Medieval Theatre
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Medieval Theatre
Nineteenth-century engraving of a performance from the Chester mystery play cycle.

Medieval theatre encompasses theatrical performance in the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and the beginning of the Renaissance in approximately the 15th century. Medieval theatre covers all drama produced in Europe over that thousand-year period and refers to a variety of genres, including liturgical drama, mystery plays, morality plays, farces and masques. Beginning with Hrosvitha of Gandersheim in the 10th century, Medieval drama was for the most part very religious and moral in its themes, staging and traditions. The most famous examples of Medieval plays are the English cycle dramas, the York Mystery Plays, the Chester Mystery Plays, the Wakefield Mystery Plays and the N-Town Plays, as well as the morality play, Everyman. One of the earliest surviving secular plays in English is The Interlude of the Student and the Girl (c. 1300).

Due to a lack of surviving 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 surviving sources on Medieval drama of the Early and High Medieval periods. However, by the late period, drama and theatre began to become more secularized and a larger number of records survive documenting plays and performances.

Early Medieval theatre

Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, the first dramatist of the post-classical era.

Faced with the problem of explaining a new religion to a largely illiterate population, churches in the Early Middle Ages began staging dramatized versions of particular biblical events on specific days of the year. The dramatizations were included in order to vivify annual celebrations.[1] Symbolic objects and actions (vestments, altars, censers, and pantomime performed by priests) recalled the events which Christian ritual celebrates. These were extensive sets of visual signs that could be used to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. These performances developed into liturgical dramas, the earliest of which is the Whom do you Seek (Quem-Quaeritis) Easter trope, dating from ca. 925.[1] Liturgical drama was sung responsively by two groups and did not involve actors impersonating characters. However, sometime between 965 and 975, Æthelwold of Winchester composed the Regularis Concordia (Monastic Agreement) which contains a playlet complete with directions for performance.[2]

Transition from Rome, 500-900 A.D.

As the Western Roman Empire fell into severe decay through the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., the seat of Roman power shifted to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, later called the Byzantine Empire. While surviving evidence about Byzantine theatre is slight, existing records show that mime, pantomime, scenes or recitations from tragedies and comedies, dances, and other entertainments were very popular. Constantinople had two theatres that were in use as late as the 5th century A.D. However, the true importance of the Byzantines in theatrical history is their preservation of many classical Greek texts and the compilation of a massive encyclopedia called the Suda, from which is derived a large amount of contemporary information on Greek theatre.[3] In the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian finally closed down all theatres for good.

According to the binary thinking of the Church's early followers, everything that did not belong to God belonged to the Devil; thus all non-Christian gods and religions were satanic. Efforts were made in many countries through this period to not only convert Jews and pagans but to destroy pre-Christian institutions and influences. Works of Greek and Roman literature were burnt, the thousand-year-old Platonic Academy was closed, the Olympic Games were banned and all theatres were shut down. The theatre itself was viewed as a diabolical threat to Christianity because of its continued popularity in Rome even among new converts. Church fathers such as Tatian, Tertullian and Augustine characterized the stage as an instrument in the Devil's fiendish plot to corrupt men's souls, while acting was considered sinful because of its cruel mockery of God's creation.[4]

Under these influences, the church set about trying to suppress theatrical spectacles by passing laws prohibiting and excluding Roman actors. They were forbidden to have contact with Christian women, own slaves, or wear gold. They were officially excommunicated, denied the sacraments, including marriage and burial, and were defamed and debased throughout Europe. For many centuries thereafter, clerics were cautioned to not allow these suddenly homeless, travelling actors to perform in their jurisdictions.[4]

From the 5th century, Western Europe was plunged into a period of general disorder that lasted (with a brief period of stability under the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century) until the 10th century A.D. As such, most organized theatrical activities disappeared in Western Europe. While it seems that small nomadic bands traveled around Europe throughout the period, performing wherever they could find an audience, there is no evidence that they produced anything but crude scenes .[5]

Hrosvitha (c.935-973), an aristocratic canoness and historian in northern Germany, wrote six plays modeled on Terence's comedies but using religious subjects in the 10th century A.D. Terence's comedies had long been used in monastery schools as examples of spoken Latin but are full of clever, alluring courtesans and ordinary human pursuits such as sex, love and marriage.[6] In order to preempt criticism from the church, Hrosvitha prefaced her collection by stating that her moral purpose to save Christians from the guilt they must feel when reading Classical literature. Her declared solution was to imitate the "laudable" deeds of women in Terence's plays and discard the "shameless" ones.[7] These six plays are the first known plays composed by a female dramatist and the first identifiable Western dramatic works of the post-Classical era.[2] They were first published in 1501 and had considerable influence on religious and didactic plays of the sixteenth century. Hrosvitha was followed by Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), a Benedictine abbess, who wrote a Latin musical drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155.

The anonymous pagan play Querolus, written c.420, was adapted in the 12th century by Vitalis of Blois. Other secular Latin plays were also written in the 12th century, mainly in France but also in England (Babio). There certainly existed some other performances that were not fully fledged theatre; they may have been carryovers from the original pagan cultures (as is known from records written by the clergy disapproving of such festivals). It is also known that mimes, minstrels, bards, storytellers, and jugglers traveled in search of new audiences and financial support. Not much is known about these performers' repertoire and few written texts survive. One of the most famous of the secular plays is the musical Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, written by Adam de la Halle in the 13th 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, Jeu de la Fueillee in Arras, a French town in which theatre was thriving in the late 12th and 13th centuries. One play surviving from Arras, is Jeu de saint Nicolas by Jean Bodel (c.1200).

High and Late Medieval theatre

Stage drawing from 15th-century vernacular morality play The Castle of Perseverance (as found in the Macro Manuscript).

As the Viking invasions ceased in the middle of the 11th century A.D., liturgical drama had spread from Russia to Scandinavia to Italy. Only in Muslim-occupied Spain were liturgical dramas not presented at all. Despite the large number of liturgical dramas that have survived from the period, many churches would have only performed one or two per year and a larger number never performed any at all.[8]

The Feast of Fools was especially important in the development of comedy. The festival inverted the status of the lesser clergy and allowed them to ridicule their superiors and the routine of church life. Sometimes plays were staged as part of the occasion and a certain amount of burlesque and comedy may have entered the liturgical drama as a result of its influence.[9]

Performance of religious plays outside of the church began sometime in the 12th century through a traditionally accepted process of merging shorter liturgical dramas into longer plays which were then translated into vernacular and performed by laymen and thus accessible to a wider segment of society inclusive of the working class. The use of vernacular enabled drama to be understood and enjoyed by a larger audience. The Mystery of Adam (1150) gives credence to this theory as its detailed stage direction suggest that it was staged outdoors. A number of other plays from the period survive, including La Seinte Resurrection (Norman), The Play of the Magi Kings (Spanish), and Sponsus (French).

Economic and political changes in the High Middle Ages led to the formation of guilds and the growth of towns, and this would lead to significant changes for theatre starting in this time and continuing into in the Late Middle Ages. Trade guilds began to perform plays, usually religiously based, and often dealing with a biblical story that referenced their profession. For instance, a baker's guild would perform a reenactment of the Last Supper.[10] In the British Isles, plays were produced in some 127 different towns during the Middle Ages. These vernacular "mystery plays" were written in cycles of a large number of plays: York (48 plays), Chester (24), Wakefield (32) and Unknown (42). A larger number of plays survive from France and Germany in this period and some type of religious dramas were performed in nearly every European country in the Late Middle Ages. Many of these plays contained comedy, devils, villains and clowns.[11]

The majority of actors in these plays were drawn from the local population. For example, at Valenciennes in 1547, more than 100 roles were assigned to 72 actors.[12] Plays were staged on pageant wagon stages, which were platforms mounted on wheels used to move scenery. Often providing their own costumes, amateur performers in England were exclusively male, but other countries had female performers. The platform stage, which was an unidentified space and not a specific locale, allowed for abrupt changes in location.

Morality plays emerged as a distinct dramatic form around 1400 and flourished until 1550. One notable example is The Castle of Perseverance which depicts mankind's progress from birth to death. Though Everyman may possibly be the best known of this genre, it is atypical in many ways. Everyman receives Death's summons, struggles to escape and finally resigns himself to necessity. Along the way, he is deserted by Kindred, Goods, and Fellowship - only Good Deeds goes with him to the grave.

Secular drama was also staged throughout the Middle Ages, the earliest of which is The Play of the Greenwood by Adam de la Halle in 1276. It contains satirical scenes and folk material such as faeries and other supernatural occurrences. Farces also rose dramatically in popularity after the 13th century. The majority of these plays come from France and Germany and are similar in tone and form, emphasizing sex and bodily excretions.[13] The best known playwright of farces is Hans Sachs (1494-1576) who wrote 198 dramatic works. In England, The Second Shepherds' Play of the Wakefield Cycle is the best known early farce. However, farce did not appear independently in England until the 16th century with the work of John Heywood (1497-1580).

A significant forerunner of the development of Elizabethan drama was the Chambers of Rhetoric in the Low Countries.[14] These societies were concerned with poetry, music and drama and held contests to see which society could compose the best drama in relation to a question posed.

At the end of the Late Middle Ages, professional actors began to appear in England and Europe. Richard III and Henry VII both maintained small companies of professional actors. Their plays were performed in the great hall of a nobleman's residence, often with a raised platform at one end for the audience and a "screen" at the other for the actors. Also important were Mummers' plays, performed during the Christmas season, and court masques. These masques were especially popular during the reign of Henry VIII who had a house of revels built and an office of revels established in 1545.[15]


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 (this was inconvenient for the actors because the small stage size made stage movement impossible), in the halls of nobility, or in the round in amphitheatres, as suggested by current archaeology in Cornwall and the southwest of England. The most detailed illustration of a mystery play stage design is the frontispiece to Hubert Cailleau's The Passion and Resurrection of the Savior. All medieval stage production was temporary and expected to be removed upon the completion of the performances. Actors, predominantly male, typically wore long, dark robes. Medieval plays such as the Wakefield cycle, or the Digby Magdalene featured lively interplay between two distinct areas, the wider spaces in front of the raised staging areas, and the elevated areas themselves (called, respectively, the locus and the platea).[16] Typically too, actors would move between these locations in order to suggest scene changes, rather than remain stationary and have the scene change around them as is typically done in modern theatres.

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 moved through the streets, the ornate details and tricks attributed to these productions enhanced the audience's experience of the play.[17]

Changes during Late Middle Ages

Changing political and economic factors greatly affected theatre at the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Modern Era. First, the Protestant Reformation targeted the theatre, especially in England, in an effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome. In Wakefield, for example, the local mystery cycle text shows signs of Protestant editing, with references to the pope crossed out and two plays completely eliminated because they were too Catholic. However, it was not just the Protestants who attacked the theatre of the time. The Council of Trent banned religious plays in an attempt to rein in the extrabiblical material that the Protestants frequently lampooned.

A revival of interest in ancient Roman and Greek culture changed the tastes of the learned classes in the performing arts. Greek and Roman plays were performed and new plays were written that were heavily influenced by the classical style. This led to the creation of Commedia dell'arte and influenced Renaissance theatre.

A change of patronage also caused drastic changes to the theatre. In England the monarch and nobility started to support professional theatre troupes (including Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men and King's Men), which catered to their upper class patrons' tastes.

Finally, the construction of permanent theaters, such as The Theatre signaled a major turning point. Permanent theaters allowed for more sophisticated staging and storytelling.

Contributions to modern theatre

Many components of theatre that developed during the Middle Ages continue to be incorporated in productions around the world to this day, such as use of the vernacular, spectacle, stage direction and the use of farce. Performances that were spoken in the vernacular provided opportunities for larger audiences, who included members of lower socio-economic status, who would have otherwise been excluded from understanding the performances.[18]

Medieval theatre differed from the classical theatre for it emphasized spectacle. In addition, it presented various actions on stage in time and space and presented a combination of the sublime with detailed realism. Approximately 1400 A.D., the dramas were performed with spectacle; no longer dependent exclusively on the spoken word, but incorporating music, dance, costume and set design. The spectacle of the later Medieval theatre made it necessary to have detailed stage directions. A sample of documented staging drawings and directions remain from the 15th-century morality play The Castle of Perseverance. The evolution to the dependence on detailed stage direction made possible the great Shakespearean stage.[19]

Modern productions of Medieval theatre

Mummers plays

Mummers plays are still performed regularly throughout the United Kingdom.[20] What relation they may bear to their medieval antecedents is unknown. The surviving texts of this oral tradition were recorded in the 18th century, at a time when the industrial revolution began to break up the rural communities in which the plays were performed.

Mystery plays

Mystery Plays are still produced regularly throughout the United Kingdom. The local cycles were revived in both York and Chester in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, and are still performed by the local guilds.[21] The N-Town cycle was revived in 1978 as the Lincoln mystery plays, [22] and in 1994 the Lichfield Mysteries were inaugurated (now the biggest community theatre event in the United Kingdom).[23]

In 1977 the National Theatre commissioned Tony Harrison to create The Mysteries, a re-working of the Wakefield Cycle and others.[24] It was revived in 1985 (whereupon the production was filmed for Channel 4 Television), and again as a part of the theatre's millennium celebration in 2000.[25] The productions won Bill Bryden the "Best Director" title in both the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Olivier Awards for 1985, the year the three plays first appeared together in performance at the Lyceum Theatre. An adaptation of Harrison's play was staged at Shakespeare's Globe in 2011 as The Globe Mysteries.[26]

In 2001, the Isango Ensemble produced an African version of the Chester Cycle at the Garrick Theatre in London as The Mysteries - Yiimimangaliso, performing in a combination of the Xhosa language, the Zulu language, English, Latin and Afrikaans. They revived an adapted version of the production at Shakespeare's Globe in 2015 as The Mysteries.[27] In 2004, two mystery plays (one focusing on the Creation and the other on the Passion) were performed at Canterbury Cathedral, with actor Edward Woodward in the role of God. The large cast also included Daniel MacPherson, Thomas James Longley and Joseph McManners.[28]

Morality plays

The first modern stage production of Everyman did not appear until July 1901, when The Elizabethan Stage Society of William Poel gave three outdoor performances at the Charterhouse in London.[29] Poel then partnered with British actor Ben Greet to produce the play throughout Britain, with runs on the American Broadway stage from 1902 to 1918,[30] and concurrent tours throughout North America. These productions differed from past performances in that women were cast in the title role, rather than men. Film adaptations of the 1901 version of the play appeared in 1913 and 1914, with the 1913 film being presented with an early color two-process pioneered by Kinemacolor.[31][32]

Another well-known version of the play is Jedermann by the Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which has been performed annually at the Salzburg Festival since 1920.[33] The Hofmannsthal play was made into a film of the same title in 1961. Frederick Franck published a modernised version of the tale entitled "Everyone", drawing on Buddhist influence.[34] A direct-to-video movie version of Everyman was made in 2002, directed by John Farrell, which updated the setting to the early 21st century, including Death as a businessman in dark glasses with a briefcase, and Goods being played by a talking personal computer.[35]

A modernized adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role, was performed at the National Theatre (UK) from April to July 2015.[36]

Miracle plays

Performances of plays outside of churches are frequent during the Christmas season with reenactments of the Nativity, and many Christian schools and Sunday school groups regularly performs scenes from the bible with children. The reenactment of the Passion of Christ is performed throughout the world in the late Lenten season.

See also


  1. ^ a b Brockett and Hildy (2003, 76)
  2. ^ a b Brockett and Hildy (2003, 77)
  3. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 70)
  4. ^ a b Wise and Walker (2003, 184)
  5. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 75)
  6. ^ McAlister, Linda. "Hypatia's Daughters: 1500 Years of Women Philosophers." Hypatia Inc.
  7. ^ Wise and Walker (2003, 190)
  8. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 78)
  9. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 80).
  10. ^ A History of English literature for Students, by Robert Huntington Fletcher, 1916: pp. 85-88
  11. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 86)
  12. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 95)
  13. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 96)
  14. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 99)
  15. ^ Brockett and Hildy (2003, 101-103)
  16. ^ Dillon, Cambridge Introduction to Early English Theatre (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp4-16.
  17. ^ Styan, J.L.,"The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance"
  18. ^ Symes, Carol. A Common Stage: Theatre and Public Life in Medieval Arras. Cornell University Press, 10-24.
  19. ^ Styan, J.L. 1996. "The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance." Cambridge University Press,1-45.
  20. ^ Hannant (2011).
  21. ^ Rogerson, Margaret. The Plays and the Guilds, York Mystery Plays
  22. ^ Normington, Katie (October 2007). Modern mysteries: contemporary productions of medieval English cycle dramas. Melton, Suffolk, England: Boydell and Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-128-9.
  23. ^ Lichfield Mysteries: Home Page, retrieved 2011
  24. ^ Dodsworth, Martin (9 January 1986). "A poet in the land of as if". The Guardian. London.
  25. ^ Harrison, Tony (1985). The Mysteries. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-13790-3.
  26. ^ Shakespeare's Globe. The Globe Mysteries. 2011
  27. ^ Shakespeare's Globe. The Isango Ensemble Mysteries 2015
  28. ^ BBC News. Revival of Medieval Mystery Plays. Thursday, 5 August, 2004,
  29. ^ Kuehler, Stephen G., (2008), Concealing God: The "Everyman" revival, 1901-1903, Tufts University (PhD. thesis), 104 p.
  30. ^ Everyman (Broadway play) at the Internet Broadway Database
  31. ^ Medieval theatre on IMDb - 1913 film version.
  32. ^ Medieval theatre on IMDb - 1914 film version.
  33. ^ Banham 1998, p. 491.
  34. ^ "Everyman's God".
  35. ^ "Everyman (2002)". IMDb. 17 July 2002.
  36. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Saturday Review, Everyman, Far from the Madding Crowd, Empire, Anne Enright, Christopher Williams". BBC.


  • Bate, Keith, ed. 1976. Three Latin Comedies. Toronto: Centre for Medieval Studies.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-41050-2.
  • Cohen, Robert. 2000. Theatre: Brief Edition. Mayfield: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0077333515.
  • Hannant, Sara. 2011. Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the English Ritual Year. London: Merrell. ISBN 978-1-8589-4559-0.
  • Klaus,Carl H., Miriam Gilbert, and Braford S. Field, Jr. 1991. "Stages of Drama." New York: St. Martin's.
  • Knight, Alan E. 1983. "Aspects of Genre in Late Medieval French Drama." Manchester University Press.
  • McAlister, Linda. 1996. "Hypatia's Daughters: 1500 Years of Women Philosophers." Hypatia Inc.
  • Nelson, Alan H. 1972. "Some Configurations of Staging in Medieval English Drama" Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 116-147.
  • Styan, J.L. 1996. The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55636-8.
  • Symes, Carol. 2007. A Common Stage: Theatre and Public Life in Medieval Arras. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801445811.
  • Walsh, Martin. 2002. "Drama." Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-1576071212.
  • Wise, Jennifer and Craig S. Walker, eds. 2003. The Broadview Anthology of Drama: Plays from the Western Theatre, Volume 1. Toronto: Braodview Press.

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