What is this mystery play?
July 1, 2016 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday, I ran across the proverb "Great cry and little wool, as the devil said when he sheared the hogs," along with the explanation that this came from "an old mystery play, David and Abigail, based on 1 Samuel." Where/when was this mystery play performed, and is its text available?

Researching it online, I found a few texts that seemed to cite the version I originally read or some other Ur-source, but never added any specificity. The earliest source I found was the "Supplement to the Translator's Preface" of the 1759 Charles Jarvis translation of Don Quixote (sorry, can't reproduce long s): "For the sheep-shearing of Nabal being represented in the Mystery of David and Abigail, and the Devil always attending Nabal, was made to imitate it by shearing a hog."

Any ideas as to what this mysterious mystery play might be? Is it part of a mystery cycle? Am I taking "mystery play" too narrowly by assuming it's an English mystery play?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts.
posted by the sobsister to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know but I recently read this Wikipedia article on the phrase structure and thought it might be helpful.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:43 AM on July 1, 2016

Not sure how widely the same proverb was used, but I know that a similar saying, "One shears sheep, the other shears pigs," was extant in the Netherlands at least as early as 1559, when it made a memorable appearance in Bruegel's "Netherlandish Proverbs."
posted by fifthrider at 7:04 AM on July 1, 2016

This commentary on Richard VI Part III & Richard III has a fairly lengthy section talking about the history of the mystery plays and specifically mentions Abigail & David. (Starting about page 80.)

Wikipedia article on mystery plays.

Per the above, mystery plays flourished across Europe, so French, Spanish, English and maybe even German or other language mystery plays are possible sources.

Most of the mystery play cycles cover some highlights from Adam through Moses, then skip directly to the life of Christ. Even the 48-play York Mystery Cycle doesn't seem to devote a full play to David. I wonder if it is possible that "David and Abigail" refers to a shorter episode within some other mystery play.

And of course it could refer to a play that is lost to history.
posted by flug at 8:34 AM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I’m not sure if it helps, but “Much noise and little wool (he said as he sheared the pig)” is also a common idiom or proverb in the Scandinavian languages (e.g., Norwegian “mye skrik og lite ull”) and in Russian. (Comments at that link also cite an example in English by John Fortescue in 1471.)
posted by mbrubeck at 9:28 AM on July 1, 2016

Best answer: I've found two medieval plays that touch on David's life.

#1. "Die Kreuzesschule" (The School of the Cross): David and Christ: A Sacred Drama or "Mystery Play" in Seven Acts by Joseph Hecher

This one doesn't seem to cover the Abigail/Nabal episode at all, however.

#2. David & Abigail, #22 of the Lille Mystery Plays.

So far I cannot locate a text or summary of David et Abigail, but it is at very least a close match and perhaps the one your are looking for.

Here is the information about David et Abigail that I have been able to locate: I haven't been able to locate the text online to see if this is the source of the proverb you mention, but this is certainly a medieval mystery play dealing with the David/Abigail/Nadal affair. So, a close match if perhaps not exact.
posted by flug at 9:57 AM on July 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This article has a little more information: Processional Theater in Lille in the Fifteenth Century by Alan E. Knight. Fifteenth Century Studies 13 (Jan 1, 1988): 347. (Unfortunately only a short excerpt is available unless you are affiliated with an academic institution of some kind.)

It mentions that the Lille plays are "related to no other extant plays treating the same subjects."

And, in a related development that I am at least 1 million thousand percent certain is not fraudulent, deceptive, or sensationalized in any way, I present you the Argentinian pig that you can shear like a sheep . . .
posted by flug at 10:56 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, flug, for awesome help. And to all who answered. I'll pick up the trail at Lille.
posted by the sobsister at 2:37 PM on July 1, 2016

Best answer: I forgot to link to one of the best sources: The Mysteres de la Procession de Lille: Text, headings, miniatures in ms. Wolfenbüttel, HAB, Cod. Guelf. 9 Blankenburg, a master's degree thesis by Fabio Venturini.

It is in Italian with a bit of medieval French sprinkled in, so bust out the Google Translator. But on p. 91 you'll find this miniature showing the scene with Abigail & David, and a summary with some excerpts from the original mystery play:
The miniature, bisected by a quadrangular column, depicts two moments in history: the first meeting between David and Abigail, and the moment when the heir to the throne of Israel declares its willingness to marry Abigail, became a widow.

On the left, Abigail, dressed in a blue and cotardie accompanied by two servants with a donkey bearing two baskets in the hips, are kneeling before David, in armor. The two shake the right hand. The scene takes place at the foot of Mount Carmel.

In the right pane, Abigail is recognizable with long blond hair and blue gown: is tightening left hand of David, wearing a robe longue and a cape. The scene takes place in a room; two women behind the widow chatting with each other, while a man on the opposite side, with an open front tunic, probably an attendant of David, attends the meeting.

The first meeting between David and Abigail corresponds to verses 367-491 of the play. Abigail, Nabal's wife, unbeknownst to the husband comes to meet the future sovereign accompanied by a few servants and donkeys loaded with "cincq moutons cuis" (5 kitchen sheep) (v. 272), "cincq muis / ou environ de bonne fleur" (vv. 273-4), 'cent ligatures de roisin " (v. 278) and" deux cens masses de figues " (two hundred masses of figs) (v. 284). Meeting David, she throws herself at his feet, persuading him not to spill 'sanc innocent " (innocent blood) (v. 420) and delivering the food that she brought. Bowing mentions that the woman in the miniature, not shown in any caption in the drama, recalls the act of worship described in 1 Samuel 25: 23-4. The presence of the two female figures behind it seems to refer to what is stated in the Vulgate with regard to the next meeting with David (1 Samuel 25:42).

The formulation, by David, of his own will to marry Abigail, now a widow, is the subject of verses 650-712. After that some of the servants of David announced his desire to make her his wife, Abigail is conducted, riding his donkey, accompanied by "cincq [...] chamberieres" (five chambermaids) (v. 677) in the presence of the suitor, who declares:

Bien soies tu venue. Enté
ay sy mon ceur en ton amour,
que en celluy jour te retiens pour
ma femme, se tu en es contente;
car plus saige ne plus prudente
ne vis oncques jour de ma vie.
(It is good that you come. Ente
ay sy my ceur in your love,
celluy in that day to hold back
my wife, if thou art happy;
because most saige not prudent
not screw oncques day of my life.)

To him she replied:

Ha, mon seigneur, je ne suis mie
femme telle que a ty affiert,
ne que ta majesté requiert.
Souffise toy a ma priiere
que te serve comme chamberiere.
Non obstant, je veul obeïr
a toy et faire ton plaisir.
(Ha, my lord, I am mie
woman as a affiert ty,
only requires your majesty.
Allow me to serve
you as chambermaid.
Not notwithstanding, I obey
you and do your pleasure.) (22 / 696-702)
Apologies for the really terrible machine translation of both the Italian & French, but it does at least give a bit of the flavor.

And, as a bonus, here is the link to the ebook version of the full text of the Lille Mystery Plays concerning David, as edited by Alan Knight. David et Abigail starts on p. 359. Unfortunately the online e-book is missing quite a few pages but you can still read quite a lot of it.
posted by flug at 7:44 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, flug, for all your sleuthing. That is terrific. I'd found a few things on JSTOR, but this is much closer to the mark. Cheers.
posted by the sobsister at 8:25 PM on July 1, 2016

OK, my Old French is rife with guesswork, but here's my approximation of those two passages:

Be welcome.
My heart is so entered into love for you
That on this day I take you for
my wife, if you are happy with that;
for a more sage or prudent woman
I never saw in all the days of my life.

Ah, my lord, I am not such
a woman who would pride herself to be worthy of you,
nor such as your majesty requires.
Let it be sufficient, I pray you,
that I may serve as your chambermaid.
Nevertheless, I want to obey you
and do your pleasure.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:58 AM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hmm... It does seem to be available at the University of Michigan, and is in the Hathitrust Digital library.
posted by gryftir at 10:50 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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