Medieval Europe 814-1450: Theater

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Legacy of Rome

Theater or Liturgy?

The theater of ancient Rome was both challenged and enriched by the demands of the Christian religion, which rose to prominence during the early decades of the fourth century. On the eve of an important battle in the year 312, a Roman general called Constantine (c. 274-337) prayed to the Christian god to assist him in defeating his enemies, rival claimants to the leadership of the Roman Empire. According to his biographer, Eusebius of Cæsarea (c. 260-340), Constantine had a vision in which he saw the image of the cross, and was told that “under this sign” (in hoc signum, abbreviated IHS) he would be victorious. Painting crosses on his banners and the shields of his legions, he marched into battle. When he won, his loyalty to Christianity was assured, and the traditional monogram IHS that had stood for the Greek name of Jesus was now reinterpreted by historians of the church to refer to this event. A year later, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and just over a decade later, in 325, Constantine would spur the rapid growth of Christianity as an institutional religion by convening the Council of Nicea (an ecumenical or official church gathering) in Asia Minor. Here, for the first time in the history of the young church, bishops and teachers from all over the Roman world could meet and compare their views on how that church should be organized, and what its official teachings should be. Once an official doctrine was in place, there arose other pressing topics of debate for succeeding generations of Christians, one of which was the relationship between the theatrical spectacles of pagan Rome—many of which had a strong religious component—and the new Christian theater of worship: the liturgy. The prayers, chants, hymns, and ceremonies that made up the liturgy emphasized Christianity’s debt to the stories of the Old Testament and its commitment to the teachings of the New Testament. The liturgy also dramatized the life and ministry of Jesus through a series of powerful rituals. The most fundamental of these was the daily ritual of the Mass, a re-enactment of the Last Supper when Jesus had performed the highly-charged act of breaking bread and inviting his disciples to eat this potent symbol of his own flesh, at the same time bidding them to drink the wine representing the blood he would shed for them the following day, Good Friday. But the very theatricality of the Mass engendered controversy, and it continues to do so in modern times. Some scholars argue that the Mass, as well as the many festive rituals of the church calendar, should be considered an integral part of medieval theater history. Others insist that the liturgy should not be classified as a type of theater, and make careful distinctions between a religious service (Latin: ordo) that merely performs a set of symbolic actions, and a play (ludus) that attempts to represent events through the impersonation of the characters involved.

The Theater of Worship

This modern distinction between dramatic ceremony and “real” drama is not one that medieval audiences appear to have made. In fact, a contemporary (medieval) definition of theater offered by the respected teacher and biblical scholar Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096-1141) includes divine worship in an extensive catalogue of entertainments and leisure activities, listing it alongside plays, sporting competitions, gambling, puppet shows, public reading, dancing, instrumental music, singing, and other pastimes. Writing at about the same time, an influential theologian called Honorius of Regensburg (fl. 1106-1135) explicitly compared the celebration of the Mass to the performance of a classical tragedy.

It is known that those who used to recite tragedies in the theaters would perform, through their actions, a display of their struggles. In just this way does our own tragedian, Christ, perform his actions before the Christian people in the theater of the church, and impresses on them the victory of redemption.

A century later, a Latin sermon would echo these sentiments when preachers began to complain that the emotive power of the Mass needed to be emphasized even more convincingly, so that it could compete effectively with other types of entertainment—in this case, attractive street-corner performances of the Old French heroic poem The Song of Roland.

When in the voice of the jongleur, sitting in the public square, it is recited how those errant knights of old, Roland and Olivier and the rest, were killed in war, the crowd standing around is moved to pity, and oftentimes to tears. But when in the voice of the Church the glorious wars of Christ are daily commemorated in sacrifice—that is to say, how He defeated death by dying, and triumphed over the vainglory of the enemy—where are those who are moved to pity?

However, the theatricality of the Mass was not an issue for the people of the Middle Ages. Put more strongly, the Mass was fundamental to the culture of medieval Christianity because it was “good theater.” The priest, standing at the altar of the church, spoke the very same words that Jesus had spoken to his disciples on the night of his betrayal and arrest, and performed the same actions. He enacted the role of Christ and, when he did so, the bread he blessed and broke became the body of Christ. In short, this miraculous occurrence, crucial to the Christian faith, was achieved through dramatization of the event. The many feasts that made up the liturgical calendar of the church’s ritual year, which began at Advent and climaxed at Easter, were likewise valuable because they provided further opportunities for festive drama. (The word “festive” derives from the Latin for “feast,” festum.) Those who performed these rites and those who participated in them understood that these rites were supposed to enlighten, inspire, even entertain. They were theatrical.

Pagans and Christians

The testimonies of later medieval theologians represent the perspectives of medieval people who were far removed from Christianity’s pagan past and, at the safe distance of several centuries, appear to have felt comfortable in making comparisons between the tragedies of Greece and Rome and the Christian tragedy of the daily Mass. But in Constantine’s day, as in modern times, there was controversy over the overt theatricality of Christian worship. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity was still a minority religion, newly legal and as yet unformed. The theologians who came of age in those heady days were among the first generation of Christians who were able to discuss the tenets of their faith openly, and many were eager to distinguish it from the other sects with which it competed for attention in the crowded religious marketplace of late antiquity. They were also eager to show that Christianity offered the conscientious citizen of the Roman Empire an opportunity to rise above the distractions and vices of that empire. Even in the days before Constantine’s conversion, when Christians were still—literally—fighting for survival, some prominent Christians had been outspoken in their denunciations of Roman decadence, especially the decadence of its theater. The writings of the Christian apologist Tertullian (c. 155-c. 221) offer extended, biting critiques of Roman beliefs and morals, and explicitly contrast the bloodless symbolism of Christian worship with the bloody sacrifices of pagan religions and the blood sports of the amphitheater and the coliseum. Yet Tertullian’s views on theater were, in their day, a reactionary, minority opinion. They could not hope to prevail against the overwhelming power of the empire, or its attractive program of public entertainments.

The Ingredients of Medieval Theater

The opinions of St. Augustine (354-430), who ended his life as the bishop of Hippo Regis in the Roman province of North Africa, carried much more weight. A late convert to Christianity, Augustine was the chief doctrinal architect of the fledgling Roman Church, one of the devout men who came of age in the decades after Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as a viable state religion. It is through him that we can best trace the strand of anxiety that led to some of the most stringent denunciations of the corrupting dangers of Roman theater, and its potential influence on Christian worship. In many of his writings, notably his autobiographical Confessions and his Christian revision of history, The City of God, Augustine described the dangerous seductions of theater in all its forms. But these descriptions readily betray the source of his anxiety: his own youthful, dramatic passions, and his mature conviction that the devout Christian must turn his back on the worldly pleasures of Rome, the city of man, in order to attain salvation in the celestial City of God. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that Augustine’s Christian contemporaries shared a negative view of theater, or that—even if they did—such a view would lessen the attraction of traditional entertainments, or diminish the importance of pre-Christian Roman culture. They also had little negative effect on the way that a new Christian theatricality grew and flourished. It is actually rather ironic that Augustine’s own intellectual sparring-partner, St. Jerome (c. 340-420), would at the very same time be laboring to produce the greatest theatrical script of the Middle Ages. For it was Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures that would form the Old and New Testaments of “the people’s Bible” (Biblia vulgata), which provided the raw material for the vast majority of medieval plays. At the same time, the order of service of the Mass and the festive calendar of the church began to take on their familiar forms, while the legacy of Roman theater continued to be passed down by professional entertainers and lovers of classical literature, both pagans and Christians. All of these elements would be woven together in the rich theatrical tapestry of medieval Europe.

The Renaissance of Charlemagne

A New Roman Empire

Charles the Great, king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans (742-814), presided over a cultural revolution known as the Carolingian Renaissance. (“Carolingian” is the adjective derived from the Latin form of Charles, Carolus.) He would do more for the preservation of Roman plays and the promotion of medieval theater than any other person, before or since. Ruler of a territory that included much of present-day France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Italy, Charlemagne (as the French would call him) knew that governing his vast empire would be easier if the many different people who inhabited these lands had a common culture. In addition, therefore, to promoting peace within the empire’s borders, he promulgated new laws and codified old ones, established procedures for the administration of justice, and encouraged the conversion of the many pagan tribes in his domain to Christianity. To aid in this task, he also embarked on a series of church reforms. The papacy of his time was weak, and it was Charlemagne’s political and military power that provided the channels through which the doctrines and ideals of Christianity could be disseminated. This was the beginning of the politico-religious entity that would later be known as the Holy Roman Empire. And more than law or justice, more than the development of bureaucratic institutions, it was liturgy—the theater of worship—that would help to bring the disparate peoples of Europe together to form an entity known as Christendom.

The Unifying Force of Religion

Christendom was a spiritual empire whose borders coincided, roughly, with the secular empire of Rome, and whose unifying power is expressed in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, the “universal” church (from the Greek adjective katholicos) established in Rome. It was under Charlemagne’s patronage that the many disparate rituals, prayers, ceremonies, and music developed by individual Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire were eventually brought together to form a cohesive liturgy. Some of these rituals, like the solemn performance of the daily Mass, were almost as old as Christianity itself. Others, like the annual feasts commemorating significant episodes in the life of Christ (his Nativity at Christmas, his resurrection at Easter) or honoring the deeds of the saints, were later additions, often in response to the needs of recent converts. The observance of Christmas on 25 December, for example, was tied to that date in order to coincide with the winter solstice and the celebration of Yule, which was sacred among the pagan peoples of northern Europe because it marked the darkest day of the year and the subsequent return toward light; thus, the symbolism of Jesus’ birth and the rebirth of the sun reinforced one another. By contrast, Easter continued to be a “moveable feast,” whose date was not constant from year to year, but was instead tied to the dating of Passover, which was calculated according to the lunar calendar in use by the Jews, rather than the solar calendar that had governed the reckoning of time in the territories of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the English name of the most important feast in the Christian calendar, Easter, has nothing to do with Christ, but is the name of the Saxon fertility goddess, Eastra.

The Contributions of Monasticism

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) had begun laying the groundwork for Charlemagne’s later program of liturgical reforms. Under his direction, the musical sequences that accompanied the recitation of the Psalms and other biblical verses were brought together into a corpus of melodic material that is commonly called Gregorian chant. Like the Mass, many of these chants were very old. Others had been composed to support the expanded services of the newly legalized church in the fourth and fifth centuries, notably under Ambrose, bishop of Milan (c. 339-397), the mentor of St. Augustine. Still others were the artistic product of the monasteries that were being founded throughout Europe, and which would be the recipients of Charlemagne’s generosity. The Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543), which provided the basic guidelines for monastic life in much of Europe—and which is still in use in modern Benedictine monastic houses all over the world—had instituted an elaborate schedule of daily worship called the opus Dei, “the work of God.” The phrase indicated that it was the special job of monks and nuns to pray continually for the welfare of Christendom. At seven intervals throughout the day, and once in the middle of the night, the monastic choir would perform the office (from the Latin word for “duty,” officium), each segment of which involved the chanting of the Psalms, singing of hymns, recitation of prayers, and reading of Scripture. This program of prayer was, in many respects, inherently dramatic; the selection of Bible passages, the choice of the music, the display of certain ornaments and colors, and the wearing of special vestments (ceremonial costumes) all contributed to the theatrical expression of devotion to God. The very calendar of the church was theatrical, turning the cycle of the seasons into a year-long drama which re-enacted the stages of Christ’s mission on earth and showed the continual workings of God in the world by commemorating the deeds of holy men and women.

Charlemagne’s Achievement

Charlemagne’s contribution to the theatrical innovations of the early Middle Ages was material, in several senses. By financing churches and monasteries throughout his domain, he helped to enrich the celebration of the liturgy and to make Christian worship an increasingly attractive interplay of music, light, color, and ceremony. But even more importantly, he ensured that the rituals and chants of the early church would not be forgotten, collecting the scattered manuscripts and oral traditions by which they had been conveyed and having them copied and disseminated throughout his realm. These new manuscripts, many of them beautifully decorated with colored inks and gold leaf (the brightness of their pages gives the impression that they are “illuminated”) were written in a script that was also new. Called “Carolingian minuscule,” it abandoned the laborious square capital letters that had been in use since antiquity in favor of a rounded hand that was easier to write and to read, the ancestor of modern typefaces like those in printed books. Finally, the scribes of Charlemagne’s court developed a system of musical notation, which operated like a recording device, enabling the transmission of music through writing (rather than by word—or song—of mouth). In addition to preserving and augmenting the unique heritage of early medieval Christianity, the artists and intellectuals of Charlemagne’s court devoted themselves to preserving and honoring the classical age, especially the legacy of Rome. The universal language of Western Europe was still Latin, the language of the Romans, but that language was rapidly becoming specialized, a language of scholarship and worship. It was no longer the language of conversation, prayer, or writing. It was only one of many European languages, some derived directly from Latin (the “romance” or Roman languages of French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Romanian, Portuguese, Occitan), others rooted in Germanic or Celtic dialects (Anglo-Saxon or Old English, Gaelic, Breton). These vernacular or “native” languages were much more widely spoken than Latin, and in the centuries after the death of Charlemagne they would become literary languages in their own right.

Preserving the Past for the Future

The Carolingian Renaissance is so called, then, because it suggests a “rebirth” of interest in the past, and a desire to emulate the literary and artistic forms of that past. Not surprisingly, one of the most compelling aspects of the Roman past was its theater. In scriptoria (“workshops for writing”) throughout Charlemagne’s realm, scribes and illuminators turned out hundreds of lavishly illustrated manuscripts of Roman plays, especially the comedies of Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, c. 190-158 B.C.E.), which were among the entertainments that had made so indelible an impression on St. Augustine. Of course, Carolingian scribes also preserved other classical texts, not just plays: the poetry of Vergil, Catullus, Horace, and Ovid; the speeches and letters of Cicero; and the histories of Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus. Hence, most of what is known about Rome is known because of the work of the copyists who saved the endangered texts of antiquity from oblivion. The surviving knowledge of Greek drama, on the other hand, is attributed to the Greek-speaking heir of the Roman Empire, Byzantium, where Constantine had founded his new capital of Constantinople in 325. The knowledge of Greek was unavailable to the people of medieval Western Europe. Thus, it was not until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 that the tragedies and comedies of the Greek dramatists became accessible to the West, helping to fuel the artistic endeavors of another Renaissance.

The Development of Liturgical Drama

The Tradition of Theatricality

The liturgy of the medieval church was essentially theatrical, as was the festive cycle of the Christian year. But at certain times during that year, this theatricality took on a special character. At Easter, and on the days leading up to its celebration of Christ’s Passion (“suffering”) and Resurrection, and again at the Christmas season, churches throughout Europe provided the settings for musical dramatizations of scenes from the gospels. It is hard to know when these liturgical plays were first performed, because the oldest manuscripts that record them were copied after the Carolingian Renaissance had made the preservation of texts a high priority. Often, the late dates of manuscripts have been taken to indicate that medieval drama itself was a late invention—that in order for there to be a play, there must be a script. But this is obviously not the case: all that a play requires is a story, some performers, and an audience. And medieval people had a wealth of stories at their disposal, thanks to St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible, which was supplemented by a series of popular tales from the Apocrypha or “hidden” books of Hebrew scripture, among them the stories of Judith, Susannah, and Daniel. Surviving manuscripts, therefore, allow scholars to view only the skeletal remains of liturgical drama, giving some indication of how these stories were performed. Most of these plays are undetailed and would have existed long before the time of Charlemagne. For example, it is evident that elaborate processions commemorating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday had been staged in that holy city for years, but the earliest record of them comes from the Itinerarium or travel journal of Egeria, a high-born lady or perhaps a nun from the Roman province of Galicia (Spain), written about 384. By the same token, the ceremony for the consecration of churches is surely older than its first ninth-century manuscripts, which show that it was loosely based on the story of the Harrowing of Hell presented in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, when Jesus, on the Saturday between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, descended to the underworld and led out from it the souls of Adam and Eve and other Old Testament heroes and prophets, taking them with him to glory.

Basic Components

The many manuscripts which provide us with different versions of important Christmas and Easter plays are all of more recent date than the dramatic traditions to which they refer. These plays demonstrate that there were many ways to perform the story of Christ’s Birth and Resurrection, some highly creative. But all shared certain essential components. At Easter, the most important component was a vital question: Quem quæritis? (“Whom do you seek?”). The question is that of the angel guarding the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, when the Three Marys (Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; and the Mary described in the gospel of Mark as “the mother of James and Salome”) approach with oils and incense to anoint the body of Jesus. But Jesus, unbeknownst to them, has risen from the dead, so the women are surprised to see the angel, and to be asked “Whom do you seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?”. These fateful words, sung in Latin, have been used to describe the entire dramatic genre of Easter liturgies: they are often called Quem quæritis? or Visitatio sepulchritropes (traditional phrases inserted into the Mass) since they all make use of the same symbolic elements to dramatize “The Visit to the Sepulchre.” Their essential melodic dialogue consisted of an imaginative pastiche of words and phrases from the gospel accounts of the Resurrection, sung in the antiphonal or “call-and-response” style that was a feature of the monastic office, in which the chanted verses constitute a conversation between two choirs, with solo interventions by a cantor.

The Integration of Drama and Worship

It is worth noting that what made these musical dramatizations effective was not their separation from the theater of worship, but their participation in it. One of the earliest manuscripts of the Easter play, the Visitatio sepulchri from Winchester in England, demonstrates this beautifully. Four members of the religious community are instructed to disguise themselves by dressing up in costumes taken from the monastery’s storehouse of liturgical vestments: an alb (white robe) for the angel, and copes (long hooded capes) for the three women—all of whom would be portrayed by men when this play was produced in a male monastic house. The props they carry are also items in use for daily worship: thuribles (censers, containers for holding aromatic spices and incense) representing the vessels of oil and myrrh carried by the Marys. The location of the tomb is not specified in the script, but here again the church space and its furnishings would be put to use. Perhaps the tomb was represented by the altar, or perhaps it was a real tomb in one of the church’s side chapels, or a “prop,” a special tomb erected expressly for the performance of this play. In any case, the symbolic significance of staging this sacred story using actors, props, and sets provided entirely by the resources of the community underscores the intimacy and immediacy of the play’s message: it is as if Jesus has been resurrected in their own church, as if members of the monastic community are themselves going mournfully to anoint his body, only to be greeted by the angel’s question, “Whom do you seek in the sepulchre?” and the joyful news of Christ’s Resurrection. Whereas people today imagine the events of the Bible as taking place in the distant past, medieval people reminded themselves constantly of their proximity to those events. Their theater underscored the messages implicit in this proximity, year after year.

The Expansion of Christmas Theatricals

Some of the same dramatic techniques featured so prominently in the Easter liturgies were also put to use in the performance of plays at Christmastime. Even the important question Quem quæritis? could be asked again, this time of the shepherds who come to Bethlehem, seeking the birthplace of the child Jesus: “Whom do you seek in the manger, shepherds? Tell us!” But because Christmas was a less solemn feast than Easter, greater liberties were taken with the biblical text. In some places, by the eleventh century at the latest, Christmas theatricals had expanded to include not only the story of Jesus’ birth, but of the angels’ address to the shepherds, the journey of the Magi, their interview with Herod, Herod’s violent response to their news, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Numerous extra characters were added: Mary has midwives to help her in the birthing of Jesus; Herod, as befits a great king, has men-at-arms, attendants, courtiers, ambassadors, diplomats, and ineffectual bureaucrats surrounding him; the Old Testament matriarch, Rachel, is brought on to witness Herod’s massacre of the innocents, and mourns for the lost children of Israel. All of these people and events could scarcely be encompassed within a single morning’s liturgy, and it became traditional to celebrate Christmas over a twelve-day period, beginning on 25 December and ending on the Feast of the Epiphany (from the Greek word for “manifestation”) on 6 January, the holiday celebrating the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The play commemorating Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents was usually performed on 28 December, which became the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Like the tragic episode that it commemorated, it occurred a few days after the Nativity. In many monasteries and cathedral schools throughout Europe, this feast was also called “the Feast of Fools,” since the boys of these communities were allowed special privileges on that day, their festive misbehavior sanctioned in compensation for the cruel deaths meted out to the children of Judea. This was a time of carnival, one of several occasions in the year when the “world turned upside down” and hierarchies of power, social status, and gender roles were reversed.

The Long Reign of King Herod

Not surprisingly, the Magi and King Herod were the stars of many Christmas plays, since these characters have always held a special fascination for audiences. During the Middle Ages, the Magi were intriguing because they were exotic, mysterious men from the fabled Orient, astronomers and astrologers who could read the stars and look into the future. Herod was fascinating because of his blustering, ranting manner and excessive cruelty, and it is for this reason that the part has been a perennial favorite among actors who like to play the villain. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet complains that over-acting “out-Herods Herod,” he is referring to an ongoing tradition that dates back to medieval liturgical drama, and which inspired Shakespeare’s own characterizations of Richard III and Iago. But Herod, because he was a king, also stood in for the ultimate tyrant, and in an age when monarchy was becoming a powerful political institution, the representation of bad lordship as exemplified in Herod could serve as a warning to real lords. So there was a political dimension to liturgical drama, as well as a religious one. In the two twelfth-century Christmas plays associated with the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, in France, Herod’s central place in the Christmas story is evident from the title of the drama, which is called The Service for Representing Herod. Throughout the play, Herod’s violent behavior, and that of his murderous soldiers, must have seemed to the audience to resemble that of real rulers and their henchmen. But there were elements of comedy as well. When the Magi tell Herod about the miraculous star they have seen, Herod sends for his own experts, to see whether they can corroborate the story. The monks playing the scribes are described in the rubrics (stage directions written in red ink) as bumbling idiots, carrying stacks of moldy books and wearing false beards; they have to “turn over the leaves of the books for a long time” before they finally find the correct prophecy.

The Church as Performance Space

The geography of the medieval church was vitally important to the staging of Christmas drama. At Easter, the sole stage setting could be “the place of the sepulchre,” which was usually located at or near the altar. At Christmastime, the entire church became a theater, if only because so much of the action of these plays involved traveling: Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem, the Magi come “from the East” to Herod’s court and from there to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt, the Magi return to their homes. Each of these trips provided an opportunity for the actors to process around the church and through the audience, who would be standing in the nave (the central hall). Since all medieval churches were oriented on an East-West axis, with the altar in the apse at the eastern end, it would be from this part of the church that the Magi would “come together, each one from his own corner as though from his own region,” according to the rubrics of the play from Saint-Benoît. The star that guides them rises from behind the altar, also in the east, and then leads their procession around the church. The citizens of Jerusalem are the members of the choir, while the members of the congregation are the people of Bethlehem. When the shepherds find the baby Jesus in the manger, they worship him and then “they invite the people standing all around to worship the child.” Through such simple, effective techniques, the staging of liturgical drama allowed the events of the Bible to be mapped onto the church space, collapsing the distance between actors and audience, the past and the present, the local and the universal.

Serious Comedy

Roman Theater in the Middle Ages

The initiative of the artists and intellectuals who contributed to the Carolingian Renaissance provided the tools that would make the transmission of liturgical drama possible, but it also ensured the preservation of older theatrical traditions. Hundreds of manuscripts containing the Latin comedies of the popular Roman playwright Terence were made in the centuries between 800 and 1200. Many were lavishly illustrated and suggest that some medieval people knew a great deal about Roman comedy. These illustrations show lively, two-dimensional stagings of key scenes, in which actors are depicted wearing the masks and costumes typical of Roman performances. Their very gestures are meticulously rendered, contributing to the illusion that the viewer is looking at “snapshots” of Terence’s comedies as they would have been presented around the time of Constantine or St. Augustine, in the fourth century C.E. It would have been easy for the medieval readers of these plays to reconstruct some of the circumstances of their performance, as they looked at the pictures and read aloud the various parts. However, the careful authenticity of the manuscripts’ representations of ancient comedy also suggests that the copyists were striving to preserve information about an archaic art form: medieval audiences were not used to seeing masked actors, nor did they frequent the same types of theaters as the people of ancient Rome. When Hugh of Saint-Victor offered his definition of the “theatrical arts” in the early twelfth century, he was trying to capture the timeless diversity of human amusements and leisure activities; yet he was also aware that times had changed, that the theater “was the place people used to gather for entertainment”—employing the past tense, to emphasize that the pagan theater of ancient Rome was not the same as the theater of medieval Christendom. Hugh himself would have seen the remains of Roman theaters and other buildings (baths, temples, an amphitheater) on the Left Bank of the River Seine, nestled in the hills where the new University of Paris would be founded during the course of the twelfth century. And he knew that it had been a long time since those structures had been used for the purposes for which they were originally designed. But this did not stop other medieval writers from making constant—and knowing—references to Roman theater and its many attractions.

Comic Revivals

If knowledge of Roman theater, the scripts of Roman plays, and even Roman theater buildings survived into the Middle Ages, why was medieval theater not more like the theater of that distant past? One reason is that the church had made an effort to promulgate a special type of Christian theater, the liturgy, and had also worked hard to modify the pagan festivals that had provided many of the occasions for the performance of Roman plays. More to the point, though, is the fact that the Latin language of these plays was no longer a language readily understood by most people in Europe, so their popular appeal was largely lost. Still, there is plenty of evidence that new forms of medieval comedy continued to draw heavily on ancient traditions and techniques, retaining some of the same plots, gags, and characters regardless of the language in which the lines were spoken. Moreover, the plays of Terence were constantly revived and performed in venues where the love of Latin was continuously cultivated: in monasteries and cathedral schools, universities, royal courts, and any place where the performers could speak the language of Vergil, Cicero, and Ovid. In fact, Latin comedies would have been performed by many of the same amateur actors who also appeared in the Latin liturgical dramas. And because these plays made the learning of Latin fun, they were often used as teaching tools in medieval classrooms. They were also widely emulated by a new generation of playwrights; at the same time that the manuscripts of Roman plays were being copied, and the Easter and Christmas liturgies written down, there were men and women composing their own comedies in Latin, some with contemporary—even Christian—themes. The simultaneity of these different dramatic traditions and genres is one of the most intriguing aspects of medieval theater.

The Plays of Hrotsvit

One of the most famous playwrights of the Middle Ages embodies what might be considered some of the paradoxes of medieval drama. Her name was Hrotsvit (or Hroswitha), and she was a canoness (a member of a religious order) vowed to the religious life at the abbey of Gandersheim in Germany. But she was probably brought up and educated at the imperial court of Otto I (912-973) who ruled a large portion of Charlemagne’s former empire after 951. Moreover, Hrotsvit (c. 935-1002) is remembered today not only for her dramatic works, but for her skills as a mathematician and theologian. Together with her childhood friend Gerberga, who was the emperor’s niece and the future abbess of Gandersheim, Hrotsvit probably entered the convent when she was in her late teens or early twenties, and it is reasonable to speculate that she intended her seven comedies to be performed by her sister nuns, whose knowledge of Latin and of the Christian faith would have been strengthened at the same time, in a highly amusing manner. Among Hrotsvit’s achievements, therefore, is the invention of a distinctly Christian form of comedy, in which many comic devices as old as the comedies of Aristophanes (448-385 B.C.E.)—trickery, role-playing, delusion, love-sickness, youthful rebellion, pompous old age—are blended with the divine “comedy” of the ultimate sacrifice: death for one’s faith, a death that cannot be viewed as tragic, since it earns the martyr the bliss of eternal life.

Two Christian Comedies

Hrotsvit’s Gallicanus tells the story of the Roman general Gallicanus, a ruthless pagan whose command over the legions of the Emperor Constantine gives him great power. In the play, Gallicanus uses his clout to secure the hand of Constantine’s daughter Constance, despite the fact that both father and daughter oppose the match because of their intense devotion to Christianity. But Constance advises her father to trick Gallicanus into thinking that she will marry him after he has successfully completed his military campaigns, cunningly sending two of her Christian advisors to help convert him to Christianity, while inviting Gallicanus’ young daughters into her house, where they are quickly persuaded to join Constance in vows of virginity. Meanwhile, in the heat of a losing battle, Gallicanus (like the historical Constantine before him) prays to the Christian God for assistance and sees a vision of Christ himself marching into battle, carrying the cross. He is immediately converted and, taking vows of celibacy, becomes a hermit. Years later, he suffers martyrdom under the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, but when Julian’s son is possessed by the devil as a punishment for his father’s crimes, both father and son agree to be baptized. In another comedy, Dulcitius, Hrotsvit embroiders some of the same themes through a spicier plot set during the time of Great Persecution of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305). A lascivious Roman official, Dulcitius, schemes to deflower three beautiful Christian maidens who have been arrested for their faith, but their virginity is protected when Dulcitius falls victim to a delusion in which he believes the dirty pots and pans in the girls’ kitchen to be the bodies of his intended victims. He embraces them passionately and covers them with kisses, blackening himself with soot in the process and becoming a laughing-stock among his fellow pagans. Later on, when the evil executioner Sisinnius attempts to send one of the defiant virgins to a brothel, she is miraculously rescued from this fate, although she (like her two sisters) is eventually—but triumphantly—martyred.

The Performance of Latin Plays

Hrotsvit’s plays are particularly sophisticated examples of what could be achieved through the creative blending of classical and medieval ideas of comedy, but they are not the only examples. A later group of about two dozen Latin comedies, composed by a variety of authors over the course of the late eleventh through early thirteenth centuries, take a more conventional approach to updating classical genres. Most are much shorter than Hrotsvit’s, and many are anonymous, but like hers they are written in Latin verse and would have been performed by and for well-educated men and women in the service of the church or of the great secular rulers of Europe. Walter Map, a member of the entourage of King Henry II of England (r. 1154-1189), related that his clerks would often spend the evenings play-acting or making “jokes to take the weight off their minds.” But so, it seems, did many other people, including monks, nuns, priests, schoolmasters, and their pupils. Froumund of Tegernsee (d. 1008), a prolific poet and dedicated teacher at the important Bavarian abbey of Tegernsee (a place wellknown for its later contributions to medieval drama), complained good-naturedly that it was hard to engage his students’ attention unless he indulged them with comic displays and other antics, anything “ridiculous, that cracks up all the boys.” Geoffrey de Gorron (d. 1146), the abbot of St. Albans in England, began life as a schoolmaster whose enthusiasm for theatrical display led him to borrow valuable vestments from the monastery to use as costumes in a play about St. Catherine of Alexandria; when they were accidentally destroyed by fire, he himself became a monk to compensate for the loss. Writing at the end of the twelfth century, Reinerus of Liège revealed that classroom performance of Terence’s comedies was a favorite exercise at his own monastery of Saint-Laurent, so much so that one over-zealous teacher was visited in a dream by the abbey’s patron saint, who chastised him for behaving too much like a comedian.

A Latin Situation Comedy

Given that the plots of most medieval Latin comedies revolve around sex, it is easy to see why they might have been controversial when produced in an ecclesiastical setting. The play Babio, probably written in England during the mid-twelfth century, was therefore heavily edited when it was adapted for performance by the choirboys at Lincoln Cathedral, to judge by the state of one surviving manuscript. A glance at the plot-summary added to another manuscript copy offers an explanation for this censorship:

Babio was a priest, Petula his wife, Fodius the household servant of Babio and Petula. Viola was the daughter of the latter, the daughter of the wife and not the daughter of Babio, but his step-daughter as it were, whom both Babio and Fodius love, unknown to one another. Croceus was a certain knight, lord of the town where the girl was, and he was the lord of Babio the priest. This Croceus loved the girl Viola and wished to have her, and the priest was upset about that. Fodius had an affair with the wife of the priest, that is with Petula, and his master, in other words Babio, didn’t know it, even though he had his suspicions.

Add to this situation the humor of Babio’s relationship with his dog (who makes a brief appearance early in the play), and it is easy to see why Latin comedies continued to be written and performed throughout the Middle Ages, even though they may have raised a few eyebrows. One of the most popular, the play known as Pamphilus, survives in so many manuscripts that it gave its name to the term pamphlet. Along with a number of other medieval Latin comedies—such as the Geta of Vitalis of Blois written in the twelfth century—it endured the test of time, appearing among the earliest printed books of the late fifteenth century and thereby influencing the work of countless Renaissance dramatists.

The Popular Bible

Medieval Mass Media

The Latin Bible in use throughout the Middle Ages had been translated from Greek and Hebrew by St. Jerome around the turn of the fifth century, when Latin was still the mother tongue of the Roman Empire. This Bible was therefore called the “popular Bible” (Biblia vulgata) because it could be understood by those who could not read Hebrew or Greek. By the time of Charlemagne, however, Latin had ceased to be a language for everyday use, while the need to educate people about the Bible, and to instruct them in the tenets of the Christian faith, was greater than ever. The world was changing rapidly. By the end of the eleventh century, Western Europe was more culturally diverse and more densely populated than it had been since the power of the Roman Empire was at its height, nearly a thousand years before. Improvements in agricultural technology, the development of long-distance trading networks both by water and by land, and the flourishing of local economies during the twelfth century meant that people enjoyed greater freedom of mobility, both geographical and social. The availability of cathedral schools in major cities and the founding of the new universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge made it easier for young men from humble families to acquire an education, and thereby to fit themselves for careers in the church or in the increasingly powerful courts of secular rulers. Some of these men—those who preferred a more free-wheeling lifestyle—took what they had learned and applied it to the performing arts and to communication in the emerging vernacular literatures, which more and more people were able to read. Moreover, the fact that the population of Europe was increasingly concentrated in cities meant that it was possible to reach and to influence larger numbers of people at a time. This new urban audience was the focus of a renewed effort on the part of the church to make religious instruction available to all and, where possible, in the vernacular. Theater provided the perfect mass medium for conveying the message.

The Coming of “The Bridegroom”

This is not to suggest that only secular urban audiences were more comfortable with their own vernaculars than with Latin. In fact, the first surviving medieval play with a significant vernacular component comes not from a prosperous town but from a powerful monastery, the abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges, France. The monks of Limoges would have learned Latin from an early age, and most probably spoke, wrote, and even thought in Latin during daily worship, study, and conversation. But no man or woman in Europe, no matter how well educated or intellectually inclined, would have learned Latin in the cradle; the language that would always be the most comforting, the most familiar, was the language of childhood. In Limoges, that language was known as Occitan, and indeed the whole southern and southwestern portion of what constitutes modern-day France (from Provence to the Pyrenees) was really Occitania, a politically and culturally distinctive region where the people spoke Provençal or what was often called the langue d’oc, the language in which the word for “yes” is oc (as opposed to the language of northern France, the langue d’oïl, in which the word for “yes” is oui). One of the plays that used the vernacular Occitan, which was copied into a manuscript toward the end of the eleventh century, is about the Sponsus, or “the Bridegroom.” It is a musical dramatization of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), in which ten bridesmaids take lighted lamps and go out to wait for the arrival of the Bridegroom (in allegorical terms, they are Christian souls waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). When the Bridegroom’s coming is delayed, all of them fall asleep. But five of the maidens are wise and bring extra oil for their lamps; the other five are foolish and let their lamps go out. (Again, in allegorical terms, some souls remain vigilant and virtuous, while others become complacent and slack.) At midnight, when the Bridegroom finally arrives, the foolish maidens are left out of the triumphal procession because they cannot help to light him on his way. Running home, they try to buy more oil from merchants in the town, but this means that they are late to the wedding banquet, and are not admitted. The use of the vernacular in the Sponsus underscores the drama inherent in this story of human frailty and salvation. While most of the dialogue is sung in Latin, there is a plaintive refrain in Occitan after each exchange: “Sorrowing, sinners, alas we have slept too long!” Furthermore, the exchange between the foolish maidens and the oil merchants takes place entirely in the vernacular, emphasizing the worldliness and futility of their failed business transaction.

The Christian Message in Translation

Although very few plays survive from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it is clear that the use of the vernacular to heighten the effects of liturgical drama was becoming widespread. In the important episcopal city of Toledo in Spain, the Auto de los reyes magos (an Epiphany play about the Three Magi) was composed in the Castilian Spanish of that region at about the same time that the great heroic poem the Poema del Cid was written down. Because Toledo was close to the border separating the Muslim territories of Spain from those held by Christians, it is possible that the play—about pagan kings doing homage to the Christ Child—also carried a strong political message. Far to the northeast, in the influential Bavarian abbey of Benediktbeuern, the Easter drama of Christ’s suffering and death—the events collectively known as the Passion—came to include a number of significant vernacular elements. The characters most sympathetic to the German-speaking spectators of the play often talk directly to them in their own language. Mary Magdalene flirts with the young men in the audience in German, and also sings in German when she buys cosmetics from a merchant—foreshadowing the moment when she will buy ointments to anoint the dead body of Jesus in the sepulchre. The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, wins special sympathy by expressing her sorrows in German. Longinus, the blind soldier who stabs the crucified Jesus with his lance, speaks German to reveal that the blood flowing from Christ’s wounded side has restored his sight. Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and Pontius Pilate close the play with a dialogue conducted entirely in German. Similar popularizing techniques are used in a “Visit to the Sepulchre” liturgy from the convent of Origny-Sainte-Benoîte in northeastern France, which was sung almost entirely in French, and in a play called Suscitio Lazari (The Raising of Lazarus) written in the Anglo-Norman French dialect spoken in northern France (Normandy) as well as in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Celebration of Youth

Perhaps the most famous musical drama of the Middle Ages, Danielis ludus (The Play of Daniel), is another play that intermingles Latin and the vernacular in effective ways. Based on stories about the youthful prophet Daniel (stories that form part of the non-canonical Apocrypha, or “hidden writings” of the Bible), it was written by and for the youths of Beauvais cathedral in France—for the young men and boys who sang in the cathedral choir and attended the choir’s school. Copied into a deluxe manuscript around the year 1230, it proudly proclaims the authorship and provenance of the play in the opening song:

The play of Daniel we record:

it was created in Beauvais

the work of youth, in every way.

Daniel was a particularly attractive hero for these young performers, since his boyish curiosity, compassion, and wit were the qualities that allowed him to solve riddles, investigate puzzling crimes, and foil the evil designs of his elders. In the version of his story dramatized at Beauvais, the precocious sage is able to decipher the mysterious handwriting that appears on a palace wall of the pagan king Belshazzar. Later, when he is wrongfully imprisoned by Belshazzar’s successor, Darius, he will make a miraculous escape from the lions’ den. Finally, he astonishes everyone with his perspicacity, by prophesying the future birth of the Savior, Jesus. The use of French in the lyrics of this musical is not extensive, but it does add an especially festive element to a play already rich in pageantry, humor, intrigue, and suspense. Performed annually on 1 January, The Play of Daniel was an integral part of the liturgy for the Feast of the Circumcision (also known as the Feast of the Presentation), one of several feasts that punctuated the Twelve Days of Christmas, from 25 December to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January (the first day of January was not celebrated as New Year’s Day in northern France at this time). And, like the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December, it compensates for the pain inflicted on the children of the gospel narrative (Herod’s slaughtered innocents, or the circumcised baby Jesus) by allowing contemporary children a special license for revelry and misbehavior. Depending on the locale, any of these feasts could become a “Feast of Fools,” when the traditional rituals of the church, including the Mass, were parodied and lampooned in ways that modern-day theologians might find shocking but which were widely accepted and greatly enjoyed during the Middle Ages.

Telling It Straight

Many of the religious-themed plays make use of the vernacular in conjunction with Latin in a form sometimes called “macaronic,” and these would have been chanted and sung as part of the dramatic liturgies that highlighted the importance of certain feasts. But there is no reason to believe that these same stories were not also told in plain language, unadorned by music and unaccompanied by Latin. Surviving sources often mention the performance of biblical plays, or plays about the lives of saints, without specifying which language they used—Abbot Geoffrey’s play about St. Catherine is one. Some may have been spoken entirely in the vernacular, but perhaps it scarcely mattered. After all, every man, woman, and child in Europe would have been intimately familiar with these stories; like the audiences of Greek tragedies, they knew what would happen before the play even began. They may not have needed to understand every word in order to participate in a satisfying theatrical experience. And many of these plays may never have been scripted to begin with; it would have been very easy for the performers to ad-lib their roles. However, we do have part of the written texts for two early biblical plays that were performed almost entirely in rhyming French couplets: Ordo representacionis Ade (The Service for Representing Adam), sometimes called Jeu d’Adam (The Play of Adam), and La seinte resureccion (The Holy Resurrection). Both may have been composed during the latter half of the twelfth century, and were probably originally intended for audiences in southeastern England and Normandy, since their dialect is the Anglo-Norman French of those regions. Both are incomplete, but appear to have been ambitious in scope. The Play of Adam is particularly well known, and it is possible that it was designed to tell the entire story of human salvation, from the Fall of Man in Eden to the Last Judgment. But the sole surviving manuscript ends abruptly, with the Old Testament prophets foretelling the birth of Jesus (in a processio prophetarum or “procession of prophets,” similar in some respects to that which was probably performed at Riga, now the capital of modern Latvia). This play is also noteworthy for its careful instructions to the actors (written in Latin, to better distinguish them from the vernacular dialogue) with regard to costuming, set design, and the proper speaking of the verse. Most remarkable of all is the way that old stories are transformed when performed in modern dress—literally and figuratively. Here, Adam and Eve are a young, upwardly mobile couple; he’s hardworking and away from home a lot, while she’s ambitious but has too much time on her hands. They are perfect prey for a con-man like Satan. Later on, Cain and Abel’s quarrel over the offering of sacrifices becomes a controversy about the payment of church tithes, taxes levied on parishioners for the support of priests; Abel is resigned and pious, Cain is angry and frustrated that the fruits of his hard labor should go into someone else’s belly. This is serious social commentary, as well as sound religious doctrine.

Plays on the Cutting Edge

Airing Difficult Issues

Medieval theater could simultaneously instruct and challenge its audiences. It would be a mistake to assume that just because a play contained an important religious message, and may in fact have been performed as part of the liturgy, that it could not also be funny or “edgy.” Even liturgical dramas could be controversial, depending on how they chose to represent the power of kings, how much they emphasized the importance of the vernacular, or how they depicted the relationships between men and women, lords and servants, sinners and saints. King Herod’s tyrannical behavior is held up as a warning to contemporary rulers. The pagan wisdom of the Magi, which includes detailed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, is depicted as both glamorous and dangerous. Satan’s temptation of Eve, in The Service for Representing Adam, suggests that women can easily succumb to flattery and ambition, but it also acknowledges their intelligence and their influence over men. One of the liturgical dramas associated with the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire in France, The Service for Representing How St. Nicholas Freed the Son of Getron, describes the capture of a beautiful Christian boy by the pagan king Marmorinus, who takes the boy into his household and treats him with great tenderness. When the child is miraculously restored to the care of his grieving parents, the play does not go on to show the punishment of the king, but instead leaves the viewer with a sense of his probable grief over the loss of his treasured companion (his last words to the boy are: “No one can take you away from me, so long as I do not wish to lose you”). A respected modern scholar of medieval theater has suggested that this play confronts the problem of homosexual desire within the closed community of the monastery.

Faith Versus Reason at Benediktbeuern

It is arguable that the Latin dramas developed and performed by monastic communities could be more explicit in their treatment of controversial issues precisely because these were close-knit communities. Theater provided an outlet for the discussion of disturbing ideas. At the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where the Passion play’s surprisingly extensive use of the vernacular suggests that it was geared toward the entertainment and edification of the local German-speaking population, the Christmas play is striking for a very different reason. It makes no use of the vernacular, and does not appear to have been designed primarily as a vehicle for popular piety. Rather, it addresses—at some length—the sophisticated intellectual concerns of well-educated churchmen who, by the end of the twelfth century, were trying to come to terms with Aristotelian philosophy, which had recently been re-introduced into the medieval West via increased contact with Jewish and Muslim scholars. In this context, the celebration of the event of Jesus’ birth is subordinated to the problem of believing in the Virgin Birth, a phenomenon that can only be accepted through arguments based on faith, rather than by rational proof. The spokesman for these new, disturbing arguments in the Christmas play from Benediktbeuern is a character called Archisynagogus, “the leader of the synagogue” or “the head Jew.” While Archisynagogus is described in some of the stage directions as a comic character, behaving in ways that a medieval Christian audience might have considered stereotypically “Jewish,” he is also the character who represents scientific truth and intellectual rigor—qualities very attractive to the community’s scholars. Initiating a debate over the Old Testament prophecies of the Virgin’s miraculous conception, Archisynagogus defeats all of his opponents single-handedly, confidently refuting the pious arguments of the prophets, the Boy Bishop (a choirboy appointed to preside over the Christmas festivities), and even St. Augustine. In the end, faith does triumph over reason—but only by virtue of superior numbers and the “proof” offered by the gospel story. Moreover, Archisynagogus is not vilified for his “great arrogance” but is brought back on stage toward the end of the play to advise Herod in his dealing with the three Magi, speaking “with great wisdom and eloquence.” Even the shepherds in this play fall prey to doubts, and are nearly convinced by the devil that the angels’ glorious proclamation must be a lie. This is no simplistic re-enactment of the Christmas story, but a serious attempt to come to terms with the central problem of religious belief. The Middle English Second Shepherds’ Play provides another example of the degree to which medieval plays allowed audiences to express their doubts, and challenged them to think about their faith in new ways.

The Journey of a Soul at Gandersheim

A very different type of challenge is offered by another play from a German monastic community, composed and performed around the middle of the twelfth century. This is the Ordo virtutum (The Service of the Virtues) by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), abbess of a convent that she herself founded at Rupertsberg on the Rhine river. Hildegard was famous in her own day for her scientific and medical knowledge, her preaching, her tremendous literary and artistic productivity, her mystical visions, and her highly unconventional approach to worship. Visitors to the convent reported that her nuns often wore elaborate costumes on special occasions and were encouraged to find new and creative outlets for the worship of God, celebrating the feasts of the church with unusual songs and liturgies composed by Hildegard herself. The Service of the Virtues may have been intended to celebrate the dedication of the convent around 1151; it could also have been performed more frequently, to honor the monastic profession of a new postulant, or simply to commemorate the challenges and rewards of the monastic life as it was experienced by women. Anticipating the morality plays of the later Middle Ages, it tells the story of a single (female) soul, Anima, and her journey through life, beginning with her embodiment in the “beautiful garments” of the flesh and the happy innocence of her childhood. Early on, Anima is introduced to the (female) Virtues and, through them, is made aware of life’s temptations and difficulties. But living in God’s created world is delightful to her, and Anima unabashedly revels in the delights of her body—until her encounters with the Devil leave her bruised and terrified. Calling on the Virtues to rescue her, Anima flees from the evil influence of her sins and eventually succeeds in escaping from the embrace of the Devil, yet not before she is reminded of how difficult her chosen path will be and how many earthly joys she is missing, including the pleasures of sexual intercourse and the joys of motherhood. Although there are few stage directions, the language of Hildegard’s play is full of action verbs, sensuality, and violence. The virility and power of the Devil is underscored not only by the masculinity of the actor portraying him (the role was probably assigned to the convent’s chaplain or to Hildegard’s male secretary) but also by the fact that he is the only character who either cannot or does not sing. Instead of communicating through melody, like the female characters played by the nuns, he speaks or shouts his lines, by turns insinuating and threatening. It would be anachronistic to call this a “feminist” play, but it is certainly a play that does not shy away from dealing with the special concerns of women vowed to lives of celibacy, poverty, and domination by men.

Apocalypse Plays

Yet another Latin play created by a monastic community in twelfth-century Germany reveals that withdrawal from the temptations of the world did not necessarily imply a retreat from interest in worldly affairs. The Play of Antichrist from the imperial abbey of Tegernsee probably dates from the years around 1160, which marked important developments in the political career of Frederick II “Barbarossa” (c. 1123-1190), who had been elected emperor of the Romans in 1152. Nicknamed “red beard,” and as hot-tempered as he was redheaded, Frederick was extremely ambitious, and spent his long reign attempting to exercise control over a vast and diverse region, which included the principalities of Germany, the city-states of northern Italy, and parts of Eastern Europe. Constantly in conflict with the pope, and jealous of the success of his contemporary, Henry II of England, Frederick saw himself as the rightful successor of Constantine and Charlemagne—and seemingly believed that he was also destined to unify Europe; in fact, it was Frederick who coined the term “Holy Roman Empire” to describe the loose configuration of territories that made up his domain. The Play of Antichrist dramatizes Frederick’s political pretensions, and may have been performed in his presence at Tegernsee. It draws upon Christian teachings about the Apocalypse—the second coming of Christ—suggesting that Frederick might well have seen himself in the role of the triumphant world leader whose restoration of Roman power would eventually bring about the coming of the Antichrist, thereby ushering in an era of fear, hypocrisy, and false miracles. But this time of uncertainty is a necessary precursor to the salvation of the human race, since the duplicity of the Antichrist is destined to be revealed by the prophets Enoch and Elijah, who will also succeed in bringing about the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, which is necessary to pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment, and the End of Days. This is hardly a comfortable subject for a play, and it is difficult for a modern reader to understand the messages that may have been conveyed in its performance. But the staging must have been a revelation in itself. Like the liturgical dramas devised for Christmas and Easter, The Play of Antichrist was designed for performance at various stations or sites, with some of the action taking place in several locations simultaneously. In this case, however, the relatively simple requirements of The Visit to the Sepulchre, or even the plays of Herod and the Magi, are replaced by the full-scale deployment of armies, the negotiations of ambassadors, and the ceremonious subjugation of kings; the stage directions in the manuscript reveal that The Play of Antichrist required seven “thrones” or scaffolds representing the major powers of the known world, each of which is vanquished by the emperor of the Romans and then reconquered by the Antichrist and his minions. The trickery of the Antichrist also calls for special effects of a more subtle kind, since it must be made evident to the audience that he is not the real Christ, and that his promises are lies. Accordingly, the actor performing this role is directed to wear armor that is only partly concealed by his outer garments, while the performer playing the part of a man whom Antichrist will pretend to raise from the dead is carefully instructed to make it clear that he is only “faking death.” But the very theatricality of the Antichrist’s “miracles” is itself disturbing and potentially subversive, since it brings to mind the overt theatricality of the church’s own performance of sacramental miracles, notably in the daily celebration of the Mass.

Acting Locally in Arras

The surviving plays dating from the years prior to 1300 suggest that the theater of the Middle Ages was well equipped to address timely issues through the retelling of timeless stories. Even when performed in Latin, and as part of the liturgy, plays could contribute to ongoing debates within a community, or provide incisive commentary on the world outside. When performed in the vernacular, such plays worked even more powerfully, and could reach a wide audience. The thriving mercantile center of Arras in northeastern France provides scholars with the first vernacular plays written specifically for an urban population and developing plots that owe little to biblical models. The Jeu de saint Nicolas(The Play of St. Nicholas), composed after 1191 by Jehan Bodel (a professional entertainer and town clerk whose written works contributed new vocabulary to the language now called Old French), is based in part on stories of the saint’s many miracles, but its real purpose is to describe a set of recent and momentous occurrences in the life of the town. In 1191, Arras became part of the expanding kingdom of Philip II “Augustus” (r. 1180-1223), the medieval architect of the modern French state; prior to that date, it had formed part of the independent county of Flanders. Jehan chose to tell the story of his town’s changing political, cultural, and economic climate through the lens of saintly legend. In the play, a greedy pagan king wages war against a wealthy town, easily identifiable as Arras, and takes one of its official representatives captive. He also captures an icon of St. Nicholas, which the man from Arras tells him is capable not only of safeguarding treasure, but increasing it. Intrigued, the king places the icon in his treasury and advertises the fact that the money could easily be stolen. But when three thieves from a tavern in the marketplace of Arras try to make off with it, they are confronted by the angry St. Nicholas himself, who forces them to return the gold. When the king counts his money, he finds that there is more of it than ever before, so he converts to Christianity. Medieval Arras was renowned for its strong currency and its banking industry; Philip Augustus was famous for taking advantage of every opportunity that came his way, using the raw ingredients available to him, and Jehan created his own allegorical reading of the situation. About 75 years later, another famous son of Arras, the composer and poet Adam de la Halle, would imitate the artistry of Jehan Bodel in Jeu de la feuillée (The Play of the Bower), which would make even greater use of local settings, characters, and controversies. In fact, the humor of this later play is so specific to Arras around 1276 that it is very difficult for modern readers to understand what it is really about, let alone to laugh at its jokes.

Professional Performers

The Mark of the Professional

Most often, the plot of a medieval play addressed the specific concerns of the community for which it was performed, while the actors performing the play represented the community at large. By the same token, the resources for a play’s production were furnished by the community; audiences did not pay for the privilege of attending, nor were actors paid to perform. This begs the question of the existence of professional entertainers in the Middle Ages and their role in the development of medieval theater. It is a difficult question to answer, largely because the material that these professionals developed and performed was almost entirely improvised, or at least unscripted. The men and women who made a living through performance had to be ready to practice their crafts anywhere, at any time, for any audience. They prepared routines and gags, sketches and bits, tricks and acts; they did not, for the most part, memorize texts or preserve what they performed in writing. This occurred for many reasons. A professional performer’s livelihood could be dependent on the originality of his or her approach to the material; publishing trade secrets would diminish their value. Also, most actors, singers, musicians, dancers, acrobats, and clowns learned their skills by watching and listening to one another; as they traveled and worked, on their own or in groups, they were constantly developing, devising, copying, changing, adapting, and inventing. Certainly, some could and did read; some could also write, a skill that (unlike reading) was rare in the Middle Ages. Thus only a very few would produce scripts or songs; Jehan Bodel and Adam de la Halle of Arras are unusual exceptions to the rule. In general, it was not until the late sixteenth century that performers came to depend on written scripts for their craft. Throughout the Middle Ages, the mark of the true professional was the ability to work independently, relying on memory and skill.

The Role of the Jongleur

Edmond Faral, one of the only scholars to attempt a systematic study of medieval entertainers, used the Old French word jongleur or “juggler” as a catch-all term to describe the array of talents and practices shared by the professional performers of the Middle Ages. His attempt to answer the question “What is a jongleur?” forms the opening paragraph of the book he first published in 1910:

A jongleur is a being of multiple personalities: a musician, poet, actor, mountebank; a sort of steward for the pleasures associated with the courts of kings and princes; a vagabond who wanders the roads and puts up shows in the villages; a hurdygurdy man who, at a resting-place, sings of glorious deeds for the pilgrims; a charlatan who amuses the crowd at the crossroads; an author and actor of plays played on feast-days outside the church; a lord of the dance who makes the young people caper and skip; a taborer, a blower of trumpet and horn who keeps time in processions; a teller of tales, a bard who enlivens the feast, the wedding, the watches of the night; a circus-rider who vaults onto the backs of horses; an acrobat who dances on his hands, who juggles with knives, who jumps through hoops, who eats fire, who bends himself back in two; a buffoon who struts and mimics; a clown who plays the fool and speaks blarney; a jongleur is all that, and more besides.

However, no single performer could be master of so many skills, or practice them all at once. Faral’s essential point is that the medieval entertainer was a jack-of-all-trades, since his livelihood depended on his willingness to be all things to all people, to turn his hand to anything. In fact, like most professional entertainers in modern times, the medieval jongleur also held a variety of “day jobs.” A jongleur often worked as a servant in the houses of the wealthy when he was not entertaining there, or acting as a herald, messenger, or secretary. He also worked for the town where he performed on street corners or in the market square, as a crier, clerk, schoolmaster, or craftsman. Many jongleurs, however, were vagrants, traveling from place to place, begging for food or doing odd jobs when they could not earn enough money passing the hat during performances. It was a hard life, and it often earned the performer a bad reputation. Medieval people respected stability and feared the unfamiliar. Men and women who were constantly on the move, constantly changing jobs, and perpetually versatile could be objects of mistrust as well as sources of delight. This is why so much of the anecdotal evidence relating to the status of performers in the Middle Ages is negative.

Entertainment at Court

Most professional entertainers were wanderers, but a privileged few were able to find steady employment in the entourages of the rich and powerful. They provided their masters with theater on demand, and with the prestige derived from patronage of the arts; in return, they received food and shelter, clothing and occasional gifts, and sometimes a steady wage. Depending on their individual talents, these men and women would have been called by a variety of names. The term jongleur was sometimes used generically, but it usually applied more specifically to clowns or jesters, many of whom also called themselves “fools.” The (unnamed) Fool in King Lear, Feste the jester in Twelfth Night, and Touchstone the clown in As You Like It are a few of their Shakespearean offspring. Entertainers who specialized in music, vocal or instrumental, were often called minstrels, but this does not mean that they devoted themselves exclusively to music. Some were also capable of reciting tales of heroic deeds, like those described in the heroic poemSong of Roland; in Scandinavia, they helped to develop the intricate adventure narratives that would later come together to form the great Norse sagas; in Ireland, bards sang the exploits of the giant Cuchulain, and the cycle of stories that now make up the Taín; in England before the Conquest performers boasted of Beowulf, and other heroes of the Anglo-Saxon past. By the thirteenth century, all over Europe, the deeds of King Arthur and his knights eclipsed all of these, and were especially popular in courtly circles, where tournaments were often designed to resemble those described in story and song.

The Poet-Musicians

There was also the special class of poet-musicians who composed and sang their own lyrics of love and longing in the new vernacular languages of Europe, and who were known as troubadours, trouvères, or minnesingers, depending on whether they were from northern or southern France, or Germany. They were the entertainment elite. In fact, some were not professional entertainers at all, but clerics or noblemen “moonlighting” as performers. Adam de la Halle of Arras, the author of The Play of the Bower, exemplifies the traits of this group. Well-educated, with perhaps some training at the university in Paris, he was active in the multifarious theatrical activities of his hometown but also appears to have been attached to the court of Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302), for whom he may have written The Play of Robin and of Marion, a musical comedy with a romantic—and spicy—pastoral plot (one focusing on shepherds and shepherdesses). While it was almost certainly intended for performance at court, with a cast consisting of Robert’s household entertainers, its manuscript indicates that it was later revived for performance in the very different urban milieu of Arras, another indication of medieval theater’s versatility.

Fables and Farces

While it has often been assumed that certain plays, jokes, or songs would have been more appropriate to a courtly setting than to an urban one, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that medieval performers and their audiences enjoyed a wide variety of entertainments, regardless of social class. Urban audiences wept when they heard the tale of noble Roland’s death, and so did the knights who strove to emulate him. Rustic audiences laughed at the antics of clowns and the scatological humor of the short, salacious stories known as fabliaux, as did kings. The manuscript books that preserve the raw materials of the performers’ repertoire as it had evolved by the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries were obviously made for aristocratic or well-to-do collectors, but the materials themselves could have been adapted for performance in taverns or halls or market-squares, on streets or at fairs, after feasts or before campfires. The plays that survive from this era were not only adaptable to occasion and circumstance, but also to the number of available performers. Two of the earliest examples come from the region around Arras: a dialogue called The Boy and the Blind Man and a retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) called The Courtly Lad of Arras. The extant manuscripts of these two short pieces indicate that both were performed many times over a period of several centuries, and they make use of some of the same plot-lines and devices that would later be recycled in the comic interludes or farces that were literally sandwiched in between longer or more serious plays in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the French word farce means “stuffing,” while the Latin interludium means “a play between the plays or games”). Both consist of rhymed couplets (easily memorized) and both could have been performed in under an hour, perfect for any occasion. The Boy and the Blind Man uses the tried-and-true formula of the comic duo, one the mastermind (the Boy), the other the straight man and butt of the jokes (the Blind Man). The aim of the characters is the same as that of the performers—to entertain a crowd of people and con them out of as much money as possible. While it calls for two actors, it could probably be performed by a single jongleur with the help of his fool’s “bauble,” the jester’s puppet-on-a-stick. The Courtly Lad could have been recited by a single performer as well, but it could also have been divided into parts. Its re-working of the biblical story provides a new parable for the fast-moving world of late medieval Europe, when hapless young men from the countryside were easily attracted to the pleasures of town life and often lost their money to gamblers and prostitutes. The fact that it could easily have been performed in a tavern is a constant reminder of the interaction between theater and public life in the Middle Ages.

Miracles and Moralities

The plays performed by professional actors had to be as adaptable as the performers themselves, shrinking or expanding to fill any space, or to accommodate any cast. Because there were no permanent acting companies in Europe until the late sixteenth century, no troupe of actors could be sure that it would have unlimited resources, human or material, when it was time to perform. There were exceptions, of course. Occasionally, wealthy individuals and corporations hired professional actors to perform plays on festive occasions, or to supplement the talents of amateur actors. For example, a remarkable group of forty plays from Paris, each devoted to a miracle attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, survives in a deluxe manuscript copied in the last decades of the fourteenth century. These Miracles de Nostre Damewere performed between 1339 and 1382 at the annual feasts of the Paris guild of goldsmiths (an association of craftsmen who banded together to protect and regulate their trade), and they often call explicitly for the talents of professional musicians and possibly of dancers; since a new play appears to have been staged every year, it is not unlikely that professional actors were also called in. But usually when actors banded together to perform plays, they developed a limited repertoire and took the show on the road, moving from place to place and performing in taverns, inn yards, and private houses. One of the earliest scripts for a portable play of this kind is Mankind, a Middle English “morality play” written down between 1465 and 1470. Morality plays addressed the problems and temptations faced by ordinary people by following a representative human being through daily life. Because they aimed to be accessible to everyone, they generalized common experiences through the use of allegory, a technique which relied on personifications of abstract qualities in characters with names like “Good Works” and “New Guise” (Trendy Fashion); and although the central message was religious, the dramatization of the allures of vice and the struggle for virtue was intended to be highly entertaining. The actors would go hungry if their play was boring, since the most common way of collecting money was to ask for donations during or after the performance. An interval for the collection of cash is actually written intoMankind, which is designed for performance by a cast of six actors, one playing the title character, four playing the pranksters who plague him—aptly named Mischief, New-Guise, Nowadays, and Nought—and the sixth doubling the key roles of Mercy and Titivillus, the “All-Vile” chief devil. The pairing of these two very different roles is itself suggestive of the lead actor’s virtuosity, as well as of the playful quality of even the most moral of medieval morality plays. It was for precisely this reason that contemporary critics condemned their performance, no matter how religious the theme. The Tretise of Miraclis Pleying, written in England probably by a proponent of Lollardry (a pre-Protestant group hostile to the hierarchical nature of the Roman Church) several decades before Mankind, argues that the “playing” or performance of miracles and moralities “taketh away the dread of God.” But when plays and their performers are controversial, it is a good sign that both are doing their job.

Community Theaters

Urban Centers

Toward the end of the twelfth century, a cleric called William FitzStephen included a lengthy description of the city of London in his biography of St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170), written to attract visitors to the new martyr’s shrine at Canterbury and to his birthplace nearby. Among the city’s attractions, William emphasized its opportunities for entertainment, listing an array of pleasurable pastimes that resembles the catalogue of theatrical activities outlined by Hugh of Saint-Victor.

I do not think that there is any city deserving greater approval for its customs, with regard to church-going, honoring divine ceremonies, the keeping of feast-days, the giving of alms, reception of strangers, confirmation of betrothals, making of marriages, celebration of weddings, preparation of banquets, welcoming of guests, and also in the observance of funeral rites and the burying of the dead.

He goes on to paint a tantalizing picture of “the sports of the city, since it is appropriate that a city be not only useful and important, but also a source of mirth and diversion.” Acknowledging that London, unlike ancient Rome, has no theater buildings in which plays can be seen, he assures his audience that it “has dramatic performances of a holier kind, plays wherein are shown either the miracles wrought by holy confessors or the sufferings which glorified the faith of the martyrs.” Moreover, he says, London has Carnival plays and games, tournaments and processions, mock naval battles, hunting and hawking, summer games showcasing feats of athletic skill, and winter sports like bear-baiting and ice-skating. In many ways, urban communities such as London showcased the quintessential community of medieval theater—which used the resources of the community to which it performed in order to deliver its message—more fully even than the closed community of the monastery. The city could be the theater when it provided the stage for theatrical activities mounted at different times and seasons of the year; or it could be an actor in great pageants of national significance when it arrayed itself in finery and put on parades and plays to welcome visiting kings and dignitaries. And sometimes it could represent the whole world, and the whole history of human salvation, when it staged the great cycle plays of the later Middle Ages.

Christmastide and Carnival

Like the drama of the church, the drama of the medieval town was governed by the liturgical calendar and the seasons of the year. Certain seasons were especially conducive to theatricality, either because they were times of comparative leisure and plenty, when the rhythms of sowing and harvest had slowed, or because they were times when people were drawn together by sociable impulses as old as humanity, as at the dark time of the winter solstice. While spring and summer offered numerous opportunities for the games, dances, and diversions described by William FitzStephen—played out in towns and villages all over Europe—Christmastide and Carnival were the major occasions for festive theater in most communities. The week after Christmas was a busy time in churches, and it is important to remember that the liturgical plays celebrating Jesus’ birth and the events leading up to the Epiphany of the Magi were in performance throughout the Middle Ages, and would have been extremely familiar to everyone. Supplementing these formal dramas were the revels associated with Christmas, which included a variety of small-scale dramatic productions often called “mumming plays.” These drew upon the same ancient inclinations that had prompted the church to attach the celebration of Christmas to the winter solstice in the first place. The birth of a marvelous child, the rekindling of light in a dark place, the miraculous recycling of the new year—the simple plays that dramatized these things reached deep into the primal mythology in which medieval Christianity was already firmly rooted. So did the revelry of Carnival, the season of license and conspicuous consumption that followed Epiphany and ended on “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras), when Ash Wednesday ushered in the six weeks of fasting and penance that preceded Easter. Carnival, Lent, and Easter were also products of the natural cycle, since the meat from animals slaughtered in late autumn would not last through the winter and had to be eaten, thus providing for the feasting of Carnival; Lent, by contrast, institutionalized the basic necessity of rationing the remaining store of grains and legumes that had been put up at the autumn harvest and had to last until spring, when earth’s fertility would be renewed, just as Christ’s body was resurrected from the tomb. The theater of Carnival resembled the foods of Carnival: excessive, rich, and unlike the normal fare of everyday life. Carnival plays, like the Fastnachtspiele of Germany, accordingly reveled in cross-dressing, the reversal of hierarchies, and the flouting of acceptable conventions. As at the Feasts of Fools during Christmastime, the world was turned upside down. The celebration of subversive behavior may seem strange to us, but in many ways it was the glue that held these communities together. Carnival allowed the people of Europe to use up excess energy, as well as excess food—both being commodities which, if stored too long and allowed to go bad, would be far more dangerous than a period of organized dissipation.

Passion and Mystery

The further development of towns in the later Middle Ages led to the growth of new identities within these communities, as well as to a growing sense of shared identity—local, regional, and even national. Theater became a medium for expressing these identities. In Italy, where towns had long been the fundamental units of political as well as economic organization, lay confraternities often took the lead in displays of public religious fervor, competing with one another in the performance of laudes—songs and ritual processions staged in honor of the Blessed Virgin or the saints—which by the fifteenth century were accompanied by sacra rappresentazioni—theatrical presentations of events from sacred history performed on major feasts. In Spain and Catalonia, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, celebrated on the 15th of August, became an especially important occasion for dramatic demonstrations of collective piety, and plays glorifying the life and miracles of the Virgin were performed annually; the Misteri d’Elx is still performed every year in the Basque town of Elche, the oldest European play in continuous production. Elsewhere on the Continent, community theater received its fullest expression in plays devoted to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In some places—notably in the major cities of the Low Countries, Switzerland, France, and Germany—these Passion plays (plays dramatizing the suffering of Christ) came to be called “mystery” plays, not only because they delved into the mysteries of faith, but because they were produced by representatives of the various trade guilds, associations of craftsmen who banded together to protect and regulate the secrets or “mystery” of their trades. Depending on the size of the city, the number of its guilds, and the generosity of their budgets, these plays could be more or less elaborate. In some places, episodic plays chronicling the entire history of human salvation were performed on successive days in a cycle that could last nearly a month. The geography of the town would often dictate where and how such plays were performed, whether in the round, using several scaffolds or platforms, or in procession at various stations throughout the city. Continental towns in northern Europe tended to have larger market squares that could accommodate large-scale spectacles and their audiences; in England and in Spain, by contrast, more constricted spaces favored the use of pageant wagons that were drawn through the narrow streets, stopping at certain pre-arranged sites for the performance of individual plays.

A New Occasion for Theater

It is clear that members of medieval communities eagerly sought opportunities to take part in dramatic productions. In The Miller’s Tale, one of the stories in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400), a parish clerk called Absolon falls in love with Alison, the pretty young wife of a wealthy carpenter; but she is already infatuated with Nicholas, a student who lodges in her husband’s house. Desperate to win her for himself, Absolon woos Alison with gifts and sweets, tender ballads, and proofs of his prowess. These include demonstrations of dramatic skill, when “to show his lightness and his mastery, / He playeth Herod upon a scaffold high.” Given the ubiquity of community-sponsored theater in late medieval Europe, young men with a penchant for acting had many opportunities to showcase their talents—especially in England, where the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi provided the opportunity for towns and guilds to advertise themselves and their piety, as well as to satisfy the histrionic ambitions of their members. This new feast, dedicated to the “Body of Christ,” was formally instituted in 1311 by Pope Clement V and became the occasion around which many of the mystery cycles and Passion plays of Europe were performed. This new focus on Christ’s corporeality, his mystical body as well as his physical humanity, and on the manifestation of his miracles in the world, tied in beautifully with the conventions of medieval theater.

The Corpus Christi Play

From the liturgical dramas of the early church to the moralities of the later Middle Ages, medieval performers and audiences had developed a shared vocabulary that used symbols, spatial orientation, and sophisticated storytelling techniques to convey meaning in direct, immediate, even visceral ways. Biblical events were not treated as part of the past, but as aspects of a continuous present that affected the actions of men and women in the here-and-now. The fact that an episodic staging of the gospel narrative might require dozens of actors playing the role of Christ is already a profound theological statement in the making (as Jesus himself had taught, all men and women should be treated as though they were Christ). These civic exhibitions of piety often began with the Creation and ended with the Last Judgment, and were produced over several days. In England, some communities attempted to perform this feat in a single day, beginning at dawn with the prehistory of mankind as described in Genesis, and ending late into the midsummer night with the bodily resurrection of the dead, the eternal damnation of sinners, and the salvation of the righteous. This was the case in the ancient city of York, where the pageant wagons carrying the actors and the scenery for individual plays followed a route that can be traced even today; each play would be performed several times at certain key locations. The props, costumes, and special effects were the jealously guarded property of the guilds that performed the plays, and particular roles may have been passed on from father to son over several generations. Moreover, the subject matter of a given play often said something about the guild, or its craft. At York, “The Last Supper” was performed by the bakers, whose bread became the body of Christ during their re-enactment of the first Eucharist; “The Crucifixion” was performed by the pinners or nail-makers, samples of whose wares were on prominent display when Jesus was nailed to the cross.

The Afterlife of Medieval Theater

Circumscribing The Theater: Enclosure, Regulation, And Censorship

In 1598, John Stowe (1525-1605) published his Survey of London, a record of the city’s rich history, changing geography, and rapidly disappearing theatrical traditions. Among other things, he noted with regret the loss of traditional recreations, “which open pastimes in my youth, being now suppressed, worser practices within doors are to be feared.” Citing William FitzStephen’s description of London, written four centuries earlier, Stowe devoted page after page to a description of the Christmas revels, Carnival celebrations, city festivals, athletic contests, religious processions, and plays which had been the focus of community life in the days before the Reformation. In one section in particular, he focuses on May games, describing first the pleasures of the “sweet meadows and green woods” and other pleasures of the season, and then providing detail about the nature of the celebrations themselves:

I find also, that in the month of May, the citizens of London of all estates, lightly in every parish, or sometimes two or three parishes joining together, had their several mayings, and did fetch in Maypoles, with divers warlike shows, with good archers, morris dancers, and other devices, for pastime all day long; and toward the evening they had stage plays, and bonfires in the streets.

Some of those plays featured the exploits of Robin Hood and his men, who would entertain the company with “other pageants and pastimes.” These, despite the potential they afforded for stringent social commentary, continued to be popular in England. But other types of entertainment, particularly those plays associated with religious holidays like Corpus Christi, would be increasingly suppressed during the Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church, with its emphasis on feast days, was being displaced by the new Church of England. By the end of the sixteenth century, the rulers of most Protestant countries were actively engaged in rooting out and destroying the theatrical traditions of the Middle Ages, which had become associated with “popish idolatry” and superstition. In Catholic countries, the Counter Reformation, a movement to suppress Protestant ideas, produced ironically similar results, as religious and secular authorities attempted to control and regulate plays that might potentially preach unsound doctrine or carry unsavory political messages. The advent of the printing press after 1450 also made it easier to control the reproduction and dissemination of texts; for although print made more and more plays available to a wider public, this new technology also made effective censorship of these plays more efficient and more complete. These circumscriptions of medieval drama were matched by another new trend: the enclosure of theater itself, as plays were now confined to purpose-built structures that required the payment of admission. Not only was access to theater now limited to those who could pay, and performance of plays increasingly the province of a specialized acting profession, but the plays themselves had to be vetted and licensed by the authorities. Finally, the teachings of Renaissance humanism advocated a return to classical dramatic forms and the Aristotelian conventions of comedy and tragedy, which were now considered superior to the dramatic genres invented during the Middle Ages. Together, these modern innovations posed a threat to the continued survival of medieval theater.

Reception and Revival

Yet varieties of medieval theater persisted, despite these strictures. Renaissance dramatists continued to use themes, characters, and devices borrowed from the plays they had grown up watching. William Shakespeare could well have witnessed the performance of a Corpus Christi cycle, possibly at Coventry, and would certainly have seen miracle and morality plays performed by troupes of traveling players. One such professional troupe performs “The Mousetrap” or play-within-the-play devised by Hamlet; a very different group of amateur performers stages “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” after Bottom the weaver recovers his senses (and loses his ass’s head) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The comedies of Molière, which still form the cornerstone of the repertoire of the Comédie Française, are essentially reworkings of medieval French farces. In Spain, the Assumption play of Elche continues to be performed every year on 15 August. In the German village of Oberammergau, the entire population is required to perform the Passion Play staged every ten years since 1634. At York and Chester in England, and at Toronto in Canada, groups of performers drawn from local community theaters and universities regularly organize Corpus Christi pageants; in London, the National Theater of Great Britain has twice produced The Mysteries, a cycle of plays presented over the course of an entire day. Early music ensembles, beginning in 1958 with a landmark production of The Play of Daniel by New York Pro Musica, have found audiences increasingly receptive to medieval liturgical dramas; the works of Hildegard of Bingen have become perennial favorites, and her Ordo virtutum has been staged at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., among other venues. But medieval dramatic forms also influence modern theatrical genres, indirectly and directly. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is one of the most obvious modern-day examples, but the “rock opera” Jesus Christ, Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice is more closely based on medieval models. This is to say nothing of the ways that the humor, pageantry, cruelty, and humanity of medieval drama have contributed to the development of everything from television sit-coms to grand opera. In the end, medieval theater proved too elusive, too multi-dimensional, and too powerful to be eradicated by the more limited theatricality of the modern world.