Medieval Drama: Western European Religious Contexts

This article is associated with the Folger Institute's 2016-2017 year-long colloquium on Teaching Medieval Drama and Performance, which welcomed advanced scholars whose research and pedagogical practice explore historical, literary, and theoretical dimensions of medieval drama from the perspective of performance.

Complicating "Religion"

Medieval European religious cultures are complex. The use of "religious cultures," instead of "religions," is intentional: it emphasizes these cultures' diversities and divergences. These religious cultures did not exist as monoliths: as -isms that were the same in all times and places. So there was no such thing-no one, singular, unitary thing-called "medieval Christianity," or "medieval Judaism," or "medieval Islam." There were only Christianities, Judaisms, and Islams, different in different places at different times.

Complicating Periodization

These religious cultures complicate the stable senses of "religion" we usually have. They also complicate periodization stories, for at least two reasons:

First, different religious cultures experienced enormous changes at different historical moments. These changes-historical, literary, philosophical, theological, and scientific domains-profoundly alter these religious cultures. These moments of momentous change are what we might call "renaissances": births of new religious and cultural forms.

Islamic cultures, for example, experienced one such renaissance in ninth-century Spain. Jewish cultures experienced a renaissance in eleventh-century Spain. Christian cultures experienced renaissances in twelfth-century France, in thirteenth-century Italy, and in fourteenth-century England (among others).

So medieval European religious cultures complicate, or rupture, the idea of a "renaissance," of its happening in the fifteenth century (as many of us were taught), and its marking the beginning of "modernity." If a medieval renaissance inaugurates a modernity, then Islams, Judaisms, and Christianities are modern by at least the twelfth century. Caroline Walker Bynum, for example, points out remarkable similarities between twelfth-century and fifteenth-century Christian cultures. Given these similarities, she can ask: did the twelfth century invent the individual? (It did not, Bynum decides, though she claims that it did discover the self.)

Second, changes in religious cultures were not totalizing. More often than not, they did not eliminate earlier forms of a religious culture. Older forms persisted alongside newer ones, sometimes for centuries. So, for example, a twelfth-century monastic form of Christianity could exist alongside a thirteenth-century mendicant form of Christianity-and this could happen in the fourteenth century, when lay piety movements were exploding across Europe. Many of these coeval forms persist into the Reformation era.

Medieval Drama's Christian Contexts

It is important to keep these complications in mind when focusing on specific religious contexts of medieval drama, which was almost exclusively Christian. Medieval drama-whether miracle plays, morality plays, or play cycles-tended to enact Christian themes or reenact Christian narratives for (mostly) Christian audiences. For this reason, the remainder of this section focuses on Western European Christianities in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. During these centuries, there were variations, but not yet varieties, of Christianities. Western European "Christianity" imagined itself a unified institution, under papal jurisdiction. It defined variations in terms of orthodoxy and heresy, not in terms of doctrinal varieties.

Monastic reforms significantly affected twelfth-century European Christianities. Though Benedictines sustained their monastic traditions, and canons regular ministered to urban centers, new monastic orders emerged. They included Cistercians, Camaldolese, and Carthusians (among others). With them came increasingly affective forms of devotion.

These forms intensified in the thirteenth century with the invention of mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and of new feminine forms of religious life (e.g., the Beguines). There was a concurrent proliferation of mystical pieties, among men and among women, that became increasingly personalized.

Devotional Transformations: Confession and Eucharist

This personalization coincided with devotional transformations. Two of the most significant for medieval drama, concerning confession and Eucharist, came from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

The Fourth Lateran Council commanded Christians to confess their sins to their priests at least annually. In earlier Christianities, penance had been a way of being, but this command shifts confession to a way of doing. Instead of being a penitent, a Christian would do the sacrament of confession. This shift displaces the locus of sin from sinful persons to sinful acts. "Sinful" now described something(s) a Christian did, not something a Christian was.

Confession thus became something a Christian did: a regular, institutionalized, sacramentalized practice. Confession required a regular reviewing of a Christian's life. It called for confessing deeds as well as desires. Confessional manuals proliferated, which guided priests in garnering details about the frequency, duration, and intensity of a confessant's sins.

This new emphasis on confession is reflected in medieval drama. For example the 1519 play Everyman is, in a way, an extended confession. Its protagonist, on the brink of death, reviews his life: his relationships, his deeds, his qualities. He does so to evaluate them morally. And he discovers that only his good deeds will accompany him into death.

The Fourth Lateran Council also made the transubstantiation of the host official doctrine. In other words, the Eucharistic bread and wine were no longer symbols of Christ's body. They became Christ's body and blood during the Eucharist. This change moved Eucharistic piety to the heart of Christian devotions. Veneration of the Eucharist increased dramatically. So did Eucharistic miracles. Devotion to it was, now, devotion to the body of Jesus. Ingesting the Eucharist meant ingesting, and incorporating, the body of Jesus.

But access to Jesus's Eucharistic body became limited by the end of the thirteenth century. Christians were to receive communion only so many times per year. And priests turned their back to congregations during the Eucharistic ritual. Seeing the Eucharist raised over the priest's head became a devotional focus. It became sacramentally effective, for by looking upon the host, one obtained its grace. And it became more dramatic, in its form (as a drama) and in its emotional effects on congregants (as "dramatic"). With these changes, the Eucharist used drama's techniques to direct congregants' gazes and attention-and desire-to the elevated host.

The Eucharistic liturgy-that is, the Mass-was always influenced by dynamics of performance: a restaging of a prior event that performed (i.e., effected) Christ's presence. But these liturgical changes added a theatrical element to the liturgy. The liturgy became a drama, and raising the host at its climactic moment became a kind of revelation.

Eucharistic piety ties in another way to medieval dramatic performances. The York Cycle, for example, was performed on Corpus Christi, which became an official Christian feast in the fourteenth century. Understanding the increased importance of the Eucharist also adds to the understanding of, for example, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament: a play both about the Eucharist and about a Eucharistic miracle following attempted Eucharistic desecration.

This eucharistic emphasis highlighted the importance of Jesus's body. This importance effected other innovations. Theologically, attention focused on the humanity of Jesus, with Franciscan and, later, lay movements giving it a especial emphasis. Francis of Assisi, for example, was cast as an alter christus: another Christ.) This emphasis made Jesus-or made Jesus feel-more proximate, more accessible, to Christians.

This proximity translated into the rise of the crucifix as a key devotional object. Crucifixes proliferated as communal and, later, private objects of veneration. They materialized the mortal body of Jesus as an object of worship. In the process, they further underscored the crucifixion's importance, theologically and devotionally.

Performative Spiritual Practices

These transformations coincided with developments of performative and affective spiritual practices. For example, Jacobus de Sancto Geminiano's Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ), a popular fourteenth-century devotional manual, is full of sensuous details. Nicholas Love translated this work into the Middle English Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ a century later. And the Meditationes resonated with, and perhaps influenced, Walter Hilton's Prickynge of Love, a fourteenth-century translation of James of Milan's Stimulus Amoris.

The Meditationes prompts religious practitioners to relocate themselves imaginatively in key scenes of Jesus's life. It asks them to see, hear, and feel (physically and emotionally) these scenes, guiding them to focus on the nails driven into Jesus's hands during his crucifixion and the resulting blood flow. (It is a gory text.)

Such scenes intentionally evoke emotional and visceral responses in religious practitioners. Their religious practices become corporealized, at least imaginatively. The Meditationes makes religious practitioners viewers and even participants in the Stations of the Cross, which it stages as an unfolding drama.

So Meditationes Vitae Christi and devotional manuals like it offer interesting intersections with religious dramas. Both kinds of texts restage Christian narratives in performative ways. Practitioners thus become performers in this religious drama.

Making religious culture performative in this way makes these Christian narratives present, and remarkably real, for religious practitioners. It locates the divine in the world of human experience. And it heightens these religious narratives' stakes and effects on practitioners' lives.

Devotional Texts: Christianity Made Accessible

All of these changes made Christianities more individualized. The divine became more proximate, and more accessible, to humans. This accessibility made human-divine relations more personal, and more available to more Christians. These changes, and others they made way for, directly affected the possibility of medieval drama as worship, instruction, and entertainment. Among these changes were newly invented modes of lay piety, including penitential and devotio moderna movements. They stressed simple living along with private devotional practices.

Aiding these practices were books, produced for lay audiences. For example, Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi (The Imitation of Christ) became one of the most widely read Christian texts (second, many say, only to the Bible). De Imitatione Christi drew on earlier Christian traditions, from Paul to Augustine to Francis of Assisi, as well as on contemporary devotio moderna movements. It offered practical advice: counsels for Christian living and directives on interiority. It also included a dialogue on the Eucharist.

Other popular devotional aids included books of hours, produced for lay people. Books of hours were often illustrated and illuminated manuscripts, and were among the first products marketed by early printers. They included prayers to be said at each of the seven canonical hours (matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline). Books of hours transformed a formerly monastic prayer cycle into a lay one, popularly available and practiced.

Coupled with these lay pieties was the rise of vernacular theology: religious texts (often recounting individual religious experiences) written in vernacular languages, no longer only in Latin. Literate lay people, increasing with increased urbanization, could now directly access religious texts, without the mediation of clergy and ecclesiastical hierarchies. They could also write religious texts, and there was now an audience for them.

Lay people could also become subjects of religious texts. For example, The Book of Margery Kempe narrated a medieval woman's extreme, and extremely affective, piety. For Margery Kempe, this piety was a profoundly bodily and performative affair. Margery Kempe performs her piety, externalized. The Book details performative elements of Margery Kempe's devotional practices, including her clothing, her frequent weeping, and her pilgrimages.

In doing so, The Book of Margery Kempe also emphasizes the increasing importance of pilgrimage as a practice of lay piety. Pilgrimage was a way of performing that piety, in extended and embodied ways. It involved moving bodies from place to place, and the exertion and risk and expense required to travel to holy sites. In these ways, pilgrimage parallels play cycles as modes of pious performance and performative piety. Both move practitioners through physical spaces as ways of moving them across imaginative times.

Many Kinds of Changes

Lay pieties, vernacular theologies, and pilgrimages were major religious changes. They made Christianity performative. They introduced more active ways that Christians might enact their Christianities. These changes extended these ways across a wider social range.

And they made Christianity popular: an affair of the populace, which happened in secular spaces. They were three of the most significant changes that made way for medieval drama's emergence as religious-which is also to say, a popular-phenomenon. These changes reiterated that medieval Christianities were religious cultures, but perhaps more significantly that they were popular religious cultures. They included the wide array of cultural forms of any popular culture and reached beyond what we might call or easily recognize as "pious."

With these religious changes came religious change-makers-in other words, reformers. This lineage, stretching back to Francis of Assisi, included (among others) Geert Groote in the Low Countries, Jan Hus in the Holy Roman Empire, and John Wycliffe in England along with the Lollard movement he instigated.

Concurrent with these changes was the fracturing of ecclesiastical hierarchy and authority. This fracturing included a century of papal instability. The papacy moved to Avignon from 1309 to 1377. From 1377 to 1418, there was a papal schism, a period when more than one man claimed to be pope at the same time. These institutional fractures are important parts of the political contexts in which these devotional changes occur. A century later, these fractures become breaks with the emergence of Protestant movements that multiply Christianities.

Further Reading

Beckwith, Sarah. Christs Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings. Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2005.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited and translation by Lynn Staley. New York (N.Y.): Norton, 2001.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. "Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?" In Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. University of California Press, 1982. 82-109.

Lipton, Sara. “Images and Their Uses.” In Christianity in Western Europe c. 1100-c. 1500. Vol 4 of The Cambridge History of Christianity. edited by Miri Rubin and Walter Simons. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 254-282.

McGinn, Bernard. The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism (1350-1550). Vol 5. of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Crossroad, 2016.

Ragusa, Isa, and Rosalie B. Green, eds. Meditations on the life of Christ. Translated by Isa Ragusa. Princeton (N.J.): University Press, 1961.

Suydam, Mary A., and Joanna E. Ziegler, eds. Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999.

Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992.

Kempis, Thomas à. The Imitation of Christ. Edited and translated by Joseph N. Tylenda. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Zysk, Jay. Shadow and Substance Eucharistic Controversy and English Drama Across the Reformation Divide. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.