Drama in the Medieval Convent: a new research project

Anne and Virgin.jpg2

Fifteenth-century stained glass window showing St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, from the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Beckley, Oxon.  Photo by Liv Robinson.

‘That woman… is a woman!’ (Shakespeare in Love)

Students of the Middle Ages probably consider acting to be an activity which was undertaken by men and boys – and which was strictly prohibited for women. In part, this no doubt springs from our more detailed knowledge of the way sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theatre worked within the Elizabethan playhouses in London: here, as is well-known, boys were indeed employed to play female roles, and women could not appear onstage. Medievalist researchers on the Records of Early English Drama  project have, however, over the years, uncovered a range of archival evidence that for centuries before the Elizabethan playhouse women, though maybe not frequent theatrical performers, were involved in the production of public plays in all kinds of contexts. This archival evidence has been analysed by pioneering scholars such as Katie Normington who has painstakingly explored the variety and range of women’s involvement in medieval theatre, challenging assumptions that it was produced exclusively by men.

Elisabeth Dutton, Liv Robinson and Matthew Cheung Salisbury now hope to take this challenge further. Our new SNF-funded research project, Medieval Convent Drama, will be based at the University of Fribourg from October 2016. It will investigate a set of extremely understudied but important medieval plays: those copied and performed exclusively by nuns within medieval convents. Clearly, the very existence of this drama complicates the sense that women did not act in the Middle Ages: in convents, they evidently did! There is a surprising amount of detailed evidence for dramatic activity surviving from medieval convents in what is now northern France and Belgium. This evidence remains inexplicably marginalised within the broader study of medieval theatre, and includes play scripts, references to performances, and detailed accounts of preparations for those performances. Some references to convent drama (most famously at Barking Abbey) also survive from medieval England, although the evidence — records and surviving play manuscripts – is patchier than on the continent, probably because of the impact on manuscript survival of the Reformation and Dissolution of the monasteries. One of the things the project team hopes to do, then, is to use the knowledge we will gain of continental convent drama to make some inferences about what medieval English convent drama may have looked like, and to see if we can uncover any links or networks between English and continental houses within the same monastic order. These networks, although not conclusive evidence in themselves, may help us to hypothesise about the kinds of plays and performances in which medieval English nuns may have been involved and which are now lost to us. We aim to enable a more precise understanding of what ‘medieval drama’ actually was, in terms of the full range of its compositors, practices, audiences and locations.

A second major research objective will be to uncover the approaches which different groups of nuns took to creating their plays. Much (but not all) of the convent drama we will study is biblical: it re-imagines and re-works well-known events and narratives from the Gospels, such as the Nativity or the Resurrection. How did communities of religious women approach these stories? What kinds of productions did they put on? What were their devotional and educative aims and effects? Who were their audiences: were they entirely enclosed productions, or were the lay public also able to watch them? Were the plays conceived of as stand-alone events or as a scripted elaboration on liturgical worship, to be performed within the liturgy at a particular service? If they were embedded within the liturgy, what were the impacts of the shift from Latin liturgical worship to dialogue? Most importantly, what were the effects of employing female actors to play important male roles (God, Jesus, the Magi)? In order to answer these questions, we will be undertaking practice-based research as well as archival work, and will be staging performances of some of the plays with all-female casts.   This will help us to gauge the impacts of all-female performance on actors and audience members alike.

Our performances will also help us to investigate the ways in which convent plays may dramatically embed music – most particularly excerpts from the sung liturgy – within their structure. Liv has recently made a preliminary study of one of the convent plays from the Carmelite house at Huy, for example, and has found that Latin liturgical citation is employed extremely innovatively to highlight particular moments and to connect the past, Biblical events shown within the play to the experience of daily liturgical worship in the nuns’ medieval present. The presence of carefully-chosen fragments of the sung liturgy within some of our corpus of convent plays also prompts us to consider their possible performance spaces: where in the convent were these plays performed? Was the church always used as a venue, or were there also other areas which could be utilised? What kinds of ecclesiastical ‘props’ were used – did actors make use, for example, of relics owned by their convent, or particular vestments? How were these employed within particular performances? We hope that we can uncover the answers to at least some of these questions by detailed research in the surviving archives of the convents in question.

Our research will be disseminated in a variety of ways: public performances will form some of our major outputs, but we also plan to produce an edition and translation of a selection of plays, to ensure that they are widely available as teaching and research resources. Ultimately, we hope that, over the next three years, the project can add significantly to our understanding of medieval women’s literary, theatrical, devotional and liturgical cultures. Most particularly, we want to contribute to the collective scholarly endeavour to create a more complete and unbiased picture of dramatic production by men and women during the Middle Ages. This is an area in which convent drama has been far too long side-lined, and we’re immensely looking forward to placing it centre stage.