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Play 3, Cain and Abel


1 Here Abel's tithe burns, and Caym, at this, says


Abbreviations: MED: Middle English Dictionary; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991).

This play is a dramatization of the story found in Genesis 4:1–16. It bears comparison with the Cain and Abel plays in the York (Play 7), Chester (last half of Play 2), and Towneley Plays (Play 2). The idea of spiritual and earthly genealogy pervades all of the N-Town Old Testament plays. Martin Stevens observes: "The Old Testament Play is perforce the play in which the role of God the Father dominates. . . . And God the Father . . . is actively engaged throughout the segment in defining the limits of earthly fatherhood in the light of his ce­lestial presence" (Mystery Cycles, p. 196).

As mentioned in the textual note to 2.309, at the foot of folios 16–17 of the manuscript (in large liturgical script) is a genealogy from Adam through Lamech, the father of Noah (compare Genesis 5:1–30). This genealogical chart is in the main scribe's handwriting and may have been an attempt at linking this play with the ensuing one.

Most of the play is written in thirteeners.

1–31 These lines make up a quatrain followed by three nine-line stanzas.

4–11 Unto oure fadyr withowte lettyng . . . come to oure faderys presens. Although Abel seems to be referring to going obediently to Adam for instruction, the journey he out­lines resonates with his pilgrimage toward the presence of God through the prayer and sacrifice that he is about to undertake. That journey ultimately transpires for Abel in all his integrity. But for Cain, who does not want "talking" with the father or to "lere his lawe" (line 18), or even to see him again, no pilgrimage will take place. His disregard for Adam leads immediately to equivocation and a disregard for God and, ultimately, to his own doom. N.b., Boone on Cain and "equivocation" ("Skill of Cain"). See also notes to lines 112–15 and 183–86.

13 knowe for oure levynge. Spector glosses this as "learn how to live" but notes that MED cites this line under knouen, v.10a: "to worship" (S 2:422).

36 another portature. MED cites portature here as "shaping, construction." I think, however, that "likeness" makes more sense referring to God's likeness (Genesis 1:26). Spector glosses the phrase to mean "a different appearance," but also notes The Book of Adam and Eve, where Adam and Eve say "Our body is changed from the similitude in which it was at first, when we were created" (i.e., into another portature) (S 2:423).

62–65 This is a quatrain.

75–78 Woolf notes that this is the only English mystery play to parallel specifically Abel's lamb and Christ (S 2:423).

92 ff. Compare Matthew 5:22, Genesis 4:3–4.

109 a febyll skyll. The word skyll here can mean "cause, reason, basis, ground, or foun­dation." Compare "Thu shewest a febyl reson, me thynke" (line 116). See Boone: "The two brothers are unable to argue about sacrifice because they are not talk­ing about the same thing when they try to do so" ("Skill of Cain," p. 121). Cain shows "reson" and "skyll" rather than "good will" as he attempts to subvert the rites of sacrifice, whether in the N-Town, Chester, or Towneley Cain and Abel plays. See Harnett, "Cain and the Medieval Towneley Play."

112–15 To gevyn hym awey my best sheff / And kepe myself the wers? / He wyll neyther ete nor drynke, / For he doth neyther swete nor swynke. Boone, citing Harnett ("Cain and the Medieval Towneley Play," p. 21), observes: "‘Cain's ignorance in the mystery plays is evident in his total misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice: he can see it only as intended to repair a deficiency in God. This attitude is closely related to his concupiscence; he covets the sheaves because he can think only in earthly terms.' This observation goes to the heart of Cain's dilemma, and it need only be added that Cain's ignorance is a moral condition, a self-willed blindness that is mani­fested in his language, which itself is the expression in psychological and economic terms of the basic structural ambivalence of his position" ("Skill of Cain," p. 128).

149 Spector (S 2:423) recounts the theories behind Cain's use of the jawbone, the weapon depicted in the Holkham Bible Picture Book, The Life of Adam and Eve, The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament (line 236), Cursor Mundi (line 1073), the Cornish Creation, and Towneley (2/326). Schapiro ("Cain's Jaw-Bone") sees this par­ticular image in English art from the eleventh through the sixteenth centuries. Bonnell ("Cain's Jaw Bone") and Hassall see this as an En­glish motif that migrated to Northern Europe (Holkham Bible Picture Book, ed. Hassall, fol. 5v, pp. 67–68).

153 boy. Likely a term of abuse (S 2:423).

159–80 Compare Genesis 4:9–15.

170–73 Woolf remarks that "the theme of the continuing fall reaches its conclusion in Cain's banishment: as Adam and Eve become exiles from paradise, so Cain be­comes an exile from all the dwellings of men; but Adam and Eve still awaited ‘sum comforth,' whereas Cain will ‘nevyr make merthis mo'" (English Mystery Plays, p. 131).

183–86 Alas, alas, whedyr may I go? . . . cursyd of God for my falsage. "In the extant English mystery cycles, Cain is the character who best illustrates the Augustinian doctrine of the punishment of sin by sin. The punishment is progressive: the immediate judgment of God, the intensification of ignorance and concupiscence, is followed by the sinner's struggle against that judgment. Finally there is God's ultimate judg­ment, his abandonment of the sinner to the uninhibited pursuit of sin, with no possibility of return" (Harnett, "Cain and the Medieval Towneley Play," p. 21).

188 strete and stage. Rose glosses this as "at street level and on the scaffold" ("Staging of the Hegge Plays," p. 204). The "scaffold" could be a dramatic stage or even a gallows (MED).


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

1–4 MS: large play number 3 in right margin.

Before 5 MS: lacks capitulum.

16 yet. MS: y t. Bl: þat.

36 MS: above the line is written: As ye have me oftyn seyd sothly, a variation on line 37, but is canceled.

47 thorwe. MS: þour. Bl and S: thorwe.
      dyvyne. MS: ydyvyne, with the first y canceled.

58–61 MS: two lines are written as one.

Before 66 MS: lacks capitulum.

73 grawnt. MS: grawunt.

Before 120 MS: upper left corner of fol. 19v marked as 20.

129 showe. MS: shoue.

155 He. MS: Here, with re erased.

180 sefne. MS: vij.

181 nevyr. MS: never written above the line in another hand.

186 falsage. MS: ffalfage.

193 MS: Introitus Noe appears in right margin in larger script.

After 195 Remainder (100 mm) of fol. 20v is blank.


























ABEL I wolde fayn knowe how I shuld do
To serve my Lord God to his plesyng.
Therfore Caym, brother, lete us now go
Unto oure fadyr withowte lettyng,

Suenge hym in vertu and in norture
To com to the hyghe joy celestyall,
Remembryng to be clene and pure.
For in mysrewle, we myth lythly fall
Agens Hevyn Kynge.
Lete us now don oure dyligens
To come to oure faderys presens.
Good brother, passe we hens
To knowe for oure levynge.

CAYM As to my fadyr, lete us now tee
To knowe what shal be his talkyng,
And yet I holde it but vanyté
To go to hym for any spekyng —
To lere of his lawe.
For if I have good anow plenté,
I kan be mery, so mot y the.
Thow my fadyr I nevyr se,
I gyf not therof an hawe!

ABEL Ryth sovereyn fadyr, semely, sad, and sure:
Ever we thank yow in hert, body, and thowth
And alwey shull whyll oure lyf may indure,
As inwardly in hert it kan be sought,
Bothe my brother and I.
Fadyr, I falle onto youre kne
To knowe how we shul rewlyd be,
For godys that fallyth bothe hym and me
I wolde fayn wete trewly.

ADAM Sonys, ye arn — to spekyn naturaly —
The fyrst frute of kendely engendrure,
Befforn whom — saff youre modyr and I —
Were nevyr non of mannys nature.
And yit were we al of another portature
As ye have me oftyn herd seyd sothly.
Wherfore, sonys, yf ye wyl lyff sad and sure:
Fyrst, I yow counseyll most syngulerly,
God for to love and drede.
And suche good as God hath yow sent,
The fyrst frute offyr to hym in sacryfice brent,
Hym evyr besechyng with meke entent
In all youre werkys to save and spede.

ABEL Gramercy, fadyr, for youre good doctrine.
For as ye us techyn, so shal we do.
And as for me, thorwe Goddys grace dyvyne,
I wyl forthwith applye me therto.
CAYM And thow me be loth, I wyl now also
Onto youre counsell, fadyr, me inclyne.
And yitt I say now to yow both too,
I had levyr gon hom well for to dyne!
ADAM Now, God graunt good sacryfice to yow both too.
He vowchesaff to acceptyn yow and all myne
And geve yow now grace to plesyn hym soo
That ye may come to that blysse that hymself is inne
With gostly grace:
That all youre here levyng
May be to his plesyng,
And at youre hens partyng
To com to good place.

[Abell dicit:

ABEL Almyhtty God and God ful of myth,
Be whom allthing is made of nowth,
To thee myn hert is redy dyht;
For upon thee is all my thought.

O, Sovereyn Lord, reygnyng in eternyté:
With all the mekenesse that I kan or may,
This lombe shal I offre it up to thee.
Accept it, blyssyd Lord, I thee pray.
My gyft is but sympyl — this is no nay —
But my wyl is good and evyr shal be
Thee to servyn and worchepyn both nyht and day.
And ther to thi grace grawnt thu me
Throwh thi gret mercy
Which in a lombys lyknes
Thu shalt for mannys wyckydnes
Onys ben offeryd in peynfulnes
And deyn ful dolfoly.

For trewly, Lord, thu art most worthy
The best to have in eche degré —
Both best and werst ful certeynly —
All is had thorwe grace of thee.
The best schep full hertyly —
Amongys my flok that I kan se —
I tythe it to God of gret mercy.
And bettyr wold if bettyr myht be,
Evyn here is myn offryng.
I tythe to thee with ryht good wylle
Of the best thu sentyst me tylle.
Now, gracyous God on hevyn hille,
Accept now my tythyng.

CAYM Amongys all folys that gon on grownd
I holde that thu be on of the most:
To tythe the best — that is not sownd —
And kepe the werst — that is nere lost!
But I more wysly shal werke this stownde:
To tythe the werst and make no bost.
Of all my cornys that may be fownde
In all my feldys — both crofte and cost —
I shal lokyn on every syde.
Here I tythe this unthende sheff.
Lete God take it or ellys lef.
Thow it be to me gret repreff
I geve no fors this tyde.

ABEL Now Caym, brother, thu dost ful ill,
For God thee sent both best and werst;
Therfore, thu shewe to hym good wyll
And tythe to God evyr of the best!
CAYM In feyth thu shewyst now a febyll skyll.
It wolde me hyndyr and do me greff
What were God the bettyr thu sey me tyll?
To gevyn hym awey my best sheff
And kepe myself the wers?
He wyll neyther ete nor drynke,
For he doth neyther swete nor swynke.
Thu shewest a febyl reson, methynke.
What, thu fonnyst as a best, I gesse!

ABEL Yit me thynkyth my wyt is good:
To God evermore sum love to shewe,
Of whom we have oure dayly food,
And ellys we had but lytyl drewe.
CAYM Yitt methynkeht thi wytt is wood,
For of thi lore I fynde but fewe.
I wyll neverthemore chawnge my mood,
For no wordys that thu dost shewe —
I sey I wyll tythe the werst!
ABEL Now, God that syt in hefne above,
On whom is sett all myn hool love
This wyckyd wyll from thee he showe
As it plesyth hym best.
gladly; (see note); (t-note)

father without delay; (see note)

Paying homage to him; upbringing; (t-note)

misconduct; might easily
Away from Heaven’s
(i.e., hasten)
let’s go
learn how to live; (see note)

father; go
i.e., provided that I prosper
Though my father
a hawthorn (i.e., I don’t care)

father; wise
heart; thought
shall while
As sincerely
By both
Father; at your knees
be governed
goods that come to
know truly

humanly speaking
natural procreation
save your mother
of humankind
likeness; (see note); (t-note)

live soberly

works; prosper

Many thanks

through God’s; (t-note)

though I hate to
both of you
would rather


life here; (t-note)

Abel says

might; (see note)
By; everything; nought
ready to offer



there’s no denying

lamb’s; (see note)
Once be
die very painfully


to me

the foolish; live on earth; (see note)
one of

right now

here and there
worthless sheaf
leave it
I don’t care

feeble reasoning; (see note)
cause me grief
say to me
To give; sheaf; (see note)

sweat nor toil

act as foolishly; beast


Or else; scarcely any food
I think; crazy
doctrine; few [people]

all my love

  [Hic ardent decimum Abel, et Caym quo facto dicit: 1













CAYM Herke, Abel, brother, what aray is this?
Thy tythyng brennyth as fyre ful bryght!
It is to me gret wondyr, iwys!
I trow this is now a straunge syght.
ABEL Goddys wyll, forsothe, it is
That my tythyng with fyre is lyth.
For of the best were my tythis
And of the werst thu dedyst hym dyght.
Bad thyng thu hym bede!
Of the best was my tythyng,
And of the werst was thin offryng.
Therfor, God Almyghty, Hevyn Kyng
Alowyht ryht nowth thi dede.

CAYM What, thu stynkyng losel, and is it so?
Doth God thee love and hatyht me?
Thu shalt be ded! I shal thee slo!
Thi Lord, thi God, thu shalt nevyr se!
Tythyng more shalt thu nevyr do.
With this chavyl bon I shal sle thee!
Thi deth is dyht — thi days be go.
Out of myn handys, shalt thu not fle!
With this strok, I thee kylle!
Now, this boy is slayn and dede.
Of hym I shal nevyr more han drede.
He shal hereafter nevyr ete brede.
With this gresse I shal hym hylle.

DEUS Caym! Come forth and answere me!
Asoyle my qwestyon anon ryght.
Thy brother, Abel, wher is now he?
Ha don, and answere me as tyght!
CAYM My brothers kepere ho made me?
Syn whan was I his kepyng knyght?
I kannot telle where that he be.
To kepe hym was I nevyr dyght.
I know not wher he is.
DEUS A! Cursyd Caym, thu art untrewe,
And for thi dede, thu shalt sore rewe.
Thi brothers blood that thu slewe
Askyht vengeauns of thi mys.

Thu shalt be cursyd on the grounde,
Unprophitable whereso thu wende,
Both veyn and nowthty and nothyng sounde.
With what thing thu medele, thu shalt it shende.
CAYM Alas, in whoo now am I wounde,
Acursyd of God as man unkende!
Of any man yf I be founde,
He shal me slo — I have no frende!
Alas, and weleaway!
DEUS Of what man that thu be sclayn,
He shal have sefne-folde more payn.
Hym were bettyr nevyr to be sayn
On lyve be nyth, ne day.

CAYM Alas, alas, whedyr may I go?
I dare nevyr se man in the vesage.
I am woundyn as a wrecch in wo
And cursyd of God for my falsage.
Unprofytabyl and vayn also
In felde and town, in strete and stage —
I may nevyr make merthis mo.
I wot nevyr whedyr to take passage.
I dare not here abyde.
Now wyl I go, wende my way —
With sore syeng and welaway —
To loke where that I best may
From mannys syht me hyde.
what is going on

I swear
God’s; truly
did; offer him


Allowed not


Jawbone; (see note)
set; gone

(see note)
have dread
grass; hide

Answer; right now
(see note)
Hurry up; now
brother’s; who
Since when; keeper



on earth; (see note)
thou go
do; destroy
in woe
By anyone
Woe is me

Seven; (t-note)
to be seen; (t-note)
Alive by night, nor by

(see note)
look anyone; face
falsehood; (t-note)

(see note)
have mirth
I’ll never know

make my way
sighing and moaning; (t-note)

man’s; (t-note)

Go To Play 4, Noah