Episode Nine: The Second Shepard's Play Christmas Special
Merry Christmas, Saturnalia, or whatever midwinter holiday you so choose to celebrate! This week, we've gone off the deep end to produce and perform a special radio-play of a Middle English mystery play.
Mystery plays were a common happenstance during the Middle Ages. Orignally performed by clergy as brief stage-plays during liturgical ritesthese performances grew in popularity and are akin to modern Passion plays around Easter, or living nativities at Christmas time. As the Catholic Church prohibited clergy from public performances due to the negative connotations associated with actors (who were often grouped with gypsies, prostitutes, and marauders), local acting guilds and performing groups took up these performances. While mystery plays were meant to be religious in nature, when they were taken out of the church, they lost a great deal of their religiosity and became more comedic in nature.
The Second Shepard's Play is a part of the Wakefield Cycle, the most famous of the thirty-two Wakefield plays. These plays were written in Middle English verse, though Mac has graciously translated the play for a modern audience. The play combines a high and low stylistic content; the first half of the play concerns the plight of working-class shepards and their theiving counterpart Mak, while the second part of the play focuses on the arrival of the Christ-child to redeem the world from its sin. These contraposing themes can also be seen in Shakespeare, who likewise combines highbrow content with lowbrow humor in his works.
The play opens with the shepherds Coll, Gib, and Daw lamenting their state under the thumb of their lord. They have little food, poor working conditions, and are frustrated at their lack of agency. Simultaneously, the play pokes fun at the Daw's incompetence at his job. After some time, Mak arrives, dressed in half-decent finery. Although he attempts to act as a high-born representative of the crown, the three shepherds recognise him as a theif and general scoundrel. All four of them decide to have a nap, and the shepherds make Mak lie in between them so he cannot sneak off with their wallets.
Mak, however, has greater things in mind. Careful not to wake his compainions, Mak draws a magic circle around the shepherds to ensure they remain asleep while he steals one of the sheep from the flock. He dashes home to his overworked wife, Gill, who at first repremands his theft, saying he'll hang if he's caught. However, Gill quickly cooks up a plot to get away with the caper. She wraps the sheep in linen as though it were a child, and says that should the shepards turn up, she'll lay in bed and moan as though she's just given birth.
Mak returns to the shepards before they wake. The group, apparantly satisfied that he has not stolen their wallets, let him go home. Later, however, when they realize a sheep is missing, the three shepherds show up at the house. The ruse is at first successful; the shepards leave empty-handed. However, when Daw's charity grips his heart, he returns to offer the child a few pennies and a kiss. Pushing past Mak, Daw lifts the linen over the 'child,' and sees its snout. The shepards recognize what has happened, and deal out some peasant justice- they toss Mak about in a canvas so that recives a bruising.
After this altercation, an angel of the Lord appears to the shepards and declares that the Lord and Savior has been born. The shepards, who had previously been swearing by Mary and Thomas Beckett, subtly travel both back in time and to Bethlehem to provide gifts to the Christ-child: ripe cherries, a bird (representing a dove), and a ball (representing the orb of kingship). The play concludes with the shepherds leaving in chorus.
Anachronisms and bizzare themes abound, so let's unpack some of them and explain some of the context behind this play.
Acting: Actors were associated with the common folk and criminals (or at least those who were viewed as criminals during the late middle ages). In fact, this connotation was so prevalent that when women were allowed onstage, they refused the title of 'actress,' which was associated with prostitution, and instead preferred the term 'actor.' However, at the time of this mystery play, women were not performing onstage. Women would perform in more private spaces, such as in the home or in convents, but to do so in public would be an affront. Thus, just like in Shakespeare, all the roles of women in these mystery plays were performed by men!
Notably, mystery plays were a cultural and community event. When not hosted by larger acting troupes or guilds, local plays would be performed by members in the community. Families would traditionally perform certain roles, to the point that some modern English last names represent the roles that families would play year after year, like Death, or King.
Purveyance: As the shepherds lament at the beginning of the play, life was not too great for the working class during the Middle Ages. In addition to a lack of human rights and good working conditions, the common stock had to put up with purveyance, which, as Mac so elegantly explains the podcast, is the medieval equivalent of civil asset forfeiture. If the crown or one of its officials needed resources, they would seize it from the locals. While repayment would technically be guaranteed, this was less common in practice. Before the English had a standing navy, for instance, they would seize ships in English harbors- along with their sailors. The impressment of sailors continued well into the 1800s, and was an early American complaint against the English, much like the Revolutionary complaint of housing redcoats without recompense.
The Common Folk: This play does an excellent job of illustrating a side of history that is often times hard to find- the perspective of the common people. Most literature at this time was written for educated men, giving modern scholars a very narrow view of the Middle Ages. Thankfully, records like the mystery plays survive to give us a wider perspective! This play in particular shows us the style of humor that folks enjoyed; the absurdity of the sheep theft takes over the majority of the play, while the nativity itself is more of a footnote. The inclusion of both is important, and demonstrates that human nature has not changed even after 500 years. We still find the same things funny; we still struggle against the hyper-rich and powerful; we still seek common justice.
The Working Woman: As Mak notes, there is a lot of room for a feminist reading of this play. Despite her hardworking attitude, Gill cannot find a moment to herself to work. This 'working woman' trope can still be found in modern media, but this text doesn't make Gill the butt of the joke. Though Gill is portrayed as a comic character, she is no less comic than her male counterparts. She also demonstrates the most cleverness within the play, and takes initiative in her relationship with Mak. Gill comes up with the plot to get away with her husband's theft, and it is she who enacts it. The text is also incredibly self-aware of woman's work; Gill points out that while her husband is out thieving, she looks after the kids while trying to spin and brew to make legitimate and legal money to support her family.
Mak's Magic Spell and the Gendering of Magic: In his attempt to steal a sheep, Mak uses a magic spell to ensure the shepherds stay asleep so he can get away with his crime. This prompted a digression on how magic was perceived in the Middle Ages. What is the difference between a witch and a wizard? Are these gendered terms? Much of modern media has made these terms gendered; this term does have some historical basis. Magic in the Middle Ages was a highly flexible, highly controversial category. In order to establish a culturally acceptable form of magic, learned men in courts and academia termed their magic 'natural magic' and became wizards. Such magic was entirely secular, whereas the magic of the low-brow and common witch (whether male or female) was connected to the devil. Since women were not included in these learned circles, but did act as local healers, the term 'witch' eventually became gendered. These ideas were incorrect even in the Medieval period, but became stereotypes that still exist to this day.
If you include magic in your games or works, we highly reccomend thinking carefully about how you term magic and magic users. Tabletop games provide incredible flexibility, and D&D and Pathfinder provide a variety of ways to identify as a magic user, including as a wizard, sorcerer, warlock, ranger, cleric, paladin, and witch! While most of these can be found in your standard Player's Handbook or at DnD Beyond, you can also explore the witch class here.
Here is Mak's magic spell in full:
"Bot abowte you a serkyll
As rownde as a moyn
To I have done that I wyll,
Tyll that it be noyn,
That ye lyg stone styll
To that I have doyne,
And I shall say thertyll
Of good wordys a foyne
Over youre heydys my hand I lyft;
Outt go youre een, fordo your syght
Bot yit I must make better shyft
And it be right."
(Additional stage directions and spell components not provided. Please cast responsibly.)
We hope you enjoyed our rendition of the Second Shepard's Play, and hope you have a blessed and peaceful holiday season, whatever you celebrate. Stay safe, stay sane, and we will see you in the New Year!
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. If you like what we do, consider giving us a rating and review on iTunes. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
More Middle English Mystery Plays. Link.
More about Mystery Plays: "Let the Drama Begin." Link.
Gardener, John. 'Structure and Tone in the Second Shepherds' Play.' Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. pp. 1-8. Link.
Feinstein, Sandy. 'Shrews and Sheep in "The Second Shepherds' Play."' Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 36. Penn State University Press, 2001. pp. 64-80. Link.
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