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01/07/2014 / rooswrites

The League of Extraordinary Unified Dichotomy of Medieval English Drama: Mystery and Miracle Play in Mary’s Eerste Bliscap (First Joy)

The field of medieval English drama is dominated by two genres, namely by the miracle and morality plays. Within the corpus of plays that still exist, the majority of plays are those dealing with historical events. These plays came forth from “symbolic re-enactments” (Potter 6) of the Resurrection, which is Christianity’s cardinal historical happening. Such re-enactments evolved into the well-known cycle plays. Critics use a division that splits up the bulk of cycle plays, that is into miracle and mystery plays. The miracle plays are the ones based on saints’s lives and the mystery variety is based on the Scripture. Potter is of the opinion that there are “many things wrong” with this division, mainly due to historical interchangeable use of the term ‘miracle’ (7). A third genre that is distinguished, apart from the cycle plays, is that of the morality plays. Only five of these medieval English plays have survived the wrath of time. Similarly to the cycle plays, the morality plays deal with Christian values, were written in English and performed for the general population. However, the big difference lies in the thematic subjectmatter. Morality plays deal with the life of the individual human in a context representative for the larger whole, where the cycles take on matters of human history. Therefore it is highly interesting to note that important elements of both genres are represented in one medieval Dutch play. This play, titled Die Eerste Bliscap, is dated around 1450 and considered to be a miracle play due to its “dramatisation of the mysteries of faith” (Kuiper 128), of the conception of Mary and the Annunciation. At the same time, however, principal “elements of the morality tradition appear” (Potter 173). Die Eerste Bliscap is a hybrid play that embodies both great traditional genres of medieval English drama.

In order to proceed by offering a complete examination of Die Eerste Bliscap and its characteristics, a short summary of the play necessitates itself. The title of the play refers to Mary’s joys, seven in total, of which the first is the Annunciation. The first joy is followed by the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Resurrected Christ’s appearance to Mary, Christ’s Ascension, Pentecost, and Mary’s own bodily Assumption into heaven (Davidson 164-165). The play of Mary’s Eerste Bliscap starts not with Mary or God deliberating with an angel over the Annunciation. However, it does start with two of the fallen angels, Lucifer and his helper Nijd (Anger) who are contemplating their revenge, which leads to the fall of man. Following this wicked event is a trial during which God addresses Lucifer. God bans Adam and Eve from their paradise and they (and their offspring) are burdened with original sin. Eventually, five thousand years later, God puts plans in motion to send his own Son to the people. The couple Joachim and Anna conceive their child immaculately and nine months later, Mary is born. When she is three years old, Mary leaves for the temple. After nine years, Mary has to leave and due to a miracle she is to be wed to the carpenter Josef. While he is away, Mary receives news from the angel Gabriël that she is chosen to be the mother of God’s Son. And so the play ends. It is remarkable that the majority of lines deal not with Mary or with the Annunciation, but with the historical events that precede these developments. Potter also notices that the play, apart from the traditional miracle play, “comprehends all previous human history in its attempt to account for the historical necessity of Mary” (172).

Subsequently, there is the issue of the performance of Die Eerste Bliscap. The prologue refers explicitly to Brussels as the place of action: “Tprieel uut Troyen, den edelen greyne, / Gegroyt, gebloeyt, es Bruesel genaemt,” (EB. 54 l. 24-25). Documentation accompanying the manuscript shows that all performers played various (usually two) parts and that they were not part of restricted guilds, but commoners in general. One of them, Peeter, was a “mesmaker” (knifemaker) and another a “legwerker” (weaver). This leads Beuken to the conclusion that the commonalty reigned supreme over the Flemish drama of those days (24). By looking at the type of performers, Die Eerste Bliscap could initially be regarded as a miracle play. As the morality plays were “acted by troops of wandering professional players” (Wertz 438), a variety of commoners is rather similar to the guilds that acted out the cycle plays. Concerning the matter of interdependence, there was not much interaction with the audience, apart from a little tongue-in-cheek humour here and there. The staging of the play did not facilitate itself for such interaction, as it was highly likely to be performed on so-called “huisjes-toneel” (stage of houses) and every year the city of Brussels would make a “stellinge” for the plays to be performed on, according to their city plans (Beuken 24). Subtle directions in the play itself — a comment with “boven” (upstairs, EB. 95 l. 916) — hints to the necessity of various little houses, which were stationed higher than the main stage, as illustrated below.

Image I: “Hierop waren de spelen betoogt”. (Erenstein 99)

This “huisjes-toneel” seems a combination of the multi-layered pageants and the place-on-scaffolds. The difference lies in the mobile and temporary nature of both pageants and scaffolds, whereas the stage for Die Eerste Bliscap was more permanent of nature, as all seven Bliscapen (Joys) were performed on it in the period of one year.

In Mary’s Eerste Bliscap elements from both miracle and morality play are accounted for. The tradition of miracle plays is unequivocal in the essential substance of the play. Die Eerste Bliscap deals with historical events from the Scripture, together with the life of a saint, Mary. The presence of the fall in a play about Mary is not as out of character as it initially seems. Its references can be justified by comparing it with other English cycle plays. In the Towneley (T) cycle play about Mary’s Annunciation, there are parallel references to the fall of man, something that Vriend argues is present in very few other cycles (64). Firstly, there is a parallel in characters: a virgin (Eve), a man (Adam) and an angel (the devil) were the prominent characters in a cycle play on the downfall. Then again, another man (Christ), another virgin (Mary) and another angel (Gabriël) bring the reverse, namely salvation in the story of the Annunciation. In Eden there was the forbidden tree whereas the “life giving roodtree of Calvary” (or Middledutch: Boec vanden houte) does the exact opposite (Vriend 64):


Ffor reson wyll that ther be thre,

A man, a madyn and a tre:

Man for man, tre for tre,

35        Madyn for madyn; thus shal it be. (T. 87)


In Die Eerste Bliscap (EB) – accompanied by the modern Dutch translation De Eerste Vreugde van Maria (EV) – there are also various references to either tree, by means of mentioning branches or twigs, for example:


Ontfermicheit                                       Barmhartigheid

Lof specie, edel vruchtbarich tac,                     Lof, edel kruid, vruchtbare tak,

Sonder nommer soe es u weerde!                    Uw waarde is zonder getal.


Gherechticheit                                      rechtvaardigheid

Lof bloyende rijs, dat Adam brac,                   Lof, bloeiende tak, die Adam brak.

1380    Lof specie, edel vruchtbarich tac!                    Lof, edel kruid, vruchtbare tak.

(EB. 111)                                                       (EV. 42)


The tree itself is a thematic piece of parallel that represents the mirror-like relationship between the downfall and the Annunciation. Therefore the story of the fall of man in Mary’s Eerste Bliscap is legitimated by its parallel. However, the parallel does not end here. In Die Eerste Bliscap Mary is greeted by the angel Gabriël with the words “Ave gratia plena!” (EB l. 2024). Besides realizing that ‘Ave’ and the Dutch Eve ‘Eva’ are literal mirrors of each other, an explicit remark to their parallel is made in the N-Town (LC) paraphrase of the Angelical Salutation:


Ave Maria gratia plena Dominus tecum.

Heyl fful of grace, God is with the,

Among all women blyssyd art thu;

220      Here this name Eva is turnyd Aue. (LC. 104)


What Eve did wrong, Mary makes right. Eve was disobedient and lustful where Mary is in return a meek lamb and as virginal as a young girl can be. ‘Ave’ is not merely a reversed ‘Eva’, but it also Latin for “without pain” (Kuiper 126). This is a very literal reference to the pain Eve’s apple-eating caused the whole female generation from then on. Mary however, gave birth without pain and kept her beloved virginity. It is clear that similarities of this Dutch play and the English cycle plays illustrates that Die Eerste Bliscap embodies definite miracle play aspects.

On the other hand, there are features present in Mary’s Eerste Bliscap that are not generally seen in the cycle plays. The most upfront elements are the many allegorical characters that play rather large parts in the whole play. There is Lucifer’s sidekick Nijd (Anger), Waarheid (Truth), Barmhartigheid (Mercy), Rechtvaardigheid (Justice) and various other characters that embody the qualities of their name. The roles these characters play as advisors of both God (his Son) and Lucifer remind of Everyman’s (E) vices and virtues that accompany him on his way to death.


Ontfermicheit                                       barmhartigheid

O sone des vaders, in duechden reene,            O Zoon van de Vader, rein in deugden,

Ic, vrou Ontfermicheit, bid met seere    ik, vrouwe Barmhartigheid, bid bedroefd

1250    Vor u vriende, groet en cleene,            voor Uw vrienden, groot en klein.

Die bliven verloren emmermeere                      Die zullen voor altijd verloren blijven,

Ten si, bi uwer sueter leere,                             tenzij U zich, bij Uw zoete leer,

Dat ghi hens duegdelic wilt ontfermen.  in Uw Goedheid over hen ontfermt.

Dan u genadicheyt op hen keere                      Sta open voor hun bitter kermen

Ende wilt gedincken haer bitter kermen.           en schenk hun Uw genade.

Niemen dan ghi en machse bescermen!            Niemand dan U kan hen beschermen.

(EB. 106)                                                       (EV. 39)



Everyman, herken what I saye:

Go to Presthode, I you advyse,

And receyve of hym, in ony wyse,

The Holy Sacrament and oyntement togyder.

710      Than shortly se ye tourne agayne hyder;

We wyll all abyde you here. (E. 293)


Although the characters speak respectably to a divine entity and a normal human being, their advisory role is discernible in both cases. Both Barmhartigheid (Mercy) and Knowledge are allegorical (human qualities) and seem to fulfill similar roles within the plays. In a way these characters join man on its journey after the fall. In neither Towneley nor N-Town (nor York, for that matter) cycle play about the Creation and Fall do these allegorical characters appear roles. Another very important aspect of morality plays that is found in Mary’s Eerste Bliscap is the imitation of a larger pattern of Christian history. Especially by taking into account the fall of man with Mary’s Annunciation within the play. In that manner, Die Eerste Bliscap follows the raw storyline of all morality plays, which “centered on the life of the individual Christian, portrayed as a generalized type-figure […] and emphasizes his fall from grace, his death, and his eventual salvation through the intercession of a divine figure, usually Christ or the Virgin” (Wertz 238). Mankind falls from grace (Adam and Eve) and is saved by the upcoming birth of Christ, which is the ultimate and quintessential intercession of a divine figure, by the Virgin Mary herself. The more common used sequence of morality plays is that of innocence, fall and redemption (Davenport 4). This does not fit Die Eerste Bliscap as a whole, but seems to fit the story of the downfall exactly. The fall of man was of course the very first fall that proceeded all others. It could be argued, however, that the real redemption of mankind does not start until the birth of Christ. In this conception, the sequence of morality would not be complete without the Annunciation. One more remarkable aspect is brought to light by the N-Town cycle play of the Annunciation, which is titled “The Parliament of Heaven and Annunciation”. In Die Eerste Bliscap there is mention of a Trial in Heaven. Both of these gatherings feature God and allegorical characters who persuade him to relieve mankind from its punishment. In the case of the N-Town play, which is an original miracle play, it also features allegorical characters, such as Mercy, Veritas and Justicia. The motif of such a divine Parliament is something that reoccurs in morality plays, for example in The Castle of Perseverance. The presence of the same trial or parliament in a cycle play is just as double-layered as Die Eerste Bliscap is. It illustrates the arguments for both genres, morality and cycle play.

Concerning the element of humour, fragments of Die Eerste Bliscap approach the level of farce-like dialogues. Especially the discussion that ensues between Adam and Eve before their fall from paradise is quite humourous:


Adam                                                           Adam

Ja? Hebdi vergheten                                        Nee toch! Bent u vergeten

Dat ons de here sonder genoet             dat de Heer, die Zijn gelijke niet heeft,

Van diere vrucht te eten verboet?                    ons verboden heeft van die vrucht te eten?

Ende dat wi elder na ons gevoech                    Dat we naar hartelust

235      Van allen vruchten nutten genoech,                  van alle andere vruchten kunnen eten,

Maer dat wi emmer niet en daden                    maar dat we dit gebod

Teghen tgebod?                                              nooit mogen overtreden?


Eva                                                               Eva

Laet u geraden,                                               Doe nou eens wat een ander zegt,

Lieve Adam!Op alle trouwe,                           lieve Adam. Vertrouw me nou

t vander vrucht.                                               en eet van die vrucht!


Adam                                                           Adam

Ach weerde vrouwe,                                       Ach waarde vrouw,

240      Wi en hebben emmer geen noot van dien,        er is voor ons geen enkele noodzaak

Te doene tegen des heren verbien.                   tegen het gebod van de Heer in te gaan.

[…]                                                                […]


Eva                                                               Eva

Keeren, sijt te vreden                                      God nog aan toe, doe niet zo moeilijk

250      Adam! Wi selen den here wel payen.   Adam! Dat komt wel goed met de Heer.

Getroest u dies, laet u gerayen.                        Maak u niet druk. Doe nou wat ik zeg.

Wi selender vrame bi ontfaen,              Het zal ons geen windeieren leggen.

Dat hopic. Hout, siet!                           Dat hoop ik tenminste. Hier, pak aan!

(EB. 64-65)                                                    (EV. 13)


This dialogue reminds of the typical farce-like arguments between obedient men and their cantankerous wives. As seen in the play of Noah in the Chester cycle, which features a similar kind of row. This kind of humour, or humour in general, is not primarily a characteristic of the morality or cycle plays, as there are examples of bawdy humour in both genres. As George explains, humour in general is part of “most genres of writing” in the late-Middle ages, as “writers attempt to evoke a chuckle from audiences”. This is present in both “the stage antics of vices in morality plays” and “ most of the cycle plays from England” (par. 5). Wertz gives a matching example of the York flaggellation that was a “twenty-minute ‘hit Him again’ contest amid ribald jokes” (439). She continues to note that although morality plays “were officially designed to encourage morality, the major action often demonstrated uproariously funny scenes of immorality followed by deathbed repentance” (439). The morality play of Mankind features three allegories (Nowadays, Nought and New Guise) who engage in humour reminding of slapstick. It is important to note this existing notion of humour in Die Eerste Bliscap, as it reassesses its identity as either morality or miracle play. Without ‘blithe’ elements, it would be more difficult (if not impossible) to regard this play as a amalgamation of morality and miracle plays.

Since the duality of Mary’s Eerste Bliscap seems established, it is useful to wonder how much the two genres (morality and miracle) differ from each other. It is clear that Die Eerste Bliscap is neither morality nor cycle play, but something inbetween, since the presence of characteristics of neither genre can be ignored. Davenport attempts to argue that morality plays are not that different from the cycle plays. He establishes three “main areas” where the two genres can be separated: subject, characters and form (4). From there he suggests that the plays meet in “common themes and aims”, such as the conflict between good and evil and sin followed by repentance (8). Concerning the characters in both plays, Davenport is of the opinion that the impression they leave behind is rather the same and they both function as “mirrors of fifteenth-century society” and as a way for the playwright to comment on it (9). Thirdly, he assesses the aspect of form. Neither genre has any kind of strict form at all and while attempting to prove common ground for form, Davenport falls back on the thematic similarities (9-10). His attempt to prove unity is expressed in such a manner that it actually seems to promote dichotomy.

Additionally, Davenport leaves another important area without consideration, namely the intention of the plays. Potter suggests that it is possible to see medieval religious drama as one whole, “in which the morality play performs the same ceremony in the microcosm of the individual human life as that of the Corpus Christie cycle in the macrocosm of historical time” (8). He even goes as far as to suggest that the morality and cycle plays can be seen as “two manifestations of the same purpose”, namely that they both “present man as a divine, fallen, redeemed creature, and do so in such a way as to suggest to the members of the audience that they are participants in the process, with significant choices to make” (8). However, Potter does distinguish appropriately between the two genres, as he points out that the cycle plays allow spectators to be part of sacred events, where the morality plays “epitomize” the truths and constants of the sequence of individual human life. This is a very significant difference that ought not be lost in the generalization of thematic sequences present in both types of plays. Where the audience ‘simply’ views a chronological tale in the cycle plays, it is much more consciously aware of its own relation towards the mankind-like characters in the morality plays. The latter is more upfront about its moralistic contents. On this level Die Eerste Bliscap cannot be regarded as a morality play, as the main goal of the play does not seem to be the individual’s life within the larger whole. Surely the Christian tradition itself is seen in a much broader perspective and it is not unlikely to think that the audience would feel connected to the players. However, the main characters in the play remain historical biblical performers and its story is that of sacred events, supplemented with moralistic allegorical characters.

The genres of the morality and cycle plays seem somehow entangled or related to each other. Their normative division seems superficial and ignores deeper layers or plays such as Die Eerste Bliscap. Many cycle plays demonstrate aspects of morality plays and vice versa. They seem to embody each other ― as “the story of man’s fall and redemption presented in a cycle of mystery plays as an epic historical narrative is thus encapsulated in the morality play” (King 240). In Die Eerste Bliscap, the broadened scope of the Annunciation in relation to all Christian history (in combination with the Fall of Man) makes a small cycle play into a bigger league of drama, including moralistic elements. What initially began as a miracle play evolved into a comprehensive play that unites the historical biblical storylines with their very own rhythms and morality of individualised human life. Die Eerste Bliscap is magnanimous in its unified diversity ― as both miracle and morality play.



Works Cited


Beuken, W.H. Introduction. Die Eerste Bliscap van Maria en Die Sevenste Bliscap van Onser      Vrouwen. Culemborg: Tjeenk Willink, 1973. 7-51.

Davenport, W. A. “Genres.” In: Fifteenth-century English Drama. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer,         1984. 1-15.

Davidson, C. “The Virgin Mary.” In: From Creation to Doom: The York Cycle of Mystery             Plays. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1984. 163-177.

“De Eerste Vreugde van Maria.” In: Maria op de Markt: Middeleeuws Toneel in Brussel.   Amsterdam: Griffioen, 1995.

“Die Eerste Bliscap.” In: Die Eerste Bliscap van Maria en Die Sevenste Bliscap van Onser            Vrouwen. Culemborg: Tjeenk Willink, 1973.

Erenstein, R. L. Een Theatergeschiedenis der Nederlanden: Tien Eeuwen Drama in          Nederland en Vlaanderen. Amsterdam: University Press, 1996. 99.

“Everyman.” In: Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Ed. G. Walker. Oxford: Blackwell           Publishing, 2000. 281-298.

George, M. “An Austere Age Without Laughter.” In: Misconceptions of the Middle Ages.    Ed. S. J. Harris and B. L. Grigsby. <http://www.the-> 10 April 2006.

King, P. M. “Morality Plays”. In: The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre.          Ed. R. Beadle. Cambridge: University Press, 2003.

Kuiper, W. and Resoort, R. Afterword. Maria op de Markt: Middeleeuws Toneel in Brussel.         Amsterdam: Griffioen, 1995. 121-134.

Ludus Coventriae, or the Plaie called Corpus Christi. Ed. K. Block. London: Oxford        University Press, 1922.

Potter, R. “The Idea of a Morality Play.” In: The English Morality Play. London: Routledge &         Kegan Paul Ltd, 1901. 6-30.

The Towneley Plays. Ed. G. England. London: Oxford University Press, 1897.

Vriend, J. The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Medieval Drama of England. Amsterdam:         Muusses, 1928.

Wertz. D. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays.” In: Journal of Conflict          Resolution. Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1969). 438-453.


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