Among the Folger's priceless manuscript treasures is the famous Macro Manuscript, a fifteenth century manuscript which contains the the full texts of three of the four surviving morality plays written in English before 1500. Two of these plays, The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind, are known only through the Macro Manuscript, while a fragmentary version of Wisdom also exists in a Digby Manuscript at the Bodleian Library. The Castle of Perseverance is the earliest complete extant English morality play.
Without this humble manuscript of seventy-five leaves, we would know little about the once flourishing genre of English morality plays. The last page of The Castle of Perseverance, for example, provides the earliest known stage diagram for an English play. The bottom right corner of the last page of Wisdom contains the ownership statement of the monk Thomas Hyngham, which in English reads: "O book, if anyone should . . . ask to whom you belong, you shall say, I belong above all to monk Hyngham."
The three plays were transcribed as separate manuscripts. Regional dialects and references to place names scattered throughout the plays suggest that all three originate from the East Midlands, particularly Norfolk and Suffolk. The Macro Manuscript’s copy of The Castle of Perseverance was transcribed by an unknown hand around 1440. The two later plays, Mankind and Wisdom, were transcribed by the Monk Thomas Hyngman in the mid 1460s.
In the early 18th century, Reverend Cox Macro acquired all three individual manuscripts and bound them together along with three other non-dramatic manuscripts. 19th century owner Hudson Gurney separated the three Macro plays from the rest of the miscellany. The three plays were first published together as a set in Furnivall’s edition of 1882.
In 1936, the Folger purchased the Macro Manuscript at a Sotheby’s auction for 440 pounds.
In 2016, Richard Beadle published the article, "Macro MS 5: A Historical Reconstruction." In this article, Richard Beadle reconstructs the sequence of components in “Macro MS 5,” which students of English drama may recognize as a bibliographical descriptor of a bound volume that contained three valuable early English morality plays, but which Beadle reminds us was “a composite volume of some complexity” (66). For the morality plays, now at the Folger, and known as the “Macro plays,” were only three components of a bound volume of disparate manuscripts. The other components included Juvenal’s Satires, a twelfth-century manuscript of Anglo-Saxon laws, and several scientific and pseudo-scientific Latin texts. These manuscripts are now dispersed among no fewer than four institutions—Downside Abbey, John Rylands Library, UCLA, and the Folger. See below for full reference.
The Castle of Perseverance
References in The Castle of Perseverance to “crakows” (an early 15th-century shoe fashion with pointed toes) indicate that the play was written between 1400 and 1425, making it the earliest complete extant English morality play. Although it is the earliest play of the three, Castle, is the third play in the Macro manuscript, in folios 154-191. The play contains nearly 3,700 lines, with 38 extant leaves – two gatherings of 16 leaves and a third gathering of six leaves. Evidence of two missing leaves suggests that there are around 100 lines that have been lost. Some scholars argue that the play may have had multiple authors, due to differences in style, rhyme scheme, and stanza pattern between the banns.
The manuscript is composed of thirteen leaves. The play was performed by groups of traveling players for a paying audience. The cast is considerably smaller than that of The Castle or Wisdom, requiring as few as six players to perform. The play has been noted for its low tone, bawdy humor, and the relatively colloquial language used throughout. The play is the first known play to mention money collection, so scholars have suggested that the tone of the play was meant to appeal to broader audiences.
Also known as Mind, Will, and Understanding, two quires of twelve leaves each make up the manuscript.. While the play in its complete form is known only through the Macro Manuscript, fragments of the play are preserved in a Digby Manuscript at the Bodleian Library (MS Digby 133). Scholars disagree on the number of players required to perform the play, varying from over twenty to as few as twelve.
Detailed copy information may be found in Hamnet . Links to full-text "Bookreader" images of the Macro Manuscript (including the individual plays) may be found at the end of that record.
Two scholars have produced recent Collation posts related to the Macro Manuscripts:
For further information, visit the Wikipedia article for the Macro Manuscript.
- Richard Beadle, “Macro MS 5: A Historical Reconstruction,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society XVI / 1 (2016): 35-77.
- Beadle, Richard and Piper, A.J. eds. "Monk Thomas Hyngham's hand in the Macro Manuscript," New Science out of Old Books: Studies in Manuscripts and Early Printed Books. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995, pp. 315-41.
- Bennet, Jacob. "The 'Castle of Perseverance': Redactions, Place, and Date." Mediaeval studies, xxiv, p. 141-52. 1962.
- Bevington, David, ed. The Macro Plays: A Facsimile Edition with Facing Transcription. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1972.
- Eccles, Mark, ed. The Macro Plays. EETS o.s. 262. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
- Furnivall, Frederick James and Pollard, Alfred William eds. The Macro Plays. For the Early English Text Society, 1904.
- Wickham, Glynne, ed. English Moral Interludes. London: Dent, 1976.