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Time and the N-Town Cycle: Establishing Man’s Relation to God through Time

The N-Town Cycle celebrates the glory and mercy of God, and concentrates on man in relation to God. In its dramatic reenactment of history, the play uses Time to distinguish man and God. Certain characters are in time, whilst others are out of time, and this demarcation is highlighted by the way characters speak of the past, present, and future. Mortal characters speak in terms of the present. They cannot foresee the future, or review the past. Thus to be in time is to be mortal, since humans are the only characters constrained by time. In contrast, to be out of time is to be eternal; those belonging to eternity can see and refer to the past, present, and future. This essay focuses on Time as a feature of the dramatic development of man’s relation to God in the N-Town Play, a feature which ultimately highlights what Christ brings to earth, and how Christ brings humanity closer to God with his timeless morality. If, as Christian liturgy makes apparent, the Incarnation is the first step in the process of the salvation of the human race,1 then examination of the N-Town cycle should begin with the “Mary Play”, the precursor to the Incarnation. An examination of “Passion Play I”, in addition to the “Mary Play”, will demonstrate how each character’s cognizance of time determines their place in eternity or in time.


God belongs to the eternal since, “in God there is no distinction of times.”2 St. Thomas describes how “God…is wholly outside the order of time, stationed as it were at the summit of eternity.”3 As creator of time, God is outside the confines of human time, and He sees and speaks of the entire past, present, and future laid out before him.

The next tier under God consists of the personifications of Peace, Mercy, Truth and Justice - the Virtues - who reside in eternity.4 As aspects of God, the Virtues also speak of the past, present, and future, as we witness in the Parliament of Heaven. In Justice’s tirade against man, she explains: “He [Adam] dyspysyd þe and plesyd þi fo./ Þu art his creatour and he is þi creature” (11.70-71).5 In the span of those two lines, Truth switches from past to present. And this present, that God is Adam’s creator and Adam his creature, is an unchanging constant.

What further establishes the Virtues’ situation outside of time is the fact that they are able to search through the earth and heavens for a savior: “I, Trowthe, haue sowte þe erthe without and withinne…/I, Mercy, haue ronne þe hevynly regyon rownde” (11.153,157). They can conduct their search through all mankind from a hilltop view akin to God’s.

Also residing in eternity are the angels. Whilst they see the past, present, and future as well, their closest associations are with the future, as purveyors of prophecy in the "Mary Play". God links eternity with human time through the angels, for God does not bring progress to the time continuum without an announcement from them: Mary’s conception, John the Baptist’s conception and Christ’s conception, all milestones in New Testament history, are preceded by angelic messages.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is man, who is bound by time. All mortals in the play experience everything in the present moment, and they relate everything to the present. Joachim, in play 8, describes the ongoing barren states of his wife and himself in the present: “Because 3at no frute of vs doth procede” (8.60), and Joseph, in play 10, exclaims, “Abyl to be maryed, þat is not I” (10.178). As individual men experience their lives incident by incident, what differentiates human time from eternity is that fact that a man’s condition can change from one moment to the next. As Daniel Poteet explains, “Time [is] identified with motion, change, and world… an incomplete, imperfect, moving image of that reality. Eternity by contrast is constant, whole, and especially, real.”6 We witness the temporality of man in every episode of the N-town play, for example the angel’s visit to Joachim in play 8. After receiving the news Joachim states, “My sorwe was nevyr so grette, but now my joy is more!” (8.202). His state has changed in the instant of receiving God’s message.

The temporality of man is particularly poignant when considering Mary and the Annunciation scene in play 11. The very bliss that Mary experiences upon Christ’s conception, “I cannot telle what joy, what blysse,/Now I fele in my body!” (11.305-306), contrasts sharply with the excruciating pain she will endure after Christ’s Passion: “For these langowrys may I [not] susteyn,/ þeswerd fo sorwe hath so thrylyd my meende…þese prongys, myn herte asondyr þei do rende” (28.173-174, 176). The bliss of man is temporary, unlike the eternal bliss of heaven.

Further distinguishing man from God and the angels is man’s uncertainty of the future. Mortals refer to a conditional future when they speak of things to happen, for they are uncertain if it will indeed occur. In the "Mary Play", we first see this with Joachim: “I fere me grettly þe prest wole me dysspice. /Than grett slawndyr in þe tribus of us xulde aryse” (8.61-62). This statement implies that if the priest does not despise him, then no slander will befall the tribe. Joachim is unsure of what will happen in the near future. He is only confident of the action he will take if God proves merciful: “We xal offre it up into þe temple to be Goddys man” (8.65). The uncertainty of the general future contrasts sharply with the angel’s visitation a hundred lines later: “…In þe lyke wyse, Anne, þi blyssyd wyff,/Sche xal bere a childe xal hyghth Mary,/Which xal be blyssyd in here body and haue joys fyff.” (8.189-191). The angel, descending from eternity, knows with certainty what will happen.

Judas, in "Passion Play I", also talks of the future, but like Joachim, is only confident of actions he knows he will take: “I wyl go tellyn hem myn entent-/I trow ful mery I xal hem make./ Mony I wyl non forsake” (27.279-281). Regarding the future of Jesus, he states a conditional future: “Lat sen what mony þat I xal telle,/And Late Jesu my maystyr ben hangyn and drawe.” While the death of Jesus is a major possibility, he does not dwell on the certainty; his main concern is the money he is almost sure to receive.

When, on rare occasions, mortal characters do speak of the general future7, they make it a present action. Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, does this in play 13: “Of þe tyme þat is comynge now./ For now is cum mercy, and venjauns past!” (13.171-172). When Elizabeth mentions this event, she refers to it in the present act of the future coming towards the present; not that it will happen, but that it is about to happen. In "Passion Play I," we see Peter performing a similar conversion of the future to the present: “The Lord, þat lathing of nought mad,/Is comynge 3oure comfort to be./ All 3oure langoris salvyn xal he” (26.388-390). Peter continues by exclaiming, “He xal cawse þe blynde þat þei xal se,/ þe def to here, þe dome for to speke” (26.392-393), and Jesus, as he rides to Jerusalem, is in the present act of bringing those miracles to the people.

In considering the past, Mary is the first mortal in the "Mary Play" to describe an event of a time before, and when she does, she also relates it to the present. When the bishop demands the cause of her vow of chastity, she recounts the tale of her barren parents. The act of remembering the past is to support her situation in the present: “This is þe cawse, as I 3ow tell,/ þat I with man wyll nevyr mell!” (9.75-76) and as such, the act of remembering becomes an action of the present. Similarly, Elizabeth recounts to Mary how an angel appeared before her and told her of John’s conception. The past mentioned in these memories immediately precedes the present and provides “cawse” for the present action. Thus the immediate past becomes part of the ongoing action of the present. The mortals of the "Mary Play" do not speak of the general past of mankind (Creation, Adam, previous prophets), but only of the past that concerns the New Testament, a “past” that the audience see in the making.

While men see the past and future only in terms of the present, angels and the Virtues see the past and the definitive future. But God, as creator of time, not only sees the past, present, and future, but can also see alternate futures. In play 11 God explains:

If Adam had not deyd, perished had Ryghtwysnes,
And also Trewth had be lost þerby.
Trewthe and Ryght woude chastyse foly.
3iff another deth come not, Mercy xulde perysch;
þan Pes were exiled fynaly.
So tweyn dethis must be, 3ou foure to cherish. (11.139-144)

He describes what would have happened if Adam had not perished, and describes what will happen if another death does not come about. God is the only character who sees not only what will happen, but also what might happen; He sees the various results of different future actions.

When God does enter human time as Christ, the passage of worldly time halts, as we see in the Annunciation scene. Many critics have discussed the first silence of this scene, in which the heavens await Mary’s answer.8 But another often-ignored silence follows as the Holy spirit enters Mary’s body, as the stage directions describe: “here þe Holy Gost discendit with iij bemys to our Lady, the Sone of þe Godhed nest with iij bemys to þe Holy Gost, the Fadyr godly with iij bemys to þe sone. And so entre all thre to here bosom.”9 The lack of action on the actual stage, along with the silence as the three beams enter Mary’s body, highlights how God’s entry into earth and human time requires the temporary suspension of human action. Time stands still as God breaks eternity to come down to earth.10 And after God has taken his earthly form, human time resumes with Mary’s words: “A, now I fele in my body be/Parfyte God and parfyte man…” (11.293-294). She is speaking of an action, a feeling, in that very moment. This comment on the present contrasts with the preceding Parliament of Heaven scene in which God, the Virtues and Contemplacio discuss the simultaneous past, present, and future.


When considering man’s relation to time and God in the N-Town play, the audience’s relation to time is particularly interesting, since the spectators have been removed from the time continuum for the duration of the play. This is indicated by the language used when addressing the audience, and by the external vantage point of the audience, from which view they can observe human action taking place simultaneously. The qualities of "Passion Play I", “urge the audience to view history and humanity as the church assumed God did.”11 If God is outside of time, the audience must also be placed outside the continuum. The foundation of the audience’s perspective lies in the knowledge of biblical history they possess,12 which allows the spectators to come to the play knowing the future that the characters do not. With this foreknowledge and the tableaux like staging13, the audience are presented with the entire existence of mankind, laid before them like a map they can view from a hilltop. This position of the audience is much akin to St. Thomas’s description of how God viewed humanity "stationed…at the summit of eternity.”14 And just as God “would see all who were on the road - not under the formality of preceding and subsequent…but all at the same time and how one precedes another,”15 so does the audience during the N-town plays, as if viewing this map of human history. The staging of the N-town plays, with its simultaneous, multi-locational action16 is a major factor in the creation of this effect, as spectators would view scenes flit around the circular theatre. The playwright redirects “the audience’s attention back and forth between the Last Supper and the Council, which are presented simultaneously.”17 This is the privileged view of the external audience: while Christ feasts, they can witness the betrayal taking place (of which the apostles are wholly ignorant), just as God and the angels can view human action taking place simultaneously.

The other major factor that contributes to the audience’s bird’s eye view of human existence is the figure of Contemplacio. Contemplacio never takes part in the action of the play, for he is positioned outside of time. It is by way of Contemplacio that the mortal audience are able to step outside of time during the plays and view human history from an eternal perspective. As John Velz explains, the audience move “from normal human affairs to the supernal realm with Contemplacio as a mediating character.”18 Contemplacio thus straddles Time and Eternity: by manipulating time during the "Mary Play", he acts as the audience’s link to the eternal and acts as the audience’s guide through the map of human history.

Contemplacio points out the key moments in mankind’s history, and then narrows the focus on specific loci in time in plays 8 though 13.19 His prologue of play 9 provides excellent examples of his role as tour guide. Contemplacio recounts the events of the last period visited by the audience (the prophecy of Anna’s conceiving) and fast-forwards through the actual conception and birth for “breffness of tyme consyderynge”(9.4). He tells the audience they must “passe ovyr þat” (9.4), the episode of Mary’s birth, like a town on a map one wishes to gloss over. Arriving at the desired locus in time, Contemplacio hovers with the audience over the suspended action to take place in the temple, and sparks action with his words: “þis sentens sayd xal be hire begynnyng” (9.7).

In play 13, “The Visit to Elizabeth“, Contemplacio once again redirects the audience through time, in this instance jumping back in time to a point before Christ‘s conception. He quickly recounts how an angel visited Zachary and how Elizabeth conceived. He then leaps forward to the point where the action was suspended, and reanimates time with his words “here gynnyth þe process” (13.40). Contemplacio lets the audience focus their attention on the incident to take place on stage as he recedes from the action saying, “Of my tonge I wole ses” (13.42).


Despite the lack of Contemplacio’s presence in “Passion Play I”, the audience retain the same external vantage point with the aid of staging, which facilitates “simultaneous action surrounding a number of locations”.20 This requires the audience’s attention to be switched from one location to another in the course of “Passion Play I”. And though other characters of eternity are absent in this play, such as the angels, the Virtues, and God in the form of Deus, additional eternal characters are introduced in their stead, such as the Demon and John the Baptist, to continue highlighting the temporal nature of man. John the Baptist is placed out of time by his murder in the biblical history preceding this play. As a character of eternity, he speaks of the future as the angels do: “on xal come aftyr me and not tary longe” (26.126). Further confirming his removal from time, and complementing the external vantage of the audience, he addresses the audience: “as 3e xal here whan I have tolde” (26.140), and refers to salvation achieved after the Crucifixion, though it has not yet occurred in the cycle. His position out of time also affords him the ability to name and label the path to salvation: “Be þe ryth side 3e xal understand ‘mercy’;/And on þe lefte side lykkenyd ‘dysperacyon’;/And þe patthe between bothyn [that may no wry/Schal be ‘hope and dred’ to walk in perfectly” (26.142-145). Christ will similarly name, or rather rename, the rites of the Paschal feast in the succeeding play.

The Demon’s similar place out of time also gives him the ability to categorize, though in this instance, he renames the seven deadly sins: “I haue browth 3ow newe namys… 3e xall kale pride ‘oneste’, and ‘naturall ken’ lechery,/ And covetyse ‘wysdam’ there tresure is present” (26. 109, 111-112). Just like the angels and the Virtues, he speaks of the future and of the past: “For I began in hefne synne for to sowe…and þerfore was I cast out into helle ful lowe” (26.13, 15), and like Contemplacio, he addresses the audience. But unlike the other eternal characters, he has a closer affiliation with human time, often speaking in terms of human measurements – hours and days: “To gete a thowsand sowlys in an houre, methynkyth it but skorn/Syth I wan Adam and Eve in þe fyrst day” (26.23-24). And when recalling his encounter with Jesus, he speaks of how “Thryes I tempte hym be ryth sotylle instawnce,/After he fast fourty days ageyns sensual myth or reson” (26.26-27). He prophesies that Jesus’ “discipulis xal forsake hym and here maystyr denye” (26.52), but this, in addition to many of his other prophecies, proves to be false. Perhaps his proximity to human time is what overshadows his foresight. Demonstrated by numerous details of past incidents in his prologue, Satan is concerned with history. It is history that has brought souls to his hell, and salvation threatens to overturn history and rob him of his thousand souls per hour. He is determined to keep the status quo, just as the Jewish characters are determined to keep the Old Law intact.

In “Passion Play I”, the Jewish doctors and judges are the only mortals who even remotely refer to the consolidated history of mankind, in their frequent reference to the Law. They still do not mention Adam, or the Fall, as God and the Virtues do. But the constant mention of the precedent Law is what differentiates the Jews from Christians amongst mortals, contrasting Jewish law and history with the “timeless morality of Jesus.”21 Poteet further explains, “The conspirators are burdened by precedent and fears of change.”22 But the change that the Angels heralded in the "Mary Play", and the progress that Christ sets forth, will bring man closer to salvation and the eternity of God.

Christ emphasizes how he transcends time as God’s mortal incarnation by speaking concurrently of the present, past and future. This is highlighted in play 26, when Jesus refers to the past, present, and future simultaneously. Unlike other mortals, Christ speaks of the future with certainty: He tells two of his disciples to “Go to 3on castel þat standyth 3ow ageyn/…þer xul 3e fyndyn bestys tweyn:/ An asses tyed and here fole also” (26.347, 349-350).23 And he tells Peter and John to request the Paschal Feast from Simon, insisting that “He wele not onys to 3ow sey nay,/ But sofre to haue all 3oure wylle” (27.31-32). But the scene in which we truly witness Christ merge the past, present, and future is during the Last Supper itself:

Berdryn, þis lambe þat was set us beforn
þat we all haue etyn in þis nyth,
It was comawndyd be my fadyr to Moyses and Aaron
Whan þei weryn with þe Chylderyn of Israel in Egythp.

And as we stondyn so dede þei stond;
And here reynes þei gyrdyn, veryly,
With schon on here fete ands stavys in here hond;
And as we ete it, so ded þei, hastyly.
þis fygure xal sesse;another xal folwe þerby.
Weche xal be of my body, þat am 3oure hed,
Weche xal be shewyd to 3ow be a mystery
Of my flesch and blood in form of bred.

Among 3ow or þan I suffre my Passyon,
For of þis no more togedyr suppe xal we.
And as þe paschal lomb etyn haue we
In þe eld lawe was vsyd for a sacryfyce,
So þe newe lomb þat xal be sacryd be me
Xal be vsyd for a sacryfyce most of price.
(27.349-352, 357-364, 367-372)

In the present, Christ is taking the actions of the past (the Old Law) and converting them into actions of the future (the Sacraments). Christ has effectively changed the meaning of past biblical history by recalling the Passion he will suffer in the future. As Daniel Poteet explains, “…The customs under the Law are merely shadows of things to come: they constitute instructive but inadequate repetition, which is to be replaced by a permanent offering of perfection…”24 The sacraments of Mass must unite in itself past, present, and future to present the whole mystery of Christ.25

Christ brings a likeness of eternity to human time by establishing the sacraments that will be repeated until Judgment Day. If each incident of human life will be present in the instant of Judgment,26 then Christ has created a constant in human time, a feature that hitherto remained in eternity. As Kolve explains, “Time was understood to be strictly limited in duration and importance: it differed from eternity, and in eternity lay all human goals.”27 Christ, in establishing the sacraments, has brought man closer to desired eternity with this constant. Before Christ, the only future for human kind was a perpetual present in hell, measured in years, which forced mortals to stress the present. Accordingly, rewards could only be measured by that which made mortals human, not divine – Time: “Who seyth oure Ladyes Sawtere dayly for a 3er 3us,/He hath pardon ten thowsand and eyte hundryd 3er” (13.156A-157A). After Christ, mortals can look beyond the temporality of man and look to a future which will bring them out of time and closer to the timelessness of God.

Monica Majumdar (MPhil), U. of Cambridge



1.John W. Velz, "The Parliament of Heaven in Two Fifteenth-Century Dramatic Accounts of the Fate of Humankind," New Approaches to European Theater of the Middle Ages, eds. Barbara I. Gusick and Edelgard E. DuBruck (New York: Peter Lang, 2004) 237.

2.V.A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (London: Edward Arnold, 1966) 117.

3.As quoted in Daniel P. Poteet II, "Time, Eternity, and Dramatic Form in Ludus Conventriae 'Passion Play I'," Comparative Drama, Vol. 8 (1974) 384.

4.Also known as the “Four Daughters of God”. Velz 234.

5.All references, from Stephen Spector, ed. The N-Town Play, EETS (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), appear by play number, then line number.

6.Poteet 375.

7.Not each individual future.

8. See Richard Beadle, “‘Devoute ymaginacion’ and the Dramatic Sense in Love’s Mirror and the N-Town Plays,” Nicholas Love at Waseda, 1995, Ed. Soichi Oguro, Richard Beadle, and Michael S. Sargent (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997) and Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).

9.Spector 122.

10.Comtemplacio pleads with God in Play 11 to do this very act: “Wolde God þu woldyst breke þin hefne myghte/and com down here into erth…” (11.9-10)

11.Poteet 384.

12.Paula Lozar, “Time in the Corpus Christi Cycles: 'Aesthetic' and 'Realistic' Models,” Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 14 (1978) 388.

13.Poteet 383.

14.See page 1.

15.Poteet 383.

16.Meg Twycross, “The Theatricality of Medieval English Plays,” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 62.

17.Lozar 391. See also Twycross 60.

18.Velz 240.

19.Both Prosser and Poteet call this “telescoping”. See Eleanor Prosser, Drama and Religion in the English Mystery Plays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961) and Poteet 384.

20.Peter Happé, "The Management of Narrative in the Performance of Cycle Plays: the Cornish Ordinalia, La Passion d'Auverne, and N-Town," Early Drama, Art and Music Review 24:2 (2002) 115.

21.Poteet 372.

22. Poteet 380.

23.This is juxtaposed with the preceding Conspiracy scene, in which the doctors and judges speak of the future with uncertainty, not knowing if they can capture and burn Christ.

24.Poteet description of Paul’s interpretation in Hebrew 10.1. Poteet 373.

25.Poteet 380.

26.See footnote 6.

27.Kolve 117.

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