In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Iberian Theater and Performance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Liturgical and Devotional Theater
  • The Festa D’Elx
  • Holy Week and Corpus Christi Procession
  • Popular and Municipal Festivals
  • Court Ceremony, Entremeses, and Spectacle

Medieval Studies Iberian Theater and Performance
Christopher Swift
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0008


Medieval Iberian theater and performance maintains a peculiar status within, and between, performance and medieval disciplines. In theater studies, medieval Iberia has received minimal scholarly attention, and standard theater history textbooks contain only traces of Iberian material, if any at all. Despite the existence of Catalonian and Castilian archival materials that indicate performance traditions unique to the peninsula, scholars of Spanish literature (outside of the notable exceptions below) generally view Iberian medieval theater as an anomaly. One of the main reasons for this situation is that Iberian theater has yet to emerge fully from traditional historiographic parameters predicated upon the narratives and liturgical forms of the Christian Church. The dearth of liturgical performance evidence in Castile—whether due to the dominance of the Mozarabic rite on the peninsula through the 11th century, Muslim occupation, Iberia’s unique religious and cultural history, or the destruction of church documents—should not preclude future research into Spanish medieval theater. The broader field of medieval European theater has moved forward to embrace a wider range of public acts, including jongleur performance, mock battles, performative reading and viewing, devotional practices, festivals, tableaux, court entertainments, and processions, and new approaches and forms of performance are just beginning to take hold in Spanish studies. The second reason for the discipline’s uncertain presence in the academy has to do with the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of the medieval geography we now call Spain. Prior to unification under the Catholic monarchs, Aragon, Andalusia, Castile, Catalonia, and Galicia were at one point or another autonomous political kingdoms with unique religious, linguistic, literary, and performance traditions. Despite decades of Francoist polemical historiography that stunted research and promoted a nationalist narrative of Castilian, Catholic centrality, the medieval performance archive reveals diverse, regional traditions. It is perhaps the motley complexion of Iberian performance that has discouraged theater scholars from entering the field. Despite these hurdles, important foundational scholarship, new discoveries, and interdisciplinarity, provide the bases for continued growth of an Iberian performance discipline. Charlotte Stern’s call in The Medieval Theater in Castile (Stern 1996, cited under General Overviews) for a “new poetics” appears to be taking hold: other scholars have embraced performance theory in their work, made inroads into aspects of popular entertainments, considered Islamic and Jewish participation in performance culture, and broadened the conversation by examining scenography and theatrical space. This article bridges the gap between old and new scholarship by including traditional texts and approaches along with primary materials often excluded from the conversation on Iberian drama, as well as critical works that engage the subject matter in an interdisciplinary manner.

General Overviews

The Siete Partidas (Alfonso X, King of Castile and León 1807) offers a number of prescriptive and descriptive points on 13th-century theater. In contemporary studies, Díez Borque 1983 contains a number of essays with fresh perspectives on medieval Spanish theater. Massip Bonet 2007, Shergold 1967, Surtz 1979, and Stern 1996 are central to the field. Jones 1991 provides a contextual analysis of Isadore’s dictionary. López Morales 1991, a textual analysis, represents one side to the debate about theater in 13th-century Castile.

  • Alfonso X, King of Castile and León. Las Siete Partidas del Rey Don Alfonso el Sabio. 3 vols. Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia, 1807.

    The Second and Seventh laws address issues of performance, including popular entertainment, court minstrelsy, and plays in churches. Debate is ongoing about how much we can depend on these codes for evidence of theatrical activity in 13th-century Castile, but the most recent scholarship tends to view a connection between the laws and historical fact. Available online from Internet Archive, and reprint published in 2011 by University of Toronto Libraries.

  • Díez Borque, José María, ed. Història del teatro en España. Vol. 1, Edad media, Siglo XVI, Siglo XVII. Madrid: Tauras, 1983.

    The collection includes essays on the staging of vernacular plays in Catalonia and Valencia, and the importance of looking beyond the written text when considering medieval theatrical culture in Spain.

  • Jones, Joseph R. “Isidore and the Theatre.” In Drama in the Middle Ages. Edited by Clifford Davidson and John H. Stroupe, 1–23. New York: AMS, 1991.

    This essay details the ways in which Isidore compiled and transcribed preexisting historical literature on Greco-Roman entertainment, resulting in ideas about ancient theater that are sometimes ambiguous.

  • López Morales, Humberto. “Alfonso X y el teatro medieval castellano.” Revista de Filología Española 71 (1991): 227–252.

    DOI: 10.3989/rfe.1991.v71.i3/4.631

    López Morales concludes that the Siete Partidas should not be taken as evidence of the existence of profane or liturgical theater in 13th-century Castile. He arrives at this interpretation through a philological engagement with the source material for the Partidas—the Fuero Real and Espéculo (Iberian legal codes) and papal decretals.

  • Massip Bonet, Francesc. Història del teatre Català, Vol. 1, Dels orígens a 1800. Tarragona, Spain: Arola, 2007.

    This is the first volume of a history of theater in Catalonia. Written in Catalan, the book is divided into two definitive parts. The first part is dedicated to sacred theater of the medieval period, in particular interpretations of symbolic meanings in civic and court ceremonies and settings. The second part of the book focuses on the theater of the Renaissance, Baroque and Enlightenment periods, both religious and secular.

  • Shergold, N. D. A History of the Spanish Stage from Medieval Times until the End of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

    Shergold has organized the material generically, providing evidence of dramatic tropes in the Easter and Christmas liturgies (Latin and vernacular), auto sacramentales, miracle drama, entremeses, momos, tournaments, royal pageants, moros y cristianos, and farsas from Portugal, as well as the influence of Italian commedia troupes. Late medieval and early modern playwrights (Encina, Torres Naharro, Vicente, Fernandez, etc.) are also discussed.

  • Stern, Charlotte. The Medieval Theater in Castile. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.

    Stern’s project is to expand the history of Castile’s theatrical past by identifying, and supporting the use of, new forms of evidence for performance. The book is organized by types of evidence, with chapters on Latin scholia, papal decretals, travelogues, municipal and ecclesiastic account books, pictorial arts, cancioneros, and Fernando de Rojas’s Calisto y Melibea.

  • Surtz, Ronald E. The Birth of a Theater: Dramatic Convention in the Spanish Theater from Juan del Encina to Lope De Vega. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

    Surtz argues that the conventions, allegories, themes, and structures in the humanist and religious dramas of Encina, Fernández, and other early-16th-century drama were modeled on an active medieval theatrical tradition in Castile. This important book discusses entremeses, momos, autos, comedias, coloquios, introitos (comic prologues performed by rustic characters), pageantry, and early commercial theater.

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