Medieval Writing
Drama (5)
By definition, purely oral peformance leaves no written traces, but there is evidence from written and pictorial sources that it was there. The portrayal of musicians in many forms of medieval art indicates that musical performance was culturally significant.
A hurdygurdy player performs on a 14th century label stop in the nave of Beverley Minster, while a bagpiper puffs out his cheeks on a 15th century corbel in St Mary's church, also in Beverley.
Performance spectacles, in both public areas and in the dining halls of the gentry, included juggling and acrobatics, wrestling, games, and animal performances such as bear baiting, which would now be considered very incorrect. Minstrelsy involved music, poetry and performance. Mumming or disguising involved participants in costume invading an event and presenting a tableau or mime. Public mumming was prohibited in many places in the 15th century, presumably because it involved cloaking one's identity in a public place, which could be used for those getting up to no good. No doubt it still provided a good party trick. Froissart, in the late 14th century, describes a particularly unfortunate case in which some members of the flower of the French aristocracy were burnt to death by arriving at an occasion in inflammable costumes, and some idiot came up with a torch to try and find out who they were.
tumbler wrestlers
more wrestlers
Images from the initials and borders of a mid 13th century psalter in a private collection show a tumbler, two wrestlers and a piggyback wrestling match. (From The New Palaeographical Society 1905)
Aristocratic spectacles included the tournament, in which the concepts of chivalry embodied in the romances were transformed into live action spectaculars. Although disapproved of by the church, they were tolerated as means of training the defenders of Christianity. They were affirmative of class structure. They were also dangerous. While they were non-literate events, they certainly had elements of theatre.
tournament Illustration of a tournament at St Inglevere, near Calais, after an illustration in a manuscript of Froissart's chronicles in the British Library.
I have a horrible feeling that they were probably noisy, sweaty, swaggering occasions as depicted in the movie The Knight's Tale rather than as shown in pretty, dainty 14th century manuscript illustration. Watch that movie if you can cope with the crowd singing "We Will Rock You" and having Chaucer depicted as a carnival barker with a gambling problem!
Public spectacles in the towns could include civic pageants which were staged on big occasions. Public punishment was also performed in theatrical mode, whether in the form of shaming rituals in which miscreants were forced to wear strange clothes, or arranged in humiliating poses, while the town musicians piped them out of the city gates, or the full public execution, with nasty things done to bodily parts.
The fate of a baker selling short weight loaves.
Still on the movie theme, it is intriguing that in our days of excessive ersatz screen violence, the makers of Braveheart decided that there were some things that simply could not be depicted, even though they were performed in the public streets in the middle ages.
The theatrical ritual and pageantry of the town and the aristocracy may be preserved for us to some degree through written description and reference, or even prohibition. That of the rural areas is much harder to know clearly. Ancient agricultural rituals of birth, death and renewal have become entangled with Christian values and rituals. These have been suppressed, forgotten, rediscovered and reinvented until what passes for traditional rural festivity and display is simply a jumble of mangled fragments. People bounce around in costumes made from shredded fabric or tie bells around their knees and hit each other with sticks, but what it really has to do with medieval village folk display is anybody's guess.
The performance known as The Mummer's Play, which is a parody of the death and resurrection theme involving St George, has no written texts earlier than the 18th century. There may be concepts there from local theatrical events of the distant past, but continuing revision and innovation has obscured them. Perhaps the only relationships to medieval mummery are the general concepts of parody, buffoonery and the disguising of identity.
Court mummers, after a manuscript in the British Library.
Try typing "mummers" into Google and then look up some of the various societies that appear. You will find that innovation, buffoonery and a spirit off self-parody are alive and well around the rural pubs of England.
puppet show Puppet shows are depicted in medieval manuscripts, as in the example at left. It looks like a Punch and Judy show (there is a man with a big stick), but is that merely a debasement of an earlier form of theatre? And were these shows mainly for the entertainment of children? Perhaps, like animal fables and fairy tales, these are a form of entertainment that has moved from the general to the purely childish arena. These pictures of puppet shows are found as marginalia in important volumes of romance or psalters, in that strange juxtaposition of rustic imagery with significant texts that is such a feature of the 14th century.
Marginal illustration in a mid 14th century copy of the Romances of Alexander in French verse, of all things (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f.54). (From The New Palaeographical Society 1905)  
The relationship between oral performance and literate drama is hard to assess, as each may have drawn, to some degree, on the other. In England the earliest fragment of the text of a play about Robin Hood dates to around 1475, about the same time as such a play is referred to in one of the Paston letters. There are suggestions that these may derive at least partly from village May Games. However, the late 13th century French play Le Jeu de Robin et Marion was a courtly pastoral piece which had nothing to do with lusty Saxon yeomen leaping about the greensward in Lincoln green. It seems that literate aristocratic culture and illiterate festivity may have been crossing over in various directions.
The Dscriptorium web site displays the full texts and many illuminations from a manuscript of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.
When Shakespeare and his pals set up their theatres in London and brought a new commercial aspect to staged drama, they were building on vigorous living traditions, albeit battered by religious change. They used them too.
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