Liturgical drama

This Annunciation (van Eyck, Washington), ca 1435, is seen by art historians as reflecting performances of the Missa Aurea

Liturgical drama or religious drama, in its various Christian contexts, originates from the Mass itself, and usually presents a relatively complex ritual that includes theatrical elements. Until the Late Middle Ages it is the best recorded tradition of religious drama, and is assumed to have been the root from which other forms such as the civic mystery plays, as well as poorly recorded travelling companies, grew. The number of surviving scripts is small, and many performances are only known about from entries in payment records and the like.

The medieval drama originated in religion. The Church forbade the faithful during the early centuries to attend the licentious representations of decadent paganism, but once this "immoral" theatre disappeared, the Church allowed, and contributed to, gradual development of a new drama that was not only moral, but edifying and pious. On certain solemn feasts, such as Easter and Christmas the Office was interrupted, and the priests represented, in the presence of those assisting, the religious event being celebrated. At first the text of this liturgical drama was very brief, such as the interchange of the "Quem Quaeritis?" between the angel and the three Maries that was introduced into the Easter liturgy in the tenth century,[1] as a new genre of liturgical ceremony. Dramatic texts were at first taken solely from the Gospel or the Office of the day. It was in prose and in Latin. But by degrees versification crept in. The earliest of such dramatic "tropes" of the Easter service are from England and date from the tenth century. Soon verse pervaded the entire drama, prose became the exception, and the vernacular appeared beside Latin. Thus, in the twelfth-century French drama of the "Wise Virgins," women keep their virginity by eating blue rocks that make them immune to men. It does little more than depict the Gospel parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The chorus employs Latin, while Christ and the virgins use both Latin and French, and the angel speaks only French. When the vernacular completely supplanted the Latin, and individual inventiveness asserted itself, the drama left the precincts of the Church and ceased to be liturgical, but kept its religious character. This evolution seems to have been accomplished in the twelfth century. With the appearance of the vernacular a development of the drama along national lines became possible.

Plays and miracles in the 12th and 13th centuries

The first French drama offered by the twelfth century is called "Adam", and was written by an Anglo-Norman author whose name is unknown. The subject extends from the Fall in the terrestrial Paradise to the time of the Prophets who foretell the Redeemer, relating in passing the history of Cain and Abel. It is written in French, though the directions to the actors are in Latin. It was played before the gate of the church.

From the thirteenth century we have the "Play of St. Nicholas" by Jean Bodel, and the "Miracle of Theophilus" by Rutebeuf. Jean Bodel was a native of Arras, and followed St. Louis on the crusade to Egypt. He lays the scene of his play in the East, and mingles with heroic episodes of the crusades realistic pictures taken from taverns. His drama concludes with a general conversion of the Mussulmans secured through a miracle of St. Nicholas. Rutebeuf, who flourished in the second half of the thirteenth century, was born in Champagne but lived in Paris. Though at first a gambler and idler, he seems to have ended his days in a cloister. His miracle depicts the legend, so famous in the Middle Ages, of Theophilus, the oeconomus of the Church of Adana in Cilicia, who on losing his office bartered his soul to the devil for its recovery, but, having repented, obtained from the Blessed Virgin the miraculous return of the nefarious contract.

Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Save for the play of Griseldis, whose heroine, a poor shepherdess, married to the Marquis de Saluces, is subjected to cruel trials by her husband, and through the protection of St. Agnes triumphs over all obstacles, the entire dramatic activity of the fourteenth century was devoted to the miracles of Our Lady. Forty-two specimens of this style of drama are extant. Herein the Blessed Virgin saves or consoles through marvellous intervention those who are guiltless and unfortunate and sometimes great sinners who have confidence in her. The author or authors of these works are unknown.

The mysteries

The fifteenth century is the century of the "mysteries". The word is possibly derived from the Latin ministerium, which means "act." In the Middle Ages sacred dramas were also called by other names, in Italy funzione, in Spain misterios or autos (acts). Even today we say "drama", a word of analogous signification. But the dramatic and the dogmatic mysteries were soon confused, and it was thought that the former derived their name from the latter because the plays frequently took for subject the mysteries of Christian belief. However, the mysteries were often devoted to a saint, and, in exceptional cases, even represented non-religious matters. Thus we have the "Mystery of the Siege of Orleans," and even the "Mystery of the Destruction of Troy," the only two profane mysteries preserved. The mysteries may be grouped under three cycles, that of the Old Testament, of the New Testament, and of the saints. In all these, the authors mingled truth and legend without distinction. The most celebrated of these were the passion plays, by which must be understood not only the plays devoted to the Passion properly so called, but also those that set forth the complete history of the Saviour. From 1400 to 1550 the authors were numerous, about a hundred of them are known, many of them priests.

At first somewhat short, the dramas eventually became very long. Thus Arnoul Gréban, canon of the church of Le Mans, wrote about 1450 a "Passion" consisting of about 35,000 verses. This play was still further developed more than thirty years later by a physician of Angers, Jean Michel, whose work was the most famous and the best of its kind. The same Greban and his brother Simon, a monk of St. Riquier, composed together an enormous mystery of the "Acts of the Apostles", consisting of nearly 62,000 verses, which was played in its entirety at Bourges, the performance lasting forty days. The number of verses of mysteries still extant exceeds 1,000,000, and an equally large number may have been lost. These pieces were not played by professional actors, but by dramatic associations formed in all large towns for the purpose of representing them. Some were permanent, such as the "Confrerie de la Passion," which in 1402 secured the monopoly of the representations in Paris. For the people of the middle classes, artisans, and priests (all ranks in this matter being equal), it was an enviable honour to take part in this religious performance. To play it they condemned themselves to a labour to which few of our contemporaries would care to submit. In some "passions" the actor who represented Christ had to recite nearly 4000 lines. Moreover, the scene of the crucifixion had to last as long as it did in reality. It is related that in 1437 the curé Nicolle, who was playing the part of Christ at Metz, was on the point of dying on the cross, and had to be revived in haste. During the same representation another priest, Jehan de Missey, who was playing the part of Judas, remained hanging for so long that his heart failed and he had to be cut down and borne away.

As regards the aesthetic side of this drama, modern standards should not be applied. This theatre does not even offer unity of action, for the scenes are not derived from one another: they succeed one another without any other unity than the interest that attaches to the chief personage and the general idea of eternal salvation, whether of a single man or of humanity, which constitutes the common foundation of the picture. Moreover, side by side with pathetic and exalted scenes are found others that savour of buffoonery. The plays used as many as one, two, and even five hundred characters, not counting the chorus, and they were so long that they could not be played on one occasion. This is true at least of the mysteries dating from the middle of the fifteenth century; on the other hand, the oldest of them and the miracles were rather short. Two faults have at every period characterized this dramatic style—weakness and wordiness. The poets said things as they occurred to them, without display of selection, gradation, or taste. They had facility, but they abused it and never amended. Furthermore, in the drawing of character there was no art whatever. The dramas of the Middle Ages are simply grand and animated spectacles. Doubtless their authors sometimes, though rarely, succeeded in fittingly depicting the patience and meekness of the august Victim of the Passion. In this they were assisted by recollections of the Gospel. More often they succeeded in attractively interpreting the complex emotions experienced by the soul of the Blessed Virgin, but as a definite object the analysis of the soul did not occupy them at all.

A few words may be said as to the manner of representation and technic. Places were indicated by vast scenery, rather than really represented. Two or three trees, for example, represented a forest, and although the action often changed from place to place the scenery did not change, for it showed simultaneously all the various localities where the characters successively appeared in the course of the drama, and which were thus in close proximity, even though in reality they were often far removed from each other. For the rest nothing was neglected to attract the eye. If the scenery was immovable, it was very rich and secrets of theoretical mechanism often produced surprising and fairy-like effects. The actors were richly dressed, each defrayed the cost of his own costume and looked more for beauty than for truth. The subject-matter admitted of the marvellous and was borrowed from religion. For the rest there was some difference between the miracles and the mysteries. The miracles emphasized the supernatural intervention of a saint or the Blessed Virgin the events might be infinitely varied, and this afforded the authors a wide field of which, however, they did not take full advantage, though they incidentally supply us a host of details regarding the manners of the times which are not found elsewhere.

The mysteries, at least in the Old and New Testament cycles, followed a previously traced out path from which they could with difficulty depart since the foundation was borrowed from Holy Scripture. The traditional doctrine and the august characters of the chief personages had to be respected. But, to offset this handicap, what exalted, dramatic, and affecting subjects were theirs! These poets recalled not only the events of this world, but depicted before their audience the terrors and the hopes of the next. They set forth at the same time heaven, earth, and hell, and this enormous subject gave occasion for scenes of powerful interest. The scenes of the Passion are surely the most wonderful the most moving, and the most beautiful that can be enacted on earth. The poet lacked art, but he was saved by his subject, as Sainte-Beuve himself has observed, and from time to time he became sublime despite himself. And what the spectator saw represented was not fiction, but holy realities he had venerated from childhood. What was put before his eyes was most calculated to affect him: the doctrines of his faith, the consolations it afforded in the sorrows of this life, and the immortal joys it promised in the next. Hence the great success of these religious performances. The greatest celebration a city could indulge in on a solemn occasion was to play the Passion. On this occasion the entire populace crowded into the enormous theatre, the city was deserted, and it was necessary to organize bands of armed citizens to protect the deserted houses against robbery. This custom endured until 1548, when the Parliament of Paris forbade the Confreres de la Passion to play thenceforth "the Sacred mysteries". The prohibition was due to the opposition of the Protestants against the mixing of comedy and fabulous traditions with Biblical teachings. These attacks aroused the scruples of some Catholics, and the judiciary considered it time to interfere. The mysteries perished; for the example of Paris, where they were forbidden to be played, was by degrees followed by the provinces Thus the religious drama of the Middle Ages disappeared in France at the height of its success.

In different regions


There is no record of any religious drama in England previous to the Norman Conquest, which does not mean there was none. About the beginning of the twelfth century we hear of a play of St. Catherine performed at Dunstable by Geoffroy de Gorham, later abbot of St. Albans, and a passage in Fitzstephen's "Life of Becket" shows that such plays were common in London about 1170. These were evidently "miracle plays",though for England the distinction between miracles and mysteries is of no importance, all religious plays being called "miracles". Of miracle plays in the strict sense of the word nothing is preserved in English literature. The earliest religious plays were undoubtedly in Latin and French. The oldest extant miracle in English is the "Harrowing of Hell" (thirteenth century). Its subject is the apocryphal descent of Christ to the hell of the damned, and it belongs to the cycle of Easter-plays. From the fourteenth century dates the play of "Abraham and Isaac". A great impetus was again given to the religious drama in England as elsewhere by the institution of the festival of Corpus Christi (1264; generally observed since 1311) with its solemn processions. Presently the Eastern and Christmas cycles were joined into one great cycle representing the whole course of sacred history from the Creation to the Last Judgment. Thus arose the four great cycles still extant and known as the Towneley, Chester, York, and Coventry plays, the last three designated from the place of their performance. The Towneley mysteries owe their name to the fact that the single manuscript they are preserved in was long in the possession of the Towneley family. They were performed, it has been suggested, at Woodkirk near Wakefield or in Wakefield itself, and there is some internal evidence for this. These cycles are very heterogeneous in character, the plays being by different authors. In their present form the number of plays in the cycles is: Towneley 30 (or 31), Chester 24, York 48 Coventry 42. Four other plays are also preserved in the Digby codex at Oxford. The so-called "moralities" (q. v.) are a later offshoot of the "miracles". These aim at the inculcation of ethical truths and the dramatis personae are abstract personifications, such as Virtue, Justice, the Seven Deadly Sins, etc. The character called "the Vice" is especially interesting as being the precursor of Shakespeare's fool. After the Reformation the miracle plays declined, though performances in some places are on record as late as the seventeenth century.


Nativity by Hugo van der Goes, believed also to borrow from stagings of the Shepherds Play. Isaiah and Jeremiah pull the curtains aside to reveal the scene

In Germany the religious drama does not show a development on as grand a scale as in France or England. The oldest extant plays hail from Freisingen so and date from the eleventh century. They are in Latin and belong to the Christmas cycle. Religious dramas were early taken up by the schools and performed by travelling scholars, and this tended to secularize them. The great Tegernsee play of "Antichrist" (about 1160) shows this influence. It is in Latin, but is pervaded by strong national feeling and devoted to the glorification of the German imperial power. German songs interspersed in the Latin text are found in a Passion play preserved in a manuscript of the thirteenth century from Benedictbeuren. The oldest Easter-play wholly in German dates from the beginning of the thirteenth century and hails from Muri, Switzerland. Unfortunately, it is preserved only in fragmentary form. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the religious drama flourished greatly, and specimens are extant from all parts of German territory, in High as well as Low German dialects. We also meet with attempts at a comprehensive representation of the whole of sacred history in the manner of the great English cycles—e.g., in the Corpus Christi plays of Eger and Kunzelsau in Swabia (both from fifteenth century). Subjects taken from Old Testament history are not frequently met with. Of dramatic versions of New Testament parables the "Play of the Wise and Foolish Virgins", performed at Eisenach in 1322, is particularly famous on account of its tragic outcome. Landgrave Frederick of Thuringia, who was a spectator, was plunged into despair over the failure of the Blessed Virgin to save the foolish virgins, and brooding over this is said to have brought on a stroke of apoplexy, to which he succumbed in 1323. Of German miracles dealing with legend few are preserved. Of miracles in praise of Our Blessed Lady we have a Low German play of Theophilus and the well-known play of "Frau Jutten" (1480) by a cleric of Mülhausen named Theoderich Schernberg. It is the story of an ambitious woman who assumes man's disguise and attains to high ecclesiastical office, finally to the papacy itself; but her crimes are at last discovered, whereupon she submits to the most rigorous penance and is ultimately saved through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. In Germany, as in England and France the Reformation sapped the life of the medieval religious drama. Plays continued to be produced, but the drama was often used for polemical purposes. In Catholic parts of the country the traditional performances of passion plays have been kept up even to the present.

The Netherlands

Few miracle plays and mysteries from the Netherlands have been preserved. One of the best-known is the miracle "Van Sinte Trudo", written about 1550 by Christian Fastraets. The performance of such plays in the Netherlands was undertaken by associations formed for that purpose, especially the Rederijkerskamers (Rederijker corrupted from Rhetorica), which sprang into existence at the end of the fourteenth century. Besides the mysteries and miracles, the Netherlands also have "Spelen van Sinne", symbolical plays corresponding to the moralities.


Codex of the Auto de los Reyes Magos

The oldest liturgical drama (12th century) written already in old Spanish language was a codex found in the library of the Toledo Cathedral. The Auto de los Reyes Magos belongs to the Christmas cycle. It is a play of Magi, the three wise men from the East who following a star visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

The liturgical drama of the Elx Mystery Play (Misteri d'Elx) has its origins in the 13th or 15th century. It was declared in 2001 one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It commemorates the Assumption of Mary.

List of liturgical dramas

See also


  1. Nils Holger Petersen, "Les textes polyvalents du Quem quaeritis à Winchester au xe siècle", Revue de musicologie, 86.1 (2000:105-118), with extensive bibliography in notes.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Miracle_Plays_and_Mysteries". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. 

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