In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saint Plays and Miracles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • Facsimiles
  • Anthologies
  • Dramatic Records
  • Language and Dialect
  • Critical Approaches
  • Fragments

Medieval Studies Saint Plays and Miracles
Clifford Davidson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0101


Shows based on the lives and martyrdoms of saints appear perhaps to have been the most widespread type of religious theater across Great Britain. There are known to have been plays or entertainments on nearly fifty saints, with well over a hundred instances of performance recorded, albeit mainly lacking extant texts. Considering that the records, both ecclesiastical and civic, that have been preserved represent only a sampling of what was once available, we can extrapolate that such plays were immensely popular with audiences—much more popular than the morality play, which barely registers historically until the early modern period. Saint plays offered scope for creativity and extravagant theatrical effect, and, linked to the cults of the saints deeply rooted in popular religion, they appealed to a common pre-Reformation religiosity. In many cases, performances seem possibly to have been projects of a parish or religious guild, each likely to have possessed a saint as its patron. Thus, the church of St. Denys in York had a play of “Sancti Dionisij,” and the Norwich St. George guild sponsored a pageant and riding of George, the latter involving a dragon, which survived the change of religion in the 16th century. Every pre-Reformation church had images, wall paintings, and stained glass, not only of the Virgin Mary but also a selection, depending on local preference, from a panoply of available saints. These ranged from the popular St. Christopher or St. Catherine to lesser known saints, sometimes venerated only locally in a particular town or region. Individual images might themselves be the focus of intense veneration because of the beliefs that devotion to the representation served to connect one in a mystical way to the actual saint and that prayers thus directed might be effective for assistance in this life or for alleviation of the pains of Purgatory. The drama of the saints cannot be separated from these aspects of late medieval religion. From the evidence in the extant texts and descriptions, however, there is no reason to suppose that the dramas were always necessarily spiritual in their principal focus, nor were they didactic in the usual sense of teaching doctrine. For example, the St. George skits, plays, and pageants, which were widely distributed, are likely to have been usually presented as entertainment. Some of these, and other saint or miracle plays, may have been unscripted. In drama, as in music, unscripted improvisation has its place. Full and extant Middle English texts, all from East Anglia, treat Mary Magdalene, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary, the latter incorporated into the N-Town collection. Also perhaps appropriately included in this list is the Lazarus play added to the end of the Towneley manuscript, where it follows the Last Judgment. Another East Anglian drama, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, is a miracle play with close affinity to the saint play. Three fragments have been proposed as miracles of the Virgin: the Ashmole Fragment, the Durham Prologue, and Dux Moraud. Finally, in Cornish there is an extant play of a Breton saint, St. Meriasek, and, recently discovered, another of St. Kee, unfortunately lacking a complete text. There is also a short late medieval Welsh play of The Soul and Body. The plays that survived were those that escaped the distaste of the Protestant reformers, whose hostility also expressed itself against the images of saints in churches during the period of iconoclasm. Another, and perhaps no less important, factor was the neglect suffered by play texts both before and after the Reformation.

General Overviews

In their concentration on the larger corpus of York, Chester, and Towneley plays, scholars have been slow to recognize the importance of the saint play for the late medieval theater. Davidson organizes his survey of the English saint play (Davidson 1986) on the iconography of the saints, with extensive reference to analogues in the visual arts. Gibson 1989, a study of East Anglian context, extends an interest in iconography and local devotion in very fruitful ways; Gibson’s book has deservedly become very influential and has much to say, particularly with regard to the Virgin Mary in the N-Town collection. Scoville 2004 provides an approach generally to saints in drama that brings the audience into focus, while Scherb 2001, again a more general study that does not concentrate only on the extant saint play as such, returns to the East Anglian context and the spirituality on which the saint play depended. Clopper 1995 asks, “Why are there so few saint plays?” Clopper’s restrictive views have not been widely accepted, though his skepticism is welcome. A better place to start is Grantley 2008. Davidson 2001 considers violence in the saint play in relation to its cultic purpose.

  • Clopper, Lawrence M. “Communitas: The Play of Saints in Late Medieval and Tudor England.” Mediaevalia 18 (1995): 81–109.

    An attempt to deconstruct the idea of the saint play. Many of the records refer, the author believes, to unscripted entertainments. Certainly there is ambiguity concerning plays about which the records are ambiguous, but Clopper is too vigorous in advancing his arguments in this regard. For example, for the St. Catherine play presented at Dunstable c. 1100–1119, he suggests a boys’ game or “raucous celebration,” which is highly unlikely since valuable vestments were in use. Their loss was regarded as catastrophic, and the only logical conclusion is that they were borrowed to be used in a more sedate liturgical drama. Reworked as a chapter in the author’s Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

  • Davidson, Clifford. “The Middle English Saint Play and Its Iconography.” In The Saint Play in Medieval Europe. Edited by Clifford Davidson, 31–122. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1986.

    Conceived as a thorough consideration of the English saint play, with special attention to iconography and the drama’s relation to depictions in the visual arts. This approach has the benefit of establishing possibilities and parameters for playing that, combined with the dramatic records being edited in the Records of Early English Drama project, should provide the groundwork for much future study. Discussion of the Digby Mary Magdalen is the centerpiece of this study.

  • Davidson, Clifford. “Violence and the Saint Play.” Studies in Philology 108 (2001): 292–314.

    Violence against the saints was a major factor in British hagiographic drama, related to important cultic practices. Hence, though not excluding the comic and the plays’ potential element of entertainment, the theory that these were mainly ludic in the sense of the carnivalesque is rejected. Reprinted in Davidson’s Selected Studies in Drama and Renaissance Literature (New York: AMS, 2006), 38–69.

  • Gibson, Gail McMurray. The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

    Broad focus on East Anglian culture that informed the N-Town plays, with specific attention to their Marian matter and to the devotional theater in which it flourished. Notes especially the importance of Marian feasts such as the Assumption, which was central to late medieval piety in the region, and those events in Mary’s early life that provide the basis for the saint play absorbed into N-Town and now conveniently spoken of as The Mary Play. Gibson’s work is exemplary in its close attention to social and religious context.

  • Grantley, Darryll. “Saints and Miracles.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. 2d ed. Edited by Richard Beadle and Alan J. Fletcher, 263–286. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521864008

    A very good short survey of the British saint play, admittedly “a largely lost dramatic genre,” and criticism pertaining to it. Useful attention is given to staging, and the discussion is sensibly extended to include the Play of the Sacrament. Attempting to identify a tradition of saint plays is problematic for England, and thus he suggests some comparisons with French saint plays, calling attention to Lynette R. Muir, “French Saint Plays,” in Clifford Davidson, ed., The Saint Play in Medieval Europe (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1986), pp. 123–180, and to Beunans Meriasek by way of comparison.

  • Jeffrey, David Lyle. “English Saints’ Plays.” In Medieval Drama. Edited by Neville Denny, 69–89. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 16. London: Edward Arnold, 1973.

    Stresses the medieval theme of “recurrence” in the understanding of history in which saints played critical roles, as opposed to the new perspective of the religious reformers of the 16th century. This opened possibilities for highly developed drama. In the Digby Mary Magdalen, romance elements are added to realism in an achievement that, Jeffrey believes, was only “surpassed in English theatre before Shakespeare.” Saint plays, he asserts, are about conversion, and have participation as their objective. Some details are dated; for example, the 1535 letter allegedly written by Henry VIII in condemnation of a play of Thomas the Apostle at York is likely a forgery. Jeffrey brackets this play with a mid-13th-century St. Nicholas play as denoting the chronological end and beginning of the period of popularity of the hagiographical theater. The St. Nicholas play was noticed in a sermon (cited by Carleton Brown, “An Early Mention of a St. Nicholas Play in England,” Studies in Philology 28 [1931]: 594–601) that, however, was preached a century and a half later than the saint play of St. Catherine at Dunstable.

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

    Not on the saint play as such, this treats other works from the region as well. Scherb valuably contextualizes East Anglian examples in relation to community and does not ignore the important aspect of religious faith in the endeavor of playing. Very useful attention to the connection with devotional and symbolic images, but also good on the conditions of production, theatrical properties, and modes of staging.

  • Scoville, Chester N. Saints and the Audience in Middle English Biblical Drama. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

    While not confined to the saint play throughout, this book usefully places the treatment of saints in medieval drama in a larger dramatic context. Strong emphasis on rhetoric and on the medieval perception of saints as inhabiting a borderline state between this world and the world beyond. In the plays, devotion and a sense of community are fostered. Thus, Mary Magdalene in the Digby play is not only a model character but also a “bridge” between audience and “the Church of the Apostles.” The fine chapter on the Conversion of St. Paul confronts the question of alternative interpretations that may have been affected in performances after the Reformation, and affirms the use of processional production.

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