Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Miracle and mystery plays developed in France and England as the Catholic Church began to dramatize Mass, signaling a radical intellectual and creative break with the artistic styles of the ancient world and marking the start of the secularization of religious drama.

Summary of Event

The medieval mind brought about an almost complete break with ancient music, architecture, and poetry, and the same thing happened with drama Theater;Christian . The germ of medieval and modern drama appeared first in the so-called liturgical drama, and it developed later in the miracle and the mystery plays. [kw]Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays (After 1000) [kw]Miracle and Mystery Plays, Development of (After 1000) [kw]Mystery Plays, Development of Miracle and (After 1000) Miracle plays Mystery plays Theater;miracle plays Theater;mystery plays France;After 1000: Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays[1450] England;After 1000: Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays[1450] Literature;After 1000: Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays[1450] Religion;After 1000: Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays[1450] Cultural and intellectual history;After 1000: Development of Miracle and Mystery Plays[1450] Jean Bodel Adam de la Halle

Toward the end of the tenth century, or possibly as early as the ninth century at Saint Gall, the Catholic Church began to dramatize certain portions of the Latin Mass, especially at the major festivals. At Easter, the appearance of the risen Christ to the three Marys was so obvious a theme that the first two words of the Latin text, Quem quaeritis? (whom do you seek?), are used to refer to this embryonic liturgical play.

Technically, the term “miracle play” refers to those plays that dramatized the lives of saints (or those in which miracles were performed), while the term “mystery play” is used to designate plays derived from the Scriptures as opposed to those dealing with saints’s lives. Miracle plays were originally associated with the celebration of saints’s feast days and with religious processions (such as the Corpus Christi festival) and were performed in Latin as part of the liturgical services. Later, these plays were expanded, performed in the vernacular, and moved into the streets. Trade guilds were often responsible for the performance of a particular play, so that in time a series of performances by various guilds would create a cycle of plays.

It was inevitable that gradual secularization ensued. At first, only the clergy took part, using the Latin text inside the church building. In the second stage of development, the site of the drama was moved to the church porch or the steps of the cathedral, and laypeople began to participate, as in the twelfth century Mystère d’Adam Mystère d’Adam (play of Adam). According to scholar L. Cazamian, the Mystère d’Adam is the oldest extant jeu (a comedic play), in this case written in the dialect used in Normandy and southern England at that period. Its interesting and detailed stage directions indicate that it was performed outdoors. Even at this early date, lighthearted elements appear in the diverting dialogue between Eve and Satan, and in the gusto with which devils drag Adam and Eve, as well as Cain, into everlasting torment. The transition from the staging of liturgical drama to the development of short, vivid, amusing pieces outside church buildings suggests that comedy played a significant role in the transition from sacred to secular drama.

Another theory about the rise of comedy suggests that the element of humor emerged from the characterization of the devil. His grotesque costume and appearance could easily have led to the comic, and when he was constantly being outwitted, he gave the impression of stupidity. Already in the Mystère d’Adam, the demons provide gusto in their pantomime of selling the forbidden fruit to their victims, gleefully awaiting their opportunity to drag them off into hell. On the other hand, comedy may have been no more than the outcome of a natural tendency to introduce the commonplace, such as the appearance in early liturgical drama of the extraneous merchant selling oil to the three Marys. The commonplace easily leads to the grotesque and hence to the comic. Such scenes as the raving of Herod may have been introduced as comic relief to arouse the flagging interest of the audience. Comedy was entrenched by 1170 when the Abbess of Hohenburg denounced scenes of buffoonery even in Nativity plays.

By the thirteenth century, comedies had become sophisticated. Mansion staging—with both fixed and movable stages—was used in England and France, but more important were the settings. They were suggestive and stylized, never photographic, so that each scene in a typical mystery play had certain visible symbols that recurred over and over again: the trees in the Garden of Eden, Noah’s ark, the hill where the shepherds watched over their flocks at the time of the Nativity, the Temple for the Presentation of Christ to Simeon, Herod’s throne, clouds and stars suggesting Heaven from which angels descended, and the yawning chasm of Hell surrounded by grisly teeth and belching forth smoke and fireworks. The acting area remained static while these booths or mansions were mobile. They varied in size, but they could be set up behind or around the acting area, or brought to it on carts, or covered by curtains when not in use.

In a third development, the marketplace was used as a site completely detached from church buildings, as in Le Jeu de Saint-Nicolas (1932; Play of Saint Nicholas of Jean Bodel Play of Saint Nicholas of Jean Bodel (Bodel) , pr. c. 1200), written by Jean Bodel Bodel, Jean of Arras.

The structure of the play itself also became more complex. Even when the Quem quaeritis? form was still being staged in church, the addition of dialogue between the Marys and the angel, of Peter and John to the cast, and a role for the risen Christ reflected new layers of development. The cathedral of Rouen kept a simple version of the play into the thirteenth century, but most Easter plays became more sophisticated. At Tours and other cathedrals, extra scenes were added, and an attempt was made to incorporate the Easter sequence, the hymn Victimae Paschali, into the dramatic action by mentioning the napkin found in the tomb and introducing additional dialogue between Mary Magdalene and the angel. Soon other characters appeared, such as a merchant selling spices to the women, Thomas meeting two of the Apostles, and even Christ himself appearing eight days after the Resurrection. The singing of Victimae Paschali and Te Deum Laudamus provided a fitting conclusion to the proceedings.

The so-called miracle play is generally thought of as a delimited type based on the lives of saints and their miraculous intervention on earth. The life story of the Virgin Mary or of some saint with local claims to honor would be staged in a city as a token of gratitude or as a bid for favor. Typical is the thirteenth century play by Bodel depicting the effectiveness of Saint Nicholas in forcing some robbers to return the treasure they had stolen from a Saracen king and the resulting conversion of the Saracen host. The work breathes the genial and humorous spirit of youthful medieval scholars who produced these jeux and who chose Nicholas as their patron saint. Plays about Saint Catherine were also popular. A later work, Le Miracle de Théophile (pr. c. 1260; Théophilus, 1971), Théophilus (Rutebeuf) written by Rutebeuf Rutebeuf in the thirteenth century, treats the popular legend of Théophilus, an ambitious priest who loses his job as financial administrator to a bishop, sells himself to the devil, later repents, and finally through the intercession of the Virgin Mary regains the original contract signed in his own blood.

Miracles de Notre-Dame Miracles de Notre-Dame (Gautier de Coincy) (miracles of Our Lady), partly compiled by Gautier de Coincy Gautier de Coincy and preserved in a French text of the fourteenth century, are considered the best examples of this form. Forty-two sketches do not distinguish between matters of faith and religious imagination. Mary, for instance, can save a woman from burning or bring about the conversion of King Clovis from paganism to Christianity. Such miracle plays must have been welcome diversions during the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War.

This form of entertainment was indicted by the Parlement of Paris in November, 1548, largely because of objections by Protestants to the comic or licentious material mixed in with biblical texts. The German Passion Play of Oberammergau is an amazing survival of the form.

The thirteenth century Play of Daniel from Beauvais in northern France has again become popular. Its use of a curious mixture of French and Latin when Daniel is summoned to the court of Belshazzar, followed by a refrain in French, shows the manner in which the vernacular invaded the mystery play at that period. The vernacular predominated after 1300.

The first opéra-comique Opéra-comique[Opera comique] , or opera with spoken dialogue, was written in the mid-thirteenth century by Adam de la Halle Adam de la Halle and entitled Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion (pr. c. 1283; The Play of Robin and Marion, 1928), Play of Robin and Marion, The (Adam de la Halle) a charming reminder that a poet could then compose both the music and the words of a play.


Despite their success, and most likely because of their secularization, miracle and mystery plays began to lose their social significance and popularity at the end of the fifteenth century and during the Reformation. It has been argued that successive Protestant governments between 1535 and 1575 resorted to ridicule, censorship, threats, and ultimately to direct prohibition in an effort to suppress the plays. Every performance represented Catholic dogma as a living, vital force, and such propaganda could not be ignored by governments struggling with the political consequences of the breach with Rome. It was inevitable that the Crown should ultimately suppress the plays.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cazamian, L. A History of French Literature. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. An introduction to the development of plays in the Middle Ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chambers, Sir Edmund K. “Medieval Drama.” In English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1945. An excellent introduction to the plays and the problems that surrounded them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, H. English Religious Drama in the Middle Ages. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. A general expression of traditional views.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fries, Maureen. “The Evolution of Eve in Medieval French and English Religious Drama.” Studies in Philology 99, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 1-16. Looks at the differing depictions in France and England of Eve as both woman and prophet, arguing “that one must almost speak of a French Eve and English Eve.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holmes, Urban T., Jr. A History of Old French Literature. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962. A scholarly work that provides detailed information on various miracle and mystery plays in French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Normington, Katie. “Giving Voice to Women: Teaching Feminist Approaches to the Mystery Plays.” College Literature 28, no. 2 (Spring, 2001): 130-155. Although primarily focused on the teaching of women’s roles in mystery and miracle plays, this article offers suggestions for overcoming problems finding resources and discusses the biased research about the lives of women in the world of mystery plays and in the Middle Ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salter, Frederick M. Medieval Drama in Chester. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955. A description of how medieval plays were presented at Chester.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Greg, ed. Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. A collection of essays surveying the history of dramatic works in England in the Middle Ages. Includes illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warning, Rainer. The Ambivalences of Medieval Religious Drama. Translated by Steven Rendall. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. A look at German mystery and miracles plays of the Middle Ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wickham, Glynne W. Early English Stages, 1300-1660. Vol. 1. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. This study is based on the author’s work as a producer of plays, and he challenges favorite assumptions about medieval drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Karl. The Drama of the Medieval Church. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1933. A standard work on the development of liturgical drama.

Categories: History