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Play 6, Moses


1 Here Moses, seeing the burning bush, says with wonder

2 Keep the precepts of the Lord thy God: Deuteronomy 6

3 First commandment: You will not keep strange gods

4 Second commandment: You will not take the name of your God in vain

5 Third commandment: Observe the day of the Sabbath to sanctify it

6 Fourth commandment: Honor your father and your mother

7 Eighth commandment: Do not bear false witness against your neighbor

8 Ninth commandment: Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, etc.

9 Tenth commandment: Do not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything else that is his, etc.


Abbreviations: PL: Patrologia Latina, ed. Migne; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991).

In the British Isles, there are dozens of references to medieval and early modern Moses plays depicting different episodes such as Miriam and Moses, Moses and Aaron, the Isra­elites in Egypt, Moses and Pharaoh, the Exodus, and Moses receiving the Ten Command­ments. Yet we have only four play texts. Chester’s version begins with the promulgation of the Decalogue from Sinai (lines 1–95), but continues with the comic Balaam and the ass story (Numbers 22–24), and concludes with Phineas’ ending of the plague (Numbers 25). It is clear that the Chester Moses Play is more of a prophets’ play that (with the Doctor’s fre­quent comments) points toward the Nativity. Woolf observes that the York Moses Play (and the Towneley version, which is a variant of the York play) follows the Speculum humanae sal­vationis in juxtaposing the Exodus from Egypt with the Harrowing of Hell (English Mystery Plays, pp. 153–54, 379n53). In this parallel, Pharaoh prefigures Satan, and Moses pre­figures Christ. It makes good sense, then, for the York version to focus on Moses’ birth in cap­tivity, his childhood, the encounter with the burning bush, and Moses’ miracles that even­tually lead to Pharaoh’s demise and the Israelites’ release from bondage.

The N-Town Moses Play, on the other hand, consists of only two episodes: the burning bush and a sermonic rendering of the Decalogue, two events which seem to have little in common. (See Exodus 3:1–12, 20:1–17, and Deuteronomy 5:6–21.) It seems that this play could have been two plays spliced together by a playwright or even the compiler. The unique couplet in the play (for the rest of the play is entirely in octaves), "The comaundment of thi Lord God, man, loke thu kepe / Where that thu walk, wake, or slepe" (lines 49–50), ap­pears to be a linking re­iteration of later lines, "Frendys, these be the lawys that ye must kepe. . . . / Wethyr that thu do wake or slepe" (lines 187, 189).

It is interesting to note that the N-Town Moses describes the Decalogue as existing in two distinct tablets, divided into three and seven commandments (lines 59–60). Fur­ther­more, the ecclesiastical thrust of the sermonic commentary on the Ten Commandments found in N-Town is somewhat unusual. While it may be predictable for the gloss on the third com­mand­ment to say that we should spend Sunday "In Goddys hous" (line 113), the sermon on the fourth commandment ("fadyr and modyr to wurchep alway," line 118) ends with:
To thi gostly Fadyr evyr reverens do; Thi gostly Modyr is Holy Cherch. . . . Ever them to wurchep loke that thu werch. (lines 127–28, 130)
As opposed to York and Chester, which foretell the work of Christ’s salvation, this N-Town Moses Play points to other elements of the cosmic plan of salvation — the Virgin birth and the birth of Holy Church, Ecclesia — embodied in the Virgin Mary. The Speculum humanae sal­va­tionis explains that Mary’s heart contained the two tablets of the Decalogue (lines 1243–48) and that the burning bush before Moses prefigures the immaculate conception. (The asso­ciation between Mary and the burning bush is also assumed in numerous similar contexts; see note to line 21.) Clearly this Moses Play, in em­ploying the burning bush, emphasizes the Virgin Mary, but more specifically her role as Ec­clesia. For further studies that discuss the burning bush and the Decalogue together, see Free­man, "Icon­ography of the Merode Altarpiece," p. 131; Harris, "Mary in the Burning Bush"; Richard, "Icono­graphy of the Virgin Portal at Amiens"; and Cannon, "Simone Martini," p. 70.

This play is written entirely in octaves. The Latin rendering of the Decalogue is not included in the stanzas.

14 Enforme and teche. This is the first specific indicator of the play’s didactic goals.

21 "The burning bush as a type of Mary, which seems to have been current in Church commentary by the fourth century (Graef, p. 60), was a familiar image in English literature. See, for example, Chaucer’s ABC and the prologue to the Prioress’ Tale; Lydgate’s ‘To Mary, the Queen of Heaven’, ‘Ave, Jesse virgula!’ (Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, EETS es 107 (1911), I: 286/33, 299/6), and the Life of Our Lady (ed. Joseph A. Lauritis, Pittsburgh, 1961, II: 799–802); and the Myroure of oure Ladye (ed. John Henry Blunt, EETS es 19 (1873), p. 296); also Towneley 12/359–67 and Chester 19/80–7. See E. Harris, ‘Mary in the Burning Bush’, Journal of the Warburg Institute 1 (1937–8), 281–6, and Anderson, pp. 24–5" (S 2:429–30).

47–50 Your byddyng, Lord, all wrought shal be . . . Where that thu walk, wake, or slepe. The playwright, having made use of Deuteronomy 6:4–5 in the previous play (see note to 5.240), continues from this section of the Bible with Deuteronomy 6:6–7: "And these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart. And thou shalt tell them to thy children, and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising."

48a Spector does not number the Latin lines here. Apparently he looks upon them as a kind of stage direction. It may well be, however, that Moses speaks the Lat­in lines, in which case the vernacular verses that follow serve as a commentary on the word of God that Deus has bestowed upon him. So here, then later in lines 98a, etc., to the reciting of the Tenth Commandment in line 170a.

59–64 Spector notes that Isidore of Seville, Bede, and Hugh of St. Victor endorsed this particular division of the Decalogue into 3 and 7 (S 2:430).

71–82 It is noteworthy that this first commandment, in late medieval terms, stands against envying another social station (degré, line 72) and idolatry (this werdlys vanyté, line 74). Spector comments on the latter idea (S 2:430). Spector also cites Cawley, who notes anti-Lollard attitudes in this play’s failure to mention image worship.

99 as I rede. Rede might mean "advise [you]," though it probably simply means "read," which would confirm the idea that Moses speaks the Latin passages aloud prior to each explication.

101–06 See the demon’s prologue in Passion Play 1, 26.65–84.

130a Compare Exodus 20:13. See Spector (S 2:431) on the exposition given here of lines 131–38.

138a Compare Exodus 20:14. Spector (S 2:431) points the reader to Lay Folks’ Cate­chism, p. 98.

170 thin owyn choyse. Moses abjures his listeners not only to think of their own choices in marriage (i.e., that those who are married should not go into another bed) but also to consider the greater implications of choyse (i.e., free will) and, perhaps, other marital options (i.e., marriage to the Church, which likewise cannot be be­trayed).

179–86 Spector (S 2:431) attributes the emphasis of the sixth commandment (lechery) to Augustine (In Heptateuchum, PL 34:621) and Hugh of St. Victor (PL 220:420–21).


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

1, s.n. MOYSES. MS omits speaker’s name.

1–3 MS: large play number 6 in right margin.

15 mot. MS: not.

16, s.d. rubum. So S. MS, Bl, Da: rubrum.

51 MS: lacks capitulum.

64 sefne. MS: vij.

66a and ff. MS: ius and other ordinal numbers preceding Latin phrases from Decalogue are rubricated in the left margin.

82a assumes. H, Bl, MS: assumens.

98a sanctifices. Da, Bl, MS: sanctificet.

99 thryd. MS: iijde.

116 fourte. MS: iiijte.

148 sefnt. MS: vijte.

155 eyghte. MS: viijte.

171 tente. MS: xte.

After 194 MS: remainder of fol. 34v blank, except for where a later hand has recopied line 189 immediately after 194.
[Introitus Moyses. Enter Moses




MOYSES He that made allthynge of nought
Hevyn and erth, both sunne and mone,
Save all that his hand hath wrought,
Allmyghty God in hevyn trone.
I am Moyses that make this bone
I pray thee, Lord God with all my mende —
To us incline thi mercy sone,
Thi gracyous lordchep let us fynde.

Thee to plesyn in all degré,
Gracyous God and Lord ovyr all:
Thu graunte us grace wherso we be,
And save us sownd fro synfull fall.
Thy wyll to werke to us, thi thrall,
Enforme and teche us all thi plesans.
In purenesse put us that nevyr mot fall,
And grounde us in grace from all grevauns.
nothing; (t-note)



your servants
will; (see note)
may; (t-note)

[Hic Moyses, videns rubum ardentem, admirande dicit.1; (t-note)







A, mercy, God! What menyth yon syte?
A grene busch as fyre doth flame
And kepyth his colowre fayr and bryghte,
Fresch and grene withowtyn blame,
It fyguryth sum thynge of ryght gret fame.
I kannot seyn what it may be.
I wyll go nere in Goddys name
And wysely loke this busch to se.

DEUS Moyses! How, Moyses!
Herke to me anon this stounde!
MOYSES I am here, Lorde, withowtyn les;
Yowre gracyous wyll to do I am bounde.
DEUS Thu take thi schon anon ful rownde
Of thi fete in hast, lete se.
Ful holy is that place and grownde
Ther thu dost stonde, I sey to thee.

MOYSES Barfoot now I do me make
And pull of my schon fro my fete.
Now have I my shon of take.
What is youre wylle, Lord, fayn wold I wete.
DEUS Com nere, Moyses, with me to mete.
These tabellis I take thee in thin honde,
With my fynger in hem is wrete
All my lawys, thu undyrstonde.

Loke that thu preche all abowte:
Hooso wyll have frenshipp of me,
To my lawys loke thei lowte,
That thei be kept in all degré.
Go forth and preche anon, let se —
Loke thu not ses nyght nor day.
MOYSES Your byddyng, Lord, all wrought shal be;
Youre wyll to werk, I walk my way.

prefigures; (see note)

now [in] this place
truly (without lie)

shoes right now
Off; let’s see


pull off my shoes
shoes taken off
gladly would I know

tablets; give; your
them is written

in all ways
now, let’s see
done; (see note)

Custodi precepta Domini Dei tui: Deutronomini sexto.2; (see note)




The comaundment of thi Lord God, man, loke thu kepe
Where that thu walk, wake, or slepe.

Every man take good hede,
And to my techynge take good intent,
For God hath sent me now indede
Yow for to enforme his comaundment.
Yow to teche, God hath me sent,
His lawys of lyff that arn ful wyse.
Them to lerne, be dyligent,
Youre soulys may thei save at the last asyse.

The preceptys that taught shal be,
Be wretyn in these tablys tweyn.
In the fyrst ben wretyn thre
That towch to God, this is serteyn.
In the secund tabyl be wretyn ful pleyn
The tother sefne that towch mankende.
Herk now well, man, what I shal seyn
And prent thise lawys well in thi mende.


to teach


(see note)
two tablets
are written
That concern
Other seven; (t-note)
imprint these; mind

1us Primum mandatum: non habebis deos alienos.3; (t-note)





The fyrst comaundement of God, as I yow say
Of the fyrst tabyl forsothe is this:
Thu shalt have, neythyr nyght nore day,
Noon other god but the Kyng of Blysse.
Undyrstonde wele what menyth this —
Every man in hys degré —
And sett nevyr youre hert amys
Upon this werdlys vanyté.

For if thu sett thi love so sore
Upon ryches and werdly good,
Thi wurdly rycches thu takyst evermore
Evyn for thi god, as man ovyrwood.
Amend thee, man, and chaunge thi mood!
Lese not thi sowle for werdlys welth!
Only hym love which bodyly food
Doth geve all day and gostly helth.

(see note)
his place

so much
worldly goods

extremely mad
Damn; world’s

give; spiritual

2. Secundum mandatum: non assumes nomen Dei tui in vanum..4; (t-note)





The secund precept of the fyrst tabyll:
The name of God take nevyr in vayne;
Swere none othis be noon fals fabyll.
The name of God thu nevyr dysteyn.
Bewhare of othis for dowte of peyn!
Amonges felacheppe whan thu dost sytt,
A lytyl othe — this is serteyn —
May dampne thy sowle to helle pytt.

Man, whan thu art sett at the nale,
And hast thi langage as plesyth thee,
Loke thin othis be non or smale,
And yett alwey loke trewe thei be.
But swere not oftyn by rede of me,
For yf thu use oftyntyme to swere,
It may gendyr custom in thee!
Byware of custom, for he wyl dere.


no oaths by; fictions
fear of pain
Amongst; when

oaths; small
that they be true
my advice
are wont to
become a habit
it will harm (you)

3. Tercium mandatum: memento ut sabbatum sanctifices.5; (t-note)





The thryd comaundment of God, as I rede
Doth bydde thee halwe well thin haly day.
Kepe thee well fro synfull dede,
And care not gretly for rych aray.
A ryght pore man — this is non nay —
Of sympyl astat in clothis rent
May be bettyr than rych with garmentys gay.
Oftyntyme doth kepe this comaundment.

For rych men do showe oftyntyme pompe and pride
On haly days as oftyn is sene
Whan pore men passe and go besyde.
At wurthy festys, riche men woll bene.
Thyn haly day thu kepyst not clene:
In gloteny to lede thi lyff.
In Goddys hous ye shulde, bedene,
Honoure your God, both mayden and wyff.

read; (see note); (t-note)
[to] hallow; your holy
deeds; (see note)
rich clothing
this is true
estate; torn clothing

holy days
pass by
will be
holy day

God’s; indeed

4. Quartum mandatum: honora patrem tuum et matrem tuam.6





Of the secunde tabyll the fyrst comaundment
And in the ordyr the fourte I sey in fay.
He byddyth thee evermore with hert bent
Both fadyr and modyr to wurchep alway.
Thow that thi fadyr be pore of array,
And thow never so rych of golde and good,
Yitt loke thu wurchep hym nyght and day,
Of whom thu hast both flesch and blood.

In this comaundmente includyd is
Thi bodyli fadyr and modyr also.
Includyd also I fynde in this:
Thi gostly Fadyr and Modyr therto.
To thi gostly Fadyr evyr reverens do;
Thi gostly Modyr is Holy Cherch.
These tweyn save thi sowle fro woo,
Ever them to wurchep loke that thu werch.

fourth; truth; (t-note)
father; mother to honor
Though; poor in possessions

bodily father; mother

spiritual Father; Mother

two; woe

5. Quintum mandatum: non occides. Fifth commandment: You shall not kill; (see note)



The fyfft comaundement byddyth all us:
Scle no man, no whight that thu kyll.
Undyrstonde this precept thus:
Scle no wyght with wurd nor wyll.
Wykkyd worde werkyht oftyntyme grett ill,
Bewar therfore of wykkyd langage.
Wyckyd spech many on doth spyll.
Therfore of spech beth not owtrage.

Slay; no one

Slay; command or deed
words work

many a one; destroy

6. Sextum mandatum: non makaberis. Sixth commandment: Do not commit adultery; (see note)



The sexte comaundement byddith every man
That no wyght lede no lecherous lay.
Forfet nevyr be no woman
Lesse than the lawe alowe thi play.
Trespas nevyr with wyff, ne may,
With wedow, nor with non othyr wyght.
Kepe thee clene, as I thee say,
To whom thu hast thi trowth plyght.

no man; life
Never have sex with
Unless; sexual relationship
nor maid
widow; no other person
yourself pure
troth promised

7. Septimum mandatum: non furtum facies. Seventh commandment: Do not steal



Do no thefte, nothynge thu stele,
The sefnt precept byddyth thee ful sore.
Whyll thu arte in welth and wele,
Evyll-gett good loke thu restore
Off handys and dede be trewe evyrmore,
For yf thin handys lymyd be,
Thu art but shent: thi name is lore
In felde and town, and in all countré.

seventh; (t-note)
Ill-gotten goods; return
your; are sullied
ruined; reputation is lost
field; countries

8. Octavum mandatum: non loqueris contra proximum tuum falsum testimonium.7




The eyghte precept thus doth thee bydde:
Fals wyttnes loke non thu bere;
The trowth nevyrmore loke that thu hyde.
With fals wyttness no man thu dere,
Nowther for love, ne dred, ne fere.
Sey non other than trowth is.
Fals wytness, yf that thu rere,
Agens God thu dost grettly amys.


do not hide
Neither; nor dread; fear
the truth
Against; sin

9. Nonum mandatum: non desiderabis vxorem proximi tui, et cetera.8



The ninte precept of lawe of lyff,
Evyn thus doth bydde every man:
Desyre not thi neyborys wyff
Thow she be fayr and whyte as swan,
And thi wyff brown, yitt natt for than.
Thi neyborys wyff thu nevyr rejoyse.
Kepe thee clene as evyr thu can;
To thin owyn wyff and thin owyn choyse.


neighbor’s wife
not even then
your; (see note)

10. Decimum mandatum: non concupisces domum proximi tui, non servum, non ancil­lam, non bovem, non asinum, nec omnia que illius sunt, et cetera.9






The tente comaundement of God and last is this:
Thi neyborys hous desyre thu nowth,
Maydon nor servaunt nor nowth of his,
Desyre hem nevyr in wyll nor thowth
Oxe nere asse that he hath bought,
Nere nothynge that longyht hym to.
Godys lawe must nedys be wrought:
Desyre nothynge thin neybore fro.

The sexte comaundement of lechory
Doth exclude the synfull dede,
But theys tweyn last most streytly
Both dede and thought thei do forbede.
In wyll nere thought no lechory thu lede,
Thi thought and wyll thu must refreyn.
All thi desyre, as I thee rede,
In clennes of lyff thiself restreyn.

Frendys, these be the lawys that ye must kepe.
Therfore, every man sett well in mende —
Wethyr that thu do wake or slepe —
These lawys to lerne thu herke ful hynde.
And Godys grace shal be thi frende,
He socowre and save yow in welth fro woo.
Farewell gode frendys, for hens wyll I wende
My tale I have taught yow, my wey now I goo.

neighbor’s; not
them; thought
Nor anything; belongs
God’s; be done
of your neighbor

(see note)

these two; strictly
desires; as I tell you

heed diligently
succor; from woe

[Explicit Moyses. The end of Moses; (t-note)

Go To Play 7, Root of Jesse