Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Mysteries, Moralities, Farces, and Sotties.

The origin of the theatrical representations of the ancients has been traced back to a Grecian stroller singing in a cart to the honour of Bacchus. Our European exhibitions, perhaps as rude in their commencement, were likewise for a long time devoted to pious purposes, under the titles of Mysteries and Moralities. Of these primeval compositions of the drama of modern Europe, I have collected some anecdotes and some specimens.1

It appears that pilgrims introduced these devout spectacles. Those who returned from the Holy Land or other consecrated places composed canticles of their travels, and amused their religious fancies by interweaving scenes of which Christ, the Apostles, and other objects of devotion, served as the themes. Menestrier informs us that these pilgrims travelled in troops, and stood in the public streets, where they recited their poems, with their staff in hand; while their chaplets and cloaks, covered with shells and images of various colours formed a picturesque exhibition, which at length excited the piety of the citizens to erect occasionally a stage on an extensive spot of ground. These spectacles served as the amusements and instruction of the people. So attractive were these gross exhibitions in the middle ages, that they formed one of the principal ornaments of the reception of princes on their public entrances.

When the Mysteries were performed at a more improved period, the actors were distinguished characters, and frequently consisted of the ecclesiastics of the neighbouring villages, who incorporated themselves under the title of Confrères de la Passion. Their productions were divided, not into acts, but into different days of performance, and they were performed in the open plain. This was at least conformable to the critical precept of that mad knight whose opinion is noticed by Pope. It appears by a MS. in the Harleian library, that they were thought to contribute so much to the information and instruction of the people, that one of the Popes granted a pardon of one thousand days to every person who resorted peaceably to the plays performed in the Whitsun week at Chester, beginning with “The Creation,” and ending with the “General Judgment.” These were performed at the expense of the different corporations of that city, and the reader may smile at the ludicrous combinations. “The Creation” was performed by the Drapers; the “Deluge” by the Dyers; “Abraham, Melchisedech, and Lot,” by the Barbers; “The Purification” by the Blacksmiths; “The Last Supper” by the Bakers; the “Resurrection” by the Skinners; and the “Ascension” by the Tailors. In these pieces the actors represented the person of the Almighty without being sensible of the gross impiety. So unskilful were they in this infancy of the theatrical art, that very serious consequences were produced by their ridiculous blunders and ill-managed machinery. The following singular anecdotes are preserved, concerning a Mystery which took up several days in the performance.

“In the year 1437, when Conrad Bayer, Bishop of Metz, caused the Mystery of ‘The Passion’ to be represented on the plain of Veximel near that city, God was an old gentleman, named Mr. Nicholas Neufchatel, of Touraine, curate of Saint Victory, of Metz, and who was very near expiring on the cross had he not been timely assisted. He was so enfeebled, that it was agreed another priest should be placed on the cross the next day, to finish the representation of the person crucified, and which was done; at the same time Mr. Nicholas undertook to perform ‘The Resurrection,’ which being a less difficult task, he did it admirably well."— Another priest, whose name was Mr. John de Nicey, curate of Metrange, personated Judas, and he had like to have been stifled while he hung on the tree, for his neck slipped; this being at length luckily perceived, he was quickly cut down and recovered.

John Bouchet, in his “Annales d’Aquitaine,” a work which contains many curious circumstances of the times, written with that agreeable simplicity which characterises the old writers, informs us, that in 1486 he saw played and exhibited in Mysteries by persons of Poitiers, “The Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ,” in great triumph and splendour; there were assembled on this occasion most of the ladies and gentlemen of the neighbouring counties.

We will now examine the Mysteries themselves. I prefer for this purpose to give a specimen from the French, which are livelier than our own. It is necessary to premise to the reader, that my versions being in prose will probably lose much of that quaint expression and vulgar naïveté which prevail through the originals, written in octo-syllabic verses.

One of these Mysteries has for its subject the election of an apostle to supply the place of the traitor Judas. A dignity so awful is conferred in the meanest manner; it is done by drawing straws, of which he who gets the longest becomes the apostle. Louis Chocquet was a favourite composer of these religious performances: when he attempts the pathetic, he has constantly recourse to devils; but, as these characters are sustained with little propriety, his pathos succeeds in raising a laugh. In the following dialogue Annas and Caiaphas are introduced conversing about St. Peter and St. John:——


I remember them once very honest people. They have often brought

their fish to my house to sell.


Is this true?



By God, it is true; my servants remember them very well. To live

more at their ease they have left off business; or perhaps they were in

want of customers. Since that time they have followed Jesus, that wicked

heretic, who has taught them magic; the fellow understands necromancy,

and is the greatest magician alive, as far as Rome itself.

St. John, attacked by the satellites of Domitian, amongst whom the author has placed Longinus and Patroclus, gives regular answers to their insulting interrogatories. Some of these I shall transcribe; but leave to the reader’s conjectures the replies of the Saint, which are not difficult to anticipate.


You tell us strange things, to say there is but one God in three persons.


Is it any where said that we must believe your old prophets (with whom your memory seems overburdened) to be more perfect than our gods?

pathoclus. You must be very cunning to maintain impossibilities. Now listen to me: Is it possible that a virgin can bring forth a child without ceasing to be a virgin?


Will you not change these foolish sentiments? Would you pervert us? Will you not convert yourself? Lords! you perceive now very clearly what an obstinate fellow this is! Therefore let him be stripped and put into a great caldron of boiling oil. Let him die at the Latin Gate.


The great devil of hell fetch me if I don’t Latinise him well. Never shall they hear at the Latin Gate any one sing so well as he shall sing.


I dare venture to say he won’t complain of being frozen.


Frita, run quick; bring wood and coals, and make the caldron ready.


I promise him, if he has the gout or the itch, he will soon get rid of them.

St. John dies a perfect martyr, resigned to the boiling oil and gross jests of Patroclus and Longinus. One is astonished in the present times at the excessive absurdity, and indeed blasphemy, which the writers of these Moralities permitted themselves, and, what is more extraordinary, were permitted by an audience consisting of a whole town. An extract from the “Mystery of St. Dennis” is in the Duke de la Vallière’s “Bibliothèque du Théâtre François depuis son Origine: Dresde, 1768.”

The emperor Domitian, irritated against the Christians, persecutes them, and thus addresses one of his courtiers:——

Seigneurs Romains, j’ai entendu

Que d’un crucifix d’un pendu,

On fait un Dieu par notre empire,

Sans ce qu’on le nous daigne dire.

Roman lords, I understand

That of a crucified hanged man

They make a God in our kingdom,

Without even deigning to ask our permission.

He then orders an officer to seize on Dennis in France. When this officer arrives at Paris, the inhabitants acquaint him of the rapid and grotesque progress of this future saint:——

Sire, il preche un Dieu à Paris

Qui fait tout les mouls et les vauls.

Il va à cheval sans chevauls.

Il fait et defait tout ensemble.

Il vit, il meurt, il sue, il tremble.

Il pleure, il rit, il veille, et dort.

Il est jeune et vieux, foible et fort.

Il fait d’un coq une poulette.

Il joue des arts de roulette,

Ou je ne Sçais que ce peut être.

Sir, he preaches a God at Paris

Who has made mountain and valley.

He goes a horseback without horses.

He does and undoes at once.

He lives, he dies, he sweats, he trembles.

He weeps, he laughs, he wakes, and sleeps.

He is young and old, weak and strong.

He turns a cock into a hen.

He knows how to conjure with cup and ball,

Or I do not know who this can be.

Another of these admirers says, evidently alluding to the rite of baptism — —

Sire, oyez que fait ce fol prestre:

Il prend de l’yaue en une escuele,

Et gete aux gens sur le cervele,

Et dit que partants sont sauvés!

Sir, hear what this mad priest does:

He takes water out of a ladle,

And, throwing it at people’s heads,

He says that when they depart they are saved!

This piece then proceeds to entertain the spectators with the tortures of St. Dennis, and at length, when more than dead, they mercifully behead him: the Saint, after his decapitation, rises very quietly, takes his head under his arm, and walks off the stage in all the dignity of martyrdom.

It is justly observed by Bayle on these wretched representations, that while they prohibited the people from meditating on the sacred history in the book which contains it in all its purity and truth, they permitted them to see it on the theatre sullied with a thousand gross inventions, which were expressed in the most vulgar manner and in a farcical style. Warton, with his usual elegance, observes, “To those who are accustomed to contemplate the great picture of human follies which the unpolished ages of Europe hold up to our view, it will not appear surprising that the people who were forbidden to read the events of the sacred history in the Bible, in which they are faithfully and beautifully related, should at the same time be permitted to see them represented on the stage disgraced with the grossest improprieties, corrupted with inventions and additions of the most ridiculous kind, sullied with impurities, and expressed in the language and gesticulations of the lowest farce.” Elsewhere he philosophically observes that, however, they had their use, “not only teaching the great truths of scripture to men who could not read the Bible, but in abolishing the barbarous attachment to military games and the bloody contentions of the tournament, which had so long prevailed as the sole species of popular amusement. Rude, and even ridiculous as they were, they softened the manners of the people, by diverting the public attention to spectacles in which the mind was concerned, and by creating a regard for other arts than those of bodily strength and savage valour.”

Mysteries are to be distinguished from Moralities, and Farces, and Sotties. Moralities are dialogues where the interlocutors represented feigned or allegorical personages. Farces were more exactly what their title indicates — obscene, gross, and dissolute representations, where both the actions and words are alike reprehensible.

The Sotties were more farcical than farce, and frequently had the licentiousness of pasquinades. I shall give an ingenious specimen of one of the Moralities. This Morality is entitled, “The Condemnation of Feasts, to the Praise of Diet and Sobriety for the Benefit of the Human Body.”

The perils of gormandising form the present subject. Towards the close is a trial between Feasting and Supper. They are summoned before Experience, the Lord Chief Justice! Feasting and Supper are accused of having murdered four persons by force of gorging them. Experience condemns Feasting to the gallows; and his executioner is Diet. Feasting asks for a father-confessor, and makes a public confession of so many crimes, such numerous convulsions, apoplexies, head-aches, and stomach-qualms, &c., which he has occasioned, that his executioner Diet in a rage stops his mouth, puts the cord about his neck, and strangles him. Supper is only condemned to load his hands with a certain quantity of lead, to hinder him from putting too many dishes on table: he is also bound over to remain at the distance of six hours’ walking from Dinner upon pain of death. Supper felicitates himself on his escape, and swears to observe the mitigated sentence.2

The Moralities were allegorical dramas, whose tediousness seems to have delighted a barbarous people not yet accustomed to perceive that what was obvious might be omitted to great advantage: like children, everything must be told in such an age; their own unexercised imagination cannot supply anything.

Of the Farces the licentiousness is extreme, but their pleasantry and their humour are not contemptible. The “Village Lawyer,” which is never exhibited on our stage without producing the broadest mirth, originates among these ancient drolleries. The humorous incident of the shepherd, who having stolen his master’s sheep, is advised by his lawyer only to reply to his judge by mimicking the bleating of a sheep, and when the lawyer in return claims his fee, pays him by no other coin, is discovered in these ancient farces. Bruèys got up the ancient farce of the ”Patelin“ in 1702, and we borrowed it from him.

They had another species of drama still broader than Farce, and more strongly featured by the grossness, the severity, and personality of satire:— these were called Sotties, of which the following one I find in the Duke de la Vallière’s “Bibliothèque du Théâtre François.”3

The actors come on the stage with their fools’-caps each wanting the right ear, and begin with stringing satirical proverbs, till, after drinking freely, they discover that their fools’-caps want the right ear. They call on their old grandmother Sottie (or Folly), who advises them to take up some trade. She introduces this progeny of her fools to the World, who takes them into his service. The World tries their skill, and is much displeased with their work. The Cobbler-fool pinches his feet by making the shoes too small; the Tailor-fool hangs his coat too loose or too tight about him; the Priest-fool says his masses either too short or too tedious. They all agree that the World does not know what he wants, and must be sick, and prevail upon him to consult a physician. The World obligingly sends what is required to a Urine-doctor, who instantly pronounces that “the World is as mad as a March hare!” He comes to visit his patient, and puts a great many questions on his unhappy state. The World replies, “that what most troubles his head is the idea of a new deluge by fire, which must one day consume him to a powder;” on which the physician gives this answer:——

Et te troubles-tu pour cela?

Monde, tu ne te troubles pas

De voir ce larrons attrapars

Vendre et acheter benefices;

Les enfans en bras des Nourices

Estre Abbés, Eveques, Prieurs,

Chevaucher tres bien les deux soeurs,

Tuer les gens pour leurs plaisirs,

Jouer le leur, l’autrui saisir,

Donner aux flatteurs audience,

Faire la guerre à toute outrance

Pour un rien entre les chrestiens!

And you really trouble yourself about this?

Oh, World! you do not trouble yourself about

Seeing those impudent rascals

Selling and buying livings;

Children in the arms of their nurses

Made Abbots, Bishops, and Priors,

Intriguing with girls,

Killing people for their pleasures,

Minding their own interests, and seizing on what belongs to another,

Lending their ears to flatterers,

Making war, exterminating war,

For a bubble, among Christians!

The World takes leave of his physician, but retains his advice; and to cure his fits of melancholy gives himself up entirely to the direction of his fools. In a word, the World dresses himself in the coat and cap of Folly, and he becomes as gay and ridiculous as the rest of the fools.

This Sottie was represented in the year 1524.

Such was the rage for Mysteries, that René d’Anjou, king of Naples and Sicily, and Count of Provence, had them magnificently represented and made them a serious concern. Being in Provence, and having received letters from his son the Prince of Calabria, who asked him for an immediate aid of men, he replied, that “he had a very different matter in hand, for he was fully employed in settling the order of a Mystery — in honour of God.4

Strutt, in his “Manners and Customs of the English,” has given a description of the stage in England when Mysteries were the only theatrical performances. Vol. iii, p. 130.

“In the early dawn of literature, and when the sacred Mysteries were the only theatrical performances, what is now called the stage did then consist of three several platforms, or stages raised one above another. On the uppermost sat the Pater Cœlestis, surrounded with his Angels; on the second appeared the Holy Saints, and glorified men; and the last and lowest was occupied by mere men who had not yet passed from this transitory life to the regions of eternity. On one side of this lowest platform was the resemblance of a dark pitchy cavern, from whence issued appearance of fire and flames; and, when it was necessary, the audience were treated with hideous yellings and noises as imitative of the howlings and cries of the wretched souls tormented by the relentless demons. From this yawning cave the devils themselves constantly ascended to delight and to instruct the spectators:— to delight, because they were usually the greatest jesters and buffoons that then appeared; and to instruct, for that they treated the wretched mortals who were delivered to them with the utmost cruelty, warning thereby all men carefully to avoid the falling into the clutches of such hardened and remorseless spirits.” An anecdote relating to an English Mystery presents a curious specimen of the manners of our country, which then could admit of such a representation; the simplicity, if not the libertinism, of the age was great. A play was acted in one of the principal cities of England, under the direction of the trading companies of that city, before a numerous assembly of both sexes, wherein Adam and Eve appeared on the stage entirely naked, performed their whole part in the representation of Eden, to the serpent’s temptation, to the eating of the forbidden fruit, the perceiving of, and conversing about, their nakedness, and to the supplying of fig-leaves to cover it. Warton observes they had the authority of scripture for such a representation, and they gave matters just as they found them in the third chapter of Genesis. The following article will afford the reader a specimen of an Elegant Morality.

1 Since this article was written, many of these ancient Mysteries and Moralities have been printed at home and abroad. Hone, in his “Ancient Mysteries Described,” 1825, first gave a summary of the Ludus Coventriæ, the famous mysteries performed by the trading companies of Coventry; the entire series have been since printed by the Shakspeare Society, under the editorship of Mr. Halliwell, and consist of forty-two dramas, founded on incidents in the Old and New Testaments. The equally famous Chester Mysteries were also printed by the same society under the editorship of Mr. Wright, and consist of twenty-five long dramas, commencing with “The Fall of Lucifer,” and ending with “Doomsday.” In 1834, the Abbotsford Club published some others from the Digby MS., in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. In 1825, Mr. Sharp, of Coventry, published a dissertation on the Mysteries once performed there, and printed the Pageant of the Sheremen and Taylor’s Company; and in 1836 the Abbotsford Club printed the Pageant played by the Weavers of that city. In 1836, the Surtees Society published the series known as The Towneley Mysteries, consisting of thirty-two dramas; in 1838, Dr. Marriott published in English, at Basle, a selection of the most curious of these dramas. In 1837, M. Achille Jubinal published two octavo volumes of French “Mystères inédits du Quinzième Siècle.” This list might be swelled by other notes of such books, printed within the last thirty years, in illustration of these early religious dramas.

2 In Jubinal’s Tapisseries Anciennes is engraved that found in the tent of Charles the Bold, at Nancy, and still preserved in that city. It is particularly curious, inasmuch as it depicts the incidents described in the Morality above-named.

3 The British Museum library was enriched in 1845 by a very curions collection of these old comic plays, which was formed about 1560. It consists of sixty-four dramas, of which number only five or six were known before. They are exceedingly curious as pictures of early manners and amusements; very simple in construction, and containing few characters. One is a comic dialogue between two persons as to the best way of managing a wife. Another has for its plot the adventure of a husband sent from home by the seigneur of the village, that he may obtain access to his wife; and who is checkmated by the peasant, who repairs to the neglected lady of the seigneur. Some are entirely composed of allegorical characters; all are broadly comic, in language equally broad. They were played by a jocular society, whose chief was termed Prince des Sots; hence the name Sotties given to the farces.

4 The peasants of the Ober-Ammergau, a village in the Bavarian Alps, still perform, at intervals of ten years, a long miracle play, detailing the chief incidents of the Passion of our Saviour from his entrance into Jerusalem to his ascension. It is done in fulfilment of a vow made during a pestilence in 1633. The performance lasted twelve hours in 1850, when it was last performed. The actors were all of the peasant class.

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