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

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • History of Scholarship
  • Origin of the Liturgical Drama
  • Liturgical Drama among Three Disciplines
  • Liturgy and Ritual
  • Liturgical Drama as Theater
  • Transmission of Liturgical Drama
  • Music
  • Architectural and Pictorial Evidence
  • Studies of National Traditions
  • Liturgical Drama, A Western Phenomenon

Medieval Studies Liturgical Drama
Nils Holger Petersen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 December 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0045


The term liturgical drama was first used in the mid-19th century to denote religious dramas that were part of, or closely tied to, medieval church services, whether before Mass, during the divine office, or liturgical processions. The term has not been unequivocally used or accepted, but a more fundamental question has been raised in modern times: do the various phenomena that have been subsumed under the term liturgical drama constitute a well-defined area of study? The most crucial problem concerns the possibility of a clear division between “liturgy” and “drama,” notions not used in the Middle Ages. Some modern scholars reject the idea that the earliest examples of what were considered to be liturgical dramas can reasonably be regarded as drama, partly because the liturgical manuscripts in which they were included do not display any particular awareness of a dramatic genre. The earliest examples of these so-called liturgical dramas were short, vocal, and staged Latin dialogues among the women at the grave of Jesus and an angel announcing the Resurrection. These are usually named Quem quaeritis (Whom do you seek?) dialogues after the beginning words of the first central line of the angel; they were performed in churches from the 10th and 11th centuries onward, continuing throughout the Middle Ages as part of Easter celebrations in many monasteries and cathedrals. In quite some (Catholic) places, the practice continued also after the Council of Trent, even into the 18th century. During this time, many other biblical matters were represented in more or less similar ways (including nonbiblical saints’ narratives). Importantly, and mainly since the 12th century, some biblical representations were large musico-literary structures; those for Easter were still built around the same core dialogue. By then, these short, very liturgical dialogues had longer counterparts, and the spectrum became wide and complex, sometimes mixing Latin with the vernacular. Later on, spoken plays (often referred to as “mystery plays”) also appeared, usually containing some liturgical songs as well. As much as the simple representations are liturgical, the more complex were often shaped for entertainment, and some continuity between these practices and early modern theatrical practices is difficult to deny. Thus, the field of liturgical drama studies cannot be sharply delimited from liturgical studies, early theater studies, or medieval chant studies. In modern times, anthropological methods have been applied; many studies of the texts in question regard these as aesthetical objects.

Introductory Works

The following works are useful for students with little or no knowledge of the field, as well as those who are more advanced. These sources, although not primarily theoretical, use concrete presentations of historical material to provide basic information about the existence of ceremonies and/or plays with some discussion of critical literature. These introductions help to demonstrate the necessary interdisciplinarity of the field, covering aspects of music (primarily Rankin 1989 and Hiley 1992) and theater history (primarily Wickham 1987 and Tydeman 2001), and they also provide wider perspectives as well, such as liturgy. Two websites containing introductions to medieval drama and liturgical drama, Theatre History and Theatre Database, provide informative and interesting scholarly texts published in the very early 20th century; thus they are theoretically dated.

  • Hiley, David. Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

    Hiley’s brief introduction to liturgical drama includes musical transcriptions of examples, supplementing Rankin’s overview in a fine way. See pp. 250−273.

  • Rankin, Susan K. “Liturgical Drama.” In The New Oxford History of Music. Vol. 2, The Early Middle Ages to 1300. Edited by Richard Crocker and David Hiley, 310−356. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Rankin’s chapter (see also General Overviews) is a carefully written introduction to the phenomenon subsumed under the notion of liturgical drama. She takes notice of recent developments (at the time) in scholarship in all of the different relevant disciplines. It is an extremely useful starting point for those interested in understanding the materials and their problematic aspects. Contains valuable transcriptions of musical examples.

  • Theatre Database.

    Contains four relevant sublinks: “Drama of the Middle Ages” with excerpts from Alice B. Fort and Herbert S. Kates, Minute History of the Drama (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935); “The Medieval Drama” with excerpts from Robert Huntingdon Fletcher, A History of English Literature for Students (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916); “Mysteries and Miracle Plays” with excerpts from Thomas B. Shaw, A Complete Manual of English Literature (New York: Sheldon, 1867); and finally, “Secular Participation in Liturgical Plays” with excerpts from Charles Mills Gayley, Plays of Our Forefathers (New York: Duffield, 1907).

  • Theatre History.

    Contains the following relevant sublinks: “The Medieval Drama” with excerpts from Brander Matthews, The Development of the Drama (New York: Scribner, 1912), and “Medieval Church Plays” with excerpts from Alfred Bates, ed., The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, Vol. 7 (London: Historical Publishing, 1906).

  • Tydeman, William, ed. The Medieval European Stage 500–1500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    This volume contains several chapters written by individual authors providing information on many aspects of medieval drama, including the so-called liturgical drama, which is primarily considered from a historical theater point of view. See also Liturgical Drama as Theater.

  • Wickham, Glynne. The Medieval Theatre. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Part of a general medieval theater history, Wickham gives a broad introduction to the Latin religious drama with insightful understandings of its relationship to liturgy.

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