(WINTER OF 1533-34.)
HENRY and Margaret having quitted Nerac for Pau, where they intended passing the winter; had reached those picturesque heights, separated by a ravine, on which the city stands, and had entered the castle. The queen had found pleasure in adorning it with the most magnificent gardens then known in Europe, and liked to walk in them, conversing with Cardinal de Foix, the Bishop of Tarbes, and many other distinguished persons who admired her wit and grace. And yet these ecclesiastics often caused her ‘much vexation.’ Surrounded by persons who made a regular report to Francis I., watched by the king her husband and the dignitaries of the Church who were at her court, this pious but weak woman bent under the weight. She began the day by attending morning service in the catholic church of the parish; then in the afternoon she privately collected in her chamber the evangelical members of her court, and the little band of exiles, with a few men and women of the people who, coming forward awkwardly, took their seats timidly on the handsome furniture of the queen. Roussel, Lefevre, or some other minister, delivered an exhortation, and the little assembly separated, feeling that God had really been present in the midst of them. One day some of these humble believers desired to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The queen was embarrassed: she did not dare celebrate it in the church, nor even in her own room, lest one of the cardinals should enter suddenly… After some reflection Margaret thought she had found what was wanted. Under the terrace of the castle there was a large hall called the Mint, a sewer underground place that could be approached without attracting notice. By the queen’s orders her servants privately carried a table there, covered it with a white cloth, and placed a basin on it containing ‘a few slices of plain bread,’ and by its side some cups full of wine ‘instead of chalices.’ ‘Such are their altars!’ ironically exclaims the Catholic historian.
On the appointed day, the believers, silent and agitated; came and took their places not without fear of being discovered. The queen, forgetting the pomps of the Louvre, sat among them as a simple Christian. Roussel appeared, but not in sacerdotal costume, and stood in front of the table. ‘Those who believe that there is nothing but an empty sign in the Sacrament,’ he said, ‘are not of the school of faith.’ ‘He took common bread,’ says the indignant catholic narrator, ‘and not little round wafers stamped with images.’ — ‘Remember,’ continued Roussel with a grave voice, ‘that Christ suffered and died for us.’ He then handed round the cup ‘without making the sign of the cross!’ The worshippers, deeply moved, bore a heavenly expression on their faces, and felt the presence of the Lord: ‘The same Christ dwelt in the minister and in the people.’ No spy nor cardinal appeared, and the communicants, after presenting an offering for the poor, withdrew in peace. Notwithstanding its secrecy, this celebration was talked about in the castle. The King of Navarre was quite annoyed at it. A thoughtless, changeable, and ever violent man, and liable to occasional worldly relapses, he began to grow impatient at his wife’s piety, and especially at the ‘feastings in the cellar.’ He was habitually in a bad humor, and found fault with all that Margaret did.
One day as he returned to the castle from a hunting party, he asked where the queen was. He was told that a minister was preaching in her chamber.
At these words the king’s face flushed. A faithful servant ran to warn the queen: ministers and hearers escaped by a back way, and they had hardly left the room, when Henry entered abruptly. He stopped, looked round him, and seeing only the queen, agitated and trembling, he struck her in the face, saying: ‘Madame, you desire to know too much.’ He then left her indignant and confounded. This affront offered to the dignity of the royal family of France did not pass unnoticed: Francis ‘scolded Henry d’Albret soundly,’ says Brantome. Margaret, eager to win over her husband and to be agreeable to her court, resolved to have a representation of some biblical dramas. Possibly she might by this means reach those who would not come to the sermons. She took for her subject The Birth of the Savior, and having completed her poem distributed the parts among certain noble maidens. These biblical representations, which displeased Calvin, because of their theatrical form, and the Romish clergy because of their evangelical truths, charmed the middle party, and as they belong to the religious history of the epoch, we cannot pass them by unnoticed. Margaret fitted up the great hall of the castle as a theater. The scenery was prepared, and shortly after Christmas placards announced the representation of ‘The Nativity of Jesus Christ.’ When the day came the hall was crowded. In the front rank of the amphitheater sat the king and queen, the latter wearing a plain dress trimmed with marten’s fur and a Bearnese hood. Near them were the Cardinals De Grammont and De Foix with other members of the clergy.
Around the royal pair were Margaret’s inseparable maids of honor — Mademoiselle de St. Pather, the usual distributor of her alms, Mademoiselle de la Batenage, Blanche de Tournon, Frangoise de Clermont, Madame d’Avangour, the greatest ‘eaves-dropper’ of the court, the chancellor, chamberlains, and almoners. Her ten stewards, her esquires and thirty-eight maids, her seventeen secretaries, and her twenty valets-dechambre were most of them present. The invited strangers occupied seats according to their rank. A first representation has rarely excited more curiosity.
The first act begins. The scene is placed at Nazareth, in the house of a poor carpenter. A man in the prime of life and a young woman are talking together. A proclamation has just been published in the market-place ordering every one to go to the city of their family to be registered. But these poor people belong to Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is a long way from Nazareth. The woman is soon to become a mother, and the man is uneasy about the consequences of the journey. The young Israelitish woman, whose calm meek features indicate the serenity of a pious soul, says to him: … Us no danger shall come nigh, For he whose power o’ershadowed me, Holds in his hand both fruit and tree. fg80 The scene changes, and we are at Bethlehem. It is quite dark, but a few lights are visible through the windows of the houses. The same man and woman — they are Joseph and Mary — have just arrived from Nazareth after a fatiguing journey. Joseph, still anxious, begins: It is late and already night… Let us approach the nearest light.
He knocks at the door, and asks to be admitted. The owner of the house looks contemptuously on them and says that he lodges none but rich people. Joseph goes a little farther on and knocks at another door: Will you please lodge my wife and me?
For the poor woman, as you see, Is near her time.
This man looks as contemptuously upon them as the other, and answers that he takes in none but noblemen. Joseph, still undiscouraged, points out a third man to his wife and says: Here is a man with pleasant look.
He speaks to him, but the man is a bon vivant, and is annoyed by the careworn appearance of the travelers. ‘I like,’ he says, Dances, sports, women, good-cheer… No kill-joys are wanted here.
Pass on, my friends; Joseph, with a deep sigh: Onward then, and God will tell Where he pleases we should dwell.
But wearied by the journey, and uneasy about her condition, Mary begins to change countenance: Woe’s me, I feel the hour draw near For the long-looked-for fruit t’appear.
At these words, the startled Joseph looks round him, and discovering at last a poor stable which the wind penetrates on every side, he presses Mary to enter it: I will take care To shelter you from every hurtful air.
He settles the young woman as comfortably as he can in the rude shed, and prepares to go into the town to get what she requires.
MARY. Go, go, my friend: I shall not be alone, For where God is, there also is my home.
Mary remaining alone offers up a touching prayer to her heavenly Father; then, yielding to her fatigue, she lies down upon the straw and falls asleep.
The scene changes to heaven. The eyes of the Lord, which ‘look upon the sons of men,’ are turned upon the earth, and are fixed with kindness on Mary, whose sleep is gentle and peaceful. Then as the great moment approaches, He orders the angels to leave heaven and announce to mankind the news of a great joy. He gives each of them a message; some are to go to Mary, others to Simeon. The humblest of them says: …And I, Lord… I will go see the least of all, And tell him how great he has become Since the great one has become small.
Hymns of praise immediately resound through heaven: Glory to Thee, Almighty Lord!
And the angels depart upon their mission.
The scene changes, and we are once more in the stable at Bethlehem. Mary awakes and is still alone, tier heart is agitated by the most astounding thoughts: the mystery of God which she discerns surprises and confounds her. Strange! a virgin… yet a mother Of a son above all other, Very God and very man!
Emanuel! of the Father dearest Son… May my hands be joined with thine?
May thy lips be touched by mine?
At this moment the animals sent by God arrive: they enter the wretched stable, filling it with their glory, and each salutes the poor virgin of Nazareth in his own fashion. One of them says: All hail, happy dame, Mother of the Son thou lov’st so dearly!
Another, whose character appears to be humility, addresses the new-born child: Little child, pray spare me not… Though I’m small I shall delight To wait upon you day and night, To wash you or to warm your bed fg81… At this point Joseph returns with the provisions he has bought; he is distressed at his inability to receive becomingly this child of heaven, but resolving to give all that he has, he advances towards the stable. On a sudden he stops in surprise… he looks… a divine light fills the humble shed, and shines all around. What a strange gleam There comes from within!
I’m like a man in a maze:
I am quite sure I never before Saw such a glorious blaze.
He stops at the threshold and looks in. The angels have disappeared, and he says: Mary, I see, Has not lost her glee, Her face with joy runs o’er… But why does she stare, This virgin dear, So constantly on the floor?
Joseph looks more carefully, as he stands motionless at the door, and discovers Jesus who has just been born: Yes! ’t is the child!
The honest carpenter does not know what to do; he dares not approach, and yet he cannot remain apart; a struggle takes place in his soul. Here will I stay… No! I must go in.
At last Joseph comes forward: he looks at the child, and kneeling humbly before him, worships and kisses hint. With this kiss I would cool My heart with charity burning.
What a charming child, So handsome and mild, And that’s the truth, I assure you.
Mary is uneasy: she looks at the child, so weak and tender, and is distressed at having nothing to wrap him in, For the night is cold.
JOSEPH. I shall light this taper.
He then lights the lamp. Where shall we put him? In the manger here… No better place in all the inn.
This was the end of the first act. The spectators expressed the interest they felt in the drama, at once so serious and so holy; and even the cardinals De Grammont and De Foix found nothing in it contrary to the doctrines of the Church. As that was a time when people were very fond of diversion, joke and jest followed. Several comic characters appeared in the interlude, especially a poor monk, who was the soul of the farce. This was not Margaret’s composition: even the catholics did not charge her with it. The jesters retired at last, and the drama proceeded.
The scene represented the fields round Bethlehem, where shepherds and shepherdesses were keeping their flocks during the watches of the night.
One shepherd worn out with labor, another with ‘hunting the wolf’ had fallen asleep; some shepherdesses followed their example; but one shepherd and one shepherdess were awake and communicating their thoughts to each other.
THIRD SHEPHERD. A something keeps me wide awake; My usual sleep I cannot take.
It is not my flock, I’m sure, For the fold is quite secure; In my heart a joy I feel And I seem good news to hear… Meanwhile I shall turn my eyes To the star-bespangled skies.
He contemplates the firmament.
FIRST SHEPHERDESS. What seest thou, brother, when thine eye Thou turn’st admiring to the sky?
THIRD SHEPHERD. I admire the great Creator Who hath made all things, and we Are his temple…
FIRST SHEPHERDRESS. Tell me, shepherd, what He promised To the patriarchs who waited Patiently for ages?…
THIRD SHEPHERD. He has promised the Messiah, His true Son, through whom alone Life to us has been restored, And salvation.
FIRST SHEPHERDRESS. Would to God the hour was nigh!
THIRD SHEPHERD. Come, Lord, and no longer tarry!
Suddenly a bright light shines over the fields of Bethlehem, and a heavenly voice says: Shepherds, awake, arise!
Behold the happy day, When God by works for ever new Shall his great love display.
The sleeping shepherds and shepherdesses awake; they look about them and perceive the angels surrounded with a heavenly glory.
FIRST SHEPHERD. Heavens! what means this brightness here?
I am almost numbed with fear.
SECOND SHEPHERDRESS. By this clear and glorious light My weak eyes are dazzled quite.
FIRST ANGEL. Gentle shepherds, do not fear, I am come your hearts to cheer, With glad tidings… For to you upon this morn The Savior Jesus Christ is born.
As ‘twas writ; and this the sign How to know the child divine; Wrapped in swaddling bands, the Son Has a manger for a throne… The Jesus whom the Lord has sent To fulfill his covenant.
All the angels then sing the hymn of praise: Glory be to God most high.
SECOND SHEPHERD. Let us haste and feast our eyes Where the hope of mortals lies.
THIRD SHEPHERD. In a hut so mean and poor, If we cannot pass the door, We can through some crevice spy Where our Lord and King doth lie.
The shepherds and shepherdesses converse as they go on the reception they will give to the Messiah, with a simplicity that may appear excessive, but which is not devoid of grace and genuineness.
FIRST SHEPHERD AND SHEPHERDRESS. Let us from our plenty bear Presents to their scanty fare.
THIRD SHEPHERD. Here’s a cheese I’ll take with me In this basket.
SECOND SHEPHERD. And you see, This great bowl of milk I’ll carry, And I hope ’t will please sweet Mary.
FIRST SHEPHERD. I shall give this cage and bird.
SECOND SHEPHERD. I this faggot, for, my word! The weather’s cold.
THIRD SHEPHERD. This rude toy, This rustic flute will please the boy.
FIRST SHEPHERDESS. I will kiss his very cheek...
SECOND SHEPHERD. Nay! ‘t is honor sure enough But to kiss him in the foot. Shepherds and shepherdesses all leave the fields and hurry to Bethlehem.
The scene again changes to this town, where the shepherds and shepherdesses arrive and look for the place where the child lies.
SECOND SHEPHERD. In this house with paint so gay, The holy child would never stay.
THIRD SHEPHERD. Nor in this palace would he rest, But rather in some humbler nest.
FIRST SHEPHERDESS, searching carefully. There’s a place in this rude rock; Can it be the honored spot?
Shepherds and shepherdesses draw near, and looking through the cracks in the wall of the poor stable, discover Mary and Jesus. The second shepherd exclaims with rapture: There’s the child… and there’s the mother…
THIRD SHEPHERDESS. See how mild Hangs on his mother’s breast the child.
SECOND SHEPHERD. Call you man to ope the door… (to Josevh) Hola! Master… JOSEPH. What means that noise without?
FIRST SHEPHERD. The true fruit of heaven we seek.
MARY. If God hath this great fact revealed, By us it must not be concealed; For to believers we the Christ must show; Open the door… JOSEPH, opening the door. You can come in.
The shepherds and shepherdesses approach respectfully, and puny as the child appears, they recognize in him the height of the eternal Majesty, and worship him:
THIRD SHEPHERD. … Thou art the promised seed To Adam after his misdeed.
Abraham and David on this relied, And both alike were justified.
SECOND SHEPHERD. The eye beholds a weak and powerless child; But faith which comes of knowledge bids us bow In honor and in adoration at his feet, As the true God.
After the adoration of the shepherds, the shepherdesses, a little curious, surround Mary and enter into conversation with her.
THIRD SHEPHERDESS. How is ‘t no costly robes he owns: Silver and gold and precious stones?
MARY. Simplicity he liketh best, Nor will he in choice clothes be dressed.
The first streaks of dawn begin to appear.
SECOND SHEPHERD. The day is near… I must begone.
FIRST SHEPHERDESS, approaching Mary.
May I just give his little toe One single kiss before I go.
THIRD SHEPHERD. Our hands have touched, our eyes have seen, The Lamb who takes away our sin.
The shepherds and shepherdesses then present their humble offerings.
FIRST SHEPHERD. Serving thee we’ll live and die, For without thee life is naught.
The second act being finished, a new interlude was introduced to make the spectators merry. The jesters reappeared and recited several rondeaux, always containing some piquant and unexpected joke, which called forth the laughter of the audience. The burden of the virelais (poems composed of very short lines, and with two rhymes) usually turned on some monk, which greatly diverted the spectators. The cardinals and the catholics who took pleasure in the drama were annoyed by the satires. The third act began. Satan, who was making the tour of the world, arrived over the fields of Bethlehem, whither the shepherds had returned, and absorbed in his own thoughts, said to himself: I have reigned until this hour And subdued earth to my power; With God above have warred unceasing, And my triumphs are increasing.
The shepherdesses, to whom he was invisible, expressed their joy in hymns: Shepherdesses, maidens fair, Listen to the song we sing:
Tidings of great joy we bring, That take away all mortal care.
Satan stopped and listened: becoming alarmed, he exclaimed: This is a hymn that chills my blood… What tidings have they heard?
The shepherdesses, still unconscious of Satan’s presence, continue singing: Hail! to the Virgin-born, Hail! to the Lord and Son, Who in this happy morn, The veil of earth puts on.
Loud praise to God be given Who makes us heirs of heaven.
Satan listening, and still more uneasy: To learn this secret, how I’ve toiled!
Shall it be hidden from me now?
He disguises himself, and approaches the shepherds under the form of a great lord, and says to them: Whence come you?
FIRST SHEPHERD. From seeing Christ, the Savior of mankind, By whom in God we are regenerate.
Will you not go and see him, mighty lord?
I’ll show the way.
SATAN. Can this be true, or is it all a dream?
SECOND SHEPHERD. Go and see for yourself… SATAN. God from his throne on high For this world does not care… I am its king… yes, I… ……… Come with me and make good cheer… But you must believe no mo’ That God can ever stoop so low.
THIRD SHEPHERD. He is my father, brother, all… I am his from head to foot. God is for me, and no false one Shall this heavenly faith uproot.
SATAN. Fools and madmen! are ye gods?…
FIRST SHEPHERD. To the Son we leave the glory Of being God. Enough for us To be whatso’er he pleases, And to know that He’s the great I AM.
SATAN. Can you understand the Scriptures?
THIRD SHEPHERD. With all humbleness we read them.
SATAN. Were he your father as you call him, Would he leave you thus accursed, Suffering poverty and want?
Blind ones, open wide your eyes!
Have you ever known a rich man Leave his son, like field untilled?
Sons of God, indeed! whose store Are cold and hunger, rags, and all that’s poor
SECOND SHEPHERD. More we suffer, more our joys redouble; For all your pleasures we’ll not give a double.
THIRD SHEPHERD. In our hearts the Christ doth dwell Who has conquered death and hell.
At these words Satan becomes confused; he calls to mind his former defeats, and knowing that the Son of God must crush him under his feet, exclaims in terror: Murdered Lamb, who didst expel Me and mine from heaven to hell… Thou still pursuest, and no place Can hide me from thy angry face.
Then the mysterious voice of God is heard again proclaiming the victory of the new-born child: Satan’s tyrant reign is o’er; By the spotless Lamb ‘tis ended, Who to suffer on the cross For us sinners has consented… At my right the Lamb shall sit… Angels sing the Lamb exalted High o’er all, and Satan quelled.
Then the angels sing the song of triumph, which ends the play: Glory be to God on high, Who our greatest enemy, Satan, hath o’erthrown.
Honors to the Lamb express By whom all the blessedness Of the Father is made known.
The representation was finished and every one retired in admiration. The king was grateful for this condescension in his wife, and Margaret took advantage of it to induce him to listen to a few sermons. ‘From the comedy he went to the preaching, which took place in the queen’s chamber,’ says a contemporary historian. All were not equally satisfied with these representations. Cardinals De Grammont and De Foix withdrew from the court, while the stricter christians asked if it was lawful to introduce angels and even God himself on the stage. If Calvin had gone on from Nerac to Pau, and had been present, not far from the cardinals, at this mystery-play, he would no doubt have blamed such performances, which he termed ‘christianity in disguise.’
It is time to follow the reformer.