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Play 7, Root of Jesse


1 Lines 9–10: Behold a virgin will conceive / and bear a son, by name Emmanuel. (See Isaias 7:14)

2 Lines 17–18: A rod out of the root of Jesse / and a flower will ascend from his root. (See Isaias 11:1)


Abbreviations: Bl: Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block (1922); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991); s.d.: stage direction; s.n.: stage name.

The scriptural background for this play is found in the account of David’s anointing (1 Kings [1 Samuel] 5:1–13) and in the prophecy that describes the branch of the house of David (Isaias 11:1). For an iconographic history of the Jesse Root, see Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, pp. 15–22. It is possible that a source for this play could have been the Biblia Pauperum (or some other literary or art work based on it) because all of the thirteen proph­ets are listed in the Biblia Pauperum, and four of the thirteen scriptural citations are exact.

With its paired sets of thirteen prophets and thirteen kings, this play reveals the Christ as the synthesis of fleshly and spiritual power (Sugano, "From Playbooks to Compilatio," pp. 71–73). While the play is, perhaps, the most tableau-like in the manuscript, it carries pow­erful iconographic and numerological significance. For example, there are twenty-seven speak­ers (prophets, kings, and Jesse), or three cubed, the Trinitarian number signifying the realization in time and space of integrity and perfection. Thus, the speeches in this play divide into three groups of nine speeches: the first group reveals Mary’s role as the gate of heaven; the second group attests to Christ’s life on earth; and the third section praises his ministry, grace, and eventual judgment. Schol­ars have noted the N-Town version’s emphasis on both Christ’s and Mary’s coming. (See Martin Stevens, Mystery Cycles, p. 186, and Brawer, "Form and Function of the Proph­etic Pro­cession," pp. 108–10. See also textual note after line 136 below.) It is important to note that while the iconographic references are strong for late medieval audiences and readers, there is not always an inherent textual connection between the kings and prophets of the Jesse Root and their respective messages. In other words, the particular prophetic messages in this play are not always found in the Bible.

Spector notes that the patristic source for this play is likely the pseudo-Augustinian Contra Judaeos. There are French religious prophets’ and kings’ plays as well (S 2:432). The names of the thirteen kings are found in the patriarchal genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1–16. The only other extant English Prophets Play is Towneley Play 7, which has only four characters: Moses, Daniel, David, and the Sibyl. This is not to say, however, that prophets’ pageants were uncommon in England. There are dozens of references to such plays or pageants in the late Middle Ages (compare Lancashire, Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain), many of them part of Palm Sunday events. The Jesse Tree or Root was a common subject depicted in breviaries, church windows, and in carvings. See The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, pl. 90 "Tree of Jesse" for the Saturday Hours of the Virgin in Prime, which was used as the model for staging the play in the Poculi Ludique Societas (Toronto) production of the play, 28–29 May 1988, where the actors filled the branches of the tree that grows from sleep­ing Jesse’s body. Implicit in the references to branches and shoots both in this play as well as several parts of the proposed Mary Play is the Latin pun on virga (branch) and virgo (vir­gin). Interestingly enough this pun applies not only to Mary but to Joseph as well. On the iconographic value and consistent pattern of images of ripeness, flowering, and fruit­fulness around the figure of Mary here and elsewhere in N-Town, see Fewer, "Fygure," pp. 128–30.

The play is written in octaves.

4–10 Compare Isaias 7:14–17. See also Spector, S 2:433, and Watson, Early Iconog­raphy of the Tree of Jesse.

6 Zabulon. According to Block (Bl, p. 382) and Spector (S 2:433), Zabulon is synon­ymous with the Devil.

13 sacerdotale lynage. The genealogy is twofold: royal, through David’s (Joseph’s) line; and priestly, through the prophet’s (Mary’s) line. See Play 14, line 113 and note. The play is remarkably skillful in presenting through the procession of prophets the history of Israel between the time of Moses and the Old Law and the play of Mary and the New Law. The prophets present a genealogy of people but also of their sins and misdirections that make evident the need for Jesus to be born from Mary, the new temple, through the "cloistre blisful" (CT VIII[G]43) of whose sides Christ is born. See note to lines 41–44 below.

17–18 See Isaias 11:1. As Spector describes, in a typical depiction of the Jesse tree, Jesse either sleeps at the foot of the genealogical tree or the tree grows from his body (S 2:433). See headnote to Play 7.

27–32 Compare Vulgate Psalms 21:28, 71:11, 84:12–13, 109:1 (S 2:433).

35–40 Compare Jeremias 33:14–18 (S 2:434).

41–44 MED notes (3b) that figure is a prefiguration, foreshadowing, or a foreboding. It is significant that Solomon, the king who completed the Temple, is the proph­et of this particular speech. Spector notes (by way of Ambrose and Rabanus Mau­rus) that the Temple was a type of the Virgin (S 2:434), and vice versa. See Chau­cer’s Second Nun on "the cloistre blisful of [Mary’s] sydis" (CT VIII[G]43). The Biblia Pau­perum, on the page depicting the Presentation of Christ (plate d), makes it clear that the temple was Mary’s body, but, also, that it is Christ’s (Biblia Pauperum, p. 55). Nichols, citing Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (trans. Ryan, 2.83–84), ob­serves that Mary is "the tabernacle . . . the dwelling place of the Son of God" ("Hierosphthitic Topos," pp. 29–39). See also Raby, History of Christian-Latin Poetry, p. 366, and Gibson, "‘Porta haec clausa erit,’" p. 143.

45–48 Compare Ezechiel 44:1–3 and 46:1–2 (see S 2:434), and also Canticles 4:9. The closed gate is read exegetically as a figure of Mary’s virginity. See Gibson, "‘Porta haec clausa erit.’"

51–52 Compare Genesis 3:15 and N-Town 2.263–65. Rehoboam was the king who caused the kingdom of Israel to divide.

55–56 Compare Micheas 4:9–13. Spector also cites Micheas 1:3, 5:2, and 7:18–20 (S 2:434).

57–60 King Abijah was Rehoboam’s son who tried to reunite Israel.

61–64 Compare Daniel 4:10–15. See Collins (N-Town Plays, pp. 3–9) on the fruit of life trope; Martin Stevens (Mystery Cycles, p. 241) on Maiden’s fruit; Bonnell ("Source in Art," pp. 334–35) on Seth’s vision of the Christ-child in a tree; and Mozley ("‘Vita Adae,’" pp. 123–24) on Daniel’s vision.

65 King Asa was a godly reformer, compare 2 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 15.

65–88 Spector suggests that these lines recall the Apostles’ Creed (S 2:435): see note to lines 85–88.

69–73 Compare Jonas 1:17. N.b. the configuration represented in the Biblia Pau­perum, pl. g and pl. i, where Jonah is juxtaposed with Joseph being cast into the well, as commentary on the Entombment of Christ, then coming out of the fish’s mouth and juxtaposed with Samson removing the gates of the city, which are juxtaposed with the Resurrection from the tomb as the soldiers sleep.

73–74 Jehoshaphat was the son of Asa and known for establishing the judges (2 Paralipomenon [Chronicles] 19).

77–80 Spector (S 2:435) cites Abdias (Obadiah) 1:17, but 1:18–21 are the more relevant verses.

81 Joram, or Jehoram, was the son of Jehoshaphat (see Matthew 1:8). Compare 2 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 21. Spector (S 2:435) cites Kretzmann (p. 32), who links the idea here to a liturgical exegesis on the genealogy in Matthew 1: "Joras: Nemo ascendit in caelum nisi qui descendit de caelo: Filius hominis qui est in caelo" ["Nobody ascends into heaven unless he descends from it: The Son of Man who is in heaven" — my translation].

85–88 Compare Habacuc 1:1–4, 2:6–20. Habacuc’s testament closely resembles part of the Roman Symbol, the so-called Apostles’ Creed, which survives in its earliest form from the pen of Hippolytas but which, according to legend, was written down by the Apostles ten days after Christ’s Ascension. The credo reads, in part: "tertia die resurrexit a mortuis; ascendit ad caelos; sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis; inde venturus [est] judicare vivos et mortuos" ["the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead"].

89, s.n. OZIAS REX. Uzziah, or Azariah, was a king of Judah. Compare 4 Kings (2 Kings) 15:1–7.

93–96 Compare Joel 2:28. See also Spector (S 2:435), who draws parallels with York 12.85 ff and Chester 5.376–84 (MS H).

97, s.n. JOATHAS REX. Jotham was king of Judah and son of Azariah (see Matthew 1:9). Compare 4 Kings (2 Kings) 15:32–38, 2 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 26:21–27.

101–04 Spector cites Joel 2:28, Aggeus (Haggai) 2:8, and Jesse Trees in late medieval art (S 2:435).

105, s.n. ACHAS REX. King Ahaz was son of Jotham and known for idolatry and alliances with Assyria. Compare 4 Kings (2 Kings) 16, 2 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 28, Isaias 7, and Matthew 1:9.

109, s.n. OZYAS PROPHETA. Although the book of Osee (Hosea) does not overtly prophesy the birth of Emmanuel, there is a strong redemptive message that is intimately related to God’s marriage to humankind. Osee marries a harlot at God’s com­mand to demon­­strate God’s love of mankind who, even though unfaithful, will be re­deemed. The work is often linked with Canticles as are Marian texts, Mary being the true and worthy bride of Christ who mediates in the redemption of the un­worthy. The Biblia Pauperum often uses Osee in conjunction with the story of Mary: e.g., Osee 5:6 as commentary on the flight into Egypt (pl. e), and Osee 10:2 as commentary on the Holy Family’s sojourn there (pl. f); also Osee 8:4 to comment on the Slaughter of the Innocents (pl. g), and Osee 11:1 to comment on the Holy Family’s return from Egypt (pl. h). Osee 9:15 is cited as commentary on Christ’s cleansing of the Temple (pl. p), and Osee 13:14 as commentary on Christ’s descent into Limbo (pl. h), and Osee 6:3 on the Resurrection (pl. i). Finally, the Biblia Pauperum cites Osee 2:14 as commentary on the daughter of Jerusalem discovering her spouse as Christ appears to Mary Magdalene (pl. l), and Osee 2:19, "I will wed you forever," as commentary on the final plate (v) on the Crowning of the Bride and Apocalypse 21:9 as John the Evangelist reveals the secret things of God.

113, s.n. EZECHIAS REX. King Hezekiah was known for restoring the Temple. Compare 2 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 29–31 and Sirach 48:17–22.

117, s.n. SOPHOSAS PROPHETA. The prophet Sophonias (Zephaniah) claims to be a de­scendent of King Hezekiah (Sophonias [Zephaniah] 1:1). The book of Sophonias preaches judg­ment. While he does not write about that maydens byrth (line 120), he does foretell a day of restoration. Compare Sophonia (Zephaniah) 3:9–20.

121, s.n. MANASSES REX. King Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah. Compare 4 Kings (2 Kings) 21, 2 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 33.

125, s.n. BARUK PROPHETA. Plate v of the Biblia Pauperum has a portrait of Baruch and this verse: "If they fall to the ground they do not get up again by themselves: (Baruch 6:26)." Clearly, as the last lines (in this play) form a prophecy, this speech is about judg­ment. It is interesting to note that the other scriptural and visual types on the Biblia Pauperum page juxtapose the foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1–13), the Fall of Lucifer (Apocalypse 13:9 and Isaias 14:12–15), two Old Testament pro­phecies about the revelation of the Messiah (Lamentations 2:16 and Isaias 53:2–3), and Jesus’ arresting party being thrown to the ground (John 18:4–6 and Matthew 26:36). See also Spector, S 2:435.

129, s.n. AMON REX. King Amon (rendered Amos in Matthew 1:10) was the son of Manasseh. Com­pare 4 Kings (2 Kings) 21:18–26, 1 Paralipomenon (Chronicles) 3:14, 2 Para­lipo­menon (Chronicles) 33:21–25.


Abbreviation: S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991).

1–4 MS: large play number 7 in right margin.

9, 10 MS: double back slashes follow seye in line 9 and filium in line 10.

23, 40 MS: + in right margin.

27 sprynge. MS: spyn spryng.

44 of. MS: written above the line.

45, 47 MS: + in right margin.

49 thryd. MS: iijde.
jentyll. MS: jeng jentyll.

59 MS: circled 1 and Danyel written in right margin.

70 trew. MS: trow also possible.
tall. MS: corrected from tale.

72 gwall. MS: corrected from qwale.

76 dubytacyon. MS: dubytacoun.

99 MS: gold God.

119 to. S: do.

127 Al. S: supplies To before al.

Below 136 The remainder of fol. 37r (at the bottom) begins a genealogical table for Anne, the mother of Mary, written in textura quadrata. The table con­tinues into fol. 37v and into the beginning of the Mary Play. On fol. 37r:






Cleophas et


Salome et


}genuit Joachym

}genuit Anna




Emeria fuit soror Anne
que habebat quondam filiam
Elizabeth que nupta fui[t]
[t cropped]
Zakarie de quo peperit Johanne[m] [m cropped]
Baptistem precurorem Domini
Elyud Emin? filia beatus
Geruasius episcopus

sponsa Joseph fabro

Maria, mater Jesu Christi

sponsa Alpheo

ija Maria, mater Symonem et Judam Jacobum Minorum et Joseph Just[em][em cropped]

sponsa Zebedeo

iijaMaria, Mater Johannem euangelistam et Majorem

The bottom of fol. 37v has:
mater Samue

vxor Rague

Quinque sunt Anne vxor Tob

mater beate Mar
Anna prophetissa


} ie


Below this in larger red script appears:

Est Ysakar Anne pater; Melphat sic quioque mater vel Nasaphat, [vel Nasaphat cropped].

Play 8 begins at the top of Fol. 37v.




























YSAIAS I am the prophete callyd Isaye,
Replett with Godys grett influens,
And sey pleynly be spyryte of prophecie
That a clene mayde thourgh meke obedyens
Shall bere a childe which shal do resystens
Ageyn foule Zabulon, the devyl of helle.
Mannys soule, ageyn hym to defens —
Opyn in the felde — the fend he shal felle.

Wherefore I seye: Quod virgo concipiet
Et pariet filium nomen Emanuel.1
Oure lyf for to save he shal suffyr deth
And bye us to his blysse, in hevyn for to dwell
Of sacerdotale lynage the trewth I yow tell
Flessch and blood to take, God wyll be born!
Joye to man in erth and in hevyn aungell,
At the chyldys byrth, joye shal make that morn.

RADIX JESSE Egredietur virga de radice Jesse
Et flos de radice eius ascendet.2
A blyssyd braunch shal sprynge of me
That shal be swettere than bawmys breth.
Out of that braunch in Nazareth
A flowre shal blome of me, Jesse Rote,
The which by grace shal dystroye deth
And brynge mankende to blysse most sote.

DAVYD REX I am David of Jesse Rote,
The fresch kyng by naturall successyon.
And of my blood shal sprynge oure bote
As God hymself hath mad promyssyon:
Of regall lyff shal come suche foyson
That a clene mayde modyr shal be —
Ageyns the Devellys fals illusyon —
With regall power to make man fre.

JEREMIAS PROPHETA I am the prophete Jeremye,
And fullich acorde in all sentence
With Kyng David and with Ysaie,
Affermynge pleynly beforn this audyens
That God of his high benyvolens
Of prest and kynge wyll take lynage
And bye us all from oure offens
In hevyn to have his herytage.

REX SALAMON I am Salamon, the secunde kynge,
And that wurthy temple forsothe made I
Which that is fygure of that mayde yynge
That shal be modyr of grett Messy.
EZECHIEL PROPHETA A vysion of this ful veryly
I, Ezechiel, have had also
Of a gate that sperd was trewly
And no man but a prince myght therin go.

ROBOAS REX The thryd kynge of the jentyll Jesse,
My name is knowe Kyng Roboas.
Of oure kynrede yitt men shul se,
A clene mayde trede down foule Sathanas.
MICHEAS PROPHETA And I am a prophete calde Mycheas.
I telle yow pleynly that thus it is:
Evyn lyke as Eve modyr of wo was,
So shal a maydyn be modyr of blyss.

ABIAS REX I that am calde Kynge Abias
Conferme for trewe that ye han seyd
And sey also as in this cas
That all oure myrth comyth of a mayd.
DANYEL PROPHETA I, prophete Danyel, am well apayed:
In fygure of this I saw a tre.
All the fendys of hell shall ben affrayd
Whan maydenys frute theron thei se.

ASA REX I, Kynge Asa, beleve all this:
That God wyll of a maydyn be born
And us to bryngyn to endles blys,
Ruly on rode be rent and torn.
JONAS PROPHETA I, Jonas, sey that on the thryd morn
Fro deth he shal ryse — this is a trew tall.
Fyguryd in me the which longe beforn
Lay thre days beryed within the qwall.

JOSOPHAT REX And I, Josophat, the sixte kynge serteyn,
Of Jesse Rote in the lenyall successyon,
All that my progenitouris hath befor me seyn
Feythfully beleve withowtyn all dubytacyon.
ABDIAS PROPHETA I, Abdias prophete, make this protestacyon
That aftyr he is resyn to lyve onys agen,
Deth shal be drevyn to endles dampnacyon
And lyff shal be grawntyd of paradys ful pleyn.

JORAS REX And I, Joras, also in the numbre of sefne
Of Jesse Rote kynge, knowlych that he,
Aftyr his resurreccyon, returne shal to hefne,
Both God and verry man ther endles to be.
ABACUCH PROPHETA I, Abacuch prophete, holde wele with thee:
Whan he is resyn he shal up stye
In hevyn as juge sitt in his se
Us for to deme whan we shal dye.

OZIAS REX And I, Ozyas, kynge of hygh degré,
Spronge of Jesse Rote, dar well sey this:
Whan he is gon to his dygnyté,
He shal send the Sprytt to his discyplis.
JOELL PROPHETA And I, Joel, knowe full trewe that is
God bad me wryte in prophesye:
He wolde sende down his Sprytt, iwys,
On yonge and olde ful sekyrlye.

JOATHAS REX My name is knowe, Kyng Joathan,
The ninte kynge spronge of Jesse.
Of my kynrede God wol be man,
Mankend to save, and that joyth me.
AGGEUS PROPHETA With yow I do holde that am prophete Aggee,
Com of the same hygh and holy stok.
God of oure kynrede, indede, born wyl be
From the wulf to save al shepe of his flock.

ACHAS REX Of Jesse, Kyng Achas is my name
That falsly wurchepyd ydolatrye
Tyl Ysaie putt me in blame
And seyd a mayd shulde bere Messye.
OZYAS PROPHETA Of that byrthe wyttnes bere I,
A prophete Osyas men me calle.
And aftyr that tale of Isaye
That mayd shal bere Emanuelle.

EZECHIAS REX My name is knowyn, Kyng Ezechyas,
The hellenthe kyng of this geneologye
And say forsothe, as in this cas,
A mayde be mekenes shal brynge mercye.
SOPHOSAS PROPHETA I, a prophete callyd Sophonye,
Of this matyr do bere wyttnes
And for trowth to sertyfie:
That maydens byrth oure welth shal dresse.

MANASSES REX Of this nobyll and wurthy generacyon
The twelfte kyng am I, Manasses,
Wyttnessynge here be trew testyficacyon:
That maydenys childe shal be Prince of Pes.
BARUK PROPHETA And I, Baruk prophete, conferme wurdys thes:
Lord and Prince of Pes thow that chylde be,
Al his fomen ageyn hym that pres
Ryght a grym syre at Domysday shal he be.

AMON REX Amon Kynge, for the last conclusyon:
Al thynge beforn seyd for trowth do testyfie
Praynge that Lord of oure synne remyssyon
At that dredful day he us graunt mercye.
Thus, we all of this genealogye
Acordynge in on here in this place,
Pray that heygh Lorde whan that we shal dye
Of his gret goodnesse to grawnt us his grace.

[Explicit Jesse.
Isaiah; (t-note)
Filled; God’s
by the spirit
through; (see note)
Against; Zebulon; (see note)
Man’s; against; to defend
field; fiend; vanquish


restore us
priestly lineage; truth; (see note)

on earth; angels
child’s; shall be made

(see note)

balm’s breath


salvation; (see note); (t-note)
life; abundant grace
maid mother

fully agree
(see note)


King Solomon; (see note)
a prefiguration; young
mother; Messiah; (t-note)
(see note); (t-note)

was shut

King Rehoboam
yet; (see note)
tread; Satan

mother; (see note)

Abijah; (see note)
what you have

pleased; (see note)

When [the] maiden’s fruit

(see note)

Pitifully on the cross
Jonah; third; (see note)
tale; (t-note)
buried; whale; (t-note)

Jehosaphat; surely; (see note)
progenitors; said
without any doubt; (t-note)
Obadiah; affirmation; (see note)
once again
in paradise

Joram; seven; (see note)
Kings of the Jesse Root, acknowledge that he
true man
Habbakuk; agree; (see note)
When; ascend
to judge

Uzziah; prestige; (see note)
When; position of honor
[Holy] Spirit
(see note)
bid me to write

Jotham; (see note)
I agree; Haggai; (see note)

King Ahaz; (see note)


(see note)
story; Isaiah

Hezekiah; (see note)

Zephaniah; (see note)

maiden’s; bring about

(see note)
by true testimony
maiden’s; Peace
Baruch; these; (see note)
foes against; assail; (t-note)
A very grim; Doomsday

(see note)
sins’ remission

Agreeing as one
high; when


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