An Introduction into Anglo-Norman Early Drama


The History of Theatre According to Dr Jack: Medieval Theatre I

Drama arose in the Tenth Century in certain monasteries when modifications to the mass occurred. Scenes of the Master’s life began to be represented in the churches, especially during the holier holidays. Many could not read and so the use of “plays” told the tales the monks wished to share. It was a means to explain a new religion to the illiterate. Dramatized versions of particular Biblical stories were included to vivify annual celebrations. Using symbolic objects to convey the tale’s meaning, the priests used pantomime to explain the events of Christian ritual celebrations. “These performances developed into liturgical dramas, the earliest of which is the Whom do you Seek (Quem-Quaeritis) Easter trope, dating from ca. 925. 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.” (Medieval Theatre)

The plays were performed in or near a church. “Although they had their roots in the Christian liturgy, such plays were not performed as essential parts of a standard church service. The language of the liturgical drama was Latin, and the dialogue was frequently chanted to simple monophonic melodies. Music was also used in the form of incidental dance and processional tunes.” (Liturgical Drama)


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

Among the offerings in what we might call Medieval theatre we have liturgical dramas, mystery plays, morality plays, farces and masques. Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim was the first person to compose drama in the Latin West. She was a 10th Century German secular canoness, dramatist, and poet. The work of those during this period were moral and religious in nature, themes, and stagings. Among the most famous of the plays from this period are the York Mystery Plays, the Chester Mystery Plays, the Wakefield Mystery Plays and the N-Town Plays, as well as the morality play, Everyman

Early on guilds, students, and scholars performed plays based on the Old Testament from Creation to the Last Judgment. By 1300, the religious plays had become guild plays. Simply speaking, a “miracle play” is a dramatic representation of the life of a saint, including the miracles associated with his/her life; while a “mystery play” is one dealing with gospel events concerning any phase of the life of Christ. 

Miracle play, also called Saint’s Play,  one of three principal kinds of vernacular drama the European Middle Ages. A miracle play presents a real or fictitious account of the life, miracles, or martyrdom of a saint. The genre evolved from liturgical offices developed during the 10th and 11th centuries to enhance calendar festivals. By the 13th century they had become vernacularized and filled with unecclesiastical elements. They had been divorced from church services and were performed at public festivals. Almost all surviving miracle plays concern either the Virgin Mary or St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Both Mary and Nicholas had active cults during the Middle Ages, and belief in the healing powers of saintly relics was widespread. In this climate, miracle plays flourished.” (Miracle Play)


Nineteenth-century engraving of a performance from the Chester mystery play cycle. Wikipedia Public Domain

According to Britannica, mystery plays were “one of three principal kinds of vernacular drama in Europe during the Middle Ages. The mystery plays, usually representing Biblical subjects, developed from plays presented in Latin by churchmen on church premises and depicted such subjects as the Creation, Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, and the Last Judgment. During the 13th century, various guilds began producing the plays in the vernacular at sites removed from the churches. Under these conditions, the strictly religious nature of the plays declined, and they became filled with irrelevancies and apocryphal elements. Furthermore, satirical elements were introduced to mock physicians, soldiers, judges, and even monks and priests. In England, over the course of decades, groups of 25 to 50 plays were organized into lengthy cycles, such as the Chester plays and the Wakefield plays. In France a single play, The Acts of the Apostles by Arnoul and Simon Gréban, contained 494 speaking parts and 61,908 lines of rhymed verse; it took 40 days to perform. They died out in many areas with the Reformation.”

In their prime, Miracle plays were acted on wooden platforms mounted on wheels. There were two stories to those movable stages, with the upper level used as the stage. In York, once a year, the whole history of the religious world would be viewed by the populace. Each company (trade guild) was assigned a time and place for its pageant. 

Much to the delight of the audience, a comic element crept into the plays occasionally. In the “2nd Shepherd’s Play,” for example, a character named Mak steals a sheep and takes it home to his wife. A knock is heard on the door. The wife puts the sheep in the crib and pretends it is a new born babe. Thus, she fools the shepherds searching for the sheep. They, however, return to give the new born a present only to discover the sheep. 


The Body of Christ | Humanities Illustration of medieval mystery play.

Morality plays were “an allegorical drama popular in Europe especially during the 15th and 16th centuries, in which the characters personify moral qualities (such as charity or vice) or abstractions (as death or youth) and in which moral lessons are taught. The action of the morality play centres on a hero, such as Mankind, whose inherent weaknesses are assaulted by such personified diabolic forces as the Seven Deadly Sins but who may choose redemption and enlist the aid of such figures as the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth). Morality plays were an intermediate step in the transition from liturgical to professional secular drama, and combine elements of each. They were performed by quasi-professional groups of actors who relied on public support; thus the plays were usually short, their serious themes tempered by elements of farce.” (Morality Play)

Morality plays gave more scope to the imagination for new plots and incidents and afforded the chance for delineation of characters. They were not confined to scriptures. They were first dull, but with the introduction of Vice, who played pranks similar to those of modern-day clowns, interest was aroused. The morality generally ended in the triumph of virtue, the devil leaping into Hell with Vice on his back. 

Visit History of Theatre for more information. One might also read The Finer Times.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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