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10. Medieval Drama

While the scattered and persecuted strollers thus kept alive something of the popularity, if not of the loftier traditions, of their art, neither, on the other hand, was there an utter absence of written compositions to bridge the Ecclesiastical and monastic literary drama. gap between ancient and modern dramatic literature. In the midst of the condemnation with which the Christian Church visited the stage, its professors and votaries, we find individual ecclesiastics resorting in their writings to both the tragic and the comic form of the ancient drama. These isolated productions, which include the Χριστὀς πάσχων (Passion of Christ) formerly attributed to St Gregory Nazianzen, and the Querolus, long fathered upon Plautus himself, were doubtless mostly written for educational purposes—whether Euripides and Lycophron, or Menander, Plautus and Terence, served as the outward models. The same was probably Hrosvitha. the design of the famous “comedies” of Hrosvitha, the Benedictine nun of Gandersheim, in Eastphalian Saxony, which associate themselves in the history of Christian literature with the spiritual revival of the 10th century in the days of Otto the Great. While avowedly imitated in form from the comedies of Terence, these religious exercises derive their themes—martyrdoms,[1] and miraculous or otherwise startling conversions[2]—from the legends of Christian saints. Thus, from perhaps the 9th to the 12th centuries, Germany and France, and through the latter, by means of the Norman Conquest, England, became acquainted with what may be called the literary monastic drama. It was no doubt occasionally performed by the children under the care of monks or nuns, or by the religious themselves; an exhibition of the former kind was that of the Play of St Katharine, acted at Dunstable about the year 1110 in “copes” by the scholars of the Norman Geoffrey, afterwards abbot of St Albans. Nothing is known concerning it except the fact of its performance, which was certainly not regarded as a novelty.

These efforts of the cloister came in time to blend themselves with more popular forms of the early medieval drama. The natural agents in the transmission of these popular forms were those mimes, whom, while the representatives The joculatores, jongleurs, minstrels. of more elaborate developments, the “pantomimes” in particular, had inevitably succumbed, the Roman drama had left surviving it, unextinguished and unextinguishable. Above all, it is necessary to point out how in the long interval now in question—the “dark ages,” which may, from the present point of view, be reckoned from about the 6th to the 11th century—the Latin and the Teutonic elements of what may be broadly designated as medieval “minstrelsy,” more or less imperceptibly, coalesced. The traditions of the disestablished and disendowed mimus combined with the “occupation” of the Teutonic scôp, who as a professional personage does not occur in the earliest Teutonic poetry, but on the other hand is very distinctly traceable under this name or that of the “gleeman,” in Anglo-Saxon literature, before it fell under the control of the Christian Church. Her influence and that of docile rulers, both in England and in the far wider area of the Frank empire, gradually prevailed even over the inherited goodwill which neither Alfred nor even Charles the Great had denied to the composite growth in which mimus and scôp alike had a share.

How far the joculatores—which in the early middle ages came to be the name most widely given to these irresponsible transmitters of a great artistic trust—kept alive the usage of entertainments more essentially dramatic than the minor varieties of their performances, we cannot say. In different countries these entertainers suited themselves to different tastes, and with the rise of native literatures to different literary tendencies. The literature of the troubadours of Provence, which communicated itself to Spain and Italy, came only into isolated contact with the beginnings of the religious drama; in northern France the jongleurs, as the joculatores were now called, were confounded with the trouvères, who, to the accompaniment of vielle or harp, sang the chansons de geste commemorative of deeds of war. As appointed servants of particular households they were here, and afterwards in England, called menestrels (from ministeriales) or minstrels. Such a histrio or mimus (as he is called) was Taillefer, who rode first into the fight at Hastings, singing his songs of Roland and Charlemagne, and tossing his sword in the air and catching it again. In England such accomplished minstrels easily outshone the less versatile gleemen of pre-Norman times, and one or two of them appeared as landholders in Domesday Book, and many enjoyed the favour of the Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet kings. But here, as elsewhere, the humbler members of the craft spent their lives in strolling from castle to convent, from village-green to city-street, and there exhibiting their skill as dancers, tumblers, jugglers proper, and as masquers and conductors of bears and other dumb contributors to popular wonder and merriment. Their only chance of survival finally came to lie in organization under the protection of powerful nobles; but when, in the 15th century in England, companies of players issued forth from towns and villages, the profession, in so far as its members had not secured preference, saw itself threatened with ruin.

In any attempt to explain the transmission of dramatic elements from pagan to Christian times, and the influence exercised by this transmission upon the beginnings of the medieval drama, account should finally be taken Survivals and adaptations of pagan festive ceremonies and usages. of the pertinacious survival of popular festive rites and ceremonies. From the days of Gregory the Great, i.e. from the end of the 6th century onwards, the Western Church tolerated and even attracted to her own festivals popular customs, significant of rejoicing, which were in truth relics of heathen ritual. Such were the Mithraic feast of the 25th of December, or the egg of Eostre-tide, and a multitude of Celtic or Teutonic agricultural ceremonies. These rites, originally symbolical of propitiation or of weather-magic, were of a semi-dramatic nature—such as the dipping of the neck of corn in water, sprinkling holy drops upon persons or animals, processions of beasts or men in beast-masks, dressing trees with flowers, and the like, but above all ceremonial dances, often in disguise. The sword-dance, recorded by Tacitus, of which an important feature was the symbolic threat of death to a victim, endured (though it is rarely mentioned) to the later middle ages. By this time it had attracted to itself a variety of additional features, and of characters familiar as pace-eggers, mummers, morris-dancers (probably of distinct origin), who continually enlarged the scope of their performances, especially as regarded their comic element. The dramatic “expulsion of death,” or winter, by the destruction of a lay-figure—common through western Europe about the 8th century—seems connected with a more elaborate rite, in which a disguised performer (who perhaps originally represented summer) was slain and afterwards revived (the Pfingstl, Jack in the Green, or Green Knight). This representation, after acquiring a comic complexion, was annexed by the character dancers, who about the 15th century took to adding still livelier incidents from songs treating of popular heroes, such as St George and Robin Hood; which latter found a place in the festivities of May Day with their central figure, the May Queen. The earliest ceremonial observances of this sort were clearly connected with pastoral and agricultural life; but the inhabitants of the towns also came to have a share in them; and so, as will be seen later, did the clergy. They were in particular responsible for the buffooneries of the feast of fools (or asses), which enjoyed the greatest popularity in France (though protests against it are on record from the 11th century onwards to the 17th), but was well known from London to Constantinople. This riotous New Year’s celebration was probably derived from the ancient Kalend feasts, which may have bequeathed to it both the hobby-horse and the lord, or bishop, of misrule. In the 16th century the feast of fools was combined with the elaborate festivities of courts and cities during the twelve Christmas feast-days—the season when throughout the previous two centuries the “mummers” especially flourished, who in their disguisings and “viseres” began as dancers gesticulating in dumb-show, but ultimately developed into actors proper.

Thus the literary and the professional element, as well as that of popular festive usages, had survived to become tributaries to the main stream of the early Christian drama, which had its direct source in the liturgy of the Church The liturgy the main source of the medieval religious drama. itself. The service of the Mass contains in itself dramatic elements, and combines with the reading out of portions of Scripture by the priest—its “epical” part—a “lyrical” part in the anthems and responses of the congregation. At a very early period—certainly already in the 5th century—it was usual on special occasions to increase the attractions of public worship by living pictures, illustrating the Gospel narrative and accompanied by songs; and thus a certain amount of action gradually introduced itself into the service. The insertion, before or after sung portions Tropes. of the service, of tropes, originally one or more verses of texts, usually serving as introits and in connexion with the gospel of the day, and recited by the two halves of the choir, naturally led to dialogue chanting; and this was frequently accompanied by illustrative fragments of action, such as drawing down the veil from before the altar.

This practice of interpolations in the offices of the church, which is attested by texts from the 9th century onwards (the so-called “Winchester tropes” belong to the 10th and 11th), progressed, till on the great festivals of the The liturgical mystery. church the epical part of the liturgy was systematically connected with spectacular and in some measure mimical adjuncts, the lyrical accompaniment being of course retained. Thus the liturgical mystery—the earliest form of the Christian drama—was gradually called into existence. This had certainly been accomplished as early as the 10th century, when on great ecclesiastical festivals it was customary for the priests to perform in the churches these offices (as they were called). The whole Easter story, from the burial to Emmaus, was thus presented, the Maries and the angel adding their lyrical planctus; while the surroundings of the Nativity—the Shepherds, the Innocents, &c.—were linked with the Shepherds of Epiphany by a recitation of “Prophets,” including Vergil and the Sibyl. Before long, from the 11th century onwards, mysteries, as they were called, were produced in France on scriptural subjects unconnected with the great Church festivals—such as the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Adam (with the fall of Lucifer), Daniel, Lazarus, &c. Compositions on the last-named two themes remain from the hand of one of the very earliest of medieval play-writers, Hilarius, who may have been an Englishman, and who certainly studied under Abelard. He also wrote a “miracle” of St Nicholas, one of the most widely popular of medieval saints. Into the pieces founded on the Scripture narrative outside characters and incidents were occasionally introduced, by way of diverting the audience.

These mysteries and miracles being as yet represented by the clergy only, the language in which they were usually written is Latin—in many varieties of verse with occasional prose; but already in the 11th century the further The collective mystery. step was taken of composing these texts in the vernacular—the earliest example being the mystery of the Resurrection. In time a whole series of mysteries was joined together; a process which was at first roughly and then more elaborately pursued in France and elsewhere, and finally resulted in the collective mystery—merely a scholars’ term of course, but one to which the principal examples of the English mystery-drama correspond.

The productions of the medieval religious drama it is usual technically to divide into three classes. The mysteries proper deal with scriptural events only, their purpose being to set forth, with the aid of the prophetic or preparatory Mysteries, miracles, and morals distinguished. history of the Old Testament, and more especially of the fulfilling events of the New, the central mystery of the Redemption of the world, as accomplished by the Nativity, the Passion and the Resurrection. But in fact these were not kept distinctly apart from the miracle-plays, or miracles, which are strictly speaking concerned with the legends of the saints of the church; and in England the name mysteries was not in use. Of these species the miracles must more especially have been fed from the resources of the monastic literary drama. Thirdly, the moralities, or moral-plays, teach and illustrate the same truths—not, however, by direct representation of scriptural or legendary events and personages, but allegorically, their characters being personified virtues or qualities. Of the moralities the Norman trouvères had been the inventors; and doubtless this innovation connects itself with the endeavour, which in France had almost proved victorious by the end of the 13th century, to emancipate dramatic performances from the control of the church.

The attitude of the clergy towards the dramatic performances which had arisen out of the elaboration of the services of the church, but soon admitted elements from other sources, was not, and could not be, uniform. As the plays grew The clergy and the religious drama. longer, their paraphernalia more extensive, and their spectators more numerous, they began to be represented outside as well as inside the churches, at first in the churchyards, and the use of the vulgar tongue came to be gradually preferred. A Beverley Resurrection play (1220 c.) and some others are bilingual. Miracles were less dependent on this connexion with the church services than mysteries proper; and lay associations, gilds, and schools in particular, soon began to act plays in honour of their patron saints in or near their own halls. Lastly, as scenes and characters of a more or less trivial description were admitted even into the plays acted or superintended by the clergy, as some of these characters came to be depended on by the audiences for conventional extravagance or fun, every new Herod seeking to out-Herod his predecessor, and the devils and their chief asserting themselves as indispensable favourites, the comic element in the religious drama increased; and that drama itself, even where it remained associated with the church, grew more and more profane. The endeavour to sanctify the popular tastes to religious uses, which connects itself with the institution of the great festival of Corpus Christi (1264, confirmed 1311), when the symbol of the mystery of the Incarnation was borne in solemn procession, led to the closer union of the dramatic exhibitions (hence often called processus) with this and other religious feasts; but it neither limited their range nor controlled their development.

It is impossible to condense into a few sentences the extremely varied history of the processes of transformation undergone by the medieval drama in Europe during the two centuries—from about 1200 to about 1400—in which it ran Progress of the medieval drama in Europe. a course of its own, and during the succeeding period, in which it was only partially affected by the influence of the Renaissance. A few typical phenomena may, however, be noted in the case of the drama of each of the several chief countries of the West; where the vernacular successfully supplanted Latin as the ordinary medium of dramatic speech, where song was effectually ousted by recitation and dialogue, and where finally, though the emancipation was on this head nowhere absolute, the religious drama gave place to the secular.

In France, where dramatic performances had never fallen entirely into the hands of the clergy, the progress was speediest and most decided towards forms approaching those of the modern drama. The earliest play in the French France. tongue, however, the 12th-century Adam, supposed to have been written by a Norman in England (as is a fragmentary Résurrection of much the same date), still reveals its connexion with the liturgical drama. Jean Bodel of Arras’ miracle-play of St Nicolas (before 1205) is already the production of a secular author, probably designed for the edification of some civic confraternity to which he belonged, and has some realistic features. On the other hand, the Theophilus of Rutebeuf (d. c. 1280) treats its Faust-like theme, with which we meet again in Low-German dramatic literature two centuries later, in a rather lifeless form but in a highly religious spirit, and belongs to the cycle of miracles of the Virgin of which examples abound throughout this period. Easter or Passion plays were fully established in popular acceptance in Paris as well as in other towns of France by the end of the 14th century; and in 1402 the Confrérie de la Passion, who at first devoted themselves exclusively to the performance of this species, obtained a royal privilege for the purpose. These series of religious plays were both extensive and elaborate; perhaps the most notable series (c. 1450) is that by Arnoul Greban, who died as a canon of Le Mans, his native town. Its revision, by Jean Michel, containing much illustrative detail (first performed at Angers in 1486), was very popular. Still more elaborate is the Rouen Christmas mystery of 1474, and the celebrated Mystère du vieil testament, produced at Abbeville in 1458, and performed at Paris in 1500. Most of the Provençal Christmas and Passion plays date from the 14th century, as well as a miracle of St Agnes. The miracles of saints were popular in all parts of France, and the diversity of local colouring naturally imparted to these productions contributed materially to the growth of the early French drama. The miracles of Ste Geneviève and St Denis came directly home to the inhabitants of Paris, as that of St Martin to the citizens of Tours; while the early victories of St Louis over the English might claim a national significance for the dramatic celebration of his deeds. The local saints of Provence were in their turn honoured by miracles dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.

It is less easy to trace the origins of the comic medieval drama in France, connected as they are with an extraordinary variety of associations for professional, pious and pleasurable purposes. The ludi inhonesti in which the students of a Paris college (Navarre) were in 1315 debarred from engaging cannot be proved to have been dramatic performances; the earliest known secular plays presented by university students in France were moralities, performed in 1426 and 1431. These plays, depicting conflicts between opposing influences—and at bottom the struggle between good and evil in the human soul—become more frequent from about this time onwards. Now it is (at Rennes in 1439) the contention between Bien-avisé and Mal-avisé (who at the close find themselves respectively in charge of Bonne-fin and Male-fin); now, one between l’homme juste and l’homme mondain; now, the contrasted story of Les Enfants de Maintenant, who, however, is no abstraction, but an honest baker with a wife called Mignotte. Political and social problems are likewise treated; and the Mystère du Concile de Bâle—an historical morality—dates back to 1432. But thought is taken even more largely of the sufferings of the people than of the controversies of the Church; and in 1507 we even meet with a hygienic or abstinence morality (by N. de la Chesnaye) in which “Banquet” enters into a conspiracy with “Apoplexy,” “Epilepsy” and the whole regiment of diseases.

Long before this development of an artificial species had been consummated—from the beginning of the 14th century onwards—the famous fraternity or professional union of the Basoche (clerks of the Parlement and the Châtelet) had been entrusted with the conduct of popular festivals at Paris, in which, as of right, they took a prominent personal share; and from a date unknown they had performed plays. But after the Confrérie de la Passion had been allowed to monopolize the religious drama, the basochiens had confined themselves to the presentment of moralities and of farces (from Italian farsa, Latin farcita), in which political satire had as a matter of course when possible found a place. A third association, calling themselves the Enfans sans souci, had, apparently also early in the 15th century, acquired celebrity by their performances of short comic plays called soties—in which, as it would seem, at first allegorical figures ironically “played the fool,” but which were probably before long not very carefully kept distinct from the farces of the Basoche, and were like these on occasion made to serve the purposes of State or of Church. Other confraternities and associations readily took a leaf out of the book of these devil-may-care good-fellows, and interwove their religious and moral plays with comic scenes and characters from actual life, thus becoming more and more free and secular in their dramatic methods, and unconsciously preparing the transition to the regular drama.

The earliest example of a serious secular play known to have been written in the French tongue is the Estoire de Griseldis (1393); which is in the style of the miracles of the Virgin, but is largely indebted to Petrarch. The Mystère du siege d’Orléans, on the other hand, written about half a century later, in the epic tediousness of its manner comes near to a chronicle history, and interests us chiefly as the earliest of many efforts to bring Joan of Arc on the stage. Jacques Milet’s celebrated mystery of the Destruction de Troye la grant (1452) seems to have been addressed to readers and not to hearers only. The beginnings of the French regular comic drama are again more difficult to extract from the copious literature of farces and soties, which, after mingling actual types with abstract and allegorical figures, gradually came to exclude all but the concrete personages; moreover, the large majority of these productions in their extant form belong to a later period than that now under consideration. But there is ample evidence that the most famous of all medieval farces, the immortal Maistre Pierre Pathelin (otherwise L’Avocat Pathelin), was written before 1470 and acted by the basochiens; and we may conclude that this delightful story of the biter bit, and the profession outwitted, typifies a multitude of similar comic episodes of real life, dramatized for the delectation of clerks, lawyers and students, and of all lovers of laughter.

In the neighbouring Netherlands many Easter and Christmas mysteries are noted from the middle of the 15th century, attesting the enduring popularity of these religious plays; and with them the celebrated series of the Seven Joys of The Netherlands. Maria—of which the first is the Annunciation and the seventh the Ascension. To about the same date belongs the small group of the so-called abele spelen (as who should say plays easily managed), chiefly on chivalrous themes. Though allegorical figures are already to be found in the Netherlands miracles of Mary, the species of the moralities was specially cultivated during the great Burgundian period of this century by the chambers or lodges of the Rederijkers (rhetoricians)—the well-known civic associations which devoted themselves to the cultivation of learned poetry and took an active share in the festivals that formed one of the most characteristic features of the life of the Low Countries. Among these moralities was that of Elckerlijk (printed 1495 and presumably by Peter Dorlandus), which there is good reason for regarding as the original of one of the finest of English moralities, Everyman.

In Italy the liturgical drama must have run its course as elsewhere; but the traces of it are few, and confined to the north-east. The collective mystery, so common in other Western countries, is in Italian literature Italy. represented by a single example only—a Passione di Gesù Cristo, performed at Revello in Saluzzo in the 15th century; though there are some traces of other cyclic dramas of the kind. The Italian religious plays, called figure when on Old, vangeli when on New, Testament subjects, and differing from those of northern Europe chiefly by the less degree of coarseness in their comic characters, seem largely to have sprung out of the development of the processional element in the festivals of the Church. Besides such processions as that of the Three Kings at Epiphany in Milan, there were the penitential processions and songs (laude), which at Assisi, Perugia and elsewhere already contained a dramatic element; and at Siena, Florence and other centres these again developed into the so-called (sacre) rappresentazioni, which became the most usual name for this kind of entertainment. Such a piece was the San Giovanni e San Paolo (1489), by Lorenzo the Magnificent—the prince who afterwards sought to reform the Italian stage by paganizing it; another was the Santa Teodora, by Luigi Pulci (d. 1487); San Giovanni Gualberto (of Florence) treats the religious experience of a latter-day saint; Rosana e Ulimento is a love-story with a Christian moral. Passion plays were performed at Rome in the Coliseum by the Compagnia del Gonfalone; but there is no evidence on this head before the end of the 15th century. In general, the spectacular magnificence of Italian theatrical displays accorded with the growing pomp of the processions both ecclesiastical and lay—called trionfi already in the days of Dante; while the religious drama gradually acquired an artificial character and elaboration of form assimilating it to the classical attempts, to be noted below, which gave rise to the regular Italian drama. The poetry of the Troubadours, which had come from Provence into Italy, here frequently took a dramatic form, and may have suggested some of his earlier poetic experiments to Petrarch.

It was a matter of course that remnants of the ancient popular dramatic entertainments should have survived in particular abundance on Italian soil. They were to be recognized in the improvised farces performed at the courts, in the churches (farse spirituali), and among the people; the Roman carnival had preserved its wagon-plays, and various links remained to connect the modern comic drama of the Italians with the Atellanes and mimes of their ancestors. But the more notable later comic developments, which belong to the 16th century, will be more appropriately noticed below. Moralities proper had not flourished in Italy, where the love of the concrete has always been dominant in popular taste; more numerous are examples of scenes, largely mythological, in which the influence of the Renaissance is already perceptible, of eclogues, and of allegorical festival-plays of various sorts.

In Spain hardly a monument of the medieval religious drama has been preserved. There is manuscript evidence of the 11th century attesting the early addition of dramatic elements to the Easter office; and a Spanish fragment Spain. of the Three Kings Epiphany play, dating from the 12th century, is, like the French Adam, one of the very earliest examples of the medieval drama in the vernacular. But that religious plays were performed in Spain is clear from the permission granted by Alphonso X. of Castile (d. 1284) to the clergy to represent them, while prohibiting the performance by them of juegos de escarnio (mocking plays). The earliest Spanish plays which we possess belong to the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16th century, and already show humanistic influence. In 1472 the couplets of Mingo Revulgo (i.e. Domingo Vulgus, the common people), and about the same time another dialogue by the same author, offer examples of a sort resembling the Italian contrasti (see below).

The German religious plays in the vernacular, the earliest of which date from the 14th and 15th centuries, and were produced at Trier, Wolfenbuttel, Innsbruck, Vienna, Berlin, &c., were of a simple kind; but in some of them, though Germany. they were written by clerks, there are traces of the minstrels’ hands. The earliest complete Christmas play in German, contained in a 14th-century St Gallen MS., has nothing in it to suggest a Latin original. On the other hand, the play of The Wise and the Foolish Virgins, in a Thuringian MS. thought to be as early as 1328, a piece of remarkable dignity, was evidently based on a Latin play. Other festivals besides Christmas were celebrated by plays; but down to the Reformation Easter enjoyed a preference. In the same century miracle-plays began to be performed, in honour of St Catherine, St Dorothea and other saints. But all these productions seem to belong to a period when the drama was still under ecclesiastical control. Gradually, as the liturgical drama returned to the simpler forms from which it had so surprisingly expanded, and ultimately died out, the religious plays performed outside the churches expanded more freely; and the type of mystery associated with the name of the Frankfort canon Baldemar von Peterweil communicated itself, with other examples, to the receptive region of the south-west. The Corpus Christi plays, or (as they were here called) Frohnleichnamsspiele, are notable, since that of Innsbruck (1391) is probably the earliest extant example of its class. The number of non-scriptural religious plays in Germany was much smaller than that in France; but it may be noted that (in accordance with a long-enduring popular notion) the theme of the last judgment was common in Germany in the latter part of the middle ages. Of this theme Antichrist may be regarded as an episode, though in 1469 an Antichrist appears to have occupied at Frankfort four days in its performance. The earlier (12th century) Antichrist is a production quite unique of its kind; this political protest breathes the Ghibelline spirit of the reign (Frederick Barbarossa’s) in which it was composed.

Though many of the early German plays contain an element of the moralities, there were few representative German examples of the species. The academical instinct, or some other influence, kept the more elaborate productions on the whole apart from the drolleries of the professional strollers (fahrende Leute), whose Shrove-Tuesday plays (Fastnachtsspiele) and cognate productions reproduced the practical fun of common life. Occasionally, no doubt, as in the Lübeck Fastnachtsspiel of the Five Virtues, the two species may have more or less closely approached to one another. When, in the course of the 15th century, Hans Rosenplüt, called Schnepperer—or Hans Schnepperer, called Rosenplüt—the predecessor of Hans Sachs, first gave a more enduring form to the popular Shrove-Tuesday plays, a connexion was already establishing itself between the dramatic amusements of the people and the literary efforts of the “master-singers” of the towns. But, while the main productivity of the writers of moralities and cognate productions—a species particularly suited to German latitudes—falls into the periods of Renaissance and Reformation, the religious drama proper survived far beyond either in Catholic Germany, and, in fact, was not suppressed in Bavaria and Tirol till the end of the 18th century.[3]

It may be added that the performance of miracle-plays is traceable in Sweden in the latter half of the 14th century; and that the German clerks and laymen who immigrated into the Carpathian lands, and into Galicia in particular, Sweden, Carpathian lands, &c. in the later middle ages, brought with them their religious plays together with other elements of culture. This fact is the more striking, inasmuch as, though Czech Easter plays were performed about the end of the 14th century, we hear of none among the Magyars, or among their neighbours of the Eastern empire.

Coming now to the English religious drama, we find that from its extant literature a fair general idea may be derived of the character of these medieval productions. The miracle-plays, miracles or plays (these being the terms used in Religious drama in England. England) of which we hear in London in the 12th century were probably written in Latin and acted by ecclesiastics; but already in the following century mention is made—in the way of prohibition—of plays acted by professional players. (Isolated moralities of the 12th century are not to be regarded as popular productions.) In England as elsewhere, the clergy either sought to retain their control over the religious plays, which continued to be occasionally acted in churches even after the Reformation, or else reprobated them with or Cornish miracle-plays. without qualifications. In Cornwall miracles in the native Cymric dialect were performed at an early date; but those which have been preserved are apparently copies of English (with the occasional use of French) originals; they were represented, unlike the English plays, in the open country, in extensive amphitheatres constructed for the purpose—one of which, at St Just near Penzance, has recently been restored.

The flourishing period of English miracle-plays begins with the practice of their performance by trading-companies in the towns, though these bodies were by no means possessed of any special privileges for the purpose. Of this practice Localities of the performance of miracle-plays. Chester is said to have set the example (1268-1276); it was followed in the course of the 13th and 14th centuries by many other towns, while in yet others traces of such performances are not to be found till the 15th, or even the 16th. These towns with their neighbourhoods include, starting from East Anglia, where the religious drama was particularly at home, Wymondham, Norwich, Sleaford, Lincoln, Leeds, Wakefield, Beverley, York, Newcastle-on-Tyne, with a deviation across the border to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In the north-west they are found at Kendal, Lancaster, Preston, Chester; whence they may be supposed to have migrated to Dublin. In the west they are noticeable at Shrewsbury, Worcester and Tewkesbury; in the Midlands at Coventry and Leicester; in the east at Cambridge and Bassingbourne, Heybridge and Manningtree; to which places have to be added Reading, Winchester, Canterbury, Bethesda and London, in which last the performers were the parish-clerks. Four collections, in addition to some single examples of such plays, The York, Towneley, Chester and Coventry plays. have come down to us, the York plays, the so-called Towneley plays, which were probably acted at the fairs of Widkirk, near Wakefield, and those bearing the names of Chester and of Coventry. Their dates, in the forms in which they have come down to us, are more or less uncertain; that of the York may on the whole be concluded to be earlier than that of the Towneley, which were probably put together about the middle of the 14th century; the Chester may be ascribed to the close of the 14th or the earlier part of the 15th; the body of the Coventry probably belongs to the 15th or 16th. Many of the individual plays in these collections were doubtless founded on French originals; others are taken direct from Scripture, from the apocryphal gospels, or from the legends of the saints. Their characteristic feature is the combination of a whole series of plays into one collective whole, exhibiting the entire course of Bible history from the creation to the day of judgment. For this combination it is unnecessary to suppose that they were generally indebted to foreign examples, though there are several remarkable coincidences between the Chester plays and the French Mystère du vieil testament. Indeed, the oldest of the series—the York plays—exhibits a fairly close parallel to the scheme of the Cursor mundi, an epic poem of Northumbrian origin, which early in the 14th century had set an example of treatment that unmistakably influenced the collective mysteries as a whole. Among the isolated plays of the same type which have come down to us may be mentioned The Harrowing of Hell (the Saviour’s descent into hell), an East-Midland production which professes to tell of “a strif of Jesu and of Satan” and is probably the earliest dramatic, or all but dramatic, work in English that has been preserved; and several belonging to a series known as the Digby Mysteries, including Parfre’s Candlemas Day (the massacre of the Innocents), and the very interesting miracle of Mary Magdalene. Of the so-called “Paternoster” and “Creed” plays (which exhibit the miraculous powers of portions of the Church service) no example remains, though of some we have an account; the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, the MS. of which is preserved at Dublin, and which seems to date from the latter half of the 15th century, exhibits the triumph of the holy wafer over wicked Jewish wiles.

To return to the collective mysteries, as they present themselves to us in the chief extant series. “The manner of these plays,” we read in a description of those at Chester, dating from the close of the 16th century, “were:—Every English collective mysteries. company had his pageant, which pageants were a high scaffold with two rooms, a higher and a lower, upon four wheels. In the lower they apparelled themselves, and in the higher room they played, being all open at the top, that all beholders might hear and see them. The places where they played them was in every street. They began first at the abbey gates, and when the first pageant was played, it was wheeled to the high cross before the mayor, and so to every street, and so every street had a pageant playing before them at one time till all the pageants appointed for the day were played; and when one pageant was near ended, word was brought from street to street, that so they might come in place thereof, exceedingly orderly, and all the streets have their pageants afore them all at one time playing together; to see which plays was great resort, and also scaffolds and stages made in the streets in those places where they determined to play their pageants.”

Each play, then, was performed by the representative of a particular trade or company, after whom it was called the fishers’, glovers’, &c., pageant; while a general prologue was spoken by a herald. As a rule the movable stage sufficed for the action, though we find horsemen riding up to the scaffold, and Herod instructed to “rage in the pagond and in the strete also.” There is no probability that the stage was, as in France, divided into three platforms with a dark cavern at the side of the lowest, appropriated respectively to the Heavenly Father and his angels, to saints and glorified men, to mere men, and to souls in hell. But the last-named locality was frequently displayed in the English miracles, with or without fire in its mouth. The costumes were in part conventional,—divine and saintly personages being distinguished by gilt hair and beards, Herod being clad as a Saracen, the demons wearing hideous heads, the souls black and white coats according to their kind, and the angels gold skins and wings.

Doubtless these performances abounded in what seem to us ludicrous features; and, though their main purpose was serious, they were not in England at least intended to be devoid of fun. But many of the features in question Character of the Plays. are in truth only homely and naïf, and the simplicity of feeling which they exhibit is at times pathetic rather than laughable. The occasional grossness is due to an absence of refinement of taste rather than to an obliquity of moral sentiment. These features the four series have more or less in common, still there are certain obvious distinctions between them. The York plays (48), which were performed at Corpus Christi, are comparatively free from the tendency to jocularity and vulgarity observable in the Towneley; several of the plays concerned with the New Testament and early Christian story are, however, in substance common to both series. The Towneley Plays or Wakefield Mysteries (32) were undoubtedly composed by the friars of Widkirk or Nostel; but they are of a popular character; and, while somewhat over-free in tone, are superior in vivacity and humour to both the later collections. The Chester Plays (25) were undoubtedly indebted both to the Mystère du vieil testament and to earlier French mysteries; they are less popular in character than the earlier two cycles, and on the whole undistinguished by original power of pathos or humour. There is, on the other hand, a notable inner completeness in this series, which includes a play of Antichrist, devoid of course of any modern application. While these plays were performed at Whitsuntide, the Coventry Plays (42) were Corpus Christi performances. Though there is no proof that the extant series were composed by the Grey Friars, they reveal a considerable knowledge of ecclesiastical literature. For the rest, they are far more effectively written than the Chester Plays, and occasionally rise to real dramatic force. In the Coventry series there is already to be observed an element of abstract figures, which connects them with a different species of the medieval drama.

The moralities corresponded to the love for allegory which manifests itself in so many periods of English literature, and which, while dominating the whole field of medieval literature, was nowhere more assiduously and effectively Moralities. cultivated than in England. It is necessary to bear this in mind, in order to understand what to us seems so strange, the popularity of the moral-plays, which indeed never equalled that of the miracles, but sufficed to maintain the former species till it received a fresh impulse from the connexion established between it and the “new learning,” together with the new political and religious ideas and questions, of the Reformation age. Moreover, a specially popular element was supplied to these plays, which in manner of representation differed in no essential point from the miracles, in a character borrowed from the latter, and, in the moralities, usually provided with a companion The Devil and the Vice. whose task it was to lighten the weight of such abstractions as Sapience and Justice. These were the Devil and his attendant the Vice, of whom the latter seems to have been of native origin, and, as he was usually dressed in a fool’s habit, was probably suggested by the familiar custom of keeping an attendant fool at court or in great houses. The Vice had many aliases (Shift, Ambidexter, Sin, Fraud, Iniquity, &c.), but his usual duty is to torment and tease the Devil his master for the edification and diversion of the audience. He was gradually blended with the domestic fool, who survived in the regular drama. There are other concrete elements in the moralities; for typical figures are often fitted with concrete names, and thus all but converted into concrete human personages.

The earlier English moralities[4]—from the reign of Henry VI. to that of Henry VII.—usually allegorize the conflict between good and evil in the mind and life of man, without any side-intention of theological controversy. Such also Groups of English moralities. is still essentially the purpose of the extant morality by Henry VIII.’s poet, the witty Skelton.[5] Everyman (pr. c. 1529), perhaps the most perfect example of its class, with which the present generation has fortunately become familiar, contains passages certainly designed to enforce the specific teaching of Rome. But its Dutch original was written at least a generation earlier, and could have no controversial intention. On the other hand, R. Wever’s Lusty Juventus breathes the spirit of the dogmatic reformation of the reign of Edward VI. Theological controversy largely occupies the moralities of the earlier part of Elizabeth’s reign,[6] and connects itself with political feeling in a famous morality, Sir David Lyndsay’s Satire of the Three Estaitis, written and acted (at Cupar, in 1539) on the other side of the border, where such efforts as the religious drama proper had made had been extinguished by the Reformation. Only a single English political morality proper remains to us, which belongs to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth.[7] Another series connects itself with the ideas of the Renaissance rather than the Reformation, treating of intellectual progress rather than of moral conduct;[8] this extends from the reign of Henry VIII. to that of his younger daughter. Besides these, there remain some Elizabethan moralities which have no special theological or scientific purpose, and which are none the less lively in consequence.[9]

The transition from the morality to the regular drama in England was effected, on the one hand, by the intermixture of historical personages with abstractions—as in Bishop Bale’s Kyng Johan (c. 1548)—which easily led over to Heywood’s interludes. the chronicle history; on the other, by the introduction of types of real life by the side of abstract figures. This latter tendency, of which instances occur in earlier plays, is observable in several of the 16th-century moralities;[10] but before most of these were written, a further step in advance had been taken by a man of genius, John Transition from the morality to the regular drama. Heywood (b. c. 1500, d. between 1577 and 1587), whose “interludes”[11] were short farces in the French manner. The term “interludes” was by no means new, but had been applied by friend and foe to religious plays, and plays (including moralities) in general, already in the 14th century. But it conveniently serves to designate a species which marks a distinct stage in the history of the modern drama. Heywood’s interludes dealt entirely with real—very real—men and women. Orthodox and conservative, he had at the same time a keen eye for the vices as well as the follies of his age, and not the least for those of the clerical profession. Other writers, such as T. Ingeland,[12] took the same direction; and the allegory of abstractions was thus undermined on the stage, very much as in didactic literature the ground had been cut from under its feet by the Ship of Fooles. Thus the interludes facilitated the advent of comedy, without having superseded the earlier form. Both moralities and miracle-plays survived into the Elizabethan age after the regular drama had already begun its course.

Such, in barest outline, was the progress of dramatic entertainments in the principal countries of Europe, before the revival of classical studies brought about a return to the examples of the classical drama, or before this return had Pageants. distinctly asserted itself. It must not, however, be forgotten that from an early period in England as elsewhere had flourished a species of entertainments, not properly speaking dramatic, but largely contributing to form and foster a taste for dramatic spectacles. The pageants—as they were called in England—were the successors of those ridings from which, when they gladdened “Chepe,” Chaucer’s idle apprentice would not keep away; but they had advanced in splendour and ingenuity of device under the influence of Flemish and other foreign examples. Costumed figures represented before gaping citizens the heroes of mythology and history, and the abstractions of moral, patriotic, or municipal allegory; and the city of London clung with special fervour to these exhibitions, which the Elizabethan drama was neither able nor—as represented by most of its poets who composed devices and short texts for these and similar shows—willing to oust from popular favour. Some of the greatest and some of the least of English dramatists were the ministers of pageantry; and perhaps it would have been an advantage for the future of the theatre if the legitimate drama and the Triumphs of Old Drapery had been more jealously kept apart. With the reign of Henry VIII. there also set in a varied succession of entertainments at court and in the houses of the great nobles, which may be said to have lasted through the Tudor and early Stuart periods; but it would be an endless task to attempt to discriminate the dramatic elements contained in these productions. The “mask,” stated to have been introduced from Italy into England as a new diversion in 1512-1513, at first merely added a fresh element of “disguising” to those already in use; as a quasi-dramatic species (“mask” or “masque”) capable of a great literary development it hardly asserted itself till quite the end of the 16th century.


  1. Gallicanus, part ii.; Sapientia.
  2. Gallicanus, part i.; Callimachus; Abraham; Paphnutius.
  3. The passion-play of Oberammergau, familiar in its present artistic form to so many visitors, was instituted under special circumstances in the days of the Thirty Years’ War (1634). Various reasons account for its having been allowed to survive.
  4. To the earliest group belong The Castle of Perseverance; Wisdom who is Christ; Mankind; to the second, or early Tudor group, Medwell, Nature; The World and the Child; Hycke-Scorner, &c.
  5. Magnyfycence.
  6. New Custome; N. Woodes, The Conflict of Conscience, &c.
  7. Albyon Knight.
  8. Rastell, Nature of the Four Elements; Redford, Wit and Science; The Trial of Treasure; The Marriage of Wit and Science.
  9. The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom; The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality.
  10. Jack Juggler; Tom Tiler and his Wife, &c.
  11. The Four P’s, &c.
  12. The Disobedient Child (c. 1560).