“The Pageant of the Exodus,” by Keith Laverack, 1957. Flickr.
The “Chester Mystery Plays” is a cycle of mystery plays originating in the city of Chester, England and dating back to at least the early part of the 15th century (“Chester Mystery Plays”).
A record of 1422 shows that the plays took place at the feast of Corpus Christi and this appears to have continued until 1521. Plays on Corpus Christi Day in 1475 included ‘The trial and flagellation of Christ’ and ‘The Crucifixion’. The plays were then expanded into a three-day cycle on Whit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. In the years between the plays there was the Chester Midsummer Watch Parade instead.
The plays are based on biblical texts, from creation to the Last Judgement. They were enacted by common guildsmen and craftsmen on mounted stages that were moved around the city streets, with each company or guild performing one play.
The most well-known of the Chester plays relates the story of Noah and the Great Flood, traditionally acted by the Drawers of Dee (watercarriers). In it, Noah and his sons load up the provisions and the animals while his wife gossips with the neighbours. Noah urges her to hurry aboard, “The flood comes in fleeting fast; On every side it speadeth full fare; For fear of drowning I am agast; Good gossip, let us draw near”. However, Noah’s wife keeps on drinking and gossiping until, eventually, the sons carry her onto the ark by force. At the end of the play, God provides a rainbow as a token that mankind has had enough punishment for its sinful deeds.
“Chester Mystery Plays.” Wikipedia. 19 June 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_Mystery_Plays Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.
- What do you see as some of the essential differences between this account of Noah’s flood and that found in the Book of Genesis?
- This play was usually performed on Pentecost; what might be the connection between this holiday and the themes of the play?
- What is the depiction of women in this play and what does this tell us religious and cultural views of women during this period?
- What purpose did mystery plays serve in medieval England?
- What is the legacy of mystery plays on English theatre?
Reading: The Chester Play of Noah’s Flood
- Noah’s Wife
- Shem’s Wife
- Ham’s Wife
- Japhet’s Wife
THE CHESTER PAGEANT OF THE DELUGE
God. I, God, that all the world have wrought
Heaven and Earth, and all of nought,
I see my people, in deed and thought,
Are foully set in sin.
My ghost shall not lodge in any man
That through fleshly liking is my fone,
But till six score years be gone
To look if they will blynne.
Man that I made I will destroy,
Beast, worm, and fowl to fly,
For on earth they me annoy,
The folk that is thereon.
For it harms me so hurtfully
The malice now that can multiply,
That sore it grieveth me inwardly,
That ever I made man.
Therefore Noah, my servant free,
That righteous man art, as I see,
A ship soon thou shalt make thee,
Of trees dry and light.
Little chambers therein thou make
And binding slich also thou take
Within and out, thou not slake
To annoint it through all thy might.
Three hundred cubits it shall be long,
And so of breadth to make it strong,
Of height so, then must thou fonge,
Thus measure it about.
One window work though thy might;
One cubit of length and breadth make it,
Upon the side a door shall fit
For to come in and out.
Eating-places thou make also,
Three roofed chambers, one or two:
For with water I think to stow
Man that I can make.
Destroyed all the world shall be,
Save thou, thy wife, and sons three,
And all their wives, also, with thee,
Shall saved be for thy sake.
Noah. Ah, Lord! I thank thee, loud and still,
That to me art in such will,
And spares me and my house to spill
As now I soothly find.
Thy bidding, Lord, I shall fulfil,
And never more thee grieve nor grill
That such grace has sent me till
Among all mankind.
Have done you men and women all;
Help, for aught that may befall,
To work this ship, chamber, and hall,
As God hath bidden us do.
Shem. Father, I am already bowne,
An axe I have, by my crown!
As sharp as any in all this town
For to go thereto.
Ham. I have a hatchet, wonder keen,
To bite well, as may be seen,
A better ground one, as I ween,
Is not in all this town.
Japhet. And I can well make a pin,
And with this hammer knock it in;
Go and work without more din;
And I am ready bowne.
Noah’s Wife. And we shall bring timber too,
For women nothing else to do
Women be weak to undergo
Any great travail.
Shem’s Wife. Here is a good hackstock;
On this you must hew and knock:
Shall none be idle in this flock,
Nor now may no man fail.
Ham’s Wife. And I will go to gather slich,
The ship for to clean and pitch;
Anointed it must be, every stitch,
Board, tree, and pin.
Japhet’s Wife. And I will gather chips here
To make a fire for you, in fear,
And for to dight your dinner,
Against you come in.
[Here they make signs as though they were working divers instruments.
Noah. Now in the name of God I will begin,
To make the ship that we shall in,
That we be ready for to swim,
At the coming of the flood.
These boards I join together,
To keep us safe from the weather
That we may roam both hither and thither
And safe be from this flood.
Of this tree will I have the mast,
Tied with gables that will last
With a sail yard for each blast
And each thing in its kind.
With topmast high and bowsprit.
With cords and ropes, I hold all fit
To sail forth at the next weete
This ship is at an end.
Wife in this castle we shall be kept:
My children and thou I would in leaped!
Noah’s Wife. In faith, Noe, I had as lief thou had slept, for all thy frankishfare,
For I will not do after thy rede.
Noah. Good wife, do as I thee bid.
Noah’s Wife. By Christ not, or I see more need,
Though thou stand all the day and rave.
Noah. Lord, that women be crabbed aye!
And never are meek, that I dare say.
This is well seen of me to-day
In witness of you each one.
Good wife, let be all this beere
That thou makest in this place here,
For they all ween thou art master;
And so thou art, by St. John!
God. Noah, take thou thy company
And in the ship hie that you be,
For none so righteous man to me
Is now on earth living.
Of clean beasts with thee thou take
Seven and seven, or thou seake,
He and she make to make
Quickly in that thou bring.
Of beasts unclean two and two,
Male and female, without more;
Of clean fowls seven also,
The he and she together.
Of fowles unclean two, and no more;
Of beasts as I said before:
That shall be saved through my lore
Against I send the weather.
Of all meats that must be eaten
Into the ship look there be gotten,
For that no way may be forgotten
And do all this by deene.
To sustain man and beasts therein,
Aye, till the waters cease and blyn.
This world is filled full of sin
And that is now well seen.
Seven days be yet coming,
You shall have space them in to bring;
After that it is my liking
Mankind for to annoy.
Forty days and forty nights,
Rain shall fall for their unrights;
And that I have made through my might,
Now think I to destroy.
Noah. Lord, at your bidding I am bayne,
Since none other grace will gain,
It will I fulfil fain,
For gracious I thee find.
A hundred winters and twenty
This ship making tarried have I:
If, through amendment, any mercy
Would fall unto mankind.
Have done, you men and women all.
Hie you, lest this water fall,
That each beast were in his stall
And into ship brought.
Of clean beasts seven shall be;
Of unclean two, this God bade me;
This flood is nigh, well may we see,
Therefore tarry you nought.
Shem. Sir, here are lions, leopards in,
Horses, mares, oxen, and swine,
Goats, calves, sheep, and kine,
Here sitten may you see.
Ham. Camels, asses, men may find;
Buck, doe, hart and hind,
And beasts of all manner kind.
Here be, as thinks me.
Japhet. Take here cats and dogs too,
Otter, fox, fulmart also;
Hares, hopping gaily, can ye
Have kail here for to eat.
Noah’s Wife. And here are bears, wolves set,
Apes, owls, marmoset;
Weasels, squirrels, and ferret
Here they eat their meat.
Shem’s Wife. Yet more beasts are in this house!
Here cats come in full crowse,
Here a rat and here a mouse;
They stand nigh together.
Ham’s Wife. And here are fowls less and more,
Herons, cranes and bittern;
Swans, peacocks, have them before!
Meat for this weather.
Japhet’s Wife. Here are cocks, kites, crows,
Rooks, ravens, many rows;
Cuckoos, curlews, whoso knows,
Each one in his kind.
And here are doves, ducks, drakes,
Redshanks, running through the lakes,
And each fowl that language makes
In this ship men may find.
[In the stage direction the sons of Noah are enjoined to mention aloud the names of the animals which enter; a representation of which, painted on parchment, is to be carried by the actors.
Noah. Wife, come in, why standest thou there?
Thou art ever forward, that I dare swear:
Come on God’s half, time it were,
For fear lest that we drown.
Noah’s Wife. Yea, sir, set up your sail
And row forth with evil heale,
For, without any fail,
I will not out of this town.
But I have my gossips every one,
One foot further I will not go;
They shall not drown, by St. John!
If I may save their life.
They loved me full well, by Christ!
But thou wilt let them in thy chest,
Else row forth, Noah, whither thou list,
And get thee a new wife.
Noah. Shem, some love thy mother, ’tis true;
Forsooth, such another I do not know!
Shem. Father, I shall set her in, I trow,
Without any fail.
Mother, my father after thee sends,
And bids thee unto yonder ship wend,
Look up and see the wind,
For we be ready to sail.
Noah’s Wife. Son, go again to him and say
I will not come therein to-day!
Noah. Come in, wife, in twenty devils’ way,
Or else stand without.
Ham. Shall we all fetch her in?
Noah. Yea, sons, in Christ’s blessing and mine,
I would you hied you betime,
For of this flood I am in doubt.
Japhet. Mother, we pray you altogether,
For we are here, your children;
Come into the ship for fear of the weather,
For his love that you bought!
Noah’s Wife. That I will not for your call,
But if I have my gossips all.
Gossip. The flood comes in full fleeting fast,
On every side it broadens in haste;
For fear of drowning I am aghast:
Good gossip, let me come in!
Or let us drink ere we depart,
For oftentimes we have done so;
For at a time thou drinkst a quart,
And so will I ere that I go.
Shem. In faith, mother, yet you shall,
Whether you will or not!
Noah. Welcome, wife, into this boat!
Noah’s Wife. And have them that for thy note!
[Et dat alapam victa.
Noah. Aha! marry, this is hot!
It is good to be still.
My children! methinks this boat removes!
Our tarrying here hugely me grieves!
Over the land the water spreads!
God do as he will!
Ah, great God, thou art so good!
Now all this world is in a flood
As I see well in sight.
This window will I close anon,
And into my chamber will I gone
Till this water, so great one,
Be slakèd through thy might.
[Noah, according to stage directions, is now to shut the windows of the ark and retire for a short time. He is then to chant the psalm, Salva me, Domine! and afterwards to open them and look out.
Now forty days are fully gone.
Send a raven I will anon;
If aught were earth, tree, or stone,
Be dry in any place.
And if this fowl come not again
It is a sign, sooth to say,
That dry it is on hill or plain,
And God hath done some grace.
[A raven is now despatched.
Ah, Lord! wherever this raven lie,
Somewhere is dry well I see;
But yet a dove, by my lewtye
After I will send.
Thou wilt turn again to me
For of all fowls that may fly
Thou art most meek and hend.
[The stage direction enjoins here that another dove shall be ready with an olive branch in its mouth, which is to be dropped by means of a cord into Noah’s hand.
Ah Lord! blessed be thou aye,
That me hast comforted thus to-day!
By this sight, I may well say
This flood begins to cease.
My sweet dove to me brought has
A branch of olive from some place;
This betokeneth God has done us some grace,
And is a sign of peace.
Ah, Lord! honoured must thou be!
All earth dries now I see;
But yet, till thou command me,
Hence will I not hie.
All this water is away,
Therefore as soon as I may
Sacrifice I shall do in faye
To thee devoutly.
God. Noah, take thy wife anon,
And thy children every one,
Out of the ship thou shalt gone,
And they all with thee.
Beasts and all that can flie,
Out anon they shall hie,
On earth to grow and multiply:
I will that it be so.
Noah. Lord, I thank thee, through thy might,
Thy bidding shall be done in hight,
And, as fast as I may dight
I will do thee honour.
And to thee offer sacrifice,
Therefore comes in all wise,
For of these beasts that be his
Offer I will this stower.
[Then leaving the ark with his whole family, he shall take the animals and birds, make an offering of them, and set out on his way.
Lord God, in majesty,
That such grace has granted me,
When all was borne safe to be,
Therefore now I am boune.
My wife, my children, my company,
With sacrifice to honour thee,
With beasts, fowls, as thou may see,
I offer here right soon.
God. Noah, to me thou art full able,
And thy sacrifice acceptable,
For I have found thee true and stable,
On thee now must I myn.
Curse earth will I no more
That man’s sin it grieves sore,
For of youth man full of yore
Has been inclined to sin.
You shall now grow and multiply
And earth you edify,
Each beast and fowl that may flie
Shall be afraid for you.
And fish in sea that may flitt
Shall sustain you–I you behite
To eat of them you not lett
That clean be you may know.
There as you have eaten before
Grasses and roots, since you were born,
Of clean beasts, less and more,
I give you leave to eat.
Save blood and fish both in fear
Of wrong dead carrion that is here,
Eat not of that in no manner,
For that aye you shall lett.
Manslaughter also you shall flee,
For that is not pleasant to me
That sheds blood, he or she
Ought where among mankind.
That sheds blood, his blood shall be
And vengeance have, that men shall see;
Therefore now beware now all ye
You fall not in that sin.
And forward now with you I make
And all thy seed, for thy sake,
Of such vengeance for to slake,
For now I have my will.
Here I promise thee a behest,
That man, woman, fowl, nor beast
With water while the world shall last,
I will no more spill.
My bow between you and me
In the firmament shall be,
By very tokens, that you may see
That such vengeance shall cease.
That man, nor woman, shall never more
Be wasted by water, as is before,
But for sin that grieveth sore,
Therefore this vengeance was.
Where clouds in the welkin
That each bow shall be seen,
In token that my wrath or tene
Should never this wroken be.
The string is turned toward you,
And toward me bent is the bow,
That such weather shall never show,
And this do I grant to thee.
My blessing now I give thee here,
To thee Noah, my servant dear;
For vengeance shall no more appear;
And now farewell, my darling dear!
Rhys, Ernest, ed. Everyman and Other Old Religious Plays, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1909, is licensed under no known copyright.