Professional Performers

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Professional Performers

The Mark of the Professional.

Most often, the plot of a medieval play addressed the specific concerns of the community for which it was performed, while the actors performing the play represented the community at large. By the same token, the resources for a play's production were furnished by the community; audiences did not pay for the privilege of attending, nor were actors paid to perform. This begs the question of the existence of professional entertainers in the Middle Ages and their role in the development of medieval theater. It is a difficult question to answer, largely because the material that these professionals developed and performed was almost entirely improvised, or at least unscripted. The men and women who made a living through performance had to be ready to practice their crafts anywhere, at any time, for any audience. They prepared routines and gags, sketches and bits, tricks and acts; they did not, for the most part, memorize texts or preserve what they performed in writing. This occurred for many reasons. A professional performer's livelihood could be dependent on the originality of his or her approach to the material; publishing trade secrets would diminish their value. Also, most actors, singers, musicians, dancers, acrobats, and clowns learned their skills by watching and listening to one another; as they traveled and worked, on their own or in groups, they were constantly developing, devising, copying, changing, adapting, and inventing. Certainly, some could and did read; some could also write, a skill that (unlike reading) was rare in the Middle Ages. Thus only a very few would produce scripts or songs; Jehan Bodel and Adam de la Halle of Arras are unusual exceptions to the rule. In general, it was not until the late sixteenth century that performers came to depend on written scripts for their craft. Throughout the Middle Ages, the mark of the true professional was the ability to work independently, relying on memory and skill.

The Role of the Jongleur.

Edmond Faral, one of the only scholars to attempt a systematic study of medieval entertainers, used the Old French word jongleur or "juggler" as a catch-all term to describe the array of talents and practices shared by the professional performers of the Middle Ages. His attempt to answer the question "What is a jongleur?" forms the opening paragraph of the book he first published in 1910:

A jongleur is a being of multiple personalities: a musician, poet, actor, mountebank; a sort of steward for the pleasures associated with the courts of kings and princes; a vagabond who wanders the roads and puts up shows in the villages; a hurdygurdy man who, at a resting-place, sings of glorious deeds for the pilgrims; a charlatan who amuses the crowd at the crossroads; an author and actor of plays played on feast-days outside the church; a lord of the dance who makes the young people caper and skip; a taborer, a blower of trumpet and horn who keeps time in processions; a teller of tales, a bard who enlivens the feast, the wedding, the watches of the night; a circus-rider who vaults onto the backs of horses; an acrobat who dances on his hands, who juggles with knives, who jumps through hoops, who eats fire, who bends himself back in two; a buffoon who struts and mimics; a clown who plays the fool and speaks blarney; a jongleur is all that, and more besides.

However, no single performer could be master of so many skills, or practice them all at once. Faral's essential point is that the medieval entertainer was a jack-of-all-trades, since his livelihood depended on his willingness to be all things to all people, to turn his hand to anything. In fact, like most professional entertainers in modern times, the medieval jongleur also held a variety of "day jobs." A jongleur often worked as a servant in the houses of the wealthy when he was not entertaining there, or acting as a herald, messenger, or secretary. He also worked for the town where he performed on street corners or in the market square, as a crier, clerk, schoolmaster, or craftsman. Many jongleurs, however, were vagrants, traveling from place to place, begging for food or doing odd jobs when they could not earn enough money passing the hat during performances. It was a hard life, and it often earned the performer a bad reputation. Medieval people respected stability and feared the unfamiliar. Men and women who were constantly on the move, constantly changing jobs, and perpetually versatile could be objects of mistrust as well as sources of delight. This is why so much of the anecdotal evidence relating to the status of performers in the Middle Ages is negative.

Entertainment at Court.

Most professional entertainers were wanderers, but a privileged few were able to find steady employment in the entourages of the rich and powerful. They provided their masters with theater on demand, and with the prestige derived from patronage of the arts; in return, they received food and shelter, clothing and occasional gifts, and sometimes a steady wage. Depending on their individual talents, these men and women would have been called by a variety of names. The term jongleur was sometimes used generically, but it usually applied more specifically to clowns or jesters, many of whom also called themselves "fools." The (unnamed) Fool in King Lear, Feste the jester in Twelfth Night, and Touchstone the clown in As You Like It are a few of their Shakespearean offspring. Entertainers who specialized in music, vocal or instrumental, were often called minstrels, but this does not mean that they devoted themselves exclusively to music. Some were also capable of reciting tales of heroic deeds, like those described in the heroic poem Song of Roland; in Scandinavia, they helped to develop the intricate adventure narratives that would later come together to form the great Norse sagas; in Ireland, bards sang the exploits of the giant Cuchulain, and the cycle of stories that now make up the Taín; in England before the Conquest performers boasted of Beowulf, and other heroes of the Anglo-Saxon past. By the thirteenth century, all over Europe, the deeds of King Arthur and his knights eclipsed all of these, and were especially popular in courtly circles, where tournaments were often designed to resemble those described in story and song.

The Poet-Musicians.

There was also the special class of poet-musicians who composed and sang their own lyrics of love and longing in the new vernacular languages of Europe, and who were known as troubadours, trouvères, or minnesingers, depending on whether they were from northern or southern France, or Germany. They were the entertainment elite. In fact, some were not professional entertainers at all, but clerics or noblemen "moonlighting" as performers. Adam de la Halle of Arras, the author of The Play of the Bower, exemplifies the traits of this group. Well-educated, with perhaps some training at the university in Paris, he was active in the multifarious theatrical activities of his hometown but also appears to have been attached to the court of Count Robert II of Artois (1250–1302), for whom he may have written The Play of Robin and of Marion, a musical comedy with a romantic—and spicy—pastoral plot (one focusing on shepherds and shepherdesses). While it was almost certainly intended for performance at court, with a cast consisting of Robert's household entertainers, its manuscript indicates that it was later revived for performance in the very different urban milieu of Arras, another indication of medieval theater's versatility.

Fables and Farces.

While it has often been assumed that certain plays, jokes, or songs would have been more appropriate to a courtly setting than to an urban one, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that medieval performers and their audiences enjoyed a wide variety of entertainments, regardless of social class. Urban audiences wept when they heard the tale of noble Roland's death, and so did the knights who strove to emulate him. Rustic audiences laughed at the antics of clowns and the scatological humor of the short, salacious stories known as fabliaux, as did kings. The manuscript books that preserve the raw materials of the performers' repertoire as it had evolved by the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries were obviously made for aristocratic or well-to-do collectors, but the materials themselves could have been adapted for performance in taverns or halls or market-squares, on streets or at fairs, after feasts or before campfires. The plays that survive from this era were not only adaptable to occasion and circumstance, but also to the number of available performers. Two of the earliest examples come from the region around Arras: a dialogue called The Boy and the Blind Man and a retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) called The Courtly Lad of Arras. The extant manuscripts of these two short pieces indicate that both were performed many times over a period of several centuries, and they make use of some of the same plot-lines and devices that would later be recycled in the comic interludes or farces that were literally sandwiched in between longer or more serious plays in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the French word farce means "stuffing," while the Latin interludium means "a play between the plays or games"). Both consist of rhymed couplets (easily memorized) and both could have been performed in under an hour, perfect for any occasion. The Boy and the Blind Man uses the tried-and-true formula of the comic duo, one the mastermind (the Boy), the other the straight man and butt of the jokes (the Blind Man). The aim of the characters is the same as that of the performers—to entertain a crowd of people and con them out of as much money as possible. While it calls for two actors, it could probably be performed by a single jongleur with the help of his fool's "bauble," the jester's puppet-on-a-stick. The Courtly Lad could have been recited by a single performer as well, but it could also have been divided into parts. Its re-working of the biblical story provides a new parable for the fast-moving world of late medieval Europe, when hapless young men from the countryside were easily attracted to the pleasures of town life and often lost their money to gamblers and prostitutes. The fact that it could easily have been performed in a tavern is a constant reminder of the interaction between theater and public life in the Middle Ages.

Miracles and Moralities.

The plays performed by professional actors had to be as adaptable as the performers themselves, shrinking or expanding to fill any space, or to accommodate any cast. Because there were no permanent acting companies in Europe until the late sixteenth century, no troupe of actors could be sure that it would have unlimited resources, human or material, when it was time to perform. There were exceptions, of course. Occasionally, wealthy individuals and corporations hired professional actors to perform plays on festive occasions, or to supplement the talents of amateur actors. For example, a remarkable group of forty plays from Paris, each devoted to a miracle attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, survives in a deluxe manuscript copied in the last decades of the fourteenth century. These Miracles de Nostre Dame were performed between 1339 and 1382 at the annual feasts of the Paris guild of goldsmiths (an association of craftsmen who banded together to protect and regulate their trade), and they often call explicitly for the talents of professional musicians and possibly of dancers; since a new play appears to have been staged every year, it is not unlikely that professional actors were also called in. But usually when actors banded together to perform plays, they developed a limited repertoire and took the show on the road, moving from place to place and performing in taverns, inn yards, and private houses. One of the earliest scripts for a portable play of this kind is Mankind, a Middle English "morality play" written down between 1465 and 1470. Morality plays addressed the problems and temptations faced by ordinary people by following a representative human being through daily life. Because they aimed to be accessible to everyone, they generalized common experiences through the use of allegory, a technique which relied on personifications of abstract qualities in characters with names like "Good Works" and "New Guise" (Trendy Fashion); and although the central message was religious, the dramatization of the allures of vice and the struggle for virtue was intended to be highly entertaining. The actors would go hungry if their play was boring, since the most common way of collecting money was to ask for donations during or after the performance. An interval for the collection of cash is actually written into Mankind, which is designed for performance by a cast of six actors, one playing the title character, four playing the pranksters who plague him—aptly


The Castle of Perseverance may be the oldest play text in Middle English, dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century (c. 1405–1425). It is certainly one of the most unusual. For one thing, it survives in a remarkable manuscript (now at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.)—remarkable not only because of its length, but because it provides detailed instructions and a schematic plan to facilitate the staging of the play. Designed to be presented in the round, The Castle of Perseverance has thirty-five speaking parts and would have taken several hours to perform. It is often classified as a morality play, but unlike most morality plays it was probably not intended for production by a troupe of traveling players; instead, it may have been written for a cast that included professional and amateur actors. But like Everyman and Mankind, it tells the allegorical story of one human being's journey through life, from birth to death.

As the manuscript's stage plan indicates, Humanum genus or "Mankind" makes his entrance on the stage of the round world as a naked infant, "born" in a bed sheltered by the Castle of Perseverance. He is accompanied throughout the play by two Angels, one Good and one Bad, who offer constant advice and are always at odds with one another. As he grows to adulthood, Mankind is attracted to the empty promises of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, each of which occupies a scaffold beyond the moat that encircles the Castle, to the west, south, and north. Goaded by Backbiter, the World's minion, Mankind is tempted by the vices of youth: Lust and Folly; Covetousness (Greed), Pride, Wrath, and Envy; Gluttony, Lechery, and Sloth. As he grows older, however, Mankind begins to repent with the help of Shrift (Confession) and Penance, and is brought to the Castle of Perseverance, to be sheltered by the Virtues: Charity, Abstinence, Chastity, Industry, Generosity, and Humility. No sooner is he safely inside its stronghold, but the Castle is besieged by the Vices, who attempt to "rescue" Mankind with the help of his Bad Angel, and the combined forces of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. But because Mankind is older and wiser, his Good Angel and the Virtues remain strong, and are able to vanquish the Vices—all but one, the special Vice of old age: Covetousness (Greed). Lured out of the Castle by Covetousness, leaving his Virtues behind, the unprotected Mankind quickly succumbs to Death. But as he dies, he cries for mercy, and this cry will be what saves the Soul that now issues from his body. For just as the Bad Angel is triumphantly leading the damned Soul to the Devil, the four daughters of God appear: Mercy, Righteousness (Justice), Truth, and Peace. Accompanied by the Good Angel, they lead the Soul to the throne of God in the east. There, the daughters of God sit in judgment on the past sins of Mankind, and in the end Mercy triumphs, pleading successfully for his Soul's salvation. So God pardons the Soul, and then speaks the closing lines of the play:

And they that well do in this world, here wealth shall awake:
In heaven they shall heightened be, in bounty and in bliss.
And they that evil do, they shall to hell-lake
In bitter bails to be burnt: my judgment it is.
My virtues in heaven then shall they quake;
There is no one in the world that may escape this.
All men example here then may take,
To maintain the good and mend what is amiss.

Thus endeth our games!
To save you from sinning,
Ever, at the beginning,
Think on your last ending!
Te Deum laudamus.

named Mischief, New-Guise, Nowadays, and Nought—and the sixth doubling the key roles of Mercy and Titivillus, the "All-Vile" chief devil. The pairing of these two very different roles is itself suggestive of the lead actor's virtuosity, as well as of the playful quality of even the most moral of medieval morality plays. It was for precisely this reason that contemporary critics condemned their performance, no matter how religious the theme. The Tretise of Miraclis Pleying, written in England probably by a proponent of Lollardry (a pre-Protestant group hostile to the hierarchical nature of the Roman Church) several decades before Mankind, argues that the "playing" or performance of miracles and moralities "taketh away the dread of God." But when plays and their performers are controversial, it is a good sign that both are doing their job.


Timothy J. McGee, Improvisation in the Arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Medieval Institute Publications: Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, no. 30 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Western Michigan University, 2003).

Domenico Pietropaolo, ed., The Science of Buffoonery: Theory and History of the Commedia dell'Arte. University of Toronto Italian Studies, no. 3 (Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1989).

William Willeford, The Fool and His Sceptre: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

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Professional Performers

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Professional Performers