Theater in the Later Middle Ages

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Theater in the Later Middle Ages

Religion and State.

Medieval drama was religious in nature. Liturgical dramas had long been performed in Europe's churches on the most popular and solemn religious occasions of the year, and many of these religious plays continued to be performed throughout the continent until the seventeenth century. At the same time new dramatic developments became evident in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe. At court, traditional jousts and tournaments grew more elaborate as their functions became more clearly a theatrical celebration of noble prowess. In towns and cities throughout the continent enormous mystery cycles staged by local guilds and confraternities appeared, too. Royal entries, a long-standing ceremony that welcomed a monarch to one of his cities, similarly expanded, taking on new elements of drama and theater. While all these forms traced their roots to medieval precedents, their imposing expansion during the early Renaissance demonstrates the increasing role that ritual played in European society at the time. Out of this fondness for ritual grew some of the new dramatic forms that inspired the even greater developments in the Renaissance theater that occurred during the sixteenth century.

Mystery Cycles.

Each year most major European cities held a summer festival that included a trade fair combined with religious festivities. In most towns the guilds of merchants and artisans staged these fairs, which grew to become important expressions of urban pride and religious devotion. In the fourteenth century the guilds often celebrated their fairs with religious processions that included floats decorated with scenes from the Bible. Typically, each guild was responsible for mounting a different scene, and the scenes ranged from the Garden of Eden, through major events in the Old Testament, and culminated with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Subjects drawn from the life of the Virgin Mary were also popular. Over time, these pageant wagons grew more elaborate as guilds competed to outdo each other. The guilds hired carpenters, sculptors, and local painters to decorate the floats, and many placed costumed mimes atop them that acted out the events of their float's theme. Soon, spoken dramas became part of the celebrations in many cities, and actors performed short scenes along the parade route or at the conclusion of the procession in an important town square. Thus religious processions like these provided the foundation upon which one of the greatest developments of late-medieval drama—the mystery cycles—appeared. These cycles, like the festivals themselves, also became venerable objects of civic pride, and they grew in many places to enormous lengths. In the city of York in England, 48 separate dramas were performed in the annual mystery cycle during a single day. The action of these dramas consumed so much time that the theatrical performance was begun at 4:30 in the morning. At London, the town staged a mystery cycle that required anywhere between three and seven days to perform, while in Paris the town's annual cycle was 35,000 verses long and required 220 actors to stage. Although these great late-medieval cycles were enormous, and their rehearsals sometimes stretched throughout the entire year, the tendency was for ever larger and grander mystery plays to develop. By the sixteenth century, for example, some towns staged daily performances that stretched over an entire month, thus entertaining those who came to the now greatly extended market fairs each day during the annual festivities.


Relatively few of the texts for these mystery cycles survive, and those that did survive come mostly from French and English cities. But the popularity of these theatrical performances was great throughout Europe, and the texts that still exist suggest that common themes pervaded most of the plays. The subject of the plays was the salvation of humankind, and the individual scenes wove the tale of human redemption out of the events recorded in the scriptures and the traditions of the church. Most cycles began in Eden with the creation of Adam and Eve, and proceeded to recount the events in the Garden in a vivid way, with Lucifer being embarrassed and made to slither on the ground and Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden in a brutally realistic fashion. The subsequent scenes ranged far and wide over the events of the Old Testament, showing the process by which God eventually came to identify the Jews as his chosen people and then to make salvation a possibility for all humankind in the sacrifice of Christ. Usually, the cycles concluded with Christ's Passion, Resurrection, and Second Coming. The action was often violent, particularly in the scenes of Christ's torture and Passion, where bloody realism and illusionistic techniques served to entertain the crowds. In scenes like the beheading of John the Baptist or the martyrdom of a saint, the actors went to great lengths to create special effects to enhance the action. Trick limbs, fake heads, and animal guts were often part of these illusions. Although not every play's actions and verses fit with the fine discrimination of the church's theology, the flavor of the cycles was undeniably orthodox. To emphasize the interconnections between the individual scenes and the great culmination in Christ's sacrifice and resurrection, the writers often inserted commentators into the drama who spoke between the scenes. Most mystery cycles similarly opened with a prologue and a conclusion. Prefiguration and recurrent motifs also became devices to tie the entire structure of the cycle together. While blood and gore were a part of the cycles, comic episodes inserted between the greater dramas provided a measure of relief from the generally serious tone of the action.


The staging practices used in the mystery cycles evidenced a great variety throughout Europe. Generally, though, the cycles were not acted upon a single stage, but a scene or a number of scenes were performed in front of a set referred to as a mansion. These mansions were sometimes elaborately constructed, or at other times minimalist and severe. Three different ways of using these mansions seem to have been popular, although local variations were common. In the English cycles pageant wagons carried the mansions around the city to sites where the actors performed their part of the drama several times during the day. The mystery cycle performed annually at York seems to have been the most complicated of these moving dramas, requiring about 50 pageant wagons annually to stage the drama and teams of six to eight men to pull these throughout the town. In other places horses pulled the wagons. While the size of many of these wagons appears to have been generally small, some accounts survive of pageant wagons with elaborate scenery and which carried more than twenty actors. Staging in this way must have been a logistical and scheduling challenge. At York, for instance, there were anywhere from a dozen to sixteen different staging areas scattered throughout the city in various years. To keep local citizens and visitors informed of where the dramas were to occur, the town placed banners in the squares and streets at the various sites. The second style of staging that flourished at the time placed the different mansions in the round in a city square or open area. This style of presentation seems to have been popular in German-speaking Europe, and in parts of England, too, where round amphitheaters were sometimes built to stage the dramas. Finally, the most popular method seems to have been to build a central platform, with the scenic mansions arranged beside each other in succession on the platform. This method of staging the plays was most popular in France, but also appeared in Spain, Italy, Germany, and in some English towns. In this platform style of staging, towns often built bleachers so that the audience could be elevated to an appropriate height to view the action. Boxes placed atop these bleachers could accommodate local dignitaries and important visitors. The size of these great platform stages differed depending upon the number and complexity of a play's individual mansions, but most platform stages were between 100 to 150 feet long and about thirty feet in depth. Staging in this way had several advantages because it allowed for acting to occur in several different mansions at once. Souls in limbo could be depicted writhing in torment, for instance, while in Heaven another actor pleaded for God's mercy. Thus the presence of multiple stage sets placed several scenes before the audience simultaneously and produced a highly visual art that was not dissimilar to the effects of the modern cinema.

End of the Mystery Cycles.

In Northern Europe the Reformation of the sixteenth century discouraged the mounting of the great mystery cycles. The teachings of many of the plays conflicted with the new religious ideas of Protestantism. Many, but not all, the cycles had traditionally been performed in connection with a town's celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, which had first been approved by the pope at the beginning of the thirteenth century in connection with a series of visions that a Flemish nun had experienced of the Eucharist. Corpus Christi, meaning literally the "body of Christ," celebrated the Eucharist as the key force of Christian salvation, and the day's processions carried a consecrated wafer throughout the town as a kind of blessing to urban space. In many parts of Europe the processions of Corpus Christi grew to enormous heights of popularity at the end of the Middle Ages, and festivities—including the performing of mystery plays—surrounded these events. Protestantism generally found such outpourings of devotion directed toward the Eucharist idolatrous. For the reformers, salvation was a free gift of God's grace, produced not by participating in the Eucharist, but through faith. In France during the Wars of Religion that raged in the country between 1562 and 1598, Calvinist sympathies ran high, eventually attracting about a third of the country to the movement. Here Corpus Christi often became an occasion for bloody riots as Protestants and Catholics staged riots in protest. Many mystery cycles consequently disappeared, the guilds now unwilling to underwrite the productions any longer. In England and those parts of Europe where Protestantism became the officially sanctioned religion, reformers curtailed mystery cycles. Elsewhere in Catholic Europe the mysteries sometimes survived, but they now came to be known as Passion Plays. These new forms, descendants of the late-medieval mystery cycles, were particularly popular in the rural areas of Central Europe, the most famous being the Passion Play at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. Every ten years since 1634, the play has commemorated the town's deliverance from an outbreak of the plague.

Morality Plays.

The mystery cycles aimed to teach their viewers and participants a history of human salvation by drawing on the traditional accounts of the scriptures and events in the history of the church. Their overall structure followed the lines of Judeo-Christian history, which had begun in Eden, and was one day in the future to end with the Second Coming of Christ. Another kind of drama, which was widely popular throughout the fifteenth century, was the morality play. Morality plays were highly allegorical productions in which virtues and vices were the central characters. Unlike the mysteries or other liturgical forms of drama, they did not have to be performed at a certain time of year. They seem, in fact, to have been popular at all times and were performed by troupes of amateur actors, groups that were increasingly popular at the end of the Middle Ages. The morality plays portrayed a battle between the forces of good and evil, that is, between God and the devil, and they showed their central characters facing great moral dilemmas, often illustrating the disasters that attended those who followed the paths of the Vices and the Seven Deadly Sins. By contrast to the mystery cycles, which retained a relatively static form year after year, the genre of morality plays showed great change and development over time. Playwrights experimented with both shorter and longer forms of drama, and these new dramas were of several different types. Religious morality plays were often almost as long as the mystery cycles themselves. At York, a town with a famous mystery cycle, a new Paternoster play written in the later Middle Ages alternated its performance with the city's long-standing mystery cycle. The York Paternoster play, like the traditional mystery cycles, had performances atop moving wagons dispatched to different points in the city. In the morality play at York, the requests that Christ makes in the Lord's Prayer waged battle against the Seven Deadly Sins. In another typical example of the fifteenth-century morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, Lust and Folly tempt the figure of Youth. The action shows Youth transported to a castle that is held by the Virtues against the besieging Vices. The Castle was a long play of more than 3,500 lines, and a central part of the action—the approach of Death—actually became the independent play, Everyman, the most famous of the surviving late-medieval morality plays. In it, Everyman is struck at once by the fickleness and impermanence of all human relations. He places his faith in the figures Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods—characters that represent friendship, family, and material possessions—only to find that each of these desert him as the play progresses. Along the way to the play's conclusions, Everyman tries to embrace the figure of Good Deeds, but even this proves insufficient to survive in the world, although it does encourage him to call upon the figure of Knowledge, who leads him to the sacrament of penance. As he approaches his final comforting realization, he is also accompanied by the figures of Strength, the Wits, and Beauty, though even they leave him in the end as he comes to prepare for death and his welcoming into Heaven. Thus in this way Everyman stylized the Christian's internal battle against doubt, temptation, and worldliness as an external, highly allegorized pilgrimage. In later centuries the moralistic novels of the seventeenth century imitated its forms, particularly in John Bunyan's great Pilgrim's Progress.


introduction: The play Everyman was one of the many popular morality plays staged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Originally an interlude in the longer play, The Castle of Perseverance, it was being performed independently by the late fifteenth century. The drama begins with God lamenting the state of fallen humankind and announcing his plans to chasten the character Everyman with the figure of Death.

I perceive here in my majesty,
How that all creatures be to me unkind,
Living without dread in worldly prosperity,
Of ghostly sight the people be so blind,
Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God.
In worldly riches is all their mind,
They fear not my righteousness, the sharp rod;
My love that I showed when I for them died
They forget clean, and shedding of my blood red;
I hanged between two, it cannot be denied;
To get them life I suffered to be dead;
I healed their feet, with thorns hurt was my head.
I could do no more than I did, truly;
And now I see the people do clean forsake me.
They use the seven deadly sins damnable;
As pride, covetousness, wrath and lechery,
Now in the world be made commendable:
And thus they leave of angels the heavenly company.
Every man liveth so after his own pleasure,
And yet of their life they be nothing sure.
I see the more that I them forbear
The worse they be from year to year;
All that liveth appeareth fast.
Therefore I will, in all the haste,
Have a reckoning of every man's person;
For, and I leave the people thus alone
In their life and wicked tempests,
Verily they will become much worse than beasts;
For now one would by envy another up eat;
Charity they all do clean forget.
I hoped well that every man
In my glory should make his mansion,
And thereto I had them all elect;
But now I see, like traitors deject,
They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant,
Not yet for their being that I them have lent.
I proffered the people great multitude of mercy,
And few there be that asketh it heartily;
They be so cumbered with worldly riches,
That needs on them I must do justice,
On every man living, without fear.
Where art thou, Death, thou mighty messenger?

source: Anonymous, Everyman (London: Rycharde Pynson, 1526): 4–6. Spelling modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

Comic and Political Moralities.

The allegorical structure of the morality play was also adaptable to other circumstances, and gave birth to comic and political forms. In the comic morality play Mankind from about 1470, the world is depicted as chaotic and disordered—so much so, in fact, that the play serves as a satirical commentary upon the more standard conventions of traditional morality plays. The conflict between the play's central characters Mercy, the Vices, and the Devil remained in the background of Mankind, and instead the actors performed a series of songs, dialogues, and dances intended merely to entertain those in attendance. In these, the figures of the Vices stole the show with their witty repartee and lively use of song and dance. Around the end of the fifteenth century a final form of the morality play became popular: the political morality play. Performed before kings and princes, the plays intended to teach them the virtues necessary for good rule. Just as in the religious morality plays, these political versions showed the figure of the king beset by threats to public order and buffeted between the wise advice of ministers and dangerous sycophants. Early in the reign of Henry VIII about 1516, the poet John Skelton wrote and produced his Magnificence before the king. Skelton had been Henry's tutor as a young man, and he intended his drama to encourage his now mature student to abandon his overly extravagant ways, including his involvement in a series of continental wars that threatened the financial well-being of the state. The central character Magnificence represented the king, and in the action the figure of Fancy brings him to ruin by making him abandon Measure. Adversity and Poverty strip him of his worldly goods before Mischief and Despair lead him to the verge of Suicide, but Goodhope arrives and wrests Magnificence's sword from him. At the play's conclusion Redress arrives to lead the king back to Perseverance. Political moralities like Magnificence continued to be popular throughout the sixteenth century, particularly in England and Scotland. In 1562, for instance, the lawyers of the Inner Temple in London staged a political morality that aimed to encourage Queen Elizabeth to settle the matter of the succession. Their play, Gorboduc, was originally performed in the lawyers' own hall, but later the players staged a performance before the queen in her London palace at Whitehall. The action of Gorboduc showed the tragic consequences of an ancient British king's decision to divide his kingdom between his two sons, and it relied on the traditional conventions of the morality play.

Royal Entries.

The occasions of royal entries into cities also included street theater, living tableaux, and musical performances. Royal entries were a form of royal spectacle that traced their origins to the Middle Ages. At first they had been quite simple and had involved the processions of a town's major officials, prominent burghers, and its guilds, all of which met the king and his entourage and accompanied them into the city. By 1400, a town's guilds mounted pageants similar to those that occurred alongside religious processions to celebrate the entry. The scope of these pageants grew steadily throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. By 1500, for example, a king and his courtiers might pause as many as twenty times along a processional route lined with elaborate pageant wagons, triumphal arches, and other kinds of gateways. As the architectural and artistic Renaissance of the sixteenth century spread to the kingdoms of Northern Europe and Spain, these festivals included a greater wealth of decorative and thematic detail drawn from Antiquity. In the fifteenth century, though, their elements were usually traditionally medieval and Christian in flavor. The role of the royal entry was largely ceremonial, but towns still used these occasions to remind their monarchs of their hopes and demands. In 1440, the city of Bruges in the Duchy of Burgundy (now a town in modern Belgium) relied on the entry of their duke to gain pardon for a recent revolt staged in their town. The town fathers processed to meet the ruler with bared heads and feet to show their humility before his authority; as the duke processed with them to enter the city, the local officials had the prince stop before a series of tableaux that reenacted examples of ancient kings who had shown mercy to their rebellious subjects. On other occasions, the royal entry was an occasion for a town to remind the ruler of the traditional laws and local customs that limited the monarch's authority in their city. Great drama rarely arose from these circumstances, but the impact of the royal entry was felt in other areas of the theatrical arts. During the fifteenth century the scenery used for the royal entries grew increasingly elaborate. Castles, pavilions, arcades, arches, and complex façades were among the scenic devices used to suggest times and places, and these rode atop the pageant wagons traditionally used in processions. Of all the major scenery forms, the castle was the most important in the fifteenth century since it suggested the traditional powers of the monarch to subdue his enemies and defend his realm. To enhance the staging of the tableaux before these sets, towns sometimes adopted the use of revolving stages, elevators, and other machinery that enhanced the action. In the sixteenth century, many of the innovations in set design and stage machinery that had developed out of the royal entries made their way into the new commercial theaters. Royal entry sets were particularly important, too, in inspiring the popularity of the proscenium arch in the sixteenth century.

Tournament Dramas.

By the later Middle Ages the conventions that governed tournaments had largely become conventionalized and dramatic in nature. While in the past, these occasions had provided knights an opportunity to demonstrate their prowess through jousts and other military feats, the weapons used in the late-medieval tournaments had been blunted, and a series of rules limited the danger inherent in these displays. At the same time the dramatic and symbolic nature of the tournament grew. Pageantry came increasingly to characterize the late-medieval tournament, and while the combat at these events still titillated the audience, it now tended to pale in comparison to the processions, parades, dances, and poetry that occurred alongside them. The late-medieval tournament usually commenced with a dramatic entry. Spectacle governed these entries, as in a London tournament in 1490 where a total of sixty ladies each led a knight into the arena tethered by a chain. The use of pageant wagons, too, gained favor with the crowd, and the knights who participated relied on fantastic costumes to attract attention from the audience. In the more elaborate late-medieval tournaments a storyline governed the action, and the traditional feats of prowess became embedded into this narrative. In many places the design of the tournament field was similar to a large round amphitheater, and tournaments took place in actual Roman amphitheaters where they survived. In England, the tournaments' popularity among the Tudor monarchs of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries necessitated that the tournament fields be lined with a series of pavilions with elaborate boxes for members of the court, the monarch, and his family. This pattern of building galleries inspired the designers of later Elizabethan theaters, who built several galleries above the stage and floor level pit to accommodate higher paying and ranking patrons. Although the popularity of jousts and tournaments persisted throughout the Renaissance, its dangers came to be ever more circumscribed. In 1559 King Henry II of France died as the result of a tournament accident, and a series of new regulations in France and elsewhere tried to limit the inherent dangers in these events even further.

Banqueting and Masques.

Tournaments were public events, staged in the open air before crowds of nobles and peasants alike. As such, they had a political role in demonstrating the strength and power of the aristocratic classes. In the later Middle Ages drama also found its way into the private life of the court. Medieval banquets at court or in a substantial noble household were long affairs that included many courses. Between these courses it became customary to introduce dramatic interludes, known in Italian as intermezzi. European princes sometimes chose a theme for the entire banquet, and these various intermezzi thus became linked together in a kind of narrative. One of the most famous occasions that relied upon a narrative occurred at the Feast of the Pheasant in 1453 at the Duke of Burgundy's court. The Duke of Burgundy's nephew, the Duke of Cleves, threw this banquet as the conclusion to a several-week period of tournaments and entertainments staged for the noble members of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Distressed by the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, he used the occasion to try to enlist support from the Fleece for a new crusade to retake the Holy Land. He had the hall decorated with spectacular caves and forests, and the food lowered to the table with mechanical devices that looked like triumphal carriages. Small scenes and tableaux entertained those at the feast as a way to encourage the men of the order to pledge their support to the crusade. While many apparently did, their enthusiasm seems to have faded relatively quickly after the event since the military campaign was never undertaken. Another entertainment at court, the masque, was just beginning to appear in the later Middle Ages. Masques grew out of the popular medieval custom of mumming, a custom particularly widespread in England. In these performances masked villagers, known as mummers, visited the manor houses of local lords, entertaining the household with short pantomimes, dances, and games. Originally, mumming served as a fund-raiser for local relief efforts in the village, but by the late fourteenth century a variant of the custom, the masque, was quickly developing in the royal court. In 1377, a group of about 130 masked Londoners visited a dance held by King Richard II. Dressed in elaborate costumes that suggested powerful figures in the church and state, these masked entertainers stayed to dance alongside the royal courtiers. Like most court entertainments, these early masques grew more elaborate at the end of the Middle Ages, and the official entry of the king's herald often preceded them, in order to set out an elaborate pretext for the evening's entertainment. Noblemen donned masks to present short dramas that they themselves had prepared, and professional actors, singers, and dancers lent these affairs greater finesse, as did special stage sets constructed about the hall. This combination of amateur and professional court entertainments remained popular throughout the Renaissance, inspiring the elaborate masked balls that became customary in royal courts and noble households in the seventeenth century.


The later Middle Ages was a time of great innovation in the theater. Several new forms—the mystery cycles and morality plays—grew out of the traditional liturgical dramas of the earlier Middle Ages and came to maturity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The mystery cycles were noteworthy for their dramatic realism, impressive scenery, and narrative complexity, while many of the morality plays of the period were, by contrast, masterpieces of religious allegory. The other venues in which dramatic forms developed in the era—royal entry tableaux, tournaments, and the early masque—tended toward spectacle. The inclusion of games, songs, and dance in these forms points to the eclectic nature of entertainments favored in Europe's courts. Here the appearance of narrative structures to explain the action as well as the development of new kinds of scenery and theaters inspired later generations.


G. R. Kernodle, The Theatre in History (Fayetteville, Ark.: Arkansas University Press, 1989).

C. Molinari, Theatre Through the Ages (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972).

R. Strong, Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1973).

G. Wickham, The Medieval Theatre. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

see also Dance: Theatrical Dance