Theatre in the Middle Ages

Theatre in the Middle ages covered a wide variety of genres and subject matter.  Some of the most popular genres of plays in the Middle Ages include morality plays, farces, masques and drama.  Medieval drama began with religious and moral themed plays.  An early prominent Medieval playwright was Hrotsvit of Gardensheim of the 10th century.Some other famous examples of Medieval plays include the N-Town plays, the morality play, Everyman, Hildegard of Bingen’s play set to music, OrdoVirtutum.

The early Medieval period provides few surviving records of Medieval plays due to the low literacy rate of the general population.  The clergy was also opposed to some types of performance.  Drama began to thrive in the late medieval period, and more records of performances and plays exist from this time.

Theater in the Early Middle Ages

In the early Middle Ages, churches began to stage dramatized versions of important biblical events.  The churches were faced with explaining a new religion to a majorly illiterate population, so these dramas visualized what would later be able to be read in the Bible.  These productions also celebrated annual religious events.  These productions evolved into liturgical dramas.  The earliest known liturgical drama is the Easter trope, Whom do you Seek, which dates circa 925.  Liturgical drama did not involve actors impersonating characters, but it did involve singing by two groups. 

An important playwright in early Medieval times was Hrotsvit, a historian and aristocratic canoness from northern Germany in the 10th century.  Hrotsvit wrote six plays which she modeled after Terence’s comedies.  Though Terence’s comedies show ordinary human subjects and situations involving marriage, sex and love, Hrostvitput a moral and religious spin on Terence’s plays in order to avoid criticism from the church. 

She wrote a preface to her collection of plays which stated that her purpose for writing was to save Christians from the guilt that reading Classical Literature instilled in its readers.  She is the first recorded female playwright.  She is also wrotethe first identified Western dramatic works of the post-classical era.  Her works were first published in 1501 and had a large influence on religious drama on the sixteenth century.

Following Hrotsvit was another female playwright, Hildegard of Bingen.  Hildegard’s most famous work, OrdoVirtutum, is regarded as the first play set to music, or the first musical.  Her songs were collected into a symphony,Symphoniaarmoniaecelestiumrevelationum, that was set to words from Hildegard’s own hymns, sequences and responsories.

Secular Latin plays were an important aspect in the 12th century in England in France.  Other early Medieval performances included mimes, minstrels, storytellers and jugglers who traveled in search of employment.  There is not much information available about specific performances of these entertainers.

Theater in the Middle and Late Medieval Period

Liturgical dramas spread across Europe and Russia throughout the Middle Ages.  Muslim-occupied Spain was the only area in which liturgical dramas were not present.  However, though there is a large presence of surviving liturgical dramas, most churches only performed one or two per year.  Some churches performed none at all.

An important milestone in the development of comedy was the Feast of Fools.  The Feast of Fools was a festival in which the lower clergy were allowed to mock the higher clergy as well as church life.  Comic plays and burlesque skits sometimes filtered into the events of the festival as well.  True comedy did not exist until drama and the liturgy were separated, but the Feast of Fools undoubtedly had an effect on the incorporation of comedy into religious plays.

Religious plays began production outside of the church during the 12th century.  The process began by merging shorter liturgical dramas into longer plays which were then performed by laymen rather than clergy.  The plays were then accessible to more people which now included the working class.  These plays were usually staged outdoors.

Plays in the Middle Medieval Period led to the growth of towns and formation of guilds.  This also led to important changes politically and economically, and more significant changes in the Late Medieval Period.

Plays were produced in over 120 different towns in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.  These plays, most often Mystery plays, were written in large numbers.  Some examples include the York plays (48 plays), Chester Plays (24) and Wakefield Plays (32).  A large number of plays also survive from Germany and France.  Common elements in these plays include devils and clowns.

Actors in plays in the late Middle Ages were usually laymen from the town’s local population.  Plays at this time were staged on wheeled platforms which were used to move scenery.  These stages were called pageant wagon stages, and were convenient for location changes.  Playhouses were not a common occurrence.  Contrary to popular belief, both sexes performed in plays in some European countries in the late Middle Ages.  However, in England plays were performed by all-male casts.

Professional actors became more prevalent towards the end of the Middle Ages throughout Europe.  Both Richard III and Henry VII kept small acting troupes.  These actors performed plays in a nobleman’s residence.  Mummers’ plays were also important events.

Decline of Medieval Theater

A change in interests among popular culture, a change in patronage to the theater, and the establishment of playhouses signified the death of the theatre in the Middle Ages.
The interest in religious plays was replaced by a renewed interest in Roman and Greek culture.  Roman and Greek plays began to be performed, and plays that were written began to be influenced by Greek and Roman classics.

Changes in the theater were also caused by the support of nobility and monarchs.  When the upper class began to supportnon-religious professional theater troupes, religious theater as a whole began to decline.  The tastes of the nobility filtered down to the lower classes.
The construction of permanent playhouses was also a contributing factor to the downfall of Medieval Theater. 

Because players no longer had to rely on churches and inns for staging, more creative storytelling and staging options were now available.  Productions now had a more professional quality and thus a wider audience appeal.

1 thought on “Theatre in the Middle Ages”

  1. What do you think was the driving force for theatre to be brought back up and running during the Middle Ages?” I think A change in interests among popular culture, a change in patronage to the theater, and the establishment of playhouses signified the death of the theatre in the Middle Ages.


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