In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Drama in Britain

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Collections of Articles
  • Anthologies
  • Dramatic Records and Documents
  • The Saint Play
  • Play of the Sacrament
  • Morality Plays
  • Traditional (Folk) Drama and Entertainment
  • Processions and Entertainments

Medieval Studies Drama in Britain
Clifford Davidson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0030


The earliest extant drama in medieval England is a Latin Easter church music-drama or ceremony in the Regularis Concordia (c. 970), associated with Winchester—a liturgical dramatization of the visit of the three Marys to the sepulcher on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The view that this drama or ceremony was the germ of medieval drama in England from which vernacular playing arose in its various forms, especially through a process of secularization and evolution, is no longer accepted, though this claim continues to appear in popular sources and some theater textbooks. The development of vernacular drama is now understood as a complex process for which no single explanation is adequate. That England possessed rich local dramatic traditions toward the end of the medieval period—traditions that often continued up to the time of Queen Elizabeth I—is clear from the dramatic records that have survived and from the texts that remain, most of them religious in nature. Religious drama, including elaborate cycles performed under civic auspices and the staging of saints’ lives, achieved popularity in many locations, most visibly in cities such as York, Coventry, and Chester and in East Anglia. This drama is known through a limited number of texts, now recognized as representative of only a small portion of what once must have existed. In spite of the high literary value that characterizes some of the extant examples, plays were normally not written as literature for readers and further might be subject to anti-theatrical hostility, particularly after the Reformation. Many texts were discarded as insignificant or later apparently destroyed as dangerously papist under pressure from the Protestant authorities. Only a few—for example, Everyman, a morality adapted from the Dutch Elckerlijc—found their way into print. A more contested area is secular entertainment, which some have seen as harking back to the Anglo-Saxon scōp or even Roman mimes. Hypothetical fertility rites popular as presumed ancestors of folk or traditional drama, emphasized in some earlier 20th-century literature on traditional drama, are no longer believed to have been a factor. Dramatic records demonstrate that secular drama (for example, Robin Hood plays performed in some areas) was widespread, but research is hampered by the lack of texts. Attention has also been directed to the dramatic elements in civic processions and royal entertainments.

General Overviews

Earlier general studies were often hampered by a commitment to the idea of medieval dramas as “pre-Shakespearian.” The focus of research changed in the last half of the 20th century, particularly following Wickham 1959, whose work on their context as effective stage plays represents their rediscovery as more than antiquarian. The importance and scope of the iconography of religious plays, especially as connected with local ecclesiastical art, were explored in Anderson 1963, which is still a useful work. The festival year for playing (see Davidson 2007) and the general religious context (see Scherb 2001) have also provided new directions for research. This shift has been accelerated by intense research in dramatic records, attention to regional conventions in the visual arts, and a concentration on popular religion. By understanding drama as less monolithic and more varied in form, content, and staging, the research has become less theoretical and more grounded in the actualities of playing. Postmodern criticism has had only little impact, and Kolve 1966, based on an earlier aesthetic, remains influential.

  • Anderson, M. D. Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

    A pioneering study of English iconography and medieval drama informed by a wide-ranging knowledge of local church art. In promoting the theory that the artists copied from plays performed in the streets, however, Anderson is engaged in speculation for which the evidence is slight, with current thought often suggesting that the major line of influence more often than not could have been the other way around.

  • Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1903.

    The classic study, favoring the evolutionary view of the development of medieval drama. Attempting to be comprehensive, Chambers owes much to records unearthed by 19th-century antiquarians. Though still useful, the work must be approached cautiously, and citations and interpretations should not be accepted without verification.

  • Clopper, Lawrence M. Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

    Many of the conclusions of this study have been contested, but the point that the religious plays generally do not present a “clerical agenda” is forcefully presented.

  • Davidson, Clifford. Festivals and Plays in Late Medieval Britain. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    Surveys the connection between the ritual year and types of drama developed throughout England, Scotland, and parts of Ireland. Plays for specific occasions were more varied than often suggested; for example, in the case of Corpus Christi, which might have been a time for plays on a variety of topics.

  • Hardison, O. B., Jr. Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages: Essays in the Origin and Early History of Modern Drama. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1965.

    The seminal opening essay, “Darwin, Mutations, and the Origin of Medieval Drama,” sets out the rationale for rejecting an evolutionary framework for the historical study of medieval drama. However, Hardison’s argument concerning the rise of liturgical drama in the remainder of the book has remained controversial.

  • Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1966.

    The most influential aspect of this classic study has been its discussion of comedy and of drama generally in terms of play, a perspective derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949). Kolve’s view is to some extent vindicated by the terminology, which in late Middle English records conflated “game” and “play.” The book’s title is based on the assumption that, like York, the Chester, N-town, and Towneley dramas were “Corpus Christi plays.”

  • Scherb, Victor I. Staging Faith: East Anglian Drama in the Later Middle Ages. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

    Especially good on the devotional image, iconography, and the place of mnemonic theory in relation to late medieval drama, particularly the corpus of East Anglian plays.

  • Wickham, Glynne. Early English Stages. Vol. 1, 1300 to 1576. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

    A seminal work, presenting the platform for subsequent research into the early British stage. Dividing the drama into “social recreation” and religious enactment, Wickham was a pioneer in freeing medieval drama from the prejudice that had characterized many previous studies, including Hardin Craig’s English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.