were actually performed not at the winter festival * but in the summer, they give in so striking a way the feelings, the point of view, of our mediaeval forefathers in regard to the Nativity that
i we are justified in dealing with them here at some length.
As the drama became laicized, it came to reflect that strange medley of conflicting elements, pagan and Christian, materialistic and spiritual, which was the actual religion of the folk, as
1 distinguished from the philosophical theology of the doctors and
i councils and the mysticism of the ascetics. The popularizing of Christianity had reached its climax in most countries of western
! Europe in the fifteenth century, approximately the period of the great " mysteries." However little the ethical teaching of Jesus may have been acted upon, the Christian religion on its external side had been thoroughly appropriated by the people and wrought into a many-coloured polytheism, a true reflection of their minds. The figures of the drama are contemporaries of the spectators both in garb and character ; they are not Orientals of ancient times, but Europeans of the end of the Middle Ages. Bethlehem is a "faier borow," Herod a " mody king," like unto some haughty, capricious, and violent monarch of the time, the
, shepherds are rustics of England or Germany or France or Italy, the Magi mighty potentates with gorgeous trains, and the Child Himself is a little being subject to all the pains and necessities of infancy, but delighted with sweet and pleasant things like a bob of cherries or a ball. The realism of the writers is sometimes astounding, and comic elements often appear—to the people of the Middle Ages religion was so real and natural a thing that they could laugh at it without ceasing to believe in or to love it.
The English mediaeval playwrights, it may safely be said, are surpassed by no foreigners in their treatment of Christmas subjects. To illustrate their way of handling the scenes I may
* Though no texts are extant of religious plays in English acted at Christmastide, there are occasional records of such performances :—at Tintinhull for instance in 1451 and at Dublin in 1528, while at Aberdeen a processional "Nativity" was performed at Candlemas. And the "Stella," whether in English or Latin it is uncertain, is found at various places between 1462 and 1579.10