Medieval theater

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Medieval theater ranges from the decay of late antique theater forms to a largely non-traditional time in the early Middle Ages and approaches to spiritual games in the High Middle Ages , which are initially handed down as components of the worship service, to the diverse theatrical activities in the context of the city , church and court in the late Middle Ages .

Early middle ages

In late antiquity there was a harmony between theater , state and religion , even if not all forms of the theatrical were regarded as equal. Since the predominance of Christianity from 381, however, religion was at war with the theater. Beyond the Middle Ages , church theater bans then extended from the Reformation period to some of the 18th century. It can be assumed that with the end of late antiquity, the theater disappeared from the western Christian world for several centuries. At least the indicative records are missing.

The conflict was based on the fact that late Roman theater was tied to a concept of publicity that Christianity rejected. So standing mime as obscene entertainment as gladiator fights and chariot races as opposed to Christian doctrine. The Christian condemnation of ancient theater is not necessarily directed against tragedy and comedy , which in any case no longer had great social significance, but generally against public amusement and the display of authority: the pride of the noble, a Roman virtue, becomes in the Christian worldview Mortal sin . The public appears as a place of violence.

The “twisted thumb” as public condemnation in the gladiatorial fight is implicitly criticized in the passion story , in that the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate , although inclined to be lenient, asks the people - who let Christ die and pardons the murderer Barrabas. The Roman church father Tertullian polemicises with his writing De spectaculis against the curiosity, and in the Eastern Roman Empire John Chrysostom explains that the public worship service is fundamentally different from that of the theater: “When you go to the theater and your eyes on your bare limbs of the actresses, it's only temporary, but you have put a mighty tinder in your heart. "

Christianity also saw itself as a religion of words ( λόγος ), not of images ( εἰκών ), of saying instead of showing. The Neoplatonic condemnation of mimesis understood showing as something coarse, autocratic and violent that had to be limited as much as possible. Under the impression of omnipresent depictions of Roman god emperors, this idea is combined with the Jewish ban on images in the Decalogue . At the end of the fourth century the theaters seem to have closed and large parts of the writings for and about the theater have been destroyed (see Loss of books in late antiquity ).

The Christian condemnation of the image, however, tended to turn into a cult of images. As images or writings gained regional importance, the central authority lost power - which could be attractive to subjects if they had these images and writings under control , but contradicted the authoritarian and monotheistic Christian doctrine. Conversely, when a central power exercised its power through images and writings, they stood as a dead, merciless middle between authorities and subordinates, and Christianity was supposed to prevent this in the interests of the disadvantaged. Collective punishments were passed in the Roman Empire without regard to those affected (e.g. the mass crucifixions after the Spartacus uprising ).

The condemnation of depictions and portrayals seems to have been less strict in the area of ​​the Eastern Churches . A Byzantine church interior game from the 7th century, presumably by Germanos of Constantinople , depicting Mary and Joseph in a jealousy scene, shows a remnant of Greco-Roman theater tradition. The high status of images in the Orthodox Church led to the iconoclast in the 8th century , in which the advocates of images were victorious. The "invention" of the image of Christ was attributed to the evangelist Mark , so the icon became a legitimizing and ritualizing image in cult, first in the Eastern, then in the Western Church.

But Christian iconology remained restrictive: The revealed God Christ could be represented, Father God and Holy Spirit only appeared symbolically. Angels, saints and martyrs were increasingly integrated into the pictorial canon. Thus, a wide range of representations and motifs including a stronger regional differentiation of the cults was made up for. The Marian cult became the gate of entry for pagan symbolism, even the devil - and Paganensymbole made their entrance. Thus the human body became the central medium of representability, as an element of beauty, as in Marys or angels, or as the deformed and highly sexualized bodies of the opposite world. One can only speculate whether such images were actually staged.

High Middle Ages

Theatrical elements could hold up better in the worship of the Byzantine Church than in the West. Bishop Liutprand of Cremona complained around 970 that Hagia Sophia was being turned into a theater. There are hypotheses that such customs inspired the first approaches to liturgical dramas in the Western Church: Under the Macedonian dynasty , Byzantium was at the height of its power and charisma.

In the liturgy of the Easter celebration, the quem-quaeritis trope can be found from the 10th century , for the first time in the St. Gallen monastery : In the form of a Latin question-and-answer game, the resurrection is conveyed as a message, but not represented in the game. An angel announces his resurrection to the three women at the empty tomb of Christ. Traditional stage directions from Bishop Ethelwood of Winchester around 970 indicate that the dialogue was also played by monks.

But there is something paradoxical about this theatricality : it is only shown that there is nothing to see. Christ has disappeared without a trace. The Platonic rule of Diegesis over mimesis, of saying over showing, becomes, according to medieval understanding, the priority of belief over knowledge . The first dialogical trope conveys the message: “You have to believe because you cannot know, and I can tell you.” It is conceivable that this emphatically undramatic drama in the context of the worship service is instructive against a variety of worldly pleasures with theatrical components judged. But there is no written evidence of this. Knowledge of the letter was still largely limited to the clergy , who could thus determine what was worth recording.

From this dramatic core, spiritual games developed in the course of the following century , initially as Easter games , because Easter was the most important festival of the year. Hundreds of variations have been preserved, including comedic and coarse passages such as the race of the apostles or the ointment shop scene, in which competition and vanity are discussed. In the course of the upgrading of the Christmas festival, which in the Western Church outstrips Easter in importance, Christmas games have also been created since the 11th century .

The warning against showing in the Western world increasingly justifies showing (cf. Vanitas ). Latin as the language of performances has been pushed back. From the 12th century, vernacular theater with instructions to play in front of the churches is known (such as the Adam's play 1150). These games were carried out by the cities that were becoming more powerful and whose population structure changed with the flourishing of markets and handicrafts . In Latin there are clergy games that fight a dispute over the world order of domination. The Antichrist games of that time have a strong politico-social component.

Late Middle Ages

From the 13th century onwards, the focus was on passion plays and Easter plays , which were becoming ever more extensive and excluded from the narrow area of ​​the church. The dramatic lamentations of Mary from this time and the personal appearance of Christ show that the reluctance to depict the figures of the salvation event has meanwhile been overcome. Little is known about the game culture that goes beyond the stage directions in the texts. At this time Aristotle is read again. His justification for showing with the cleansing effect of catharsis may have encouraged the scenic representations.

The Muri Easter game from the 13th century is the first surviving Easter game in German. A plethora of similar games emerged over the next 200 years. Preserved texts are for example the Benediktbeurer Passion Play , the Donaueschingen Passion Play or the Redentiner Easter Play .

These games have no relation to vassal culture like epic and minnesong , but arise in the area of ​​civic-church expanding cities. The world trade and the emergence of universities expanded the horizon. Disasters like the wars, famines and epidemics of the 14th century (cf. Black Death ) were able to articulate themselves publicly as with the dance madness .

This also created a fear of the public. While the expansion of theatrical culture in the 13th century seems like a loss of discipline, the organized theatrical activities since the 15th century have been used to discipline the urban population in order to keep the carnival period and its excesses under control. This is where the Carnival Games and the secular Neidhart Games are created.

For a long time, the largest part of the urban game culture is made up of mystery games or morality with a religious background. Legendary games like the game of the five wise and five foolish virgins (1321) from Eisenach are becoming increasingly important. The appreciation of the law in relation to the personal authorities is shown in world judgment games, which Christ personally leads.

Female actors for female roles are documented in France from the 14th century, in the German-speaking area only from the 16th century. There are hardly any professional actors in the traditional theater events of the Middle Ages. They are worn by clergy and lay people from the urban bourgeoisie. The semi-professional games of the Confrérie de la Passion in the 15th century are an exception . Dramatized class satires, stand revues and dance of death are part of the urban festival culture.

The third development space for dramatic games next to the church and the city is the courtyard . The “politeness of the nobility” in the sense of Norbert Elias , the concentration of the scattered aristocracy in central courts, leads to the growing importance of court festivals with theatrical events in which dance has a prominent function. In this context, mask games develop .


  • Rolf Bergmann (Hrsg.): Catalog of the German-language spiritual games and lamentations of the Virgin Mary of the Middle Ages . Beck, Munich 1986, ISBN 3-7696-0900-X .
  • Heinz Kindermann: European theater history. Volume 1: The theater of antiquity and the Middle Ages . 2nd Edition. Mueller, Salzburg 1966.
  • Heinz Kindermann: The theater audience of the Middle Ages . Mueller, Salzburg 1980, ISBN 3-7013-0601-X .
  • Christel Meier, Heinz Meyer, Claudia Spanily (eds.): The theater of the Middle Ages and the early modern times as a place and medium of social and symbolic communication . Rhema-Verlag, Münster 2004, ISBN 978-3-930454-46-4 .
  • Wolfgang F. Michael: Early forms of the German stage . Writings of the Society for Theater History, Volume 62. Society for Theater History, Berlin 1963.
  • Eckehard Simon: The Beginnings of Secular German Drama 1370–1530. Investigation and documentation . Niemeyer, Tübingen 2003, ISBN 3-484-89124-6 .
  • Andreas Kotte : Theatricality in the Middle Ages: The Halberstädter Adamsspiel (= Mainz research on drama and theater. Volume 10). Francke, Tübingen / Basel 1994, ISBN 3-7720-1838-6 (Dissertation HU Berlin 1980, 205 pages, under the title: The Halberstädter Adamsspiel, a borderline case of medieval theater culture. ).

Individual evidence

  1. A. Heilmann, H. Kraft (Ed.): Texts of the Church Fathers . Kösel, Munich 1963-1966, Volume 3, p. 568