1. According to the Registrum of the Jesuit College of St. Omers (fol. 8), Rudimentarii Divi Pelagii pueri certamen plane virile in scena exhibuerunt 6 Calendas Augusti 1623 [“the beginning class did a manful job of acting the struggle of St. Pelagius on July 26, 1623”]. This refers to the tragedy Sanctus Pelagius Martyr preserved by Stonyhurst ms. B.VI.10 nr. 3. Although the existence of this play is recorded in standard play-lists, NOTE 1 evidently it has never been attributed to Joseph Simons [1594 - 1671], the most outstanding English Jesuit playwright of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, absent any compelling argument to the contrary, identification of Simons as the author is mandatory. The case for attribution is stated in fuller form in the Introduction to Simon’s 1626 Sanctus Damianus, and so will be set forth here briefly: the St. Omers Constitutiones (§ A.3) require that the production of college plays (and therefore, at least normally, their writing) NOTE 2 are the responsibility of the Professor of Humanities, and since the college Registrum records that Simon’s Vitus was performed in May 1623, a position he occupied at least until July 1631, when his Zeno was acted, he must have held it when Sanctus Pelagius was acted. There are no visible arguments to the contrary, and at least one similarity of sentiment between Sanctus Damianus and Sanctus Pelagius. In the former play (746f.) Luitpert says
Vive, Sigebrande, vive, Sic saltem mei
Pars aliqua superest, si peris, totus perii.
[“Live, Sigebrand, live. Thus at least a part of me survives. If you perish, I perish entire.”]
and in Sanctus Pelagius the protagonist tells Raguel:
Consule saluti, potius his exi locis,
Ut vivat in te magna pars saltem mei.
[“Ah, you should rather consult for your safety, you should rather leave this place, so that at least a great part of myself may live on in you.”]
2. The medieval tale of St. Pelayo of Cordova is that, in the tenth century, he was left by his uncle at the age of ten as a hostage with the Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III of al-Andalus, in trade for a clerical relative previously captured by the Moors, the bishop Hermoygius. The exchange never occurred and Pelagius remained a captive for three years. His courage and faith was such that the Caliph was impressed with him and offered him his freedom if he would convert to Islam. The boy, having remained a pious Christian, refused the Caliph's offer. More specifically, his beauty was such that the Caliph fell in love with him. The boy, having remained a pious Christian, refused the Caliph's advances, striking the monarch and insulting him. Enraged, Abd-ar-Rahman had the boy tortured and dismembered. As such, the story did much to demonize Islam and add pederasty to the Christian bill of particulars against that religion. NOTE 3 Save for streamlining the story by making Hermogius and Pelasgius’ uncle one and the same individual and inventing some extra characters (most notably, the priest Raguel, left behind with Pelagius as his guardian, Abderramenus’ son Zunelmus, and the courtier Maguedus), Simons preserves the story’s original terms intact. It is true that he acknowledges that Abderramenus’ love-besotted attempt to retain Pelasgius in contravention of international law and convert him goes beyond the requirements of Islam (as he himself finally confesses at 1085ff.), but the play can hardly be interpreted as softening the standard Christian propagandistic representation of Islam, most vividly expressed by Pelasgius in his speech at 881ff., in which the boy makes allegations the play does nothing to refute.
3. At the same time, of course, the play delivers a second message with its strong bias against homosexuality, and in this cause it enlists the prestige of a saint and martyr. Not to put too fine a point on it, St. Pelagius is the patron saint of not being sodomized, and as such served as a highly useful role model for the St. Omers community. Surely any single-sex school or college that required celibacy of its members was a pressure-cooker of unfulfilled sexual urges, and coping with these must have been a perennial problem within such unnaturally repressive little societies. This issue is reflected, at least indirectly, in other academic dramas of the time. Eroticism is problematized in William Gager’s 1582 Meleager and 1592 Panniculus Hippolyto Senecae Tragoediae Assutus. Gager couches his issues in exclusively heterosexual terms, but his unpublished poetry makes it abundantly clear that he was obliged to cope with his own homosexual erotic yearnings and was aware of them in the young men around him at Oxford. NOTE 4 And in Robert Burton’s Oxford comedy Philosophaster (acted at Christ Church in 1617) a Spanish Duke establishes a new university and, rather in the spirit of Brecht’s Mahagonny, various disreputable types immediately show up to take advantage of this predators’ Eldorado: quack academics and the sort of grasping “townies” who perennially make their living off a University. As in Brecht, among the early arrivals are a bawd and her girls. and Burton would probably not have thought to add this element had not similar amenities actually existed at Oxford. If so, his comical acknowledgment of this fact is unusual in academic literature, for this was another manifestation of heterosexual eroticisim in academia. But Sanctus Pelagius is highly unusual if not unique in its unvarnished confrontation of homosexual issues.
4. Sanctus Pelagius is equally unusual in a second respect. By and large, English academic tragedy is Seneca-imitating and unaffected by Greek models. To be sure, Thomas Legge’s trilogies Richardus Tertius (acted at Cambridge in 1579) and Solymitana Clades follow the model of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, but this only means that Legge must have heard of that trilogy, there is no reason to think he actually read and learned from it. And Peter Mease’s Adrastus Parentans sive Vindicta (ca. 1620) dispenses with the traditional Roman division into acts and scenes, and nothing is allowed to interrupt the continuous flow of its action. This may well have been done under Greek influence, but the play does not imitate any specific Greek model. In reading Sanctus Pelagius, on the other hand, itis striking that its dénouement is engineered after the model of Sophocles’ Antigone: over the protests of his son Zunelmus (in a heated interview in which the son accuses his father of being a tyrant), Abderramenus sentences Pelagius to death, and the boy is taken off to his execution. Then Abderramenus comes to his senses and experiences a change of heart, and sends to have the execution halted. But a messenger appears to announce that the pardon arrived too late: the boy was put to death; Zunelmus arrived, and drew his sword in an attempt to interrupt the execution, and when this failed he used the sword to commit suicide. Hearing this, Abderramenus is reduced to utter devastation. In comparison to other English academic dramas of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Sanctus Pelagius is remarkable for its dependence on a specific Greek model, and it may or may not be coincidental that the Antigone was the first Attic tragedy to be made available to English readers, in the form of Thomas Watson’s Latin translation, which had been printed at London 1581.
5. I should like to thank Dr. Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute for drawing this play to my attention, supplying me with a photocopy of the manuscript, and offering highly valuable advice. (Dr. Wiggins also reminded me of the similarity of the ending of this play to that of Lear, in which Edmund sends to countermand Cordelia’s execution and a messenger comes back with a report of Goneril’s suicide.)
NOTE 1 Such as Alfred Harbage, “A Census of Anglo-Latin Plays,” PMLA 53:2 (1938) 624 - 29, William McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the English Jesuit Theatre (St. Louis, 1983) p. 85 and Alfred Harbage, S. Schoenbaum, and Sylvia Stoler Wagonheim, Annals of English Drama 975 - 17oo (third edition, London, 1989) 120, 311, and 374.
NOTE 2 The only known deviations from this rule involve the plays Felix Concordia Fratrum (1651) and Gemitus Columbae (1650 or 1652), which were collaborative efforts written by the students themselves, no doubt as a teaching experiment conducted under the close supervision of the Professor, who, one imagines, applied the summa manus to the finished products himself.
NOTE 3 See such studies of the legend as Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, 1997) 10 – 28 and Greg Hutcheon, ”The Sodomitic Moor: Queerness in the Narrative of the Reconquista,” in Glen Burger and Stephen Kruger (eds.) Queering the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 2001) 99 - 122. The martyrdom of St. Pelagius had been publicized outside of Spain and given literary currency by Hroswitha in her poem Passio Sancti Pelagii, which can be read here.
NOTE 4 Admittedly, in trying to decipher the evidence of the academic literature of the late sixteenth century, the matter is complicated by the fact that many university men were desperate to imitate fashions established by their beau ideal, Sir Philip Sidney, so that it is difficult for us to disentangle actual homosexual pairings from the kind of “David and Jonathan” close friendships such as Sidney evidently had enjoyed with Fulke Greville.