Medieval Drama on the Continent Analysis

Decline of Classical Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Often set aside as naïve and unoriginal, medieval theater on the European continent kept alive the natural human desire to act, to mimic, and to experience vicariously what could not be known in a given life. For its inspiration, it used two great sources of ideas: the Christian Scriptures and contemporary life. It explored these sources to the fullest and took all sorts of people as its performers: clergy, religious laymen and laywomen, and professional companies of actors. Drama in the Middle Ages was popular, of the people and for the people. Never for such a long period in human history did popular entertainment survive. Rejected as naïve and undeveloped, it left its seeds in the great dramatists to follow, who combined the scholarship and subtlety taught by the classical models with the simplicity, wit, and directness of the medieval theater.

Medieval drama, like Greek drama , was born at the foot of the altar and was intimately associated with religious feasts. Despite their common origin, however, classical and medieval drama appear not to be linked, according to all current evidence. The last known writer of tragedy was Pomponius Secundus, who lived during the reign of Claudius I. The great Greek tragedies, although seemingly forgotten, were preserved in a few Western monasteries, notably in Ireland, but there is no evidence to support any performances in the Middle Ages. Their apparent disappearance seems attributable more to the loss of the study of Greek than to any prejudice against their content.

The continued existence of Roman comedy is more evident. Numerous manuscripts of Terence were copied in medieval scriptoria. Some ancient Roman theaters did escape the pillaging of the barbarians, among them Arles, Autun, Narbonne, Orange, and Paris, but their original purpose seems to have disappeared. Early manuscripts speak of actors and acting; however, even before the fall of...

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Hroswitha of Gandersheim

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Unique among the classical writers of the Middle Ages is Hroswitha of Gandersheim , who was born in 935 and who died around 972. An educated nun in the Benedictine monastery of Gandersheim, founded in 850 in Saxony, she was familiar with Christian Scripture, the fathers of the Church, hagiographers, Plautus, Terence, Vergil, Ovid, and Horace. As a direct result of the Carolingian Renaissance, the abbeys of Saxony were centers of culture. The abbess in Hroswitha’s time was Gerberg, the niece of Emperor Otto I and a great classical scholar. Hroswitha was directly influenced by her, and in this cultivated atmosphere, she deliberately took Terence as her model to produce six plays in simple but correct Latin prose.

Hroswitha’s plays follow well-known legends of the lives of the saints. Three plays, Gallicanus (English translation, 1923), Dulcitius (English translation, 1923), and Sapientia (English translation, 1923), deal with the martyrs of the early Christian period. In Gallicanus, the title character is one of Constantine’s generals, in love with a Christian, Constance, who has vowed to remain a virgin. Through her example, he is eventually converted to Christianity. Sapientia, the best-constructed of the martyrdom plays, has been called by C. Magnin “a ray of Sophocles shining through a Christian mind.” Hroswitha shows the dignity of the early martyrs mingled with not a little impudence and portrays...

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Latin Church Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the eighth and ninth centuries, Charlemagne brought order and stability to Western Europe. Anointed emperor of the Romans in 800 c.e., he revived the ancient concept of unity and peace. He encouraged monasteries, built churches, and founded schools. He invited the best scholars, notably Alcuin of York, who headed the Palatine School of Aixla-Chapelle (Aachen, in German). Charlemagne attempted to establish an educated clergy and a substantial body of cultivated laymen. During his reign, the service books of the Church were corrected, the Latin text of the Bible was re-edited, and classical works of antiquity were studied and imitated.

As a direct result of this liturgical and educational reform, there is a notable development in church services, which Karl Young in his authoritative work on medieval church drama sees as a first step in the re-creation of the theater. It begins with the liturgical embellishment known as the trope , defined by Young as a “verbal amplification of a passage in the authorized liturgy, in the form of an introduction, an interpolation, or a conclusion, or in the form of any combination of these.” Although the origin of tropes is obscure, they seem to have been attached to parts of the Mass rather than to the Divine Office. The most important writer of tropes is Tutilo, from the Abbey of Saint Gall. His tropes are usually written in prose, and he has an Agnus Dei also in poetry. Most of his tropes are related to seasons of joy, rather than to the Passion.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, liturgical embellishments were added to the Allelujah verse before the Gospel, called sequentiae, and later sequentia cum prosa. In France, they were called prose; in Germany, sequentia, from which comes the English term “sequence.” The earliest extant sequences...

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Easter Plays

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Easter play , Visitatio sepulchri, was the most popular of all medieval liturgical dramas. Young cites more than four hundred extant versions and believes that many lie still unexamined, particularly in southern and southeastern Europe. The Visitatio, like the later Nativity plays, knows no national frontiers, for the Church was unified in the Middle Ages, and Latin was spoken and understood universally by the educated people. The versions show remarkable similarity, with formalized speeches and standard characters, with diversity only in the stage directions. Young distinguishes three stages in the Visitatio: In the first, there is a dialogue conducted by the Marys; in the second, the Apostles Peter and John are added; and in the third, the person of Christ appears.

Early versions of the first type are found at Tours in the eleventh or twelfth centuries; Utrecht, in the twelfth century; Minder and Arras, in the eleventh century; and Saint Gall, in the twelfth century. Fourteenth century manuscripts (unidentified German, Fécamp, and Toul) indicate a sepulcher large enough to accommodate two angels and specify costumes for the three Marys. Many churches retained the simpler version throughout the Middle Ages. The earliest plays go back to the second half of the tenth century and are found even in sixteenth century manuscripts and printed books. Several more elaborate texts show the incorporation of the sequence Victimae paschali into the Visitatio. In some cases, the congregation seems to represent the disciples to whom the news was announced.

The second stage of the Visitatio enlarges the setting to include Peter and John. Manuscripts of this type begin in the twelfth century and seem to have originated in Zurich, southern Germany, and Augsburg, although French and Italian manuscripts have been found from later periods. Congregational singing takes place at the end, and this part seems to be amplified, with a generous role accorded to the people, as in a sixteenth century text from Aquilea.

At the end of the twelfth century, the figure of Christ appears at the center of the play. This phase seems to be of French origin. The simplest type, as in the Rouen manuscripts, centers on the dialogue...

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Nativity Plays

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Plays relating to the birth of Christ, which were to have a much broader development than the Resurrection cycle, began in imitation of the Quem quaeritis trope. An eleventh century manuscript from Limoges gives a model text and may be among the earliest. The very use of Quem quaeritis shows imagination because it has no scriptural model as does the Easter trope. In fact, there is no dialogue in any of the Christmas Gospels. Very early, personages were invented as interlocutors with the shepherds: obstetrices, or midwives. They appear in the second century apocryphal Protevangelium Jacobi and were very popular in the East. They appear in Christian iconography from the sixth century onward. They...

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The Religious Theater in the Vernacular

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The change to a theater outside the church and under secular auspices was gradual. The vernacular began to appear side by side with Latin in several church plays, sometimes for a translation, sometimes for amplification. Some early examples are the Benediktbeuern Christmas and Easter plays, the Easter play at Klosterneuburg, and the Suscitatio Lazari (The Raising of Lazarus, 1975) and Iconia Sancti Nicolai (The Image of Saint Nicholas, 1976) of Hilarius. The Trier Osterspiel (fourteenth century) contains verse paraphrases and translations. In the twelfth century Anglo-Norman fragment of Adam, the prophecies are given first in Latin, then in Norman-French.

As early as...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The tradition of the liturgical theater was very strong in France. The famous Fleury playbook, now preserved in the Bibliothèque d’Orléans and presumably dating from the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century, contains ten of the most finished of all medieval church plays. The book includes a Visitatio sepulchri, an Ordo stellae, an Ordo Rachelis, a Peregrinus, a Raising of Lazarus, a Conversion of Saint Paul, and four versions of the Saint Nicholas story. All the compositions show strong dramatic content and can very easily have been the inspiration for future secular drama. The first known author of liturgical drama, Hilarius, a wandering scholar and possibly student of Peter...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As the earliest Latin manuscript came from the German monastery of Saint Gall, notably the Quem quaeritis trope, so some very early manuscripts in the vernacular are in the German tongue . The most famous and the earliest is the Benediktbeuern Passion Play, from about 1200, in which the biblical text is handled more freely and there are songs both in Latin and in German. Germany has a number of transitional plays and shows a different development in subject matter from other countries. The German plays tend to make unusual combinations and groupings. Plays from Trier (fourteenth or early fifteenth century) and Wolfenbüttel (fifteenth century) are examples of simple transitions. The second gives a considerable role to the...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although liturgical Latin dramatic texts are considerably lacking in Spain, Spanish literature has the honor of possessing the oldest vernacular text of a church play. The Auto de los Reyes Magos , consisting of 146 lines, comes from a manuscript in the Chapter Library of Toledo. It is generally ascribed to the middle of the twelfth century and was probably played for the feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Because it shows some resemblance to the liturgical texts of Limoges, Rouen, and Orléans in the twelfth century, it may have been introduced by the Benedictines of Cluny. It has independent aspects, however. For example, three monologues, consisting of fifty-one lines, are attributed to the Magi, who express doubts about...

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The Comic and Secular Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although medieval comedy is vastly inferior to the religious theater both in the number of plays and in their quality, it cannot be thus inferred that society in the Middle Ages lacked humor. On the contrary, the medieval mind did not categorize the secular and the sacred and therefore, comic elements exist side by side with serious representations in the plays. Important examples are the spice-merchant in the German Easter plays, the shepherd in the Spanish Nativity plays, and the character of Herod in the Magi plays. From early times local townspeople with their dialects and foibles appear along with biblical characters, and add liveliness and wit to otherwise solemn events.

It is generally admitted that medieval...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Beckworth, Sarah. Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Provides a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the Corpus Christi plays, engaging theater history, religious studies, and literary history to provide a contextual backdrop for the plays.

Boucquey, Thierry. Six Medieval French Farces. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1999. Translated versions of six farces, with a good general introduction to the collection that provides a history of the genre. Each play also has its own introduction that gives commentary and notes.


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