Fabricating Lyric in Middle English Drama

The relationship between religious lyric and religious drama in medieval England is a close one.  Dramatic speeches of welcome and salutation (with each line beginning ‘hail…’ or ‘welcome’) are very similar in structure to surviving lyrics, often drawing on the same liturgy.  Research by George C Taylor has carefully explored the overlap in form and content between lyric and drama, and Lu Emily Pearson and Richard Osberg have also drawn attention to passages within plays which can be isolated as lyrics.  I’m interested not only in lyrics that you can isolate, but also moments in drama which draw on shared awareness of lyric form.  Here’s a post on one example in the N-town cycle, and next week a similar example from John Skelton’s early Tudor play, Magnificence.

Norwich boss
Roof boss from Norwich Cathedral showing Christ and Thomas from the University of Cambridge Medieval Imaginations website.

Play 38 of the N-Town cycle enacts the scene in which St Thomas the Apostle encounters the resurrected Christ.  Thomas will not believe reports that the risen Christ has been seen by Mary Magdalen and by Cleophas and Luke on the road to Emmaus.  He will only believe what is tangible, seen with his own eyes and felt with his own fingers.  Christ duly appears and invites Thomas both to behold and touch his wounds.  The pageant ends with a five-stanza monologue spoken by Thomas.  It is a speech of self-reproach for his earlier doubts, but also a statement of the role of that same doubt in strengthening the Christian faith: ‘be my grett dowte, oure feyth may we preve / Agens all the eretykys that speke of Cryst shame’ (387–8).

Image of Christ and Thomas from the Syon Cope, from the University of Cambridge Medieval Imaginations website

Each stanza ends with a refrain, a repeated last line in Latin: Quod mortuus et sepultus nunc resurrexit (‘he that was dead and buried is now risen’).  The final line of the play alters the wording a little in its reference to Christ ‘That mortuus et sepultus iterum resurrexit’ (‘he that was dead and buried is risen again’).  Thomas’s monologue thus takes the form of a refrain lyric with a final Latin line.  Quia amore langueo is one well-known example, and William Dunbar’s Timor mortis conturbat me is another.

You might think that the playwright has borrowed a pre-existing lyric, but if he has done so, I can find no trace of it.  Indeed, Rosemary Greentree’s very useful bibliography of the Middle English lyric has no entry for Doubting Thomas in the index, suggesting that lyrics speaking in the voice of Doubting Thomas haven’t survived, if they ever existed.  (But if you know of one, let me know!)  So in all likelihood, this playwright has not borrowed a lyric but fabricated his own more for the sake of form than of content.  In the fiction of the drama, Doubting Thomas, as he acknowledges the doubts that prove the mysteries of the Christian faith, spontaneously produces a popular contemporary lyric form, the refrain poem with Latin refrain.  Thomas’s doubt and certainty stand out from their surroundings as the playwright embodies them in lyric form.



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