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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.

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 5. The English Monastic Literary Drama

Other attempts seem, in the long course of the centuries, to have been made to clothe in a dramatic form borrowed from the ancients the Christian wisdom and morality which had become the norm of the spiritual life of the west; among these, the most notable were the Terentian comedies, written in the tenth century by Hrotsvitha, the Benedictine abbess of Gandersheim, in Eastphalian Saxony, for the edification of the inmates of her convent, where, very probably (though we have no evidence on the subject), they may have been performed. The moral and intellectual current of which these high-minded, if not very brilliant, efforts formed part and which is associated with the name and reign of Hrotsvitha’s kinsman, Otto the Great, carried its influence beyond the Rhine into French territory. When, therefore, among the many strangers whom the Norman conquest brought into England, monks and nuns immigrated in large numbers and carried on in the new country their old avocation of trainers of youth, nothing could have been more natural than that there should have transplanted itself with them the practice of writing—and perhaps of performing—religious exercises in the regular dramatic form derived from classical examples, and recounting the miraculous acts of holy personages and the miraculous experiences of holy lives. At the same time, inasmuch as these compositions were virtually mere hybrids, and were primarily designed for the use of only a very limited class under very special direction and discipline, the dramatic element which they introduced might, at first sight, have seemed likely to prove so weak and transitory as to be almost negligible. Yet the literary monastic drama, whenever it first became an acting drama, was not a thing so entirely away form the world as might be supposed. In the period which comes into question, monasteries and nunneries were not so much retreats from, as centres of, social life and intellectual intercourse; and suggestions or influences imparted by them were not communicated by habitantes in sicco. From the church in general, and not the least from her monastic institutions, proceeded the main literary impulses felt in England for several centuries after the Norman conquest; Layamon was a priest, Ormin or Orm a monk, not to speak of the author or authors of Piers Plowman. When, half a century or so after the Conquest, pupils of convent schools in England represented religious plays in very much the same fashion as that in which the abbess Hrotsvitha’s scholars may have performed her Terentian comedies at Gandersheim, some knowledge of these performances must have rapidly spread beyond the cloister, and, we may rest assured, have been eagerly conveyed to the ears of all and sundry by strolling minstrels, if by no other agents. Beginning with the play in honour of St. Catharine, acted (in what language is not known) at Dunstable about the year 1110 by scholars of the Norman Geoffrey, afterwards bishop of St. Albans, and extending through the series of “miracles of saints and passions of holy martyrs,” stated by William Fitzstephen to have been produced between 1170 and 1182, these saints’ plays, among which must be reckoned one of the extant plays of Hilarius—very probably a native of England—continued to appear and reappear in this country, where, however, they cannot be said to have flourished till the middle of the fifteenth century. Long before this, they had begun to coalesce with a dramatic growth of very different strength; and it is because of its separate origin, rather than because it can be said to have run either a vigorous or a distinct course of its own, that reference has been made in this introductory section to what can only with hesitation be described as the English monastic literary drama.