Serious Comedy

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Serious Comedy

Roman Theater in the Middle Ages.

The initiative of the artists and intellectuals who contributed to the Carolingian Renaissance provided the tools that would make the transmission of liturgical drama possible, but it also ensured the preservation of older theatrical traditions. Hundreds of manuscripts containing the Latin comedies of the popular Roman playwright Terence were made in the centuries between 800 and 1200. Many were lavishly illustrated and suggest that some medieval people knew a great deal about Roman comedy. These illustrations show lively, two-dimensional stagings of key scenes, in which actors are depicted wearing the masks and costumes typical of Roman performances. Their very gestures are meticulously rendered, contributing to the illusion that the viewer is looking at "snapshots" of Terence's comedies as they would have been presented around the time of Constantine or St. Augustine, in the fourth century c.e. It would have been easy for the medieval readers of these plays to reconstruct some of the circumstances of their performance, as they looked at the pictures and read aloud the various parts. However, the careful authenticity of the manuscripts' representations of ancient comedy also suggests that the copyists were striving to preserve information about an archaic art form: medieval audiences were not used to seeing masked actors, nor did they frequent the same types of theaters as the people of ancient Rome. When Hugh of Saint-Victor offered his definition of the "theatrical arts" in the early twelfth century, he was trying to capture the timeless diversity of human amusements and leisure activities; yet he was also aware that times had changed, that the theater "was the place people used to gather for entertainment"—employing the past tense, to emphasize that the pagan theater of ancient Rome was not the same as the theater of medieval Christendom. Hugh himself would have seen the remains of Roman theaters and other buildings (baths, temples, an amphitheater) on the Left Bank of the River Seine, nestled in the hills where the new University of Paris would be founded during the course of the twelfth century. And he knew that it had been a long time since those structures had been used for the purposes for which they were originally designed. But this did not stop other medieval writers from making constant—and knowing—references to Roman theater and its many attractions.

Comic Revivals.

If knowledge of Roman theater, the scripts of Roman plays, and even Roman theater buildings survived into the Middle Ages, why was medieval theater not more like the theater of that distant past? One reason is that the church had made an effort to promulgate a special type of Christian theater, the liturgy, and had also worked hard to modify the pagan festivals that had provided many of the occasions for the performance of Roman plays. More to the point, though, is the fact that the Latin language of these plays was no longer a language readily understood by most people in Europe, so their popular appeal was largely lost. Still, there is plenty of evidence that new forms of medieval comedy continued to draw heavily on ancient traditions and techniques, retaining some of the same plots, gags, and characters regardless of the language in which the lines were spoken. Moreover, the plays of Terence were constantly revived and performed in venues where the love of Latin was continuously cultivated: in monasteries and cathedral schools, universities, royal courts, and any place where the performers could speak the language of Vergil, Cicero, and Ovid. In fact, Latin comedies would have been performed by many of the same amateur actors who also appeared in the Latin liturgical dramas. And because these plays made the learning of Latin fun, they were often used as teaching tools in medieval classrooms. They were also widely emulated by a new generation of playwrights; at the same time that the manuscripts of Roman plays were being copied, and the Easter and Christmas liturgies written down, there were men and women composing their own comedies in Latin, some with contemporary—even Christian—themes. The simultaneity of these different dramatic traditions and genres is one of the most intriguing aspects of medieval theater.

The Plays of Hrotsvit.

One of the most famous playwrights of the Middle Ages embodies what might be considered some of the paradoxes of medieval drama. Her name was Hrotsvit (or Hroswitha), and she was a canoness (a member of a religious order) vowed to the religious life at the abbey of Gandersheim in Germany. But she was probably brought up and educated at the imperial court of Otto I (912–973) who ruled a large portion of Charlemagne's former empire after 951. Moreover, Hrotsvit (c. 935–1002) is remembered today not only for her dramatic works, but for her skills as a mathematician and theologian. Together with her childhood friend Gerberga, who was the emperor's niece and the future abbess of Gandersheim, Hrotsvit probably entered the convent when she was in her late teens or early twenties, and it is reasonable to speculate that she intended her seven comedies to be performed by her sister nuns, whose knowledge of Latin and of the Christian faith would have been strengthened at the same time, in a highly amusing manner. Among Hrotsvit's achievements, therefore, is the invention of a distinctly Christian form of comedy, in which many comic devices as old as the comedies of Aristophanes (448–385 b.c.e.)—trickery, role-playing, delusion, love-sickness, youthful rebellion, pompous old age—are blended with the divine "comedy" of the ultimate sacrifice: death for one's faith, a death that cannot be viewed as tragic, since it earns the martyr the bliss of eternal life.

Two Christian Comedies.

Hrotsvit's Gallicanus tells the story of the Roman general Gallicanus, a ruthless pagan whose command over the legions of the Emperor Constantine gives him great power. In the play, Gallicanus uses his clout to secure the hand of Constantine's daughter Constance, despite the fact that both father and daughter oppose the match because of their intense devotion to Christianity. But Constance advises her father to trick Gallicanus into thinking that she will marry him after he has successfully completed his military campaigns, cunningly sending two of her Christian advisors to help convert him to Christianity, while inviting Gallicanus' young daughters into her house, where they are quickly persuaded to join Constance in vows of virginity. Meanwhile, in the heat of a losing battle, Gallicanus (like the historical Constantine before him) prays to the Christian God for assistance and sees a vision of Christ himself marching into battle, carrying the cross. He is immediately converted and, taking vows of celibacy, becomes a hermit. Years later, he suffers martyrdom under the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, but when Julian's son is possessed by the devil as a punishment for his father's crimes, both father and son agree to be baptized. In another comedy, Dulcitius, Hrotsvit embroiders some of the same themes through a spicier plot set during the time of Great Persecution of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284–305). A lascivious Roman official, Dulcitius, schemes to deflower three beautiful Christian maidens who have been arrested for their faith, but their virginity is protected when Dulcitius falls victim to a delusion in which he believes the dirty pots and pans in the girls' kitchen to be the bodies of his intended victims. He embraces them passionately and covers them with kisses, blackening himself with soot in the process and becoming a laughing-stock among his fellow pagans. Later on, when the evil executioner Sisinnius attempts to send one of the defiant virgins to a brothel, she is miraculously rescued from this fate, although she (like her two sisters) is eventually—but triumphantly—martyred.

The Performance of Latin Plays.

Hrotsvit's plays are particularly sophisticated examples of what could be achieved through the creative blending of classical and medieval ideas of comedy, but they are not the only examples. A later group of about two dozen Latin comedies, composed by a variety of authors over the course of the late eleventh through early thirteenth centuries, take a more conventional approach to updating classical genres. Most are much shorter than Hrotsvit's, and many are anonymous, but like hers they are written in Latin verse and would have been performed by and for well-educated men and women in the service of the church or of the great secular rulers of Europe. Walter Map, a member of the entourage of King Henry II of England (r. 1154–1189), related that his clerks would often spend the evenings play-acting or making "jokes to take the weight off their minds." But so, it seems, did many other people, including monks, nuns, priests, schoolmasters, and their pupils. Froumund of Tegernsee (d. 1008), a prolific poet and dedicated teacher at the important Bavarian abbey of Tegernsee (a place wellknown for its later contributions to medieval drama), complained good-naturedly that it was hard to engage his students' attention unless he indulged them with comic displays and other antics, anything "ridiculous, that cracks up all the boys." Geoffrey de Gorron (d. 1146), the abbot of St. Albans in England, began life as a schoolmaster whose enthusiasm for theatrical display led him to borrow valuable vestments from the monastery to use as costumes in a play about St. Catherine of Alexandria; when they were accidentally destroyed by fire, he himself became a monk to compensate for the loss. Writing at the end of the twelfth century, Reinerus of Liège revealed that classroom performance of Terence's comedies was a favorite exercise at his own monastery of Saint-Laurent, so much so that one over-zealous teacher was visited in a dream by the abbey's patron saint, who chastised him for behaving too much like a comedian.

A Latin Situation Comedy.

Given that the plots of most medieval Latin comedies revolve around sex, it is easy to see why they might have been controversial when produced in an ecclesiastical setting. The play Babio, probably written in England during the mid-twelfth century, was therefore heavily edited when it was adapted for performance by the choirboys at Lincoln Cathedral, to judge by the state of one surviving manuscript. A glance at the plot-summary added to another manuscript copy offers an explanation for this censorship:

Babio was a priest, Petula his wife, Fodius the household servant of Babio and Petula. Viola was the daughter of the latter, the daughter of the wife and not the daughter of Babio, but his step-daughter as it were, whom both Babio and Fodius love, unknown to one another. Croceus was a certain knight, lord of the town where the girl was, and he was the lord of Babio the priest. This Croceus loved the girl Viola and wished to have her, and the priest was upset about that. Fodius had an affair with the wife of the priest, that is with Petula, and his master, in other words Babio, didn't know it, even though he had his suspicions.

Add to this situation the humor of Babio's relationship with his dog (who makes a brief appearance early in the play), and it is easy to see why Latin comedies continued to be written and performed throughout the Middle Ages, even though they may have raised a few eyebrows. One of the most popular, the play known as Pamphilus, survives in so many manuscripts that it gave its name to the term pamphlet. Along with a number of other medieval Latin comedies—such as the Geta of Vitalis of Blois written in the twelfth century—it endured the test of time, appearing among the earliest printed books of the late fifteenth century and thereby influencing the work of countless Renaissance dramatists.


Keith Bate, "Twelfth-Century Latin Comedies and the Theater," in Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar, 1979. ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers, and Monographs, no. 3. Ed. Francis Cairns (Liverpool, England: Francis Cairns, 1979): 249–262.

Anne Lyon Haight, ed., Hroswitha of Gandersheim: Her Life, Times, and Works, and a Comprehensive Bibliography (New York: privately printed, 1965).

Michael Lapidge, trans., "Pamphilus," in Medieval Comic Tales. Eds. Peter Rickard et al. (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973): 114–127.

Paul Ruggiers, ed., Versions of Medieval Comedy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).