Article

Liturgical Drama

Nils Holger Petersen

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online June 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0045
Liturgical Drama

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
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The term liturgical drama was first used in the mid-19th century to denote religious dramas that were part of, or closely tied to, medieval church services, whether before Mass, during the divine office, or liturgical processions. The term has not been unequivocally used or accepted, but a more fundamental question has been raised in modern times: do the various phenomena that have been subsumed under the term liturgical drama constitute a well-defined area of study? The most crucial problem concerns the possibility of a clear division between “liturgy” and “drama,” notions not used in the Middle Ages. Some modern scholars reject the idea that the earliest examples of what were considered to be liturgical dramas can reasonably be regarded as drama, partly because the liturgical manuscripts in which they were included do not display any particular awareness of a dramatic genre. The earliest examples of these so-called liturgical dramas were short, vocal, and staged Latin dialogues among the women at the grave of Jesus and an angel announcing the Resurrection. These are usually named Quem quaeritis (Whom do you seek?) dialogues after the beginning words of the first central line of the angel; they were performed in churches from the 10th and 11th centuries onward, continuing throughout the Middle Ages as part of Easter celebrations in many monasteries and cathedrals. In quite some (Catholic) places, the practice continued also after the Council of Trent, even into the 18th century. During this time, many other biblical matters were represented in more or less similar ways (including nonbiblical saints’ narratives). Importantly, and mainly since the 12th century, some biblical representations were large musico-literary structures; those for Easter were still built around the same core dialogue. By then, these short, very liturgical dialogues had longer counterparts, and the spectrum became wide and complex, sometimes mixing Latin with the vernacular. Later on, spoken plays (often referred to as “mystery plays”) also appeared, usually containing some liturgical songs as well. As much as the simple representations are liturgical, the more complex were often shaped for entertainment, and some continuity between these practices and early modern theatrical practices is difficult to deny. Thus, the field of liturgical drama studies cannot be sharply delimited from liturgical studies, early theater studies, or medieval chant studies. In modern times, anthropological methods have been applied; many studies of the texts in question regard these as aesthetical objects.

Article.  11805 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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