INTRODUCTION

1. St. John's College ms. 52.1, chronicling the holiday entertainments performed during the reign of Thomas Tucker as Christmas Prince in 1607 - 08, NOTE 1 is not only valuable because it contains the texts of the plays acted during that season, but also because it mentions the mummery and masqueing that also occurred during the season, giving us a picture of the lesser entertainments of a college such as might well otherwise not be entered into the historical record. It preserves the texts of two of these, a “wassail” or masque imitative of the bells of Magdalen church (ms. pp. 174 - 176) performed within the President's lodge on Feb. 6, 1608, NOTE 2 and the present item, and short dramatic“interlude” entitled Saturnalia performed on Christmas Day, 1607., containinge the order of the the Saturnall's, and shewinge the first cause of Christmas-Candles, and in the ende there was an application made to me Day, and Nativitie of Christ. Unlike the plays, members of the university community at large were not invited to the performance, with the result that This shew was very well liked of our selves and the better first, because itt was the voluntary service of a younge youth. Nexte, because there were no straungers to trouble us.
2. Saturnalia manages to combine two ideas. The first is the idea of the social inversion of the Saturnalia, in which the master is obliged to wait on his servant (this was particularly fitting under Tucker's reign, because he was operated as a Lord of Misrule who established his own mock-government that temporarily displaced the power structure within his college). The second is a story taken from Macrobius, Saturnalia I.vi.28, who says that, by commandment of an oracle, the early citizens of Italy offered human sacrifices to Saturn, but that later Hercules came along and reinterpreted one word in the oracle, so Saturn that should be honored with candles, since φῶτα meant “light” as well as “man” (Macrobius concludes by giving a second, more rationalizing, version, according to which Hercules led them from their dark life of ignorance by introducing the lightsome arts and sciences):

Nec illam causam quae Saturnalibus adsignatur ignoro, quod Pelasgi, sicut Varro memorat, cum sedibus suis pulsi diversas terras petissent, confluxerunt plerique Dodonam et incerti, quibus haererent locis, eiusmodi accepere responsum: NOTE 3

Στείχετε μαιόμενοι Σικελῶν Σατούρνιον αἶαν
Ἡδ᾽ Ἀβορειγενέων, Κοτύλην, οὗ νᾶσος ὀχεῖται,
Οἷς ἀναμιχθέντες δεκάτην ἐκπέμπετε Φοίβῳ
Καὶ κεφαλὰς ἅιδῆ καὶ τῷ πατρὶ πέμπετε φῶτα·

acceptaque sorte, cum Latium post errores plurimos adpulissent, in lacu Cutiliensi enatam insulam deprehenderunt. Amplissimusenim cespes, sive ille continens limus seu paludis fuit coacta compage virgultis et arboribus in silvae licentiam comptus, iactantibus per omnem fluctibus vagabatur, ut fides ex hoc etiam Delo facta sit, quae celsa montibus, vasta campis, tamen per maria migrabat. Hoc igitur miraculo deprehenso has sibi sedes praedictas esse didicerunt, vastatisque Siciliensibus incolis occupavere regionem decima praedae secundum responsum Apollini consecrata erectisque Diti sacello et Saturni ara, cuius festum Saturnalia nominarunt. Cumque diu humanis capitibus Ditem et virorum victimis Saturnum placare se crederent propter oraculum in quo erat:

Καί κεφαλὰς Ἅιδῃ, καὶ τῷ πατρὶ πέμπετε φῶτα,

Herculem ferunt postea cum Geryonis pecore per Italiam revertentem suasisse illorum posteris, ut faustis sacrificiis infausta mutarent inferentes Diti non hominum capita sed oscilla ad humanam effigiem arte simulata, et aras Saturnias non mactando viro p59sed accensis luminibus excolentes, quia non solum virum sed et lumina φῶτα significat. Inde mos per Saturnalia missitandis cereis coepit. Alii cereos non ob aliud mitti putant quam quod hoc principe ab incomi et tenebrosa vita quasi ad lucem et bonarum artium scientiam editi sumus.

3. It will be observed that the interlude makes use of this last interpretation as well: Hercules regards the Pelasgians as blind, and their minds as plunged in darkness and in need of illumination (134ff.) At its end, the Saturnalia (and hence its candles) are brought into association with Christmas, by means of a concluding statement (171ff.) that the festival has morally redemptive qualities, such as would be impossible to discern in the original Roman holiday.
4. Saturnalia occupies pp. 40 - 47 of the ms. In the Introduction to his transcript of the entire Christmas Prince manuscript, Frederick S. Boas identified Owen Vertue as the probable author. NOTE 4

 

Notes

NOTE 1 For a description of the ms. and a bibliography of scholarship on the Christmas Prince cycle, see the Introduction to the comedy Ara Fortunae.

NOTE 2 The most recent transcription of the text can be found in the first volume of Records of Early English Drama: Oxford (edd. John R. Elliott and Alan H. Nelson, Toronto, 2004), I.368 - 70 (the Latin parts are translated at ib. II.1034 - 36.

NOTE 3 This same oracle is reproduced by a number of Greek writers: Greek Anthology Appendix 177, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities I.xix.3, Herodian, De prosodia catholica III.i p. 18 and III.2 p. 720, and Stephanus Byzantinus, Ethnica p. 8.7. All of them except Macrobius have Κρονίδῃ in place of ᾍδῃ in the fourth line.

NOTE 4 Malone Society Reprint series, Oxford, 1922, p. xi cf. also Heinz J. Vienken's introduction to his edition of George Wilde's Eumorphus sive Cupido Adultus, Munich, 1973, p. 32 n. 29).