Why Do the Shepherds Prophesy?


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

The Wakefield Secunda Pastorum, by all means the best-known pageant in the Middle English Mystery Cycles, has drawn much commentary, the majority of it directed toward the contrast between the humorous mock-nativity staged by Mak and Gill to conceal their stolen sheep and the pious conclusion of the play in which the shepherds reverently worship the Christ-child at Bethlehem.1 Yet, much of this commentary has led us away from the connections between this superbly comic piece and the many other depictions of the shepherds in the history of medieval drama. If we are to understand the traditions under which the Wakefield Master is writing, we must examine more carefully a moment in this play which as yet has received little attention: the point at which the shepherds prophesy the birth of Christ. Typically, the Wakefield Master is able simultaneously to communicate both humor and reverence. The three shepherds have caught Mark red-handed. Realizing that they could by right hang this criminal for his robbery, they charitably "cast hym in canvas." They fall asleep from their exertions, and are awakened by the song of the angel announcing Christ's birth. They begin to imitate it haltingly, but are interrupted by the second shepherd, Gyb, who suddenly begins to cite Old Testament prophecies:

We fynde by the prophecy - let be youre dyn! - Of Dauid and Isay and mo then I myn - Thay prophecyed by clergy - that in a vyrgyn Shuld he lyght and ly, to slokyn oure syn, And slake it, Oure kynde, from wo; For Isay sayd so: Ecce virgo Concipiet a chylde that is nakyd.2

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