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Theater and the Sacred in the Middle Ages

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Andrzej Dąbrówka

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.

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22. The Mystery Play

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1. THE MYSTERIES OF FAITH. Mystery plays did not have a strictly specified content, although they usually related to biblical motifs, as reflected by appropriate terms like scriptural drama in English. About one million lines of mystery plays were preserved to this day; we know about one hundred authors from 1400–1550. Formerly, scholars divided the repertoire into three cycles: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the lives of saints; which Alan Knight continues by treating all as historical genres. In the Middle Ages, people sometimes applied the term mystery play to performances of political history and not the history of salvation, like the siege of Orléans or the destruction of Troy. However, the genology of the time was not a cohesive system, so the facts of unusual usage of certain terms should not exclude their usefulness; for instance, the term was prevalent in France while, in England, miracle play meant all religious plays.

For this reason, to retain some usefulness of the term in differentiating the repertoire of religious arts, we should better limit it to the most common understanding: the works that use biblical content, also apocryphal, but mainly elaborating the “mystery of faith.” What decides about the differentiation of the mystery play from other genres is the location of the represented world: it must be the redemptive reality of the true sacred history, revealed or – as with the Last Judgment – conceived and meticulously complemented in later treatises, visions, revelations, iconography, and...

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