Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Medieval European Theater


Europe after the Roman Empire

  • After 600 c.e. evidence of ancient Greek and Roman theater was limited to comedies of Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus, preserved in monastery manuscripts.
  • Plautus and Terence’s plays influenced Hrotsvit, a tenth-century canoness at the Saxon abbey of Gandersheim.
  • Hrotsvit adapted Terentian comedy to Christian subjects in six plays.
  • Theater was denounced during the Middle Ages as Church authorities found it and other spectacles sinful.
  • Some dramatic material was, ironically, derived from Roman Catholic rituals including the chanting during the liturgy and commemoration of biblical events.

Early Church Drama

  • Tropes were short biblical passages set to music introduced to church ceremonies during the tenth century.
  • Quem quaeritis—a trope based on the realization of Christ’s resurrection—developed into a full-length Easter drama performed in monasteries for clerical spectators.
  • During the twelfth century, Church drama expanded outside of the liturgy.
  • “Miracle Plays” that commemorated the lives of saints mixed stories of conflict and romantic adventure with moral example.

Corpus Christi Cycles

  • Cycle plays evolved primarily in England as dramatists began to use vernacular language instead of Latin.
  • The Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) celebrated the Holy Eucharist with plays dramatizing events from biblical history.
  • Cycle plays evolved as “Mystery Cycles” in northern England as guilds took over production. “Mystery” referred to craft, trade, or profession (Latin misterium).
  • Mystery plays held a civic and religious function in that guilds were assigned plays respective to their professions (e.g., shipwrights were assigned Noah plays).
  • The Cycle play disappeared in the late sixteenth century when it was suppressed by the English Protestant Church.


  • In cities including York and Coventry, plays were performed on and around pageant wagons in procession for spectators gathered at viewing sites.
  • Staging wagons may have gathered in a circle to stage a series of plays in a fixed location.
  • Corpus Christi cycles were performed on stages made of two components: sedes (mansion)—a fixed structure, and platea (place)—the nonlocalized playing space.
  • Sedes were represented by decorative booths that symbolized locations like Heaven, Hell, palace, house, and manger; platea allowed for action to move beyond the fixed spaces.
  • Corpus Christi performances used expensive and novel special effects, and actors wore everyday garments or masks with grotesque animals faces if playing a devil or evil character.

Dramatic Texts

  • Authors of Corpus Christi cycles embellished biblical accounts with realistic events from medieval life.
  • The Wakefield Master wrote in vernacular dialects and used realistic situations in The Second Shepherds’ Play, which contrasts the religious nativity with a realistic event of stolen sheep.
  • These religious-secular Cycle plays were performed at folk festivals and mummings (season folk plays), such as Hans Sach’s farces for the Shrovetide festival before Lent.

Morality Plays

  • Morality plays emerged in England and France during the late fourteenth century
  • Morality plays are, like Mystery Plays, concerned with salvation; they differ in that morality plays are concerned with an individual Christian’s moral life, while mystery plays explore sin and redemption through human and divine history.
  • Morality plays use allegory, in which abstract ideas are represented as human characters (e.g., Mankind, Ill-Advised, Everyman).
  • Allegorical figures interact with figures who personify virtue and vice that try to win the figure’s soul during the internal struggle for good or evil.
  • Prudentius’ fourth-century poem Psychomachia introduced the competition of virtues and vices, and it deeply influenced morality plays.
  • The Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer) and dramatizations of the Seven Deadly Sins influenced morality drama.
  • Pride of Life (ca. 1350) is the earliest English morality play.
  • In The Castle of Perseverance (ca. 1405–25), the protagonist Mankind struggles in a debate between Body and Soul; the play was performed outdoors in a circular structure symbolizing Mankind’s castle.
  • Mankind (ca. 1465) relates the story of farmer Mankind’s temptation, fall, and repentance; it was performed to rural audiences.
  • Everyman (1510) traces Everyman’s journey to death and final judgment.
  • Henry Medwall and John Skelton were Tudor humanists whose morality plays resembled Tudor interludes—dramas performed for noble households, guild halls, and schools.
  • Catholics and Protestants used morality plays to dramatize their doctrinal and political disputes during the English Reformation.
  • Allegorical elements were adaptable to secular issues and beliefs, and therefore influenced Elizabethan and Jacobean plays.