Medieval Europe – The Middle Ages
After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, the former provinces of the Roman Empire broke apart into smaller areas ruled locally by kings and nobleman. This period in Europe lasted from the late 5th century until the beginning of the Renaissance in about 1500. In those 1000 years, Europe was made up of mostly agrarian cultures with localized languages and customs. The local landowners and their king ruled a fairly harsh existence. It was harsh not so much in terms of the treatment by the nobility, though there were some cruel leaders, but more in the very nature of living. Life for the peasantry consisted of working from sunrise to sunset virtually every single day, just to survive. There were no significant machines to make life easier. Medicine didn’t exist, so illnesses were rampant and spread across wide areas. One of these was the several waves of Bubonic Plague that swept across Europe and essentially wiped out 1/2 to 2/3 of the population in a little over two generations.
This was also the time of numerous wars to extend control over the vast areas of Europe. Some of these wars were internal civil wars, but one type of fighting was against the outside invading forces of Islam as it spread from the Middle East following approximately 650 AD.
This historical period is often referred to by the name the later Renaissance scholars used for it – the Dark Ages. However, it wasn’t truly a dark time, despite the general malaise of the people. There wasn’t as much expansion of knowledge and art, but there was some.
The bright spot in all this relative misery was the Church. The one major institution that survived the fall of Rome was the official church of Rome – the religion that eventually came to be called Catholicism, was known simply as the Church in the Middle Ages. It was the only Christian sect of the time. The divisions in the Church came later. One of the main reasons that the Church was such a major influence in the Middle Ages is that it controlled the one thing that everyone could hold on to when faced with the bleak experience of daily life, and that was hope. The hope for a better life after death. The hope for salvation. The Church was the path to that for all of Europe in the Middle Ages. As a result, the Church had a virtual monopoly of every person’s soul. The ultimate influence of the church was strengthened by the fact that the Church controlled access to and content of education. The only people who could read or write were the priests and clerk of the church. Even kings were mostly illiterate. All letters were written by Church clerks hired by the nobility, and they were read by other Church clerks hired by the receivers of the letters to read them. As a result, the Church had a hand in politics as well. The Church also served as a repository for most of the wealth that was accumulated and given as gifts to the Church or held inside the properties of the church for safekeeping. Royalty usually had to request loans to pay for armies from the Church. It was also the Church that promoted the Crusades to protect the Holy Lands from the invading Muslims. The most powerful man in Europe through the earliest part of the Middle Ages was the Pope. After Charles the Great (Charlemagne) was made the Holy Roman Emperor in the last part of the 9th century for defeating the Muslims in Spain and central Europe, then that position became the second most powerful person (or ultimately persons – Charles’ 3 sons succeeded him as Emperor over the Empire divided into three parts).
Theatre in Middle Ages
After the fall of Rome, and the end of Roman theatre, there was no formal theatre for several hundred years. There were some small travelling groups that made a miserable living travelling from town to town providing some entertainment. These were jugglers, singers, the occasional pantomime, or puppet act. They could be found throughout Europe but in very small numbers. There was no real theatre or new dramatic development during this early time though.
In the 10th century, a nun by the name of Hrosvitha in a convent in Gandersheim, in what is now Germany, was learning Latin by reading some examples of poetry and literature that had survived from ancient Rome. This was a common practice, to use the original Latin texts of Roman writers to learn Latin – which was the official language for writing and speaking in Church affairs, including the Mass. As Hrosvitha read her Latin texts, she came across the remaining plays of Terence. There were six of them – all very much in the style of later Roman comedy (which we covered in the last supplement). The way that women were depicted was shocking to the nun. They were shown to be harlots, prostitutes, and abused wives for the most part. As a result, she took it upon herself to create new versions of Terence’s plays that showed the women in a better light and that did not contain pagan beliefs, but rather focused on salvation and good behavior. These plays were intended to entertain and educate her fellow nuns, but they have survived into modern times. This same impulse persisted in other areas of Europe as well. We have other examples of religious people writing Christian-focused versions of the pagan-themed Latin plays that they read to learn the language. One other such individual is Hildegard of Bingen.
In the eastern part of the former Roman Empire, which was ruled from Byzantium (then Constantinople and now Istanbul), theatre did not completely die out. However, it was very Roman in its style and content, and so it was significantly diminished in influence because of the rules that punished those that attended. It continued that way into the 15th century, but our modern theatre did not really develop out of that tradition. It developed out of the developments in western Europe, beginning with those small-scale developments of Hrosvitha and Hildegard.
It was this new type of theatre that grew into the modern theatre. Somewhat ironically, after the church was responsible in part for ending theatre in ancient Rome, it was the reason that theatre made a comeback in the Middle Ages.
Eventually, the Church was the source of new theatre
A church service in the Middle Ages was conducted in Latin, since that was the language of the Church, carried over from its Roman roots. However, virtually no one except churchmen and clerks could speak or read Latin. That means that the congregations of the churches were listening to services in a language they did not understand. They did get some rudimentary understanding from the artwork in the churches that depicted stories of the bible, and from the limited sermons in their own languages.
Eventually, the church began to use some of the basic principles of theatre to help teach the stories of the Bible and the path to salvation espoused by Church doctrine to an essentially illiterate congregation. From these developments came two primary types of church-created drama:
Vernacular Drama (which can be broken down into Mystery Plays and Morality Plays
When we look at the rebirth of theatre in the Middle Ages, we can follow it as it starts in the monasteries and convents, then moves to the church altar, to the church steps, and finally out into the town square. This movement also follows the overall pattern of development of what theatre does in the Middle Ages. As we noted previously, theatre was reborn as a religious telling of earlier Roman plays. Well, those never really made it to the church itself, and they were never meant to be shared with the common people anyway. It isn’t until the church realizes that it needs to teach the congregations in a way that they can understand the message that we first see the theatrical elements being used in the church. This is what became known as liturgical drama.
In liturgical drama, passages from the Bible would be portrayed in the church, usually at or near the altar as a backdrop. These passages are those that are inherently dramatic. Think about the story of the passion week, when Christ comes to Jerusalem for Passover and ends up being betrayed, tried, and crucified. Those stories are very naturally dramatic, and they are some of the likely first stories that might have developed into liturgical drama.
The cantor, the choir, and the priests (and maybe some other church clerks) would portray the characters of these stories and read the appropriate passages from the Bible. Since the Bible was in Latin, the stories themselves would have been recited in Latin. However, the congregation would be able to see the stories they had learned from sermons and from church artwork come to life in front of them and get a sense of the importance and reality of the stories. These were religious stories that are related in the Bible itself, and that are read from the Bible in Latin. Essentially, the Bible itself is the script for these dramatic readings.
The other type of Church-based Theatre is known as vernacular drama. Vernacular refers to the everyday speech of the people, so this type of drama was presented in the speech of the audience which made it much easier to understand for the congregation. These were still stories taken from the Bible but told in the language that everyone would understand instead of Latin. Because these plays were not performed in Latin (the official language of the Church) they were not allowed to be performed in the church building itself. As a result, they began by being performed on the steps of the main entrance of the church building and used the natural rise of the steps to create a performance space – a raised stage. Eventually, as the audience for these types of plays grew, the space in front of the church would become too crowded, so these plays then moved to larger areas in town and away from the church itself. These usually included the town squares and marketplaces.
The plays themselves were usually paraphrases of the verses in the Bible that told the story. They often included references to significant local events or were performed in response to a social need or issue. They often included additional details to make them more understandable to the local people, and thus they were usually much longer than the dramatizations of the actual Bible verses that had been done at the altar. In some cases, these plays acted as a kind of propaganda to promote support of the Church and going to church, etc. However, they were also tools to teach important passages from the Bible with local interpretations thrown in.
Vernacular Drama: Mystery & Morality plays
The vernacular drama of the Church developed into two forms. Mystery Plays and Morality Plays.
The Mystery plays are the ones that presented a series of stories from the Bible, but not necessarily directly from the Bible. They are called mystery plays because they concern the mysteries of the Bible – the story of God and Christ. Some of the larger cites in Europe, and particularly in England, would have a whole series of these plays that illustrated many of the most famous stories from the Bible. Some of the more common themes included the stories around Christ’s passion, the stories surrounding the birth of Christ, and some of the other stories from the life of Christ – especially the miracles. The creation, the flood story, the story of Joseph were other popular ones. When a city would have a series of these plays that would be presented chronologically in the order they appear in the Bible, they would often be referred to as Cycle Plays. The most famous is the series of 48 stories from the Bible (which covered the Creation all the way to the Last Judgement) written in the middle of the 15th century, by the people of the City of York in England, that still exist and a 15th century copy is stored at the British Library.
The Morality plays were also presented in the vernacular, but they did not tell the stories from the Bible. Instead, they presented life lessons and illustrated the path to salvation based on medieval Church doctrine. They often used Biblical characters but tended to focus more on characters that were more or less contemporary with the audience that was viewing the play. The characters were sometimes allegorical, that is they represented concepts – personified – instead of actual characters. However, the most important distinction between these and Mystery plays is that Morality plays did NOT use stories directly from the Bible.
These plays also tended to be relatively short – about as long as a one-act play would be today. That’s because the audience was not used to watching a long play, and they would quickly lose interest. They were not set in Biblical times, and instead were set in the current day as the performance time of the play. These plays were very aware of their audience’s interests and limitations (attention span) and thus would blend comic elements with the serious lessons to keep the audience interested and watching through to the end. They would also include music and sometimes dancing interludes (where the audience might be invited to join in) that turned these plays into an event and something like going to a party.
Medieval Theatre Production
In the Middle Ages, theatre moved from the churches out into town. All the staging was very similar. Whether it was on a raised altar or the raised steps, or even on the platforms that would be built in the town square or marketplace. The medieval plays were usually performed on a raised platform with no curtain or proscenium. In fact, it was often just a bare platform stage that allowed the audience to sit on three sides of it. The area behind the platform was usually used for the actors to prepare and make entrances. It was elevated to allow the audience to see better since the audience would just be standing or sitting on the ground in front of the platform.
For the Mystery plays, there developed a common type of scenery that was used in many places in Europe, called mansions. A mansion was a kiosk-type of construction that would open up and the inside would be used as the backdrop for a particular scene. These would be created to establish a basic background, or scenic location, for the story being told. In some locations a series of these would be built or placed on a long platform stage to allow for the presentation of several morality plays in succession – such as the Cycle Plays. Some of the more common mansions would likely represent these locations: “heaven,” “a wall with a gate,” “a throne room” or “the temple in Jerusalem,” “Pilate’s house,” “the ark” or the “Apostles boat,” and finally “the Hell mouth” – the entrance to hell, where all sinners from the plays would be dragged off to by demons and devils! Remember that Mystery plays were meant to teach lessons, and those are best told with a very impressive visual display.
Unlike the Mystery plays, Morality plays were usually just performed on bare platform stages with a simple curtain across the back to afford the actors a little privacy between scenes. There may have been some limited use of props, but for the most part, it is likely that the description of the place the play occurred is fairly generic, meant to represent the place where it was being performed.
Another type of stage used was the Wagon Stage. Used for both Mystery plays and Morality plays, these were wagons that might have a single mansion on it, or it might be relatively bare. But these wagons served as portable platform stages that could be taken to the audience or stored and brought out into the town square to allow a play to be performed without having to erect a stage. In mostly rural areas, the Cycle plays could be performed by bringing a mansion on a wagon to a location, opening it up and performing the play, and them closing it up and moving on to another location while a second wagon came to the first location. In town squares, the wagons might be a little more elaborate than those used in the countryside, but this form of platform stage was essentially a mobile thrust stage since the audience could watch from in front of the stage or from the sides.
Medieval Theatrical Performance and Coordination
In the churches, the liturgical drama was performed by the churchmen. There would not have been common townsfolk involved in those because they would not have been able to read or speak the necessary Latin. However, the vernacular forms would include townspeople performing for their friends and neighbors. They were all amateurs, much like today’s community theatre actors are. In the Mystery plays, the individual plays would have often been performed by the local guildsman. A particular guild would perform a play that would allow them to show of the skills of the guild. For example, the Shipwrights or Carpenters Guild would perform the story of Noah’s Ark, and the Goldsmiths Guild would perform the Three Kings at the Manger, and the Bakers Guild would perform the Last Supper, and the Fisherman’s Guild would perform the story of the Loaves & Fishes. These stories would allow the various guildsman to advertise their skills by displaying examples of their merchandise or craftsmanship. It can be thought of like an early example of commercials or product placement in modern movies and television.
Music was an integral part of the plays. There would be accompaniment to the story and the action from a variety of musicians and there may also have been popular songs thrown in to create a fun and festive environment. These were meant to be fun as well as instructional. Seeing a play was a chance to not be working for a period of time, so it was a celebration!
In those cities where there was a cycle of plays performed or a series of plays performed as a pageant, over several hours or even days, there was often a Pageant Master assigned to oversee the production. The pageant master would supervise or coordinate the entire pageant of plays and would often be a popular city official or a high-ranking townsman. This was both an important position and a potentially lucrative one. Since the quality of the pageant would reflect on the city or town, the pageant master was given a good bit of freedom to manage the affairs to arrange the locations and times of the individual play. It would also fall to the pageant master to assign particular plays to specific guilds. This would, on occasion, turn into a bidding war between interested guilds (for example, the play of the Last Supper would be applicable to both the Bakers Guild and the Vintners Guild) and the pageant master was occasionally known to become a little better off financially by the end of such bidding wars!
Drama at the end of the Middle Ages
By the end of the Middle Ages (as Europe moved slowly into the Renaissance, slowed by localized Civil and religious wars) theatre had begun to move away from the church. There was a slow shift away from religious subjects toward more secular (non-religious) subjects. This was a result of several factors, but the two most important seem to be the weakening of the Church’s influence on everyday life as both Renaissance ideals pushed aside much of the focus on salvation that had been the only hope of many in the Middle Ages and the growth of the influence of Protestant reformers (i.e. Martin Luther 1483-1546, Reformation began 1517) diluted the hold of the one Church in various regions of Europe.
The second reason is somewhat more telling in the long run, especially since we can look backwards today and see what theatre has ultimately become today, is that the influx of secular elements into the plays tended to be more fun and enjoyable than the lessons the plays were meant to be teaching. Play-going became something of an excuse to party and enjoy some time away from menial labor and not focus on learning religious lessons. As a result, as plays moved away from the altar of the church, through the doors, and out into the streets of the towns, so too did it grow less and less religious and more and more secular.