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this, however, does not amount to evidence of Lydgate's authorship, but is given in the hope that it may prove useful when the evidence for the rumor quoted by Chambers is discovered.
D. Their Literary Value. There is little to add concerning the literary value of the Coventry plays; much has been implied in the former sections. Their chief defects lie in their lack of form, and in their burden of pedantic learning. Their chief excellence lies in the realism of the Joseph Play, and the opening scenes of the Visitation and Nativity Plays. The realism of the Joseph Play is unpleasant, but the character-drawing and rough strength of the play stand out sharply when compared with the average Joseph play. These plays possess more than the others the false value of 'quaintness and naïveté,' the two characteristics for which all mystery plays are unfortunately, but sometimes deservedly, famous.
Credit should be granted to the ecclesiastic who translated or paraphrased the Bonaventuran element for his comparative skill as a translator, and such credit should be withheld from the wretched translator of the Magnificat. .
In style and finish the ecclesiastic was superior; in feeling and knowledge of mankind, the earlier layman. Curiously enough, the man of learning, although the possessor of a fairly good style and some ability in the technique of verse-making, lacked the sense of form; and the uneducated layman, without style or technical ability of any sort, seemed to possess naturally much more feeling, and a rough sense of form. The Yorge of Engin intrinsic
8. The York Plays The York plays, though of considerable importance in the study of English mystery plays, are by far the least interesting, both intrinsically and in the lack of any problems connected with them. This cycle is the most complete English cycle; there is much information concerning it still extant in contemporary town records, &c., and the plays are most conventional, and typical of the simplest form of mystery play.
Miss Lucy Toulmin Smith, in her admirable edition of the plays, gives detailed information about the cycle. I shall merely quote some of the more important bits. There is no doubt about the date of composition, about 1350; the author is unrecorded. The plays were given on Corpus Christi day by the crafts of York. The author based his stories almost entirely on the Biblical account, once in a while adding a detail from the Apocryphal Gospels. The Cursor Mundi influenced some of the plays markedly (none of those in this edition to any degree, however; but see note to Y. I. 25-30 and Y. II. 72–73).
Davidson, in his exhaustive study of the metres of this cycle, has shown that the part of Y. IV written in the northern septenar stanza was probably written by an earlier hand (Y. IV. 1-36). Gayley believes that all the humorous parts were written by a later hand than the conventional, at times almost liturgical, parts. He thinks the humorous part of the Shepherds'. Play was written by a dramatist of what he calls the middle period, earlier than the work of the dramatist who, he thinks, wrote some of the plays on the Passion, but later than the rest of our group. The lack of material in our edition makes it impossible to discuss
this question; those interested in pursuing the investigation are referred to Davidson's and Gayley's work.
The York plays are important as affording a sort of norm by which to compare and judge the other plays. They are the simplest and closest of all to the liturgical drama, with few extraneous accretions and little elaboration. The absence of the midwife and the Apocryphal Gospel element, which appears in the extant liturgical dramas, is probably to be accounted for by the fact that the York liturgical drama followed the Biblical account entirely. The only Apocryphal element in the plays of this edition is Joseph's narrative of his betrothal, and this was probably taken either from general tradition or from the Cursor Mundi (see note to Y. II. 25–34). Even this is merely a passing reference, and has not developed into a play, as in the Coventry cycle.
The only real literary ability manifest in our plays is in the scene of the Adoration by Mary and Joseph. Here the writer shows depth and beauty of feeling, which elsewhere does not relieve the limping verse and commonplace ideas. The Joseph Play is the most forced and ineffective of all the plays in this collection, and the Shepherds' Play, though possessing some merit in its realism and humor, falls below its parallels in the other cycles.
A. Their Name and Origin. I have rather inconsistently retained the name Towneley to designate these plays, for no better reason than that, though inconsistent, it has been
adopted by all previous editors, and should be arbitrarily accepted by writers on these plays in order to avoid confusion in reference. The name comes from the family who owned the manuscript for many years, and despite the efforts of Davidson and Gayley to restore the names Woodkirk and Wakefield respectively, it seems probable that through this manuscript the Towneley name will be perpetuated.
There is ample evidence for assigning this cycle to the town of Wakefield in Yorkshire, and for believing that originally the plays were craft-plays. The manuscript of the early plays is labeled Wakefield in one or two places, and several of the plays have the names of crafts attached to them. Moreover, throughout the cycle there are references in the plays proper to places near Wakefield (see notes to T. IV. 403 and 455). The name Woodkirk, used by Davidson, refers to the legend that the manuscript was once owned by the Abbey of Woodkirk, near Wakefield. This tradition cannot be traced back further than 1814, when it is included in a bookseller's description of the manuscript. Later, in 1883, another similar description says that it was written by the Black Canons of Woodkirk. These must have been the traditional beliefs of the Towneley family, and the Surtees Society editor of the cycle thinks that the Woodkirk theory has remarkably the characteristics of genuine tradition. The plays themselves, however, bear no evidence of ecclesiastical origin (compare them for example with the Coventry plays), and if there is any truth in the legend, it probably is merely in the fact that the abbey once owned the manuscript. The fact that twice annually, at the Feast of the Assumption and the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, the monks of Woodkirk held fairs in Wakefield, seems of no significance.
B. Their Composition and Date. The four plays of the Christmas group are the work of two distinct hands. The Annunciation and Visitation Plays differ in spirit, in style, in verse-form, and in vocabulary, from the two Shepherds' Plays. The latter are evidently the work of a man who was chosen to write also plays 3, 16, 21, and parts of 30. All the plays of this group are written in the same unusual verse-form, reflect the same boldness of spirit and sense of humor (or perhaps rather of boisterous fun), and employ the same vocabulary and word-forms.
There is general agreement regarding the approximate date of this latter group, about 1400. The evidence in favor of this date is conclusive. First there is a reference in Play 30 to the piked head-gear worn by women, which was introduced by Anne of Bohemia in 1388, and which was still in use as late as 1420 (in support of this Pollard refers to illustrations in MSS. Harl. 2897, fol. 188 b, and Harl. 4431, fol. 2). Then there is the evidence in the Shepherds' Plays, in the conversation of the shepherds about the condition of the country. Pollard suggests that this agrees with conditions in the early part of the fifteenth century, and that the absence of any reference to war with France would show that the play was written no later than Henry IV's reign. Pollard inclines to a date near the close of Henry's reign; to me an earlier date seems more probable, for the tone of the shepherds seems more in agreement with the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, and there are no references to the various civil wars of Henry's reign, which did much to make the peasants forget their grievances.
The Annunciation and Visitation Plays seem to belong to another small group by a collaborator of quite