A guest post by Gail McMurray Gibson, William R. Kenan Professor Emerita of English and Humanities, Davidson College.
When the Macro Plays manuscript pages recently came out of the Folger vault for a day of conversation with scholars, curators, and the conservation team, I got a good look at some doodles.
Unlike the careful drawing on the final folio of the Macro play of The Castle of Perseverance, famously heralded as the earliest extant English stage design, the crude sketches on the first and last paper pages of the late-medieval masque-like play Wisdom 1 haven’t received much attention. “A man surrounded by dragons is drawn on f. 98v and the head of a man on f. 121v” is all the editor of the Early English Text Society edition had to say about them; David Bevington, in his Folger facsimile edition of The Macro Plays, says even less: “98v and 121v feature drawings of men, dragons, and the like.” Hamnet calls them doodles.
I’d looked at facsimile images of these Wisdom manuscript drawings many times. I’d also wondered about what looks like a cut page repair below the sketches on fol. 98v. It is, in fact, a cut-page repair, the Folger conservation team told me, a clean cut and not a rip—probably done to excise an earlier owner’s signature. I nodded and wrote this fact down in my notebook. Then I looked again at the doodles in front of my eyes. And I suddenly doubted that these were just random scribbles.
Certainly, this small sketch on the reverse of the last leaf of the Wisdom manuscript seems to have a clear meaning. The bearded king, holding a scepter and wearing what looks like a white, furred mantle, must be intended to invoke the “ryall hood furred with Ermyn,” the “berde” and “Regall scheptur” of Wisdom’s entrance in the play’s opening stage direction. In lines 14-16 of the play, the allegorical figure of Wisdom explains that this archetypal kingly array represents Christ, “now Gode, now man,/Spows of the chyrche and wery patrone, / Wyffe of eche chose sowle.”
Much more intriguing is the central figure of the bearded man drawn on folio 98v of the manuscript, attired in the spiffy slashed doublet with frilled neck and sleeves, slashed knee pants, hose, and cod-piece that were the height of English courtly fashion in c. 1540-1560.2
This is not just any male figure; this is a Gallant.
Sumptuary excess as a sin of pride, and especially as a sin associated with Lucifer’s presumption, is a dominant theme in pre-Reformation morality plays and interludes. As John Cox demonstrates in The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642 (Cambridge, 2000), a fashionably-dressed young man in these plays is never up to any good. The seducing figure of Curiosity in the Digby play of Mary Magdalene is a “fresh, new gallant” dressed in slashed sleeves, stomacher, doublet, and hose. In the Macro manuscript’s play of Mankind, Pride urges Humanum Genus to keep ahead of the newest fashions; the play even enacts comic business in which Mankind’s long gown, a sign of God’s post-lapsarian grace covering human nakedness, is cut fashionably, and then ridiculously, short by the corrupting vices named New Gyse, Nowadays, and Nought. Likewise, Pride in Henry Medwall’s Nature urges man to adopt the fashions of “now a day” because it is “the new guise.”
But in the Macro play of Wisdom, it is Lucifer himself who appears disguised as a “goodly Gallant.” Stage directions at line 325 specify that “aftyr the songe entreth Lucyfer in a deweyllys aray wythowt and within as a prowde galonte…” and then, at line 380, “Her Lucyfer dewoydyth [i.e. leaves the stage] and cummyth in ageyn as a goodly galont.”
Someone, then, who has not only held this play manuscript in his hands but has read the play, has provided this sketch. The gallant even speaks. What looks like “ouf A A” is inscribed between his face and the toothed monster head (a devil head?) drawn immediately to his left. The vocalizing sounds might well have something to do with the (upside down) marginal inscription on fol. 177r of the Macro Wisdom manuscript that reads “Wythe hufa/ Wythe huffa wyth huffa wyth huffa onys agen/ A gallant glorius.”
But surely the most suggestive sketches are these: a highly-functional stringed monster mask (perhaps for the small boys “in the lyknes of dewyllys” who run out on stage after line 912 of the play?) and a Henrician cap with the head of a monstrous beast mounted upon it.
Is this monstrous hat a costume parody of a hat of maintenance? When Thomas Lord Audley, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor 1533-1544, re-founded Buckingham College (formerly the house for Benedictine monks studying at Cambridge University) as the College of St. Mary Magdalene in 1542, he provided not only the college motto (“Garde ta foy”) but its crest. At the top of a helmet is placed the heraldic emblem of Audley’s royal favor—a hat of maintenance—surmounted by a dragonish beast called a wyvern.
Whether or not the Folger’s Wisdom drawing records a monstrous hat of maintenance used in a mid-sixteenth-century production of the play, it attests to a high level of engagement with the text long after it was written—and, at the very least, seems proof of a production in the mind’s eye of the erstwhile artist. For in this play, after Mynde is corrupted by Lucifer in his gallant’s guise, Mynde arrives on stage at line 553 “in a new array” boasting of how justice has been overcome by the graft and perjuries and bribes of “Mayntnance…now so mighty”(l. 671). Wyll gloatingly agrees that since God was born there was never so much “Mayntnance and perjury.” By line 696, Mynd has actually changed his name to “Mayntennance” and leads a dance of vices representing “dyscorde and inperfyghtnes.”
If the Wisdom sketch does provide evidence of a sixteenth-century production that foregrounds the vice of Maintenance, either staged or imagined, what are the implications of the fact that such emphasis actually involves a restoration of the medieval text? For it is precisely this section of the play containing the vices’ masked dance in celebration of the legal abuses of maintenance (from line 685 to line 785) that had been marked for cancellation in the manuscript (“va…cat”) in a fifteenth-century hand.3
It might be useful here to remember that recent decades of Records of Early English Drama (REED) research have taught us not only that “medieval” drama persisted well into the Tudor period, but also that “medieval” morality plays were customarily performed alongside sixteenth-century humanist school plays. Does the Folger’s manuscript preserve evidence that a play belonging to a Bury monk (and originally intended for an elaborate performance with costumes, dancing, and music in a late-medieval hall or chapel) was adapted for performance in the sixteenth century?
The numerous childish cipher games and prankish inscriptions on the margins of the pages of the Wisdom manuscript (like “kis min arcs knave” in backwriting on fol. 114v) argue that this play has been to school. Not only do Monk Hyngham and James Cobbes link the manuscript to Bury St. Edmunds, but so do at least three other names in the Macro Wisdom text that are inscribed in sixteenth-century hands: “Rychard Cake of Bury senior,” “John Plandon,” and “Robertum Oliuer.” If this play spent part of its life in the library of a school, that school would almost certainly have been the Edward VI Grammar School of Bury St. Edmunds.4 Are the drawings in the Wisdom manuscript a schoolboy reader’s sketches imagining Wisdom the King and Lucifer the Gallant and the monster masks of Vice? Are they the record of someone who has witnessed a sixteenth-century school production of the play? Are these even amateur costume designs made by a Bury schoolmaster?
And, far from the least important question, does the Folger’s Macro Plays manuscript contain not only the earliest extant English stage drawing but also the earliest surviving costume designs for an English pre-Reformation play?
Gail McMurray Gibson is a medievalist who taught at Princeton University from 1975 to 1983 and at Davidson College from 1983 to 2014—where she is now the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emerita of English and Humanities. She held a long-term NEH fellowship at the Folger Library in 2014-15. Her current book project, Medieval Drama in Afterlife, explores the new cultural uses of pre-Reformation drama manuscripts performed by early modern collectors, readers, recusants, and antiquarians.
- Wisdom is the only English pre-Reformation morality play to survive in more than one manuscript—in the Folger’s complete text of c. 1480 (edited by Mark Eccles in The Macro Plays, Early English Text Society os 262 ) and in the now-fragmentary text (extending only to the first 752 lines) in Bodleian MS Digby 133 that may have been its exemplar (edited by Donald C. Baker and others in The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and E Museo 160, Early English Text Society os 283[(1982]). The Folger Wisdom manuscript contains the late-fifteenth-century ownership inscription of its scribe, Thomas Hyngham, a Benedictine monk of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk (see Richard Beadle, “Monk Thomas Hyngham’s Hand in the Macro Manuscript” in New Science out of Old Books, ed. Richard Beadle and A.J. Piper , pp. 315-41). The first known early modern collectors of both manuscripts of the play were also from Bury St. Edmunds: James Cobbes of Bury owned the Macro Wisdom play manuscript by 1650 and the Digby Wisdom manuscript was owned by the Bury physician Miles Blomefield (1525-1603). See Alexandra Johnston, “Olde playes or maskes but Imperfect & little worthe,” The Yearbook of English Studies 43 (2013): 31-47.
- The shoes are not the exaggerated flat-toed shoes of the early years of Henry VIII’s reign (Herbert Norris, Costume and Fashion: Volume Three, The Tudors, Book I: 1485-1547) and the headgear on the male figure argues that the drawing must have been made before 1570, when the taller, fuller hat, a very different shape from the early Tudor “French bonnet” “came into general fashion among well-dressed men everywhere.” See p. 727 and figures 844-851 (pp. 728-730) in Herbert Norris, Costume and Fashion: Volume Three, The Tudors, Book II: 1547-1603 (1938). The “Portrait of a Gentleman, Probably of the West Family, 1545-60” in the Tate Britain wears just such a doublet with vertical slashes below the chest, embroidered frills at neck and wrists, and velvet cap.
- Remarkably, the Digby manuscript version of the play also marks this section of the play for exclusion. On the relationship between the two manuscript texts of Wisdom, see The Play of Wisdom, Its Texts and Contexts, ed. Milla Cozart Riggio (1998), especially pages 6-18.
- The Edward VI Grammar School of Bury St. Edmunds was founded in 1550—or, more accurately, refounded then, after the endowments and lands of Bury abbey that had supported the former school for burgess sons were confiscated at the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. Both James Cobbes (who owned the Macro Plays manuscript by 1650) and his recusant Bury in-laws, the Olivers, had close connections with Bury School. (See the ciphered early sixteenth-century ownership inscription at the bottom on f. 119v of the Wisdom play which de-coded reads: “iste liber pertinent ad me Robertvm oliver.”) Cobbes’ father-in-law, Thomas Oliver, an alumnus of the Edward VI Grammar School and a prominent Bury physician, gave books to Bury school in 1595 and again in his will of 1610. James Cobbes (and later Cobbes’ heir and grandson James Harvey) also gave books to the school library. At his 11-hearth house on Northgate Street, James Cobbes even apparently boarded sons of country gentry who attended Bury School. See Biographical List of Boys Educated at King Edward VI Free Grammar School, Bury St. Edmunds from 1550 to 1900. Suffolk Green Books 13. (1908), pages 78, 286, 453, and 455.