What Is Medieval Theatre?

Medieval theatre is a term that refers to play productions that took place between 600 and 1600 A.D. Many of these plays told stories about Jesus Christ’s life as well as other stories from the Christian Bible. While early medieval theatre was strictly religious in nature and performed inside churches, as the centuries passed, both clergy and laypeople began to perform plays outside, using vernacular languages instead of Latin and occasionally shifting to more secular themes.

Historical Background

Prior to the Middle Ages, the majority of Roman Catholic leaders believed that the traditional play was wildly corrupt, leading people away from faith and into sin. They then outlawed performances as a means of putting an end to what they considered to be immoral activities and messages. At the same time, many countries’ queens and kings were closing public theaters for health, public, or economic reasons, and these would not reopen until the Renaissance. Individuals continued to put on shows through dances and small traveling bands of singers, storytellers, and other performers, but true organized theatre had come to a halt.

Early Actors’ Theatre

Because regular theatre was outlawed the Roman Catholic Church, it is thought that the production of plays in medieval Europe began as part of the Christian worship service, with priests or members of the clergy putting on the first performances indoors to keep play content under control. These individuals spoke in Latin during regular mass, not only because that language had become popular in the church as a replacement for the ancient Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek that had previously been used, but also because church leaders believed that its “dead” status or separation from the vernacular protected it from change and subsequent loss of important meaning. Because the average person couldn’t understand what was being said, historians believe that the use of plays helped medieval churchgoers grasp the gist of what was regularly preached about Jesus Christ, the Bible, or saints and martyrs.

Later Actors’ Theatre

Most scholars believe that medieval theatre performances were forced to move outside the year 1200. This shift was likely influenced the growing size and complexity of sets and other materials used, which was sometimes required more elaborate plots. As more people came to see the plays, many medieval churches may have struggled to accommodate the crowds. Because not all of the scripts people wanted to do were deemed moral enough for the church, communities may have begun to move theater outside to allow for the exploration of other plots and characters. By 1350, it was acceptable for those who were not affiliated with the clergy to play roles, though participation was still primarily limited to boys and men, and actors delivered their lines in everyday language.

Late medieval theatre saw the development of the pageant, which was no longer limited to religious buildings. This term referred not only to the play that was being performed, but also to the movable, wheeled platform or wagon that was used to stage the performance. A typical pageant wagon had room for both set pieces and general acting, as well as a changing area for the actors, and it was designed to bring the play to the audience rather than the other way around. They were crucial in delivering both the Christian message and early secular plays, as they were maintained professional trade guilds but operated with content and leadership support from the church.

Plays of Different Types

During the medieval period, people performed three types of scripts: morality, mystery, and miracle. The first type focused on the everyday struggles of ordinary people trying to be upright and reject sin, with the soul of man as a backdrop. They were usually allegorical, and their purpose was to teach audiences how to behave in a more Christian manner. The use of character names like Everyman, Good Deeds, Knowledge, and Death to make the larger life lessons the playwrights wanted to get across was a major feature of this genre.

The mystery of Christ, which is His ultimate love and purpose, the salvation of sinners through His suffering and death on the cross, is the inspiration for mystery plays. They usually focused on Jesus’ life, but they could also include other Biblical stories, relating them to God’s promises that were fulfilled. In some ways, they were simple, entertaining ways to communicate the heart of the gospel to largely illiterate audiences.

Miracle plays were similar to mystery plays in that they focused on the lives and works of saints. Many were based on the Bible, while others were based on hearsay and legend. If a saint had a church-designated holiday, the plays for that saint were usually performed on that day, but they were also performed throughout the year as a way to demonstrate both God’s greatness and faith’s power. These were frequently created to reinforce the message of discipleship and to encourage people to do good deeds in Jesus’ name, as the early apostles are said to have done.

Characteristics of the Game

Whatever genre a script was written in during this time, it was almost always inaccurate in portraying history or other cultures, simply because communications and travel were still limited, limiting what people knew about other areas and societies. Errors in chronology were common, usually manifesting themselves as the incorrect use of a prop or the inclusion of a character who shouldn’t be present due to location or date of birth. To convey Christian or moral ideas, playwrights or actors frequently inserted comic elements into serious plays or vice versa, which often caused issues with emotional flow and plot cohesion and would likely be considered jarring modern standards. Heaven and Hell were frequently depicted as unchanging constants, with Earth serving only as a temporary home for people until Christ’s return and final judgment before God.

Theatrical production

Actors centered most of their action around specific areas of the church or pieces of set called mansions or stations prior to 1200, when medieval theatre was restricted to the church and members of the clergy. These represented various plot points, such as the stable where Jesus was born or a section of Heaven. Plateaus were the areas around these stations where actors performed. As the story progressed, the characters in the play would move from place to place, and the audience would often follow to ensure that they could see and hear everything.

Even as performances moved outside of the church, the idea of the mansion and plateau persisted, though those on pageant wagons were much more limited due to the physical space available being limited to the dimensions of the wagon platform. The view of Earth as a temporary dwelling place or transition between Heaven and Hell resulted in mansion and plateau setups in both early and late medieval theatre, with Heaven and Hell on opposite ends of the space and Earth in the middle. Individuals used trap doors and simple machinery to achieve special effects in outdoor plays, such as flying angels and disappearing people, which became increasingly complex and sophisticated over time.


Because the plays were considered to be a part of worship services, the early actors wore their service vestments or simple costumes such as robes. More elaborate costumes became acceptable as performances moved outside and included more members of the community. Because it was expensive to make new garments, most of the time these were just regular clothes with some special accessories to make a role or plot clearer, but occasionally a troupe had enough funds to make new, lavish items to wear for specific parts.