Medieval Writing
Drama (4)
Forms of drama other than the grand Mystery Play might be performed with smaller casts and less elaboration, and to a different timetable. Miracle plays had their heyday in 14th century France. A surviving manuscript of Miracles de Nostre Dame depicts 14 apparently unrelated scenarios in which a miraculous transformation occurs as a result of the appearance of a vision of the Virgin Mary at a significant juncture. These were performed at one of the festivals celebrating the Virgin. Scenes of everyday life were depicted in these plays.
miracle play
Manuscript illumination of The Miracle of the Nun who left her Abbey (Bibliothèque Nationale, MS franc 9199). She came back, of course.
Saints' plays were associated with local festivals, and played on the occasion of the feast of a patron saint of a parish church or guild. The earliest version was the Latin liturgical drama of St Nicholas, which was known from the 12th century. Later versions may have ranged from simple tableaux to fully scripted plays. They were most prolific in Italy and Spain, and could include the non-Biblical saints which crept into the medieval calendar. Scenes of violence, as in martyrdoms, could be quite gruesome. The saints' plays were suppressed in the 16th century, for obvious reasons in Protestant countries, but Catholic reformers also felt they overstepped the boundaries of correctness and had elements of idolatry.
martyrdom of St Apollonia The martyrdom of St Apollonia, as depicted in the Hours of Etienne Chevalier, a book which has disappeared but the miniatures survive as framed art works. (Yes, it would be nice to have a good reproduction of this picture!)
The above example shows the unfortunate martyr losing her teeth in the foreground, but the background detail shows that it actually depicts the performance of a play. The audience is assembled in stands. One upper tier contains musicians. Two angels sit on top of a ladder on the left and a devil occupies a platform at the right. In the middle right is an authoritative figure wearing a bishop's mitre and holding a book and long pointer. He is the prompter, but his role is more active than in a modern play, acting essentially as a conductor. The mitre may suggest some element of parody, and one does wonder on the significance of a figure in the left foreground, apparently wearing transparent underpants and scratching his buttocks. Religion may have suffused everything in the middle ages, but they were less prim about it than we are today.
Morality Plays were essentially didactic, but were nevertheless presented in entertaining mode. They were not tied to the church calendar, and surviving examples are relatively short, so they could be performed by groups of travelling players which may have been formed around the 14th century by groups of minstrels getting their act together. First reference to such a vernacular play is recorded by John Wycliffe in 1378. They were structured as combats for the soul, which gave scope for action and special effects. While the most reproduced of the Morality Plays is Everyman, the earliest surviving English text is that of The Castle of Perseverance, of the early 15th century.
Plan for the enactment of The Castle of Perseverance, from the original manuscript, now in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.
The original manuscript of this play provides a plan for acting it out in a circular enclosure. The analogy is the defence of the soul in a castle by a good angel who repulses a bad angel and various other evil characters in a parody of a tournament game. This would all seem to give plenty of scope for action, special effects with gunpowder, excitement and general entertainment before the John Wayne of Merrie Englande repulses the forces of evil.
Generic characters in the Morality Plays, such as the Virtues and the Vices, or the Seven Deadly Sins, were known to the populace from their representation in church art.
Despite the serious message of the Morality Plays, humour was not absent. After all, you can't get a message across if nobody is listening. The French in particular employed comedy across an range of genres, from plays with a moral purpose to farces for pure entertainment. The latter proliferated in the 15th century. Drama was escaping from its religious confinement and into popular culture, or was it? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that popular culture was entering the literate mode previously dominated by the church. Books were getting cheaper and more accessible and provided an alternative to oral transmission.
Woodblock illustration in a printed edition of c.1489 of the French farce Pathelin, written in 1464.
Players became professional, and companies were formed under the patronage of various members of the upper classes, from magnates to lesser knights. These companies travelled extensively and, while they were supported by their patrons, they were also paid gratuities. There was evidently a hierarchy, and players of a highly ranked patron were paid more than those of a lesser lord. Presumably there was competition to get into the troupes of the great men. There are references to them performing short plays referred to as interludes, suitable for a small travelling company, but no English texts of these survive. They performed in both secular and religious locations, evidence for the payment of troupes of players appearing in account rolls of religious houses. Presumably they tailored their material to the audiences.
The evidence for the nature of dramatic performance can come from written texts of the plays, or written records concerning their performance from various sources. The relationship with the vigorous oral and visual culture of performance of the middle ages is more difficult to assess.


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