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‘That daye was seene verament three sonnes in the firmament’.

From the First Chester Nativity Play

[Scene 10]

 from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). Image: Wiki.EXPOSITOR: LOE! LORDINGES all, of this miracle here
freere Bartholemewe, in good mannere,
beareth wytnes, withowten were,
as played is you beforne.

[A]nd other myracles, yf I maye,
I shall rehearse, or I goe awaye,
that befell that ilke daye
that Jesus Christ was borne.

Wee reade in cronicles express:
somtyme in Rome a temple was,
made of soe greate ryches
that wonder was witterlye.

ffor all thinges in hit, leeve you mee,
was silver, gould, and rych perlye;
thryd parte the world, as read wee,
that temple was worthye.

Of eych province, that booke mynde mase,
ther godde Image sett there was,
and eych on abowt his necke has
a silver bell hanginge,

And on his brest written also
the lande name and gode too,
and sett was alsoe, in middest of tho,
god of Rome right as a kinge. [590]

Abowt the house alsoe mevinge there
a man on horse stood, men to steare,
and in his hand hee bare a spere,
all pure dispituouslye.

That horse and man was made of brasse,
torninge abowte that Image was;
save certayne preystes, ther might non passe,
for devyll’s phantasie.

But when that any lande with battell [600]
was readye Rome for to assayle,
The gode (Image), withowten fayle,
of that land range his bell,

and torned his face dispituouslye
to god of Rome, as reade I,
in tokeninge that (they) were readye
for feyghting freshe and felle.

The Image, alsoe, aboue standinge,
when the bell beneathe begane to ringe,
torned him, all sharpely shewinge
towarde that lande his spere.

[A]nd when they see this tokeninge,
Rome ordayned, withowt tareinge,
an oste to keepe there comminge,
longe or they came there.

And on this manere, sothelye,
by arte of neagromancye,
all the world, witterlye,
to Rome were made to lowt,

and that temple there, dowbtles,
was called therfore the temple of peace,
that through [t]his sleyt battell can cease
throughowt the worlde abowte.

But hee [that] coyntly this worke caste,
asked the devyll, or hee paste,
howe lange that temple hit should laste,
that hee there can buylde.
The devill answered suttilly,
and sayd yt should last sickerlye,
untill a mayden wemmostlye
had conceyued a chylde.

They hard and beleeved therfore
yt should endure for evermore,
but that tyme that Christ was bore
hit fell downe soone in hye.

Of which howse is seene this daye
somewhat standing, in good faye,
but noe man dare well goe that waye,
for feendes’ phantasye,

That daye was seene verament
Three sonnes in the firmament,
and wonderslye together went
and torned into one.1

The oxe, the asse, ther they were lent,
honored Christe in theyr intent,
and moe miracles as wee have ment
to playe right here anon.

Tune ostendit stellarn et veniet Sibilla ad Imperatorem.

[Scene 11]

Sibilla: Syr Emperour, god thee save and see!
(looke up on height after mee);
I tell you sicker that borne ys hee
that passeth thee of (power).

That baron thow seest that great shalbee,
(as none lyke him in any degree,)
to passe all kinges and eke thee
that borne are or ever were.

Octavyan: A! Sibbel, this is a wondrouse sight,
for yonder I see a mayden bright,
a yonge chylde in here armes clight,
a bright crosse in his head,

honour I wyll that sweete wight
with incense, throughowt all my might,
for that reverence is most right,
if that yt bee thy reade.

Incense bringe, I command, in hye,
to honour this child, kinge of mercye.
should I bee god? nay, nay! witterlye,
great wronge, I wys, yt were.
ffor this childe is more worthye
then such a thowsande as am I,
therffore to god, moste mightye.
Incense I offer here.

From the first Chester Nativity Play, in English Nativity Plays, Samuel B. Hemingway (ed.). New York 1909.


  1. 640. In the V. T., 11. 48385 ff., Octavien, in describing the  death of Julius Caesar, says:

    …on vit reluyre
    Aprez sa mort au firmament
    Trois soleiz.
    Ou est le clerc qui sache tant
    Qu’il me seust par astrologie
    Dire que cella signifie?

    Cassius: II y a une prophetice,
    Sibile Tiburte nominee.

    This appearance of three suns at the time of the death  of Julius is first mentioned by Pliny (Nat. Hist. 2. 31). Dio  Cassius (3d cent), in his Roman History 47. 40, describes  this appearance as occurring in 42 B.C. Eusebius of Caesarea  (4th cent.), is the first to describe the suns as coalescing.

    In the Historica, Olymp. 184, the year of Caesar’s death (Migne, Pair. Gr. 19. 519), he writes: ‘Romae tres soles simul exorti paulatim in eundem orbem coierunt.’ Julius Obsequens (late 4th cent.), in his Prodigia, chap. 128, gives a similar description. Plutarch, in his Life of Caesar, merely  mentions that at Caesar’s death comets and lights were seen.

    There are many records of the appearance of three suns.  Livy (28. 11. 3) tells of the occurrence of such a phenomenon at Alba in 206 B. C. Cicero (Republic 1. 10, 15) says: ‘Neque enim leves neque pauci sunt qui se duo soles vidisse dicant.’ Seneca (Nat. Qucest. 1. 1112) gives the scientific name for such appearances; he says: ‘Graeci parhelia appellant.’ A parhelion was seen at Branford, Conn., on March  20th, 1908.

    The Golden Legend seems to be the only authority for  the legend that three suns appeared at the time of Christ’s  birth. There the legend is attributed to St. John Chrysostom, but I have been unable to discover it in his extant  writings.

    One of these other miracles also was adapted for Christian purposes by the Church Fathers. Suetonius  (ed. Reifferscheid, Frag. 223, p. 260) records that in 40 B. C. ‘e taberna meritoria trans Tiberim oleum terra erupit &c.’

    Eusebius adds (Migne, Patr. Gr. 19. 522), ‘significans  Christi gratiam.’ This legend is repeated, as occuring on  the first Christmas, by St. Peter Damien, Orosius, Nicholas  of Clairvaux, Innocent III, and in the Golden Legend. Higden also includes it in the Polychronicon.

    Martinus’ account continues as follows: ‘Illico apertum est caalum, et nimis splendor irruit super eum; vidit in caelo quandam pulcherrimam  virginem stantem super altare, puerum tenentem in bracchiis. Et miratus est nimis et vocem dicentem audivit: “Haec ara filii Dei est.” Qui statim projiciens se in terram  adoravit. Quam visionem Senatoribus retulit, et ipsi mirati  sunt nimis.’ This is taken almost wholly from the Mirabilia §37.

    In Innocent III’s Sermo II in Nativitate Domini (Migne,  Patr. Lat. 217. 457) the same account of the vision is given, but the only result is the prohibition against being called dominum, ‘quia natus est Rex regum et Dominus dominantium.’

    The vision is also described in a poem written in 1324,  Speculum Humana Salvationis, which follows Innocent closely. Petrarch refers to the vision in a letter to Pope Clement VI (see Piper, Mythologie , I. 482-483). Helinandus  gives an allegorical interpretation of it (Migne, Patr. Lat.  212. 489).

    In the Golden Legend, Sibyl first sees the vision, and calls the Emperor’s attention to it (chap. 5), although  this detail is not included in Innocent’s sermon.

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