Medieval Drama

Medieval drama refers to theatrical performances of the Middle Ages (the period in Europe that lasted from the 5th century to the 15th century). Due to the period's vast timespan, the term 'Medieval drama' has come to define different kinds of dramatic performances across the continent. It is important, therefore, to consider the distinct genres that formed.

Medieval Drama Medieval Drama

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Table of contents

    This article will explore this wide spectrum of performances that emerged during this time, so keep reading!

    Medieval drama: meaning

    We should first define Medieval drama:

    Medieval drama is the umbrella term for all kinds of theatrical performances that happened during the Medieval period, also known as the Middle Ages, in Europe.

    This period began during the late 5th century and concluded with the advent of the Renaissance in the early 15th century.

    Over the almost thousand years of the Middle Ages, there were significant developments in the field of theatre. Beginning exclusively as part of religious rituals, Medieval theatrical performances eventually grew out of the Church and found mass public popularity, coming to thrive towards the end of the period.

    Medieval drama: origin

    Scholars agree that the earliest Medieval dramas appeared during the Early Medieval period. Dramatic performances were held as a way for the Catholic Church to enhance liturgical practices, particularly during religious festivals and on holy days.

    The Early Medieval period, also known as the Dark Ages, began after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the year 476, liberating most of Western Europe from Roman colonial control. The period lasted from the late 5th century to the 10th century.

    Liturgy comprises the rituals and practices by which public religious worship is conducted, particularly in relation to the Christian faith.

    These became known as liturgical dramas.

    Medieval mass services were made to act as a kind of ritual drama due to the largely illiterate congregations of Europe. Exciting spectacles of performance, therefore, became key in engaging everyday people in religious practices. They functioned as an additional manner of worship during Medieval mass services, remaining deeply integrated within the Church.

    These, however, were not plays as we may conceive of them today. Instead, they were short scenes depicting stories from the Bible performed alongside Church services, specifically on religious holidays like Easter and Christmas.

    We can call these 'dramas' because they contained various recognisable dramatic elements, including short dialogues, setting, exposition and character. They incorporated Latin call-and-response chants that were sung between the priest and the congregation, the most famous of which was 'Quem quaeritis', meaning 'Whom do you seek?'. This is often considered the genesis of liturgical drama.

    Liturgical dramas grew in popularity, length and sophistication, eventually reaching their peak during the 12th and 13th centuries.

    Medieval drama: types

    As dramatic performance saw public popularity, most Medieval dramas had become distanced from their liturgical origins. By this point, performances had changed and evolved, developing over the course of the period.

    Vernacular dramas

    Towards the end of the 13th century, increased public interest demanded larger locations, moving performances from Church grounds to outdoor spaces.

    No longer did these plays serve exclusively as a part of liturgical services; instead, they were a form of entertainment for excited audiences.

    Churches relinquished control of these dramatic performances as they started to explore some secular themes and, most importantly, began to be performed in the vernacular.

    Vernacular is the term for the languages or dialects spoken by the common people in a region, area or country.

    By the beginning of the 14th century, liturgical dramas had evolved into vernacular dramas, of which there were three main types.

    Mystery plays

    Mystery plays, also called 'cycle plays', were large spectacles of performance that formed as part of religious celebrations and holy days.

    Instead of a single play, mystery plays were made up of cycles of small performances or pageants that chronicled the spiritual history of Mankind as told in the Bible, usually beginning with stories of the Creation and Fall of Man and ending with those involving the Last Judgment. Even though mystery plays were held primarily to pay glory to God, they tended to include some fictitious, non-religious elements, sometimes even satire.

    Satire is the use of humour and irony to criticise or ridicule public figures. Usually, these are in the context of wider political events or systems.

    Though cycles varied from town to town, they usually consisted of up to 50 pageants, which often lasted a whole day, inciting much celebration on holy days. Pageant wagons (mobile sets and stages with wheels) were paraded around the streets, eventually settling at marked locations to commence performance. Audiences were free to roam around and watch whichever play caught their eye, creating accessibility and involvement akin to some modern interactive theatre.

    Without Church involvement, production, organisation and funding fell under the control of guilds.

    During the Medieval period, guilds were groups of merchants or craftsmen who regulated and taught their trades. They were usually wealthy and had significant influence and power.

    Miracle plays

    Miracle plays were dramas that depicted the lives, miracles and martyrdom of Catholic saints, often performed during religious festivals. They are sometimes called 'Saint's plays'.

    Saints were individuals in Catholicism that performed miracles, extraordinary events that occur due to divine connection, during their lives. They usually died for religious causes, becoming martyrs in death.

    The most common subjects were Saint Nicholas and the Virgin Mary, both of whom had cult-like followings in the Middle Ages. Medieval people strongly believed in the healing powers of saintly relics, creating the perfect environment for miracle plays to flourish.

    Plays usually combined factual and fictitious material to create a narrative that depicted Biblical stories transposed into Medieval settings.

    Morality plays

    Morality plays involved allegorical narratives that incorporated stories from the Bible, primarily intending to educate audiences about making moral choices by using religious reasonings.

    An allegory is a symbolic narrative that conveys a secondary, more complex meaning.

    These plays tended to follow a protagonist who, through his journey, comes to understand morality, learning the difference between right and wrong. This hero was usually an 'everyman' who stood as a representation of ordinary people, making his story more relatable and so crucial to the didactic purpose of these plays.

    A key characteristic of morality plays was the inclusion of characters that were personifications of religious concepts, abstractions or qualities.

    Personification is a literary device in which abstract qualities are represented in human form.

    Characters included virtues and vices, most often the Four Daughters of God, Mercy, Temperance, Truth and Justice, and the Seven Deadly Sins. Throughout the dramatic narrative, the protagonist encounters these characters who teach him important lessons, guiding him to make more moral choices to reach salvation.

    Audiences, too, were encouraged to take on the lessons imparted by these characters. Morality plays, whilst still entertaining, were ways of educating ordinary people about the importance of goodness in everyday life, rather than simply as abstract concepts.

    Medieval drama in English Literature

    Medieval drama was an incredibly important foundation for later dramatic writings. This period began to establish the dramatic industry as a viable form of entertainment, rather than as an extension of religious teaching.

    Examples of Medieval drama

    Let's consider some important examples of Medieval drama!

    Officium Pastorum

    The first example we can look at is the Officium Pastorum. It is considered one of the earliest examples of Medieval drama. It is thought to have originated in the late 10th century.

    The Officium Pastorum was the liturgical drama that was performed on Christmas Day, comprising one of the key elements of the Medieval Church's Christmas Mass service. It was performed at midnight on December 25th, leading into the main Christmas liturgy.

    The performance was a depiction of the Nativity as told by Saint Luke.

    The Nativity is the story in the Bible which tells of Jesus' birth. There are some variations, but most retellings involve the shepherds travelling to Bethlehem after being informed by Angels about the birth of Christ. Accounts describe Jesus in a manger, accompanied by Mary, Joseph, and in Medieval traditions, midwives who assisted in the birth.

    This was particularly exciting for Medieval congregations: visual and musical spectacles were held in the familiarity of their local churches, which acted as performance venues of sorts. This created a kind of intimacy through the portrayal of one of the most important Biblical tales, not only bringing it to life but also creating a kind of accessible spirituality.

    Everyman (c. 1500)

    The most famous morality play was an English play titled Everyman. The exact date of publication is uncertain; however, most scholars contend that it was written around 1500.

    The narrative involves the eponymous hero, Everyman, after he is summoned by Death to make his Book of Accounts, in which he should take account of his life's actions, to present to God on the Day of Judgement.

    The play follows his journey as he hopes for salvation through his life's good deeds whilst facing the potential of eternal damnation as a result of his sins.

    Characters appear throughout the play to help guide Everyman through his life, providing him with important religious teachings about morality. These include Beauty, Fellowship, Strength and Wisdom.

    Everyman is one of the five surviving morality plays from the Middle Ages and is the only one that is still performed today!

    The York Mystery Plays

    One of the most important examples of the mystery play was the cycle performed in York for the Medieval festival of the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated 60 days after Easter. Most scholars believe that this cycle was performed around 1376, and produced by the York Craft Guilds.

    51 pageants were performed, making up the York Mystery Plays, sometimes also called the 'York Corpus Christi Plays', though only 48 remain in a surviving manuscript stored in the British Library.

    Pageants involved depictions of the spiritual, Christian history of Mankind from the Creation of Man to the Day of Judgement, as was typical of most mystery plays.

    The York Mystery Plays featured interesting verse forms, rhythmic patterns and rhyme schemes, which make them particularly notable in the history of dramatic English Literature.

    The cycle was revived in 1951, and it remains a significant tradition in the city's history.

    Medieval Drama - Key takeaways

    • Medieval drama is the term used to describe dramatic performances that occurred during the Middle Ages.
    • The origins of medieval drama are found in Christian liturgy as part of religious ceremonies. These were called liturgical dramas.
    • Once plays started to be performed in the vernacular, they became known as vernacular dramas.
    • The three main types were miracle plays, morality plays, and mystery plays.
    • An important example of a Medieval drama is Everyman, a morality play written around the year 1500.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Medieval Drama

    What is Medieval drama?

    Medieval drama is the term given to dramatic performances during the Medieval period, from the 5th to the 15th centuries.

    What are the 3 types of Medieval drama?

    Early medieval dramas are called liturgical dramas. Later dramas, called vernacular dramas, had 3 main types: mystery, morality, and miracle plays.

    What are some major characteristics of Medieval drama?

    All medieval dramas were based upon Biblical stories and had primarily religious themes. After severing ties with the church, they were performed in vernacular languages, usually on festive occasions.

    What is an example of Medieval drama?

    An example we can consider is Everyman (c. 1500), an important morality play that considers the goodness of one's life's deeds.

    What is the history of Medieval drama?

    Medieval dramas originated from liturgical practices in the Church. These were performed in Latin and were strictly part of religious services, particularly on holy days. They soon amassed great popularity, growing out of the Church and developing in complexity and scope.

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