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Make We Merry More and Less

Jane Bliss
Douglas Gray

Chapter 10


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The surviving texts of early English drama have preserved for us a large number of plays, but these probably represent only a very small portion of what once existed. The question of ‘lost literature’ has figured throughout this anthology, but is especially important in the case of songs and drama. The loss of so much of the early drama is undoubtedly very regrettable, and at first dispiriting. But it need not be. What has survived is often of very high quality and a remarkable variety, even giving us a few surviving examples of folk drama in the Robin Hood plays (two are included here). And the surviving records give a further impression of a once very large and varied body of work: more saints’ plays (a form which obviously lost favour after the Reformation), and even a couple of plays seemingly based on romance stories, and a glimpse of the many dramatic or semi-dramatic plays and performances associated with seasonal festivals. The surviving texts and the records sometimes present us with unanswerable questions: for example, whether the impression given by the surviving texts that England (at least before the ‘morality’ plays, interludes, and comedies of the early sixteenth century) had fewer secular plays than France is in fact the truth. There seem to be some early secular plays, like the Interludium de clerico et puella or (possibly) Dame Sirith, and later plays seem to have ‘secular’ elements — the ending of the Woman Taken in Adultery, with the lover fleeing, suggests a scene from a merry tale or fabliau.

  • 1 Chambers Mediaeval Stage remains valuable for the history of drama. Another Chambers (R. W (...)
  • 2 See Sponsler, Ritual Imports.

More often the records excite our curiosity to discover more about the dramatic or semi-dramatic pieces in May games — the processions, ‘ridings’, and so on. Processions were common, associated with Saint George, Robin Hood; there was even a ship procession at Hull associated with a Noah play (the ship or Ark was carried in procession and then kept in the church), and the seasonal festivals and pastimes, with their summer kings and queens, abbots of unreason and others. These are noted by disapproving moralists, but we are not given any precise details.1 And we know very little about the ‘folk plays’ which once existed. However, the surviving dramatic texts do give us hints of possible scenes, topics, or practices in folk plays: the use of masks, players making entrances and exits through the audience and introducing themselves, combats and mock deaths and revivals, comic doctors and blustering tyrants — as in the later mummers’ plays, with their doctors who can revive the ‘dead’, their swaggering blusterers, and giants like Blunderbore. It would be very rash to assume that lost medieval folk plays were identical with these mummers’ plays, but it is quite possible that some were similar to them. A couple of relevant points may be cited in support of this view: similar plays are found throughout Europe, and although texts of the English mummers’ plays are recorded only from the eighteenth century on, it is likely that they go back further. They were ‘exported’ to early British colonies such as Newfoundland. There, although the first precise account appears in a work of 1819, it is possible that they were part of the ‘Morris dancers, Hobby Horses and Maylike conceits’ brought there by Gilbert in his voyage of 1583.2

Some of these points suggestive of folk-drama are illustrated here in extracts from early morality plays and interludes, and from plays forming part of the ‘mystery cycles’. The mystery cycles are of special significance; presenting the epic story of man’s Creation, Fall, and Redemption, they remained popular for centuries. They were mostly, it seems, written by clerics, but these clerics were obviously very close to their lay folk. They use colloquial speech, and exploit the forms of popular literature seen in this anthology: proverbs, flytings (Mak and Gyll, the mothers of the Innocents and Herod’s soldiers), and so on. They offered instruction together with entertainment, but instruction in the manner of late medieval devotion — so close to ‘popular religion’ with its simplicity and homeliness, as in the shepherds’ gifts to the Christ Child, or Noah talking familiarly to God. Two final points may be made briefly, and confidently. First, the high quality of much of the writing arguably makes the mystery plays one of the supreme achievements of Middle English popular literature; and second, the insight they give us into the world of the ‘folk’ brings us very close indeed to the ordinary men and women of medieval England with their faith and devotion, their fears and their courage. And it is a clear-sighted view: we are also made to see the less admirable qualities of humankind, such as violence and cruelty, the deviousness of Mak the sheep-stealer and trickster, the grumpiness and bleak scepticism of the shepherds.

i) The Entrance of Cain in the Wakefield Mactatio Abel

  • 3 This and the next, from Noah, are in The Towneley Plays, eds England and Pollard. See also (...)

The ‘Wakefield’ (a town near York) or ‘Towneley’ (the name of a former owner of the manuscript) Cycle contains thirty-two plays, some apparently taken from the York cycle, others showing the bold and original technique of a very talented dramatist, now known as the ‘Wakefield Master’. The Mactatio Abel (The Killing of Abel), with the fascinating, brutal figure of Cain, almost certainly owes something to his imagination. The Biblical story of strife between brothers is already a dramatic one, and this is intensified by the dramatist’s use of colloquial, earthy speech and his skill in characterisation. Cain is at once a short-tempered and violent husbandman, and an eerily sinister and mysterious figure doomed to wander in exile in the land of monsters (early legends already show a fascination with him). It is not hard to see ‘popular’ elements at work here: in language, behaviour (the angry cursing of the ploughing team) or theatrical technique (as when Garcio introduces himself, in the manner of the later mummers’ plays: ‘All hayll. All hayll. Bothe blithe and glad, For here com I, a mery lad’).3

  • 4 I have reinstated a phrase or two omitted by Gray (or by the edition he used) perhaps out (...)

After a brief prologue by Garcio, Cain’s ‘boy’ (called Pykeharnes later in the play), Cain comes in with his ploughing team.4

Cain. Io furth, Greyn-horne! and war oute, Gryme!

Drawes on! God gif you ill to tyme! º
Ye stand as ye were fallen in swyme, º
What! will ye no forther, mare?
War! Let me se how Down will draw.
Yit, shrew, yit! pull on a thraw!
What! it semys for me ye stand none aw!
I say, Donnyng, go fare!
A, ha! God gif the soro and care!
Lo! now hardº she what I saide.
Now yit art thou the warst mare
In plogh that ever I haide.
How! Pike-harnes, how! Com heder belief! º
(Enter Garcio)
hither quickly
Garcio. I fend, Godis forbot, º that ever thou thrife!
What, boy, shal I both hold and drife?
Heris thou not how I cry?
(Garcio drives the team)
Garcio. Say, Mall and Stott, will ye not go?
Lemyng, Morell, White-horne, Io!
Now will ye not se how thay hy?
Cain. Gog gifº the sorrow, boy. Want of mete it gars.º God give causes it
Garcio. Thare provand, º sir, for-thi, I lay behind thare ars,
And tyes them fast bi the nekis,
With many stanysº in thare hekis.º
Cain. That shall biº thi fals chekis.
(hits him)
Garcio. And have agane as right.
(hits back)
Cain. I am thi master — wilt thou fight?
pay for
Garcio. Yai, with the same mesure and weght
That boro will I qwite, º
Cain. We! now, no thing, bot call on tyte, º
That we had ploydeº this land.
Garcio. Harrer, Morell, iofurth, hyte!
And let the plogh stand.
(Enter Abel)
Abel. God, as he both may and can,
Spede the, brother, and thi man.
quickly shout to the team
Cain. Com kis myne ars, me list not banº
As welcome standis the route.
Thou shuld have bide til thou were cald.
Com nar, º and other drife or hald,
And kys the dwillis toute.º
Go grese thi shepe under the toute,
Devil’s bum
For that is the moste lefe.º
Abel. Broder, ther is none here aboute
That wold the any grefe.
dearest to you

ii) A Flyting between Noah and his Wife

  • 5 The Bible story seems to have been influenced by a Middle Eastern myth (Gray is probably t (...)

Another Towneley play deals with a moment of crisis in the story of redemption when God decides to destroy sinful mankind — except his true servant Noah and his family — by a great Flood.5 The dramatist’s treatment is both awesome and familiar. The reaction of the carpenter in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, when the Flood is threatened to come again, shows even in comic context the terror associated with the event. Noah, the agent of God’s salvation, is a simple and very ordinary person, obedient and practical, but he is extremely old (he laments the consequent aches and pains); and he has a domestic problem in the form of his very vocal wife. Again, the range of colloquial language is impressive, from the simple (as when Noah speaks to God when he has finally recognised him and they converse) to the wild and violent (in the flyting itself). The quarrel quickly turns to domestic violence, but there is a nice moment when the participants pause and address the men and the women in their audience.

God has been speaking to Noah, telling him of the coming flood, and giving him instructions on the building of the Ark. He ascends to heaven…

Noah. Lord, homeward will I hast as fast as that I may;

My [wife] will I frastº what she will say,
And I am agastº that we get som frayº
Betwixt us both,
For she is full tethee, º
For litill oft angre;
If any thing wrang be
Soyneº is she wroth.
[Then he goes to his wife]
God spede, dere wife, how fayre ye?
at once
Wife. Now, as ever myght I thryfe, º the warsº I thee see. prosper worse
Do tell me beliefº where has thou thus long be?
To dedeº may we dryfe, º or lif, for the, º
For want.º
When we swete or swynk, º
Thou dos what thou think, º
Yit of mete and of drynk
death hasten
lack of food
seems good to you
for all you care
Have we veray skant.º
Noah. Wife, we ar hard stedº with
truly little
put to it
tythyngisº new.
Wife. Bot thou were worthi be cled in
Stafford blew; º
For thou art alway adred, º be it fals or trew,
Bot God knows I am led, º and that may I
blue (= you deserve
a beating)
rew, º
Full ill;
For I dar be thi borrow, º
From even unto morrowº
Thou spekis ever of sorow;
God send the onysº thi fill!
We women may waryº all ill husbandis;
I have oone, bi Mary that lowsyd me of my bandis! º
If he teyn, º I must tary, º how so ever it standis,
loosed my bonds (of pregnancy)
feels grief stand by
With seymlandº full sory, wryngand both my handis expression
For drede.º
Bot yit other while, º
What with gam and with gyle, º
I shall smyte and smyle,
And qwite hym his mede.º
Noah. We! º hold thi tong, ram-skyt, º or I shall the still.º
in fear
merriment and trickery
give him his deserts
ah! sheep-shit
Wife. By my thrift, º if thou smyte, I shal turne the until.º may I prosper
turn on you
Noah. We shall assay as tyte.º Have at the, Gill!
Apon the bone shal it byte.
Wife. A, so, Mary! Thou smytis ill!
put it to the test at once
But I supposeº
I shal not in thi detº
Flyt of this flett! º
Take the there a langettº
To tye up thi hose! º
Noah. A! wilt thou so? Mary! that is myne.º
leave this place
there’s one from me
Wife. Thou shal thre for two, I swere bi Godis pyne! º torment
Noah. And I shall qwyte the tho, º in faith, or syne.º those before long
Wife. Out apon the, ho!
Noah. Thou can both byte and whyne
With a rerd; º
For all ifº she stryke,
Yit fast will she skryke; º
In faith, I hold none slykeº
In all meddill-erd.º
loud noise
reckon none like her
the world
Bot I will kepe charyte, º for I have at doº
Wife. Here shal no man taryº the, I pray the go to! º
keep my temper
work to do
get on with it
Full well may we mys the, º as ever have I ro; º
To spyn will I dresº me… .
do without you
set about

[Noah builds the Ark, and looks at it admiringly. But the Flood approaches. When he and his sons manage to persuade his wife to enter, her reaction is far from admiring: ‘I was never bard ere [penned in before], as ever might I the, In sich an oostre [lodging] as this. In fath, I can not fynd Which is before, which is behind’, and she promptly goes to continue with her spinning. However, after another exchange, she finally comes back in.]

Wife. Yei, water nyghys so nere that I sit not dry,

Into ship with a byrº therfor will I hyº
For drede that I droneº here.
Noah. Dame, securelyº
It bees boght ful dereº ye abode so long byº
Out of ship.
rush hurry
it will be paid for dearly
Wife. I wyll not, for thi bydyng,
Go from doore to mydyng.º
Noah. In faith, and for youre long tarryingº
Ye shal lik onº the whyp.
rubbish heap
taste of

Wife. Spare me not, I pray the, bot even as thou think, º seems good to you

Thise grete wordis shall not flayº me. frighten
Noah. Abide, dame, and drynk.
  • 6 An alliterative nickname; compare Nicholl Nedy, below.
For betyn shall thou be with this staf toº thou stynk,
Ar strokis good? say me.
Wife. What say ye, Wat Wynk?6
Noah. Speke!
Cry me mercy, I say!
Wife. Therto say I nay.
Noah. Bot thou do, bi this day!
Thi hede shall I breke.
Wife. Lord, I were at ese, and hertelyº full hoylle, º in heart healthy
  • 7 If I could have a taste of widows’ cabbage soup.
  • 8 Pay a mass-penny (for the souls of the dead).
Might I onys have a measse of wedows coyll;7
For thi saull, without lese, º shuld I dele peny doyll,8
So wold mo, º no frees, º that I se on this soleº more
Of wifis that ar here,
For the life that thay leyd,
Wold thare husbandis ere dede.
doubtless place
For, as ever ete I brede, º bread
So wold I oure syreº were. master

Noah. Yee men that has wifis, whyls they ar yong,

If ye luf youre lifis, chastice thare tong: º
Me thynk my hert ryfis, º both levyr and long, º
is torn
liver and lung
To se sich stryfis wedmen emong, º
Bot I,
As have I blys.
Shall chastise this.
Wife. Yit may ye mys,
Nicholl Nedy!
among wedded folk
Noah. I shall make the stillº as stone, silent
begynnar of blunder! º trouble-maker

I shall bete the bak and bone, and breke all in sunder.

1[They fight]

Wife. Out, alas, I am gone! Oute apon the, mans wonder! º monster
Noah. Se how she can grone, º and I ligº under;
Bot, wife,
lament lie
In this hastº let us ho, º
For my bak is nere in two.
violence cease
Wife. And I am bet so bloº
That I may not thryfe.º
beaten so black and

[After some reproving words from their children, their thoughts turn to the Flood.]

iii) A dangerous blustering tyrant: Herod in a Coventry play9

  • 9 Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, in Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Craig, pp.  (...)
  • 10 King Arthur destroys young children in an attempt to kill his son Mordred.

The Coventry cycle originally consisted of ten plays, but only two have survived; the manuscript was destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century. The last recorded performance of the plays was in 1579: it is possible that the young Shakespeare may perhaps have seen them. The pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors presented the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Massacre of the Innocents. The story of the latter is an inherently powerful one: part of a cosmic struggle beween God and Satan, and with a folktale pattern perhaps lurking beneath it.10 A boy is born to be king, but the actual king tries to destroy him by murdering all the children of the same age. The fearsome figure of Herod was long remembered in the phrase ‘out-herods Herod’. See, for example, Shakespeare’s allusion to ‘Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen’ in Henry V’s threatening speech to the citizens of Harfleur.

Herod comes in and brags of his omnipotence (brandishing his ‘bryght bronde’)

… For I am evyn he that made bothe hevin and hell,
And of my myghte powar holdith up this world rownd.
Magog and Madroke, bothe them did I confownde,
And with this bryght brondeº there bonis I brak on-sunder,
Thatt all the wyde worlde on those rappis did wonder.
I am the cawse of this grett lyght and thunder —
Ytt ys through my fure that they soche noyse dothe make.
My feyrefull contenance the clowdis so doth incumbur
That oftymis for drede therof the verre yerthº doth quake.
Loke! When I with malesº this bryght brond doth schake,
All the whole world, from the north to the sowthe,
very earth
I maº them dystroie with wonº worde of my mowthe!… . can one

[Later in the play the decision of the Three Kings to depart ‘another way’ causes a furious outburst]

Herod. Anothur wey? owt! owt! owtt!

Hath those fawls trayturs done me this ded?
I stampe! I stare! I loke all abowtt!
Myght I them take, I schuld them bren at a glede! º
I rent! º I rawe! And now run I wode! º
A! that these velenº trayturs hath mard thisº my mode!
They schalbe hangid, yf I ma cum them to!
tear (my hair)
villainous thus
[Here Erode ragis in the pagondº and in the strete also.] pageant wagon

iv) The N-Town play of The Trial of Joseph and Mary11

  • 11 In The N-Town Plays, eds Sugano and Scherb.
[Den the summoner’s introductory speech]
Avoyd, serys, º And lete mylorde the buschop come
And syt in the courte, the laws for to doo.
And I shal gon in this place, them for to somowne,
Tho that ben in my book — the court ye must com too!
I warne yow here all abowte
That I somown yow, all the rowte!
Loke ye fayl for no dowte
At the court to pere.
Both Johan Jurdon and Geffrey Gyle,
Malkyn Mylkedoke and fayr Mabyle,
Stephen Sturdy and Jak-at-the-Style,
And Sawdyr Sadlere.
Thom Tynkere and Betrys Belle,
Peyrs Pottere and What-at-the-Welle,
Symme Smalfeyth and Kate Kelle,
And Bertylmew the bochere.
Kytt Cakelere and Colet Crane,
Gylle Fetyse and fayr Jane,
Powle Pewterere and Pernel Prane,
make way, sirs
And Phelypp the good flecchere.º fletcher
Cok Crane abd Davy Drydust,
Luce Lyere and Letyce Lytyltrust,
Miles the myllere and Colle Crakecrust,
Bothe Bette the bakere and Robyn Rede.
And like ye rynge wele inº youre purs. dig well into
For ellys youre cause may spede the wurs,
Thow that ye slynge Goddys curs
Evyn at myn hede!
Fast com away,
Bothe Boutyng the browstereº and Sybyly Slynge,
Megge Merywedyr and Sabyn Sprynge,
Tyffany Twynklere, fayle for nothynge.
The courte shal be this day!
  • 12 The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, ed. Sebastian.

2v) The Play of the Sacrament12

  • 13 The Introduction to the edition discusses this, and other aspects of this dramatized legen (...)

An unusual ‘miracle play’, which treats a rather extraordinary late-medieval legend of a Jewish attempt to destroy a consecrated Host in the manner of folk drama; readers will recognise the motif of ‘all sticking together’ in the Tale of the Basyn (above), as well as a comic doctor. It is often called the ‘Croxton Play of the Sacrament’ because of a mention in the introductory ‘Banns’: ‘at Croxton on Monday yt shall be sen’ — but this sounds like a kind of advertisement for a travelling company.13

The Jew Jonathas (who prays to ‘almyghty Machomet’) buys a Host from a rich Christian merchant, Aristorius; Jonathas and his friends attack it violently. However, their attempts to destroy or dispose of it run into difficulties. [vv. 493 ff]

Malcus. Loo, here ys fowreº galons off oyle clere! four
Have doon fast! Blowe up the fere! º
Syr, bryng that ylkeº cake nere,
Manly, º with all yowre mygthe.º
Jonathas. And I shall bryng that ilke cak [e]
bravely strength

And throw yt in, I undertake.
[He grabs the Sacrament, which sticks to his hand]

Out! out! Yt werketh me wrake! º
I may not awoyd yt owt of my hond!
I wylle goo drencheº me in a lake,
And in woodnesse I gynne to wake! º
I renne! I lepe over this land!
I begin to go mad

— Her he renneth wood, wuth the Ost in hys hond

Jason. Renne, felawes, renne, for Cokkysº peyn! God’s
Fastº we had owr mayster ageyne!
[They catch Jonathas]
Hold prestlyº on this pleyn, º
And faste bynd hyme to a poste.
Jason. Here is an hamer and naylys thre, I s [e] ye.
strongly ground
Lyffte up hys armys, felawe, on hey, º
Whyll I dryve thes nayles, I yow praye,
With strong strokys fast.
[They nail the Sacrament to the post]

Masphat. Now set on, felouse, wyth mayne and myght,

And plukeº hys armes awey in fyght! pull
Wat ife he twycche, felouse, aright! º properly
Alas, balys brewethº ryght badde! disasters are at hand

— Here shall thay pluke the seme, and the hond shall hang styll with the Sacrament

Malcus. Alas! alas! what devyll ys thys?
Now hat [h] he but oon hand, iwyse! º
For sothe, mayster, ryght woo me is
That ye this harme have hadde.
Jonathas. Ther ys no more; I must enduer!
Now hastely to owr chamber lete us gon,
in truth
Tyll I mat get me sum recuer; º relief
And therfor charge yow everychoonº
That yt be counsell that we have doon.
— Here shall the lechys man come into the place.

[This is Colle, the irreverent ‘boy’ of the quack doctor Master Brundyche, ‘the most famous phesycyan That ever sawe uryne’. Colle introduces himself and is ordered to make a ‘proclamation’. vv. 608 ff].

  • 14 Tertian fever, and quartan fever, were named for their usual duration (attacks every thr (...)
Colle. All manar of men that have any syknes,
To Master Brentberecly loke that yow redresse, º
What dysease or syknesse that ever ye have,
He wyll never leve yow tyll ye be in yowr grave.
address yourselves
Who hat [h the canker, the collyke, or the laxe, º
The tercyan, the quartan,14 or the brynnyng axs, º
  • 15 A note in the edition says this bodily organ might be the penis, but it is not clear.

For wormys, for gnawyng, gryndyng in the wombe or in the boldyro,15

  • 16 A swelling of the penis, men suffering from hernia.
Alle maner red-eyn, bleryd-eyn, and the myegrymº also,
For hedache, bonache, and therto the tothache,
The colt-evyll, and the brostyn men he wyll undertak,16
Alle tho that [have] the poose, the sneke, or the tyseke; º catarrh, cold,
Thowh a man were right heyle, º he cowd soone healthy
make hym seke.º
Inquyre to the Colkote, º for ther ys hys loggyng,
A lytyll beside Babwell Myll, yf ye wyll have understanding.
  • 17 In Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, ed. Lester.

Morality plays and interludes also contain popular figures and scenes. Often apparently meant to be presented in halls or inn-yards, their characters make entrances and exits through the audience: in Mankind,17 Nowadays cries ‘make rom, sers, for we have be longe! We wyll cum gyf yow a Crystemes songe’, and ‘all the yemandry hat ys here’ is asked to join in the singing. Actors collect money from the audience. The Vices are similar to the ‘gallants’ of satire (‘nyse in ther aray, in langage they be large’), and they indulge in much shouting and huffing. There is a comic devil, Titivillus, with a big devil mask, who announces as he enters ‘I com with my leggis under me’: becoming ‘invisible’, he sabotages Mankind’s work by placing a plank under the ground where he is digging. Our next example is the entry of another giant, Tedyousnes, in a later interlude, Redford’s Wyt and Science. This play, probably written for the singing boys of St Paul’s, has an appropriately educational subject, the proposed marriage of Wyt the student to the lady Science, the daughter of Reason, and it requires some skilled musicians. It has some nice moments — as when Wyt transformed into a fool, Ignorance, sees his new appearance in a mirror — some of them clearly ‘popular’, as when Wyt is ‘slain’ by Tedyousnes and later ‘revived’, as in a folk play.

vi) Wyt and Science18

  • 18 The moral play of Wit and Science, and early poetical miscellanies, ed. Halliwell, pp. 7–9

Tedyousnes cumth in with a vyser overe hys hed [and with a club in his hand]

Oh the body of me!
What kaytives be those
That wyll not once flee
From Tediousnes nose…
… [swinging his club]
Stand back, ye wrechys!
Beware the fechysº blows
Of Tediousnes,
Thes kaytyves to bles!
Make roome, I say!
Rownd evry way!
Thys way! That way!
What care I what way?
Before me, behind me,
Rownd abowt wynd me!
Now I begyn
To swete in my skin.
  Now am I nemble
To make them tremble.
Pashº hed! Pash brayne! smash
The knaves are slayne,
All that I hyt!

Where art thow, Wyt?
Thow art but deade!
Of goth thy hed
At the first blow!
Ho, ho! ho, ho!

[Swearing ‘by Mahoundes bones’ and ‘by Mahounes nose’, he drives off Study and Diligence ‘In twenty gobbets [lumps] I showld have squatted [smashed] them, To teche the knaves to cum neere the snowte Of Tediousnes.’]

vii) Youth: A Gallant19

  • 19 In Two Tudor Interludes, ed. Lancashire, vv. 205–67.

Youth is delighted when Charity leaves, and looks for entertainment

… I wold I had some company here.
Iwis, my brother Riot wold helpe me
For to beate Charitye,
And his brother to.
[enter Riot]
Huffa, huffa, who calleth after me?
I am Riot, ful of jolyte.
My heart is light as the wynde.
And all on Riot is my mynde,
Where so ever I go.
But wote ye what I do here?
To seke Youth my compere.º
Fayne of hym I wolde have a sight,
But my lippes hange in my light.º
God spede, master Youth, by my faie.º
Youth. Welcom, Ryot, in the devels waye —
Who brought the hither today?
Riot. That dyd my legges, I tell the.
Me thought thou dyd call me,
And I am come now here
To make roiall chere,
[the blindness of folly]
And tell the how I have done.
Youth. What, I wendeº thou hadst been henged,
But I se thou arte escaped;
For it was tolde me here
You tokeº a man on the eare,
That his purse in your bosome did flye,
And so in Newgate ye dyd lye.
Riot. So it was, I beshrewe your pate.
I come lately from Newgate.
But I am as readye to make chere
As he that never came there.
For andº I have spending,
I wyll make as mery as a kynge,
And care not what I do.
For I wyll not lye longe in prison,
But wyll get forthe soone.
For I have learned a pollycie
hit if
That wyll lose me lyghtlyeº
And sone let me go.
Youth. I love well thy discretion,
For thou arte all of one condicion.
  Thou arte stable and stedfast of mynde
And not chaungable as the wynde.
But sir, I praye you, at the leaste,
Tell me more of that jeste
That thou tolde me right nowe.
Riot. Moreover I shall tell the:
The mayre of London sent for me,
Forth of Newgate for to come,
For to preche at Tyborne.
Youth. By our Lady, he dyd promote the
To make the preche at the galowe tre.
But syr, how diddest thou scape?º
Riot. Verely, syr, the rope brake,
And so I fell to the ground.
And ran away safe and sound.
By the way I met with a courtyersº lad.
And twenty nobles of gold in hys purs he had
I tokeº the ladde on the eare —
Besyde his horse I felled him there.
I toke his purs in my hande,
And twenty nobles therin I fande.
Lorde, howe I was mery!

Robin Hood Plays

  • 20 Gray notes the earliest surviving reference is from Exeter in 1426–7 (Simple Forms, pp. 23 (...)
  • 21 In Robin Hood, eds Knight and Ohlgren.
  • 22 The anecdote appears towards the end of the Introduction, above.

The preceding extracts have given us many possible glimpses of the techniques and practices of ‘folk drama’, but no complete dramatic text. The nearest we can come to this is in the surviving Robin Hood plays, which were obviously numerous and popular throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,20 but of which only a handful survive. We give two examples: Robyn Hod and the Shryff of Notyngham and Robin Hood and the Friar. Robin Hood plays are ‘performance-based versions of the same myth presented in the ballads’.21 Like the ballads they have dramatic scenes, minimal dialogue, and much energetic and often violent mimed action; interestingly, the combats of the ballads and plays reappear in modern film versions of Robin’s adventures. The Robin Hood plays are certainly not dramatic masterpieces, but they provide us with an invaluable glimpse of the folk’s entertainment. No doubt Robin Hood plays were used or adapted in the widespread ‘summer games’ and ‘church-ales’, which were clearly the source of much pleasure, as we see from the experience of Latimer, mentioned earlier.22 Sometimes the Robin Hood festivities seem to have consisted of processions or ‘ridings’. In Scotland there survives a comic monologue, ‘the droichis [dwarf’s] pairt of the play’, in which a dwarf (and shape-shifter) of an extraordinary age announces his arrival in a whirlwind to bring ‘plesans, disport and play’, and urges the noble merchants to ‘follow furth on Robyn Hude… in lusty grene lufraye [livery]’.

viii) Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham23

  • 23 In Rymes, pp. 203–7.

The earliest surviving Robin Hood play is a dramatic fragment consisting of a single page of text (c. 1475), with no formal stage directions, although in the manner of early drama actions are indicated in the speakers’ texts (for example: ‘off I smyte this sory swyre’). It has been associated with East Anglia, and with John Paston’s lament that his horse-keeper Woode, who used to play ‘Seynt Jorge and Robyn Hod and the Shryff of Notyngham’ has gone into Barnsdale, a locality often favoured by Robin Hood in the ballads. The story is probably based on one or more ballads, now lost. Friar Tuck makes his first appearance in recorded English literature here. A connection with the ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (surviving in PFMS) has been made, but although there are similarities, that ballad does not seem to be the source. The text presented here attempts to indicate a possible plot, making use of suggestions from earlier editors and commentators, but much is open to debate. The first part is reasonably clear. There is a dialogue between the Sheriff and a knight, who promises to capture Robin Hood. Robin appears, is accosted by the knight, and the two engage in combats: archery, stone-casting, and wrestling. What follows is less clear…

Scene 1

Knight. Syr Sheryffe for thy sake
Robyn Hode wull y take;
Sheriff. I wyll the gyffe golde and feeº
This behestº thou holde me.º
if you fulfil

[Exit Sheriff; enter Robin Hood, for an archery contest]

Knight. Robyn Hode, fayre and fre,
Undre this lyndeº shote we.
Robin. With the shote y wyll
Alle thy lustesº to fullfyll.
Knight. Have at the pryke! º
Robin. And y cleve the styke.º
linden tree
split the wand

[They continue with a competition in stone-casting and tossing the beam]

Robin. Late us caste the stone.
Knight. I graunte well, be seynt John.

Robin. Late us caste the exaltre.º
[They do so]
Robin. Have a foote before the!
[They wrestle]
Robin. Syr knight ye have a falle!
(invitation to wrestling)
Knight. And I the, Robyn, qwyteº shall;
Owte on the! I blowe myn horne.
Robin. Hit ware better be unborne.
Lat us fight at ottraunce, º
He that fleth, God gyfe hym myschaunce!
[They fight]
Robin. Now I have the maystry here,
to the death
Off I smyte this sory swyre! º
[Beheads him]
Robin. This knyghtys clothis wolle I were
And in my hode his hede woll bere.

Scene 2

Robin Hood and his companions seem to have been captured by the Sheriff, but help is on the way (the two outlaws may be Little John and Scarlet).

  • 24 There are some questions about what is actually happening, whether Friar Tuck is attac (...)
Outlaw 1. Welle mete, felowe myn,
What herest thou of gode Robyn?
Outlaw 2. Robyn Hode and his menyeº
With the Sheryffe takyn be.
Outlaw 1. Sette on foote with gode wyll,
And the Sheryffe wull we kyll.
Outlaw 2. Beholde wele Frere Tuke
Howe he doth his bowe pluke.º
[Enter the Sheriff and his men]24
pull the string
Sheriff. Yeldº yow, syrs, to the sheryffe, yield
Or ellesº shall your bowes clyffe, º
[All three are now captured]
else crack
Little John. Now we be bownden alle in sameº
Sheriff. Come thou forth, thou fals outlawe,
bound all together
Thou shall be hangyde and ydrawe.º
Friar Tuck. Nowe, allas, what shall we doo?
We moste to the prysone goo.
Sheriff. Opyn the gatis faste anon,
And lateº theis thevys ynne gon. let

It is not clear what happens then: ‘as the gates are opened, Robin and the other outlaws presumably attack the Sheriff and escape’ (Knight and Ohlgren). Dobson and Taylor think of a sequel in which the disguised Robin enters and rescues his men; earlier editors added a few lines in which Robin, disguised as Guy of Gisborne comes in, and rescues his men.

ix) Robin Hood and the Friar25

  • 25 In Rymes, pp. 208–14.
  • 26 Both are printed in Rymes.

This is one of two short plays (the other is Robin Hood and the Potter) printed by William Copland at the end of his Mery Geste of Robyn Hoode, between 1549–69, perhaps in the year 1560, when he entered a Robin Hood play in the Stationers’ Register. He calls them ‘the Playe of Robyn Hoode, verye proper to be played in Maye Games’, in which perhaps Robin Hood was a kind of Summer Lord with ‘a lady’ who may or may not be the Maid Marion of the May Games (probably played by young man) and a comic muscular Friar Tuck with his dogs. It might well have been given an outdoor performance: costumes were probably important but ‘props’ are not numerous; perhaps including a body of water, if available — otherwise that episode would have been mimed. The plays are related to ballads: quite closely to Robin Hood and the Potter [Child 121], and less closely to the PFMS Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar [Child 123].26

Robin Hood. Now stand ye forth my mery men all,
And harke what I shall say:
Of an adventure I shal you tell,

The which befell this other day,
As I went by the high way,
With a stoute frereº I met,
And a quarter staffeº in his hande.
Lyghtelyº to me he lept,
And styll he bade me stande.
There were strypesº two or three,
But I cannot tell who had the worse —
thick pole
But well I woteº the horesonº lepte within me,
And fro me he toke my purse.
Is there any of my mery men all
That to that frere wyll go
And bryng him to me forth withall,
Whether he wyll or no?
Lytell John. Yes, mayster, I make God avowe,
To that frere wyll I go,
And bryng him to you,
Whether he wyll or no.
[Exeunt; enter Friar Tuck with his dogs]
Friar. Deus hic! Deus hic! God be here!
Is not this a holy worde for a frere?
God save al this company!
But am not I a jolly fryer?
For I can shote both farre and nere,
And handle the sworde and buckler,
And this quarter staffe also,
If I mete with a gentyman or yeman, º
I am not afrayde to loke hym upon,
Nor boldly with him to carpe; º
If he speake any words to me,
He shall have strypesº two or thre,
That shal make his body smarte.
But, maister, to shew you the matter
Wherfore and why I am come hither,
In faith I wyl not spare:
I am come to seke a good yeman,
In Barnisdaleº men sai is his habitacion.
  His name is Robin Hode,
And if that he be better man than I,
His servaunt wyll I be and serve him truely;
But if that I be better man than he,
Barnsdale (Yorks.)
By my truth my knaveº shall he be,
And lead these dogges all three.

[Enter Robin Hood, disguised, and seizes the friar’s throat]

Robin. Yeldeº the fryer, in thy long cote! º yield friar’s habit
Friar. I beshrewº thy hart, knave, thou hurtest my throt! º curse throat
Robin. I trowe, º fryer, thou beginnest to dote: º
Who made the so malapertº and so bolde
To come into this forest here
Among my falowe dere?
act foolishly
Friar. Go louse the, º ragged knave
If thou make mani words,
de-louse yourself
I wil geveº the on the eare,
Though I be but a poore fryer.
To seke Robyn Hode I am com here,
And to him my hart to breke, º open

Robin. Thou lousy frer, what wouldest thou with hym?

He never loved fryer nor none of freiers kyn.
  Friar. Avaunt, ye ragged knave!
Or ye shall haveº on the skynne.
sc. a blow

Robin. Of all the men in the morning thou art the worst,
To mete with the I have no lust;
For he that meteth a frere or a fox in the morning.

To spede ellº that day he standeth in jeopardy.º prosper ill danger
Therfore I had leverº mete with the devil of hell,
Fryer, I tell the as I thinke,
Then mete with a fryer or a fox
In a mornyng, orº I drynke.
Friar. Avaunt, thou ragged knave, this is but a mock!
If you make mani words, you shal have a knock.
Robin. Harke, frere, what I say here —
Over this water thou shalt me bere; º
The bridge is borne away.
Friar. To say naye I wyll not —
To let the of thin oth it were great pitie and sin;
But upon a fryers backe and have even in.
Robin. (climbing on to the friar’s back)
Nay, have over.
Friar. Now am I, frere, within, º and thou, Robin, in (the water)
without, º out (of it)
To lay theº here I have no great doubt.º
[He does so]
throw you down fear

Now art thou, Robyn, [within], and I, frere, [without],
Lye ther, knave, chose whether thou wilt sinke or swym!
Robin. Why, thou lousy frere, what hast thou doon?

Friar. Mary, set a knave over the shone, º
Robin. Therfore thou abye! º
Friar. Why, wylt thou fyght a plucke?º
Robin. And God send me good lucke.
Friar. Than have a stroke for Fryer Tucke.
[They fight]
Robin. Holde thy hande, frere, and here me speke.
Friar. Saye on, ragged knave.
will pay for it
Me semethº ye begyn to swete, º
Robin. In this forest I have a hounde,
I wyl not give him for a hundredth pound —
Geve me leve my horne to blowe,
That my hounde may knowe.
Friar. Blowe on, ragged knave, without any doubte,
it seems to me sweat
Untyll bothe thyne eyes starteº out.
[Robin sounds his horn; his band enters]
Here be a sorte of ragged knaves come in,
Clothed all in Kendale grene,
And to the they take their way nowe.
Robin. Peradventure they do so.

Friar. I gave the leve to blow at thy wyll,
Now give me leve to whistell my fyll.
Robin. Whystell, frere, evyl mote thou fare!
Untyl bothe thyne eyes star [e].

[The friar whistles. Enter two of his men, Cut and Bause]

Friar. Now Cut and Bause!
Breng forth the clubbes and staves,
And downe with those ragged knaves!
[Battle is joined]
Robin. How sayest thou, frere, wylt thou be my man,
To do me the best servyse thou can?
Thou shalt have both golde and fee.
And also here is a lady free
[Enter a lady]
I wyll geve her unto the,

  • 27 Gray notes ‘probably obscene’; it is not glossed in the edition.
And her chapplaynº I the make
To serve her for my sake.
Friar. Here is an huckle duckle,27
An inch above the buckle.
(probably obsc ene)
She is a trulº of trust,
To serve a frier at his lust.
A prycker, º a prauncer, a terer of she [t] es, º
A wagger of ballockes when other men slepes,
rider tearer of sheets
Go home, ye knaves, and lay crabbesº in the fyre, crab-apples
For my lady and I wil daunce in the myre, º
For very pure joye.

[They dance]


1 Chambers Mediaeval Stage remains valuable for the history of drama. Another Chambers (R. W.) refers to what has been lost, citing his namesake, on p. 319 of his article ‘Lost Literature’, but without indicating where among the two volumes this information is detailed.

2 See Sponsler, Ritual Imports.

3 This and the next, from Noah, are in The Towneley Plays, eds England and Pollard. See also Towneley Plays, ed. Epp (Kalamazoo, 2017), although Gray is unlikely to have known this edition. For dating the Towneley plays, see also King, ‘Manuscripts, Antiquarians, Editors, and Critics’ (2016).

4 I have reinstated a phrase or two omitted by Gray (or by the edition he used) perhaps out of delicacy.

5 The Bible story seems to have been influenced by a Middle Eastern myth (Gray is probably thinking of the Epic of Gilgamesh).

6 An alliterative nickname; compare Nicholl Nedy, below.

7 If I could have a taste of widows’ cabbage soup.

8 Pay a mass-penny (for the souls of the dead).

9 Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, in Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Craig, pp. 17–18 & 27.

10 King Arthur destroys young children in an attempt to kill his son Mordred.

11 In The N-Town Plays, eds Sugano and Scherb.

12 The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, ed. Sebastian.

13 The Introduction to the edition discusses this, and other aspects of this dramatized legend.

14 Tertian fever, and quartan fever, were named for their usual duration (attacks every three, or four, days).

15 A note in the edition says this bodily organ might be the penis, but it is not clear.

16 A swelling of the penis, men suffering from hernia.

17 In Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, ed. Lester.

18 The moral play of Wit and Science, and early poetical miscellanies, ed. Halliwell, pp. 7–9.

19 In Two Tudor Interludes, ed. Lancashire, vv. 205–67.

20 Gray notes the earliest surviving reference is from Exeter in 1426–7 (Simple Forms, pp. 235–6).

21 In Robin Hood, eds Knight and Ohlgren.

22 The anecdote appears towards the end of the Introduction, above.

23 In Rymes, pp. 203–7.

24 There are some questions about what is actually happening, whether Friar Tuck is attacking the Sheriff single-handed, or whether he is fighting with the other outlaws against him; the Sheriff may be leading two, or three, of them (see notes in the edition, and in Knight and Ohlgren).

25 In Rymes, pp. 208–14.

26 Both are printed in Rymes.

27 Gray notes ‘probably obscene’; it is not glossed in the edition.


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