Religious Texts

The Female Experience in a 16th C. Play

Image result for sarah and hagar 1500
The Story of Abraham (1543), Georg Pencz

Circa 1500, a 50,000 line play appeared called Le Mistére du Viel Testament [The Mystery of the Old Testament]. Although it has never been translated into modern French (let alone English), it appears to have influenced a few 16th century playwrights. I recently finished reading the section on Abraham because I am writing a term paper on Theodore Beza’s 1550 play Abraham Sacrifiant.

I was particularly struck by the female representation in the Viel Testament version of Isaac’s birth. Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, gets a surprising amount of attention in the play. Although God promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the Biblical story, the Viel Testament Hagar demonstrates more agency than in the original. After Isaac is born, Hagar repeatedly asks Abraham to remember the promise he made to her and her son. Classism is also evoked in the play. Abraham and Sarah try to silence Hagar by bringing up her social class.

Abraham: “c’est ma femme, /Qui doit estre maistresse et dame,/ Et vous sa simple serviteure” [My wife must be mistress and lady, and you her simple servant.]

But later, Abraham allows Hagar back into his home and promises to care for Ishamel. When Sarah finally becomes pregnant at the end of the play, Hagar offers to help her deliver Isaac. She also comforts Sarah, who fears the pain of childbirth:

Sarah: “Bien, m’ayme, vous me ayderez,/ Car je craing la douleur terrible” [I would definitely like you to help me, because I fear the terrible pain].

After Isaac’s birth, Sarah is relieved that she will no longer experience societal shame:

 Sarah: “Et plus en la communite/ N’auray de brehaine l’injure” [And in the community, I  will no longer be insulted for being barren]

Even though this play is terribly obscure, I couldn’t help but share a few passages with you because it is rare to find medieval and Renaissance texts that mention the female experience.

I hope to read the other sections of the play in the future. Evidently, Le Viel Testament describes the deaths of Adam and Eve, as well as the fall of Lucifer. Sounds intriguing!

1 thought on “The Female Experience in a 16th C. Play”

  1. It is always interesting to learn about people and authors who did not share the zeitgeist of their society. The truth is eternal, but there is also a progression of understanding of the truth in the world, as understood by the majority of people in a culture. However, there are exceptions to the majority and, in the case of this post, the playwright hinted at the essential equality of men and women. Often, we don’t want to be equal, but we would rather lead or follow another person. I like this verse from the New Testament: “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15 NASB) It seems that Jesus is saying that equality and oneness are more important than hierarchical relationships.

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