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Medieval theatre refers to play productions that occurred generally between 600 and 1600 A.D. Many of these plays recounted stories from the life of Jesus Christ, as well other tales from the Christian Bible. While works of early medieval theatre were strictly religious in nature and put on inside of churches, as the centuries passed, both members of the clergy and general members of the community began putting on plays outside, using vernacular languages instead of Latin, and sometimes moving to more secular themes.
Before the medieval period, the major Roman Catholic leaders believed that the traditional play was wildly corrupt, leading people away from faith and into sin. Subsequently, they banned performances as a way to put a stop to what they saw as immoral activities and messages. At the same time, queens and kings in many countries were closing public theaters because of health, public or economic concerns — these would not open again until the Renaissance. Individuals still tried to put on entertainment through dances and small traveling bands of singers, storytellers and the like, but truly organized theatre had come to a screeching halt.
With regular theatre banned by the Roman Catholic Church, producing plays in medieval Europe is believed to have begun as part of the Christian worship service, with priests or members of the clergy putting on the early performances indoors to control play content. During regular mass, these individuals spoke in Latin, not only because that language had become widespread in the church as a replacement for the ancient Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek that had been common, but also because leaders of the church felt that its "dead" status or separateness from the vernacular protected it from change and subsequent loss of important meaning. The common people generally did not understand what was being said, so historians believe that the use of plays helped medieval churchgoers understand the gist of what regularly was preached about Jesus Christ, the Bible or the saints and martyrs.
Most scholars believe that, by the year 1200, medieval theatre performances were forced to move outdoors. The increasing size and complexity of sets and other materials used, which was sometimes called for with more elaborate plots, likely contributed to this change. More people also were coming to see the plays, so many medieval churches might have had trouble accommodating the crowds. Not all of the scripts people wanted to do were considered moral enough for the church, as well, so communities might have started moving theatre outside to make it acceptable to explore other plots and characters. It became all right for those not affiliated with the clergy to take roles, although participation still was limited primarily to boys and men, and actors delivered their lines in their everyday language by 1350.
With performances no longer limited to buildings of worship, late medieval theatre saw the development of the pageant. This term referred not only to the play people were putting on, but also to the movable, wheeled platform or wagon on which the performance was staged. A typical pageant wagon provided space for both set pieces and general acting, along with a place for the actors to change, and they were designed to let the play come to the audience rather than the other way around. Maintained by professional trade guilds but operating with content and leadership support from the church, they were instrumental in delivering both the Christian message and early secular plays.
Types of Plays
People performed three main kinds of scripts during the medieval period, including morality, mystery and miracle. The first type used the soul of man as a backdrop, focusing on the everyday struggles ordinary individuals faced in trying to be upright and reject sin. Usually allegorical, they were meant to teach audiences how to behave in a more suitably Christian manner. A major feature of this genre is that it used character names such as Everyman, Good Deeds, Knowledge and Death to make it easy to understand the larger life lessons the playwrights wanted to get across.
Mystery plays are so named in reference to the mystery of Christ, which is His ultimate love and purpose, the salvation of sinners through His suffering and death on the cross. They usually focused on the life of Jesus, but they might include other Biblical stories as well, relating them to the promises God fulfilled. In a sense, they were easy-to-grasp, entertaining ways to communicate the heart of the gospel to audiences who were largely still illiterate.
Miracle plays were closely related to the mystery type, but they centered around the lives and works of the saints. Many were based on scripture, but others were based more on hearsay and legend. If a saint had a designated holiday within the church, the plays for that saint were usually held on that day, but people also performed them more generally throughout the year as a way to show both the greatness of God and the power of faith. These often were produced to reinforce the message of discipleship and to spur people to do good deeds in the name of Jesus, just as the early apostles are said to have done.
Regardless of what genre a script fell into during this period, productions usually did not portray history or other cultures accurately, simply because communications and travel were still very limited, restricting what people knew about other areas and societies. It was common for there to be errors in chronology, usually showing up as improper use of a particular prop or including a character who, either because of location or date of birth, shouldn't be present. Playwrights or actors often put comic elements into serious plays or vice versa to convey Christian or moral ideas, which often created some problems with emotional flow and plot cohesiveness, and which by modern standards likely would be considered very jarring. Heaven and Hell usually were presented as being unshakable constants, with Earth being merely a place for people to live out very temporary lives until the return of Christ and final judgment before God.
Prior to 1200 when medieval theatre was restricted to the church and members of the clergy, actors centered most of their action around specific areas of the church or pieces of set called mansions or stations. These represented distinct locations in the plot, such as the stable where Jesus was born or a corner of Heaven. The spaces where actors performed around these stations were known as plateaus. The people in the play would move from spot to spot as the story unfolded, and the audience often would follow to make sure they could see and hear well.
The idea of the mansion and plateau survived even as performances shifted outside of the church, although those on pageant wagons were much more limited because of amount of physical room available was confined to the dimensions of the wagon platform. In both early and late medieval theatre, the view of Earth as a temporary dwelling place or transition between Heaven and Hell typically resulted in mansion and plateau setups where Heaven and Hell were on opposite ends of the space and Earth was in the middle. To achieve special effects in outdoor plays, such as flying angels and disappearing people, individuals relied on elements such as trap doors and simple machinery, which became increasingly complex and sophisticated over time.
Early actors during this period usually wore their service vestments or simple costumes such as robes, because the plays were considered to be a part of worship services. As performances moved outside and included more members of the community, however, more elaborate costumes became more acceptable. Much of the time, these were just regular clothes with some special accessories to make a role or plot clearer, because it was expensive to make new garments, but occasionally a troupe had enough funds to make new, lavish items to wear for specific parts.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the historical significance of medieval theatre?
Medieval theatre marks a vital period in the history of European performing arts. It emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire, intertwining with religious festivals to educate and entertain the masses. The Church initially used it as a tool to communicate Biblical stories to an illiterate population. Over time, it evolved to include secular themes and institutions like the guilds began producing plays, which laid the groundwork for modern theatre.
How did medieval theatre differ from ancient Greek and Roman theatre?
Unlike the ancient Greek and Roman theatres, which were characterized by their grand amphitheaters and focus on tragedy and comedy, medieval theatre was more diverse in its locations and themes. Performances often took place in public squares, pageant wagons, or at the steps of churches, and they were deeply rooted in Christian liturgy. The content ranged from religious morality plays to secular farces, reflecting a broader spectrum of social life.
What were the common types of plays performed during the medieval period?
During the medieval period, the most common types of plays were Miracle Plays, which depicted the lives of saints; Mystery Plays, which dramatized Bible stories; and Morality Plays, which used allegorical characters to teach moral lessons. These forms of theatre were instrumental in shaping the cultural and religious consciousness of the time, often performed during festivals like Corpus Christi.
Who were the performers in medieval theatre, and what was their status in society?
Performers in medieval theatre were a diverse group, including clergy, guild members, and sometimes professional actors. Initially, clergy members performed liturgical dramas, but as theatre became more secular, guilds took on the responsibility of producing plays. The status of performers varied; while some were respected for their craft, others, particularly itinerant actors, were viewed with suspicion and faced social stigma.
How did medieval theatre influence modern theatre?
Medieval theatre's influence on modern theatre is profound. It introduced the concept of staging plays in vernacular languages, making theatre accessible to the general populace. The use of movable stages and pageant wagons in medieval times can be seen as a precursor to modern set design and theatre technology. Additionally, the thematic diversity of medieval plays, encompassing both religious and secular topics, set a precedent for the wide range of genres in contemporary theatre.