NVCC Logo -- Go to NVCC's Home Page
Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last update: November 16, 2007
Previous Section
Unit III-Page 1
Next Section 
Back to the Course Schedule
Medieval Theatre

Resource:  Wilson and Goldfarb, Chapter 11

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:
Medieval History

Liturgical Drama

Drama Outside the Church

Medieval Staging

Medieval Drama - Plays

The Decline of Medieval Theatre

Medieval History

After the fall of Rome the 600’s A.D., came a period known to us as the "dark ages."

Much political turmoil – no reliable political structure

The Church was the only stable "government"

The church exerted increasing influence. In the 4th Century, the Bishop of Rome, claiming to be the successor to St. Peter, established supremacy in church matters and in secular concerns.

Feudalism – the manor was the chief non-church political entity.

The manor (large estate), headed by a nobleman, had absolute authority over the serfs, (peasants) who worked the land.
Lords of manors were vassals, or subjects, of a king. The king’s knights protected the lords and their land.

Serfs (servants) owed allegiance to their lord.

There are many church edicts against mimi, histriones, ioculatores – terms for secular performers.

{Top of Page}

Little is known about the theatre between 600-1000 A.D.

Also Christian ceremonies, where the theatre seems to have been "reborn." In the 12th century, the Crusades helped bring other cultures to Europe (or, to be more accurate, Europeans took from other cultures and brought them to Europe). {Top of Page}

Earliest extant drama from the middle ages:

By 975, it had become a little drama within the service, probably played by altar boys.

The practice blossomed – many playlets developed dealing with biblical themes—mostly Easter, Christmas, the 12th Night (Feast of the Epiphany).
Usually serious, but at the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Boy Bishops, much dancing and foolishness and parodies of church practices.

At first, the church had control of the drama outside of the church, but then it gradually became more controlled by secular groups.
The Guilds (tradesmen or Confraternities) took over in some cities, and it was common for certain Guilds to retain control over certain plays / stories, all of which were based in some way on the Bible or religious teachings.
For instance, the Bakers’ Guild would control the play about the Last Supper, and Shipwrights’ Guild would get plays about Noah, etc.

Municipalities took over in some cities. But the church still needed to approve the scripts, even when its role diminished.

{Top of Page}

Drama inside the Church – Liturgical Drama

Before 1200, most were still being done inside the church as part of the liturgy. Most were probably still in Latin, the language of the Church.


By 1350, plays were in the vernacular, rather than Latin.
Laymen were the actors (male members of the community, unpaid—though there were some women on stage in France), no longer clerics and priests.

The stories began to range even further than when they were part of the liturgical services.

The church seemed to support these dramas.

Why did they begin to move outdoors? Probably because of the expanding needs of the plays.

{Top of Page}

Medieval Drama outside of the Church:

{Top of Page}
Medieval Staging

Two major kinds of stages in the medieval theatre: Fixed and Moveable

These technical tricks would be more extensive on fixed stages.

The mansion and platea were borrowed from the church services.

Simultaneous display of several locations also borrowed from liturgical drama-

Simultaneous staging was a distinctive characteristic of medieval theatre.

Fixed Staging: on the Continent (except Spain and parts of Italy) (W&G call them "platform stages)

Moveable: pageant wagons (or click here) moved through the streets while the audience stayed in one place – like parade floats. (W&G call them "wagon stages") (see illustration in text) (click here for a picture..)

{Top of Page}

The Medieval Drama – the plays themselves…

The Religious Plays:

Characteristics in common:

    1. aimed to teach or reinforce Church doctrine
    2. melodramatic: good rewarded, evil punished
    3. God and his plan were the driving forces, not the characters
To us, these plays seem to be episodic, confusing sequences of time, and an odd mixture of comic and serious – unnerving.

{Top of Page}

Medieval Secular Plays

Latin comedies and tragedies were studied in schools and universities

    1. Farce – very popular
      Particularly in France, where it was well-developed.

      Pierre Patelin – 15th century France – clever knaves outwitting each other.
      Moralities – secularized – allegories based on classical gods and heroes, often with some political content
      Mummings and disguisings – given at wealthy homes on holidays – pantomimes, danced and narrated stories
      Interludes and Masques – between courses at a banquet, masques were allegorical compliments to the guests – with intricate dances and spectacle.

Towns staged pageants—the plays were often put in celebrations in honor of dignitaries.

Secular plays were most often performed by professional actors attached to noble houses.

{Top of Page}

The Decline of Medieval Theatre:

    1. Increased interest in classical learning – affected staging and playwriting
    2. Social structure was changing – destroyed feudalism and "corporate" nature of communities
    3. Dissension within the church led to prohibition of religious plays in Europe (Queen Elizabeth, the Council of Trent, 1545-1563 – religious plays outlawed.).
By late 16th century, drama of medieval period lost its force. Results of the decline:

{Top of Page}


You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...


The Next Section is Renaissance/Neoclassicism in Italy

Previous Section
Unit III-Page 1


This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

Page last updated : November 16, 2007