Miracle Plays

Miracle plays, a captivating genre of medieval drama, transport audiences to an enchanting realm of religious stories and supernatural occurrences. From awe-inspiring acts of faith to captivating portrayals of saints and biblical figures, these plays invite us to witness the extraordinary and reaffirm our belief in the miraculous. Miracle plays developed during the Middle Ages and chronicled the lives, events and martyrdom of various Catholic saints. Miracle plays included both factual and fictitious material but were primarily concerned with religious teachings.

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Table of contents

    Miracle plays: definition

    Miracle plays were a popular form of medieval English drama. These plays depicted religious stories and events, particularly biblical narratives and the lives of saints. They were performed during the Middle Ages to educate and entertain the largely illiterate population. Miracle plays involved the portrayal of miracles, often incorporating elements of humour and spectacle. These theatrical productions were significant in conveying religious teachings to the masses and played a crucial role in the cultural and religious life of medieval England.

    Miracle plays specifically depicted miracles performed and experienced by saints, re-enacting them in the lives of everyday people rather than as they would have occurred in the Bible.

    Saints were individuals who, in Catholicism, performed miracles (an extraordinary event that occurs due to divine connection) throughout their lives and usually died as martyrs (someone who dies for a purpose or cause).

    The saints most commonly referred to in the miracle plays were St Nicholas and St Mary (the Virgin Mary). The only surviving English miracle plays concern these two alone. Both saints had almost cult-like status during the Middle Ages, and importantly, saintly relics were treated with utmost respect due to widespread belief in their healing powers. This reverence created a perfect environment for miracle plays to flourish.

    Miracle plays: history

    Miracle plays developed from early liturgical dramas of the 10th and 11th centuries.

    Liturgy is the form in which public religious worship is conducted, particularly Christian worship.

    The church began staging plays as a way to enhance ceremony and worship on holy days, including festivals and religious feast days. These early miracle plays were usually written specifically for celebrations about a particular saint.

    By the 13th century, miracle plays attained the form we know now. They shifted away from the church and were performed at public festivals, reaching their height of popularity during the 15th century. At this time, they were performed in the vernacular and included various non-ecclesiastical (not related to the Christian church) elements, including non-biblical scenes with dramatic action and dialogue. Plays became more informal and were largely intended as entertainment rather than to depict Christian history.

    Mystery and miracle plays

    The term miracle play is sometimes mistakenly applied to mystery plays of the same era. Both are two of the three main kinds of vernacular dramas, but they form distinct bodies of work that differ in many ways.

    Vernacular dramas developed in Europe's Medieval period (14th and 15th centuries), particularly in England and France. These were plays that were performed in the vernacular (local, spoken languages) rather than in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church.

    The other main kinds were morality plays, and mystery plays. Morality plays focused on delivering a religious, educational story that encouraged audiences to make moral choices, and mystery plays were collections of smaller plays that were performed on religious holidays.

    miracle play, martryrdom, studysmarterFig. 1 - Miracle plays featured religious lessons about Catholic saints and their martyrdom.

    Characteristics of miracle plays

    The principal characteristics of miracle plays are shared with other vernacular dramas, including:

    • Written and performed in vernacular languages

    • Narratives based on and heavily featuring Biblical characters and stories

    • Usually performed on holy days as part of religious celebrations

    • Include some non-religious content

    • Relatively short length

    Miracle plays are distinguishable from other vernacular dramas, particularly mystery plays, with which they are often confused due to their focus on saints. For this reason, miracle plays are sometimes referred to as 'Saint's plays'.

    They followed the lives of saints, chronicling and often fictionalising events, miracles and martyrdom. Narratives usually portrayed these in the contexts of Medieval people rather than how they appeared in scripture, making plays increasingly more relatable to ordinary audiences.

    Miracle plays: examples

    Mary Magdalene and The Conversion of Saint Paul are the two known surviving miracle plays since the middle ages. In the mid-16th century, King Henry VIII banned miracle plays which ceased all production and performance of more miracle plays. Miracle plays were treated with suspicion due to links with Catholicism, which was not looked upon kindly after the English Reformation.

    In 1527, Henry VIII began the English Reformation by breaking from the Catholic Church.

    He re-established the Church of England with the monarch as its head, removing all papal authority and diminishing the influence of the Catholic Church.

    As a result, only the two English miracle plays mentioned are known to have survived to the present day. Mary Magdalene and The Conversion of Saint Paul remain fragmented, and not much is known about them. They are thought to have been written during the 15th and 16th centuries respectively, and both hail from East Anglia (a region in the East of England).

    European miracle plays

    We can, however, consider miracle plays from other regions in Europe. Some European miracle plays includes St. John the Hairy (which originated in Eastern Europe) andThe Play of the Three Kings (France, also known as Le Jeu des Trois Rois) and

    St. John the Hairy

    The play St. John the Hairy follows its title character, John, who, at its outset, seduces and murders a princess. Upon his arrest, an infant proclaims that he is a saint. After he confesses to his crimes, Mary and God appear to help him revive the princess, after which he is made a bishop.

    What is important to consider here is the use of deus ex machina, a popular trope used in Medieval miracle plays, particularly those involving the Virgin Mary.

    Deus ex machina (Latin meaning 'God from the machine') is a theatrical convention that originated in ancient Greek theatre, in which a stage mechanism literally dropped actors playing gods onto the stage to solve a problem in the play.

    The term has come to be widely used to describe a plot device that serves as a way to solve a previously unsolvable situation through an unlikely and unexpected occurrence. The trope functions in many kinds of artistic works, even in media today, often falling to criticism for the false sense of consolation it provides to audiences.

    In miracle plays, saints, often Mary, appear as a deus ex machina, appearing as an answer and an aid to the character's problems. This is indeed the case in St. John the Hairy, in which Mary is dropped from the heavens, appearing to help John fix his mistakes by bringing the princess back to life.

    Miracle Plays - Key takeaways

    • Miracle plays were a kind of Medieval drama that depicted the lives and miracles of Catholic saints.
    • The saints most commonly referred to were the Virgin Mary and St Nicholas.
    • Miracle plays were one of three principal kinds of vernacular drama that emerged in the Middle Ages.
    • Only two English miracle plays have survived to the present day.
    • They were often called 'Saint's plays' as the term miracle play is sometimes confusingly applied to other genres.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Miracle Plays

    What is miracle play?

    A kind of Medieval drama that depicted the lives and miracles of saints.

    How were miracle plays performed?

    Miracle plays were performed at public festivals and on holy days.

    What are the differences between mystery plays and miracle plays?

    The term miracle play is sometimes mistakenly applied to mystery plays of the same era.

    Mystery plays were collections of smaller religious plays that were performed as part of celebrations on holy days. These often lasted a whole day.

    Miracle plays, however, focused primarily on stories about saints and their miracles.

    What are miracle plays examples?

    Only two English miracle plays have survived to the present day: Mary Magdalene and The Conversion of Saint Paul.

    Another example is an Eastern European miracle play called St John the Hairy.

    Which is the first miracle play?

    It is unknown which miracle play was first performed, though they developed from early liturgical dramas performed in the Church.

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