About the Project
Medieval Convent Drama examines the understudied participation of women as actors, compositors and copyists of plays within a wide range of convent-based dramatic performances in the late Middle Ages. Focusing on convents in England, France and Burgundy, we seek to deepen critical understanding of this neglected tradition.
The Huy Nativities: Fifteenth-Century Christmas Theatre from a Carmelite Convent
Announcing the project’s first performances: two short Nativity plays which originated in the Carmelite house of the Dames Blanches in Huy (Belgium). Performed in partnership with the Ursuline sisters of Fribourg and the Carmelite sisters of Le Pâquier by an all-female cast.
Attendance is free and open to everyone!
13th December: Eglise des Ursulines (Rue de Lausanne 92, 1700 Fribourg), 20:00
14th December: Aula Magna, Université de Fribourg (Avenue de l’Europe 20, 1700 Fribourg), 19:30
15th December: Carmel du Pâquier (Route du Carmel 67, 1661 Le Pâquier-Montbarry), 19:30
Liv and Aurélie
Accounting and Remembering, September 2017
The extent to which commemorating the dead is tied up with money in the late Middle Ages (and indeed later) has been forcibly brought home to me this week, as I’ve been transcribing some entries from the surviving book of obituaries of the medieval convent I’m currently working on, the Dames Blanches de Huy.
Having taught literary texts like The Awntyrs off Arthur to generations of undergraduate students, I’m certainly experienced in explaining the ways in which repeating (and paying for) masses for departed souls would have been thought to have an effect on their experiences in the afterlife, expediting their time in Purgatory; and in exploring the ways in which the worlds of the living and the dead so frequently intersect in this and in other contexts in the literature of the Middle Ages. However, although I was fully aware of this practice in theory, seeing its real-life application play out still caught me by surprise: I found transcribing the convent’s obituaries, particularly those relating to its local donors, with their minute enumeration of amounts, annuities or objects donated, and their monetary assessment of the relative value of those objects, quite uncomfortable.
Even more uncomfortable, I noticed, were the entries where I had to transcribe notes added by a very much later hand to the original (usually medieval) obituary. These notes seem to have been undertaken by someone in the seventeenth or eighteenth century overhauling the convent’s books, particularly their sources of income. Beneath several of the earlier obituaries, this hand has quite sharply noted that prayers for X or Y individual are no longer necessary, since the source of income has long since stopped, or they could never find any evidence that it was paid in the first place, and that the entry was, therefore, “un abbus” [an abuse].
Perhaps it was because these entries related to ‘real-life’ individuals who had lived and died – individuals who, moreover, I had sometimes come across before in other documents relating to the administration of the house, such as in the convent school’s accounts, and who, presumably, believed sincerely in the power of the sisters’ prayers to determine the destination of their souls – but I was surprised by how much this affected me, and how merciless or financially hard-nosed it seemed. The experience of transcribing these obituaries is bringing home to me again just how much and how profoundly the sensibilities and approaches to death prevalent in the culture in which I have been raised differ from those of western medieval Christendom, and just how very distant and foreign my own beliefs, emotions and responses to death are from those of the women whose lives and experiences I am investigating. I knew this already, of course, in an intellectual sense: but the practice of working through the transcription of these obituaries has made me feel it in a slightly different way.
On the one hand I feel relieved that I don’t associate death, and the fate of a soul after death, so closely with totting up financial gain, and measuring time spent suffering in Purgatory. On the other, however, I’m intrigued, but also comforted, by the idea of a community in which the names, familial relationships and loves of the dead are never lost or forgotten, because they are recorded and repeated formally by generations of sisters, and are thus commemorated long after their passing. A community, in short, in which regular memorial practices are a core group activity, and in which the line between living and dead members is, therefore, neither rigid nor always obvious.
Read-through in French, July 2017
Last month, for the first time, we were able to see and hear two of the convent plays central to our project in their original medieval Walloon French, when we held a staged read-through in Oxford. Aurélie and I had translated one of the project’s play scripts into present-day English earlier this year, for an improvised read-through at the Medieval English Theatre conference – we were very keen to see how a group of theatre specialists reacted to the play, and to see how it worked spatially, and this event gave us lots of ideas and pointers. However, because our participants were primarily first-language English speakers, and were specialists in Medieval English drama, we didn’t feel that it would be helpful to use the original medieval script. However, our recent read-through was mostly populated by members of the Oxford Anglo-Norman Reading Group – and so, with a group of Old and Middle French-language specialists at our mercy, it was a great opportunity for us to hear the medieval words themselves: to appreciate the varying diction, registers, tones and rhythms which our plays deployed in their original linguistic format, and to grasp more concretely something of their aural qualities and their formal features.
One of the most interesting things we noticed was the large area which was clearly needed for parts of these plays – particularly those sections involving the three kings, which seemed to us to be very processional and stately. This had been evident at the Medieval English Theatre conference too, but having to stage our second read-through in a middle-sized room rather than in a large theatre space, as we had at METh, really drove this home – there was nowhere near enough space. Also interesting was the change in spatial needs from one play to the next, and the corresponding change in tone, and in aesthetic and visual experience: might these plays have intended for performance in very different spaces within the convent? The plays seemed to work very frequently with sudden changes of speed or tone – movement to stillness, song to speech, anger to calmness or devotion, for example. This was something which came over much more strongly in performance than it had when reading the scripts.
We owe a big thankyou to all those who volunteered – Huw, Carol, Jane, Graham, Kats, Audrey, Serin, Kierri and Marco – we had an excellent evening, and learned a great deal from your brilliant performances: merci!
June 2017: Theatre History Podcast
On the 7th of June the Medieval Convent Drama team had the pleasure of recording a podcast with Michael Lueger for Theatre History. I was new to such an experience and was slightly dreading it. Would I even be able to articulate words? What if I suddenly forgot how to speak English?
There was no need to worry; it was a fantastic experience and allowed us all to share our discoveries with one another, as well as with the podcast listeners. It was also quite lovely to be able to explain to someone who is not part of the project why medieval nuns are so valuable to the study of drama.
We touched on various themes: the reasons nuns performed drama, the differences between these plays and other medieval drama, the relation of the plays with the liturgy, their importance when considering gender dynamics in the Middle Ages, the examples of Barking and Huy and finally, the project’s attention to performance.
A significant aspect of our methodology consists of performing medieval plays in front of a modern audience, who might not know anything about medieval drama. Opening our project to the public is extremely valuable to us. Not only does it bring precious research information, it also prevents enclosing the project behind the university walls. One of the goals of our work is to contribute to changing the generally-accepted view that all medieval drama was performed by men. One way of doing this is, of course, by making our research known to other scholars. However, the possibility of having an impact beyond academia and of influencing how people view the past, a past through which we often define ourselves, fulfils this goal in an unexpected and highly rewarding way. Performance gives us this possibility– and we will therefore re-create convent plays in local nunneries– but the Theatre History podcast has provided the project with another way of fulfilling this aim and of reaching a non-specialist audience.
A big thank you to Michael Lueger!
Listen to the podcast here
Follow us on twitter! @MedConventDrama
June 2017: Medieval Convent Drama at the H-WRBI 2017 Conference
(The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 71 A 24 Fol. 28r) Aurélie and I have just returned from a wonderful two days at University College, Dublin, where we’ve been attending the 2017 conference of the History of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) network: a selection of papers covering a wide range of approaches, examples and material related to exploring the varied lives, experiences and impacts of women religious from the medieval period to the present day. The conference theme this year was the archive: oral, material, visual and digital, and hearing such rich papers about the research projects and challenges of the network’s members has thrown up some great methodological questions for us on the Medieval Convent Drama Project – even when, as in the case of many speakers, the areas under discussion were focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
I was particularly interested to hear speakers discussing the creation and curation of digital archives, and the construction and interpretation of oral history and memory. Several speakers analysed semi-structured interviews with sisters which they had filmed and transcribed, and which formed the raw data for their research. We have recently set up some partnerships with a group of women’s houses in Fribourg and the surrounding area, with the intention of performing a selection of our medieval convent plays using an all-female cast within their convents, performances will be open both to the sisters and to members of the public. We’re also planning to undertake at least one additional performance with a cast made up of sisters, as well as these public performances by non-monastic actors, in the convent spaces. The papers I heard this week at HWRBI have really made me think more deeply about the best ways of generating, accessing and recording the sisters’ responses to participating in these events, and their reflections and/or recollections concerning the role and significance of drama as part of convent life, both in the past and in the present. We’ve already had some very interesting informal discussions with a Carmelite sister in Belgium, whose convent generously welcomed us to view their archive and to discuss our project: these conversations revealed that drama is an ongoing part of Carmelite recreation (at least in this particular convent) to this day, and we have anecdotal evidence from some of the women’s houses in Fribourg with whom we are partnering that theatre is practiced quite regularly here too. Making space, time and provision within our project to ask the nuns with whom we will work to think and reflect out loud on the devotional and emotional affordances of theatre, both in terms of practising it and in terms of watching it unfold in their convent spaces, could provide some really important leads for us, and recording their reflections as expressed verbally by different individuals would allow their voices, thoughts and feelings to raise some of the research questions, or to frame a part of the research agenda, which we seek to explore. I
’ve also been prompted by some of the papers at H-WRBI which explored films made by, or with the cooperation of, sisters to think more creatively about one of the outputs we will produce during this phase of the project. We had already planned to film some of the preparation for the performances, documenting decisions taken during rehearsals and actors’ reactions to the texts, and perhaps juxtaposing some of the same scenes performed in different spaces and at different locations. I’m now wondering if we might not be able to try to include some of the sisters’ voices here too – perhaps alongside relevant medieval and later archival material from the convents from which our plays originally hail – to create a documentary-style piece or even, perhaps, a digital ‘exhibition’ incorporating film, image and text, that focuses not just on the performance of the medieval plays from the actors’ and director’s perspectives, but also on their reception within the different religious orders and different groups of nuns who take part in their performance, either through acting themselves or through spectating. It’s early days yet, of course, and we’ve got a lot to consider here – not least in terms of requesting and gaining permission from the various people and research repositories involved – but H-WRBI 2017 left both Aurélie and I feeling enthused and excited about the range of approaches and outputs we could potentially undertake with the Medieval Convent Drama’s research materials.
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Watch Killing of the Children and the Presentation in the Temple from the Digby MS
Performance of Digby ‘Herod’s Killing of the Children’ medieval play On Wednesday, 8th February, in New College Chapel, the Medieval Convent Drama project together with Frideswide Voices will perform Herod’s Killing of the Children and the Presentation in the Temple from the Digby Manuscript, which was copied c.1512. Admission is free and all are welcome: the performance will start at 7pm and will last about an hour. Download the poster >
Background for the Project
Recent research into medieval English drama has emphasised possible roles played by women in the consumption, production and dissemination of theatre throughout the Middle Ages. The publication of documentary evidence for dramatic productions undertaken by REED (Records of Early English Drama) for example, has yielded important archival evidence of female participation in dramatic performance during the period before the first commercial playhouses were built. An even greater body of evidence of female participation in drama exists from mainland Europe. Nonetheless, medieval drama, particularly Biblical drama, is still seen as composed, copied, performed, produced exclusively by men. Where the involvement of women in dramatic production is acknowledged critically, it is often as an exception to the rule, a marginal aberration.
This project seeks to overturn some of these assumptions and biases by directing new critical attention towards a relatively neglected but important area of study – the female dramatic productions of medieval convents. Very little convent drama survives from England – the most comprehensive single record we now have is that of the Visitatio Sepulchri and Harrowing of Hell drama from Barking Abbey (briefly described by Normington, 2009, Young 1933): the rarity of surviving plays probably partially explains the relative lack of critical attention paid to English convent drama as a genre. However, the lack of surviving evidence does not indicate that medieval convent drama was rare; rather, evidence did not survive the Reformation in England. In France, by contrast, many accounts of convent drama, and many dramatic scripts, survive; examination of this material may increase our understanding of both English and the French plays by and for nuns, as well as of convent drama across Europe. Commentators on civic plays from medieval England have explicitly stated that the most useful analogues may be found in contemporary continental material (eg Spector, 1991 and Granger, 2009); if the routes by which eg French drama or Dutch literature exerted an influence on English theatre cannot always now be precisely defined, the influence is nonetheless clear. It is also unsurprising since there were, throughout the Middle Ages, political, cultural and commercial links among England, France and Burgundy/The Low Countries (see, eg Butterfield, 2009 for the impact of these networks on literary production). Religious orders provided some of the strongest networks through which ideas and texts could be transmitted.
The close study of surviving plays that were copied, read, performed and composed by nuns within medieval convents suggests questions relevant to understanding medieval dramatic and devotional practices more broadly. For example: how is a play defined as such? Convent drama survives in many manuscript forms and contexts: some plays are presented following the generic and codicological conventions we associate with the mise-en-page of medieval play-scripts; others survive as sequential prose descriptions which might function as stage directions for actors. Are such descriptions ‘plays’, or ‘drama’? Some convent plays are scripted elaborations on passages of liturgy; some borrow innovatively from the liturgy in otherwise vernacular dialogue; the project will necessarily engage a long-standing critical debate: when does the liturgy become theatre?
It seems likely that drama could be a devotional act, requiring imaginative participation in a role played akin to the engagement required of contemplatives by, say, the Ancrene Wisse or Rolle’s Meditations. Such drama might not require an audience, or might be played out within a religious community. What role did performance play within an enclosed context? Who would act, and were scripts modified by or for performance? In some cases, it seems that nuns did perform for lay audiences: what role did performance play for this local community? How did music – particularly the music associated with the liturgy – function when re-positioned in a dramatic context, and performed as part of these plays? The project will approach these questions through the particular lens of an understudied female dramatic tradition.
Butterfield 2009. Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language and Nation in the Hundred Years’ War. Oxford: OUP.
Granger 2009. Penny Granger, The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
Normington 2009. Katie Normington, Medieval English Drama: Performance and Spectatorship. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Spector 1991. Stephen Spector, ed., The N-Town Play. EETS ss 11: 2 vols. Oxford: OUP.