyable
Of his prechynge that he hath tawth,
Than have we cawse bothe juste and able,
For a fals man that he be cawth.

SCRIBA Now be grete God, ye sey ful well!
If we hym fyndyn in varyaunce,
We have good reson, as ye do tell,
Hym for to brynge to foule myschauns.
If he holde stylle his dalyauns
And preche of mercy — hir for to save —
Than have we mater of gret substauns,
Hym for to kylle and putt in grave.

Grett reson why I shal yow telle,
For Moyses doth bydde in oure lawe
That every advowterere we shuld qwelle,
And yitt with stonys thei shulde be slawe.
Ageyn Moyses if that he drawe
That synful woman with grace to helpe,
He shal nevyr skape out of oure awe,
But he shal dye lyke a dogge whelpe.

ACCUSATOR Ye tary ovyrlonge, serys, I sey yow
They wyl sone parte, as that I gesse!
Therfore, if ye wyl have youre pray now,
Lete us go take them in here whantownnesse.
PHARISEUS Goo thu beforn, the wey to dresse.
We shal thee folwe within short whyle.
Iff that we may that quene dystresse,
I hope we shal Jhesu begyle.

SCRIBA Breke up the dore, and go we inne!
Sett to the shuldyr with all thi myght!
We shal hem take evyn in here synne,
Here owyn trespas shal them indite.
This deals with the woman taken in adultery; (see note)


Then; your inheritance; (t-note)
to ask
balance; (see note)

Though; sins
smallest tear; eye
to redeem

(see note)
sorrow to cease
(see note)

Though; stray

fault if you are lost

neighbor; vengeful
apt to fall
attend to
(see note); (t-note)
Against; kindle



fear; misdeeds
the opportunity

hypocrite; by
shepherd’s daughter

cause us great
if he succeeds


Sir; hypocrite
advise [that we] accuse him

what; contradicts

could contrive
to blame
be sullied
falsehood; ruin
try; teaching to destroy
could anger
Then; soon; desires

Sir Pharisee
bawdy tale; (see note)
(see note)
this secret
harlot; (see note)
stalwart; is having intercourse; (see note)
her chamber; directly

three; there

sure; succeed

truth; fear
burrow; flush out; (see note)

sport if
three; with one mind

adultery her life
Then before him; brought

is fitting

pronounces punishment
Then; inconsistent; (t-note)


by; rightly

should persist in; dalliance

tell you this

adulterer; kill
Against; contradicts
to help that woman
escape; power

I think
their wantonness
to ready


them; their
Their; accuse them

  [Hic Juvenis quidam extra currit in deploydo, calligis non ligatis et braccas in manu tenens; et dicit Accusator:2 (t-note)















ACCUSATOR Stow that harlot, sum erthely wyght,
That in advowtrye here is fownde!
JUVENIS Yiff any man stow me this nyth,
I shal hym geve a dedly wownde!

If any man my wey doth stoppe,
Or we departe, ded shal he be!
I shal this daggare putt in his croppe!
I shal hym kylle, or he shal me!
PHARISEUS Grett Goddys curse mut go with thee!
With suche a shrewe wyll I not melle!
JUVENIS That same blyssynge I gyff yow thre
And qwheth yow alle to the devyl of helle!

In feyth, I was so sore affrayd
Of yone thre shrewys — the sothe to say —
My breche be nott yett well upteyd!
I had such hast to renne away
Thei shal nevyr cacche me in such afray.
I am full glad that I am gon!
Adewe, adewe — a twenti devyl way!
And Goddys curse have ye everychon!

SCRIBA Come forth, thu stotte! Com forth, thu scowte!
Com forth, thu bysmare and brothel bolde!
Com forth, thu hore and stynkynge bych clowte!
How longe hast thu such harlotry holde?
PHARISEUS Com forth, thu quene! Come forth, thu scolde!
Com forth, thu sloveyn! Com forth, thu slutte!
We shal thee tecche with carys colde,
A lytyl bettyr to kepe thi kutte!

MULIER A, mercy! Mercy, serys, I yow pray!
For Goddys love, have mercy on me!
Of my myslevynge, me not bewray!
Have mercy on me, for charyté!
ACCUSATOR Aske us no mercy! It shal not be!
We shul so ordeyn for thi lott
That thu shalt dye for thin advowtrye!
Therfore, com forth, thu stynkynge stott!

MULIER Serys, my wurchepp if ye wyl save,
And helpe I have non opyn shame,
Bothe gold and sylvyr ye shul have,
So that in clennes ye kepe my name.
SCRIBA Mede for to take, we were to blame
To save suche stottys! It shal not be!
We shal brynge thee to suche a game
That all advowtererys shul lern be thee.

MULIER Stondynge ye wyl not graunt me grace,
But for my synne that I shal dye,
I pray yow kylle me here in this place
And lete not the pepyl upon me crye.
If I be sclaundryd opynly,
To all my frendys, it shul be shame.
I pray yow, kylle me prevyly.
Lete not the pepyl know my defame.

PHARISEUS Fy on thee, scowte! The devyl thee qwelle!
Ageyn the lawe shul we thee kyll?
Fyrst shal hange thee — the devyl of helle —
Or we such folyes shulde fulfyll!
Thow it lyke thee nevyr so ill,
Befforn the prophete thu shalt have lawe!
Lyke as Moyses doth charge us tyll,
With grett stonys thu shalt be slawe.

ACCUSATOR Com forth apase, thu stynkynge scowte!
Before the prophete thu were this day,
Or I shal geve thee such a clowte
That thu shalt fall down evyn in the way.
SCRIBA Now, be grett God, and I thee pay,
Such a buffett I shal thee take
That all the teth, I dare wel say,
Withinne thin heed for who shul shake.

PHARISEUS Herke, sere prophete, we all yow pray —
To gyff trewe dom and just sentence
Upon this woman, which this same day
In synfull advowtery hath don offense.
Arrest; someone
stops; night

Before; (t-note)
belly (or throat)
before he shall [kill] me; (t-note)
May God’s curse
scoundrel; mix
give you three
bequeath you

scoundrels; truth
underpants; tied
assault; (t-note)

the devil take you
each one of you

slut; rascal; (see note); (t-note)
wretch; harlot
bitch; (see note)
have you done
filthy woman
deadly concerns
cunt; (see note)

sirs; (see note)

sinful life; expose


(see note)
no public shame
A bribe; would be ashamed
have such play with you
adulterers; by you


(see note)
privately; (t-note)
people; shame

wretch; kill
We would first
Before; follies
Although you would hate it

charged us to do; (see note); (t-note)

quickly; wretch

a blow

by; if I strike you; (see note)
head for woe



  [Hic Jhesu, dum isti accusant mulierem, continue debet digito suo scribere in terra.3



ACCUSATOR Se, we have brought her to your presens
Becawse ye ben a wyse prophete
That ye shal telle, be consyens,
What deth to hyr ye thynke most mete.

SCRIBA In Moyses lawe, ryght thus we fynde
That such fals lovers shul be slayn!
Streyte to a stake we shul hem bynde
And with grett stonys brest out ther brayn!
Of your concyens, telle us thee playn:
With this woman, what shal be wrought?
Shall we lete her go qwyte agayn,
Or to hir deth shal she be brought?

by your sense of justice
her; fitting


him (the offender)
their brains
In your judgment

  [Jhesus nichil respondit sed semper scrybyt in terra.4






MULIER Now, holy prophete, be mercyable!
Upon me, wrecch, take no vengeaunce,
For my synnys abhomynable!
In hert I have grett repentaunce!
I am wel wurthy to have myschaunce,
Both bodyly deth and werdly shame,
But, gracyous prophete, of socurraunce,
This tyme pray yow, for Goddys name!

PHARISEUS Ageyn the lawe thu dedyst offens:
Therfore, of grace speke thu no more!
As Moyses gevyth in law sentens,
Thu shalt be stonyd to deth, therfore.
ACCUSATOR Ha don, sere prophete! Telle us youre lore!
Shul we this woman with stonys kyll,
Or to hir hous hir home restore?
In this mater, tell us youre wyll.

SCRIBA In a colde stodye me thynkyth ye sytt.
Good sere, awake! Telle us youre thought:
Shal she be stonyd? Telle us youre wytt:
Or in what rewle shal sche be brought?
JHESUS Loke which of yow that nevyr synne wrought
But is of lyff clennere than she?
Cast at her stonys, and spare her nowght,
Clene out of synne if that ye be.
merciful; (t-note)

In [my] heart

Against; did


Get on with it; decision
her; return

deep thought; (see note)
under what law
life cleaner

  [Hic Jhesus iterum se inclinans scribet in terra; et omnes accusatores, quasi confusi, separatim in tribus locis se disiungent.5; (see note)














PHARISEUS Alas, alas! I am ashamyd!
I am aferde that I shal deye!
All myn synnys — evyn propyrly namyd —
Yon prophyte dede wryte befor myn eye!
Iff that my felawys that dude aspye,
They wyll telle it bothe fer and wyde!
My synfull levynge, if thei out crye,
I wot nevyr wher myn heed to hyde.

ACCUSATOR Alas, for sorwe, myn herte doth blede!
All my synnes, yon man dude wryte!
If that my felawys to them toke hede,
I kannot me from deth acquyte.
I wolde I wore hyd sumwhere out of syght
That men shuld me nowhere se, ne knowe,
Iff I be take, I am afflyght
In mekyl shame I shal be throwe.

SCRIBA Alas, the tyme that this betyd!
Ryght byttyr care doth me enbrace!
All my synnys be now unhyd!
Yon man befor me, hem all doth trace.
If I were onys out of this place,
To suffyr deth gret and vengeauns able,
I wyl nevyr come befor his face
Thow I shuld dye in a stable.

MULIER Thow I be wurthy for my trespas
To suffyr deth abhomynable —
Yitt, holy prophete, of youre hygh grace,
In your jugement, be mercyable!
I wyl nevyrmore be so unstable.
O, holy prophete, graunt me mercy!
Of myn synnys unresonable,
With all myn hert I am sory!

JHESUS Where be thi fomen that dude thee accuse?
Why have thei left us to alone?
MULIER Bycawse they cowde nat hemself excuse,
With shame they fled hens, everychone.
But, gracyous prophete, lyst to my mone:
Of my sorwe take compassyon.
Now all myn enmyes hens be gone,
Sey me sum wurde of consolacyon.

JHESUS For tho synnys that thu hast wrought,
Hath any man condempnyd thee?
MULIER Nay, forsoth that hath ther nought,
But in youre grace I putt me.
JHESUS For me, thu shalt nat condempnyd be.
Go hom ageyn and walk at large.
Loke that thu leve in honesté
And wyl no more to synne, I thee charge.

MULIER I thanke yow hyghly, holy prophete,
Of this grett grace ye have me graunt.
All my lewde lyff I shal doun lete
And fonde to be Goddys trewe servaunt.
JHESUS What man of synne be repentaunt,
Of God if he wyl mercy crave,
God of mercy is so habundawnt
That, what man haske it, he shal it have.

Whan man is contrite and hath wonne grace,
God wele not kepe olde wreth in mynde:
But bettyr love to hem he has,
Very contryte whan he them fynde.
Now God that dyed for all mankende:
Save all these pepyl, both nyght and day,
And of oure synnys he us unbynde,
Hyghe Lorde of Hevyn that best may.
(see note)
afraid; (t-note)
every one
fellows; did spot it
proclaim it
will never know; head

sorrow; heart
acquit myself
were hidden
taken; afraid

them; has traced; (see note)
at once

Even though; (see note)

(see note); (t-note)



foes; did
not themselves
listen; petition

Say to me

committed; (t-note)



granted me
try; God’s
(see note); (t-note)

whoever asks


(see note); (t-note)


Go To Play 25, Raising of Lazarus