Saint Plays and Miracles

Clifford Davidson

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI:
Saint Plays and Miracles

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
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  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology


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Shows based on the lives and martyrdoms of saints appear perhaps to have been the most widespread type of religious theater across Great Britain. There are known to have been plays or entertainments on nearly fifty saints, with well over a hundred instances of performance recorded, albeit mainly lacking extant texts. Considering that the records, both ecclesiastical and civic, that have been preserved represent only a sampling of what was once available, we can extrapolate that such plays were immensely popular with audiences—much more popular than the morality play, which barely registers historically until the early modern period. Saint plays offered scope for creativity and extravagant theatrical effect, and, linked to the cults of the saints deeply rooted in popular religion, they appealed to a common pre-Reformation religiosity. In many cases, performances seem possibly to have been projects of a parish or religious guild, each likely to have possessed a saint as its patron. Thus, the church of St. Denys in York had a play of “Sancti Dionisij,” and the Norwich St. George guild sponsored a pageant and riding of George, the latter involving a dragon, which survived the change of religion in the 16th century. Every pre-Reformation church had images, wall paintings, and stained glass, not only of the Virgin Mary but also a selection, depending on local preference, from a panoply of available saints. These ranged from the popular St. Christopher or St. Catherine to lesser known saints, sometimes venerated only locally in a particular town or region. Individual images might themselves be the focus of intense veneration because of the beliefs that devotion to the representation served to connect one in a mystical way to the actual saint and that prayers thus directed might be effective for assistance in this life or for alleviation of the pains of Purgatory. The drama of the saints cannot be separated from these aspects of late medieval religion. From the evidence in the extant texts and descriptions, however, there is no reason to suppose that the dramas were always necessarily spiritual in their principal focus, nor were they didactic in the usual sense of teaching doctrine. For example, the St. George skits, plays, and pageants, which were widely distributed, are likely to have been usually presented as entertainment. Some of these, and other saint or miracle plays, may have been unscripted. In drama, as in music, unscripted improvisation has its place. Full and extant Middle English texts, all from East Anglia, treat Mary Magdalene, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary, the latter incorporated into the N-Town collection. Also perhaps appropriately included in this list is the Lazarus play added to the end of the Towneley manuscript, where it follows the Last Judgment. Another East Anglian drama, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, is a miracle play with close affinity to the saint play. Three fragments have been proposed as miracles of the Virgin: the Ashmole Fragment, the Durham Prologue, and Dux Moraud. Finally, in Cornish there is an extant play of a Breton saint, St. Meriasek, and, recently discovered, another of St. Kee, unfortunately lacking a complete text. There is also a short late medieval Welsh play of The Soul and Body. The plays that survived were those that escaped the distaste of the Protestant reformers, whose hostility also expressed itself against the images of saints in churches during the period of iconoclasm. Another, and perhaps no less important, factor was the neglect suffered by play texts both before and after the Reformation.

Article.  13236 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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