History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Nature of the Four Elements

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

When you say 'medieval drama' people generally think of mystery and morality plays. Mystery plays, after all, are how many people in the later Middle Ages knew their bible stories. In addition to the colourful paintings on church walls, they were probably the most vivid information they had about what Christianity was meant to be all about. The comic approaches may surprise you if you've not encountered them before. Noah's wife has to be dragged onto the arc because she didn't want to leave her friends. Then there's the thief who tried to disguise a hidden lamb as a newborn babe; the suspicious shepherds think it's an ugly baby but they don't catch on at first that it's the lost sheep they're looking for. The morality plays are more generalised but have characters that embody good and bad qualities like Mercy. Mischief and Mankind. 

But between the Middle Ages and Shakespeare's time there are many other kinds of plays, from adventurous episodes in Robin Hood's life (all probably more entertaining than the new film) to seasonal mummings to more philosophical works. One of these is John Rastell's Nature of the Four Elements which may well appeal to folks here. The play is dated to about 1517-18. The one surviving copy is imperfect, but it gives an interesting insight into how people conceived of the four elements and their effects on the natural world.

Flat-earthers take note 'that the earth must needs be round, and that it hangeth in the midst of the firmament and that it is in circumference above 21,000 miles' (okay, about twice that but never mind). Among the facts the play shares with its audience is the 'generation and cause' of 'stone and metal, and of plants and herbs...of well-springs and rivers' as well as hot springs, the tides, rain, snow, hail and the winds and thunder. There's even an explanation for 'the cause of lightning, of blazing stars, and flames flying in the air' (!) 

The audience would recognise this as a discussion of 'natural philosophy' -- most of gets introduced by Messenger at the beginning.The aim of the play, Messenger explains, is to condemn 'those who work only to gain riches for themselves without thinking of the good of the nation' (we could use some of that sentiment now). While the task sounds daunting, Messenger reassures the audience 'that there will be no rhetoric or difficult language and much merry jesting' to entertain them.

In the play Humanity must contend with the greedy Sensual Appetite but is helped by Studious Desire. While Nature assures Humanity that it is 'full necessary / For thy comfort sometimes to satisfy / Thy sensual appetite' he (yes, the playwright imagines Nature as male!) warns Humanity 'not to put therein thy felicity / and all thy whole delight' for Sensual Appetite is bottomless. But Humanity does get to plan delights in a tavern scene that anticipates fun later with 'Jane with the black lace' and 'bouncing Bess'.

After all, we all need study breaks!



Houle, Peter J. The English Morality and Related Drama. Archon Books, 1972.

Rastell, John. The Nature of the Four Elements. Tudor Facsimile Texts, 1908. 

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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