Medieval Monday – Theater in the Middle Ages

Theater, like pretty much everything else in the Middle Ages, disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire and was reborn in new forms.  Also like pretty much everything in the Middle Ages, it fell into two factions: Church-approved and not Church-approved.  As you might imagine, these two forms were dramatically different (see what I did there?).  One was loose and disorganized, the other was strictly formal and moralistic.  Neither was anything like what we see on stages today, but strangely enough, it was the evolving combination of the two that lead to what so many people consider to be the height of theater for all time: Shakespeare.

But let’s take a step back.

In Rome the theater was a popular form of entertainment.  It wasn’t terribly original though.  The great Greek dramatists of the Classical era had set the bar high.  Roman theater was a pale copy of the Greek original.  And when Rome collapsed the only part of the theater scene that survived in any recognizable form were the nomadic mines, storytellers, and jugglers.  They continued to travel throughout southern Europe, putting on shows to entertain the masses and occasionally appearing at one court or another.

Make no mistake, these folks didn’t perform plays.  Sure, storytellers gave dramatic representations, epic stories were reenacted, and there was even music involved.  But it certainly wasn’t Shakespeare yet.  Traveling minstrels, troubadours, and jesters were lucky if they could make a living performing for courts and town festivals.  There wasn’t enough money for elaborate settings, costumes, and certainly not anything as grand as a theater.

Theaters may not have existed yet, but stages certainly did.  By the High Middle Ages these traveling bands of actors and musicians were making more and more use of pageant wagons.  Keeping in mind that I’m condensing a LOT of theater history here, over time Medieval players made bigger and better use of these traveling stages.  They were transportable and allowed for slightly more elaborate sets than were available in the Early Middle Ages.  Best of all, they could be set up and taken down relatively quickly.  Especially useful if Church officials were on your tail.

The Church didn’t approve of these secular entertainments.  They had their own form of theater going.  Liturgical Drama of the Middle Ages evolved as a way to teach churchgoer about the Bible and Christian doctrine at a time when most common people couldn’t read.  Liturgical Dramas began as dramatizations of the stories in the Bible.  The Christmas story and Easter story were particularly popular.  Over time, however, the subject matter and text of these dramas became more involved.  It even became political.  But more about that in a second.

The earliest Liturgical Dramas were performed in the churches and cathedrals of Europe.  The scenes were played in each of the archways made by the columns that held the soaring cathedral ceilings up.  Sort of like the Catholic stations of the cross meets a traveling trunk show.  Because remember, in those days there were no pews in cathedrals and people could move around as the drama progressed.

These presentations of religious and moral subjects were tremendously popular in an illiterate culture that lived for festival days.  They were so popular, in fact, that after a while they began to be performed outside of the churches.  Raise your hand if you had to read the play Everyman in high school.  *raises hand*  That, my friends, was the blockbuster hit of 1510.  It was the culmination of a tradition that had been in the making for hundreds of years.  Plays that taught a moral lesson in a dramatic form captured the imagination of the Medieval person.

The Church, of course, knew this.  And that’s where everything fell apart – or came together, depending on how you look at it.

I wrote a whole series of blog posts last year about why the 14th century sucked.  Between the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Papal Schism things were looking bleak.  It was around this time that the Church began to use drama as a way of swaying people’s opinions.  Morality plays?  They were a perfect way to spread propaganda about one political-religious cause or another.  The world after the 14th century saw the Church losing its power to secular kings who for the first time saw that they could take more power than the Church was willing to give.  One of the ways the Church reacted was by winning the hearts and minds of common people through religious drama.  So yes, theater has always walked the dangerous line of the political.

When Henry VIII ran into all his trouble with the Church and eventually ditched it to start his own he forbade religious-themed plays from being performed.  Queen Elizabeth I did the same thing in her reign to squelch the furor that the Protestant-Catholic struggles in her sister Queen Mary’s time had caused.  Other kingdoms throughout Europe followed suit.  But theater had become super popular by then and the people wanted more.  What to do?

The answer lay partially in those goofy bands of traveling players with their secular subjects and non-Church-approved delivery and in the rediscovery of the Greek classics at the dawn of the Renaissance.  The void was filled with non-religious material that sought to meld these elements with Humanist thought and ideas.  Think Dante.  The focus shifted away from Biblical ideals and towards the dramatization of human struggle and emotion.  Of which our dear William Shakepeare was the master.

But now we’re way, way beyond Medieval theater and into a whole new world of thoughts and ideas.

So was Medieval theater merely cheap entertainment for nobles and masses or the Church’s way of teaching people how to behave with visual representations?  Well, yeah, kind of.  But it’s important to remember that without the developments of thought and structure of storytelling in the Middle Ages, a genius like Shakespeare wouldn’t have had a hungry audience to play to.


[This installment of Medieval Monday is brought to you by the Masters in Theatre from Villanova University that I earned in 2002 and will be paying for until I’m 65.  Glad I could put it to use. ;)]


4 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – Theater in the Middle Ages

  1. ‘All the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players…’ Shakespeare quote courtesy of my literature degree, (Hatfield 1989), which I don’t use for the purpose of making money any more since I stopped teaching.

  2. I was tempted to make a flippant remark about “dramatically” but instead I’ll give you a “rofl” and ask a more serious question.

    You say that the church used drama as a way of swaying people’s opinions, and during the Black Death would this have seen an increase in religious drama in an attempt to push the theatre crowd to a sort of “God is punishing non-believers” kind of ethos?

    Reason I ask is because I was watching a documentary about zombies the other night (stay with me here!) and it touched on what the term apocalypse really means. Voice over man stated that those who lived through the Black Plague felt they were seeing the end of the world, and religious orders were keen to state that it was down to beleif alone that caused people to become infected.

    So I wondered if the church used drama to get their message across, “repent” or “clense thyself” stuff to draw in the crowds and recruit new souls to their cause.

    • Oh yeah, the Church absolutely used drama to get that message across. But the Church had other problems at the time of the Black Death too. There was the Hundred Years War between France and England which split everyone in Europe, including the church. Then there was the Great Schism and two Popes at a time, then three for a while. So while yes, the Church was trying to use drama to bring people within the fold, so to speak, it was also trying to convince people to side with one Pope or another, one kingdom or another, or to rise up against their secular king in favor of the Pope. The Late Middle Ages was a total mess like that.

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