Medieval Theatre – Liturgical, Mystery, Miracle, Morality, Mummers, Manners, Farce and Masque Plays
When the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed after the death of Roman Emperor Justinian I in 554, governance and culture throughout Western Europe came firmly under the control of the Church. Greek and Roman performance traditions and plays were preserved for some time in the Eastern Roman Empire (now known as the Byzantine Empire) through popular entertainments, mimes and a massive encyclopaedia called the Suda. Initially in Western Europe, theatre and drama was branded as immoral and Roman drama and dramatic forms were banned. There are some records of travelling troupes performing mimes and crude comic dramas reminiscent of Ancient Roman comedies and farces and there seems little doubt that these Ancient Roman traditions were kept alive and informed the commedia del arte many centuries later.
With the Church trying to convert so many primarily illiterate people to Christianity, more moral drama and plays started to become seen as a way to enact and demonstrate aspects of Christianity. Biblical events were acted out and staged on specific religious occasions and these liturgical dramas included elaborate sets built on the altars, costumes and specially decorated vestments and pantomimes performed by priests of specific biblical events.
One of the earliest liturgical dramas that we still have records of is Quem-Quaeritis (Whom We Seek), an Easter liturgical drama from 925 which is primarily sung by two groups and probably involved moving or ‘Living’ tableaux. Quem-Quaeritis centres around a dialogue between an angel at the tomb of Jesus Christ and the women seeking his body.
Around 960 a German aristocratic born canoness called Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (935-1005), wrote six dramas which she based around some of Terence’s comedies. These are the first known dramas that are acknowledged to be written by a female. Because plays based on Terence could have been counted as immoral for reading and performance, Hrosvitha prefaces her collection by stating that the works are moral and parables whose purpose was to save Christians and that her representation of some less than moral deeds and people were meant to act as a moral lesson for Christians. In this sense her plays ultimately put down the immorality, weakness and over emotionality of some women compared to the chastity, strength and intellect of Christian women. Her comedies concentrate on the love stories of Terence’s work and the plays are didactic in their style and are dialogues more than character and story based dramas. The most famous of Hrotsvitha’s comedies include Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham and Paphnutius. We do not know whether Hrotsvitha’s plays were performed, read with accompanied moving or ‘living’ tableaux or simply heard in readings.
In England in around 965 Æthelwold of Winchester (the Bishop of Winchester) started to compose Liturgical dramas and short plays (which contained dialogue, music and stage directions) which he included in his treatise Regularis Concordia.
By the 11th Century, Liturgical Dramas and the Festival or Feast of Fools started to become popular dramatic forms throughout most of Western Europe. Liturgical dramas were probably held four to six times a year while the Feast of Fools (a festival including comedy, parody and burlesque where status was inverted and peasants and actors were allowed to dress up as and mock clergy and authority) were only allowed to happen once a year or sometimes once every couple of years in some towns. Some academics see the Feast of Fools as the precursor to the Italian Commedia del Arte. Secular traditions like the Feast of Fools also give rise to Mummers and Masque dramas in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Liturgical dramas were normally short and were sometimes performed in churches during or after church celebrations or sometimes were performed in the squares or courts outside of churches. These liturgical dramas started as short playlets (sometimes acted and sometimes sung) and eventually emerged into longer plays. They were normally performed not in Latin but in everyday language or dialect and are sometimes known as vernacular liturgical drama.
Around this time the second great female of drama and one of the first great female composers started to write and compose. Saint Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess who wrote Ordo Virtutum one of the oldest surviving Morality Plays along with incredible early church music. Ordo Virtutum is a musical Morality Drama in Five Parts concerning the struggle for a human soul between the Virtues and the Devil. The drama may have first been performed in 1152 at the opening and dedication of St. Rupertsberg Church.
In the 12th and earlier 13th Centuries, on the whole, Mystery and Miracle plays were performed in church as part of the liturgy and Morality plays were performed outside the church or in the streets often on Pageant Wagons, although these differences eventually became blurred until such clear division no longer apply.
As these plays became longer and more popular, they started to be performed outdoors with purpose built temporary staging and costumes to attract a larger audience. Some plays even included detailed stage directions. Famous liturgical dramas include England’s The Mystery of Adam (1150), the Norman La Seinte Resurrection and the Spanish The Play of the Magi Kings.
As liturgical dramas became more elaborate especially around Easter time, the performance were done increasingly outside the churches until the performances turned into more pageants than plays. By 1200 many of these pageants and plays were done on movable stages or large carts known as Pageant Wagons. Many of the plays were still primarily moving tableaux and pantomimes, Morality plays depicting various bible stories, especially stories from the Old Testament, Christmas and the birth of Christ, Corpus Christi and the crucifixion of Jesus.
Loosely, Medieval Drama can be divided into Secular Drama (exemplified by farces, masques, the feast of Fools and some travelling player troupe burlesques and circuses which survived) and Spiritual Drama (exemplified by Liturgical Drama, Mystery Plays and Morality Plays). As some economic and political stability started to come to towns in Western Europe and in the British Isles, Mystery plays and Mystery Play cycles started to dominate the repertoire of medieval drama. York produced about 50 plays, Wakefield over 30 and Chester over 25 plays. An even greater number of plays were produced in many large towns in Germany and France.
There is some argument over the origin and meaning of Mystery Plays. Mystery plays derive their meaning from the Latin word misterium which means occupation, craft or work. Although Mystery Plays initially started during the 10th Century as tableaux and later ‘living’ or moving tableaux to accompany Old and New Testament Bible Stories (sometimes done with an antiphonal song) by the 14th Century the mounting and preparation of performances had been taken over by craft guilds.
Different guilds became known for their performances of different bibles stories and themes. The Shipwright’s Guild was known for the mounting of the story of Noah’s Ark, the Goldsmith’s for the Adoration of the Magi and the Baker’s Guild for The Last Supper. Here is a short description of the performance of a Mystery Play:
“On the morning of the performance each pageant would be rolled out of its shed and dragged in its turn to the first of the ‘stations’ at which the plays were acted. The first performance over, the pageant would be dragged through the streets to the second station, and then the play repeated. At York each play was performed twelve times, and occasionally oftener, the choice of the stopping places or stations being determined by the liberality of the owners of the adjacent houses. These contributions were much needed, for the cost of the plays fell heavily on the guilds; five or six of them had sometimes to club together to produce a single pageant, while the sharing of the expenses led to frequent disputes. In a few cases the reason for the assignment of a play to a particular guild is obvious; thus the Shipwrights or Fishmongers commonly interested themselves in Noah and the Flood, while the Goldsmiths and Goldbeaters played the Magi. But as a rule the wealth of the guild and the cost of the necessary dresses and stage properties were the chief considerations.” (Chambers 1902. pp47-48)
While these dramas were Christian and religious in their content, they were not literally liturgical anymore because they were not performed in churches. Medieval drama had become by the mid-13th Century, more about the spectacle than the story itself. These plays were performed in everyday language, used a large fixed stage or a movable stage like a pageant wagon, relied on the spectacle rather than the religious accuracy of the action, used props, costumes and stage machinery.
A number of factors are responsible for the decline of Mystery, Morality and Miracle dramas. Within Continental Europe and in England, the rise of the Protestant Reformation meant that drama and other entertainments were targeted and edited and even banned. The popularity of Mystery plays and the changing and format also added to the decline. By the early 15th Century, interludes (often comic in form) appeared between parts of the cycles of Mystery and Miracle plays. These interludes became increasingly popular until sometimes the length of some comic interludes exceeded the actual religious plays themselves. Some of these interludes started to borrow off other secular forms such as the Mummers (seasonal performances or parades or festivities where people go from one place to another dressed and masked as characters normally speaking in rhyme) and Masques (pageants, pantomimes, mimes or dumbshows where people dress up as characters and act out scenes).
More liberal attitudes towards the performances of Ancient Greek and Roman plays also saw a decline in religious drama. This also saw a rise in popularity for new secular dramatic forms such as the Commedia del arte and Humanist dramas (some translations of Greek and Roman histories) such as those created in France by Jodelle with Cléopâtre Captive (1553) and Grevin with Jules César (1560). This, along with the building of purpose built theatres, meant the end of Medieval Drama in Europe and the beginning of a European Renaissance Theatre.
Lesson Plan and Practical Activities
Medieval plays particularly those of a religious nature would be staged on either fixed or movable stages. If a play was staged was staged in on fixed staging, different scenes were often depicted on different stages or in different rooms or spaces in a town square or mansion such as public spaces or courtyards. If the staging was movable, then often different scenes appeared on different pageant wagons or carts and these were moved or paraded like parade floats. Some pageant wagons were described as being 12 foot tall and 40 foot long.
Students are going to create a single image (still or moving) from a religious story or a story from the bible. The students will parade this story around the classroom or around the performance or public space. The students should decide whether their group uses a still image or moving image which is repeatable. Alternatively students can break into different guilds and each present a different story. Students can use props and costumes they find in the classroom or they can try to access costumes and props that they think would look more authentic.
Some of the stories which work well for this are listed below (I have put the possible guild which probably presented the story in medieval times in brackets after the story):
Noah and the Flood (Shipbuilder’s Guild)
The Journey of Magi to see Baby Jesus (Goldsmith’s Guild)
Jonah and the Whale (the Fisherman and Fishmonger Guilds)
The Procession of the Prophets (the Dressmaker’s Guild)
Joseph and His Coat (the Weaver’s Guild)
The Garden of Eden (Farmer’s Guild)
The Last Supper (The Baker's Guild)
Students can find simple outlines of the stories on some of the websites below. Here is the story of Noah reduced to the six main events which could be presented in images. Students can use these or read a religious story and reduce it down to the major events they want to present in their pageant images.
Noah and the Flood
- God said “Humans have been wicked and I will wipe humans from the face of the earth.”
- One man found grace in the eyes of God and God told Noah that he was going to bring a great flood to the earth and that Noah was to build an ark and gather two of each beast and put it on the ark.
- After a long time, Noah had built the ark and he put his wife and sons and all the animals and birds on the ark.
- Then God brought the rains. The rain kept falling and the waters rose and covered the earth and the ark sailed safely with Noah and his passengers.
- Years afterwards when the waters were dried up, Noah, and all that had been with him, left the ark.
- Then Noah built an altar, and offered sacrifices to God, in thankfulness for God's goodness to him and his family.
Æthelwold of Winchester (ed. and tr. D.T. Symons). 1953. Regularis Concordia, Regularis Concordia Anglicae Nationis Monachorum Sanctimonialiumque. The Monastic Agreement of the Monks and Nuns of the English Nation. Cotton Press. London.
Billington, S. 1984. A Social History of the Fool. Harvester Press, Sussex.
Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth Edition (International Edition). Allyn and Bacon. Boston.
Chambers, R. 1902. Chamber’s Cyclopædia of English Literature. Chamber’s Publishing. Edinburgh. pp47-48.
Cohen, Robert. 2000. Theatre: Brief Edition. Mayfield Publishing Company, p. 201-203.
Dronke, P. 1994. Nine Medieval Latin Plays. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Harris, M. 2011 Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, N.Y.
Millington, P. 2013. Historical Database of Folk Play Scripts (website). http://www.folkplay.info/Texts.htm
Styan, J.L. 1996. "The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance." Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Wilson, Katharina M (1984), "The Saxon Canoness: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim", Medieval Women Writers, Manchester University Press. Manchester.
Website and Video Resources
Simple Bible Stories
Columbia Gorge Community School. 2008. Medieval Theatre. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxdDoUoFQhM
Lengyel, C. 2010. Theatre of the Middle Ages. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTpIpcz2Ndk
RTHS. 2013. Drama 9 - Medieval Theatre. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTpIpcz2Ndk
Questions for Discussion
1. How did the church use drama for its own purposes in Medieval times?
2. Why do you think Mystery and Miracle plays were initially performed in churches and Morality plays were initially performed outside and on Pageant Wagons?
3. How and why do the types and forms of Medieval Drama change over time?
4. What do you think the role and function of secular drama forms were during Medieval times?