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The History of Medieval Theater

Updated on May 6, 2012

A study of the theater during the medieval period will reveal much about its connection to both the classical theater of Greek and Roman fame. It will also reveal the way in which the medieval theater laid the foundation for much of theater as we know it today.

A Roman mosaic depicting a dramatic performance in a Roman house.
A Roman mosaic depicting a dramatic performance in a Roman house. | Source

Erasing the Roman Theater

It is safe to say that without the dramatists of the Greek and Roman civilizations, the theater of today would be sad shadow of what we know it to be. Acting, drama and literature were important parts of the society and culture in Rome, but as the Gothic peoples began to press westward, those luxuries faded from prominence. Eventually, Rome fell altogether, and the established theater fell with it.

Christianity grew at an astounding rate as the Roman Empire fell, and the church itself was no friend of the theater. Its close association with Greek philosophers and religion led to the theater being branded as a heretical institution. The church succeeded in eradicated most of the established theater, and the actors who once made a living on the stage in Rome were forced to flee. Some historians point to the diaspora of the Roman actor as a cause for the rise of the medieval jester. Rome did, however, manage to preserve many of the written works of the early Greek playwrights, a fact that contributed greatly to the development of the theater in the medieval period.

The Church and the Rise of Medieval Theater

The several centuries directly following the fall of the Roman Empire were centuries filled with famine, plague and war. As a result, an overwhelming majority of Europe's population was killed or succumbed to disease and by the early 10th century most common people in Europe were illiterate and uneducated. In stark contrast to the state of the people, the church had managed to grow during the harsh times following the Roman Empire.

Much of the theater in the early medieval period sprouted into prominence at the behest of the church, the same organization that had much to do with the earlier fate of the theater. Faced with the task of educating an illiterate population, the church opted to bring the stories of the Bible to life through dramatization. The churches' early forays into this arena did not produce the full-fledged drama that we think of as the theater today. Rather, the earliest precursors were pantomimes performed by priests or liturgical dramas involving symbolic scenes that evoked Biblical themes. Many of these symbolic elements would grow into the mass of the later church, and in time the liturgical dramas began to include elements of acting similar to the classic dramas of Greece but adapted to a religious purpose.

A medieval German painting of a nativity scene, thought to borrow elements from the medieval drama known as the "Shepherd's Play."
A medieval German painting of a nativity scene, thought to borrow elements from the medieval drama known as the "Shepherd's Play." | Source

The Feast of Fools and Comedic Drama

One church element that had a direct influence on the development of drama was a feast day known as The Feast of Fools. On the feast day, the lower clergy were given charge of the church service and allowed to run it however the pleased. Over the history of the Feast of Fools, the tradition developed that the lower clergy would use their opportunity as a chance to mock the leadership and the normal life of a churchman.

Some historians point to this tradition as an early basis for the elements of farcical or comedic drama that would develop later in the medieval period. The Feast of Fools also influenced the evolution of the medieval jester. The lower clergy would lead a donkey into the church in a mockery of their leaders, and over time this tradition morphed into the practice of wearing donkey ears and a tail. Medieval jesters also wore donkey ears and a tail in their early history, but over time this hat morphed into the three-tasseled hat that is the trademark of the jester today.

A traveling mystery play during the medieval period.
A traveling mystery play during the medieval period. | Source

The Mystery Play

By the 12th century, the earlier liturgical dramas had developed into a more popular form, the mystery play. The term "mystery" in this sense refers to the word "miracle," another name for the play type. The mystery play began as the simple recitation of Biblical texts, the various persons in the text each being represented by a person on the stage. The simple recitation gradually became more embellished, usually by added lines of dialogue or by dramatic elements included with the words.

As the mystery plays gained popularity, they were forced to move from being performed inside the churches. Commonly, the churchyard or the marketplace was used as the site of the mystery play, and the increased space fostered the play to even greater popularity in medieval Europe. Then, in 1210 A.D., Pope Innocent III outlawed the clergy from performing in any of the mystery plays, a move that forced the plays to be taken over by the common people and directly led to the emergence of the professional actor and the medieval theater guilds.

Trailer for Adaption of "Everyman"

Growth of the Professional Theater and the Morality Play

The emergence of a professional acting class and the huge popularity of drama necessitated the commercialization of the dramatic performances. One of the most recognizable of the medieval theater's traits is the traveling stage. Professional actors adopted this method as a means to mobilize their plays, taking the stage and all of their props with them from city to city. Most times the stage was built on the back of a wagon, and was drawn by horse to the market square of each city where a performance would be given.

The divorce of the mystery play from the direct influence of the church allowed the actors to develop their own forms of drama. Many of the forms of the mystery play were retained in the next developed form or drama, but the Biblical elements were removed. Instead, the morality play revolved around a central character and his meetings with different personifications of moral attributes. Morality plays were were allegorical dramatizations of the free will element of human life.

The most widely known morality play and possibly the most famous medieval drama is Everyman. Named after the protagonist of the play, it is obvious that the play is an allegory that encompasses the human experience as it relates to matters of good and evil.

An illustration of Everyman's fight with Death.
An illustration of Everyman's fight with Death. | Source

Decline of the Medieval Theater

The Protestant Reformation in Europe staunched the growth of the medieval theater and played a direct role in its gradual fade from prominence. The medieval theater, especially the later morality plays, had managed to revive an interest in the Greek and Roman dramatists, a fact that contributed greatly to the development of drama and the theater during the Renaissance. The growth of wealth and the establishment of cities during the Renaissance put an end to the medieval form of the theater, as permanent theaters were built in many cities and the itinerant theater of the mediaval period fell from use.

The medieval theater, then, can be viewed as an integral link between the great dramatists of the classical era and the modern theater. The church's prominence in the early medieval theater shaped much of its form and function, but the emergence of the actor's guilds and the professional actor helped broaden the scope of the medieval theater and make drama what it is today. Not to mention a guy by the name of Shakespeare!


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    • bewhuebner profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      It surely does! Thanks for reading :)

    • jasonponic profile image

      Jason Ponic 

      6 years ago from Albuquerque

      Theater has such an illustrious history! Bravo, well done! Vote up!


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