Eleanor of Norwich’s Account of a staging of The Second Shepherd’s Play at St. John Maddermarket’s Church (c. 1478)

**Posting this assignment I did in undergrad because I miss the (slightly more) stress-free life before grad school.** This was supposed to be an essay but I WAS NOT ABOUT THAT LIFE so I wrote some crazy tale about a nun, instead (forever taking the piss out of the literary canon).

Eleanor of Norwich’s Account of a staging of The Second Shepherd’s Play[1] at St. John Maddermarket’s Church (c. 1478)*.png

Note: This assignment takes the form of a play “review” as listed in the possible essay topics. Eleanor of Norwich is a fabricated character loosely based on Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. The stilted language is meant to invoke the sense of translation from Middle English. This story imagines the initial months of an anchoress’s time attached to a church, and attempts to display her erratic visions, medieval hysteria and belief in the ‘supernatural,’ in addition to offering an imagined account of a woman’s perception of an early play staged in a church. The Works Consulted page shows all of the sources I have used, and in-text citations are limited to staging information so as to not interrupt the ‘review,’ and because of the creative liberties taken.

Eleanor of Norwich’s Account of a staging of The Second Shepherd’s Play[1] at St. John Maddermarket’s Church (c. 1478)*


*Translated from the original Middle English by leading scholars in the field.


From the introduction of her compiled diaries:

When I turned the age of fifteen, I was set to be wed to a miller’s son. He had fat cheeks like a cherub and worn hands. He was pleasant looking but had a temper. It did not coincide with my mild nature. One day, my family sat in the church nearby our home and I experienced a splendid vision of Jesus Christ sleeping in the space above the priest, like a lamb, all curled up and in the foetal position. He opened his eyes and turned towards me, speaking as if only to me. His eyes were heavy with splendid sleep and his palms turned slowly towards the ceiling of the church. He floated away from the alter until he was straight above me, and sank down until he was merely a foot away from the crown of my head. His neck then turned all the way around while his body remained stationary, to look me in the eyes. I saw the fires of hell and the wonders of heaven in them, and he beckoned to me, before sticking out his tongue and screaming, which was, of course, a sign for me to do the same. I stood up, and with all my might, screamed until I fell to the ground. The others in the church appeared shocked, and one man even yelled that I had been possessed by the devil, but when I jumped back to my feet, I saw him above me still, this time smiling a secret smile just for me—the lord and I already had our own secret tongue! He began to float to the doorway of the church. Elated, I called—The good lord beckons me! And I ran out after him.

I awoke three days later in a beautiful meadow. A white hare hopped up next to me and nuzzled into my breast, like a babe. My brown dress was gone and in its place was a beautiful garment of blue and lilac. Christ was sitting cross-legged at the edge of the glen. Behind him, the forest was dark, as if it was night, but in the circle of the meadow it was as a beautiful spring day. The good Lord’s son looked at me, and lo! He spoke! “Your people search for you.” His pale skin was illuminated by the darkness of the forest behind him. “You must return, and tell them of this conversation. You are now granted the gift of flight.” His eyes glowed red, and I knew it was a sign to tell me that I would never step foot in the underworld, for I was pure, and chosen in his good graces! He stood, and leaped into the air, hovering. He instructed me to do the same. The Lord hath given me the power of flight! I rose above the clearing and saw the village across the forest.

Upon my return, my mother wept. “Lo! Your garments are of divine quality!” she exclaimed to the crowd around our small home, “My very own daughter has been chosen by the good lord! We must tell the bishop and the priest!” The miller’s son clasped my hands in this, “My sweet love, go! Go! Be with your true betrothed, the lord! It is your destiny!” So I flew to the church, barely hearing the loud gasps from the villagers below as I rushed to the church.

The priest greeted me by sprinkling holy water across my chest—strange, but most likely some kind of re-baptism in my new status as a beacon of light among the darkness. I took confession and the priest asked me many questions. He did not want to take risk of false idolatry. Eventually he took my story as true, and I stayed until the congregation met, and I demonstrated my new ability.

The Account:

I have taken my position as anchoress. The priest declared that if I wished to prove my dedication to the church and to the Lord, I would give up my new gifts and take up residence in a cell attached to the church. My last rites were given, and my bed lay in a small depression in the ground; my future resting place. A small hole in the stone allowed me to see into the church and for the body and blood of Christ to be given to me. I have not seen my lord, my love, appear to me in weeks, and so I took up residence without his consent. I believe it is what he would have wanted. I watched as they applied mortar to the bricks and they sealed me in. I know it is for my faith and for my lord, but fear tickled my heart. There is no way out, and no way in. The Miller’s son has been to visit. I spend my days in reflection, and sometimes a scribe visits. The ceiling is low but I can use my gift to hover above my grave. I watch the mass every day, and occasionally people come to me for advice. Some people appear wary of my little abode, and me but they are always calm when they walk away from me. Last night there was a spectacle at the church, called the “Second Shepherd’s play. it was the first play the village has ever seen, so I’ve been asked to state my account of it. The play had three shepherds, Coll, Gib, and Daw, as well as the two villains, Mak and Gill, and the Lord’s mother and the baby Jesus. There were some young boys dressed as sheep, and an angel. The angel looked nothing like the ones I’ve seen on my travels with the lord himself. This angel was dressed in white and had a ridiculous hoop above its head. The angel sat in the chair loft, indicating its elevated presence and connection with the lord. (Trumbull 2007) The space in the small church was limited, and twice the amount of people who came to mass regularly huddled in the pews. The corn doll that acted as the baby Jesus lay on the alter, and a man with a long dress fawned over him, acting as the Mother Mary. I’ve heard rumours of mechanical devices that allow the angel to come down from the chair loft, or for the baby Jesus to raise into the air, but this production was much more modest. (Trumbull) Many of the costumes were church vestments tied with different belts. The corn doll that was baby Jesus first appeared as a stolen lamb—I’m not sure how the good lord would feel about this trivialization!

The church had three different mansions; three different locations were held within the small room. (Trumbull) When the players were in the pasture, some hay was thrown about, and they wandered in and out of the crowd, making use of the whole church. When the players were in Mak’s home, they huddled in one corner of the room, and when they were in the stable at Bethlehem, they stood around the alter and the corn doll-Baby Jesus. I recognized the men who played the shepherds as alter boys. They wandered round the expanse of the room, acting tired and hungry. The Shepherd, Coll, cried out to the lord, looking up to the ceiling as if he, too, could converse with the lord. Ha! The scene takes place in the winter, and a young woman fanned the shepherds with a large fan to show the wind. They wrapped their arms around themselves and cast darted glances around the room.

The shepherds complained about being servants and workers, acting ungrateful towards our Lord for giving them life. They were not kind to each other or when in conversation about their masters. The shepherds argued, and then began to sing. What an awful noise! Surely it was unfit for a place of worship! The sound only became worse when the actor playing Mak appeared in the doorway of the church with an even worse voice! I could sense the good lord frowning upon these insufferable men. The crowd, however, laughed as if a fool were on stage instead of shepherds. The man, Mak, sings about the children starving and how he wishes to be in heaven—don’t we all! It is our duty as Disciples of Christ to remain in this world until he calls us to his, of course. Next, the Devil’s name was uttered in the church! The congregation and audience did not gasp; it was only I who did, from behind my stones. I doubt anyone heard. The audience appeared to enjoy this display, which I sensed was a mockery of Christianity. The man, Mak, is a known sheep-stealer, and has a lazy wife who drinks too much. I did not think this play to be very Christian at all—and to have the sweet baby Jesus involved! Lo! Mak is like Pontius, and indeed invokes him in his soliloquy as the others sleep—what blasphemy. It is not even Easter nor the time of Christ’s birth! It is August! The immoral man plotted against the shepherds, walking away from them and speaking to himself. The three shepherds lay sprawled at the edge of the church as if they lay in deep sleep. Someone lit a candle in the corner of the church and there stood Gill, Mak’s wife, next to a makeshift cradle of crates, holding a broom. (Trumbull) The couple argued and Mak revealed he had stolen a lamb. They wrapped it in the same cloth that the baby Jesus corn doll was wrapped in. He then blew out Gill’s candle and crept back to where the other shepherds lie. In the morning, they notice nothing, save for a ‘dream’ about Mak’s deeds. Mak dreamed—supposedly—of his wife having another baby, and invoked the devil’s name to curse his children!

The shepherds discover their missing sheep and rush to the home of Mak and Gill. In that corner of the church, a bed has been erected out of bails, and Gill lie with the swaddled lamb at her breast. Of course, the shepherds discover that the lamb is not a son—and with some humour, I might add! Thank goodness for the discovery of Mak and Gill’s fiendishness! Goodness prevails, even in a play such as this! Instead of condemning the thief to death, the shepherds grab a blanket (rather, a tablecloth from the church) and roll the man up inside it, tossing him about. The audience laughed heartily, though I admit I failed to see the humour in a cruel man being dealt his hand by good men. They relinquished him, as Christ would have instructed them, they walked to the other side of the church, leaving Mak and Gill to commiserate. They lay down as if to nap. Again, a candle was lit, drawing attention from the shepherds and Mak and Gill. This time it was in the chair loft and the angel shouted down to the shepherds about Jesus’ birth! The shepherds were elated—I know exactly how they felt, seeing a messenger of god! I wept in my cell, understanding the play’s significance at last—it was not simply a crude invocation of Christian values in a simple tale! Three simple, poor shepherds, after condemning a thief, were shown a way to the Lord! At the front of the church, by the altar, a candle was lit, and the audience gasped when they saw Mary and the baby Jesus. By this point, the play felt real and we saw past our neighbours and livestock in the church. The shepherds gave the baby Jesus gifts, and went on their way, walking slowly out of the church, returning only for the end applause. The lamb was agitated and bored by this point and ran out of the church. I wished to speak with the players, but my wall separated us and the rest of the audience wished for a moment of their time, so I knelt for an hour or two of silent prayer. I hoped that Jesus would once again appear so that I could offer him my account of the display.

A Note from the acting priest at St. John Maddermarket’s during Eleanor’s first months as anchoress:

Eleanor came to us by means of flight—flight! I have never seen such a thing and wonder still if it were the work of the devil, or of Jesus as she claimed until her death. She was a rather strange woman, small, with large brown eyes and yellow hair. She was very angular, and rather striking, though her posture was less than noble. Even though we had doubts about her visions, we agreed to take her on as anchoress, provided she survived off of the Holy Communion. In her sixth month in the building, she fell pregnant, and to this day, we do not understand how this could be possible. She died before the child was born, proclaiming it was the work of the Holy Spirit. Eleanor was not the most typical of anchoresses, but St. John Maddermarket prides itself on its mystic connection with the lord. Instead of throwing out this strange woman, we kept her in our walls and gained much respect and revenue within the greater community.

Works Cited and Consulted

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe Approx. 1373 / Translated with an Introduction by Anthony Bale. London: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, and Mari Hughes-Edwards. Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs: Intersections of Gender and Enclosure in the Middle Ages. Cardiff: U of Wales, 2005. Print.

Ogden, Dunbar H. The Staging of Drama in the Medieval Church. Newark, DE: U of Delaware, 2002. Print.

Sowerby, Benn. The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play: From the Towneley Cycle. Bloomington, IN: Trafford, 2009. Print.

Trumbull, Eric W. “Introduction to Medieval Theatre.” Northern Virginia Community College. NOVA, 16 Nov. 2007. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

[1] A Mystery play

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