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Medieval theatre refers to the theatre of Europe between the fall of

the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. and the beginning of
the Renaissance in approximately the 15th century A.D. Medieal theatre
coers all drama produced in Europe oer that thousand year period and
refers to a ariety of genres! including liturgical drama! mystery
plays! morality plays! farces and mas"ues. #eginning with $rositha of
%andersheim in the 1&th century! Medieal drama was for the most part
ery religious and moral in its themes! staging and traditions. 'he most
famous examples of medieal plays are the English cycle dramas! the (or)
Mystery *lays! the +hester Mystery *lays! the Wa)efield Mystery *lays and
the ,-'own *lays! as well as the morality play! Everyman.
Due to a lac) of suriing records and texts! a low literacy rate of the
general population! and the opposition of the clergy to some types of
performance! there are few suriing sources on medieal drama of
the earlyand high medieal periods. $oweer! by
the late period! drama and theatre began to become more seculari.ed and a
larger number of records surie documenting plays and performances.
• 1 'ransition from Rome! 5&&-/&& A.D.
• 0 Early Medieal *eriod
• 1 $igh and 2ate Medieal 'heatre
• 3 4taging
• 5 Decline and +hange
• 5 +ontributions to 'heatre
• 6 Modern Day *roductions of Medieal 'heatre
• 7 4ee also
• / ,otes
• 1& References
[edit] Transition from Rome, 500-900 A.D.
889ile:Meister on 4an ;itale in As the fell into decay through the 3th and
5th centuries A.D.! the seat of Roman power shifted to +onstantinople and
the Eastern Roman Empire! today called the #y.antine Empire. While
suriing eidence about #y.antine theatre is slight! existing records show
that mime! pantomime! scenes or recitations
from tragedies and comedies! dances! and other entertainments were ery
popular. +onstantinople had two theatres that were in use as late as the 5th
century A.D. $oweer! the true importance of the #y.antines in theatrical
history is their preseration of many classical %ree) texts and the
compilation of a massie encyclopedia called the 4uda! from which is
deried a large amount of contemporary information on %ree) theatre.
the 5th century! the Emperor >ustinian finally closed down all theatres for
According to the binary thin)ing of the +hurch?s early followers! eerything
that did not belong to %odbelonged to the Deil@ thus all non-+hristian gods
and religions were satanic. Efforts were made in many countries through this
period to not only conert >ews!pagans and Muslims but to destroy pre-
+hristian institutions and influences. Wor)s of %ree) and Roman literature
were burnt! the thousand-year-old *latonic Academy was closed!
the Alympic games were banned and all theatres were shut down. 'he
theatre itself was iewed as a diabolical threat to +hristianity because of its
continued popularity in Rome een among new conerts. +hurch fathers
such as 'atian! 'ertullian and Augustine characteri.ed the stage as
instruments in the deil?s fiendish plot to corrupt men?s souls!
while acting was considered sinful because of its cruel moc)ery of %od?s
Bnder these influences! the +hurch set about trying to suppress theatrical
spectacles by passing laws prohibiting and excluding Roman actors. 'hey
were forbidden to hae contact with +hristian women! own slaes! or
wear gold. 'hey were officially excommunicated! denied the sacraments!
including marriage and burial! and were defamed and debased
throughout Europe. 9or many centuries thereafter! clerics were cautioned to
not allow these suddenly homeless! traelling actors to perform in their
9rom the 5th century! Western Europe was plunged into a period of general
disorder that lasted Dwith a brief period of stability under the +arolingian
Empire in the /th centuryE until the 1&th century A.D. As such! most
organi.ed theatrical actiities disappeared in Western Europe. While it
seems that small nomadic bands traeled around Europe throughout the
period! performing whereer they could find an audience! there is no
eidence that they produced anything but crude scenes.
[edit] Early Medieval eriod
$rositha of %andersheim! the first dramatist of the post-classical era.
9aced with the problem of explaining a new religion to a largely illiterate
population! churches in the early Middle Ages began staging dramati.ed
ersions of particular biblical eents on specific days of the year. 'hese
dramati.ations were included in order to iify annual celebrations.
4ymbolic obCects and actions -estments! altars! censers!
and pantomime performed by priests - recalled the eents which +hristian
ritual celebrates. 'hese were extensie sets of isual signs that could be used
to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. 'hese performances
deeloped into liturgical dramas! the earliest of which is the Whom do you
Seek (Quem-Quaeritis) Easter trope! dating from ca. /05.
2iturgical drama
was sung responsiely by two groups and did not inole actors
impersonating characters. $oweer! sometime between /55 and
/65! Fthelwold of Winchester composed the Regularis Concordia
(Monastic Agreement) which contains a playlet complete with directions for
$rositha Dc./15-/61E! an aristocratic canoness and historian in
northern %ermany! wrote six plays modeled on 'erence?s comedies but
using religious subCects in the 1&th century A.D. 'erence?s comedies had
long been used in monastery schools as examples of spo)en 2atin but are
full of cleer! alluring courtesans and ordinary human pursuits such
as sex! loe and marriage.
=n order to preempt criticism from the +hurch!
$rositha prefaced her collection by stating that her moral purpose to sae
+hristians from the guilt they must feel when reading +lassical literature.
$er declared solution was to imitate the GlaudableG deeds of women in
'erence?s plays and discard the GshamelessG ones.
'hese six plays are the
first )nown plays composed by a female dramatist and the first identifiable
Western dramatic wor)s of the post-classical era.
'hey were first
published in 15&1 and had considerable influence on religious and didactic
plays of the sixteenth century. $rositha was followed by $ildegard of
#ingen Dd. 116/E! a #enedictine abbess! who wrote a 2atin musical drama
called Ordo irtutum in 1155.
'he anonymous pagan play GHuerolusG! written c.30&! was adapted in the
10th century by ;italis of #lois. Ather secular 2atin plays were also written
in the 10th century! mainly in 9rance but also in England DG#abioGE. 'here
certainly existed some other performances that were not fully fledged
theatre@ they may hae been carryoers from the original pagan cultures Das
is )nown from records written by the clergy disapproing of such festialsE.
=t is also )nown that mimes! minstrels! bards! storytellers! and Cugglers
traeled in search of new audiences and financial support. ,ot much is
)nown about these performers? repertoire and few written texts surie. Ane
of the most famous of the secular plays is the musical G2e >eu de Robin et
MarionG! written by Adam de la $alle in the 11th century! which is fully laid
out in the original manuscript with lines! musical notation! and illuminations
in the margins depicting the actors in motion. Adam also wrote another
secular play! >eu de la 9ueillee in Arras! a 9rench town in which theatre was
thriing in the late 10th and 11th centuries. *erhaps the finest play suriing
from Arras! is the G>eu de saint ,icolasG by >ean #odel Dc.10&&E.
[edit] !i"h and #ate Medieval Theatre
4tage drawing from 15th-century ernacular morality play !he Castle o"
As the ;i)ing inasions ceased in the middle of the 11th century
A.D.! liturgical drama had spread from Russia to 4candinaia to =taly. Anly
in Muslim-occupied 4pain were liturgical dramas not presented at all.
Despite the large number of liturgical dramas that hae suried from the
period! many churches would hae only performed one or two per year and
a larger number neer performed any at all.
'he 9east of 9ools was especially important in the deelopment of comedy.
'he festial inerted the status of the lesser clergy and allowed them to
ridicule their superiors and the routine of church life. 4ometimes plays were
staged as part of the occasion and a certain amount
of burles"ue and comedy crept into these performances. Although comic
episodes had to truly wait until the separation of drama from the liturgy! the
9east of 9ools undoubtedly had a profound effect on the deelopment of
comedy in both religious and secular plays.
*erformance of religious plays outside of the church began sometime in the
10th century through a traditionally accepted process of merging shorter
liturgical dramas into longer plays which were then translated
into ernacular and performed by laymen and thus accessible to a wider
segment of society inclusie of the wor)ing class. 'he use of ernacular
enabled drama to be understood and enCoyed by a larger audience. !he
Mystery o" Adam D115&E gies credence to this theory as its detailed stage
direction suggest that it was staged outdoors. A number of other plays from
the period surie! including $a Seinte Resurrection D,ormanE! !he #lay o"
the Magi %ings D4panishE! and S&onsus D9renchE.
'he importance of the $igh Middle Ages in the deelopment of theatre was
the economic and political changes that led to the formation of guilds and
the growth of towns. 'his would lead to significant changes in the 2ate
Middle Ages. =n the #ritish =sles! plays were produced in some 106 different
towns during the Middle Ages. 'hese ernacular Mystery plays were written
in cycles of a large number of plays: (or) D37
playsE! +hester D03E! Wa)efield D10E and Bn)nown D30E. A larger number of
plays surie from 9rance and %ermany in this period and some type of
religious dramas were performed in nearly eery European country in
the 2ate Middle Ages. Many of these plays
contained comedy! deils! illains and clowns.
'he maCority of actors in these plays were drawn from the local population.
9or example! at ;alenciennes in 1536! more than 1&& roles were assigned to
60 actors.
*lays were staged on pageant wagon stages! which were
platforms mounted on wheels used to moe scenery. Aften proiding their
own costumes! amateur performers in England were exclusiely male! but
other countries had female performers. 'he platform stage! which was an
unidentified space and not a specific locale! allowed for abrupt changes in
$enry ;=== of England loed courtmas"ues
Morality plays emerged as a distinct dramatic form around 13&& and
flourished until 155&. 'he most interesting morality play is !he Castle o"
#erseverance which depicts man)ind?s progress from birth to death.
$oweer! the most famous morality play and perhaps best )nown medieal
drama is Everyman. Eeryman receiesDeath?s summons! struggles to
escape and finally resigns himself to necessity. Along the way! he is deserted
by Iindred! %oods! and 9ellowship - only %ood Deedsgoes with him to the
'here were also a number of secular performances staged in the Middle
Ages! the earliest of which is !he #lay o" the 'reen(ood by Adam de la
$alle in 1065. =t contains satirical scenes and fol) material such
as faeries and other supernatural occurrences. 9arces also rose dramatically
in popularity after the 11th century. 'he maCority of these plays come
from 9rance and %ermany and are similar in tone and form! sex and bodily excretions.
'he best )nown playwright of
farces is $ans 4achs D13/3J1565E who wrote 1/7 dramatic wor)s. =n
England! the 'he 4econd 4hepherds? *lay of the Wa)efield +ycle is the best
)nown early farce. $oweer! farce did not appear independently in England
until the 15th century with the wor) of >ohn $eywood D13/6J157&E.
A significant forerunner of the deelopment of Eli.abethan drama was
the +hambers of Rhetoric in the 2ow +ountries.
'hese societies were
concerned withpoetry! music and drama and held contests to see which
society could compose the best drama in relation to a "uestion posed.
At the end of the 2ate Middle Ages! professional actors began to appear
in England and Europe. Richard === and $enry ;== both maintained small
companies of professional actors. 'heir plays were performed in the %reat
$all of a nobleman?s residence! often with a raised platform at one end for
the audience and a GscreenG at the other for the actors. Also important
were Mummers? plays! performed during the +hristmas season! and
court mas"ues. 'hese mas"ues were especially popular during the reign
of $enry ;=== who had a $ouse of Reels built and an Affice of
Reels established in 1535.
[edit] $ta"in"
'he ;alenciennes *assion *lay
Depending on the area of the performances! the plays were performed in the
middle of the street! on pageant wagons in the streets of great cities Dthis was
inconenient for the actors because the small stage si.e made stage
moement impossibleE! in the halls of nobility! or in the round in
amphitheatres! as suggested by current archaeology in +ornwall and the
southwest of England. All medieal stage production was temporary and
expected to be remoed upon the completion of the performances. Actors!
predominantly male! typically wore long! dar) robes. Medieal plays such
as the Wa)efield cycle! or the Digby Magdalene featured liely interplay
between two distinct areas! the wider spaces in front of the raised staging
areas! and the eleated areas themseles Dcalled! respectiely! the locus and
the plateaE.
'ypically too! actors would moe between these locations in
order to suggest scene changes! rather than remain stationary and hae the
scene change around them as is typically done in modern theater.
'he dramas remained religious but were no longer strictly liturgical@
therefore! they were not exclusiely performed in the church or before the
gates of the church. When staging later Medieal theatre! it was important to
hae spectacle and present a realistic depiction of the play so the audience
members would see and feel the characters whom religious traditions may
hae not fully presented. Although the main )ey to haing widespread
)nowledge of the plays was the ernacular language they were performed in!
the spectacle of action! props! costumes and stage direction enhanced the
production and its interpretation by the audience. 'hus! scenery! stage
machinery and costumes enabled a more realistic depiction of the message
the play was trying to promote. Whether on a fixed stage! with more
opportunity for spectacle! or on a pageant wagon that moed through the
streets! the ornate details and tric)s attributed to these productions enhanced
the audienceKs experience of the play.
More examples of the Medieal 4tage
[edit] De%line and Chan"e
=ts death was due mostly to changing political and economic factors. 9irst!
the *rotestant Reformation targeted the theatre! especially in England! in an
effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome. =n Wa)efield! for example! the local
mystery cycle text shows signs of *rotestant editing! with references to
the pope crossed out and two plays completely eliminated because they were
too +atholic. $oweer! it was not Cust the *rotestants who attac)ed the
theatre of the time. 'he +ouncil of 'rentbanned religious plays in an attempt
to rein in the extrabiblical material that the *rotestants fre"uently
A reial of interest in ancient Roman and %ree) culture changed the tastes
of the learned classes in the performing arts. %ree) and Roman plays were
performed and new plays were written that were heaily influenced by the
classical style. 'his led to the creation of +ommedia dell?arte and other
forms of Renaissance theatre.
A change of patronage also caused drastic changes to the theatre. =n England
the monarch and nobility started to support professional theatre troupes
Dincluding4ha)espeare?s 2ord +hamberlain?s Men and Iing?s MenE! which
catered to their upper class patron?s tastes. 'hese patrons desired to be
entertained! not preached to! and as time passed the plays became more
secular and refined. =n time these same tastes would filter down to the lower
9inally! the construction of permanent theaters! such as the #lac)friars
'heatre signaled a maCor turning point from reliance on church facilities!
touring groups! and inns as stages. *ermanent theaters allowed for more
sophisticated staging and storytelling. Moreoer! professional troupes that
owned their own theatre had more resources with which to prepare their
productions! which changed the theatre from a mostly amateur or traeling
art form to a professional one with different practices and standards.
[edit] Contri&'tions to Theatre
Medieal theatre brought many contributions to the theatre that continue to
be incorporated in productions around the world to this day. 'he maCor
contributions of the Medieal theatre are the use of the ernacular! spectacle!
stage direction and the use of farce. *rior to Medieal theatre! all drama was
performed in 2atin or %ree)! howeer Medieal theatre eoled to the use
of the ernacular about 10&& A.D. *erformances that were spo)en in the
ernacular proided opportunities for larger audiences! who included
members of lower socio-economic status! who would hae otherwise been
excluded from understanding the performances.
Medieal theatre differed from the classical theatre for it emphasi.ed
spectacle. =n addition! it presented arious actions on stage in time and space
and presented a combination of the sublime with detailed realism.
Approximately 13&& A.D.! the dramas were performed with spectacle@ no
longer dependent exclusiely on the spo)en word! but incorporating music!
dance! costume and set design. 'he spectacle of the later Medieal theatre
made it necessary to hae detailed stage directions. A sample of documented
staging drawings and directions remain from the 15th century morality play
G'he +astle of *erseeranceG. 'he eolution to the dependence on detailed
stage direction made possible the great 4ha)espearean stage.
9arce contributed to modern theatre in that it allowed the author and the
actors to ridicule and critici.e their superiors whether it be in the church or
in society! without retribution. 'his was a transition to all the future theatre
including 4ha)espeare! who employed the use of farce with ease.
4eparation of the Medieal theatre from the oer-sight and support of the
+hurch! as well as the growth of the productions in the later Medieal
theatre! made it necessary to hae the financial subsidi.ation! a need that
exists through the remaining history of the theatre.
[edit] Modern Day rod'%tions of Medieval Theatre
Aberammergau *assion *lay 0&&&
Medieal 'heatre productions are still performed today. *erformances of
plays outside of the church are fre"uent during the +hristmas season with
reenactments of the ,atiity. 'he reenactment of the *assion is performed
throughout the world in the late 2enten season. 'he most famous of the
productions is 'he Aberammergau *assion *lay. =t is a passion play
performed eery 1& years by the inhabitants of the illage of
Aberammergau! #aaria! %ermany and is attended by thousands at each
performance. Ather recentLcurrent adaptations include:
• +entral Michigan BniersityKs 'heatre on the 4ide performed
• Bniersity of Dallas!'M performed G'he Wa)efield +ycleG as a large
scale outdoor production.
• 'he *layers of 4t *eter in 2ondon!BI performing the +orpus +hristi
Dor ?,? townE cycle
• 4tate Bniersity of ,ew (or) at ,ew *alt. adaptation of 'he 4econd
4hepherd?s *lay entitled G9at RamG by *rofessor Daniel Iempton
[edit] $ee also
• Wa)efield Mystery *lays
• 'he 4econd 4hepherds? *lay
• $istory of theatre
• Medieal 9rench literature
• Aberammergau *assion *lay
• +arnial
• 'he ;ice
[edit] (otes
1. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 6&E
0. N

Wise and Wal)er D0&&1! 173E
1. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 65E
3. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 65E
5. ) =bid.
5. N

#roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 66E
6. ) McAlister! 2inda. G$ypatia?s Daughters: 15&& (ears of
Women *hilosophers.G $ypatia =nc.
7. ) Wise and Wal)er D0&&1! 1/&E
/. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 67E
1&. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 71E
11. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 75E
10. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! /5E
11. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! /5E
13. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! //E
15. ) #roc)ett and $ildy D0&&1! 1&1-1&1E
15. ) Dillon! Cam)ridge *ntroduction to Early English
!heatre D+ambridge: +B*! 0&&5E! pp3-15.
16. ) 4tyan! >.2.!G'he English 4tage: A $istory of Drama and
17. ) 4ymes! +arol. A Common Stage+ !heatre and #u)lic $i"e in
Medieval Arras, +ornell Bniersity *ress! 1&-03.
1/. ) 4tyan! >.2. 1//5. G'he English 4tage: A $istory of Drama
and *erformance.G +ambridge Bniersity *ress!1-35.
[edit] Referen%es
+onstructs such as i)id,! loc, cit, and idem are dis%o'ra"ed
&y *i+i,edia-s style "'ide for footnotes! as they are easily bro)en.
*lease improe this article by replacing them with named
references D-uick guideE! or an abbreiated title. (.ecem)er /011)
• #ate! Ieith! ed. 1/65. 'hree 2atin +omedies. 'oronto! +antre for
Medieal 4tudies.
• #roc)ett! Ascar %. and 9ran)lin >. $ildy. 0&&1. 2istory o" the
!heatre, ,inth edition! =nternational edition. #oston: Allyn and
#acon. =4#, &-0&5-31&5&-0.
• +ohen! Robert. 0&&&. !heatre+ 3rie" Edition, Mayfield *ublishing
+ompany! p. 0&1-0&1.
• Ilaus!+arl $.! Miriam %ilbert! and #raford 4. 9ield! >r. G4tages of
Drama.G D,ew (or): 4t. Martin?s *ress! 1//1E.
• Inight! Alan E. 1/71. GAspects of %enre in 2ate Medieal 9rench
Drama.G Manchester Bniersity *ress.
• McAlister! 2inda. 1//5. G$ypatia?s Daughters: 15&& (ears of Women
*hilosophers.G $ypatia =nc.
• ,elson! Alan $. 1/60. G4ome +onfigurations of 4taging in Medieal
English DramaG Medieval English .rama+ Essays Critical and
Conte4tual Bniersity of +hicago *ress! p. 115-136.
• 4tyan! >.2. 1//5. G'he English 4tage: A $istory of Drama and
*erformance.G +ambridge Bniersity *ress!1-35.
• 4ymes! +arol. 0&&6. A Common Stage+ !heatre and #u)lic $i"e in
Medieval Arras, +ornell Bniersity *ress! 1&-03.
• Walsh! Martin. 0&&0. GDrama.G Medieval 5olklore+ A 'uide to Myths6
$egends6 !ales6 3elie"s6 and Custons, O4"ord 7niversity #ress6
&, 108-109,
• Wise! >ennifer and +raig 4. Wal)er! eds. 0&&1. !he 3roadvie(
Anthology o" .rama+ #lays "rom the Western !heatre6 olume
1, 'oronto: #raodiew *ress 2td.
1. Aberammergau *assion *lay 81<
0. +entral Michigan BniersityKs 'heatre on the 4ide performed
1. 4B,( ,ew *alt. *roduction of G9at RamG 81<
3. Bniersity of Dallas!'M performed G'he Wa)efield +ycleG as a large
scale outdoor production.83<
5. 'he *layers of 4t *eter +orpus +hristi Dor ?,? townE cycle 85<