Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Shrewsbury Fragment

Do you know that  a manuscript exists  placing  Shrewsbury at a pivotal position in the history of English drama? This is no idle boast.  I’ve been online to check my facts and according to the University of Maine this manuscript is the only  remaining example in this country of drama in the act of transition from liturgical to mystery play. In other words, it stands at the point where liturgy left the church and drama hit the streets. What I'm talking about here is famously known [in some quarters, at least] as the Shrewsbury Fragment.

How about that? What a town we live in, always turning up new and amazing facts.  This is the one post above all others that I’ve been longing to write all year, but have hung onto in the spirit of keeping the best [or at least the most interesting to me] until almost the last. 

The other day I was talking to ex-Meole Brace councillor, Bill Morris, who was the person who first told me about the Shrewsbury Fragment.  He said it was all that remained of what had once been the Shrewsbury Cycle, a series  of mystery plays whose content is reckoned to have predated those from Chester, Wakefield and York. 

Acccording to Bill, the seed of all these plays grew out of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete - an annual three-day liturgical  event at Lent, which summed up of all the major Bible events, plus their interpretations. By the 10th century, Bill said,  this summing-up had become fairly complex. Re-living parts of it became a feature, and crowds flocked to church to see it. More  and more parts of the Great Canon became acted out until finally the crowds grew so vast that it became necessary to move proceedings from the main body of the church into its immediate precincts. 

Shrewsbury Abbey is thought to be one of the early places where this happened in our town.  As the crowds grew, so too did an awareness of commercial opportunities.  Trades became involved in sponsoring parts of the enacted Canon. One trade’s guild would take responsibility for the Christmas story of the angelic visitation, another for the Three Wise Men, others the stages of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and yet others for  Old Testament stories of the prophets. 

By the 1500s, these sections of enacted Canon had spilled out even from the immediate environs of the church, onto the adjoining streets.  Shrewsbury’s trade guilds started competing to produce episodes. By the end of the 16th century, some of these had distinct elements of high drama, others were more slapstick [a hint of the Shakespearean, don’t you think?]. According to Bill, time was when ropes were hung across our Square, enabling angels to fly between earth and heaven.  [All I can say to that is wow.]  

All of this represents an extraordinary process, part of the democratisation of religion. Over a period of centuries what had started out as liturgy, by means of drama became commonplace. Once, in a language [Latin] that few could read, the Bible had been a matter of private meditation for the clerical classes. Then, thanks to drama, it became more widely accessible.  And finally it escaped the restraining bounds of the church and become the people’s story, performed by their guilds on their streets.  

This happened all over Britain, as far north as Scotland and across the waters in Ireland. However, the material recorded in the Shrewsbury Fragment suggests that one of the first places where this occurred was right here in our town.

Amazing, hey?  And, even more amazing is that the Shrewsbury Fragment, so highly regarded in academic circles, can still be found in Shrewsbury today. I’ve seen it myself in Shrewsbury School’s Ancient Library, housed in a glass case.   How long it’s been there I’ve no idea, or how Shrewsbury School first acquired it.  However, the story goes that a Dr Calvert came across it up there, all forty-three pages of it, the first thirty-six of which contained Latin anthems set to music. Realising the value of what he'd lighted upon, Dr Calvert  made a transcript of the Fragment and sent it to a Dr Clark who in turn  handed it on to one Professor Skeat. Or, to give him his full title, the Reverend Professor Walter William Skeat, philogist of some brilliance, compiler of the Concise Dictionary of Middle English from AD 1150 to 1580,  expert on Chaucer and editor of Piers Plowman, Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, also Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge.

On January 4th, 1890,  Reverend Professor Skeat called public attention to the Shrewsbury Fragment in a letter to the Royal Academy. Then, a week later, in the Academy’s journal, he published its text. What reception it had I’ve no idea. However, late in the summer of 1905, a Professor Manly, keen to publish his own transcription of the Fragment, visited Shrewsbury School to see the manuscript in the flesh. 

I'm assuming this to be Professor John Matthews Manly, American professor of philology and English literature at Chicago University, specialising in the study of William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer.  Unable to find anybody in a position to give him permission to see the Fragment, Manly was forced to leave. At the beginning of the following term, however, he wrote to the headmaster still seeking permission, but he received  no reply.  Manly's subsequent publication of the Fragment, therefore, was based solely upon the work of Professor Skeat - fortunately, Manly said, ‘a scholar of such eminence that one can rest assured the version of the text and facts respecting the manuscript are to be implicitly acted upon.’

Nowadays it's reckoned that the Shrewsbury Fragment is an actor's copy, containing only certain parts and cues.  Even so, the scholar's view is that  enough text remains for the Fragment to be regarded as that vital missing link between liturgy and vernacular religious drama as developed and represented by the great mystery cycles of York, Chester and Wakefield. This makes it a very big deal indeed.

Of the three plays represented in the Fragment, the first relates to Christmas, and the actor in question is the third shepherd. The second fragment harks back to Easter, and its fairly free adaptation of the Vulgate places it at a very early date.  The third fragment takes the story of Christ’s appearance to two of Jesus’s followers [legend has it Luke and Cleopas] on the Emmaus road.  This is a version of what was known more widely across Europe as the ‘Peregrini’. It is the only existing extract from that play remaining in the UK today.

I’m no historian, as I’ve said before, but I’ve done the best I can, digging around in the archives of the University of Maine and the Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, to find out not only about the Fragment but about the professors, too, who did so much work on it.   If any of you in Shrewsbury want a project for the coming year or so  [indeed if Shrewsbury School happens anytime to be looking for a project] perhaps translating the Fragment into modern English, and building around it enough to create a performable play might be worth considering.   

Here's the link to it, in case you have Latin and Middle English and want to read the original. It's taken from The Shrewsbury Fragments section of ‘From Stage to Page – Medieval and Renaissance Drama. NeCastro, Gerard, ed'.  I had a go at translating a bit of it myself.  Just a snippet. Given that I have no Latin, that was hard enough. Here's what I worked from, and underneath in red is what I made of it. Anybody who can make a better job of it, do feel free. It would be interesting to see. And interesting to see the rest of it translated too: 

III. MARIA. Surrexit Christus, spes nostra;

Precedet vos in Galileam.

Crist is rysen, wittenes we

By tokenes þat we haue sen þis morn!

Oure hope, oure help, oure hele, is he,

And hase bene best, sithe we were born!

If we wil seke him for to se,

Lettes noght þis lesson be forlorn;

But gose euen vnto Galilee-

þere schal 3e fynd him 3ow beforn! 

Christ is risen. We have witnessed it this morning. He is our hope, our help,
our best health since ever we were born. If we will seek him for to see, our lessons from him will
not be forlorn. We will follow him unto Galilee.
Here we shall find him now before [evermore?]

[Thanks to the University of Maine for much of the above information. To find out more go to:

If you want to see the Shrewsbury Fragment, it's to be found in Shrewsbury School's Ancient Library, which is open and its librarian, Michael Morragh, on hand, on Sunday mornings between 11.00am and 1.00pm. 



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