Vernacular Drama of the Middle Ages

There were three types of vernacular drama in the Middle Ages: miracle plays, morality plays, and mystery plays. They were performed in the language of the local people, rather than in the Latin of the church. All of them have somewhat murky origins in the church, but gradually lost some of their ecclesiastical elements.

Miracle Plays

Miracle plays depicted the life, miracles, and martyrdom of the saints, and contained both fictional and factual components. The church began developing them in the 10th and 11th centuries to enhance religious feast days and festivals. By the 13th century the plays had left the church and were performed at public festivals, and included non-ecclesiastical content. Mary and St. Nicholas were two of the favorite subjects. In a time when relics were thought to have healing properties, the miracle plays were very popular. In England they were finally banned by Henry VIII in the mid-16th century. Only two English plays survive, Conversion of Saint Paul and Mary Magdalene.

Morality Plays

Morality plays were allegorical, with characters such as Mankind (usually the Hero), the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth). The plays had elements of both religious and secular drama, and functioned as a transition from one type of drama to the other. They were typically short, and often farcical. The actors were quasi-professionals, who relied on public support. The morality plays were mostly performed in England, though other countries also had some. They likely originated from the Pater Noster prayers (which became plays), which had seven petitions relating to the seven cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins. With good and evil thus personified, it was a short step to create other plays with some of the same characters and themes.

Examples of the Morality Plays
Everyman (c. 1500) is the best known English morality play and is still performed today. In it Everyman is called to account for his sins and actions during life by Death.

The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1425) is another famous English play. The soul of Humanum Genus (Mankind) lives in a castle surrounded by the forces of good and evil. Good triumphs in the end by driving away the evil forces with rose bunches, which were a symbol of Christ’s passion.

Condemnation des banquets is a French play written by Nicolas de la Chesnaye c. 1507. This play illustrates the need for moderation, showing the bad end that comes to some revelers including Gluttony and Watering Mouth.

The Miraculous Apple Tree (Het Esbatement den Appelboom) is a humorous Dutch play in which God gives Staunch Goodfellow and Steadfast Faith an apple tree. The only hitch is that whoever touches it without permission… gets stuck.

Beast Epics

Reynard and King Noble

Also popular during the Middle Ages were the beast epics, which functioned similarily to the morality plays. The characters were animals personifying allegorical attributes. Reynard the Fox (Van den Vos Reynaerde) was one of the most famous of these characters. He featured in a number of Dutch plays, which originated in the tales from a number of countries. The plays begin similarly to Everyman, with Reynard called to account by King Noble, the Lion.

Mystery Plays

The mystery plays were the most involved of the vernacular dramas, and depicted the spiritual history of mankind. They consisted of 25-50 individual plays grouped into a larger production called a cycle. The cycle would begin with Creation and the Fall of Man, continue through biblical events, and end with the Last Judgment. The cycles differed from town to town and from year to year as plays were rewritten, and added or dropped. In medieval times they were also called Corpus Christi plays, as they took place most often on that feast day. Later they were also performed on other feast days, especially Whitsuntide, but were still referred to as Corpus Christi plays.

Corpus Christi began in about 1264, but wasn’t widely observed until the 1320s. It was on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, in June or early July. It became the church’s primary summer festival, featuring a procession of the clergy and laity through town. The guilds followed the clergy carrying banners. By the first half of the 1400s the processions included people dressed as biblical characters, and it is thought that the mystery plays arose from this procession.

By the 13th century the individual plays, which were also called pageants, were produced by the trade guilds, which were also known as mysteries, or mystères (giving them their name). The guilds in turn were responsible to the city who oversaw the entire cycle. The guilds were given biblical scenes that logically proceeded from their type of business, such as The Shipwrights performing The Building of the Ark.

Other examples from the York cycle:

  • The Barkers ~ The Fall of the Angels
  • The Armorers ~ The Expulsion from Eden
  • The Parchmentmakers and Bookbinders ~ Abraham and Isaac
  • The Saddlers ~ The Harrowing of Hell
musicians on a medieval wagon

The plays usually followed the biblical narrative closely, though some of the undeveloped stories were expanded upon, such as the scene when the shepherds visit the newborn Christ. Some of the plays also drew from legend, i.e. with tales of the Antichrist. As the mystery plays grew more distant from their ecclesiastical beginnings, satiric elements began to be introduced which mocked people in authority: doctors, judges, and even the clergy.

The guilds auditioned performers, taking them from their own members, local townspeople, and professional actors. To ensure that the performances went off without a hitch, the actors had to take oaths that they would show up, and some guilds and towns had fine systems in place in the event of missed rehearsals. The number of actors necessary for each play varied, but was usually about 5-10. People often played more than one role. The longest play was performed in France, The Acts of the Apostles, and had 494 speaking parts performed by 300 people, 61,908 lines of rhymed verse, and took 40 days to perform!

The staging of the mystery plays took place on either fixed stages or in wagons (also called pageants or pageant wagons). The arrangement of the fixed stages varied: ancient Roman coliseums were used where available; 100 foot long rectangular stages were often used, as were round stages. The fixed stages usually had a Heaven mansion at one end, a Hell mansion at the other, and earthly scenes in between. (A mansion was basically a backdrop or structure to set the scene.)

woodcut of a Hell Mouth

The wagons were used predominantly in England and Spain, though occasionally elsewhere in Europe. Each guild had a wagon for their own play, specially modified for the sole purpose of the production. Each wagon had 1-3 mansions, and an entire cycle could have well over 100. Heaven and Hell were the most used locations or mansions. Heaven was depicted with shining lights and clouds, and was often raised above stage level. Hell, on the other hand, was often below stage level, reachable by going through the Hell Mouth, the cavernous mouth of a monster. Between periods of use the wagons were stored in special sheds or sometimes in churches. Cycles that used wagons proceeded through town, stopping at designated stations to perform. In York, for example, the cycle had 12 stations, so each of the 50 plays in the cycle had to perform 12 times. Choirs and instrumentalists provided music before the plays started as well as throughout.

The mystery plays must have been quite a spectacle, with all of the special effects that were used! Trap doors (for transformations), pulleys and windlasses to provide for “flying” characters, and fountains were just a few. Nearby buildings were also sometimes called into action, such as one production in Mons in 1501, in which barrels of water were stored on nearby roofs – enough to provide for a five minute rain leading up to the Flood scene!

The actors dressed as their contemporary medieval counterparts, i.e. biblical soldiers dressed as knights. This makes sense when it is realized that with the exception of costumes which varied tremendously from everyday clothing (such as devil costumes, often depicted as birds of prey or monsters), the actors were responsible for obtaining their own costumes. It is also very unlikely that they would have known what was worn historically in biblical times. To help identify special characters, the actors often carried emblems. The character of the Archangel Michael, for example, carried a flaming sword. Scenes of torture and execution used effigies as the victims rather than real people, and were filled with animal guts and bones to provide a disturbing sense (and smell) of realism.

When a cycle was ready to be performed, invitations were sent to nearby towns and posters were put up. A few days before the event costumed actors held a procession. And on the day itself, a herald went through town, blowing a trumpet to draw attention. Performance days were considered holidays, and work was often forbidden. Guards were set to watch over homes and businesses while the townsfolk attended the plays. The audience watched from nearby roofs, or on special scaffolding, or else stood on the streets. As the plays started about 7 a.m., the audience would begin to show up as early as 4:30 a.m. in order to get prime viewing locations.

Evidence for the mystery plays exists from the last quarter of the 14th century up until the 1570s or 1580s. Nearly complete texts for the cycles exist from York, Wakefield, Chester, and an unknown 4th town (possibly Lincoln). At their height, about 125 towns in England produced cycles. The cycles were produced every 2 to 10 years, and were canceled only in the event of war or plague. A number of factors led to their decline. They lost support from the church, both because of the growing distance from church input (i.e. growing secularism in the content), as well as the growing influence of Protestantism, which looked askance at some of the plays, such as those dealing with the later life of the Virgin Mary. Also, the public was starting to prefer the secular productions given by touring companies.

Academic American Encyclopedia, v. 13.
Dictionary of the Middle Ages, v. 8, Joseph R. Strayer, editor in chief.
History of the Theatre, by Oscar G. Brockett.
New Encyclopaedia Britannica, v. 8.

Hell mouth woodcut is from When Knights Were Bold, Eva March Tappan.
Other pics are from

~Write-up by Kester