Miracle and Mystery Plays

miracle play

miracle play or mystery play, form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent. The simple lyric character of the early texts, as shown in the Quem Quœritis, was enlarged by the addition of dialogue and dramatic action. Eventually the performance was moved to the churchyard and the marketplace. Rendered in Latin, the play was preceded by a prologue or by a herald who gave a synopsis and was closed by a herald's salute. When a papal edict in 1210 forbade the clergy to act on a public stage, supervision and control of presenting the plays passed into the hands of the town guilds, and various changes ensued. The vernacular language replaced Latin, and scenes were inserted that were not from the Bible. The acting became more dramatic as characterization and detail became more important. Based on the Scriptures from the creation to the Second Coming and on the lives of the saints, the plays were arranged into cycles and were given on church festival days, particularly the feast of Corpus Christi, lasting from sunrise to sunset. Each guild was responsible for the production of a different episode. With simple costumes and props, guild members, who were paid actors, performed on stages equipped with wheels (see pageant); each scene was given at one public square and drawn on to its next performance at another, while a different stage succeeded it. Named after the towns in which they were performed, the principal English cycles are the York Plays (1430–40), the longest, containing 48 plays; the Towneley or Wakefield Plays (c.1450, in Yorkshire); the Coventry Plays (1468); and the Chester Plays (1475–1500). The Passion play is the chief modern example of the miracle play. The French mystère distinguished those plays containing biblical stories from those about the lives of the saints. The auto, the medieval religious drama in Spain, was acted concurrently with the secular drama throughout the Golden Age and into the 18th cent. Calderón was the greatest composer of the auto sacramental, which dealt with the mystery of the Mass in allegory. In Italy the laudi were basically choral in form and so distinguished from the later sacre rappresentazioni, which became lavish artistic productions comparable to the French mystère.

See K. Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church (2 vol., 1933); and anthologies ed. by A. W. Pollard (8th ed. 1927) and V. F. Hopper and G. B. Lahey (1962).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes: Specimens of the Pre-Elizabethan Drama
Alfred W. Pollard.
Clarendon Press, 1927 (8th edition)
The Bible in Middle English Literature
David C. Fowler.
University of Washington Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Medieval Drama"
Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches
M. D. Anderson.
Cambridge University Press, 1963
Biblical Drama in England from the Middle Ages to the Present Day
Murray Roston.
Faber and Faber, 1968
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "The Medieval Stage"
A Short History of the Drama
Martha Fletcher Bellinger.
Henry Holt, 1927
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XIII "A Thousand Years of Quiescence and the Beginnings of Sacred Drama;" Chap. XIV "Mysteries and Miracles on the Continent;" Chap. XV "Mysteries and Pageants in England"
World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh
Allardyce Nicoll.
Harcourt Brace, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "The Great Mystery Cycles" begins on p. 150
The Drama of Medieval England
Arnold Williams.
Michigan State University Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Especially Chap. X "Romantic Drama: Saints' Plays and Miracles"
The Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain
Richard B. Donovan.
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1958
The Medieval French Drama
Grace Frank.
Clarendon Press, 1954
Librarian’s tip: Chap. X "The Beginning of the Miracle Play in France. Le Jeu de S. Nicolas"
The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A Complete Version
J. S. Purvis.
S.P.C.K., 1957
FREE! The Second Shepherds' Play, Everyman, and Other Early Plays
Clarence Griffin Child.
Houghton Mifflin, 1910
The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642
John D. Cox.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 ""The Devil and the Sacred in the English Mystery Plays"
Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion
Ingvild Sælid Gilhus.
Routledge, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of mystery plays begins on p. 88
The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England
Ellen M. Ross.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Dramas of Divine Compassion: The Figure of the Wounded Jesus and the Rhetoric of Appeal in the Mystery Plays"
Lay Performances of Work and Salvation in the York Cycle
Boboc, Andreea.
Comparative Drama, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 2009
Striking a Pose: Performance Cues in Four French Hagiographic Mystery Plays
Hamblin, Vicki L.
Comparative Drama, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 2010
"'Now Wole I a Newe Game Begynne": Staging Suffering in King Lear, the Mystery Plays and Grotius's Christus Patiens
Groves, Beatrice.
Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, Vol. 20, January 1, 2007
The "Fygure" of the Market: The N-Town Cycle and East Anglian Lay Piety
Fewer, Colin.
Philological Quarterly, Vol. 77, No. 2, Spring 1998
Calendar and Text: Christ's Ministry in the York Plays and the Liturgy
King, Pamela M.
Medium Aevum, Vol. 67, No. 1, Spring 1998
Situating the Holy: Celtic Community in Breton and Cornish Saint Plays
Scherb, Victor I.
Comparative Drama, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall 2001
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