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§ 134. The Religious Drama.


Literature: W. Hone: Anc. Mysteries, Lond., 1823.—W. Marriott: Col. Of Engl. Miracle Plays, Basel, 1838.—J. P. Collier: Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry, 2 vols. Lond. 1831; new ed., 1879.—Th. Wright: Engl. Mysteries, Lond., 1838. —F. J. Mone: Altdeutsche Schauspiele, Quedlinb., 1841; D. Schauspiel d. MtA., 2 vols., Karlsr., 1846.—*Karl Hase: D. geistliche Schauspiel, Leip. 1858, Engl. transl. by A. W. Jackson, Lond. 1880.—E. de Coussemaker: Drames liturg du moyen âge, Paris, 1861. —E. Wilken: Gesch. D. Geistl. Spiele In Deutschland, Götting., 2d ed., 1879.—A. W. Ward: Hist. of Engl. Dram. Lit., Lond., 1875.—G. Milchsack: D. Oster Und Passionsspiele, Wolfenbüttel, 1880.—*A. W. Pollard: Engl. Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes with Introd. and Notes, Lond., 1890, 4th ed., 1904.—C. Davidson: Studies in the Engl. Mystery Plays, 1892, printed for Yale Univ.—W. Creizenach: Gesch. des neueren Dramas, 3 vols. Halle, 1893–1903.—Heinzel: Beschreibung des geistl. Schauspiels im Deutschen MtA., Leip., 1898.—O’Connor: Sacred Scenes and Mysteries, Lond., 1899.—*E. K. Chambers: The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols. Oxf., 1903. —Art. in Nineteenth Century, June, 1906, Festum stultorum by Mrs. V. Hemming.—J. S. Tunison: Dram. Traditions of the Dark Ages, Cincinnati, 1907. See the large list of works in Chambers, I. xiii-xlii.


An important aid to popular religion was furnished by the sacred drama which was fostered by the clergy and at first performed in churches, or the church precincts. It was in some measure a mediaeval substitute for the sermon and the Sunday-school. The old Roman drama received hard blows from the Christian Fathers, beginning with Tertullian, and from synods which condemned the vocation of the actor as inconsistent with a Christian profession. In part as a result of this opposition, and in part on account of the realistic obscenity to which it degenerated, the Roman stage was abandoned. According to the two codes of German law, the Sachsenspiegel and the Schwabenspiegel, actors had no legal rights.21062106    Eicken, p 674

The mediaeval drama was an independent growth, a product of the convent and priesthood, and was closely associated with the public religious services. Its history includes two periods, roughly divided by the latter half of the thirteenth century. In the earlier period, the representations were largely under the control of the clergy. Priests were the actors and the intent was exclusively religious. In the later period, the elements of pantomime and burlesque were freely introduced and priests ceased to be the controlling factors. The modern drama begins in the sixteenth century, the age of Shakespeare.

The names given to the mediaeval representations were ludi, plays, mysteries, miracle-plays, and moralities. The term "morality" is used for plays which introduced the virtues and vices, personified, and carrying on dialogues teaching wholesome lessons of daily prudence and religion. The term "mystery" comes from the word ministerium, meaning a sacred office.21072107    Not from mysterium. The early French word was misterre. The term "mystery" was not used in England. The terms in use were plays, miracles, and miracle-plays.ters who went about on their mission of entertainment and instruction. Such were the troubadours of Provence and Northern Italy, and the joculatores and jougleurs of France who sang descriptive songs—chansons de geste. The minnesingers of Germany and the English minstrels belong to the same general group. How far these two movements influenced each other, it is difficult to say,—the one starting from the convent and having a strictly religious intent, the other from the people and having for its purpose amusement.

The mediaeval drama had its first literary expression in the six short plays of Hroswitha, a nun belonging to the Saxon convent of Gandersheim, who died about 980. They were written in imitation of Terence and glorify martyrdom and celibate chastity. One of them represents a Roman governor making approaches to Christian virgins whom he had shut up in the scullery of his palace. Happily he was struck with madness and embraced the pots and kettles and covered with soot and dirt, was unceremoniously hustled about by the devil. It is not known whether these plays were acted out or not.21082108    The text is given by Migne, 137. 975-1062, together with some poems attributed to Hroswitha, one of which, "The Fall and Conversion of St. Theophilus," has often been regarded as the original of the tale of Faust.

Hroswitha was an isolated personality and the mediaeval play had its origin not with her, but in the liturgical ritual for the festivals of Easter, Good Friday, and Christmas. To make the impression of the service more vivid than the reading or chanting of the text could do, dramatic features were introduced which were at first little more than the simplest tableaux vivants. They can be traced beyond the eleventh century and have their ancestry in the tropes or poetical interpolations inserted into the liturgy for popular effect.21092109    See Blume, Tropen d. Missale in Analecta hymn., XLVII. 7.

The first dramatic action was associated with the services on Good Friday and Easter. On Good Friday the cross was hid in a cloth or in a recess in the walls, or in a wooden enclosure, specially put together. Such recesses in the walls, called "sepulchres," are still found in Northwold, Navenby, and other English churches. On Easter day the crucifix was taken out from its place of concealment with solemn ritual. In Davis’ Ancient Rites of Durham is the following description:21102110    Chambers II. 310.


"Within the church of Durham upon Good Friday there was a marvellous solemn service in which two of the ancient monks took a goodly large crucifix all of gold of the picture of our Saviour Christ, nailed upon the cross .... The service being ended, the said two monks carried the cross to the Sepulchre with great reverence (which Sepulchre was set up that morning on the north side of the quire, nigh unto the high altar before the service time) and there did lay it within the said Sepulchre with great devotion."


To this simple ceremony, adapted to impress the popular imagination, were soon added other realistic elements, such as the appearance of the angels and the women at the sepulchre, the race between Peter and John, and the conversation between Mary and the gardener. Dialogues made up of biblical language were introduced, one of the earliest of which is the conversation between the women and the angels:—


Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, worshippers of Christ?

Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly denizens.


Quam quaeritis in sepulchro, Christocolae?

Jesum Nazarenum, crucifixum, O coelicolae.


On Christmas the dramatic action included the angels, the Magi, and other actors, and a real cradle or manger. Priests in the garb of shepherds, as they approached the stable, were met with the question,—


Whom seek ye in the stable, O shepherds, say?

Quem quaeritis in praesepe, pastores, dicite?


To which they replied,


The Saviour, Christ the Lord, the infant wound in swaddling clothes.


From such beginnings, the field was easily extended so as to include all Scriptural subjects, from Adam’s fall to the last judgment.

The first notice of a miracle play in England is the play of St. Katherine, presented by the schoolboys of Dunstable abbey, soon after the year 1100.21112111    Pollard, p. xix. M. Paris calls it a "miracle,"—quem miracula vulgariter appellamus.is day in London with the stage of pagan Rome.

An ambitious German play of the thirteenth century represents Augustine seated in front of a church, Isaiah, Daniel, and other prophets at his right hand, and at his left the High Priest and Jews. Isaiah uttered his prophecy of the Messiah. The Sibyl pointed to the star. Aaron entered with the budding rod. Balaam and the ass then take their turn. An angel blocks the way. The ass speaks. Balaam recites his prediction of the star of Jacob. The prophetic announcements being made, the high priest appeared with much circumstance, and a discussion followed between him on the one side and the prophets and Augustine on the other. Another act followed and the angel announced the Saviour’s birth. The child was born. The three kings and the shepherds come on the scene. The journey to Egypt followed and Egypt’s king met the holy family. Herod is eaten by worms. And so the play went on till anti-Christ made his appearance. Here we have a long advance upon the simple dramatic ceremonies of the century before, and at the same time the germ of the elaborate drama which was to follow. The materials, however, are all religious.

The dramatic instinct was not satisfied with a serious treatment of biblical themes. It demanded the introduction of the burlesque and farcical. These elements were furnished by Judas, the Jews, and the devil, who were made the butts of ridicule. Judas was paid in bad coin. The devil acted a double part. He tempts Eve by his flatteries, he holds the glass before Mary Magdalene while she makes her toilet before going out to dance with every comer, wheels the unfortunate into hell on a wheelbarrow, and receives the lost with mock ceremony into his realm. But he is as frequently represented as the stupid bungler. He was the mediaeval clown, the dupe of devices excelling his own in shrewdness. He sallied out from the stage, frightening little boys and followed with laughter and jibes by the older onlookers. His mishaps were the subject of infinite merriment.

The association of plays with the church was not received with universal approbation. Gerhoh of Reichersperg opposed them as a desecration. Innocent III. in 1210, if he did not condemn them altogether, condemned their abuse.21122112    The meaning of Innocent’s brief is disputed. It may have reference only to the Feast of Fools. The text is in the Decretals, III. 1, 12, Friedberg’s ed., II. 452.her synods forbade priests holding "theatrical plays" in the church buildings. Caesar of Heisterbach represents the rigoristic feeling when, hearing from a priest of a stage that was struck by lightning and twenty men burned to death, declared the burning was a proper punishment for the friends of frivolity and that it was a wonder the priest, who was present, escaped.21132113    Dial., X. 28, Strange’s ed., II. 238,

By the end of the thirteenth century, the plays were no longer acted in the churches, but were transferred to the public squares and other open spaces. Gilds and companies of actors took them up and acting again began to be a recognized vocation. The religious element, however, was retained, and religious and moral subjects continued to be the basis of all the plays. Even after they began to be acted on the public squares, the plays, like a modern political gathering, were introduced with prayers and the Veni creator spiritus was chanted. Among the earlier societies, which made it their business to present them, was the confraternity of the Gonfalone. In its chapel, St. Maria della Pieta in the Colosseum, plays were given perhaps as early as 1250. In Passion week the roof of the chapel was turned into a stage and the passion was acted.21142114    Gregorovius, Hist. of the City of Rome, VI. 712. confrèrie de la passion, the brotherhood of the passion."

The Feasts of the Fools and the Ass.—In these strange festivals, which go back to the eleventh century, full vent was given by the clergy to the love of the burlesque. At first, they were intended to give relief to the otherwise serious occupation of the clergyman and, while they parodied religious institutions, they were not intended to be sacrilegious, but to afford innocent amusement. Later, the observance took on extravagant forms and received universal condemnation. But, already in this period, the celebration in the churches and cathedrals was accompanied with revels which called forth the severe rebuke of Bishop Grosseteste21152115    Luard’s ed., pp. 118, 161. On these festivals, see Eselsfest, in Herzog, V. 497 sq., and Feste, in Wetzer-Welte, IV. 1398-1407; Chambers, I. 274-372.ed at Christmas tide and the early days of January. The descriptions are confusing, and it is difficult to get a perfectly clear conception of either festival.

On the Feast of the Fools,—festum stultorum,21162116    Called also festum hypodiaconorum, feast of the deacons, etc.ishop or pope and in drollery allowed him episcopal functions. Prescriptions for the boy-bishop’s dress are found in the annals of St. Paul and York and Lincoln cathedrals, and included a white mitre and a staff. The ceremony was observed at Eton. The festival, however, was most popular in France. The boy-prelate rode on an ass at the head of a procession to the church amid the ringing of bells and the jangle of musical instruments. There he dismounted, was clad in bishop’s vestments, and seated on a platform. A banquet and religious services followed, and in turn dancing and other merriment. The ceremonies differed in localities and a number of rituals have come down to us.

In the feast of the Ass, —festum asinorum, —the beast that Balaam rode was the chief dramatis persona. The skin of the original animal formed a valuable possession of a convent in Verona. The aim was to give dramatic representation to biblical truth and perhaps to do honor to the venerable and long-suffering beast which from time immemorial has carried man and other burdens. At Rouen the celebration took place on Christmas day. Moses, Aaron, John the Baptist, the Sibyl, Virgil, the children who were thrown into the furnace, and other ancient characters appeared. Balaam, wearing spurs and seated on an ass, was the centre of attraction. A fire was started in the middle of the church around which stood six Jews and Gentiles. The prophets, one by one, made addresses attempting to convert them. The ass spoke when his way was barred by the angel, and Balaam uttered his prophecy of the star. The ass was then placed near the altar and a cope thrown over him. High mass followed.

At Beauvais the festival was celebrated on the anniversary of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, Jan. 14. The ass, bearing "a most beautiful maiden" with a child in her arms, was led into the church and stood before the altar during the performance of mass. At the close of the ritual, the priest instead of repeating the customary formula of dismissal, ite, missa est, made three sounds like the braying of an ass,—sacerdos tres hinhannabit, —and the people responded three times, hinham.

The improprieties and revels which became connected with these celebrations were adapted to bring religion into disrepute and called forth the rebukes of Innocent III. and Innocent IV., the latter mentioning a boy-bishop by name and condemning the travesty upon serious subjects. In 1444 the theological faculty of Paris spoke of grave and damnable scandals connected with the celebrations, such as the singing of comic songs the men being dressed in women’s attire and the eating of fat cakes at the altar. Councils, as late as 1584, joined in condemning them. At the close of Henry VIII,’s reign and at Cranmer’s suggestion the festivals were forbidden in England.



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