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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

III. The Early Religious Drama

§ 1. Concordia Regularis

THE GROWTH of the medieval religious drama pursued the same course in England as in the other countries of Europe joined together in spiritual unity through the domination of the Roman Catholic church. Everywhere, we may follow the same process, and note how, from about the tenth century, the production in churches of a certain species of alternating songs is combined with a sort of theatrical staging; how, simultaneously with the progress of this staging, the texts of the songs were enlarged by free poetical additions, till, finally, a separation of these stage performances from their original connection with religious service took place, and they were shifted from the church into the open air.

Most of the literary monuments that enable us to reconstruct the gradual rise of the Christian drama are of German or French origin; but England, too, furnishes us with several such monuments representing the earliest stage of the growth in question. One of special importance is Concordia Regularis, which contains rules for divine service in English monasteries, and which was composed during the reign of Edgar (959–975). In this, we have the oldest extant example in European literature of the theatrical recital of an alternating song in church. These rules prescribe that, during service in the night before Easter, an alternating song between the three women approaching the grave, and the angel watching on it, shall be recited; the friar who sings the words of the angel is to take his seat, clad in an alb and with a palm-twig in his hand, in a place representing the tomb; three other friars, wearing hooded capes and with censers in their hands, are to approach the tomb at a slow pace, as if in quest of something. This alternating song was composed at St. Gallen about the year 900 and was intended to be sung during mass on Easter morning; the statement as to its theatrical production can hardly be a fiction that originated at St. Gallen, or Ekkehard, the historian of that monastery, who generally gives detailed reports of such matters, would surely not have failed to mention it. But the custom, undoubtedly, is of continental origin; in the preface to Concordia Regularis, it is expressly stated that customs of outlandish monasteries, such as Fleury-sur-Loire and Ghent, served as models for the present composition; and, in the description of the ceremonies at the place which is to represent the tomb, reference is made to a commendable practice of priests in some monasteries who “had introduced this custom, in order to fortify the unlearned people in their faith.” These words also reveal to us the original purpose of Christian drama: it was to be a sort of living picture-book; the people, ignorant of Latin, were to perceive by sight what was inaccessible to the ear. For this reason, also, the tendency to place the whole action visibly before the eyes of the spectator, to leave nothing to be done behind the scenes or told by messengers, prevailed in medieval drama from the very beginning. Thus, the chief difference between ancient classical and modern romantic drama manifests itself in the first stage of medieval drama.

That the theatrical development of Easter celebrations in England did not stop short at this initial stage is proved by several MSS., more especially by one of the fourteenth century, and of Sarum origin, where the scene is enlarged by various additions, including a representation of the race to the tomb run by Peter and John (St. John XX, 4). Nor can it be doubted that, in England as on the continent, a drama on Christ’s birth and childhood gradually shaped itself out of the Christmas service, where the dramatic development likewise began with an alternating song; thus, e. g., the tin crowns, mentioned in an inventory of Salisbury cathedral, drawn up in 1222, were evidently for the use of the magi at the crib of Bethlehem.