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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Manuscript Catalogues
  • Performance Records
  • Bibliographies
  • Conference Proceedings and Essay Collections
  • Cultural and Theoretical Approaches
  • Transmission Studies
  • Regional Traditions
  • Anti-Jewish Elements
  • Medieval Visual Culture and the Stage
  • Music
  • Plays in English Translation

Medieval Studies German Drama
Glenn Ehrstine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0134


Long the domain of highly specialized scholars, the religious and secular plays of the German Middle Ages now attract broader attention, sparked by a growing interest in performance as a paradigm for human expression in general and religious experience in particular. The large-scale Passion play productions of cities such as Frankfurt and Lucerne are particularly rich sources for late medieval popular piety, while the licentiousness of carnival plays reveals contemporary attitudes toward sex, gender, and the body. Current work in the field is oriented more towards cultural studies, yet it benefits from the fresh philological sensitivity to surviving sources that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. That reorientation saw systematic efforts to catalogue play manuscripts and surviving performance records, as well as to generate new critical editions of central texts that reflect the particularities of scribal practice and the high degree of intertextuality among plays of the period. The field is unfortunately still constrained by two factors: 1) the traditional focus of German medieval studies (Mediävistik) on the courtly literature of the High Middle Ages, which often neglects late medieval urban literary products as found in the plays; and 2) the lack of English-language research, which limits the comparative attention of the broad community of scholars working on medieval English theater.

General Overviews

To understand any given medieval play text, one must first understand the local audience for which it was produced. Since the 1980s, research on German theater has taken this maxim to heart by producing in-depth studies of Regional Traditions. Book-length overviews of the topic, particularly those that downplay regional variants for the sake of overarching theories, belong to a previous generation of scholarship, represented here by Michael 1963, Steinbach 1970, Michael 1971, and Brett-Evans 1975. The lack of an adequate, up-to-date handbook is confirmed by Wolf 2010, the most recent report on research trends in the field. The two essays Linke 1991 and Linke 1993, while much shorter than comparable monographs, are all the more useful because they do not overreach but rather concisely discuss genres, performance evidence, and scholarship. Müller 2008 reflects more recent research interests in focusing not on philological concerns, but rather on the plays’ relationship to Christian ritual.

  • Brett-Evans, David. Von Hrotsvit bis Folz und Gengenbach: Eine Geschichte des mittelalterlichen deutschen Dramas. 2 vols. Grundlagen der Germanistik 15, 18. Berlin: Schmidt, 1975.

    This title appears here mainly to warn against it. As several reviewers have noted, Brett-Evans’s treatment of plays is highly selective and riddled with errors. Since the volumes are part of a highly respected series, however, it is often unwittingly cited by those outside the field.

  • Linke, Hansjürgen. “Germany and German-speaking Central Europe.” In The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama. Edited by Eckehard Simon, 207–224. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819834

    Continued on pages 278–284. As suggested by the volume’s focus on “new research,” this essay covers trends in scholarship during the 1970s and 1980s, which brought increasing attention to performance records. A bibliography covering roughly 1965–1987 appears at the end of the volume.

  • Linke, Hansjürgen. “A Survey of Medieval Drama and Theater in Germany.” Comparative Drama 27 (1993): 17–53.

    In contrast to Linke 1991, this essay focuses on the various genres of German medieval plays (see Major Genres) and their development. In its descriptive analysis, it is particularly suited as an introduction to the topic for the undergraduate classroom.

  • Michael, Wolfgang F. Frühformen der deutschen Bühne. Schriften der Gesellschaft für Theatergeschichte 62. Berlin: Gesellschaft für Theatergeschichte, 1963.

    This monograph is still useful for its discussion of stage forms and practical issues of staging, although it suffers from the same lack of concern for sociocultural issues as Michael 1971.

  • Michael, Wolfgang F. Das deutsche Drama des Mittelalters. Grundriß der germanischen Philologie 20. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1971.

    Schooled in German classicism and the Theaterwissenschaft tradition of Max Herrmann, Michael approaches medieval German plays as aesthetic products by autonomous authors. Although this leads to occasional insights, the resulting interpretations fail to situate the plays in their social and cultural contexts, neglecting the role of city councils, guilds, and confraternities in sponsoring performances.

  • Müller, Jan-Dirk. “Mittelalterliches Theater: Geistliches Spiel.” In Theater im Aufbruch: Das europäische Theater der Frühen Neuzeit. Edited by Roger Lüdeke and Virginia Richter, 19–30. Theatron 53. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 2008.

    Focuses on the function of religious theater in the German Middle Ages and its relationship to the Mass. It discusses the plays’ relationship to late medieval lay piety and the “emancipation of theatricality” that occurs over time as the plays lose their direct ties to Christian ritual.

  • Steinbach, Rolf. Die deutschen Oster- und Passionsspiele des Mittelalters. Versuch einer Darstellung und Wesensbestimmung nebst einer Bibliographie zum deutschen geistlichen Spiel des Mittelalters. Kölner Germanistische Studien 4. Cologne and Vienna: Böhlau, 1970.

    Following an introductory characterization of medieval drama, Steinbach’s study offers a series of brief interpretations of approximately ten Easter plays and some fourteen passion plays. The final third of the volume is devoted to a substantial bibliography (pp. 223–313). Steinbach’s theses regarding the development of either genre rely in part on inaccurate dating of sources.

  • Wolf, Klaus. “. . . denn sie sind selber auferstanden . . .: Tendenzen und Desiderate der mediävistischen deutschen Dramenforschung.” Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch 51 (2010): 75–89.

    Wolf notes the neglect of medieval theater by scholars of medieval German literature and its consequences: the absence of adequate editions for the classroom, and the disregard for some aspects of the genre that do not fit comfortably into established paradigms, such as the performance of religious plays in courtly and academic contexts.

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