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"Veniance, Lord, apon thaym fall": maternal mourning, divine justice, and tragedy in the Corpus Christi plays.

SCHOLARS have long recognized that medieval concepts of reciprocal justice and divine retribution underpin the dramatic patterns of the Herod plays. (1) However, they have overlooked the evidence suggesting that this ethical design is embodied in the mothers' laments. There is also critical disagreement over the strength of the typological association between the mothers of the Slaughter plays and the Virgin Mary of the Flight, Purification, and Passion sequences. While scholars agree that the plays skillfully blend topical realism with the biblical story in portraying Herod and his knights, (2) they vary in their assessments of the mourning mothers.

There is critical disagreement over whether or not the mothers of the Herod plays are "active" or "passive" in their suffering. This issue leads directly to the problem of typology: those who see the mothers as "active" often construe the Virgin as "passive." These critical discrepancies expose tacit biases with respect to the dramatic representation of female grief, particularly the Virgin's. There appears to be an expectation that female sorrow, and especially the Virgin's, should be dramatized as restrained, picturesque, and lyrical rather than angry and vengeful. None have pursued the parallels between Mary and the mothers beyond pointing out how their association supports the typology between Christ and the Innocents, a relationship that has been thoroughly charted. (3) The evidence of the plays suggests, however, that the affinity between Mary and the mothers is meaningful in its own right.

In this essay I hope to redress this critical oversight by demonstrating the significance of the typology between the Virgin of the Flight, Purification, and Passion sequences and the mothers of the Slaughter plays. In all four cycles Mary's narrow escape with her child prefigures the plight of the mothers, just as their dilemma, in turn, foreshadows Mary's woe during the Passion. The Purification play adds the last thematic thread to the dramatic tapestry that intertwines the fates of Mary and the mothers. It underscores the tragic kinship between them by auguring both the mothers' loss of their children and Mary's inevitable loss of Jesus.

The maternal mourning of the holy women in medieval drama, as Peter Dronke shows, is rooted in the wails of anguish and songs of sorrow through which medieval women coped with the death of their loved ones throughout their own lives. (4) In these plays, the mourning Mother of God is not a mute emblem of sorrow; her dramatic power emanates from her wails, not her silence. Her laments condemn Herod, while the cries of the bereaved mothers compound her denunciation and engender his fate. Moreover, this dramatic typology conveys not simply Christ's tragic burden, but also his mother's.

To make this argument, I first examine critical resistence to reading the dramatic agency of maternal mourning in these plays. Next, I analyze writings by John Mirk, the popular late medieval English preacher, to illuminate medieval beliefs about the power of cursing and maternal mourning. After establishing this critical and historical background, I turn to a close reading of the plays in order to demonstrate the dramatic agency of maternal mourning in the medieval English Corpus Christi drama.


In their discussions of the Towneley Slaughter of the Innocents both David Bevington and J. W. Robinson raise the issue of typology between the Virgin of the Passion and the mothers of the Herod plays, but they reach different conclusions. Bevington begins by noting a correspondence between the mourning mothers of the Towneley Herod the Great and the lamenting Virgin of the Towneley Crucifixion. However, his observation remains inconclusive because he sees the Virgin's lament as passive and the mothers of the Herod play as active. Observing that the "the mothers of the slain children are ... vividly portrayed" in the Wakefield play, he concludes: "Although their role is similar to that of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, they are not passive mourners but fiercely protective women justly accusing their oppressors of unmanliness." (5) While J. W. Robinson agrees that "each woman in turn puts up a defense" against the knights, he has no doubt that the terms of their laments are meant to "recall Mary's lamentation at the Crucifixion, thus making clear, by implication that their sons have been killed for Christ" (167). While Robinson sees the typology between Mary and the mothers, he interprets its significance only in terms of Christ.

In addition to differences of opinion concerning the strengths of the typological links between the mothers and the Virgin, scholars vary in their assessments of the conflict between the women and the knights in the different cycles. J. W. Robinson reads the Towneley and York versions of the episode as similar in mood and intent:
 To his credit and, as in the York play, the Wakefield Master has not
 prolonged this section of the play. The lamentations are loud and
 forceful but brief. The struggles, although accompanied by insulting
 words on both sides are deadly serious and especially noticeable for
 the helplessness of fingernails against gleaming armor, an image
 similar to the image common in paintings and carvings of the
 Crucifixion in which a very thin and nearly naked Christ is no match
 for his fleshy and muscular opponents. The women squall and scratch
 helplessly, and lesser (and later) playwrights seized the opportunity
 to turn what at York, and even more so in the Towneley collection, is
 calculatedly horrifying into farce so that the effect is more like the
 domestic squabble shown on misericords, one of which, in St. Mary's
 church, Whalley, Lincolnshire, from the early fifteenth-century shows
 a warrior, his weapons abandoned, kneeling before a woman who beats
 him with a frying pan. (168)

In contrast, Richard Beadle and Pamela King echo Rosemary Woolf's remarks of a generation ago; they view the York cycle as unique in its tasteful representation of the event: (6)
 The York dramatist on the whole avoided the grotesque effect found in
 other cycles, where the women confronted the soldiers with coarse
 invective, whilst their keening and screaming after the massacre ran
 the risk of becoming as much a common-place as Herod's ranting.
 Instead, the women are here presented in a largely lyrical and passive
 vein, clearly intended to prefigure the Virgin's Planctus Mariae of
 The Death of Christ and also to echo her tone in The Flight into
 Egypt. (7)

Like Woolf, who finds the representation of the mothers "surprising," and Robinson who asserts that "lesser playwrights" could not handle their material, Beadle and King implicitly dismiss the spirited encounters of the "other cycles" as artistically flawed.

These aesthetic discriminations collapse under the pressure of close reading. The distinction between "active" and "passive," moreover, proves an unreliable guide to clarifying the dramatic function of the mourning mothers within the poetics of the plays, and to ascertaining their typological relation-ship to the Virgin Mary. Beadle and King's own editorial notes appear to contradict their reading of the mothers as "largely passive." In the note to line 203, they observe that the first soldier returns a blow because the first woman has struck out at him. In the note to line 209, they point out that the soldiers' words, "These queans will quell us here," mean that the soldier is afraid the women will destroy [quell] them. Note 194 points out that the first woman curses the soldiers. As J. W. Robinson observes, the women fight back in both the Towneley and the York (169). Although the mothers lose the struggle, they attempt to defend their infants by denouncing the soldiers, as well as striking at them. In the York play the first woman curses: "Out on you, thieves, I cry" (194), (8) while the Second Woman calls them "false lurdayns [wretches]" (222). This language is no more or less coarse than the mothers' cries for vengeance in the Towneley and Digby versions. In the Towneley play the mothers call the soldiers "ffals thefe" (338), and "No man" (356). (9) In the Digby, they call them "false traitours" (301), "coward" (309), and "javelle [knave]" (345). (10) Only in the N-Town, in which there is no verbal exchange between the women and the soldiers, do the mothers not include oaths in their laments. (11)

The only play that stands out for its coarse language is the Chester Innocents, which also differs significantly in dramatic mood. Like the Digby Killing of the Children, it mingles comedy with tragedy in a carnival inversion of gender. As the First Woman beats the First Soldier with her distaff, she swears she will do so until he "both shyte and pisse!" (358). (12) Similarly, the Second Woman tells the Second Soldier: "My child shall thou not assayle. / Hit hath two hooles under the tayle; / kysse and thou may assaye" (366-68). (13) Despite their bawdy behavior, their laments do have internal typological resonances with the Virgin's. Moreover, their raucousness appears to fulfill a cathartic communal function. (14)

From this perspective, the "commonplace" nature of the women's wailing should be viewed as a strength instead of a weakness. The prevalence of maternal mourning in these plays, in all of its manifestations--from moments of lyric rapture, to howls of anguish, to comic banter--suggests its heartfelt resonance in late medieval culture. With respect to Herod it is precisely the familiar, "commonplace" quality of his cowardly braggadocio that makes him a dramatically credible and significant character. Daniel C. Boughner puts it succinctly: "Herod is a representative of that arrogant and insolent feudalism whose portrayal gives local English substance and topical import to the scriptural role." (15) I propose that the same is true of the mourning mothers. Just as the plays augment scripture, interpreting the cruel greed of Herod and his mercenary knights from a medieval English perspective, so they depart from the biblical sources in their depiction of the mothers' laments, assimilating popular practices and beliefs to the Christian story.

Matthew 2:13-18 makes no reference to a public confrontation between Herod's henchmen and the mothers of the slaughtered children, but all of the plays include such an encounter. Moreover, apart from an allusion to Jeremiah 31:15, when Rachel weeps for her children, the gospel makes no mention of lamentation, and Rachel's lament does not include oaths and cries of vengeance. (16) Yet even in the briefest renderings of the episode, in the York and the N-Town cycles, the women struggle to protect their babes as they lament. In the Chester cycle and the Digby play, the women directly confront, not only the soldiers, but Herod as well. The full ethical force of their grief impinges upon the consciousness of those who see and hear. In the Towneley play, Herod himself unbiblically dreads the mothers' mad cries. As he sends his soldiers off on their mission, he warns: "If women wax woode; / I warn you, syrs, to spede you" (314-15). These significant deviations from scripture suggest that the women's cries and curses have a dramatic coherence that requires further investigation.


Because public sermons and treatises, such as those published in Mirk's Festial, blend formal theology with more widespread cultural practices and ideas, they open a window into the same creative tensions that produced medieval communal theater. (17) Three of Mirk's works, two homilies from the Festial, and a treatise on cursing included in his Advice to the Clergy, help to elucidate late fifteenth-century English beliefs about the moral force of oaths in general, and of maternal mourning in particular. (18)

Mirk illustrates the power and danger of oaths in both "The Points and Articles of Cursing" and a homily written for Passion Sunday. In "The Points and Articles of Cursing," he sets forth the communal enterprise of excommunication. This serious act was accomplished by means of a formal curse, a ritual speech-act pronounced against those who committed wrongs against the clergy or the church. (19) Conducted four times a year, on the first Sunday after Michael's Feast, "Mydlenton" Sunday, the feast of the Holy Trinity, and the Sunday after Candlemass, the practice anathematizes erring parishioners "til [thorn]hei come to amendmente" (61).

Referring to the declaration of the curse as a "hydowse [thorn]ynge" (60), Mirk treats the ritual as a necessary evil, one that must be performed "reddely" (60) and without "wonde" (60) on the part of the clergy. (20) In the preliminary address, he explains to the parishioners that the priest's tongue is "goddus swerde" (61). Just as a "swerde de-partuth [thorn]e heued from [thorn]e body" (61), so the priest's curse severs a man's soul from the body of the church: "fro [ihesu cryste] and fro oure lady, & ffro alle [thorn]e cumpany of heuen" (61). The souls of those who are excommunicate, he explains, are in the hands of the "fende off helle" (61) and "hys mynestrees" (61) and will suffer the "peyne of helle, al so longe os god is in heuen" (61) unless they amend their ways.

Performed within the context of religious ritual, the curse of excommunication draws much of its moral force from the weight of the community and from the authority of the priest within that community. Those who were excommunicated were prohibited from participating in the rites and offices of the church. But, just as these rituals were directed toward the health of the soul, so the curse of excommunication also directly affected the fate of the soul after death. The efficacy of this punishment thus stems from the belief that words can bind and transform human existence: uttering the curse cuts excommunicates off from God's grace. The curse embodies the logic of ethical reciprocity: those who injure God are punished by suffering injury themselves, if not during their lives, most certainly after death. This belief was not restricted to the performance of ritual, however. Routine swearing, according to Mirk's homily for Passion Sunday, also encompasses the binding power of language and the logic of reciprocity embodied in speech-acts.

In the concluding "narracio" of the Passion sermon, Mirk addresses the problem of common cursing on the part of the laity. Drawing upon a tale from the Gesta Romanorum, Mirk tells the "good men and woymen" (110) of his parish the story of how a powerful judge, personally appointed by an emperor, met his comeuppance. The judge's evil habit of swearing had spread to the entire community over which he had jurisdiction:
 ... befor his comyng, [thorn]er was no man [thorn]at cowthe swere non
 o[thorn]yr oth but [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ey and nay. Then
 aftyr [thorn]at [thorn]ys justice come, he made all men to swere on
 bokes, yn schyres and hundurdes. And he and all his men wer soo ywont
 forto swere by Godys passion, and armes, and sydys, and blody wondys,
 [thorn]at all [thorn]e pepull toke at hom soo yn vse, [thorn]at all
 [thorn]e pepull swere as horrybull as [thorn]ay dyd." (113-14) (21)

One day as the justice is sitting in his court in the "sight of all men," a beautiful woman, the "fayryst woman [thorn]at euer [thorn]ay seghen, clothyd all yn grene," approaches the bench. In her lap, she holds a "fayre child" that is "blody and all tomarturd." Presenting her mangled babe to the judge, she asks, "Sir, what byn [thorn]ay wor[thorn]y [thorn]at han [thorn]us ferd wyth my child?" The judge replies, "[THORN]ay byn worthi to haue [thorn]e deth." To this, the mother rejoins, "[THORN]ou and [thorn]y men wyth your horrybull o[thorn]es han dismembryd my sonne Ihesus Cryst, [thorn]at I am modyr to, and soo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]e haue taght all [thorn]ys lond. Wherfor [thorn]ou schalt haue thyn owne dome." At the Virgin's words, "yn sight of all the pepull, the erth opened and [thorn]e justyce fell don ynto hell."

Construing oaths as "speech-acts," Mirk's homily encompasses a conception of word and deed as indistinguishable. (22) When the judge and his mimics "swere by Godys passion, and armes, and sydys, and blody wondys" their words reenact the Crucifixion. Mary appears before the community, convicting the judge and his followers with the evidence of her wounded, bleeding babe, an image that conflates Christ's nativity with his Crucifixion, the "child-host" motif that was common in late medieval miracles of the Mass. (23)

Earlier in the sermon, Mirk tells his congregation that when they swear, their "hertys [are] hardyr than stonys" (111). His use of the common medieval motif of the stony heart to denote sin, combined with his poignant description of the mother and her molested child, are a rhetorical appeal to his audience's sense of compassion. (24)

But there is another facet to his parable. Mirk's Mary is not simply a conventional figure of pathos. Mirk alters the narrative of the Gesta Romanorum, expanding Mary's role. In the source story, "Of the death-bed of a profane swearer," the man is not a judge, he is simply a man who "leuyd in many synnes the moste partie of his life, and namely in sweryng." (25) The encounter between the man and the Virgin carrying her son occurs in the privacy of the man's home on his deathbed, rather than in a public, communal setting. Moreover, whereas Christ himself speaks in the source story, only Mary speaks in Mirk's rendering of it. Mirk adds the detail that she is clothed in green, rather than her customary blue, in an apparent appeal to popular folk images of a mother goddess tied to nature and the earth. In the Passion homily, the Mother of God in mourning passes judgment on the judge, exposing his hypocrisy and condemning him with his own sentence. As Jesus' mother speaks, hell gapes, and the judge meets his doom. In a narrative that emphasizes the worldly and otherworldly power of language, the voice of the outraged mother is the most potent of all.

Mirk's emendations to the source story makes the profane swearer a judge sanctioned by an Emperor, introducing a thematic contrast between secular and divine justice that is absent from the source text. (26) Furthermore, he inverts the roles of mother and son, making Mary the wielder of divine justice instead of Christ. In the Gesta Romanorum, Mary plays a supporting role, bringing Christ to the swearer's deathbed so that the man might "aske mercy of hym" (410). Mirk, in contrast, gives Mary autonomous power.

Mary's judiciary power also appears to be tied to a popular conception of her as "Empress of Hell." (27) In this capacity, as Mirk explains in a separate sermon on church burial, the Virgin has exclusive punitive power over the souls of the dead. She does not simply mediate between God's justice and Christ's mercy; she commands in her own right (emphasis mine):
 And when the spyrite goth first oute of the body, if it have alle hys
 ryghtes of holy chyrch, than is oure lady redy to sokurron hym ageynus
 the fray that the fendys makon on hym, schewing hym wryton alle the
 synnes that he hath done, yelling on hym, and preting that thei wil
 drawon hym to hell wyth hen. But than is oure lady redy--blessud mote
 sche ben!--and rebukyth the fendys, and sayth to hem thys: "I am
 Goddus modur, and that I pray my sone that he gef this soule a place
 in Hewuen. I am also emperace of helle, and have power oure all yow
 fyndys; and therfore I commaunde you that he frayne this soule no
 lengar. But goth yowre way and latte hym reste.

Although the epithet "Empress of Hell" occurs elsewhere in medieval literature, Mirk's description is unique in its attribution of independent power to Mary. This noncanonical description of the Mother of God's sovereignty over the realm of the underworld imbues her with the power of judicial reciprocity. In Mirk's account of the swearing judge, the forces of nature and the supernatural are intimately linked to the power of the mother. The imagery associates the mother's utterance with the action that ensues: the Virgin opens her mouth to speak and the great womb of the earth cleaves, encircling the judge in the fiery cave of hell within.

The ethical matrixes of the medieval English Nativity plays engage the same moral economy as Mirk's treatise on excommunication and his story of the swearing magistrate. Mary's maternal grief, like the curse of excommunication, exceeds in its demands the dictates of mere human law: her mourning for her suffering child transcends earthly justice and secures the judge's eternal punishment. (28) Similarly, the medieval English plays embrace the belief that Herod's earthly power, like that of Mirk's blaspheming magistrate, will ultimately be overthrown by the justice embodied in maternal mourning. The plays, like Mirk's homily, are thematically structured around the contrast between secular, human law and divine justice. Just as Mirk's Mary appears with her bleeding babe to condemn the judge before his community, so the mothers in the Slaughter plays and the Holy women of the Passion sequences wail for sorrow and cry for justice in public confrontations with the evil and powerful men who prey upon the innocent.

In performing their grief, the mothers participate fully in the bodily suffering of their children, voicing their mutual pain in lamentation. Their cries articulate not only the problem of evil and the need for justice, but also the rapture of love and the anguish of loss.


In medieval England, the feast of the Purification, or "Candlemas," as it was popularly known, was among the most important festivals of the liturgical year. (29) The celebration of Mary's "churching" involved an elaborate procession of lighted candles, which were blessed by the clergy. Each parishioner contributed candles for the feast, the virgin wax being associated with Mary's virginity. As Eamon Duffy points out, "[t]he first of the five prayers of blessing in the ritual for Candlemas unequivocally attributes apotropaic power to the blessed wax, asking that 'wherever it shall be lit or set up, the devil may flee away in fear and trembling with all his ministers, out of those dwellings, and never presume again to disquiet your servants'" (16). The people took the blessed candles home, "to be lit during thunderstorms or in times of sickness, and to be placed in the hands of the dying" (17). The apotropaic power of the virgin wax of Candlemas, which could keep evil spirits away, suggests the profound sense of protection Mary's motherhood bestowed upon medieval people. During life, she protected them from the violence of nature as well as human evil; after death, as Empress of Hell, she commanded fiends to unhand their souls. The performance of the curse of excommunication the Sunday after Candlemas, and Mirk's Passion sermon, which deals not with Christ's suffering, but with Mary's maternal outrage, suggests how closely her mourning was associated with the forces of good that fought against evil in the universe.

Given the centrality of Candlemas in English culture, it is not surprising that in all of the cycles the Purification emerges as the defining episode of the nativity plays. Rosemary Woolf points out that "[t]hree themes combine in the plays of the Purification: Mary's obedience to the Law; the offering of the first-born child in a prefiguration of the Passion; and the manifestation of the Christ-Child to Simeon in his old age" (196). But the medieval English plays go beyond merely enumerating these traditional themes. They use them to portray Mary's full participation, through her own tragic sacrifice, in the redemption of the world. Moreover, the theme of her tragedy is developed through the rich web of typological associations that unite her in maternal mourning with the mothers of the Slaughter plays. In the medieval English plays the voice of maternal mourning is not only the primary agent against evil, it is also the voice that bestows tragic significance upon the biblical story.

The medieval English Nativity plays that dramatize Mary's Purification, the Flight into Egypt, and the Slaughter of the Innocents derive from Matthew 2:1-21 and Luke 2:1-40. Matthew narrates the Adoration of the Magi followed by the Massacre of the Innocents in an uninterrupted sequence, while Luke relates the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Purification, also in a continuous sequence. According to Hebrew law, women were to be "purified" forty days after birth. If Mary followed the letter of the law, it would have been impossible for her to flee with her family to Egypt and return in forty days to be purified in her homeland. What Rosemary Woolf refers to as "the standard harmonisation" of the biblical accounts (195), combined the two gospels into a sequence that assumed a delay between the departure of the kings and Herod's massacre, during which time Mary was purified: Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke), Adoration of the Magi (Matthew), Purification of Mary (Luke), Flight into Egypt (Matthew), Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew). In this sequence the Purification comes before the Massacre.

This synchronizing of the two accounts conflicts with the rhythm of the medieval liturgical year which commemorated the Massacre prior to the Purification: Holy Innocents Day fell on December 28, while Candlemas, the traditional name for the Feast of the Purification, was celebrated on February 2. Because Matthew and Luke leave the specific timing and sequence of events open for interpretation, the cycles vary in the way they structure the episodes.

In the N-Town and York cycles, the Purification precedes the Flight-Slaughter sequence, thus setting the stage for the imminent violence of the massacre of the children, while also auguring Mary's inevitable tragedy. The Chester cycle follows the liturgical calender; accordingly its purification play has strong resonances with the feast of Candlemas. The Towneley cycle, like the Chester, presents the purification as the concluding event of the Flight-Slaughter sequence. This order forms a joyous ending, even as it reflects upon the preceding violence and forebodes the suffering yet to come. In all of the cycles, the women's laments unite them in mourning against Herod while prefiguring the confrontation of the holy women with Christ's torturers. In the N-Town, York, and Towneley cycles, Herod's fate is poetically tied to the women's wails. In the N-Town cycle, Herod is punished in hell in the same manner that his knights slaughter the mother's children. In the York and Towneley cycles, the mothers' cries foretell his ultimate doom. Finally, in the Chester cycle, as in the Digby Killing of the Children, (30) the mothers directly accost Herod in a striking evocation of Mary's confrontation with the judge in Mirk's sermon. As in Mirk's homily, the women's reproaches invoke divine vengeance against the cruel tyrant and a demon whisks him off to hell.

The poetic reverberations of the women's laments continually intertwine the mothers' pain with Mary's destiny. She is also associated with them through variations of Simeon's prophecy in Luke 2:35. As Lumiansky and Mills note, the original prophecy is "obscure" (Commentary 165): "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." Each cycle alters the prophecy, making it more specific, so that it stresses the tragic affinities among the women. Lumiansky and Mills note that "[c]ommentators generally regarded the passage as a reference to Mary's anguish at Christ's Passion" (165). This traditional interpretation underlies all of the cycles, but it is extended as well to the suffering of the mothers as they look upon their murdered children.

In the N-Town cycle, dramatic structure, iconographic staging, and poetic echoes link Mary with the bereaved mothers and associate their maternal mourning with Herod's ultimate doom. Although numbered and titled as individual plays in the N-Town manuscript, the Purification and The Massacre of the Innocents were clearly conceived and performed as the middle and final episodes of a dramatic trilogy that begins with the Adoration of the Magi. (31) Both the opening and concluding plays of this dramatic unit begin with Herod's search for the king he wishes to destroy, framing Mary's Purification, the central play, with his threats. The action of the trilogy moves swiftly, alternating between the earthly "place" where Herod murders and the mothers mourn and the heavenly "platform" where Mary offers her son to God and escapes with him into Egypt.

The dramatic structure and iconographic staging of the sequence represents a time-space continuum in which all action is viewed from both the earthly and the heavenly perspectives. Mary's motherhood, the theme of the Purification, is the centerpiece of the action, framed on the horizontal plane by Herod's machinations and the mothers' anguish. Her position on the vertical plane, conversely, crowns the action below. Her dramatic centrality in this trilogy of plays thus signifies both horizontally and vertically. On the earthly plane her ritual offering during the Purification foreshadows both her ultimate sacrifice of Christ and the mothers' sacrifice of their innocents. On the heavenly plane, in the fullness of time, the mothers and their children, like Mary and Christ, will be safe in God's hands, while Herod will be damned forever.

Poetic reverberations from the Purification through the Flight and Slaughter scenes culminate in the Passion sequence and reinforce this dramatic iconography. These plays sustain and ring changes upon Symeon's metaphor of the sharp sword, which binds together in suffering the mothers and the Virgin. In the Purification play, as Symeon and Anna await the arrival of the holy family, Symeon muses to Anna: "Swych a sorwe bothe sharpe and smerte / [thorn]at as a swerd perce it xalle [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]even thorwe his moderys herte" (88-90). Following the Purification, the Flight scene transpires on the platform in a brief span of time between the soldiers' gloating and the actual slaughter. The holy family sleeps on the platform as Herod issues the order and the knights prepare for execution. As the Second Soldier whets his weapon, his bloodthirsty boast literalizes Symeon's metaphor for sorrow and creates a new one: "Ffor swerdys sharpe / as An harpe / quenys xul karpe / and of sorwe synge" (65-68). The simile comparing the sharpness of the sword to the tautness of a harp likens the sword to the mothers' lamentation in a new way. Both will "sing": the sword as it swishes through the air, and the mothers as they look upon their butchered babes and lament. The knight's analogy thus conflates the sword that murders the babes with the lamentation of the mothers. Immediately after the knight prates of his prowess, the angel awakens Joseph and Mary, repeating the ominous image of the sword: "Kynge herowde with sharpe knyff / his knyghtys he doth sende ... / Ffor cruel knyghtys [thorn]i childe haue ment / with swerde to sle and shende" (75-80). Just as Symeon's prophecy resounds through the massacre, so it completes itself at the onset of Christ's Passion. When Mary learns of Jesus' betrayal she laments, uttering her mental anguish in a metaphor that recalls and fulfills the prophet's words: "[thorn]e swerd of sorwe hath so thyrlyd my meende" (1066).

The laments of Mary and the mothers weave a second strand of poetic echoes that simultaneously unite them in mourning and engender the nature of Herod's punishment.

The N-Town Purification includes a poignant detail that highlights the human quality of Mary's motherhood. Instead of giving her son to Symeon, as in the Bible, Mary places him on the altar in a clear iconographical reference to Jesus as the Child-Host, the sacrificial victim of the Mass. Yet as she gently offers her child to God, she begs God to give him back again, exclaiming that she will lose all comfort if she is separated from him for too long (my emphasis): "but [thorn]ow I offre hym [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ou be-forn / good lord [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]it [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]yf me hym A[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]en / For my comforte were fully lorn / If we xuld longe A-sondyr ben" (173-76). During the Massacre, the First Woman echoes Mary's words when her child is slain: "Longe lullynge (comfort) haue I lorn" (89). The First Woman's lament, in turn, preludes Mary's mourning song during the Passion. As the mother gazes on her butchered babe she wails: "Alas qwhy was my baron born / With swappynge swerde now is he shorn / [thorn]e heed ryght for [thorn]e nekke / Shanke and shulderyn is al to torn / Sorwyn I se be-hyndyn and beforn" (90-94). The mother's final line identifies her grief with her son's torn body. In the fullness of lyric her son's death and her anguish are one: "Sorwyn I se be-hyndyn and be-forn." During the Passion Mary's lament for Christ recalls image for image the First Woman's cry: "Thow he had nevyr of me be born / And I sey his flesch [thorn]us al to torn / on bak be-hyndyn on brest be-forn / Rent with woundys wide ... / all to rent from top to too / his flesch with-owtyn hyde" (915-22).

The mothers' lamentations unite them in suffering. Their cries reflect upon the joy and pain of childbirth, their efforts to feed and rear their sons, and the appalling waste of all their labors as they witness the horror of evil and the fragility of human life. At the same time, although they do not directly cry out for vengeance, as in the other cycles, their sorrow testifies to Herod's cowardice and inhumanity, the injustice of the powerful preying upon the helpless and innocent. Herod's ultimate fate is conceived in the maternal mourning of Mary and the mothers.

At the end of the Massacre death comes for Herod and the devil ferries him to Hell where he finds himself lost and torn--fitting punishment for the tyrant whose orders ripped the tender flesh of babes and tore them from their mothers' breasts. Mary foretells her own sorrow during the Purification as she tells God she will be "lorne" without her child. Likewise, the First Woman laments, "Longe lullynge haue I lorn" (89) when her babe is slaughtered. Echoing their cries, Herod finds himself "in helle pytt evyr to A-byde / his lordchep is al lorn (253-54). Similarly, just as Mary laments that Jesus' flesh is "al to torn" (916), and the mother cries that her child's "Shanke and shulderyn is al to-torn" (93), so Herod's "sowle in helle ful peynfully / of develis is al to-torn" (257-58).

In the N-Town cycle, the Purification, Flight, and Slaughter episodes are part of a larger dramatic trilogy. The York and Towneley cycles structure each episode as distinct dramas. The Chester and N-Town Flight scenes are embedded in the Slaughter plays, while the York and Towneley cycles present them as independent plays that portray at length the holy family's preparations to flee, at God's bidding, to an unknown land. The characterizations of Joseph and Mary differ slightly in each cycle, but both portray the holy family as poor, isolated, and vulnerable. Joseph and Mary are obedient and faithful to God, but the angel's message that they must leave their home fills them with anguish. In both versions, Mary laments at length while Joseph struggles to calm her and complete the preparations for their journey. Her cries foreshadow both her mourning for Christ and the lamentations of the mothers in the Slaughter of the Innocents. Mary's laments embody the burden of motherhood and condemn Herod of cowardice and sin. The York and Towneley presentations of the Flight scene thus have similar dramatic purposes, but their Purification plays differ. In the York cycle, Mary's churching precedes the Flight-Slaughter sequence. In the Towneley cycle, it concludes the turbulent chain of events.

As in the N-Town cycle, the mothers in the York cycle are thematically associated with Mary both through their laments and through poetic repetition of Symeon's prophecy. In the York Purification play, as Mary and Joseph prepare their offerings for God, Mary worries because they are poor and have no lamb to present: "Lamb haue we none nor none we crave. / Therefore Joseph what shall we do, / What is your read? / And we do not as custome is, / We are worth to be blamyd, iwysse, / I wolde we dyd nothyng amys / As God me speyd" (238-44). Joseph explains that Jesus "is our lame" (259) and that he will be their offering: "He is the lame of God I say, / That all our syns shall take away / Of this worlde here. / He is the lame of God verray / That muste husfend from all our fray, / Borne of thy wombe, all for our pay / And for our chere" (263-69). As the ceremony comes to a close, Symeon's prophecy develops and clarifies Joseph's hint that Jesus is Mary's inevitable sacrificial offering to God: "Harke Mary, I shall tell the [thorn]e truth or I goo. / This was putt here to welde vs fro wo, / In redemtion of many and recover also, / I the say. / And the sworde of sorro thy hart shal thyrll, / whan thowe shall se sothly thy son soffer yll, / For the well of all wrytches, [thorn]at shall be his wyll / Here in fay" (437-44). The York authors alter the biblical text, making the prophecy more specific so that it prefigures not only Mary's agony but also that of the mothers. Just as Mary will be pierced by the sword of sorrow as she witnesses Jesus' crucifixion, so the mothers of the York Slaughter grieve as they helplessly watch the massacre of their children. The York Flight into Egypt further develops and foreshadows the theme of maternal mourning as the destiny of Mary and the mothers.

Poignant details show what an arduous undertaking it is for Joseph and Mary to journey to Egypt, despite God's protection. Mary cannot ride. Even under the extreme duress of their plight, Joseph remains calm, tenderly taking the baby Jesus from Mary's arms so that she will have both hands free to cling to the horse. He gently encourages her, "Late me and hym allone, / And yf [thorn]ou can ille ride / Haue and halde [thorn]e faste by [thorn]e mane" (204-6). As Beadle and King observe of the York play, Joseph and Mary present a "touchingly comic picture of anxious, poverty-stricken parents who have been singled out for election. Although they are willing enough, their tasks seem perpetually to be beyond their practical capabilities" (79). They are characterized as a typical peasant family, whose responses to calamity are clearly marked by gender. When Joseph first tells her that they must flee from their baby's foe, Mary responds with bewilderment and dread; she asks Joseph's advice: "His foo? Allas, what is youre reede, / Wha wolde my dere barne do to dede? / I durk, I dare" (103-5). As Ann Astell writes of the York play, "Mary's sensitive, human qualities as a woman allow her to voice emotional responses to human suffering which require a masculine complement in the form of reasoned judgment and heroic endurance" (172).

Mary's laments in the York Flight plays thus embody her compassionate female nature, and, as Astell suggests, they articulate the complex experiential aspects of her human plight. Her cries speak to the intimate bond between mother and child, a bond that fills her life with bliss and dread--and finally--suffering. The very thought of losing her baby fills her with sorrow: "Allas, why schulde I tharne / My sone his liffe so swete ... / I ware full wille of wane / My sone and he schulde dye, / and I haue but hym allone" (137-46). Her cry embodies the depth of her attachment and foreshadows the Second Woman's cry in the York Slaughter (my emphasis): "Allas, [thorn]is lothly striffe, / No blisse may be my bette. / [thorn]e knyght vppon his knyffe / Hath slayne my sone so swette, / And I hadde but hym allone" (210-14).

Mary's empathetic qualities also include righteous anger and a keen sense of justice. As she reflects upon Herod's threat to her child, she condemns him for feeding on such pure food, using a sacramental motif that merges human and divine justice while foretelling her son's destiny: "His [Herod's] harte aught to be ful sare, / On slike a foode hym to forfare / [thorn]at never did ill, / Hym for to spill, / And he ne wate why" (139-43). Mary is dismayed at the inhumanity and cowardice of the powerful Herod who preys on the helpless. In her grief, she probes the nature of evil even as she unwittingly presages divine atonement for that evil. Her metaphor embodies the paradox that Christ will die for the sins of the likes of Herod. Her final reference to Herod accurately aligns him with the devil: "Allas, what ayles [thorn]at feende / [thorn]us wilsom wayes make vs to wende? / He dois grette synne. / Fro kyth and kynne / He gares vs flee" (187-91). The mothers in the Slaughter play similarly condemn Herod's soldiers as "theves" (194) and "false lurdayns" (222). The First Woman cries out against injustice as she declares the innocence of the children: "[THORN]at [thorn]ei [thorn]us harmeles [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ede" (219).

The role of mourning women as witnesses to evil and injustice is further developed in The Road to Calvary, as the holy women wail publicly against the outrage of Christ's arrest. The Three Marias find themselves in a confrontation with the soldiers guarding Christ that, as Rosemary Woolf points out, "recalls the pattern of the Massacre of the Innocents" (264). The Second Maria laments, "Allas [thorn]is is a sithfull sight, / He [thorn]at was euere luffely and light / And lorde of high and lawe, / Oo, doulfully nowe is he dight. / In worlde is none so wofull a wighte / Ne so carefull to knawe. / [THORN]ei that he mended moste / In dede and als in sawe, / Now haue they full grete haste / To dede hym for to drawe" (150-59). The Third Maria condemns Christ's torturers more directly: "Allas, [thorn]is is a cursed cas ... This signe schalle bere witnesse / Vnto all pepull playne, / Howe Goddes sone here gilteles / Is putte to pereles payne" (180-89). Woolf asserts that the Marias "are driven back with insults by the soldiers" (264). But the Third Maria has the final word: she denounces them in the name of divine justice: "This signe schall vengeaunce calle / On yowe holly in feere (196-97).

Because Herod does not die immediately following his butchery as in the N-Town and Chester, a mood of unmitigated foreboding and danger hangs over the ensuing plays. Herod and his soldiers are at large and this knowledge implies that Christ's enemies continue to search for him. On the other hand, the parallel between the mothers and soldiers of the Slaughter and the Marias and soldiers of the Road to Calvary not only unites the women in sorrow, it also encapsulates, through poetic repetition, the intertwined, though opposed destinies of Christ and Herod. Following the encounter with the soldiers in The Road to Calvary Maria Sancta seeks John's assistance as she had earlier depended upon Joseph's: "John, helpe me nowe and euermore, / That I myght come hym tille" (201-2). While Mary's words indicate that she will stand by him until he dies, they also unwittingly point to the purpose of that death: eternal life. Her plea repeats in a different context the final words of the Second Woman of the Slaughter play, who seals the destiny of Herod and his men: "And certis, [thorn]er nott is noght, / The same [thorn]at [thorn]ei haue soughte / Shall [thorn]ei neuere come till (231-33). Even as she prays that they will never find Christ, her words also foresee that, in the fullness of time they will never achieve the consummate power that they seek. Because they search for Jesus with evil and violence, they will never achieve salvation.

The women's exclamations testify to injustice and impel the ends of justice. Their prescience is an indelible aspect of their motherhood, which is in turn inseparable from their lamentations. The York Flight develops this concept in an exchange between Joseph and Mary in which each misunderstands the other. Joseph bids Mary to cease her mourning: "We, leve Marie, do way, late be!" (147), he advises, telling her to hurry so that they can flee. For Mary, to cease lamenting is the same as abandoning her son: "Allas Joseph, for care, / why shuld I forgo hym, / My dere barne [thorn]at I bare" (156-58).

A second misunderstanding between Joseph and Mary expands upon the idea of bearing children and bearing pain as the unique burden of being a mother, and Mary's ultimate destiny. When Joseph tells her to hurry and pack their gear, Mary sighs that it is too heavy for her: "A, leve Joseph, I may not bere" (162). Joseph misunderstands, and responds, manfully, "Bere arme? No, I trowe but small" (163). Joseph's misunderstanding is full of dramatic irony, for Mary will have to endure the greatest harm of motherhood, paradoxically experiencing birth pains even as she watches her son die. The dramatic irony of Joseph's words is heightened by Mary's most prophetic exclaim: "For all [thorn]is worlde to wynne / Wolde I not se hym slayne" (109-10). The emphasis on the burden of motherhood thus foreshadows both Mary's heroic suffering under the cross as well as the mothers' suffering in the Slaughter.

Mary's final words in the Flight, as Astell points out, express "simple surrender to God's will" (172). The tone of her surrender resounds in the cries of the mothers and her final words under the cross. In the Slaughter play the mothers courageously attempt to save their children. As the soldiers assault them, the Second Woman declares: "Allas for doule, I dye, / To saue my son schall I, / Aye-whils my liff may last" (199-201). She is seconded by the First Woman, who bravely confronts the soldiers, "To dye I haue no drede / I do [thorn]e wele to witte, / To saue my sone so dere" (204-6). The mothers end their cries, lamenting their fates as women in terms that, like Mary's laments, embody the hardships of motherhood and suggest submission to what they cannot amend: "Allas [thorn]at we wer wroughte / In worlde women to be, / [thorn]e barne [thorn]at wee dere bought / [thorn]us in oure sighte to see / Disputuously spill" (226-30). Similarly, in the York Death of Christ, Mary refuses to leave the sight of her son's suffering and death. When John tries to convince her to depart, she quietly though firmly responds: "To he be paste / Wille I buske here baynly to bide" (181-82). Her words express surrender to God's will, a surrender that is full of womanly strength.

In the Towneley cycle the women's laments explore the same themes as in the York cycle, often using similar images, and at times identical lines. As in the York sequence, in the Towneley plays, both Mary and the mothers lament the burden of motherhood. They cry out against the universe as they paradoxically reexperience the pain of their childbearing when they must watch their children die. As in the York Slaughter play, the mothers-in-mourning stand as witnesses against evil and call for justice. But the Towneley portrayal of the violent nativity sequence differs in several ways from the York cycle, characterizing Mary's suffering in a slightly different way. The Mary of the Towneley Flight and Passion sequences is more defiant than her counterpart in the York, and the mothers of the Towneley Herod The Great are correspondingly more fierce in their denunciations of Herod's mercenaries. Unlike the York cycle, in which the Purification precedes the Flight and Slaughter episodes, the Towneley Purification concludes these plays, coming after Herod the Great. As the final play of the series, it underscores Herod's failure by bringing the turbulent chain of events to a joyous close as Simeon celebrates his encounter with his king. Even so, clear allusions to Jesus as the child-host simultaneously refer back to the mothers' suffering and foretell Mary's.

The series of events begins with the Flight into Egypt. As in the York, Mary begins to lament for her son when Joseph tells her they must leave their home: "My son? alas, for care! / who may my doyllys dyll? / ... / Alas! I lurk and dare! (79-80, 83). Her first words in the Flight scene anticipate her first words of sorrow under the cross: "Alas! the doyll I dre / I drowpe, I dare in drede!" (309). Next, she condemns Herod, "Wo worth fals herode are! / my son why shuld he spyll" (82), denouncing his deed as piteous and sinful: "To slo hym [Jesus] were pyte, / And a full hedus syn" (110-11). She envisions a confrontation with her son's enemies that evokes Mirk's Passion sermon in which the Virgin confronts the judge: "ffull gryle may I grete, / My fomen and I mete" (99-100). Moreover, her imagined encounter anticipates and interprets the strife between the mothers and knights in the ensuing play of Herod the Great. The word "gryle" means both "shrilly" and "keenly." (32) It thus encompasses both the sound of wailing and the meticulous logic of justice embodied in maternal mourning.

In Herod The Great the mothers fulfill Mary's vision, reproaching the mercenaries with the shrill sound and irrefutable logic of lamentation. The First Woman curses and condemns the First Knight as he slays her child: "Outt, alas, my chyldys bloode! / Outt, for reprefe! / Alas for shame and syn / ... / veniance for this syn / I cry, both euyn and morne" (341-46). The Second Woman similarly decries her son's murder, indicating his cowardice and inhumanity with the epithet, "No Man": "ffy, fy, for reprefe! Fy, full of frawde! / No Man! / ... / Thou shall not be sparde! / ... / veniance I cry and call, / on herode and his knyghtyts all! / veniance, lord, apon thaym fall, / And mekyll warldys wonder! (355-69). The Third Woman completes their shrill argument: "By god, thou shall aby this dede that thou has done. / ... / veniance for thi blod thus spent" (379, 391).

Just as Mary's cries during the Flight augur the mothers' mourning in Herod The Great, so the mothers' laments in turn introduce the terms of Mary's keening under the cross. The Third Woman looks at her son's torn flesh, "Thy body is all to-rent" (390), as Mary will later look on Christ's: "Alas, my childe, for care! / ffor all rent is thi hyde" (332-33). The confrontation between the mothers and the knights is repeated during the Scourging when the three Marys confront Christ's torturers. Mary Magdalene echoes the mothers' call for divine retribution: "This thyng shall venyance call / on you holly in fere" (354). Finally, during the Crucifixion Mary fulfills her vision of condemning Christ's enemies. While Christ suffers on the cross surrounded by his torturers, "[she] advances" (SD 267). Through antithetical thought, her words merge her motherhood with Christ's Eucharistic sacrifice, and she claims her place in the world's salvation: "My foode that I haue fed, / In lyf longyng the led, / ffull stratly art thou sted / Emanges this foo-men fell" (313-16). The sacramental motif of her cry recalls her final wail during the Flight. Imagining the anguish she would feel were she to watch her son die, she employs a sacramental simile that assimilates her heart, the center of her female compassion, to the Host that is broken in three by the priest during the celebration of the Mass: "Alas, full wo is me! / Is none so wyll as I! / My hart wold breke in thre, / My son to se hym dy" (157-60). While the sacramental image of the heart is reserved for Mary's grief alone, the mothers of the innocents, like Mary, feel their hearts bursting and breaking in empathy with their children's deaths. As the Second Woman sees her son's body cleft in two by the knight's sword, she feels her heart split, "Alas, alas, this day! / I wold my hart shuld clefe / In sonder!" (364-65). Likewise, the Third Woman feels her heart flooding-over in concert with the blood pouring from her child's body: "Alas! my hart is all on flood, / To se my chyld thus blede!" (377-78).

The Towneley Mary, like her counterpart in the York Flight, augurs her own fate as well as that of the mothers. She wonders "how shuld [she] bere" her child "So far from hame" (129-30), adjuring the universe itself: "his ded wold I not se, / ffor all this warld to wyn" (105-6). She reveres the physical loveliness and sweet innocence of her child who is "so bright of ble" (109), as she will later mourn for the way death disfigures his human beauty during the Crucifixion: "All blemyshyd is thi ble" (311); "Alas! Thyn een as cristall clere / that shoyn as son in sight, / That lufly were in lyere / lost thay haue thare light, / And wax all faed in fere / all dym then ar thay dight!" (361-63). To the Mary of the Flight play, Jesus is her "dear bairn that [she] bare" (156). To the Mary of the Crucifixion he is still first and foremost flesh of her flesh: "To deth my dere is dryffen, / his robe is all to-ryffen, / That of me was hym gyffen, / And shapen with my sydys; / Thise Iues and he has stryffen / That all the bale he bydys" (386-90). Her mourning unites her with all mothers, for the mothers of the Herod play anticipate her grief at the cross: "Alas! My bab, myn Innocent / my fleshly get! for sorow / That god me derly sent / of bales who may me borow" (388-89). The poetics of these laments obscure the distinction between male suffering and female mourning. This merging of gendered pain is made clear as the soldiers chase the mourning mothers from the stage in Herod the Great. The First Soldier curses them "by cokys dere bonys" (395), and calls them "ye trattys" (394). Because these words were commonly used contemptuously of Christ, the soldiers' persecution of the mothers aligns them with Christ. (33) The theme of Mary's burden as a mother reaches its apotheosis in the Crucifixion when Mary experiences Jesus' imminent death as though it were her own, "my lyfe how shall I lede / When fro me gone is / he that was my hede / In hy? / My dede now comen it is / My dere son, haue mercy! (443-46). Mary's maternal mourning unites her with Jesus in torment.

In the Towneley cycle, in contrast to the N-Town, Digby, and Chester, Herod does not die at the end of the play. Moreover, he is unaware of his failure, a failure that is emphasized through dramatic irony. Operating under the false impression that he has succeeded, Herod blusters and threatens the audience at the end of the play. He warns them that if they do not worship him alone, they will end up like the babes his soldiers have slain (emphasis mine): "ffor if I here it spokyn / when I com agayn, / youre branys bese brokyn / therfor be ye bayn" (505-6). The braggart's inadvertent echo of Jesus' promise to "come again" deepens the irony, for the audience knows what Herod does not: his butchery has failed to defeat his foe and he will never return. He exits the worldly stage into eternal damnation, a destination he unwittingly hails with his parting oath: "Bot adew!--to the deuyll! / I can no more fraunch!" (512-13) (34)

The Purification play concludes the narrative of the Flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents by stressing Herod's failure. The play opens with a long soliloquy by Symeon. In direct defiance of Herod's warning to worship no one else but him, the infirm Symeon dutifully worships God, praying that God will permit him to see the Christ-child before he dies from old age. In another slight to Herod, Symeon specifically refers to Jesus as "king." When the Second Angel bids Symeon to go to the temple where he will find "Godys son" (83), he joyfully puts on his "vestment, / In worship of that kyng" (95-96) [emphasis added]. The Purification also refers back to the Herod play through poetic allusion. As he ponders his imminent death of old age, Symeon repeats the words of the First Mother. She wails her own fate, and the fate of her child, while invoking the fate of the evil men who murdered her baby, "Alas for shame and syn / alas that I was borne! / Of wepyng who may blyn / to se hir chylde forlorne (lost)? / My comforth and my kyn / my son thus alto torne! / veniance for this syn / I cry, both euyn and morne" (343-46). Likewise Symeon wonders about the fate of the virtuous people who have died before him: "Bot yit I meruell, both euyn and morne, / Of old elders that were beforne, / wheder thay be safe or lorne (lost)" (9-11) [emphasis added]. The poetic affinity between the mother's cry and Symeon's meditation connects the fates of the virtuous men and the innocent children who were victims for Christ. Although he does not mention them specifically, his catalog implicitly includes them (emphasis added): "Abell, noye, and abraham, / Dauid, daniell, and balaam, / And all othere mo by name, / of sere degre" (13-16). (35) Just as Symeon wonders whether they are safe or lost, so the mother implores God to keep her child safe, "lord, kepe hym in qwarte" (333). The medieval audience would know that her child, like the virtuous men that Symeon contemplates, are safe in heaven, while Herod is "lorne" [lost]. The Christ-child of the Towneley Purification is also linked to the victims of the slaughter through Eucharistic allusions that characterize Jesus as the child-host, the victim of the Mass. As Leah Sinanoglou points out, "[d]idactic writers emphasized that the Innocents died for the sake of the Christ child--that He 'was slain in every each of them'; and the bloody spectacle of their death may well have recalled the child-host image for medieval viewers versed in Corpus Christi sermons" (501). The dramatic action of the Towneley Purification stresses this Eucharistic motif as Symeon prays, then prepares for and attends church, during which he sees the Child, much in the same way that medieval parishioners viewed the Host each Sunday. (36)

The Chester cycle follows the same sequence as the Towneley, with its Purification play serving as the culminating event of Christ's infancy and Mary's young motherhood. Like the N-Town cycle, however, the Chester Flight scene is not a separate play; rather, it is a brief event embedded in the play of the Innocents. As in the N-Town, the angel's warning to Joseph and Mary occurs in the brief span of time between the soldiers boasts and the actual slaughter. When Joseph tells Mary of the angel's warning, she assents without hesitation, "Syr, evermore lowd and still / your talent I shall fulfill. / I wott yt is my lorders will; / I doe as you me read" (277-80). The juxtaposition of the two events highlights Mary's devotion to God and her husband, and God's protection of her family. At the same time, the close proximity of events connects Mary's plight with that of the mothers. As in the N-Town, the iconography of the scene presents two perspectives at once. God's protection of Mary's child denotes that in the fullness of time, both the slaughtered babes and Jesus achieve salvation. Conversely, the imminent slaughter and mourning of the mothers foreshadows the Passion and Mary's mourning under the cross. As the angel guides Joseph and Mary offstage to Egypt, the First Soldier appears in the "place," commanding his men: "Have donne, fellowes, [hie] fast, / that these queanse weare downe cast" (289-90). He soon discovers, however, that they will not so easily dispatch their orders. The First Woman turns the soldier's words around on him, retorting: "Whom callest thou 'queane,' scabde dogge? / Thy dame, thy daystard, was never syche. / Shee burned a kylne, eych stike; / yet did I never non" (297-300). (37) The Second Woman threatens the soldiers, telling him that if he harms her son she will beat him with her distaff: "Bee thou soe hardye, I thee behett, / to handle my sonne that is so sweete, / this distaffe and thy head shall meete / or wee heathen gonne" (301-4). The encounter between the two women and the two soldiers overlays brutal slaughter and lament with the energetic and comic battle of the sexes in which the soldiers' incompetence and the women's belligerence allows the women to get the better of them. Even as the audience laughed at the crass humor of women cursing and beating soldiers, they probably were also cheering for the women. The women's lack of political clout and military stature puts them in a position which, through parody, provides acerbic comment upon the military presence in Chester.

The soldiers turn the slaughter into a cruel game: "Dame, thy sonne, in good faye, / hee must of me learne a playe: / hee must hopp, or I goe awaye, / upon my speare ende" (321-24). When their children are slaughtered, the women lament bitterly at first, and then call for vengeance. The First Woman wails: "Owt, owt, and woe is me! / Theeffe, thou shall hanged be. / My chyld is dead; now I see / my sorrowe may not cease. / Thow shall be hanged on a tree / and all thy felowes with thee. / All the men in this contree / shall not make thy peace" (345-52). She then begins beating and cursing the soldier: "Have thou this, thou fowle harlott / and thou knight, to make a knott! / And on buffet with this bote / thou shalt have to boote. / And thow this, and thou this, / though thou both shyte and pisse! / And if thou thinke we doe amysse, / goe buskes you to moote" (353-60).

Similarly, when the Second Soldier murders the Second Woman's baby, she assures him: "Owt, owt, owt, owt! / You shalbe hanged, the rowte. / Theves, be you never so stout, / full fowle you have donne" (377-80), because "This child was taken to me / to looke to. Theves, who binne yee? / Hee was not myne, as you shall see; / hee was the kinges sonne" (381-84). She declares that she will run to Herod and indict them all for killing the king's only son: "For to the kinge I will anon / to playne upon you all" (391-92). The mother confronts Herod in a manner that evokes Mary's adjudication of the judge in Mirk's sermon. Like the judge, Herod dies when the mother's words force him to face his own injustice: "Loe, lord, looke and see / the child that thou tooke mee. / Men of thy owne contrey / have slayne yt--here the bine" (393-96). When he learns that he is subject to his own violence, he mewls: "My legges roten and my armes; / that nowe I see of feindes swarmes--/ I have donne so many harmes--/ from hell comminge after mee" (422-25).

Despite the comic and brutal engagement between the soldiers and the mothers in the Chester play, the women's cries nevertheless have a typological resonance with the Virgin's suffering. Though often raunchy, their laments also have moments of lyricism, as when the Second Mother wails the loss of her child in a series of epithets that prefigure the Virgin's lament during Christ's Passion. She weeps, "My love, my lord, my life, my leife" (330), as the Virgin will later mourn for Jesus: "Alas, my love, my liffe, my leere [countenance]" (241). (38) In the Chester Passion Mary Magdalene echoes the mothers' curses and calls for justice as she righteously invokes divine wrath upon the Judases who torment Christ: "God, that rules aye the right, / give you mickell mischance" (270-72). In the Passion, Mary, too, echoes the mothers' denunciations when she reproves Christ's enemies as "theeves."

While demonstrating the affinity between Mary and the mothers, the Chester play also sets them apart. Whereas the mothers call for retribution, declaring that the "theffe(s) ... shall hanged be" (346), Mary instead offers herself in place of her son: "Alas, theeves, why doe ye soe? / Slayes ye mee and lett my sonne goe. / For him suffer I would this woe / and lett him wend awaye" (261-64). This contrast demonstrates Mary's heroic Christian humanity. Rather than perpetuate the cycle of brutal killing as the mothers' cries would do, the Virgin is willing to sacrifice herself to save her son and end the violence.

The play functions as social and religious ritual on more than one level. Robinson, like Woolf, Beadle, and King, implies that the ribald tone of the play reduces the power of the women, rendering their grief little more than farcical domestic squabbling. (39) But the carnivalesque nature of the Chester play hints at a darker social drama. The encounter between the women and the knights is more accurately characterized as civic rather than domestic: it involves not wives and husbands, but citizens (the women) and enforcers of secular, military law (the knights). The play thus appears to embody displaced social aggression against the military presence in this fifteenth-century garrison town, whose history as a legionary outpost is as ancient as the town itself. (40) Herod's tyranny, like the tyranny of many a medieval warlord, subjects women and children, the lowest citizens of the town, to abhorrent treatment. However, in a plebeian triumph that could perhaps only be experienced through play, the mothers' cries ultimately subvert the power of both Herod and his bumbling knights. Because the townspeople themselves acted the roles, this ritual displacement of hostility would have been a vehicle for communal catharsis.

The Chester Purification makes clear allusions to the annual celebration of Candlemas, while Symeon's prophecy, as in the N-Town and York cycles, creates a further typological association between Mary and the mothers of the play of the Innocents. Much of the play focuses upon the miracle of Mary's virgin birth. In his long opening monologue, Symeon expresses amazement and disbelief that Christ should have been born of a virgin. As he looks in his "booke" (19) in order to find out when Christ "shall come" (17), he reads, "It sayth a mayden clean and cleare / shall conceive and beare / a sonne called Emanuell" (27-29). He immediately rejects this notion as astounding: "But of this leeve I never a deale; / it is wronge written, as have I heale, / or elles wonder yt were. / He that wrote this was a fonne / to writte 'a virgin' hereupon / that should conceive without helpe of man; / this writinge mervayles me" (30-36). He decides to edit the book, scratching out "virgin" (38); in its place, he writes "a good woman" (39). When Anna the Prophetess visits him, he shows her the book only to discover that it has been changed back:
 A, hye God in Trinitee, / honored be thou aye. / for goulden letters,
 by my lewtye, / are written through Godes postie / syth I layd my
 booke from mee / and my writinge awaye, / thereas 'a good woman'
 written was / right nowe here before my face; / yet stirred I not owt
 of this place, / and my letter changed is / ... / Nowe leeve I a mayd
 in this case / shall beare a barron of blysse." (82-95)

Woolf calls the Chester author "unwise" for adopting this opening sequence, condemning it as "an infelicitous invention" that "destroys" Symeon's dignity (199). However, it is not unlike the doubting Thomas episode (Play 19). It seems to me that there is no reason that Symeon's skepticism should suggest that he lacks dignity. Just as Thomas doubts the miracle of the Resurrection until he actually places his hands in Jesus' wounds, so Symeon doubts the miracle of the virgin birth until he actually sees the letters of his book returned to their original, pristine state. The episode wittily links Mary to Christ, the Word Incarnate: neither God's book nor God's mother can be defiled by man, foregrounding the wonder of Mary's participation in man's salvation. All of the plays include the theme of Mary's humility and obedience to the Law: because she is a virgin, the ritual is unnecessary, yet she submits to it to demonstrate her Christian devotion. However, the Chester play expands upon this theme, suggesting that belief in Mary is as essential to Christianity as belief in Christ. Joseph completes the thematic emphasis on Mary's virginity as he offers the candles that were the defining symbol of Candlemas: "A signe I offer here alsoe / of virgin waxe, as other moo, / in tokeninge shee hase live oo / in full devotion. / And, syr Simeon, leeve well this: / as cleane as this waxe nowe is, / as cleane is my wife, iwys, / of all corruption" (143-50).

Mary gives her son to Simeon, who sings praises to his savior. However, as Simeon's paean to Jesus ends, his thoughts turn again to Mary: "And suffer thou shalt many a throwe, for sword of sorrowe it shall goe / through thy hart, that men shall knowe / thoughtes in harte--on a rowe--/ of men that shall contrarye you / and found to worke thee woe" (185-90). In the Chester play, Simeon's parting meditation presents Mary as a tragic protagonist surrounded by enemies who are deliberately "working her woe." This final emphasis upon Mary's importance in the Christian story prefigures her suffering during the Passion while connecting her to the mothers of the innocents, who, as we have seen, are similarly surrounded by men, "working their woe."

The typology between the Virgin and the mothers in medieval drama aligns Mary's motherhood with human experience. Although she is the Mother of God, her experience of that role, like Jesus' experience of the crucifixion, places her not above, but at the center of what it means to be human. Medieval exegesis taught that because Mary conceived without sin, she did not suffer the pangs of childbirth. Yet her compassionate pain beneath the cross was interpreted as the burden of childbearing: "[it] was the pain she suffered in bearing all of us, sinners redeemed, in the death of her only Son." (41) In other words, the birth of all Christians "is not only through the death of Christ but through the agonia of the mother, who does not suffer the pains of childbirth until Calvary" (51).

In the nativity plays, although Mary does not suffer pain in childbirth, she suffers the pains of a mother during Jesus' adolescence. Ann Astell writes of the "distinctly feminine pathos of the early New Testament plays," which supports the "logos for audience identification with [Mary]" (172). As Astell's remarks imply, the audience's identification with Mary comes not from a literal presentation of biblical stories, but from the dramatic embodiment of their own experience assimilated to Christian history. To medieval audiences it seems to have been impossible to imagine a mother who did not wail her child's death. Official teaching saw Mary as giving birth to the church in the world as she swooned beneath the cross. In the medieval English Corpus Christi plays, according to Mary's own words beneath the cross, she is not experiencing the birth of the church. Like the mothers of the innocents, she is lamenting the death of her only son as she reflects upon her labors in raising him to a man. (42) As Mary unbiblically notes in the N-Town Purification, she would be worthy of reproach if she could easily give him up: "Ther to I am ful glad and fayn / Ffor to receyve my childe Agayn / ellys were I to blame" (187-89).

The nativity plays show that faith in God does not alleviate suffering in this life; it only promises peace and rest in the life to come. The women's voices searchingly embrace not only anger, bitterness, and remorse, but also love: love of the earth, of physical beauty, of human intimacy. Even as they long for death to end their pain, they rage against it for robbing them of life's radiance. The Christian affirmation of eternal harmony and joyful reunion after death does not preclude their mourning.

From the women's perspective especially, the thematic juxtaposition between Herod's law and God's law offers little solace. Even given the logic of reciprocal justice, Herod's eternal damnation provides only the grimmest form of recompense to the mothers for the loss of their children. As their laments attest, they will bear their grief until the end of their days. Mary stands at the center of their mourning. Whereas the mothers are subject to Herod's inhumanity, she must rise to God's higher demands. The mothers seek for the reasons their children should be brutally murdered, just as Mary seeks for the reasons cruel men would want to harm her son. More searchingly, she asks God why she must sacrifice her son to redeem their wickedness. Yet the mothers' suffering--their questioning, their anger, and their fear in the face of the world's evil--does not exhaust them. Though they fail in this life, they endure. Just as the mothers cannot defend their children against Herod's law, Mary, in obedience to God's law, cannot prevent her son's suffering. As presaged in these plays, however, she does not succumb without agony to God's will. She does not stand silently under the cross. Like the mothers of the Slaughter plays, she questions, struggles, and mourns to the end.


1. As J. W. Robinson points out, "It was commonly understood on the ultimate authority of the apocryphal gospels that [Herod] would suffer punishment for shedding the blood of children." J. W. Robinson, Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft, Early Art, Drama, and Music Monograph Series 14 (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1991). Subsequent references to Robinson are to this work.

2. For an excellent summary see Daniel C. Boughner, "Retribution in English Medieval Drama." Notes and Queries 198 (1953): 506-8. Subsequent references to Boughner are to this article. See also Robinson, 144-65, and Woolf, 206.

3. See especially, Leah Sinanglou, "The Christ Child as Sacrifice: A Medieval Tradition and the Corpus Christi Plays." Speculum 48 (1973): 491-509; J. W. Robinson, 144-65; Woolf, English Plays, 182-211.

4. Peter Dronke, "Laments of the Maries: From the Beginnings to the Mystery Plays," in Idee, Gestalt, Geschichte: Festschrift Klaus Von See, Studien zur europaischen Kulturtradition, ed. Gerd Wolfgang Weber (Odense: Odense University Press, 1988), 89-116.

5. David Bevington, Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1975), 437.

6. Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 207-8. All subsequent references to this work will be noted as Woolf, Plays.

7. Richard Beadle and Pamela King, eds., The York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 88. Subsequent references are parenthetical.

8. All citations from the York cycle are from The York Plays, ed. Richard Beadle (London: Edward Arnold, 1982).

9. All citations of the Towneley cycle are from The Towneley Plays, ed. George England and Alfred Pollard, Early English Text Society (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1897).

10. All citations of the Digby plays are from The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and Museo 160, ed. Donald Baker, John Murphy, and Louis Hall, Early English Text Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

11. All citations of the N-Town cycle are from Ludus Coventriae or The Play Called Corpus Christi, ed. K. S. Block, Early English Text Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922; rpr.. 1974).

12. All citations of the Chester cycle are from The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Early English Text Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974). All references to the commentary or glossary of the Chester cycle are from The Chester Mystery Cycle: Volume II, Commentary and Glossary, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Early English Text Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

13. I believe she is telling the soldier he can kiss her baby's "ass," or words to that effect. The editors of the Chester cycle refrain from comment.

14. Gibson argues that in the Digby Killing of the Children the women's unruly behavior fulfills this function. See Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theatre of Devotion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 42-43.

15. Boughner, 506. David Bevington remarks, "medieval tradition amplified the characterization of Herod as a cowardly, ranting bully" (437).

16. Likewise in the liturgical drama from Fleury, the Ad Interfectionem Puerorum (The Service for Representing The Slaughter of the Innocents), Rachel weeps over the babes, but she does not curse and cry for vengeance.

17. In her essay "Impassioned mother or Passive Icon: The Virgin's Role in Late Medieval and Early Modern Passion Sermons," Renaissance Quarterly 48 (1995): 227-62, Donna Spivey Ellington observes, "The public sermon was often a composite of the formal theology of the schools, where most preachers were trained, and of the wider religious culture of the day, common to both preachers and their hearers" (228). See also, G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), esp. 490. Owst demonstrates the close relationship between medieval plays and sermons, noting that they used similar techniques and content, and were frequently performed in the same locations.

18. Mirk's Festial: A Collection of Homilies, by Johannes Mirkus, ed. Theodor Erbe (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner (for the EETS), 1905. The Passion homily is number 25, "De Dominica in Passione Domini Nostri Ihesu Cristi," 110-14. The second homily I cite is number 71, "In Die Sepulture Alicuius Mortu," 294-97. Mirk's Advice to the Clergy, EETS OS 31 includes "The Points and Articles of Cursing," 60-68. Subsequent parenthetical references are to these sources.

19. For the official position of the church, and the relationship between the church and state, see F. Donald Logan, Excommunication and the Secular Arm in Medieval England: A Study in Legal Procedure from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968).

20. The Lindesfarne Gospel of 900 uses the word "cursing" in its rendering of Luke 20:47. Mirk's explication of the formal procedures of cursing suggests that these beliefs were still widely held.

21. All remaining quotations from the sermon are from page 114 unless otherwise noted parenthetically.

22. For a full description of speech-act theory see J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, J. O. Urmson, ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962).

23. See Sinanoglou, cite above. In these miracles nonbelievers, like Mirk's judge, were confronted with the gruesome sight of the bleeding babe and were usually converted on the spot. Their conversion was rewarded by the return of Eucharistic grace: the hideous sight would be veiled, hidden by the sacramental forms, and they would once again see only bread on the patten.

24. See George R. Keiser, "The Middle English Planctus Mariae and the Rhetoric of Pathos," in The Popular Literature of Medieval England, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan, Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 28 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 167-93.

25. Gesta Romanorum, EETS ES 33, 409 (story LXXXVIII).

26. These additions may also point to a local problem that Mirk was attempting to solve. It may well be that the story applies directly to his community: perhaps the people were swearing and claiming, in their defense, that it was not against the law, that the local magistrate himself was a profane swearer. Exploring these intriguing topical issues is beyond the scope of my present argument. The possibility of this local historical reading does not affect my argument.

27. See Lydgate's "Queen of Heaven, of Hell eke Empresse."

28. For the idea that Mary's maternal mourning exceeds in its demands the dictates of mere human law, I am indebted to Ann Astell, who, in her essay, "Feminism, Deconstructing Hierarchies, and Marian Coronation," in Divine Representations, ed. Ann W. Astell (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), writes that in her role as "the Sorrowful Mother," Mary's "mother-love for the Crucified sets the standard for an unconditional love that is stronger than death and which exceeds in its demands the claims that mere morality derives from the Law" (167).

29. Eamon Duffy (Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992]) notes that it was "of lesser solemnity only than the supreme feasts such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, but of equal status to Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, and All Saints" (15). While this is its official status, Duffy implies that its power over the popular imagination exceeded its place in the hierarchy of the church.

30. I will refer to this play as appropriate, but as my focus is on the four cycles, I do not provide a separate analysis.

31. There are no breaks in the action and no definitive endings between the three plays. Moreover, according to the stage directions there is no break between the conclusion of the Purification and the opening of the Massacre. Immediately following the final lines of the Purification, the rubric states: Tunc rescpiciens senescallus vadyt ad herodem, dicens.

Herod's seneschal announces that the three kings have deceived him, resuming the action from the opening play in the dramatic triad.

32. Glossary, s.v. "gryle."

33. The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. A. C. Cawley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), Glossary, s.v. "trattys"; "trate"

34. In his edition of the plays, A. C. Cawley glosses "franch" as "French" (Glossary, s.v. "franch"). George England and Alfred W. Pollard (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner (EETS), 1897), interpret the manuscript as indicating the word "fraunch" (line 513), which mean to "devour greedily" (OED, s.v. "fraunch"). Both words make sense in the context, the first implying a corrupt foreign court, the second implying Herod's brutal greed. In the facsimile of Huntington MS HM, The Towneley Cycle, the word appears to be spelled "franch."

35. Rosemary Woolf points out that the Symeons of the York and Towneley plays "are firm and dignified in faith and stand in the tradition of the prophets upon whose fate the Towneley Symeon so movingly reflects" (English Plays 198). She says this catalog serves as a reminder that, like them, Symeon is a prophet; thus the drama also shows the "actual meeting between prophet and the prophesied" (199).

36. See Sinanglou. See also Duffy, 95-109

37. She is saying that because the knight works for the king, the soldier's dame is the queen, and that his queen is a common alewife.

38. This lyric form is a common feature of lament. It is found in virtually all the plays, as well as separate lyrics of the Virgin's lament.

39. See Woolf English Plays, 208.

40. Chester's history as a legionary fortress goes back to the Roman occupation. See Peter Salway, The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). Its location on the border between England and Wales placed it in a prime strategic location throughout its history. See also The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland, ed. Christopher Haigh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

41. Louis Bouyer, The Seat of Wisdom: An Essay on the Place of the Virgin Mary in Christian Theology, trans. A. V. Littledale (Chicago: Regnery, 1965), 43; cited in Harvey E. Hamburgh, "The Problem of Lo Spasimo of the Virgin in Cinquecento Paintings of the Descent from the Cross." Sixteenth Century Journal 12 (1981): 45-75.

42. Her earthly experience does not preclude the theological explanation, however. It seems her suffering would be mitigated if she were thinking of his future glory in that moment.
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Author:Goodland, Katharine
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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