The Popular Bible

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The Popular Bible

Medieval Mass Media.

The Latin Bible in use throughout the Middle Ages had been translated from Greek and Hebrew by St. Jerome around the turn of the fifth century, when Latin was still the mother tongue of the Roman Empire. This Bible was therefore called the "popular Bible" (Biblia vulgata) because it could be understood by those who could not read Hebrew or Greek. By the time of Charlemagne, however, Latin had ceased to be a language for everyday use, while the need to educate people about the Bible, and to instruct them in the tenets of the Christian faith, was greater than ever. The world was changing rapidly. By the end of the eleventh century, Western Europe was more culturally diverse and more densely populated than it had been since the power of the Roman Empire was at its height, nearly a thousand years before. Improvements in agricultural technology, the development of long-distance trading networks both by water and by land, and the flourishing of local economies during the twelfth century meant that people enjoyed greater freedom of mobility, both geographical and social. The availability of cathedral schools in major cities and the founding of the new universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge made it easier for young men from humble families to acquire an education, and thereby to fit themselves for careers in the church or in the increasingly powerful courts of secular rulers. Some of these men—those who preferred a more free-wheeling lifestyle—took what they had learned and applied it to the performing arts and to communication in the emerging vernacular literatures, which more and more people were able to read. Moreover, the fact that the population of Europe was increasingly concentrated in cities meant that it was possible to reach and to influence larger numbers of people at a time. This new urban audience was the focus of a renewed effort on the part of the church to make religious instruction available to all and, where possible, in the vernacular. Theater provided the perfect mass medium for conveying the message.

The Coming of "The Bridegroom."

This is not to suggest that only secular urban audiences were more comfortable with their own vernaculars than with Latin. In fact, the first surviving medieval play with a significant vernacular component comes not from a prosperous town but from a powerful monastery, the abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges, France. The monks of Limoges would have learned Latin from an early age, and most probably spoke, wrote, and even thought in Latin during daily worship, study, and conversation. But no man or woman in Europe, no matter how well educated or intellectually inclined, would have learned Latin in the cradle; the language that would always be the most comforting, the most familiar, was the language of childhood. In Limoges, that language was known as Occitan, and indeed the whole southern and southwestern portion of what constitutes modern-day France (from Provence to the Pyrenees) was really Occitania, a politically and culturally distinctive region where the people spoke Provençal or what was often called the langue d'oc, the language in which the word for "yes" is oc (as opposed to the language of northern France, the langue d'oïl, in which the word for "yes" is oui). One of the plays that used the vernacular Occitan, which was copied into a manuscript toward the end of the eleventh century, is about the Sponsus, or "the Bridegroom." It is a musical dramatization of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1–13), in which ten bridesmaids take lighted lamps and go out to wait for the arrival of the Bridegroom (in allegorical terms, they are Christian souls waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). When the Bridegroom's coming is delayed, all of them fall asleep. But five of the maidens are wise and bring extra oil for their lamps; the other five are foolish and let their lamps go out. (Again, in allegorical terms, some souls remain vigilant and virtuous, while others become complacent and slack.) At midnight, when the Bridegroom finally arrives, the foolish maidens are left out of the triumphal procession because they cannot help to light him on his way. Running home, they try to buy more oil from merchants in the town, but this means that they are late to the wedding banquet, and are not admitted. The use of the vernacular in the Sponsus underscores the drama inherent in this story of human frailty and salvation. While most of the dialogue is sung in Latin, there is a plaintive refrain in Occitan after each exchange: "Sorrowing, sinners, alas we have slept too long!" Furthermore, the exchange between the foolish maidens and the oil merchants takes place entirely in the vernacular, emphasizing the worldliness and futility of their failed business transaction.

The Christian Message in Translation.

Although very few plays survive from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it is clear that the use of the vernacular to heighten the effects of liturgical drama was becoming widespread. In the important episcopal city of Toledo in Spain, the Auto de los reyes magos (an Epiphany play about the Three Magi) was composed in the Castilian Spanish of that region at about the same time that the great heroic poem the Poema del Cid was written down. Because Toledo was close to the border separating the Muslim territories of Spain from those held by Christians, it is possible that the play—about pagan kings doing homage to the Christ Child—also carried a strong political message. Far to the northeast, in the influential Bavarian abbey of Benediktbeuern, the Easter drama of Christ's suffering and death—the events collectively known as the Passion—came to include a number of significant vernacular elements. The characters most sympathetic to the German-speaking spectators of the play often talk directly to them in their own language. Mary Magdalene flirts with the young men in the audience in German, and also sings in German when she buys cosmetics from a merchant—foreshadowing the moment when she will buy ointments to anoint the dead body of Jesus in the sepulchre. The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, wins special sympathy by expressing her sorrows in German. Longinus, the blind soldier who stabs the crucified Jesus with his lance, speaks German to reveal that the blood flowing from Christ's wounded side has restored his sight. Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and Pontius Pilate close the play with a dialogue conducted entirely in German. Similar popularizing techniques are used in a "Visit to the Sepulchre" liturgy from the convent of Origny-Sainte-Benoîte in northeastern France, which was sung almost entirely in French, and in a play called Suscitio Lazari (The Raising of Lazarus) written in the Anglo-Norman French dialect spoken in northern France (Normandy) as well as in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Celebration of Youth.

Perhaps the most famous musical drama of the Middle Ages, Danielis ludus (The Play of Daniel), is another play that intermingles Latin and the vernacular in effective ways. Based on stories about the youthful prophet Daniel (stories that form part of the non-canonical Apocrypha, or "hidden writings" of the Bible), it was written by and for the youths of Beauvais cathedral in France—for the young men and boys who sang in the cathedral choir and attended the choir's school. Copied into a deluxe manuscript around the year 1230, it proudly proclaims the authorship and provenance of the play in the opening song:

The play of Daniel we record:
it was created in Beauvais
the work of youth, in every way.

Daniel was a particularly attractive hero for these young performers, since his boyish curiosity, compassion, and wit were the qualities that allowed him to solve riddles, investigate puzzling crimes, and foil the evil designs of his elders. In the version of his story dramatized at Beauvais, the precocious sage is able to decipher the mysterious handwriting that appears on a palace wall of the pagan king Belshazzar. Later, when he is wrongfully imprisoned by Belshazzar's successor, Darius, he will make a miraculous escape from the lions' den. Finally, he astonishes everyone with his perspicacity, by prophesying the future birth of the Savior, Jesus. The use of French in the lyrics of this musical is not extensive, but it does add an especially festive element to a play already rich in pageantry, humor, intrigue, and suspense. Performed annually on 1 January, The Play of Daniel was an integral part of the liturgy for the Feast of the Circumcision (also known as the Feast of the Presentation), one of several feasts that punctuated the Twelve Days of Christmas, from 25 December to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January (the first day of January was not celebrated as New Year's Day in northern France at this time). And, like the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December, it compensates for the pain inflicted on the children of the gospel narrative (Herod's slaughtered innocents, or the circumcised baby Jesus) by allowing contemporary children a special license for revelry and misbehavior. Depending on the locale, any of these feasts could become a "Feast of Fools," when the traditional rituals of the church, including the Mass, were parodied and lampooned in ways that modern-day theologians might find shocking but which were widely accepted and greatly enjoyed during the Middle Ages.

Telling It Straight.

Many of the religious-themed plays make use of the vernacular in conjunction with Latin in a form sometimes called "macaronic," and these would have been chanted and sung as part of the dramatic liturgies that highlighted the importance of certain feasts. But there is no reason to believe that these same stories were not also told in plain language, unadorned by music and unaccompanied by Latin. Surviving sources often mention the performance of biblical plays, or plays about the lives of saints, without specifying which language they used—Abbot Geoffrey's play about St. Catherine is one. Some may have been spoken entirely in the vernacular, but perhaps it scarcely mattered. After all, every man, woman, and child in Europe would have been intimately familiar with these stories; like the audiences of Greek tragedies, they knew what would happen before the play even began. They may not have needed to understand every word in order to participate in a satisfying theatrical experience. And many of these plays may never have been scripted to begin with; it would have been very easy for the performers to ad-lib their roles. However, we do have part of the written texts for two early biblical plays that were performed almost entirely in rhyming French couplets: Ordo representacionis Ade (The Service for Representing Adam), sometimes called Jeu d'Adam (The Play of Adam), and La seinte resureccion (The Holy Resurrection). Both may have been composed during the latter half of the twelfth century, and were probably originally intended for audiences in southeastern England and Normandy, since their dialect is the Anglo-Norman French of those regions. Both are incomplete, but appear to have been ambitious in scope. The Play of Adam is particularly well known, and it is possible that it was designed to tell the entire story of human salvation, from the Fall of Man in Eden to the Last Judgment. But the sole surviving manuscript ends abruptly, with the Old Testament prophets foretelling the birth of Jesus (in a processio prophetarum or "procession of prophets," similar in some respects to that which was probably performed at Riga, now the capital of modern Latvia). This play is also noteworthy for its careful instructions to the actors (written in Latin, to better distinguish them from the vernacular dialogue) with regard to costuming, set design, and the proper speaking of the verse. Most remarkable of all is the way that old stories are transformed when performed in modern dress—literally and figuratively. Here, Adam and Eve are a young, upwardly mobile couple; he's hardworking and away from home a lot, while she's ambitious but has too much time on her hands. They are perfect prey for a con-man like Satan. Later on, Cain and Abel's quarrel over the offering of sacrifices becomes a controversy about the payment of church tithes, taxes levied on parishioners for the support of priests; Abel is resigned and pious, Cain is angry and frustrated that the fruits of his hard labor should go into someone else's belly. This is serious social commentary, as well as sound religious doctrine.


Richard Emmerson, "Divine Judgment and Local Ideology in the Beauvais Ludus Danielis," in The Play of Daniel: Critical Essays. Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, no. 24. Ed. Dunbar H. Ogden (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Western Michigan University, 1996): 33–61.

Margot Fassler, "The Feast of Fools and Danielis ludus: Popular Tradition in a Medieval Cathedral Play," in Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony. Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice, no. 2. Ed. Thomas Forrest Kelly (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 65–99.

Carol Symes, "The Appearance of Early Vernacular Plays: Forms, Functions, and Future of Medieval Theater," Speculum 77 (2002): 778–831.

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The Popular Bible

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