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What Is Medieval Theatre?

Marjorie McAtee
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Historical Context

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.

Early Theatre

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.

Later Theatre

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.

Play Characteristics

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.

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Marjorie McAtee
By Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee, a talented writer and editor with over 15 years of experience, brings her diverse background and education to everything she writes. With degrees in relevant fields, she crafts compelling content that informs, engages, and inspires readers across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a skilled member of any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon328421 — On Apr 03, 2013

All this religious morality is crap. The point of theater is to entertain and provide a distraction from everyday life.

By tolleranza — On Oct 31, 2011

I think that all churches should continue these medieval plays, as it really helps explain the moral messages and puts the important stories to life. People of all ages could learn a lot and be entertained from these medieval plays.

It is really amazing to see the truth brought to light and to life in medieval theatre. This is a nice way to portray the important messages that need to be portrayed, for what is truly important in this life is preparing and knowing about the next life.

These biblical plays could actually be the catalyst for some to be saved. A lot of people are wary of church, but not as many people are as wary as the material taught in churches, especially Christian churches. I know a lot of people who do not go to church because they feel judged or that the people there are hypocrites.

If you put information in a play fashion, it seems to be less threatening and more real. Also, if we as Christians act as much like Jesus Christ as we can always, we will basically be showing people how to live their life instead of telling them how to do it.

By Sinbad — On Oct 30, 2011

One of the non-denominational Christian churches I used to go to put on two annual plays that seem like they would be classified as medieval theatre. Both plays would have been classified as mystery plays under medieval theatre, because they were based on biblical accounts.

One play was about Christmas, when Jesus was born. The other was about the events leading up to Easter, and Easter. Easter is when Jesus rose from the dead after being beaten, tortured, and put to death for all of our sins. It was huge production, so huge that it lasted for several weeks, and lots of people from out of state attended these plays, especially the Easter play.

I am sad to say that these play went on for about ten years, and this year, they stopped having them. I don't know if their funds were to dwindling, which I doubt (since this particular church is the largest and wealthiest church in the whole state), or they did not have enough actors/actresses and volunteers to pull everything together. I still wonder what happened to the Medieval Theatre at this church, as it was a great depiction of the bible stories.

By Monika — On Oct 30, 2011

@starrynight - While we do live in a pretty diverse society, we still do have a Christian majority in this country. I think a play based on the Bible could be successful. I mean, look at the movie The Passion of the Christ. That was based on the Bible and very commercially successful.

However, I think a Bible based play for modern audiences would probably have a different slant than Medieval theatre. I feel like modern audiences prefer more storytelling and less moralizing.

By starrynight — On Oct 30, 2011

I doubt this kind of theatre would ever attain popularity these days. At least, not in the United States.

We have so many different kinds of people in this country. People of all kinds of backgrounds and religions. While Medieval Europe was a somewhat homogenous society as far as race and religion, modern United States is not!

I'm sure there is a place for Christian themed plays in churches still. But I don't see a Biblically themed play attaining much success on the mass market.

By hamje32 — On Oct 29, 2011

@Mammmood - I wonder how long the first plays were. If they were meant merely to serve as illustrations for the sermons, then I’d think they would be no more than thirty minutes maximum.

At our church we have a strong creative arts department. Sometimes the team will come out on stage and do a performance to illustrate a point that the pastor is making.

Usually these are brief two to three person skits, and often they are very funny! I can certainly understand why the Medieval churches used them as tools for making a point. Plays can get the point across quite well; and I’ve never nodded off in the middle of a play (as opposed to a sermon).

By Mammmood — On Oct 28, 2011

@Charred - I never would have thought of the “Twilight Zone” as a morality play but I guess you’re right.

While the article doesn’t say, I’d also bet that the Medieval plays influenced Shakespeare and his rich tradition. He dealt with universal truths and there were allegories in his plays just like there were in the Medieval plays.

I think these kinds of plays stay relevant because they touch on universal themes that people everywhere can relate to, regardless of their religious tradition or affiliation.

By Charred — On Oct 28, 2011

@allenJo - You bring up a good point. I think it should also be stressed that the artistic expression doesn’t have to be Christian in viewpoint.

The article mentions the morality play. That sounds like it was something pedantic, but the term morality play exists today to describe a work of art that has some moral point.

If you want a modern day example of a morality play, take the old “Twilight Zone” series from the 1960s with Rod Serling’s signature voice as an example. Believe it or not, these were morality plays; each episode used science fiction and fantasy to tell a story, which however farfetched the plot, seemed to end with a twist and a certain moral point.

It was not preachy; it was illustrative, and that’s what morality plays do.

By allenJo — On Oct 27, 2011

I think Medieval Theater reinforces the fact that the arts and the sacred do not have to be kept separate.

As a matter of fact when I went to college I noticed that a lot of the Western classical literature that I read reflected the Judeo- Christian tradition. There were a few notable exceptions here and there, but for the most part this rang true.

Of course literature and the arts is a reflection of the times, and so I guess the Medieval Theater was a reflection of those times. Nowadays the arts have taken on a more secular role, because times have changed, but some people believe that the arts can still be used to illustrate sacred truth.

This is especially true with the advent of faith based film making. Last week I saw one such film which was quite moving. Artistically, it was done well too.

By TreeMan — On Oct 27, 2011

@Izzy78 - You are absolutely correct. Religion at the time of the height Medieval Theater had its highest emphasis and they hoped to save as many people as possible and get as many people in the churches as they could.

However, people were simpler back then and there was a problem keeping people in the churches. This was just an ongoing problem and eventually the churches accepted it and sought other ways to religiously educate people. That is where medieval theaters come in.

Most people enjoyed watching plays back in the days before television and Medieval Times were no exception. By instituting religious morals and religious tones in the story the churches were able to educate people and spread their religious messages through a entertainment meme.

By Izzy78 — On Oct 26, 2011

I have seen a type of medieval theater relived at a medieval fair and was quite different than what I saw at the dinner theater version.

The medieval theater I saw was a very quiet, simple type of theater that simply sought to tell its story. It was theater at its simplest form involving costumes but was all story driven, hoping to educate the audience on certain things that they may take for granted.

In Medieval Europe at the height of medieval theater the emphasis on religion was very high and there was constant tries to try and educate the populace in religion and its messages, however they had to do so outside of church in order to make sure people would want to hear the message. Medieval theaters were created to simplify the messages and preach them in a way that people could understand and remember.

By stl156 — On Oct 25, 2011

I believe what you saw was a type of theater depicting medieval times, but not necessarily considered medieval theater.

I would equate what you saw to a medieval fair, which revolves around the interest in medieval life and culture and is more of an attraction for entertainment purposes as opposed to what the article describes as medieval theater, which is centered around art with a message.

Most medieval theater occurred centuries ago and declined once people started to re-gain interest in the Roman empire and started doing theater based upon Roman and Greek fables.

Medieval theater was something that was supposed to send a message to the audience and not necessarily revolve around what they saw. They had to think in order for the play put on to be successful and differs greatly to the type of theater that you saw.

By cardsfan27 — On Oct 25, 2011

I once went to a dinner theater where the actors involved jousted and fought to the death -- well, not really to the death, but it looked like it. It was a good time and I loved to visit the dungeon, which had many re-productions of medieval torture devices. They claimed to be a medieval theater, because it took place in medieval times and was simply a classic knights tale, but upon reading this article it calls into question their self proclaimed title as a medieval theater.

The medieval dinner theater that I went to did not really have morals involved or a biblical nature to them, they were simply stories centered around entertainment. The knights fought to the "death" for control of the kingdom and the hand of the fair princess. I would think that this would be what a medieval theater would be, but the article as written would disagree. So my question is are there different types of medieval theater?

Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee, a talented writer and editor with over 15 years of experience, brings her diverse background and education to everything she writes. With degrees in relevant fields, she crafts compelling content that informs, engages, and inspires readers across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a skilled member of any content creation team.
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