This article was originally published in The Development of the Drama. Brander Matthews. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912. pp. 107-146.


The setting for the Valenciennes Passion Play (1547)THE Greeks, from the rudest beginnings, and by the aid of their incomparable instinct for form, brought to perfection a lofty type of tragedy and an original kind of comedy. The Latins, who had at least the germ of a comic drama of their own, were proud to borrow the comedy of the Greeks, although in their hands it could not but be sadly sterile. In the stalwart days of the Roman commonwealth the drama seems to have had scant encouragement in the capital, either from the men of culture or from the coarser populace. When at last the empire solidified itself upon the ruins of the republic, and the eagles of Rome were borne almost to the confines of the world, the cosmopolitan inhabitants of this immense realm were never educated to appreciate the calm pleasures of theater. They were encouraged to prefer the fierce joy of the chariot-race, the brutal delight of the arena, and the poignant ecstasy of gladiatorial combat. The sole vestiges of the true drama were the vulgar farces of the rustics that lingered in odd corners of Italy, and the obscene and cruel pantomimes which were devised to gratify the relish of the mob for lewdness and to glut its liking for gore. Neither the rough comic plays of the peasants nor the abominable pantomimes of the court had any relation to literature.

After the conversion of Constantine, the lustful and bloody spectacles were accurst by the church. It was to be expected that the Fathers should condemn the theater absolutely, since it was--in the sole aspect in which they had occasion to behold it--unspeakably vile. With the triumph of Christianity theatrical performances were abolished; and it must have seemed as though the drama was destroyed forever. It is true that in some obscure nooks rural farces might linger, forgotten links in the chain that was to stretch from the Atellan fables to the late Italian comedy-of-masks. But this doubtful survival seems to have little significance, and apparently the break in the tradition of the theater was final and irreparable. When Constantinople supplanted Rome as the capital of civilization, dramatic literature, which had been a chief glory of Athens, ceased from off the earth. For a thousand years and more the history of the drama is all darkness and vacancy; and we have not a single name recorded of any author writing plays to be performed by actors, in a theater, before an audience.

The desire for the drama, which seems to be instinctive in human nature the wide world over, from the Aleutian Islanders to the Bushmen of Australia, the impulse to personate and to take pleasure in beholding a story set forth in action,--this may have been dormant during the long centuries, or it may have found some means of gratifying itself unrecorded in the correspondence of the time or by the chroniclers. Acrobats there were, and wandering minstrels; and now and again we catch glimpses of singers of comic songs and of roving amusers who entertained with feats of sleight-of-hand, or who exhibited trained animals. These performers, always popular with the public at large, were also called in upon occasion to enliven the solid feasts of the rulers. Gibbon records that at the supper-table of Theodoric, in the middle of the fifth century, buffoons and performers of pantomimes were "sometimes introduced to divert, not do offend, the company by their ridiculous wit." And Froissart records that when he was a guest at the court of Gaston Phébus, toward the end of the fourteenth century, strolling jesters sometimes presented a little play during the repast, or acrobats went through their daring performances. The entertainments described by Gibbons and by Froissart, however long the interval between them, bear an obvious likeness to our latter-day "vaudeville suppers."

But none the less dramatic literature, which had flourished so gloriously in Greece, and which had tried to establish itself in Italy, was dead at last; and even the memory of it seems to have departed, for, in so far as the works of the Attic tragedians and of the Roman comedians were known at all, they were thought of rather as poetry to be read than as plays that had been acted. The art of acting was a lost art, and the theaters themselves fell into ruin. So it was that when the prejudice against the drama wore itself out in time, and when the inherent demand for the pleasure which only the theater can give became at last insistent, there was to be seen the spontaneous evolution of a new form, fitted specially to satisfy the needs of the people under the new circumstances. This new drama of the middle ages sprang into being wholly uninfluenced by the drama of the Greeks; it was, indeed, as free a growth as the Attic drama itself had been.

In its origin again, the medieval drama was not unlike the drama of the Greeks,--in that the germ or it was religious, and that it was slowly elaborated from what was at first only a casual accompaniment of public worship. The new form had its birth actually at the base of the altar and at the foot of the pulpit; and it was fostered by the Christian church, the very organization that had cursed the old form when that was decadent and corrupted. Coming into being as an illustrative incident of the service on certain special days of the ecclesiastical year, the drama grew sturdily within the walls of the church until it was strong enough to support itself; and when at last it ventured outside, it remained for a long while religious in intent. The history of its development is very much the same throughout Europe; and the religious drama of England is very like that of France (from which, indeed, it is in some measure derived), just as the religious drama of Italy is like that of Spain, although neither of these had any appreciable influence on the other.

The reason for this uniformity is obvious enough. It was due to the double unity of the medieval world,--that which resulted from possession of the same religion and that which was caused by the consciousness of a former union under the rule of Rome. All the peoples of western Europe had inherited the same customs and the same traditions, because they had all been included in the Roman Empire, which had stretched itself from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. When, at last, the vigor of the Roman government was relaxed, the barbarians of the north had broken in and had swept through southern Europe into Africa and into Asia. The Franks had taken Gaul for their own, the Goths had repopulated Italy, and the Vandals had traversed Spain; and as they had all of them accepted Christianity, sooner or later, the most distant lands had once more come under the sway of Rome.

This is why it is that we find in the middle ages a unity of western and southern Europe closer than ever before or ever since. Just before the Renaissance, the peoples of these varied stocks, however much they might differ individually, were bound together by the common use of the Latin language and by the common dominion of the Roman law; they held the same beliefs and they yielded to the same superstitions; they revered the same ideals, they acted on the same theories, and they had very much the same habits. As yet the idea of nationality had not been born; and the solidarity of those speaking each of the modern languages had not been suggested. Europe was a unit because, although it was segregated into towns and even into small provinces, these had not yet been compacted into distinct nations. Towns and provinces and kingdoms were all in accord in accepting the supremacy of the pontiff of Rome and in yielding a doubtful allegiance to the head of the shadowy monarchy which was still called the Holy Roman Empire.


TO declare with certainty just where it was that the new drama first gave sign of life is quite impossible; and it is equally impossible to decide whether it sprang up of its own accord in half a dozen different places, or whether the first tempting suggestion of it was carried abroad in churches widely scattered. There was far more migration in the middle ages than is admitted by those who consider them merely as a long period of stagnation. Priests and merchants were continually passing from one city to another a thousand miles distant; and as the most of Europe was included in the Holy Roman Empire, and as it acknowledged also the sway of the Roman Pope, men could remove from the east to the west, and from the south to the north, with no feeling that they were relinquishing their nationality, especially as the priests, at least, could make themselves understood everywhere in the same tongue.

Latin was the language of the church and of its liturgy; and it is out of the Latin liturgy of the Christian church that the drama of the modern European languages has been slowly developed. It is not possible to trace all the steps by which a very brief semi-dramatic adjunct of the service of certain special days of the ecclesiastical year was slowly elaborated into a more or less complete dramatic scene; and it is difficult to declare just how it was that these several scenes were in time detached from the liturgy and combined together in a cycle which represented the chief events of the gospel-story. But it is practicable to prove that there was a steady growth, beginning with a single brief scene acted within the church, by the priests, in Latin, and almost as part of the liturgy, and developing, in the course of time, into a sequence of scenes, acted by laymen outside the church, in the vernacular, and wholly disconnected from the service.

The Christian church had so arranged its calendar that every one of the chief events in the career of Jesus was regularly commemorated in the course of the year. Its liturgy was rich in symbolism; and as the ritual was not everywhere uniform, opportunities were frequent for suggestive variations devised by the devout priests, who were diligently seeking the means by which they could best bring home the central truths of religion to a very ignorant congregation. In many churches, for example, the crucifix was removed from the altar on Good Friday and borne to a receptacle supposed to represent the sepulcher, whence it was taken on Easter morning to be restored solemnly to the altar, in testimony of the Resurrection.

The gospel-story is rarely pure narrative; as it is to be expected in the accounts of eye-witnesses, it abounds in actual dialogue. And where a dramatic passage was included in the service nothing was easier or more natural than to let the narrative be read by the officiating priest, while assigning the actual dialogue to other priests, each of whom should deliver the speeches of a single character. Thus on Easter morning, in the colloquy between Saints Peter and John and the three Marys, when the apostles ask what had been seen at the sepulcher, each of the three Marys can answer in turn. In time this interchange of dialogue would lend itself to amplification; and there is preserved a Latin manuscript in which the scene at the sepulcher was presented both in dialogue and in action. In this interpolation into the Easter service, the three Marys, Saint Peter and Saint John, and "One in the likeness of a gardener," all impersonated by priests or choirboys, speak the words set down for them in the sacred text, and do whatever is there recorded for them.

Although scenes of this sort seem to have been first invented to imbellish the Easter services, Christmas was soon discovered to offer an equal opportunity. For example, one of the very earliest of these enlargements of the ritual showed the quest of the shepherds. At the proper moment certain priests holding crooks in their hands are to be seen standing in the transept, and a chorister from a gallery above announces to them the glad tidings of the birth of Christ, the Savior of men. Then, while other choristers scattered throughout the galleries sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men," the Shepherds advance to the choir, and halt at length before a manger which has been arranged near the altar and by the side of an image of the Virgin Mary. There two other priests, personating Women who had aided the Virgin-mother, ask the Shepherds what it is they are seeking, and then display the infant Jesus to them. The Shepherds, after adoring the new-born babe and its mother, depart singing "For unto us a child is born,"--which is the beginning of the high mass regularly celebrated at Christmas.

More elaborate is a liturgical embellishment dealing with the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men of the East, and calling for a greater variety of characters and for a more obvious effort to indicate the different localities where the several portions of the gospel story were supposed to take place. The huge churches, which had begun to spring up all over Europe in the century following the fateful year 1000, were not encumbered with pews, as are our smaller modern edifices; and their free floor-space would contain multitudes of spectators, even though lanes were kept open through the throng to connect the altar and the various doors. Within the chancel was the manger, with an image of the Virgin-mother; and also two priests stood there, personating Women who had been assisting Mary. In a pulpit, or in a gallery, was the chorister who was to sing the message of the Angel. On a platform not far distant was a throne, on which Herod sat, surrounded by the members of his court, all of these characters being assumed by officials of the church. The Angel, the two Women by the manger, and Herod and his courtiers, were each in their several stations in the church before the play began; and they were supposed not to be able to see one another,--indeed, they were supposed not even to be present until it should be the turn of each to enter into the action.

First the Shepherds come into the church by one of the doors; and, passing through the ranks of the congregation, they advance toward the choir, where the Angel hails them with the glad tidings, whereupon they go to the manger and adore the holy babe; and at last, after singing, they stand apart. Then through another door on the eastern side of the church enter the Three Kings; and when they have come to the middle of the edifice a star begins to guide them to the manger,--this star being a light pulled along a wire. Herod, silent on his throne all this time, has been supposed not to see the Shepherds; but the Kings he does see, and so he sends a Messenger to ask who they are. The Messenger questions them at length, and finally bears back to Herod the dread news that the King of Kings has been born, and that the Three Wise Men of the East are being guided to his cradle by the star above their heads. Herod then consults the Scribes, who proceed to search the Scriptures and to inform him that the promised Redeemer should be born in Bethlehem. Herod rages violently at these ill-tidings, and knocks the books from the hands of the Scribes; but, pacified by his son, he bids the Three Wise Men follow the star and find the newborn King, commanding them on their return to let him know where the royal infant lay. Herod and all his courtiers then become silent again, and cease to take part in the play until they shall be once more needed. The Three Kings, bearing their gifts and led by the star, advance toward the altar and meet the Shepherds, who now come into the action again. The Shepherds sing a hymn of praise; and the Three Kings ask them what they have seen. The Shepherds, after declaring that they have beheld the holy child lying in a manger, withdraw; and the Three Kings follow the star to the alter, where the two Women ask them who they are and what they are seeking. The Three Wise Men reveal the object of their journeying; and the babe is then displayed to them. They adore it, presenting their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. The Angel in the pulpit or gallery above them breaks in, declaring that the prophecies are fulfilled, and bidding the Three Kings go home by another way. Thereupon the Wise Men, chanting a hymn of praise, pass through the assembled multitude and leave the church by a western door. Herod is supposed not to have seen them take their leave, but just as soon as they are gone, the Messenger informs the monarch that they have departed in disobedience; thereupon Herod draws his sword and gives it to a Soldier, bidding him go forth and slay all the children.

Here the play seems to end, although, as we have also the manuscript of a representation of the Flight into Egypt and of the Slaughter of the Innocents, it is probable that, in some churches, on some occasions, all the various incidents connected with the Nativity were set forth in action, one after the other. What it is most important for us to seize and to fix in our memories is that these episodes of the gospel-story--the Scene of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Wrath of Herod, the Slaughter of the Innocents--came into existence each by itself, having been put into dramatic form as a more vivid and impressive illustration of the liturgy; and that possibly a long while elapsed before any one thought to combine these scattered scenes into a sequence. But after the Christmas cycle of the Nativity had knit itself together, following or preceding a similar Easter cycle of the separate scenes of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, it was probably not very long before an attempt was made to link the two cycles together, filling out the gaps by dramatizing the more interesting of the intervening episodes of the gospel-story,--the Raising of Lazarus, for instance, and the Driving of the Money-changers from the Temple. Thus the whole story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus could be presented in dialogue in the church by the priests themselves, in Latin, and as part of the service, for the enlightenment of the ignorant population in those dark ages.

Although the priests who put it together had not given a thought to this aspect of it, the story of Jesus is truly dramatic, not only in its humanity, in its color, in its variety, in its infinite pathos, but also and chiefly in its full possession of the prime essential of a true drama--in its having at the heart of it a struggle, an exhibition of determination, a clash of contending desires. Indeed, it is the most dramatic of all struggles, for it is the perpetual conflict of good and evil. To us moderns the issue is sharply joined; but in the medieval church it was even more obvious, since in the middle ages no one ever doubted that a personal Devil was forever striving to thwart the will of a personal God. In the passion-play, which showed in action all the leading events of the life of Christ, both of the contestants were set boldly before the spectators--God himself high in Heaven, and the Devil escaping from Hell-mouth to work his evil will among mankind.

After all these little scenes, each of them devised originally for the special day of the church calendar when the event was commemorated, had been combined into a New Testament cycle, and after there had been prefixed to it certain episodes dramatized from the Old Testament also, and selected because they seemed to prefigure the gospel-story,--after the passion-play had become a mystery, and after it was thus grown to its full length and swollen huge, it was found to be too unwieldy for presentation in the church itself, and too burdensome for the clergy to perform. Thrust out of the church, it may have lingered for a while in the churchyard or in the cloisters or in the great square before the sacred edifice. As the successive episodes of the gospel-story no longer had an intimate connection with the actual liturgy, the tendency was increased to substitute for the Latin of the priests the language of the people; and this pressure became irresistible when the ecclesiastics gave up to laymen the acting of the several characters.

The performance of a full-grown mystery, with due regard to the dignity of the theme, was an undertaking of not a little magnitude, requiring both capital and executive ability. The preparation of the text, the adjusting of the music, the making ready of the costumes, the training of the actors,--these things were possible only to an organization of a certain stability. At first the church was the only body having at once the desire and the resources to execute so onerous a task. But when the guilds arose in time, and when burghers banded together and craftsmen combined, it became possible for the church to relinquish the control of the mysteries to lay organizations.


BUT although the evolution of the passion-play from the liturgy is obvious, we find in the mystery, when it was presented in the language of the people by the craftsmen and the burghers, one element which is not of ecclesiastical origin;--we find the element of humor, of joyous gaiety, of vivacious realism, and often indeed of reckless vulgarity. Even before it was wholly independent of the church the new drama had felt the influence of popular taste, and it had taken over more than one of the accepted devices of the primitive comic plays, such as the strolling buffoons were wont to perform. The brief farces of these wandering minstrels may have been mere dramatized anecdotes, practical jokes in dialogue, pantomimic horse-play of an elementary type; they were wholly unliterary, and being often even unwritten, they have rarely been preserved. Yet it is perfectly possible that this medieval farce, with its hearty fun and its frankness of speech, is the direct descendant of the rude humor of the Latin rustics, surviving unobserved and neglected through all the centuries of the dark ages, and serving humbly to satisfy, in some measure, the perpetual human desire for a story told in action. When at last the serious play had been developed out of the services of the church, this folk-drama was ready to supply the comic element, without which any representation of life muse needs be one-sided.

Fortunately chance has saved for our enlightenment not a few of the later specimens of this folk-play; and we can see that it was generally as unliterary and as inartistic as one might expect, and that it assumed a great variety of forms. It might be merely a burlesque-sermon satirizing the clergy or the civil authorities; it might be a monologue in which, for example, a boastful character unwillingly admitted his own unworthiness; it might be little more than a comic song with a telling refrain and with illustrative gestures; it might be a dialogue of cut-and-thrust repartee not unlike the pungent talk interchanged by the ringmaster and the clown in the modern circus; it might even be a lively little play with a simple ingenuity of situation, presenting a scene of every-day life with an abundance of pertinent detail.

Such, for example, is the French farce of the TUB with its three characters of the Husband, the Wife, and the Mother-in-law. The Husband is henpecked; and the Wife, aided by the Mother-in-law, has even gone so far as to draw up an agreement for the Husband to sign, in which he has bound himself to do all the work of the household, and in which his several duties are specified, item by item. Then, as it happens, the Wife falls into the tub in which they have been washing the household linen, and she cries to the husband to help her out. He consults the agreement, and then refuses to assist her, as that is not set down in writing. The Wife insists; and the Husband protests that he is willing to do all that he has agreed to do, but nothing more. The Mother-in-law intervenes, but she cannot extricate the Wife without the Husband's help; and he refers her again to the document. He is ready to bake and to boil and to get up early to make the fire, as he has promised to do; but as for pulling the Wife out of the tub, that is not his duty, since it is not down in the bond. The Wife and the Mother-in-law scold and threaten at first; but at last they appeal. The Husband suggests that if he is to do more than he has bound himself to do in writing, then the agreement is really useless, and he proposes that it shall be torn up before he rescues the Wife. As her danger is now pressing, the two women agree to this; the bond is rent in twain, and the Husband extricates the Wife from the tub. The household is once more upon a peace footing; and yet the Husband, warned by experience, remarks to the spectators that he wonders how long it will last.

This little farce of THE TUB is French; but it has its analogs in the other modern literatures. It has a certain likeness to the dispute between Noah and his Wife in an English mystery--a very amusing scene, indeed, in which the spouse of the patriarch refuses to enter the ark unless she can bring her friends with her, and in which, when she is taken on board by force, she gives her venerable husband a sound box on the ear.

Pierre Pathelin and his wife. Woodcut from the edition of the play published in 1490.French, also, is the farce of MASTER PETER PATELIN, by far the most artistic of all the medieval comic plays. Patelin is a swindling lawyer who is in the depths of poverty. He goes to a Draper and wheedles him out of six yards of woolen cloth; and when the Draper comes to him for payment, Patelin is in bed, and his Wife protests that he has not been out of the house for weeks. The Draper is almost persuaded that he is the victim of hallucination, and he returns to the shop to see if he has truly lost his cloth. Finding that it is really gone, he rushes again to Patelin's lodging, whereupon the lawyer pretends to be mad, and overwhelms the unfortunate tradesman with a flood of words, first in one of the French dialects, and then in those of another, until at last the Draper withdraws, half believing that it is the devil who has played a trick on him. Then there comes to Patelin the Shepherd of the Draper, whom his master is suing for having stolen some sheep, and the Shepherd engages the lawyer to defend him. Patelin bids the Shepherd to pretend to be foolish and no matter what question the Judge may put to him, to answer only with the bleat of a lamb,--"Baa-a!" When the trial comes before the Judge, Patelin hides himself behind the Shepherd so that the Draper shall not see him. But the shopkeeper does catch sight of the lawyer at last, and he instantly demands payment for his cloth, to the complete astonishment of the Judge, who had supposed that he was trying the Shepherd for sheep-stealing. The Draper gets confused also, and accuses the Shepherd of stealing the cloth and the lawyer of taking the sheep. The puzzled judge questions the Shepherd, who answers no word but "Baa-a!" and Patelin adroitly pleads that the poor fellow is plainly an idiot. The Draper continues to insist on payment for his cloth, although the judge in vain begs him to come back to his sheep. In the end, the magistrate has to acquit the Shepherd for lack of evidence against him. Then the wretched Draper asks Patelin if he is not the lawyer who had been seen in bed only a few minutes before; and Patelin daringly bids him go to the house and look for himself. When the tortured tradesman has departed, Patelin turns to the Shepherd and demands his fee for getting the man off from the charge against him. And now are the tables turned; for the Shepherd simply answers, "Baa-a!" The play comes to an end swiftly with the discomfited Patelin trying vainly to catch his deceitful client.

MASTER PETER PATELIN is a French farce, to be acted by itself whenever a company of strollers happened to have five performers; but it is curiously like one of the Nativity scenes in an English mystery. When the Shepherds are watching their flocks by night, a neighbor joins them--one Mak, a man of evil repute. To keep him under guard when they go to sleep, the Shepherds make Mak lie down between them. But the precaution is unavailing, as Mak gets up, and steals a lamb, and takes it to his Wife, and then returns to his place. When the Shepherds wake, there is Mak between them; but a lamb is missing. Mak is suspected at once, and the Shepherds go to his house, where Mak's Wife has the lamb swaddled in a cradle like a babe. The Shepherds search everywhere and find nothing, until one of them goes to the cradle and remarks that the babe has a long snout. When the lamb is discovered, Mak's Wife promptly pretends that it is a changeling just left by an elf. The Shepherds, after punishing Mak by tossing him in a blanket, return to their flock; and almost immediately the Angel above sings to them the glad tidings of Christmas morn. Here is a comic action, complete in itself and quite detachable from the mystery, with which, indeed, it has no necessary connection. Perhaps it is even older than the mystery, and was inserted into the text merely to supply what is known nowadays as "comic relief,"--just as the farce of THE TUB might have been incorporated into a passion-play without any protest from the public.

Both in French and in English the comic scenes of the mysteries were often wholly irrelevant in theme and absolutely incongruous in treatment. No reverence for the sacred subject prevented the medieval audience from enjoying a joke, or made it very particular as to the quality of the fun it laughed at. Just as we moderns are surprised by the grinning gargoyles and by the satiric carvings of the mighty cathedrals, so in the medieval drama we are often taken aback by the bold vulgarity of the comic scenes. Although the medieval writers had not found out that brevity is the soul of wit, they often acted on the belief that breadth is the body of humor. The authors were plain of speech and the audiences were never squeamish; and as we study what was then to be seen on the stage we are reminded of Taine's remark that in the middle ages man lived on a dunghill. It must be noted that the farces are rather more reprehensible than the comic scenes of the mysteries; and yet the grossest of these farces might be performed sometimes as the prelude to a miracle-play; thus THE MILLER preceded a very devout dramatization of the legend of Saint Martin. This low humor is indecorous rather than demoralizing; it shocks our sense of propriety sometimes, but it is never insidious or seductive. It was intended for the entertainment of the populace, which is often vulgar but which is rarely vicious. In the farces, as in the more serious scenes of the passion-plays, we can always see the simplicity and the sincerity which were ever the two chief characteristics of medieval endeavor.


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THE change from the Latin language to the speech of the people, the transfer of control from the clergy to the laity, the removal from the inside of the church to the outside, were all made gradually and tentatively, and with no intent to bring about any radical transformation. When the laymen took charge, they desired to do just what the priests had done, no more and no less; and if we seek to understand the circumstances of the performances outside the church, we must recall what the conditions were originally inside the sacred edifice. In the cycle of the Nativity we saw that the manger was set up near the altar, and that not far distant there was erected a throne for Herod. Each of these places was thus what came to be known as a "station"; and the action of the play went on, not only at the one or the other of the stations, but also in other parts of the church, extending now and again even to the doors. The Easter cycle would also require several stations,--three at least, one with a throne for Pilate, another with the cross, a third with the open grave. The acting of the play was carried on chiefly in the open space between and in front of the several stations, the characters belonging to each of these remaining there, silent and motionless, until the time came for them to enter with the story. Then they might leave the station for a while, and go out into the open space, only to return to their own places so soon as the progress of the plot called for the characters of some other station.

When the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle were combined together, and when the few intermediate scenes were also cast into dialogue, so that the whole earthly life of Jesus might be shown, from his birth to his resurrection, then the nave of the church would be inconveniently crowded with the many stations requisite for the whole gospel-story; and there would be left between them, and in front, an inadequate area for what might be termed the neutral ground, the open space for the acting of the many scenes which did not call for special stations--such, for instance, as the Entry into Jerusalem, or the Betrayal at Gethsemane. Those who began to act out the sacred story in the church had no thought of scenery,--which, indeed, was a thing to them not only unknown, but wholly inconceivable. They were seeking to show what had happened on the very day they were commemorating. Even when the incidents had cohered into a sequence, it was the action itself that was all important, and the place where it came to pass was without significance except when it needed to be specified. So the most of the acting was always in the more open space in the center; and stations were utilized only when they were really necessary. Probably as the mysteries increased in length the number of necessary stations became cumbersome, and only in the larger cathedrals would it be possible to avoid an awkward cluttering within the chancel. Quite possibly, this multiplication was an added reason for removing the performance of the mysteries outside the church, so some ampler place, where the several stations might be more widely separated.

When this removal did take place, and the mysteries were presented in the open air, what the laymen who took charge of them would undoubtedly seek to do would be to preserve carefully such traditions as had been established in the course of the performances given by the clergy. These laymen would therefore avail themselves of the device of the stations, modifying these as might be required by the new conditions of performance. In England this modification came in time to be somewhat different from that obtaining in France; but as the English mystery is derived from French models, the French form demands attention first, the more so as elsewhere in Europe there is a closer resemblance to French usage than to English.

In France, then, a mystery would be acted upon a platform put up in some public place, often in the open square in front of the cathedral. To provide reserved seats for the dignitaries of the church, the officials of the city, and the distinguished strangers invited to attend, grandstands would be erected facing the platform and along the sides, the central area being left free for the populace, who were always eager to crowd in, while the gaily draped windows of the surrounding houses would be available as private boxes. The platform, intended to serve as a stage, was perhaps a hundred and fifty feet long, and some fifty or sixty feet deep. The front part was generally free and clear, so that the actors could move to and fro, while at the back were ranged the stations--which in France came soon to be known as "mansions." At the extreme left of the spectators, and raised high on pillars, was Heaven, wherein God sat, often with a gilded face, the better to suggest the shining glory of his countenance. At the extreme right of the spectators was Hell-mouth, the fiery cavern where the Devil and all his imps had their abode. Then stretching from Heaven to Hell-mouth was the line of mansions, those earliest in use being on the left. A wall, pierced by a door, might indicate Nazareth; next an altar covered by a canopy and protected by a balustrade would suggest the Temple; and a second wall with its gate could serve to call up the idea of Jerusalem itself. In the center there might be a more elaborate construction, with columns and a throne, intended for the palace of Pontius Pilate. A third wall with two doors might be made to serve as the house of the high-priest and as the Golden Gate; while in front of this and not far from Hell-mouth there might be a tank of real water, with a little boat floating on it, so as to simulate the Sea of Gennesaret.

These are the mansions that are depicted in a miniature on the manuscript of a mystery acted in Valenciennes in the middle of the sixteenth century. In other places, and at other times, there might be more or there might be less, for there was never any uniformity of custom; and even here we see that many of the most important episodes of the gospel-narrative must have been performed on the front part of the platform and wholly unrelated to any of the mansions ranged at the back. The mansions were employed only when certain portions of the sacred story could, by their use, be made clearer or more striking; and even when they were set up, however elaborate their decoration might be, it was never in any way deceptive. The mansions were not intended actually to represent the special places; the most they were expected to do was to suggest them so that a few columns would indicate a palace or a temple, and so that a wall and a door sufficed to evoke the idea of a city.

Thus we see that in France the stations used inside the church were set up side by side on the open-air stage outside of the church, where they were known as mansions. In England, when the passion-play was taken out of the sacred edifice, another arrangement was adopted: the stations were separated and each was shown by itself, being called a "pageant." Sometimes these were immovable, and sometimes they were ambulatory; and in the latter case, which seems to have been the more frequent, the pageant was apparently not unlike the elaborately decorated "floats" familiar in modern parades, such as that of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Corpus Christi day was early chosen as the festival most fit for the performance of the mysteries; and in Great Britain the pageants followed in the wake of the Corpus Christi procession through the town. The first pageant, with its appropriate decorations and its own groups of performers, would draw up before the church-door as the end of the procession emerged therefrom; and the first episode of the play would then be represented there, sometimes on the broad platform of the wagon, but often in the street itself,--just as most of the acting in the French mysteries took place not so much in the mansions themselves as in the neutral ground in front of the stage. One stage-direction in an English manuscript is curiously significant: "Here Herod shall rage on the pageant and in the street."

When the first episode had been played out, the second pageant appeared; and the first pageant was dragged away along the line of march of the Corpus Christi procession to another appointed spot, where the first episode was acted again, while the performers attached to the second pageant were presenting the second episode before the doors of the church. Then a third pageant would take the place of the second; and thus it was that, in the course of the long summer day, the spectator, no matter at which of the chosen spots he might chance to stand, could see all the successive incidents of the mystery represented before him, partly on the pageants, with their elementary attempts to indicate the actual place where the action was supposed to be passing, and partly in the open street in the space that was kept clear for the actors. For certain of the episodes, such as the Trial of Jesus, for example, two pageants were necessary, and the performers passed from one to the other as the incidents of the narrative might require.

This use of ambulatory pageants seems to have obtained chiefly in the English towns; and in the rural districts the pageants were not decorated wagons, but platforms set up along the route of the Corpus Christi procession. There was a stage for each of the important episodes of the play, thus recalling the original stations devised for the performance when it took place inside the church. The spectators, following the procession, would halt in front of the first platform and witness the acting of the first episode; and when that was concluded they would pass along to the second platform to behold the second episode; and so on until they had seen the entire mystery. The English were thus setting up separately the stations which the French had preferred to put side by side upon one very long platform. But these variations of custom between the French and the English are external only, and of no immediate importance, although they account in part for the divergence to be observed in the development of the later dramatic literatures of the two languages.

Essentially the mystery is the same, wherever it is acted, and in whatever language, French or English, German or Italian. It is the same in its long-windedness and in its loose-jointedness, in its homely directness of speech alternating with turgid bombast, in its occasional touches of genuine feeling and of unrestrained pathos, in the introduction of humorous scenes, in the frank realism of the dialogue, and, above all, in the simple faith of those who wrote it, of those who acted it, and of those who beheld its performance. The influence of the audience must always be taken into account: and the medieval spectators for whose edification the mystery was devised were unlearned and without culture; they were ignorant and even gross; they had no tincture of letters; they were credulous and superstitious and wonder-loving; they were at once devout and irreverent,--or at least they seem so to us; they had a liking for broad fun and for a robust realism of treatment; they were shocked by no vulgarity and they resented incongruity, for they were wholly devoid of the historic sense (as we moderns call it.)

Although the English mysteries were of Anglo-Norman origin and follow the French tradition in the main, yet the bond of unity was broken when Latin was abandoned for the vernacular; and there are other differences between the performances in French and those in English besides the modification of the station into the mansion in the one country and into the pageant in the other. In England, the entire mystery--shortened now and again by the occasional omission of one episode or another--seems sometimes to have been presented in a single day, the exhibition beginning as early as four in the morning. In France the performance was more likely to continue over several successive days, very much as the Wagnerian cycle is now given at Bayreuth,--although it may be doubted whether any modern audience could have the patience of the medieval spectators of Bourges who in the sixteenth century were entertained by a mystery of the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, the performance of which took forty days.

In England, as we have seen, the pageants followed the religious procession; whereas in France, where the mansions were immovable on a single platform, it was not unusual for the whole troop of performers to make a street-parade before the acting began, quite in the manner of the modern travelling circus. In France, again, when the church gave up control of the mysteries, they were turned over to lay organizations of burghers, founded especially to perform the sacred plays; whereas in England this task was assumed by the gilds, each of which undertook the episode which its craftsmanship best fitted it to carry out, the Carpenters, for instance, being responsible for Noah's Ark, and the Goldsmiths undertaking the Three Kings, because they could best provide the royal diadems.

Further differences there are also between the mysteries as performed in France or in England and the sacred-representations of the Italians; and again between the dramatizations of the Scriptures as acted in Germany and those to be seen in Spain. But these differences are matters of detail merely; and the line of development was everywhere the same throughout those parts of Europe that had been ruled by Rome. Everywhere also was the production of a mystery considered as a good deed, as an act pleasing to Heaven, and certain to win favor from the Deity and from the saints. Such performances were often, therefore, given in a season or pestilence to placate the wrath of God or to deserve the protection of some particular saint. Such an exhibition took place in Constantinople, within Saint Sophia itself, in the middle of the fifteenth century, just before the capture of the capital of the Western Empire by the Turks. Mysteries were also performed in certain towns after an escape from impending danger and as a testimony of gratitude to Heaven for its intervention; and it is to this sentiment that we owe the continued performance of the passion-play, which is still to be seen every tenth summer at Oberammergau.

The majority of the mysteries preserved to us in manuscript are anonymous, and of only a few are we acquainted with the exact date of composition. Most of the authors are to be considered rather as compilers; lacking individuality, they were satisfied to accept the play as they found it, modifying the framework but little after it had once been constructed, and satisfying themselves with adding or subtracting episodes at will. Each of them freely availed himself of the labors of those of his predessors with which he chanced to be familiar. Sometimes he rewrote what he borrowed, and sometimes he copied it slavishly, careless of any diversity of diction. So there is not often harmony of style in any single mystery; and yet there is an immense monotony when a number of them are compared together.


VERY closely allied to the mystery was the miracle-play, which may have come into being even before the Easter cycle had elaborated itself intoa passion-play. A sequence of episodes taken from Holy Writ we now call a mystery; and what we now call a miracle-play is a sequence of episodes taken from the life of some wonder-working saint. In England the mystery was much the more frequent; but in France the miracle-play was perhaps the more popular, as it was probably almost as ancient. Indeed, in the middle ages no one seems ever to have made any distinction between the two kinds of play, as the medieval mind was not trained to discriminate between the canonical books and the Apocrypha, or even between the Scriptures and the legends of the saints. In miracle-play, as in mystery, we find the same naïve treatment of life, the same panoramic construction of the story, the same admixture of comic incidents, and the same apparent irreverence; and the circumstances of the performance would be the same also.

The middle ages had an appetite for allegory quite as vigorous as the liking for legend; and after the saintly biographies had been set on the stage as miracle-plays, allegory was also cast into dialogue, and thus we have the moral-plays. The morality was a medieval forerunner of our modern novel-with-a-purpose, as unconvincingly didactic as it is inevitably dull. The morality may even be defined as an attempt to dramatize a sermon,--whereas the mystery is simply a dramatization of the text. Written to be presented before an audience used to the primitive methods of the passion-play, the authors make free use of the device of the stations, for instance. In one morality, the CASTLE OF CONSTANCY, there were six stations: one was a castellated structure open below to reveal a bed for the chief character, who personified the Human Race; and the other five stations were disposed around this loftier stage, one in the east for God, one in the northeast for Greed, one in the west for the World, one in the south for the Flesh, and one in the north for the Devil. The hero of this string of argumentative conversations, Human Race, appears at first as a child, and the Angels of Good and of Evil come to him. He is tempted off to the World by the Evil Angel; and later, as a young man, he is introduced to the Seven Deadly Sins. In time Repentance leads him to Confession; and as a man of forty we see him in the Castle of Constancy, surrounded by the Seven Most Excellent Virtues. Thereupon the Castle itself is besieged by three evil powers and the Seven Deadly Sins and their allies. Then at last, as an old man, Human Race backslides again, and the Evil Angel is bearing him away, when a formal trial takes place before God, at which Justice and Truth accuse him, while he is defended by Mercy and Peace.

The morality was an attempt to depict character, but with the aid of violent colors only, and with a harsh juxtaposition of light and darkness. Yet it helped along the development of the drama in that it permitted a freer handling of the action, since the writer of moralities had always to invent his plots, whereas the maker of mysteries had his stories ready-made to his hand. The morality was frankly fiction, while the miracle-play gave itself out for fact. Then, also, the tendency seems irresistible for an author who has any appreciation of human nature to go speedily from the abstract to the concrete and to substitute for the cold figure of Pride itself the less frigid portrait of an actual man who is proud. Thus mere allegory, barren and chill, is swiftly warmed into social satire, tingling with individuality; and so we have here before us the germ out of which a living comedy was to be evolved. It is to be noted that when the morality had achieved a certain freedom for itself in plot and in character, it seems to have exerted a healthy influence upon the contemporary mystery and miracle-play.

In fact, the medieval mind did not distinguish the three kinds of drama sharply, and we find them commingled in more than one example,--notably in the English MARY MAGDALENE. We discover the same confusion of species in all uncritical periods, when production is spontaneous and unconscious. In method the mystery and the miracle-play are alike; and by no certain mark can we set off the morality from the interlude in English or the monologue from the burlesque-sermon in French. The more elevated the effort, the more likely was an admixture of the grotesque. Immediately before or after the loftiest moments of a tragic theme, the nimble devils would come capering forth to make the spectator shriek with laughter at their buffoonery as they bore away some evil-doer to be cast into Hell-mouth.

Popular as these plays were, it is only in a chance episode that any one of them is really raised into literature. The drama must be the most democratic of all the arts, since its very existence depends on the multitude; and it is therefore likely always to represent the average intelligence of any era. The long period known as the middle ages, whatever its literary unattractiveness, brought about a new birth of the acted drama. It aroused in the people the desire for the pleasures of the theater; and it began to train actors against the time when acting should once more become a profession.

In considering the deficiencies of the medieval drama, we must never forget that the actors were all amateurs,--priests at first, and then burghers and craftsmen, students and clerks. They might be paid for their services, or they might choose to perform as a labor of love; but acting was not their calling, and their opportunities for improving themselves in the art were infrequent. The accomplished actor stimulates the dramatist, and the playwright is ever developing the performer; each is necessary to the other, and in the middle ages we find neither. Yet slowly the traditions of a theater were getting themselves established. There was acting, such as it was; there were plays, such as they were, not so much dramas as mere panoramas of successive episodes; there were audiences, rude and gross, no doubt, but composed of human beings, after all, and therefore ever ready to be entranced and thrilled by the art of the master-craftsman. But in the medieval drama we seek in vain for a master-craftsman; he is not to be found in France or in England, in Spain, in Italy, or in Germany. The elements of a vital drama were all there, ready to the hand of a true dramatist who might know how to make use of them; they were awaiting the grasp of a poet-playwright who might be able to present with technical skill and with imaginative insight the perpetual struggle of good and evil, of God and the Devil.

But in all medieval literature there is no born playwright; and there is no born poet who wrought in dialogue and action. The one indestructible work of art which gives utterance to the intentions of the middle ages, to the ideals of that dark time, and to its aspirations, was not made to be represented within the church or out of it, either by priests or by laymen, even though it bore the name of the DIVINE COMEDY.


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Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries had its humble beginnings as an idea of a few artisans and craftsmen who enjoy performing with live steel fighting. As well as a patchwork quilt tent canvas. Most had prior military experience hence the name.


Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries.


Vendertainers that brought many things to a show and are know for helping out where ever they can.

As well as being a place where the older hand made items could be found made by them and enjoyed by all.

We expanded over the years to become well known at what we do. Now we represent over 100 artisans and craftsman that are well known in their venues and some just starting out. Some of their works have been premiered in TV, stage and movies on a regular basis.

Specializing in Medieval, Goth , Stage Film, BDFSM and Practitioner.

Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries a Dept of, Ask For IT was started by artists and former military veterans, and sword fighters, representing over 100 artisans, one who made his living traveling from fair to festival vending medieval wares. The majority of his customers are re-enactors, SCAdians and the like, looking to build their kit with period clothing, feast gear, adornments, etc.

Likewise, it is typical for these history-lovers to peruse the tent (aka mobile store front) and, upon finding something that pleases the eye, ask "Is this period?"

A deceitful query!! This is not a yes or no question. One must have a damn good understanding of European history (at least) from the fall of Rome to the mid-1600's to properly answer. Taking into account, also, the culture in which the querent is dressed is vitally important. You see, though it may be well within medieval period, it would be strange to see a Viking wearing a Caftan...or is it?

After a festival's time of answering weighty questions such as these, I'd sleep like a log! Only a mad man could possibly remember the place and time for each piece of kitchen ware, weaponry, cloth, and chain within a span of 1,000 years!! Surely there must be an easier way, a place where he could post all this knowledge...

Traveling Within The World is meant to be such a place. A place for all of these artists to keep in touch and directly interact with their fellow geeks and re-enactment hobbyists, their clientele.

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