Theater and the Sacred in the Middle Ages

by Andrzej Dąbrówka (Author) Mirosław Kocur (Author)
©2019 Monographs 576 Pages
Open Access


The book presents a theory of relationships between the forms of devotion
and early drama genres. The historical background is the circumstances of the Church becoming independent of the Empire. A theological and philosophical aspect of the transformation of piety at the time was the specification of the ontological status of the sacred (spiritualization) and "shifting it to Heaven" (transcendentalization). In opposition to a theory of Western civilization as a process of increasing individual self-control, the author argues for the need to take into account purely religious conditions (the idea of recapitulation). This allows the author to develop a holistic aesthetics for the religiously inspired creativity in the period spanning the 11th-15th centuries and to propose a new typology of medieval drama.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Part I. Literature and History
  • 1. A Philological Exercise
  • 2. Language and History: The Cognitive Turn
  • 3. Pious Spectacle
  • 4. The Sacred
  • 5. Forms of Devotion
  • Part II. Changes in the Ontology of the Sacred
  • 6. The Ontology of the Sacred
  • 7. The Sources of the Spiritualization Process
  • 8. The Material Symbol and the Linguistic Sign
  • 9. The Stages of Spiritualization
  • 10. The Transcendentalization of the Sacred as a Civilizational Transformation
  • Part III. The Profane: The Human Estate
  • 11. Lower Tiers of Sacrality
  • 12. The New Place for People in Nature
  • 13. From the Universalism of Obedience to the Pluralism of Predictability
  • 14. Confraternities as Media in the Civilizing Process426
  • Part IV. The Aesthetics of Recapitulation: To Inscribe into the Living Hearts
  • 15. Theatrica
  • 16. Spectator, Participant, Co-Author
  • 17. The Incarnational Aesthetics of the Theatrical Performance
  • 18. The Aesthetics of Articulation and Factuality
  • 19. Knowledge of the Miracle
  • 20. Recapitulation and Creativity
  • Part V. Spirituality and Subjectivity in Drama
  • 21. The Forms of Devotion and Drama
  • 22. The Mystery Play
  • 23. The Miracle Play
  • 24. The Morality Play
  • 25. The Recapitulatory Drama
  • 26. The Farce
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Part I. Literature and History

The role of literature as a witness to history has changed as radically as the assessment of this role. After the Middle Ages – this naïve phase, in which literary and historical texts were utterly indistinguishable – researchers and writers have increasingly tended toward a strict separation of literature from fact-based sources worthy of scientific research.

Still, the true beginning came from the opposite position: the point was not to exclude something from the scope of scientific interest to ensure the truthfulness of science, but it was to place scientific knowledge outside the realm of theology to protect the latter’s independence and superiority. This view is still prevalent in the Middle Ages and manifests itself in the distinction between logic and metaphysics. Though attributed to William Ockham, the distinction itself developed during a long debate. The significant moment for its development was the year 1277, when the bishop of Paris condemned Averroists and banned Thomism, rather conventionally than for any substantial reason (see chapter 10.4).

The seed of systematic criticism of the text diffidently planted by Abelard flourished with the Humanists. The successive phases of expanding the source base (the Enlightenment and Positivism) have been interwoven with phases of doubt in the power of human reason (Baroque, Romanticism, Modernism) until the loss of illusions about the rules of scientific research and science’s monopoly on rationality. After all, when Thomas S. Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1968), finally described real science, not the ideal one,1 ←9 | 10→many embarrassing things came to light. The very things which were earlier used to disqualify literature as a source of knowledge: that there are no impartial participants in science, that there are no observations independent of theory, and even that there is no way of reconciling differences between theories, which is why scientific revolutions take place through processes that are far from the rational, often affected by such mundane circumstances as some scholars losing their employment in favor of others.

Thus, there appeared evidence that science is just another cultural system – like religion, politics, art, literature and even language – subject to similar rules: innovations gain supporters due to the quest for novelty, for “religious conversions” (Thomas S. Kuhn’s expression; qtd. after Fuller 1992: 247, fn. 22), and persist by virtue of their incomparability with the old, their ability to reappear in ever new variants, and intensive propaganda, the promotion of faith. Not because the old solutions were worse, but because the number of their followers kept decreasing until they finally died out (Stegmüller 1979: 747). Max Planck went as far as to formulate the bitterly humorous law of “the displacement of theory through the extinction of its supporters” (Stegmüller 1979: 747).

Nowadays, we return to literature in search for evidence recognized by more recent theories, which cannot help but work despite doubt in the credibility of many, though not all, documents – even those written on exquisite parchment in most solemn Latin, embellished with tassels of most distinguished seals. Indeed, criticism did not spare the seals, too, which were exposed as little propaganda vessels.

Confronted with the old text in such conditions, we must constantly wonder: What allows us to understand it, what can and cannot be “learned from it,” what kind of knowledge does it provide? And, whether this knowledge was deliberately inserted in the text or accidentally slipped into it? Finally, can we reach it through cooperation with the author or by using special tools? To get a sense of the situation, let us listen to a story.

←10 |

1 Here, I summarize the results of analyses by the science theoretician, W. Stegmüller, included in his Theorienstrukturen und Theoriendynamik (Berlin 1973) and the textbook Hauptströmungen der Gegenwartsphilosophie (Stuttgart 1979). For a review of the history of relations between literature and history, see K. Heitmann, Das Verhältnis von Dichtung und Geschichtsschreibung in älterer Theorie, in: Haupt (ed.) 1985: 201–244; P. Zumthor, “Le Texte Médiéval et l’Histoire. Propositions Méthodologiques,” Romanic Review 1973, 64, pp. 5–15; from the viewpoint of literary genology: J. Knape, ‘Historie’ im Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit: Begriffs- und Gattungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen im interdisziplinären Kontext, Baden-Baden 1984; F. P. Knapp, “Historische Wahrheit und poetische Lüge. Die Gattungen weltlicher Epik,” Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift 1980, 54, 581–635.

1. A Philological Exercise

1. According to the wolf best informed in the history we wish to recount, the fox initiated the quarrel and brought about disagreement. And it was

on a day at Whitsuntide

when trees and shrubbery alike

were dressed all over with green leaves.

Nobel the King had had

his court-day proclaimed everywhere,

which, he thought, – all being well –

would greatly increase his fame.

Then came to the king’s court

all the animals, large and small,

except for Reynaert the fox alone.

He had behaved so badly at court

that he did not dare go.

Whoever is knowingly guilty, is afraid.

This was the case with Reynaert

and that is why he avoided the king’s court

where his esteem was low.

When the entire court had gathered

there was nobody, except the badger,

who did not have some reason for complaining of

Reynaert, the scoundrel with the grey beard.

Now a charge is made against him.

Ysingrijn and his relatives

took up their positions before the king.

Ysingrijn began at once

and said “My Lord King,

for the sake of your nobility and of your honour,

and for the sake of justice and of mercy,

take pity on the harm

inflicted upon me by Reynaert,

through whom I have often incurred

great humiliation and loss.

Take pity especially because

he has had his way with my wife

and has maltreated my children so badly

that, by pissing on them where they lay,

two of them lost their sight

and are now totally blind.

←11 | 12→

In addition, he later disgraced me.

It had by then come to such a pass

that a day had been appointed

when Reynaert should swear

his innocence in court. But as soon

as the relics were brought,

he changed his mind

and escaped us in his stronghold.

My lord, this is well known among the highest

of those who have come here to court.

Reynaert, that vicious animal,

has done me so much harm;

I am quite convinced:

if all the cloth now made in Ghent

were parchment, I should not have

enough to describe it all.

That is why I prefer to be silent about it,

but my wife’s disgrace

must neither be overlooked,

nor not hushed up, nor remain without revenge.”

When Ysingrijn had spoken thus

a small dog stood up, called Cortoys,

and complained to the king in French

how a while ago it had been so poor

that it had had nothing left

one winter when there was a frost

except for one sausage

and that Reynaert, the scoundrel,

had stolen that very sausage from him.

Tybeert the cat was roused to fury.

This is how he began his speech

and he jumped into the middle of the circle

and he said “My Lord King,

because you bear Reynaert ill will

there is no one here, young nor old,

or he has something to charge him with before you.

What Cortoys is complaining of now

happened many a year ago.

The sausage was mine, but I don’t complain.

I had got hold of it craftily

when one night, looking for something to bag,

I went into a mill

where I stole the sausage

from a sleeping miller.

←12 |

If Cortoys profited by it at all

this was entirely my doing.

It would only be right to dismiss

the complaint that Cortoys makes.”

Pancer the beaver spoke: “Do you think it right,

Tybeert, that the complaint should be dismissed?

Reynaert really is a murderer

and a cheat and a thief.

Also, there is nobody he likes so much,

not even my lord the king,

that he would not wish him to lose

life and honour if that might get him

a succulent bite of a chicken.

And a trap, what do you say of that?

Did he not yesterday, in broad daylight,


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (July)
Medieval Drama Religion and Civilization Art History Social History Historical Anthropology Cognitive Psychology
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 576 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Dąbrówka (Author) Mirosław Kocur (Author)

Andrzej Dąbrówka is Professor at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His writings and scholarly editions cover medieval literary theory, early drama and theater, theory of historiography, medieval chronicles, preaching, Netherlandic studies, literary medievalism, and digital humanities.


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578 pages