METh at Fribourg: Re-presenting the Resurrection

Medieval Convent Drama musicological consultant Matthew Cheung-Salisbury reflects on the recent 40th Anniversary Medieval English Theatre Conference, hosted by the project team at the University of Fribourg:

What if the authorities who prosecuted Jesus and sent him to his death had let him go free?

This question was posed, tongue firmly in cheek, at this year’s Medieval English Theatre conference (the fortieth such conference, organised this year by the Medieval Convent Drama team in Fribourg). A speaker recalled attending enactments of medieval plays in York. Despite the fact that the story they communicated⸺the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ⸺is perhaps the best known narrative in the world from the Middle Ages until the present day, the speaker fantasised that perhaps, this time, the various authorities questioning Jesus in the drama might, just this once, let him off…

What status and function do faithful, repetitive re-presentations of familiar stories have for us, and how did they function for the communities which wrote and staged them, year after year? The presence of METh in Fribourg offered us the opportunity to re-visit these questions in a scholarly way, but also to consider them in practice.

Bodl. lib. ms. canon liturg. 347. Copyright the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  A priest veils a woman joining a nunnery of Franciscan Tertiaries, Florence (s.xv).
Bodl. lib. ms. canon liturg. 347. Copyright the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A priest veils a woman joining a nunnery of Franciscan Tertiaries, Florence (s.xv).

As part of the conference, our brilliant group of musician-actors, directed by Elisabeth Dutton and chorally animated by the inspiring Sandy Maillard, offered to us the first performance of the ludus paschalis which was written by and for the late thirteenth-century Benedictine sisters of the abbey at Origny-Sainte-Bênoite.

This ludus, which depicts the discovery by the three Marys of the empty tomb of Jesus, and the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalen, comprises texts in Latin and in French and combines several Biblical narratives from the Gospels as well as creative accretions to the Scriptural story.

The Marys, of course, have come to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, and there is an exchange with a local merchant who has ointment to sell. All of this dramatic action points to what is perhaps the real climax, and surprise, of the story: that the tomb is empty.

Not a surprise for the spectator, of course, who knows beyond doubt that, the tomb being empty, the next surprise for Mary Magdalen will be the appearance of the tomb’s former inhabitant. But of what merit is the re-presentation, time after time in corporeal fashion, of this epoch-making but universally known story? It is unthinkable that anyone seeing the play at Origny would not have known the central facts of the story, and the diverting non-Scriptural passages are mere decoration for these.

In the words of James Gibson, ‘What really was happening [in the 11th and 12th centuries] when two [people] stood on one side of the altar and sang, and two others responded?’ Our Project team believes that, to consider these questions in anything more than a superficial way, one must enact and participate in these dramas. It is productive, because, like the very appearance of God in human form which anticipates and necessitates the cosmic drama which takes place at the sepulchre, it is incarnational, as Donnalee Dox has argued.

The Origny ludus paschalis is for its players and spectators a corporeal, bodily, perhaps even quotidian (because set in familiar surroundings with familiar faces) realisation of the implications of the Incarnation. To quote anachronistically the Thomistic theology of the sacraments, the players⸺like the priest who offers the sacrifice of the Mass⸺are comprised of both substance and accidence. I was reminded of this when one of the actors, on being asked what he thought he was doing, replied that he was ‘an actor, incorporating a deacon, incorporating an angel’. The enactment of this ludus, for me, is to see the truth of Clifford Flanigan’s argument that the participants and spectators are actually incorporated into the original event: it is a ‘reactualisation or a rendering present of the moment when the archetype was revealed for the first time’: thus, ‘an abolition of historical time’ allowing the members of the community, whether our own or that of Origny, to ‘reactualise’ the past and enter into the past event.

We know that just as every time Christ is condemned in the York plays, the tomb will be empty. But even though  ‘no one has ever seen God’ (prologue to John’s Gospel), the re-presentation in living colour of the triumph of Christ over death, for the nuns of Origny and for all time, was, and is, a powerful and immediate medium through which the spectator can enter the same space as the Paschal mystery.

Medieval Convent Drama presents the Origny Ludus Paschalis on two further occasions: on 27 April at the Carmel du Pâquier and on 29 April at La Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg:

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Announcing our latest performance this April: the Easter Play of Origny-Sainte-Benoîte

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We have a new performance taking place this month: the Ludus Paschalis from the Benedictine Abbey of Origny-Sainte-Benoîte.  We’re very excited to be collaborating again with the Cistercian sisters of La Maigrauge in Fribourg and with the Carmel du Pâquier to perform this medieval Easter play composed by the sisters of Origny, as well as giving a preview performance as part of the Medieval English Theatre 40th Anniversary conference, hosted this year on the 12-13 April at the University of Fribourg. Our performance dates and times are as follows; entry is, as usual, free and all are welcome to attend.

Le jeu pascal des soeurs de l’Abbaye d’Origny-Sainte-Benoîte: une pièce médiévale célébrant la Résurrection

vendredi 12 avril 2019: Chapelle de Miséricorde, Université de Fribourg, 16h00

samedi 27 avril 2019: Carmel du Pâquier, 1661 Le Pâquier-Montbarry, 19h30

lundi 29 avril 2019: Abbaye de la Maigrauge, Fribourg, 15h45  (possibilité de rester pour les vêpres à 16h45)

Entrée libre, collecte à la sortie

Friday 12 April 2019: Miséricorde Chapel, University of Fribourg, 4pm

Saturday 27 April 2019: Carmel du Pâquier, 1661 Le Pâquier-Montbarry, 7.30pm

Monday 29 April 2019: La Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg, 3.45pm (with option to stay for Vespers, which will start at 4.45pm)

Free entry, closing collection

Brushes and mouths (but not dental hygiene) in the Jeu de Pèlerinage humaine

BnF MS fr 24303 Penitance
Detail from BnF MS fr. 24303 F. 15, Source: / BnF

I’m currently preparing a paper for Leeds IMC this year on the Jeu de Pèlerinage humaine — the fifth playscript in the collection owned by the Carmelite convent at Huy, which forms one of the core groups of texts we are focusing on during the project.   In several ways this script stands out from the others in the manuscript: most obviously, it’s been carefully and closely adapted for performance from part of a popular and widely-disseminated pre-existent allegorical narrative poem, Guillaume de Deguilleville’s Pèlerinage de vie humaine.  The Pèlerinage was often illustrated as part of its manuscript transmission (some of its rich iconographic traditions were the subject of a doctoral thesis by Michael Camille in 1985), and many of its allegorical characters, indeed, are described quite minutely within the text, in terms of their idiosyncratic physical appearances, bodily attributes, clothing and acoutrements: descriptions which can result in some very peculiar illuminations! (You can see something of what I mean by browsing the dossier of images from BnF MS fr. 829 published in the recent edition of the second recension of Deguilleville’s poem by Graham Robert Edwards and Phillipe Maupeu).

This very particular manuscript tradition provides an unusual context for the Jeu de Pèlerinage.  Not only can the text of the play, unusually, be compared to a known and apparently widely-read narrative source, allowing us to uncover ways in which its adaptors conceived of and effected the transfer from first-person narrative to performed, embodied theatre; we can also think about the ways in which the poem’s iconographic and visual traditions might have inspired, or otherwise impacted on performances.  Might illuminations of the Pelerinage provide pointers or starting points for thinking about how the Carmelite sisters who copied the Jeu de Pèlerinage may have designed their performance attire (if indeed they did perform the play they anthologised, and if they performed it in attire other than their habits)?   What might an eventual performance have looked like, in terms of of visual effects, articles of clothing and objects that could have been integrated into the play?

The idea of looking at manuscript iconography to provide some ideas about this seemed good in principle: then I came up against the character Pénitence, who – along with her companion, Charité — explains in a long and detailed speech the ways in which she mediates access to the Eucharist.   Pénitence is described by the narrator of the Pèlerinage as, surprisingly, holding a brush or ‘balay’ in her mouth (‘Entre ses dens, en sa bouche / Ot balay, qui plus me touche’, ed. Edwards/Maupeu, p. 242).   The narrator admits that this is rather odd, to say the least; she holds the brush in her teeth, he notes, ‘courtoisement’ (in a dignified, courtly manner), and ‘moins sage point n’en sembloit’ (she didn’t seem at all less wise for it).  Indeed, had anyone else but her chosen to behave in this way, ‘Pour hors de sens on le tenist’ (one would have considered them to be out of their mind).  I think that’s probably a fair assessment.

Harley 4399 f.14
Pénitance and Charité, detail from London, BL MS Harley 4399, F. 14. Source:
BnF MS fr 12465 Pelerinage Pénitance et Charité
Detail from BnF MS fr. 12465, F. 11. Pénitance and Charité. Source: / BnF
BL Ms Add 38120 Penitance et Charité F. 18
London, BL MS Add. 38120, F. 18. Pénitance and Charité. Source:

While it’s perfectly possible, of course, for a narrative poem to describe a woman holding a brush in her mouth, and then purport to relay the long and detailed monologue that she proceeds to utter, as soon as one brings physical performance into play, some very obvious problems start to arise.  The Jeu de Pèlerinage removes the narrator’s description of Pénitance completely: as a character in the play, she just appears in the playing space at the ‘right’ time, and begins to speak.  But, as part of her discourse, she actually explains the signficance of the orally-carried brush, as well as other objects she carries in her hands — and these lines have all been retained in the Jeu. Which leaves me with the question – how does an actress play the part of Pénitence and hold a brush in her mouth?  Did she actually walk ‘on stage’ looking like this (and did everyone start laughing?), but remove the brush for speaking?  Or, is this a sign that the Jeu de Pèlerinage was perhaps not designed for physical performance at all?  But if that were the case, why go to the trouble of adapting it as a play-script and/or copying it in an anthology of play-scripts in the first place?

I hope to develop, if not answers, then further hypotheses around these questions in the coming weeks!  In the meantime, if anyone has any comments or ideas, I’d love to hear them.


Costume demo videos from Barking performances

Aurélie and Sandy enjoy donning their habits backstage!

Aurélie and Tamara (who was our fabulous stage manager for the Barking Abbey plays last month) have put together a series of videos showing the particular liturgical vestments we used, as well as the ways in which we put together our replica medieval Benedictine nuns’ habits for those of us performing in the roles the sisters would have taken.  You can watch them on our YouTube channel here, along with our other films.

Thankyou again to everyone involved, especially Sandy (Cantrix/Mary Magdalen, modelling the women’s costumes) and Christoph (Priest/Jesus, modelling the men’s)!



Barking Abbey Easter Plays: More Photos!

Photo 09-04-2018, 10 56 46I’m currently in the process of conducting research interviews with some of our performance group who took part in Monday’s Barking Abbey Elevatio and Visitatio Sepulchri, thinking about their experiences of participating in the creative process and the feelings generated by the final events at La Maigrauge and the University of Fribourg.  I’m only part-way through this process but the discussions I’ve had so far have been fascinating.  One point that has come up more than once is the way in which viewing images of the performance taken from the nave and the choir of the Abbey church of La Maigrauge has sparked within participants intriguing new reflections and new perspectives on their experiences.   So, with that in mind (and also because we have some fabulous stills and photos, for which huge thanks to Tamara Haddad and Céline Sidler),  I’ve put a bigger selection here for both performers and interested readers to enjoy…

– Liv.

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Upcoming performances: 9 April Barking Abbey Easter plays!

flyer final(1)Our performances of the Barking Abbey Easter plays will take place in Fribourg on Monday 9th April.  We will be performing at the Cistercian Abbey of La Maigrauge (3.45pm, with Vespers following the performance, for which audience members are welcome to stay) and the Aula Magna in the University of Fribourg  (7pm).  Come and join us: entry is free and open to all at both venues, and further information can be found in our trailers here and here:

New: Documentary on our ‘Huy Nativities’ by Alma & Georges, University of Fribourg…

Gloria in excelsis deo: Cléo Lange and Diana Helfer as shepherdesses Eylison and Mahai at the appearance of the Angels.

A huge thankyou to the wonderful performers, helpers and audience members who took part in our Huy Nativities in December 2017: the performances were so moving, atmospheric and thought-provoking.  Christian Doninelli at the University of Fribourg has made a short, free documentary film about our opening night at the Ursuline convent in Fribourg — watch it on the University’s Alma & Georges’ website here!

Our next performances will take place in the week of the 9th April 2018: we will be staging the Barking Abbey Harrowing of Hell and Visitatio Sepulchri, with a new performance script established by our doctoral student, Aurélie Blanc.  More information about dates and times of the performances will be available here soon…

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


Call for applications for doctoral studentship: Medieval Convent Drama

Medieval Convent Drama is a major new research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, led by Professor Elisabeth Dutton and Dr Olivia Robinson with the collaboration of Dr Matthew Cheung Salisbury (Oxford).  We seek a student to undertake a fully funded doctoral thesis, to be supervised by the project’s collaborators, on any area within the scope of the project.

Project outline

The project will examine 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 will: 1) investigate the manuscript presentation of all surviving convent plays from this region; 2) uncover archival evidence for the times and spaces in which they were staged, the possible composition of their casts and audiences, and the other literary and cultural activities of the convents in question; 3) investigate through performance their use of liturgical citation and translation, and ecclesiastical places, spaces and material objects as dramatic tools.  We seek to deepen critical understanding of the ways in which medieval convent communities actively shaped their own dramatic reinterpretations of Biblical and other narratives, the role this drama may have played for its performers and spectators, and the importance of this neglected tradition for broader scholarly assessments of medieval dramatic, devotional and liturgical practices.

Doctoral Study at Fribourg

The successful candidate will receive funding for three years, including all doctoral fees and a maintenance grant of approx. CHF 50,000 per year.

The University is situated in the centre of the medieval city of Fribourg, at the feet of the Jura mountains. Its established Centre for Medieval Studies, currently directed by Professor Dutton, brings together a rich group of researchers into palaeography and codicology, art history, philosophy, literature in Latin, and English, French, and other European vernaculars, medieval theatre, women’s writing, history, and musicology. Other research projects currently based in Fribourg include Fragmentarium, a network that facilitates the study of medieval manuscript fragments through online resources, and Professor Dutton’s Early Drama at Oxford project that studies plays written and staged in Oxford Colleges in the medieval and early modern period.

A wide range of financial and training resources are available to support doctoral students, including those of the Conférence Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale, which organizes regular doctoral workshops and conferences, and the Swiss Association of Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, which encourages contact and collaboration among researchers at the Universities of Fribourg, Lausanne, Geneva, Neuchâtel, Berne, Basel, Zurich.  Researchers have access to the collective library resources of these Universities, and Fribourg itself has a well-endowed medieval library.

Doctoral Student

Applicants should hold a relevant MA, MSt, MPhil or equivalent, and have experience in one or more of:

–     Medieval French literature
–     Medieval English literature
–     Medieval Latin
–     Codicology and palaeography
–     Medieval musicology
–     Medieval Theology
–     Drama and performance
–     Medieval art and architecture
–     Website management

Applicants should email CV and cover letter in English, detailing how their knowledge and expertise could contribute to the project, to Professor Dutton:

The selection process may include an interview, possibly via Skype.

Closing date for applications: MONDAY 6th JUNE 2016