Drama in the English Medieval Era had strong roots in the Roman Catholic Church, which faced the challenge of teaching its religious stories and doctrines to large numbers of newly-converted illiterate populations. As a teaching method, churches began to present dramatized versions of biblical events on specific holy days. One of the early Medieval church dramatizations, which retells the Easter story, is entitled Whom Do You Seek? (Quem Quaeritis in Latin) and dates back to about the year 925. Not all English Medieval plays were written in Latin, however. Many were written and performed in the vernacular (local) language.
There were three main types of vernacular Medieval plays: Mystery, Miracle, and Morality. These dramas were performed in villages, usually by people who lived in the area. Medieval Mystery plays are based on biblical stories ranging from the Old Testament through the Last Judgment. An important early English Mystery play was performed in the Anglo-Norman vernacular and is entitled Le Mystere d’Adam (The Mystery of Adam). This play dates back to the 12th century.
Miracle plays depict the lives, miracles, and martyrdom of the saints and are not necessarily based on facts. The Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas often come to the rescue of various sinners in these plays. One such example is entitled St. John the Hairy. Not many English Miracle plays survive, since Henry VIII banned their performances when he broke with the Roman Catholic Church.
Morality plays, which emerged in the 1400s, deal with the issue of vice versus virtue. The Castle of Perseverance and Everyman are well-known examples of the Morality play.
During the High Middle Ages, the political and economic developments that were to usher in the Renaissance led to the formation of trade guilds, which began to take charge of producing and performing plays. For example, the Baker’s Guild would commonly perform a re-enactment of the Last Supper.
Medieval English drama was not, however, strictly limited to religious works. Mummers’ plays and secular dramas such as The Play of the Greenwood by Adam de la Halle (dating from 1276) portrayed folk characters such as fairies and retold old legends.