Wednesday, 18 March 2015

'Buez, or Life of Saint Patrick' - a Breton Mystery Play

Sometimes in my forays through the archives it seems that there are so many biographical accounts of our national patron that it is hard to distinguish between them. But in the article below we have something genuinely different, an analysis of a medieval mystery play featuring Saint Patrick. To make it even more interesting, the play is not of Irish origin but of Breton. The entire work is a curious mixture of events from Patrician writings and hagiography fused with later medieval traditions about Saint Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg, County Donegal. Saint Patrick's Purgatory exercised a fascination for medieval European writers and accounts of the wonders and torments to be experienced there appeared in a number of versions including Catalan and French. There are some obvious anachronisms in the play, for example, the parents of the fifth-century Saint Patrick are depicted as entering the Franciscan order. The most charming aspect of the play, apart from the flexible chronology, is the epilogue which the author of the paper has translated. 



It was doubtless owing to the motive of connecting the Apostle of Ireland with Armorica that at least three ancient lives of the saint laid the scene of his capture by pirates in Brittany. According to later Breton traditions, St. Patrick was born near Pont-Aven, in the garden land of Brittany, whose fame as the "Millers' town " par excellence has given rise to the couplet

Pont-Aven, ville de renom,
Quatorze moulins, quinze maisons ;

a chapel is dedicated to him at Lannion, at the opposite side of the peninsula, and, according to the popular almanacs, he is invoked for the relief of the dead.

St. Patrick figures as one of the dramatis personae in at least two Breton mystery plays. In the older, the "Life of St. Nonne," mother St. David, which, by the way, is one of the earliest Breton texts extant, dating from the fifteenth century, he plays a strange role. God the Father despatches an angel to Patrick to tell him that, in obedience to a design of Providence, he shall leave the place in which he is and that, in thirty years, David will be born. Patrick demurs to this plan: "What!" he exclaims, "I to fast for some one that will not be born for thirty years, expose myself to dangers in foreign lands and go with bent-down head like a blind man? What does God, the true King of the world, wish? I have always served him as his liege-man the best I could, but, now that he intends to exile me from this land, I will serve him no more." Again the angel is despatched and, on the assurance that he will be made apostle of the island to which he is to be sent and that no harm will happen to him, Patrick gives his consent to go. He then hires a ship and sailors to take him to Ireland to preach there the faith of Christ.

In the other mystery play, still inedited and existing in only one manuscript copy dating from something more than a century ago, Patrick is the chief personage. In fact, the title of the play is the "Buez, or Life of St. Patrick, Archbishop of Ireland." Neither the name of the author nor of the copyist of this curious piece is known, but this much is sure, that it was composed by a young clerk, a native of one of the cantons of Treguier, as the dialect in which the play is written makes clear. Although the author had had some education, it was not enough to prevent him from falling into all kinds of errors in history and chronology, in spite of the fact that he had the assistance in its composition, as he himself tells us, of a "Father of the order of St. Francis, a learned man and prudent, and full of wisdom." But, after all, the poor poet is frank enough in confessing that his work is "without study or style."

Like all the Breton mysteries, the "Life of St. Patrick" is in verse, the favorite meter being the French Alexandrine ; but occasionally other meters are employed, and the verses rhyme in pairs. It is not uncommon to find whole phrases repeated in the course of the work, and mere stop-gaps are found on every page. In a word, the style of the piece is as mediocre and as prosaic as most of the Breton works of the same kind. Yet, in spite of all that, it is valuable from the point of view of language, and for the light it throws on the life at the time it was written, for, it may not be out of place to remark, the authors of the Breton mystery plays represent the characters of their dramas as contemporaries, no matter when or where they lived. Consequently, we should be asking too much if we looked for historical truth in these naive productions, whose primary purpose was to edify the audience before whom they were to be given. Therein lay the greatest value of the Breton theatre.

Long after the mystery plays had disappeared from the rest of France, to give way to the comedy and drama, this mediaeval genre lived on in Brittany and afforded the Breton peasantry their best diversion and their only information, even if somewhat distorted, on sacred and profane history. The author of a mystery did not bother himself much, and his auditors bothered themselves even less, about the historicity of the subjects and characters of the play. For this reason he chose, it made no difference whence, the subject, taking care, however, to hit upon one that would draw and hold the people. The author of the "Life of St. Patrick" excuses himself for not having introduced farces and pleasantries into his play, which, he admits, would have delighted the playgoers. And yet, he had not acted niggardly in this respect, one would think, for he metamorphosed the druids or pagan priests of the cruel king of Ireland who persecuted Patrick into devils, who speak big oaths and thump and pummel each other to the great amusement of the audience.

There must have been a great many versions of this legendary life of the Apostle of Ireland, of which the Breton Buez is but one. It will be sufficient to mention here one in French, bearing close resemblances to the play we are discussing, one in Spanish, due to the arch-priest Montalvan, and another in Spanish, based on this last, by the dramatist Calderon de la Barca. There is every reason to believe that the Breton mystery was written to explain the origin of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, and serve as introduction or prelude to one of the numerous plays of that name. There could be no subject that would appeal more to the imagination of the Breton of two hundred years or more ago, as it would to the imagination of the Breton of to-day, than that wonderful Purgatory which enjoyed such popularity towards the close of the Middle Ages, and the marvelous adventures with which the converted soldier, Louis Eunius, met in it.

The four versions mentioned do not agree on all points in what they tell us of the life and works of Patrick. It will be worth while, perhaps, to point out some of the most striking passages in which they agree or disagree, taking the Breton text as the basis.

The first Prologue asks pardon of the audience for the faults and rudeness of the work and the slips of the actors: "Excuse us, I pray, if we make mistakes, and we will pray Jesus to pardon you, too." As was the practice on such occasions, the players and audience kneel and join in singing the Veni Creator, and thereafter, before entering upon the argument of the play, the Prologue pays his respects to the clergy and nobility who are present, requesting their attention : "On you, priests and nobles, depends the attention of all present. Following your good example, they will give us audience and all will remain silent."

Now, says the legend, in that part of Ireland that lies opposite England and is near the sea is a small, sparsely peopled village called Emothor or Emptor. This is Nemthur, where, according to the Old- Irish Hymn by Fiacc of Sletty, one of the oldest Lives of Patrick, Patrick was born. At a time that is not more definitely stated in the legend there lived in that place a knight and, not far away, a lady whose name was Conchese, or Conquesa, who is the Concess of the oldest Irish Lives. Both this young man and woman had made vows of celibacy, but God the Father announced to them through his angel Gabriel that their vows were not pleasing to him, for he had chosen them for each other. The Breton play alone informs us that the knight was at that time sixteen years of age and the lady fourteen. Moreover, his name was Timandre, a name unknown to the other versions. From more reliable sources, however, we know that his name was Calpurnius, that he was a Briton and a Roman citizen, and that his home was at Bannaventa, which was probably in what is now southwest Wales.

The Breton Buez differs further from all the other versions in calling the maiden Mari Jana. She, says the Breton poet, was sister of St. Germain (of Auxerre), but the others have it that she was sister of St. Martin of Tours. In any case, they agree in affirming that she was of French blood, and Calderon contents himself with informing us that Patrick, for he it is who was afterwards their son, was born

De un caballero irlandes
Y de una dama francesa.

The proposals of marriage of Timandre and Mari Jana are carried out with much formality in the presence of the young lady and her brother, the count. Timandre is supported by his adviser, the vicar, who does most of the parleying for his client. The next scene takes place in the church. The vicar asks the names of the young couple :
" My name is Timandre, at your service ; in that name I was baptized into the faith and into the Church. "
"And mine," answered his betrothed, "is Mari Jana, also at your service."
The Vicar: "Well, Timandre, are you willing to take this Mari Jana who is here present ?"
Timandre: "Yes."
" And you, Mari Jana, do you also promise to take for your husband Sir Timandre ?"
" Yes."
The vicar then addresses them a short homily on the meaning of the Sacrament of Matrimony, and, at the conclusion of the ceremony, the entire company go to the wedding feast.

In general, the Breton author is better informed and more precise than the other writers I have quoted. It was five years, he tells us, before the prayers of this virtuous couple were answered; "a thing," he adds, "of rare occurrence in that land." The visitation of the angels at the birth of the child, and the scene of his baptism, take up considerable time in the action of the play, for the questions of the priest and the responses of the page and governess, who act as sponsors, are given in full, just as those of the priest and the child's parents on the occasion of their marriage. At the command of the angel Gabriel, the name Patrick is given to the boy. One might suppose, from the silence of the Breton author on the subject, that Patrick was the only child of this marriage; but we learn from the other accounts that he had three sisters (or even five, according to a note in the Franciscan copy of Fiacc's Hymn in Honour of St. Patrick) namely: Lupina, Ligrina, and Dorche - the two last are called Tygridia and Dorchea by Montalvan  of whom the first mentioned remained single, but the others married, and the second had twenty-three children, nephews of Patrick.

These popular versions agree in saying that Patrick's parents ended their days in a cloister; and the Breton author, presumably to flatter some local community and without regard to the violent wrenching of the chronology, says that Timandre entered the order of St. Francis and that the mother of Patrick became a religious of the order of St. Clare. They had left the boy, a mere child, in the care and guardianship of the count, his mother's brother, says the Breton author; but, say the others, it was to a lady, who according to the French version was his aunt, to whom he was entrusted. In any case, he was afterwards put to school with the faithful vicar, who, for a certain stipend, engaged to teach him reading, writing, and the catechism, the boy having expressed his preference for learning rather than for a martial career. He was only a lad of six when he performed miracles: he restored sight to the eyes of a man who had been blind from birth ; and he could not have been much older, ten, eleven, or twelve years of age, according to the French version and Montalvan, when, by his prayers, he caused a deluge, which had come from the melted snow and threathened to destroy all the land, to subside.

Meanwhile the devils have heard of the miraculous deeds of the child, and of the spread of the faith which he preaches, and, filled with alarm, they convene a council. As these scenes of deviltry are those in which the Breton playwrights and actors made their master-stroke, and as the one before us is typical of the class, it will, perhaps, be well to translate word for word a portion of it. We can imagine the mirth of the spectators when some well-known local figure was held up to ridicule. Lucifer summons the princes of hell "to stretch their legs," and calls upon each to give an account of himself. "It's a long time," he cries, "since any one has come to the fire," and he gnashes his teeth with rage.

Beelzebub speaks : "Prince, here's a draper I've brought down. I pretended to be a simpleton and he gave false measure. He measured his laces and ribbons too short and then sold them at twice what they were worth."

Asteroth speaks : " I've trapped an inn-keeper that kept false accounts. He stole from his customers when their bellies were full, put water in the wine and vinegar, sold for eighteen sous an article worth fifteen, gave nine or ten eggs for a dozen, and charged five sous for an omelet fried in a sauce of watery cider and dishwater."

Satan, to whom had been entrusted the surveillance of Ireland, reports : "There is a brat there who does more harm than a dozen of us. So I advise you to send some one else, if you wish, but I shan't go there again." The upshot of the wrangle is that Asteroth proposes that some one seize Patrick and denounce him to the emperor, and Beelzebub volunteers to undertake the task, disguised as a labourer.

The French version is the only one of the four that gives details of the well-known story of the capture of Patrick by pirates. The Breton simply mentions that Patrick was only eight years old at the time ; but the French legend, which is nearer the facts in the case, has it that he was sixteen, and that his capture happened in this way : Patrick was walking along the seashore with a few companions, reciting the psalms, when he was taken prisoner and brought to the far end of the island, where he was sold to a prince of that land. This was the "Emperor" before whom Beelzebub led and accused Patrick ; but, because of the boy's tender age, he was punished by being sent away to a solitary place to watch his master's sheep, which are substituted for the herds of swine of the native versions.

Then follows a droll scene in the Breton Buez. Patrick is in the wilderness in prayer. God the Father sends the angel Victor to comfort him. But Victor, who, of course, is unknown to Patrick, first tries his patience : "Good-day, young shepherd ;what is new? You are quite lost to the world in this lonely place. Have done with your melancholy; enjoy yourself. I have cards; let us play a game and dance the steps I have learned at the academy."
Patrick protests that he knows no games, and, besides he has no money.
" What sort of a man are you, anyway ?" exclaims Victor.
" A man lively and gay is worth the woods full of such bigots. Come, without ceremony, let us make ourselves at ease. Let us dance a little without more ado."
Finally, since Patrick does not yield to the temptation, the angel makes himself known.

The germ of the story of the conversion of the two daughters of the High King Loegaire by Patrick, Ethne the White and Fedelm the Red, is well known even in some of the earliest accounts of the saint's life, but the Breton dramatist has taken the mere mention of the princesses in its source and made a story of his own out of their meeting with Patrick. The older sister accosts Patrick: "Good day, shepherd. Come here. Tell me, are you content in this place? Two young ladies have come to see you, having heard that you are beautiful."

Patrick makes a move to escape their advances. "Listen," he says,"I am not used to talk to young ladies. That belongs to people like you, not to a poor unfortunate so poorly dressed as I am."

He even loses his temper: "It would be better for you to go home and not have them looking for you for dinner. Hurry to your soup."

As might be expected, the young ladies are greatly mortified at having their charms and blandishments so ruthlessly rebuffed, and they threaten to report him to their father. But, it is hardly necessary to add, they are finally converted to the doctrine professed by Patrick.

The following scene represents the emperor asleep. An angel stands at his right side, at his left stands Lucifer, who says :"Courage, courage, my son. Have no fear in the world. I will protect you when you are oppressed."

The Angel: "What, do you believe in the idols?"

Asteroth :"It's a great pity if he doesn't believe in them, old imbecile."

The Angel: "Alas, whoever does not believe will be lost."

The Devil: "You lie in your face. In this way they will be saved."

The Angel : "It will be a misfortune if they believe in them."

Asteroth :" Away from here, or I will close your beak, For he is ours, have no doubt in the world."

Patrick's life with the cruel emperor has become so unendurable that the angel buys his release for 20,000 crowns, and the second act concludes with another scene of devilry.

Lucifer :" Good- day, companions, I've come back to see you. Don't be surprised if I'm late, for, without exaggeration, I've been traveling all over the parishes of the diocese of Treguier. Well,
Asteroth, have you succeeded in putting Patrick under your law?"

Asteroth: "All the devils together are no match for him. I have tried hard enough to tempt him "

"The deuce. You're a fine fellow, when a little chap causes you such embarrassment. If I were at his heels, I'd have him in the net "

Asteroth : " All the nets in the whole of hell are not enough, I tell you, old stinkard, to catch a man who is in the grace of God. You fool yourself, if you think so."

Lucifer: "What, wretch! I'll teach you to speak hereafter in more proper terms. There, take that on your side, old heedless ingrate. One like you doesn't earn his bread."

The different versions do not agree as to what happened to Patrick on the journey to France, which followed his release from the tyrant in Ireland. Some of them say it was St. Martin at Tours, others that it was St. Germain at Auxerre whom he visited, and by whom he was ordained to the priesthood.

Having expressed a desire to visit "the house of Monsieur St. Peter," he set out for Rome. On the way, he was inspired to visit a hermit named Justus who, says the French version, lived on an island in the Tyrrhenian sea, by which we know from reliable documents that the island of Lerins is meant, or, according to the Breton mystery, in the heart of a great forest which we may suppose was on the Alps or Apennines.

When Patrick came up to the hermitage he called to the hermit: "Holy father, open your door to me, I pray you, for the night has come and I do not know where to go."

"Who is it wishes to enter?" asked the hermit. "I cannot give lodging in any way."

"I am a priest on my way to Rome, and I pray you to support me this night."

" Tell me your name, and we will see. If you are that Patrick, surely I will take you in."

For it had been revealed to Justus that Patrick would pass that way, and he had received from heaven a sceptre or crosier which he was to deliver to Patrick on his coming. One form of this story dates from as early as the ninth century.

By confusion with his predecessor, Palladius, Patrick is said to have arrived in Rome in the pontificate of Celestine I., who conferred upon him the benefice and archbishopric of Ireland.
The Breton mystery brings us to the Eternal City, where we find Patrick conversing with the Pontiff and the cardinals. On his return home, Patrick crosses France and again visits his uncle, who provides him with "chalice, missal, and ornaments," for, as he says, in the land to which Patrick is about to go there are no furnishings.

Patrick, the legend continues, landed on the coast of Leinster, where he remained some time, and then embarked for Ulster in the northern part of the island, where Leogarius, who is the Loegaire of Irish history, reigned. Now this king, whom the Breton mystery calls Garius, had planned, at the instigation of the devils, to destroy the apostle, and at the suggestion of Beelzebub, he sent his chief prince to the church where Patrick was saying Mass, with a pistol in his hand to shoot him ; but, as he is about to fire, a thunderbolt hurls him to the ground. This incident is also a reworking of one of Patrick's adventures with the Druids told of in some of the early accounts of his life, how the chief Druid tried to kill Patrick, but the saint raised his hand and cursed him, and he fell dead, burned up before the eyes of all. From here on, event follows event in quick succession. St. Brigit, who, by the way, is associated with Patrick only in the more recent lives, appears and announces to Patrick the secrets which God has to reveal to him. A stage direction follows: Here a light will be made in the sky. One of the inhabitants of Ireland cries out: "Look, look, in the air, a great light full of brightness. I dare not venture ; I will wait no longer to understand it. I am going to call people. I find here a miracle." (Recalls at the door): "James, James. Come out quickly. I am greatly perplexed at what I see. Look, in the air is a light like a triumphant sun."

James in turn calls another : "William, come, my friend. We are in fear here. There is a burning torch in the air above our house." They fall on their knees. Brigit explains that it is a sign of the joys prepared for Patrick in heaven.

God descends, a crosier in his hand, and leads Patrick to the mouth of a cavern which serves as entrance to the miraculous Purgatory. God promises Patrick that he will suffer no torment at the hour of death, for He will come promptly with his angels to receive him.

Patrick speaks to the bystanders: "My vicar-general, and you my people, the time has come that has been fixed to pay tribute to Jesus, my Saviour. All that receive life must sometime die. It is not the fear of death that is my greatest regret. My greatest sorrow is to leave behind the Irish. I have always remembered them in my prayers, and in my sacrifices I prayed for them. This much has been accomplished : I have obtained from Jesus, our Messias, a new Purgatory, created in my name, and, because of me, it has been privileged : Whoever passes twenty-four hours within it will efface whatever offences he has committed in this world. Yonder it is, near the valley. Come with me, we will visit it together."

A host of angels appear in the air singing Gloria in excelsis Deo. Patrick, from within the Purgatory, addresses his farewell to the pains and torments of the world, and the mystery concludes with another scene of diablerie. Lucifer and Beelzebub had promised Satan, when we saw them last, that they would act diligently on their mission, and not come back emptyhanded. And now we find them condoling with each other, for they have got no game, and they are afraid they will be struck and beaten. A happy thought occurs to Beelzebub :" There is no chance of success in this land. Come, let us go to Toulouse to get Louis Ennius. I saw him less than a week ago living riotiously and quarrelsome and cuddling the pretty girls. Come, we shan't have any trouble in taking him."

The vulgar versions of the life of St. Patrick reckon that he lived to the age of 120 or even 130 or 132 years. According to the equally unsubstantiated statements of the French version we are considering here, and the Spanish of Montalvan, he was 113 years of age when he died. His burial place was the city of Dun, or Dunio as the word stands in Montalvan, which represents the historical Dun Lethglasse, which contests with Saul the honor of containing the bones of the Irish apostle. The true year of his death was 461, on the 17th of March. The legendary accounts disagree with this, and also with each other. The French version offers the 20th of April, in the year 463; Montalvan the 16th of that month, in the year 493, and in the pontificate of Pope Felix. These and other attempts at synchronizing are overlooked by the Breton poet. It was sufficient for him to have produced a preface to and an explanation of that other play which, in his eye, was of greater importance, and to the performance of which he invites his audience to return on the morrow.

I cannot bring this short analysis of the " Buez or Life of St. Patrick" to a better close than by giving a translation of the Epilogue which followed it. It offers considerable information concerning the spectators, the author, and the actors, and the obstacles and encouragement which they might expect to meet with in the course of the play. The Epilogue was the capital piece of a mystery and was technically known as the bouquet. It must be remembered that these dramas were given on a temporary stage in the open air and that it required several days to play one mystery entire. As the reciter of the Epilogue, who was always the best actor of the troupe, declaimed in flowery terms, the assistants passed among the audience taking up the collection with which to defray the expenses of the production.

Good people, generous people, people of every noble quality, your favourable attention towards us to-day puts us under deep obligations, if we had the capacity, to thank you from the centre of our hearts.

But, good people, relying on the patience which you have continued to show to-day in our favour, I make bold to thank you, so far as I am able, on the part of the actors.

Monsieur the pastor and all the priests have favoured us in every way, and, in recompense, I thank them and the joy of Paradise I wish them.

Then the nobles, the people of quality, who have shown us every civility, in return we pray for them and I wish them the glory of Paradise.

Next, the young clerics and the people of the pen, as well as the citizens, I thank, and in turn I wish them, too, the glory of Paradise.

Besides, the heiresses, as many as are present, I thank warmheartedly for having shown us perfect attention, and I ask for them joy in heaven.

I thank you from my heart, young people, and I wish you a thousand good fortunes, the wealth of the world, many children, and the happiness of Paradise afterwards.

And I ask excuse of all, and once more I invite you all to come to-morrow, if it be your pleasure. I hope that there will be three times as many as there are to-day.

If we have displeased anybody to-day, we promise to satisfy you to-morrow. We will spend our time and will take every pains that we may be able to satisfy every one.

I do not doubt that there will be some hanger-on who, on the way home or while eating his bowl full, will find a thorn to attach to each of us ; I see mine already dragging behind me.

But those that are wise and well-intentioned will let them have their say and invite them, if they know their business, to come to morrow and to give a lesson.

The mystery which you will see is that of Louis Ennius, which we will play, by the grace of Jesus, with the best persons who are able to give it. Then, come all in bands, let no one remain at home.

Now, I have another thing to ask of you: Let every one bring, without fail, a six-real piece; fifteen-sous piece, rolls of farthings, and four-sous pieces will not be refused.

It is to help pay for our supper. And you, company, if you wish to join us in drinking a drop, we will do it most willingly before we leave.

Finally, company, this is your duty. But, those who may not have a sou, come just the same and we will strive, all of us, to do our part and satisfy you before you leave for home.

O glorious St. Patrick, you who are in heaven, be our advocate now before God. With true heart, I make our request and that of all who have come to hear us.

Our end and our design and inclination is to imitate you in every way, in order that, by your example, we may overcome sin and be victorious over our enemies.

Glorious St. Patrick, crowned with glory, cause us to imitate your life in this world, that, having followed your example, we may share in the glory and the joy.

In this way I began, in this way I end. I pray you, company, excuse us. To-morrow, by the grace of God, we promise to do better. I am, with true heart, your faithful servant.

Catholic World Volume 86 (1908), 461-472.

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