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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Scholarly Fora and Institutions
  • Other Varieties of Performance
  • Contemporary Context

Medieval Studies French Drama
Lofton Durham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0061


The earliest extant example of drama in French is Le jeu d’Adam, dating from the mid- to late 12th century. Indeed, Le jeu d’Adam may be the first example of medieval drama in a vernacular Romance language (though the Castilian Auto de los Reyes Magos may, in fact, be earlier). The field of French drama benefits from a corpus of extant dramatic texts that is larger and better preserved than medieval drama in most other vernaculars, especially English. In addition, many extant manuscripts of French drama include illustrations—examples may feature a dozen to literally hundreds of full-color illuminations—that are now being reexamined for what information they yield about why these documents were created and how they were used. Thus, French drama in the medieval period possesses a long history and a significant body of evidence, though many aspects are facing new levels of scrutiny. What might have been seen as settled issues in the mid-20th century—such as what makes a given text “dramatic,” or the importance of dramatic genres—are being reconsidered in light of new perspectives brought to bear by the discipline of performance studies, alongside cultural lenses deployed by some literary critics and historians. Scholarship on French drama began in the late 19th century with the systematic effort to catalogue, transcribe, and interpret the extant plays and production documents in archives across France. More recent scholarship has attempted to recontextualize plays and other artifacts of performance according to local conditions and situations. Some of these artifacts include texts now seen as containing substantially dramatic material, either aimed at recording or generating large-scale public, civic, or courtly performances (like those during processions, entries, pas d’armes, or banquets), or private performances for individuals or small groups (including silent or public reading, oral recitations, or storytelling by a jongleur). Finally, it is generally accepted that the number of known extant Francophone play texts and other performance artifacts is a small portion both of what actually remains to be discovered in Francophone archives, and of what was actually created to support, record, and disseminate performance during the medieval period.

General Overviews

The standard book-length overview in English remains Frank 1954, and probably the most useful and comprehensive general work in French is Mazouer 1998. Unfortunately, both suffer from an overly evolutionary and positivist point of view. Solterer 2008 is more condensed but avoids the pitfalls of Frank and Mazouer. Poirion 1983 contextualizes theater and drama within the framework of medieval French literature, while Hollier 1989 provides a useful summary narrative that quickly communicates only the most important information. Knight 1991 is still relevant as an overview of what works have received the most attention and what works might remain relatively unexamined. Lalou 1991, also reviewing the state of research in the field, provides more detail and a greater number of citations, with special attention to Francophone scholarship. For a concise and well-informed critical perspective on the field of medieval performance studies in general, with reference to the most recent key works on French drama in particular, see Enders 2009.

  • Enders, Jody. “Medieval Stages.” Theatre Survey 50.2 (2009): 317–325.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0040557409990093

    Explains the three major fissures in the study of European medieval drama: history vs. literature, Continental vs. British, and religious vs. secular. These divisions characterize much of the scholarship pre-1990 and still have influence. Readers should be aware of these preconceptions when evaluating a new resource.

  • Frank, Grace. The Medieval French Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

    A clear and nearly complete introduction to the topic. Moves chronologically from the first Latin plays performed in France to 16th-century farces, though Frank charts an evolution in dramatic forms that is no longer accepted. Provides good general definitions for common genres and theatrical terms. Reprinted in 1960, 1967, and 1972.

  • Hollier, Denis. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

    Introductory overview of French literature is accomplished in a chronological series of topical essays, two of which focus on French medieval drama: “Medieval Vernacular Drama” (pp. 103–108); and “Farces, Morality Plays, and Sotties” (pp. 124–127). Limited bibliography follows each.

  • Knight, Alan. “France.” In The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama. Edited by Eckehard Simon, 151–168. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819834

    Provides a succinct historiographic perspective on criticism of French drama and is part of larger work on the state of medieval drama research in Latin drama, English drama, and Continental drama. The preface clarifies the overlapping political and linguistic boundaries that complicate study of this topic.

  • Lalou, Elisabeth. “Le théâtre et les spectacles publics en France au Moyen Age: état des recherches.” In Théâtre et spectacles hier et aujourd’hui: Moyen Age et Renaissance; Actes du 115e Congrès national des sociétés savantes, Avignon 1990. Edited by Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 9–33. Paris: Editions du CTHS, 1991.

    Describes the state of the field of research into French drama and public performances of the medieval period. Well organized by topic, and selective, including many French-language works.

  • Mazouer, Charles. Le théâtre français du moyen âge. Paris: SEDES, 1998.

    Chronological survey of drama that participates to some degree in the evolutionary framework found in Frank 1954, using many of the same categories. Also includes many black-and-white pictures of manuscript illuminations accompanying descriptions of the plays.

  • Poirion, Daniel. Précis de Littérature française du Moyen Age. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1983.

    Definitive overview of medieval French literature. Includes several sections devoted to drama: chapter 5, part 2, pp. 176–185, discusses urban and religious drama in the early 13th century and the works of Adam le Bossu (“Adam de la Halle”); chapter 6, part 2, pp. 201–203, comedy; and chapter 11, “Le jeu dramatique,” pp. 306–335, concerns production practices, miracle and mystery plays, moralities, farces, and fools’ plays.

  • Solterer, Helen. “Theatre and Theatricality.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature. Edited by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, 181–194. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521861755

    Expansive perspective on what constitutes drama and theater in the period. Concise introduction to names of key texts and most common contexts for production. Connects past to present practice. Includes extremely selective bibliography.

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