1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Mediaeval Drama

(Part 9)

Mediaeval Drama

While the scattered and persecuted strollers thus kept alive something of the popularity, if not of the loftier traditions, of their art, neither, on the other hand, was, there an utter absence of written compositions to bridge the gap between ancient and modern dramatic literature. In the midst of the condemnation with which the Christian church visited the stage, its professors, and votaries, we find individual ecclesiastics resorting in their writings to both the tragic and the comic form of the ancient drama. These isolated productions, which include (in the latter part of the 4th century) the Passion of Christ, usually attributed to St Gregory Nazianzen, were doubtless mostly written for education purposes, whether Euripides and Lycophron, or Menander, Plautus, and Terence served as the outward models. The same was probably the design of the famous "comedies" of Hrotsvitha, the Benedictine nun of Gandersheim, in Eastphalian Saxony, which associate themselves in the history of Christian literature with the spiritual revival of the 10th century in the days of Otto the Great. While avowedly imitated in form from the comedies of Terence, these religious exercises derive their themes—martyr-doms,1 and miraculous or otherwise starting conversions2—from the legends of Christian saints. Thus from perhaps the 9th to the 12th centuries Germany and France, and through the latter, by means of the Norman Conquest, England, became acquainted with may be called the literary monastic drama. It was no doubt occasionally performed by the children under the care of monks of nuns, or by the religious themselves ; an exhibition of the former kind was that of the Play of St Katharine, acted at Dunstable about the year 1110 n "copes" by scholars of the Norman Geoffrey, afterwards abbot of St Albans. Nothing is known of its except the fact of its performance, which was certainly not regarded as a novelty.

These efforts of the cloister came in time to blend themselves with more popular forms of the early Christian drama. To what extent the mimes, or joculatores (as in the early Middle Ages they came to be more generally called), kept alive the usage of entertainments more essentially dramatic than the minor varieties of their performances, we cannot say ; but we know that in Northern France they at a very early date appropriated the beginnings of the religious drama to secular uses. Doubtless in both Celtic and Teutonic populations there survived the remnants of religious rites containing dramatic elements, and the heathen festivals, of Roman or other origin, communicated something of their character to the Christian, at which the joculatores were apt to appear. In different countries these entertainers suited themselves to different tastes, and with the rise of native literatures to different literary tendencies. The literature of the troubadours of Provence, which communicated itself to Spain and Italy, came only into isolated contact1 with the beginnings of the religious drama ; in Northern France the jongleurs, as the joculatores were now called, were confounded with the trouvères, who sang the chansons de geste commemorative of deeds of war. As appointed servants of particular households they were, here and afterwards in England, called menestrels (from ministeriales) and mistrels. Such a histrio or mimus (as he is called) was Taillefer, who rode first into the fight at Hastings, singing his songs of Roland and Charlemagne, and tossing his sword in the air and catching it again. In England such accomplished minstrels easily outshone the less versatile gleemen of pre-Norman times ; while here as elsewhere the humbler members of the craft strolled from castle to convent, to village-green and city-street, exhibiting as jugglers their pantomimic and other tricks.

Both the literary and the professional element had thus survived to become tributaries to the main stream of the early Christian drama, which had its source in the liturgy of the church itself. The service of the mass contains in itself dramatic elements, and combines with the reading out of portions of Scripture by the priest, its epical part, a lyrical one in the anthems and responses of the congregation. At a very early period—certainly already in the 5th century—it was usual to increase the attractions of public worship on special occasions by living pictures illustrating the Gospel narrative and accompanied by songs ; and thus a certain amount of action gradually introduced itself into the service. When the epical part of the liturgy was connected with its spectacular and to some degree mimical adjuncts, the lyrical accompaniment being of course retained, the liturgical mystery—the earliest form of the Christian drama—was in existence. This had certainly been accomplished as early as the 10th century, when on great ecclesiastical festivals it was customary for the priests to perform in the churches the offices (as they were called) of the Shepherds, the Innocents, the Holy Sepulchre, &c., in connection with the gospel of the day. In France in the 12th, or perhaps already in the 11th century, short Latin texts were written for these liturgical mysteries ; these included passages from the popular legend of St Nicholas as well as from scriptural story. In the same century the further step was taken of composing these texts in the vernacular—the earliest example being the mystery of the Resurrection. In time a whole series of mysteries was joined together ; a process which was at first roughly and then more elaborately pursued in France and elsewhere, and family resulted in the collective mystery—a mere scholars’s terms of course, but to which the principal examples of the English mystery-drama correspond.

The productions of the mediaeval religious drama it is usual technically to divide into three classes. The mysteries proper deal with scriptural events only, their purpose being to set forth, with the aid of the prophetic or preparatory history of the Old Testament, and more especially of the fulfilling events of the New, the central mystery of the Redemption of the world, as accomplished by the Nativity, the Passion, and the Resurrection. But in fact these were not kept distinctly apart from the miracle-plays, or miracles, which are strictly speaking concerned wit the legends of the saints of the church ; and in England the name mysteries was not in use. Of these species the miracles must more especially have been fed from the resources of the monastic literary drama. Thirdly, the moralities, or moral-plays, teach and illustrate the same truths ; not, however, by direct representation of scriptural or legendary events and personages, but allegorically, their characters being personified virtues or qualities. Of the moralities the Norman trouvères had been the inventors ; and doubtless this innovation connects itself wit the endeavours, which in France had almost proved victorious by the end of the 13th century, to emancipate dramatic performances from the control of the church The attitude of the clergy towards the dramatic performances which had arisen out of the elaboration of the services of the church, but which soon admitted elements from other sources, was not, and could not be, uniform. As the plays grew longer, their paraphernalia more extensive, and their spectators more numerous, they began to be represented outside as well as inside the churches, and the use of the vulgar tongue came to be gradually preferred. Miracles were less dependents on this connection with the church services than mysteries proper ; and lay associations, guilds, and schools in particular, soon began to act plays in honour of their patron saints in or near their own halls. Lastly, as scenes and characters of a more or less trivial description were admitted even into the plays acted or superintended by the clergy, as some of these characters came to be depended on by the audiences for conventional extravagance or fun, every new Herod seeking to out-Herod his predecessor, and the devils and their chief asserting themselves as indispensable favourites, the comic elements in the religious drama increased ; and that drama itself, even where it remained associated with the church, grew ore and more profane. The endeavour to sanctify the popular tastes to religious uses, which connects itself with the institution of the great festival of Corpus Christi (1264, confirmed 1311), when the symbols of the mystery of the Incarnation was borne in solemn procession, led to the closer union of the dramatic exhibitions (hence often called processus) with this and other religious feasts ; but it neither limited their range, nor controlled their development.

At times favoured, at times denounced by the clergy dramatic entertainments thus lustily flourished for a series of centuries, in some countries more, in others less, religious in their character, and variously reinforced by the efforts of the craftmen of the acting profession. In France, where they had always preserved a secular side, they soonest advanced into forms connecting themselves with later growths of the drama. At Paris the fraternity of the Bazoche (clerks of the Parliament and the Châtelet) in 1303 acquired the right of conducting the popular festivals ; but after the Confrérie de la Passion, who devoted themselves originally to the performance of passion-plays, had obtained a royal privilege for this purpose in 1402. the Bazoche gave itself up to the production of moralities. A third association calling itself the Enfans sans souci ( the Devil-may-cares), having about the same time acquired the right of acting sotties—short comic plays with allegorical figures—the other companies took a leaf out of their book, interwove their mysteries and moralities with comic scenes from popular life, and gradually began to confine themselves to secular themes. Thus the transition to the regular drama here easily prepared itself ; already in 1395 we find the brethren of the Passion performing a serous play on the story of Griseldis ; and among the abundant literature of sotties and farces (from Italian farsa, Latin farcita), which after mingling real types with allegorical personages had come to exclude the latter, the immortal Maistre Pierre Patelin (acted in 1470 by the Bazoche) is, however slight in plot, in all essentials a comedy. No Italian mystery has been preserved from an earlier date than 1243, about which time associations were in this country also founded for the production of religious plays. These seem to have differed little from those of Northern Europe except by a less degree of coareness in their comic characters. Plays on Old Testament subjects were called figure, on New vangeli ; in the 15th and 16th centuries they were elaborated and produced with great care, and bore various names, of which rappresentazioni was the most common. The spectacular magnificence of theatrical displays accorded with that of the processions, both ecclesiastical and lay,—the trionfi as they were called in the days of Dante,—and the religious drama gradually acquired an academical character assimilating it to the classical attempts which gave rise to the regular drama. The poetry of the Troubadours, which had come from Provence into Italy, here frequently took a dramatic form, and perhaps suggested his early experiments in this to Petrarch, the father of the Italian Renaissance. After his death there are traces of similar literary efforts in the volgare Provenzale dialect. Meanwhile remnants of the ancient popular entertainments had surived in the improvised farces acted at the courts, in the churches (farsa spirituale), and among the people ; the Roman carnival had preserved its wagon-plays (carri) ; and numerous links remained to connect the popular modern comedy of the Italians with the Atellanes and mimes of their ancestors. In Spain, where all traces of the ancient Roman theatre (except its architectural remains) had disappeared after the Moorish conquest, the extant remains of the religious drama date from a still later period than the Italian—the 13th or 14th century. Its beginnings presented themselves in an advanced form, which aroused the opposition of the clergy, who sought to take plays under their own control. In the secular literature of Spain nothing dramatic can be proved to have existed till the latter part of the 15th century. It had probably been customary from early times to insert n the mysteries so called entremeses or interludes ; but it is not till 1472 that in the couplets of Mingo Revulgo (i.e., Domingo Vulgus, the common people), and about the same time, in another dialogue by the same author, we have attempts of a kind resembling the Italian contrasti (v. infra). In Germany on the other hand (the history of whose drama so widely differs from that of the Spanish), religious plays were performed probably as early as the 12th century at the Christmas and Easter festivals. Other festivals were afterwards celebrated in the same way, but up to the Reformation Easter enjoyed the preference. About the 14th century miracle-plays began to be frequently performed ; and as these often treated subjects of historical interest, local or other, the transition to the barren beginnings of the German historical drama was afterwards easy. Though these early German plays often have an element of the moralities, they were not as in France blended with the drolleries of the professional strollers (fahrende Leute) which, carried on chiefly in carnival time, gave rise to the Shrove-Tuesday plays (Fastnachtsspiele), scenes from common life largely interspersed with practical fun. To these last a more enduring literary form was first given in the 15th century by Hans Rosenplüt, called Schnepperer—or Hans Schnepperer, called Rosenblüt—the predecessors of Hans Sachs. By this time a connection was establishing itself in Germany between the dramatic amusements of the people and the literary labours of the master-singers ; but the religious drama proper survived in Catholic Germany far beyond the times of the Reformation, and was not suppressed in Bavaria and Tyrol till the end of the 18th century.1

Omitting any notice of traces remaining of the religious drama in other European countries, we come to our own, from whose literature a fair idea may be derived of the general character of these mediaeval productions. The miracle-plays, miracles, or plays (these being the terms used in England) of which we hear in London in the 12th century, were probably written in Latin and acted by ecclesiastics ; but already in the following century mention is made—in the way of prohibition—of plays acted by professional players. (Isolated moralities of the 12th century are not to be regarded as popular productions.) In England as elsewhere, the clergy either sought to retain their control over the religious plays, which continued to be occasional acted in churches even after the Reformation, or else reprobated them with or without qualifications. In Cornwall miracles in the native Cymric dialect were performed at an early date ; but those which have been preserved are apparently copies of English (with the occasional use of French) originals ; they were represented, unlike the English plays, in the open country, in extensive amphitheatres constructed for the purpose.

The flourishing period of English miracle-plays begins with the practice of their performance by trading-companies in the towns. Of this practice Chester is said to have set the example (1268-1276) ; it was followed in the course of the 13th and 14th centuries by many other towns, including Wakefield, Conventry, York Newcastle-on Tyne, Leeds, Lancester, Preston, Kendal, Wymondham, Dublin, and London, in which last the performers were the parish clerks. Three collections, in addition to some single examples, of such plays have come down to us—viz., the Towneley plays, which were probably acted at the fairs of Woodkirk, near Wakefield, and those bearing the names of Chester and of Coventry. Their dates, in the forms in which they have come down to us, are more or less uncertain, that of the Towneley may be even earlier than the 14th century ; the Chester may be ascribed to the close of the 14th or the earlier part of the 15th ; the body of the Conventry probably belongs to the 15th or 16th. Many of the individual plays in these collections were doubtless founded on French originals ; others are taken direct from Scripture, from the apocryphal gospels, or from the legends of the saints. Their characteristic feature is the combination of a whole series of plays into one collective whole, exhibiting the entire course of Bible history from the creation to the day of judgment. For this combination it is unnecessary to suppose that they were generally indebted to foreign examples, though there are several remarkable coincidences between the Chester plays and French Mystè du Vieil Testament.

"The manner of these plays," we read in a description of those of Chester, dating from the close of the 16th century, "were:— Every company had his pageant, which pageant, were a high scaffold with two rooms, a higher and a lower, upon four wheels. In the lower they apparelled themselves, and in the higher room they played, being all open at the top, that all beholders might hear and see them. The places where they played them was in every street. They began first at the abbey gates, and when the first pageant was played, it was wheeled to the high cross before the mayor, and so to every street, and so every street had a pageant playing before them at one time all the pageants appointed for the day were played ; and when one pageant was near ended, word was brought from street to street, that so they might come in place thereof, exceedingly orderly, and all the streets, their pageant afore them all of one time together ; to see which plays was great resort, and also scaffolds and stages made in the streets in those places where they determined to play their pageants."

Each play, then, was performed by the representative of a particular trade or company, after whom it was called the fishers’, glovers’, &c., pageant; while a general prologue was spoken by a hereal. As a rule the movable stage sufficed for the action, though we find horsemen riding up to the scaffold, and Herold instructed to "rage in the pagond and in the strete also." There is no probability that the stage was, as in France, divided into three platforms with a dark cavern at the side of the lowest, appropriated respectively to the Heavenly Father and His angels, to saints and glorified men, to mere men, and to souls in hell. But the last-named locality was frequently displayed in the English miracles, with or without fire its mouth. The costumes were in part conventional,—divine and saintly personage being distinguished by gilt hair and beards, Herod being clad as a Saracen, the demons wearing hideous Head, the souls and white coats according to their kind, and the angels gold skins and wings.

Doubtless these performances abounded in what seem to us ludicrous features, and though their man purpose was serious, they were not in England at least intended to be devoid of fun. But many of these features are in truth only homely and naïf, and the simplicity of feeling they exhibit is at times not without its pathos. The occasional excessive grossness is due to an absence of refinement of taste rather than to an obliquity of moral sentiment. In this, as in other respects, the Coventry Plays, which were possibly written by clerical hands, show an advance upon the others. In the same plays is already to be observed an element of abstract figures, which connects them with a different species of the mediaeval drama. The moralities corresponded to the love for moral allegory which manifests itself in so many periods of our literature, and which, while dominating the whole field of mediaeval literature, was nowhere more assiduously and effectively cultivated than in England. It is necessary to bear this in cultivated than in England. It is necessary to bear this in mind, in order to understand what to us seems to strange, the popularity of the moral-plays, which indeed never equaled that of the miracles, but sufficed to maintained the former-species till it received a fresh impulse from the connection established between it and the "new learning," together with the new political and religious ideas and questions, of the Reformation age. Moreover, a specially popular element was supplied to these plays, which in manner of representation differed in no essential from the miracles, in a character borrowed from the latter, and, in the moralities, usually provided with a companion whose task it was lighten the weight of such abstraction whose task it was to lighten the weight of such abstraction as Sapience and Justice. These were the Devil and his attendant the Vice, of whom the latter seems to have been of native origin, and, as he was usually dressed in a fool’s habit, was probably suggested by the familiar custom of keeping an attendant fool at court or in great houses. The Vice had many aliases (Shift, Ambidexter, Sin, Fraud, Iniquity, &c.), but his usual duty is to torment and teaze the Devil his master for the edification and diversion of the audience. He was gradually blended with the domestic fool, who survived in the regular drama.

The earlier English moralities1—from the reign of Henry VI. To that of Henry VII.—usually allegorize the conflict between good and evil in the mind and life of man, with out any side-intention of theological controversy ; such also is still essentially the purpose of the morality we possess by Henry VIII.’s poet, the witty Skelton,2 and even of another, perhaps the most perfect example of its class, which in date is already later than the Reformation. But if such theology as Every-Man teaches is the orthodox doctrine of Rome its successor, R, Wever’s Lusty Juventus, breathes the spirit of the dogmatic reformation of the reign of Edward VI. Theological controversy largerly occupies the moralities of the earlier part of Elizabeth’s reign, and connects itself with political feeling in a famous morality,3 Sir David Lyndsay’s Satire of the Three Estaitis, written on the other side of the border, where such efforts as the religious drama proper had made been extinguished by the Reformation. Only a single English political morality proper remains to us, which belongs to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth.4 Yet another series connects itself with the ideas of the Renaissance rather than the Reformation, treating of intellectual progress rather than of moral conduct,5 this extends from the reign of Henry VIII. to that of his younger daughter.

The transition from the morality to the regular drama in England was effected on the one hand by the intermixture of historical personages with abstractions—as n Bishop Bale’s Kyng Johan (c.1548)—which easily led over to the Chronicle History ; on the other by the introduction of types of real life by the side of abstract figures. This latter tendency, of which instances occur in earlier plays, is observable in several of the 16th century moralities ;6 but before most of these were written, a further step in advance had been taken by a man of genius, John Heywood (d. 1565), whose interludes7 were short farces in the French manner, dealing entirely with real—very real—men and women. Orthodox and conservative, he had at the same time a keen eye for the vices as well as the folies of his age, and not the least for those of the clerical profession. Other writers, such as T. Ingeland,8 took the same direction ; and the allegory of abstractions was thus undermined on the stage, very much as in didactic literature the ground had been cut from under feet by the Ship of Fooles. Thus the interludes—a name which had been used for the moralities themselves from an early date—facilitated the advent of comedy, without having superseded the earlier form. Both moralities and miracle-plays survived into the Elizabethan age, after the regular drama had already begun its course.

Such, in barest outline, was the progress of dramatic entertainments in the principal countries of Europe, before the revival of classical brought a return to the example of the classical drama, or before this return had distinctly asserted itself. It must not, however, be forgotten that from an early period in England as elsewhere had flourished a species of entertainments, not properly speaking dramatic, but largely contributing to form and foster a taste for dramatic spectacles. The pageants—as they were called in England—were the successors of those ridings from which, when they gladdened "Chepe," Chaucer’s idle apprentice would not away ; but they had advanced in splendour and ingenuity of device under the influence of Flemish and other foreign examples. Costumed figures represented before gaping citizens the heroes of mythology and history, and the abstractions of moral, patriotic, or municipal allegory ; and the city of London clung with special fervour to these exhibitions, which the Elizabethan drama was neither able nor—represented by most of its poets who composed devices and short texts for these and similar shows—to oust from popular favour. Some of the greatest and some of the least of our dramatics were the ministers of pageantry ; and perhaps it would have been an advantage for the future of the theatre, if the legitimate drama and the Triumphs of Old Drapery had been more jealously kept apart.

The literary influence which finally transformed the growth noticed above into the national dramas of the several countries of Europe, was in a word the influence of the Renaissance. Among the remains of classical antiquity which were studied, translated, imitated, those of the drama necessarily held a prominent place. Never altogether lost sight of, they now became subjects of devoted research and models for careful copies, first in one of their own, then in modern, tongues ; and these essentially literary endeavours came into more or less direct contract with, and acquired more or less control over, the already existing entertainments of the stage. Thus the stream of the modern drama, whose source and contributories have been described, was brought back into the ancient bed, from which its flow diverged into a number of national courses, unequal in impetus and strength, and varying in accordance with the manitold conditions of their progress. Of these it remains to pursue the most productive or important.


FOOTNOTE (p. 412)

(1)Gallicanus, Part ii. ; Sapientia.

(2) Gallicanus, Part i. ; Callimachus ; Abraham ; Paphnutius.

FOOTNOTE (p. 413)

1 The Foolish Virgins (Provençal mystery of the 12th or 11th century).

FOOTNOTE (p. 414)

(1) Such a piece was the San Giovanni e San Paolo (1488), by Lorenzo the Magnificent, the prince who afterwards sought to reform the Italian stage by paganizing it.

(2) The passion-play of Oberammergau, familiar in its present artistic form to so many visitors, was instituted under special circumstances in the days of the Thirty Years’ War (16340. Various reasons account or its having been allowed to survive.

FOOTNOTE (p. 415)

(1) The Castle of Perseverance ; Medwall, Nature ; The World and the Child ; Hycke-Scorner, &c.

(2) Magnyfycence.

(3) New Custome ; N. Woodes, The Conflict of Conscience, &c.

(4) Albyon Knight.

(5) Rastell, Nature of the Four Elements ; Redford, Wit and Science ; The Marriage of Wit and Science .

(6) Jack Juggler : Tom Tiler and his Wife, &c.

(7) The Four P’s, &c.

(8) The Disobedient Child.

Read the rest of this article:
Drama - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries