Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 3. Religious Plays in London

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

§ 3. Religious Plays in London

The often-quoted mention by William Fitzstephen of religious plays in London may also, possibly, relate to performances in Latin. Fitzstephen observes, in his Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1180), that London, instead of the spectacula theatralia acted in Rome, possesses other, holier, plays—representations of miracles wrought by holy confessors, or of the tribulations in which the constancy of martyrs splendidly manifested itself. It is, however, possible that performances in Anglo-Norman are here intended; for we see that in France, too, after the vernacular language had taken possession of the drama, subjects from legends of the saints were preferred to Scriptural themes. It is well worth note that here, for the first time, we hear of dramatised martyria, which take a prominent place in the religious répertoire of the later Middle Ages. By “miracles,” it would seem that chiefly those are to be understood which saints wrought after their death, when invoked by their faithful worshippers. In any case, all the miracles produced in the Nicholas plays are of this sort; and, in France, the application of the word “miracle,” as a theatrical term, continued to be restricted to plays treating of subjects of this kind only; whereas, in England, it assumed a more general meaning. Thus, in the statutes of Lichfield cathedral, c. 1190, mention is made of repraesentatio miraculorum in nocte Paschae; and bishop Grosseteste, likewise, seems to use the word in a more general sense, when ordering, in 1244, the suppression of miracula in the diocese of Lincoln.