Medieval Studies Dutch Theater and Drama
by
Wim Hüsken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0089

Introduction

In the Low Countries, few liturgical drama texts have been preserved. Compared to the surrounding countries of France, Germany, and England, vernacular drama texts handed down in manuscript form started to emerge relatively late. From the 15th century, only one play collection survived (in the Van Hulthem manuscript), including four abele spelen (chivalric plays), six sotternien (farces), and a handful of other plays. By the end of the century, the famous play of Elckerlyc, the source for the English Everyman, appeared in print, a medium otherwise seldom used by authors of drama texts. The bulk of the play production in the Low Countries is, therefore, late medieval. Responsible for their coming into existence were the rhetoricians, members of chambers of rhetoric comparable to the French puys. Their share in Dutch and Flemish public life can hardly be overestimated. By the year 1620 their influence had started to dwindle, however, leading to the end of a tradition that originated in the 14th century. Still, even though the Renaissance slowly started to pervade other literary genres after the 1560s, dramatists and theater producers remained faithful to their traditional style. As a result, their activities will have to be scrutinized well into times normally no longer regarded as medieval. Because the majority of the texts they composed were copied out in manuscripts more or less representing (part of) their repertoire, it is in many cases difficult to tell when exactly the plays written down in these collections were actually composed. The most striking example of this is the large play collection of the Haarlem chamber of rhetoric, Trou moet blijcken, the copying of which started around 1600, though it includes many texts dating back to the start of the 16th century. A popular genre within Dutch and Flemish drama was the so-called spel van sinne, a play type comparable to the French moralité, featuring sinnekens, stock characters always acting in pairs and comparable to the Vice in the English morality plays. In addition, farces were very much preferred. Biblical plays seem to have found less support among the many companies in charge of performing drama, but archival sources suggest the opposite. Studying the archives in order to recreate theatrical life in the towns and villages of the Low Countries, similar to the Records of Early English Drama project, has not yet been carried out systematically, but partial results are worth reviewing. Many plays—an estimate of the entire field from the period between 1400 and 1620 amounts to approximately seven hundred—have not yet been made public in scholarly annotated editions. In many cases researchers therefore still have to rely on manuscripts and contemporary editions. Staging plays has received special attention within the field of Dutch and Flemish medieval drama studies, the more so because graphic representations of stages have survived in contemporary editions and paintings.

General Overviews

The dominant position the rhetoricians held on the Dutch and Flemish stages makes it inevitable that most overviews focus on their functioning rather than concentrating on the history of the late medieval dramatic genres as a topic of its own. The first history of the chambers of rhetoric ever written dates back to the third quarter of the 18th century (Kops 1774). It would take almost a century before a second comprehensive monograph on rhetoricians was published: Schotel 1871. Even though writing and performing drama was one of the rhetoricians’ most important fields of activity, these monographs mainly discuss matters related to the origin of the chambers, their share in the various types of poetry to which they contributed, and the prominent position they held in society. As a result the study of 15th-century drama texts—the origin of which cannot be linked to one or more chambers of rhetoric—is, more often than not, seen as completely separate from the development of 16th-century drama. Special attention to these earliest stages of vernacular drama in the Low Countries was for the first time paid by Moltzer 1862, concentrating on secular plays. Gallée 1873 responded by concentrating on religious drama from the same era. The continuity of dramatic genres from the late 14th century to the early 17th century thus seems to be problematic, but it clearly emerges from the archival sources, featuring many play titles known throughout the period. After Mak 1944 no further histories of the chambers of rhetoric were attempted. Erenstein 1996 presents a comprehensive history of Dutch and Flemish drama, paying due attention to medieval and rhetoricians’ drama.

  • Erenstein, Robert L., ed. Een theatergeschiedenis der Nederlanden: Tien eeuwen drama en theater in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996.

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    Included are some twenty short essays on medieval and rhetoricians’ drama, ranging from liturgical drama copied out in a manuscript from Munsterbilzen, c. 1130, to a description of a performance by Lord Leicester’s Men, in Utrecht on 23 April 1586, of The Forces of Hercules. The remainder of the book focuses on theater and drama between the end of the 16th century and the end of the 20th century.

  • Gallée, J. H. Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der dramatische vertooningen in de Nederlanden gedurende de Middeleeuwen. Haarlem, The Netherlands: A. C. Kruseman, 1873.

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    This book concentrates on liturgical and processional drama, the latter in the vernacular. In an introductory chapter, Gallée not only reviews dramatic elements in medieval Dutch and Flemish literature, but also a typical theatrical attitude in the behavior displayed by Low Countries’ inhabitants. Special attention is geared toward the Eerste bliscap (First Joy of Our Lady), dating from the mid-15th century.

  • Kops, Willem. “Schets eener geschiedenisse der rederijkeren.” Werken van de Maatschappij voor Nederlandsche Letterkunde 2 (1774): 212–351.

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    Even though Kops was not able to consult a representative number of plays written between c. 1450 and 1600, his main conclusion was repeated by most scholars following in his footsteps: of plays written before the start of the glorious era of the Amsterdam playwrights of the first half of the 17th century, almost nothing was worth reading.

  • Mak, J. J. De rederijkers. Amsterdam: P. N. van Kampen en Zoon, 1944.

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    Rather than regarding the rhetoricians and their drama as poor predecessors of successful 17th-century dramatists such as Bredero and Vondel, Mak studies their work for its own sake, refraining from religious or moral value judgments. Most manuscript collections and editions of plays were known to him, and thus allowed a much more balanced view of the merits of the rhetoricians. The book continues to be worth consulting for its rich bibliography.

  • Moltzer, Henri Ernest. Geschiedenis van het wereldlijk tooneel in Nederland gedurende de middeleeuwen. Leiden, The Netherlands: Gebroeders Van den Hoek, 1862.

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    The book concentrates on the origin of secular drama in The Netherlands, comparing the development of the genre here with dramatic traditions in surrounding countries. The abele spelen (chivalric plays) and sotternien (farces) in the Van Hulthem manuscript receive special attention, leading to the conclusion that both this collection of ten plays and the individual plays lack unity.

  • Schotel, G. D. J. Geschiedenis der rederijkers in Nederland. 2 vols. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: J. H. Dunk, 1871.

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    Increasing interest in archival sources related to medieval drama among 19th-century librarians and archivists enabled Schotel to start his survey with a chapter on mystery plays, which although a widespread tradition in the Low Countries, few texts have survived. Spending a great deal of attention on the play of Elckerlyc, the author supplies lengthy quotations from various plays otherwise not yet accessible in contemporary editions. Originally published in 1864.

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