minstrel: Theater of the time

Lisa and Ken Theriot Lnktheriot at satx.rr.com
Sun Apr 5 11:57:04 PDT 2009

Teadoir wrote:

[Hate to tell you, the church was at absolute odds with theater during
most of the middle ages. The clergy preached that the performing arts
were a straight shot to hell.]

That's not strictly true.  Considering how little "the clergy" as a
class agreed on throughout the SCA's core period, attitudes about
non-religious pursuits cannot be expected to display any greater sense
of unity.

The "you're all damned" end of the continuum is best expressed by John
of Salisbury (~1115-1180), writing in "Policraticus", "Concerning actors
and mimes, buffoons and harlots, panders and other like human monsters,
which the prince ought rather to exterminate entirely than to foster,
there needed no mention to be made in the law; which indeed not only
excludes such abominations from the court of the prince, but banishes
them from among the people of God."  Also Gilbert of Sempringham
(~1083-1190, yes, 106), who wrote to John, "We do not permit our nuns to
sing.  We absolutely forbid it, preferring with the Blessed Virgin to
hymn indirectly in a spirit of humility rather than with Herod's
notorious daughter to pervert the minds of the weak with lascivious
strains."  (Oddly, Gilbert was forced to start his own monastic order
because the Cistercians disliked the amount of power and freedom Gilbert
allowed women in his houses.  Gender liberal, singing conservative.)

At the other end of the spectrum were clergy attached to the great
centers of learning, who were renowned for their enjoyment of secular
pursuits.  In between were the practical clergy who recognized theater
as another way into the hearts and minds of men.  From Hildegard of
Bingen's "Ordo Virtutum" (ca. 1151) and continuing across Europe
throughout our period in the form of mystery plays, certain types of
theater enjoyed not only popular appeal but acknowledgement and
sometimes support by the church.  If your troupe was doing completely
secular and lewd material, sure, you were likely to run afoul of the
church wherever you were.  But "The Life of Saint Sebastian" would
probably be well received.

There's a nice article here:


It begins, "The remarkable fact that the revival of the drama in modern
Europe was due to the Christian Church has been abundantly proved and
illustrated."  If you've ever been to a High Mass and you can tell me
that isn't theater, I'd be much surprised.  

It is certainly true that most religious believed then as now that
God-given gifts are best used to glorify God (i.e., if you sing well,
you should be in a monastic choir), but especially in the later middle
ages when clergy themselves were not allowed to perform outside their
churches, the church recognized theater as a way to get people
passionately involved with the great stories of the Bible and the lives
of the saints.


More information about the minstrel mailing list