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© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Miracle and Mystery Plays: Selected full-text books and articles

The Bible in Middle English Literature By David C. Fowler University of Washington Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Medieval Drama"
A Short History of the Drama By 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 By Allardyce Nicoll Harcourt Brace, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "The Great Mystery Cycles" begins on p. 150
The Drama of Medieval England By 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 By Richard B. Donovan Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1958
The Medieval French Drama By Grace Frank Clarendon Press, 1954
Librarian’s tip: Chap. X "The Beginning of the Miracle Play in France. Le Jeu de S. Nicolas"
The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350-1642 By 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 By 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 By 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 By Boboc, Andreea Comparative Drama, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 2009
Striking a Pose: Performance Cues in Four French Hagiographic Mystery Plays By Hamblin, Vicki L Comparative Drama, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 2010
The "Fygure" of the Market: The N-Town Cycle and East Anglian Lay Piety By Fewer, Colin Philological Quarterly, Vol. 77, No. 2, Spring 1998
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Situating the Holy: Celtic Community in Breton and Cornish Saint Plays By Scherb, Victor I Comparative Drama, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall 2001
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