Medieval Theatricals from Churches to Merchant and Craft Guilds

The Christian church banned Roman theatricals, introduced liturgical drama into its services years later, and eventually permitted guilds to manage them.

By the 9th century, church bishops permitted brief chanted or sung insertions in services as a means of propagating the faith among the mostly-illiterate populace.

Theatrical Church Presentations

Presentations in Latin (the universal language of the church) increased in number and elaboration with large numbers of choristers and actors. Originally devised for and performed on special days of the church calendar, the ecclesiastical dramatizations evolved into productions too large for presentation within the church.

Monks and priests continued their performances for a time after moving the dramas out to the churchyards, but eventually found them too burdensome. From the start, only the church had the stability and resources for developing all aspects of the theatricals, but formation of merchant and craft guilds prompted change.

Merchant and Craft Guilds

Originally formed to protect their businesses and properties and to promote their goods and services, merchant and craft guilds prospered and many members became prominent in civic government.

Merchants seeking ways to protect their wagons, horses, and goods while travelling formed the first organizations as early as the 10th century. Crafters’ guilds, developed as artisans such as cobblers, carpenters, bakers, stonemasons, and painters engaged in their occupations and sought cooperation. The guilds maintained monopolies of their particular crafts and prevented outsiders from establishing businesses in their towns. They also attempted to guarantee standards and maintain fair prices.

Medieval Theatricals from Church to Guilds

The church relinquished control of the performances to the prospering guilds and burghers that had the necessary organizational skills. Removal from the church to outside locations and transfer of control from the clergy to the secular organizations occurred tentatively and gradually. The influential laymen who took control wished only to do as the priests and monks had done, though by 1350, all plays were performed in the vernacular.

Some guilds maintained a ‘pageant house’ for storage of properties, and had a pageant master to train the actors and to levy substantial fines on uncooperative members. Very often, several guilds worked together to produce plays that represented their crafts or businesses, e.g. carpenters or shipwrights (Noah’s Ark), stonemasons (The Ten Commandments.

Special Effects and Comedy in Sacred Plays

Delivered from decorated street-side scaffolds, in fields, or public squares, the popular plays became important features of all festivities. Wearing somewhat archaic costumes, actors backed by a chorus of angels and accompanying organ presented the Medieval Mysteries, Miracles, and Morality plays.

Scenic artists created remarkable special effects such as the mouth of an enormous fire-belching monster to delineate Hell. In presentations of Noah’s ark, members at Mons released a live dove that they retrieved with a string after the first flight, and then released for the second flight with no tether. They then lowered a model dove on a wire from behind a cut-out cloud (Heaven) with an olive branch in its beak. They released another live dove for the third flight.

Wandering minstrels or buffoonery actors were introduced to perform slapstick farces, possibly descendants of pieces neglected through the centuries of the dark ages. Over time, performers developed those humorous ‘interludes’ meant to relieve tedium of long-winded plays, into independent, fast-moving farces or folk plays.

Cycles Enacted by Various Guilds

Sacred play productions evolved from presentations of incidents related to Easter, Christmas, and other events found in Biblical text, to telling human history from Creation to the Last Judgment. District guilds presented incidents in proper sequence on pageant wagons that they moved from one set station to another where audiences waited.

As one wagon pulled out, another moved into position to present the next ‘chapter’ of the long story. Known as cycles, the presentations identified with the district in which they were presented. Most widely known today are those of Chester, York, Coventry, and Wakefield in England.

Medieval theatricals introduced in churches became important in the resurgence of performance arts as well as good advertisements for the guilds that produced them.

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