Marriage in Late-Medieval German Easter and Shrovetide Plays

By Classen, Albrecht | Comparative Drama, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Marriage in Late-Medieval German Easter and Shrovetide Plays


Classen, Albrecht, Comparative Drama


The topics of love, marriage, sexuality, and the family in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance have attracted tremendous interest for some time now because we have realized how much the relationship between genders proves important for the well-being of any society. (1) By the same token, these topics have almost always been the object of intense debates in theology, law, the arts, and especially in literature. (2) In fact, one of the key functions of fictional texts has been to serve as a public medium to negotiate the most critical issues affecting practically every member of a community, especially in matters difficult to solve by means of laws and governmental rulings, the teachings of the Church, and other authorities. This function finds powerful expression in numerous late-medieval plays, which present marriage either as an object of satire or as a model of ideal behavior relevant for their urban audiences.

Of course, the emotional aspect of these matters, particularly as they affect the lives of men and women, requires constant re-examination, an enterprise for which literary discourse appears to be the ideal forum. (3) After all, love is a most elusive phenomenon, affecting most people at some point in their lives more or less intensively, and marriage adds an additional level of complexity to this issue, as poets and others through the ages have confirmed. But who would dare to offer a precise, generally acceptable definition, unless we foolishly trust medieval satirists such as Andreas Capellanus (c.1190), Matfre Ermengaud (c.1288), or Juan Ruiz (c.1340) in their claims mostly formulated tongue-in-cheek to have dealt with the topic exhaustively. (4) The critical studies on marriage and the gender relationships in past and present are legion. (5) Considering the relevance of marriage in the history of mentality, we can trace this broad discourse as far back as the Middle Ages (and even earlier) when poets, theologians, artists, philosophers, and jurists began to engage in a public debate at least since the twelfth century, though among theologians, the debate on various approaches, values, ideals, problems, and concerns involving love and marriage goes back much further. (6) Some of the most popular genres that lent themselves particularly well to this discourse were sermons, prose novels, secular song books, marriage treatises, verse novellas, and exempla. (7) As to be expected, many of these have been studied in great detail and need not be revisited here, especially if we think of Elisabeth Waghall Nivre's impressive Women and Family Life in Early Modern German Literature (2004). She correctly emphasizes that "all texts investigated move within at least three different discursive fields inherent in a larger gender discourse: sexuality, marriage, and family life." (8) But to probe the discourse on marriage even further, I would like to focus here on late-medieval plays, both religious and secular. Such an approach is possible and makes perfect sense particularly in relation to Easter plays and Shrovetide plays which tended to include highly humorous scenes for comic release, drawing their essential material from everyday experiences and the basic conditions of human emotions?

Surprisingly, neither drama specialists nor social historians have adequately examined late-medieval plays as ideal objects to study how marriage was presented, evaluated, and discussed in public during that time, although stage performances essentially thrive on the intricate interaction with their audiences, either on a reflective or on a prescriptive level, which Manfred Pfister has called the "multimediality" of theater. (10) Many scholars of medieval plays have convincingly demonstrated that "the medieval theatre was above all a collective undertaking through which urban social groups and the urban elites in particular gave expression to what may properly be termed a bourgeois ideology." (11) But the performance itself is not an isolated event and does not exclude subsequent discussions and explorations of the issues presented on the stage, especially not within the framework of late-medieval urban communities. …

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