MCD and colleagues stage Marguerite de Navarre’s ‘Comédie des innocents’

After a long Covid hiatus, Medieval Convent Drama is back, with a related production undertaken recently in Oxford: Marguerite de Navarre’s mid-sixteenth-century Comédie des innocents. This was undertaken as part of the 2023 Medieval Mystery Cycle at Oxford, and you can read all about the production from the perspective of its director, Prof. Elisabeth Dutton, here.

We’ll also soon be posting the results of our final convent drama performance, a film of the Huy ‘Play of the Human Pilgrimage’, more information soon!


Leeds IMC 2021: Performance Climates and Convent Drama

Performing with the Sepulchre, La Maigrauge 2018.

This summer Aurélie and Liv took the opportunity to reflect on some of our convent drama experiences as the Medieval Convent Drama project draws to a close, as part of a Leeds IMC panel on Performance Climates. Our shared paper considered the ‘climates’ of performance that we worked with in Fribourg — from climates of religious belief and practice to architectural climates, to literal, meteorological ones.

While drafting the paper, we found ourselves thinking about how to define the broad, religio-cultural climate and sense of place which surrounded the local performances we’ve undertaken for the project, and in which they were situated, a process which involved recalling and discussing memories of many very small but nonetheless interesting moments, often unpredictable encounters and interactions with passers by as we rehearsed outside, or brief chats with audience members at the close of performances – as well as our attendance at a range of Fribourgeois religious festivities and processions. We also recalled our memories of severe weather events in performance – particularly the heavy rain and thunder which accompanied our 2017 Huy Nativities – and the extent to which weather that was actively hostile to performance created a very particular atmosphere and set of experiences among our performers and spectators.

Perhaps the most fruitful area we worked through, though, was returning to some of our 2018 interview data from the Maigrauge convent in Fribourg, where we performed and whose sisters kindly agreed to be interviewed post-performance. Coming back to this data now, we were able to focus in on the physical climate of the Maigrauge church and the ways it was evoked and described by sisters in their interviews – particularly with reference to their medieval sepulchre, a copy of which we used in performance (as can be seen on the image above). Re-reading our interviews, we saw how complex the interaction between object, place and moment of performance had been for some sisters, and just how emotionally significant the sepulchre as an artefact had been to their experience of our performance. The ‘climate’ of the conventual church was one in which the replica sepulchre, and all that it stood for, played a bigger role in sisters’ experience of what we were doing than we perhaps fully realised at the time we were performing. Returning to this data and re-viewing it in the context of performance climates really brought this out for us, and it’s something I hope we’ll be able to return to more fully in our work going forward. Thankyou to Dana Key and our fellow panelists at Leeds for offering us the opportunity to think about this from such a helpful perspective!


Performing in the Convent: Objects and Performative Practices


London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v.
London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v.

At the most recent Leeds IMC, the Medieval Convent Drama project co-sponsored and chaired a round-table session on material objects and their roles in performative practices within medieval convent life.  Our steer to contributors was deliberately wide-ranging – and the various objects discussed sparked a lively conversation spanning practices of fabrication and design, connections and uses of liturgical citation, shared imaginative and performative activities with custom-made objects at their core, and the silent, unacknowledged presence of ‘everyday’ or ever-present objects during and within performances of many kinds.   As part of the session, Aurélie Blanc presented the following exploration of candlelight in the Barking Abbey Visitatio Sepulchri – the ideas for which arose out of our 2018 performance of this piece – and her comments reflect the kinds of questions and approach which our panel brought together:


London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v (detail).
London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v (detail).

Candelabra at Barking Abbey

The Barking Abbey Visitatio ceremony was recorded in a 1404 Ordinal and Customary produced by the wealthy English Benedictine abbey of Barking.  It was performed in the presence of the laity during the Matins of Easter Day and it depicted the visit of the three Marys to the tomb of Christ.  Visitatio ceremonies have attracted the attention of drama scholars because, while they were part of the liturgy, they also featured some ‘dramatic’ characteristics: they told a narrative story with the help of sung dialogues and movements, indicated that the nuns, priests, and clerics (in the case of Barking Abbey) who performed them, were meant to behave like the scriptural figures they were portraying, and made references to costumes.  At Barking, for instance, the nuns portraying the Marys changed from their black habits into white ones at the beginning of the ceremony.  They then positioned themselves with the ‘candelabra’ in their appointed place.

 ‘dicant. Confiteor ad abbatissam, et ab ea absolute. In loco statuto cum candelabris consistant.’  (they say Confiteor to the abbess. Once they have been absolved by her, they position themselves with the candelabra in the place appointed earlier).

It remains unclear whether the candelabra accompanied the Marys during the entire ceremony or not, but a second mention was made of them at the end of the Visitatio:

 ‘cum candelabris per chorum transeuntes orandi gracia sepulcrum adeant: et ibi breuem oracionem faciant. Tunc redeant in stacionem suam usque abbatissa eas iubeat exire ad quiescandum’ (crossing with the candelabra through the choir, they go towards the sepulchre in order to pray. And there, they make a short prayer. Then, they return to their place until the abbess orders them to go out to rest).

Before examining why these objects might have been used in such a way by the Abbey of Barking, I would like to describe what the Visitatio’s candelabra could have looked like.  Candelabra were widely used lighting sources in medieval churches, but few have survived, although some can be seen in pictorial sources.

They were made of wood, of iron, bronze, or copper.  The most impressive ones, which might have been found at the wealthy Abbey of Barking, were enamelled or made of gold, silver, and even crystal.  They would have carried one or more beeswax candles  and their size varied depending on their use.  The candelabrum holding the pascal candle, for instance, would have been bigger than those set on altars.  Those used in Barking’s Visitatio, were handheld and, according to the Ordinal, were carried by six iuuencule who seem to have been girls, not yet consecrated, receiving their education in the nunnery.

Iuuencule and candelabra did not immediately intrigue me when I was studying, and in April 2018, staging the Visitatio Sepulchri.  They were barely mentioned in the OrdinaI and their presence did not make much sense theatrically.  While they would have had the advantage of lighting the Marys and of attracting the audience’s attention to them, they had no function in the narrative, and, if they had followed the Marys during the entire ceremony, would have been a blocking nightmare.  They would have obscured the Marys from view and restricted their movements and interactions.

Yet, the Visitatio was not quite a play, but a liturgical ceremony and the abbey’s purpose in performing it was fundamentally different from ours: according to the Ordinal, the house hoped the ceremony would increase the laity’s declining devotion and, as all liturgy, it was meant to worship and glorify God.  To understand the Visitatio’s performative use of the candelabrum, I should therefore have taken into account that, in medieval liturgy, sources of light were not employed for practical reasons only.  They were invested with layers of symbolism, whose knowledge at Barking is attested by liturgical practices, as well as by the house’s library.  The use of the candelabrum in the Barking Visitatio Sepulchri would have recalled the house’s standard liturgical practice and would have imbued the ceremony with meaning.  Yet, it also stood out as unusual in two ways: it was carried around nuns portraying the three Marys instead of around the body of Christ, the cross, the Gospel book (Barking), or saints’ relics or statues, and it was held by girls rather than by clerics.

This unusual use of the candelabra could have served, I believe, at least two purposes.  First: it would have affected the story told by the Visitatio, by giving a preponderant place to the Marys, whose association with the nuns of Barking might have impressed the lay congregation.  Second: holding the candelabrum might have helped the iuuencule understand their future role as nuns.

To begin with the Marys: Being accompanied by candelabra during a liturgical ceremony was a sign of honour, and therefore brought the Marys prestige.  Yet, this use of light, in a way, also honoured the nuns portraying them.  The candelabra continued, after all, to follow them once they had changed back into their own clothes.  Light further connected the Marys to the divine.  Scriptures, lives of saints, commentaries, and liturgical ceremonies have commonly associated light with God, with Christ, and, in the context of Easter, with the victory of light over darkness through His Resurrection.  The candelabra thus emphasised the Marys’ closeness to Christ, as well as their essential role in this joyful story: they were the first Christ chose to appear to, and in this version, they transmitted the good news of the resurrection to the congregation and to the disciples who instantly believed them.  Their role as messengers may have recalled another scriptural image found in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as in Mark and Luke: Christ’s description of his disciples as a lit candle on a candelabrum:

Matthew 5: 14-16 in the King James version:

14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick (candelabrum in latin); and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Liturgical commentators explained that the disciples’ light existed because they had been lit by Christ’s true light and because they now believed.  They were meant to guide others towards this true light.  In this context, the candelabra enhanced the Marys’ role as messengers, as guiding lights.  It also connected them to nuns, since the disciples’ mission had become, by extension, that of the Church, and of those leading a religious life in particular.  The Visitatio’s use of the candelabrum could thus have affected its spectators’ understanding of the role of the Marys as well as their respect for the nunnery.  It could additionally have provided nuns, and the iuuencule in particular, with an example to follow.

The unusual choice of six girls as candelabrum-bearers, who visibly stood near the Marys and possibly accompanied them during the ceremony, might have reinforced the previously mentioned connection between the nuns and the Marys, but it could also have created, more specifically, a connection between the iuuencule and the Marys.  Apart from physical proximity, other similarities existed between them: the Marys were dressed in white, as were the future nuns during the ceremony of the consecration of the Virgins and both groups of women had much to learn (at least, at the beginning of the ceremony in the case of the Marys).  By following the Marys, the girls might have perceived these women and their journey as models to follow in their future either as novices or as professed nuns.  Yet, the iuuencule did more than accompany the Marys, they held the candelabra.  This act had the benefit of materialising two scriptural mentions of light, essential to their understanding of the role of nuns.  The first was the one related to the candelabrum and the disciples.  In the Visitatio, the iuuencule actually held up this guiding light.  However, while transmission of light was deemed important, liturgical writers such as Jean Beleth or Durandus advised that one should remember to tend to one’s own light.  They used the parable of the wise virgins, who had remained vigilant to their lamps while waiting for the bridegroom to illustrate this idea.[1]  Such a parable was regularly presented as a model for consecrated women and was undoubtably known at Barking where it was partly sung during the consecration of the Virgins ceremony.  In the Visitatio, the iuuencule repeated the actions of the wise virgins.  Holding the candelabra demanded great focus and such focus was also to be dedicated to maintaining their inner light, their faith, their purity.

Having these girls carry the candelabrum might have been a way of teaching them about their future responsibilities as nuns by involving them in a ceremony which bore striking resemblances to the consecration of the Virgins, by materialising light metaphors essential to their understanding of this role, and by connecting these to prestigious scriptural female role models.


Ordinale and Customary of the Benedictine Nuns of Barking Abbey, ed. Tolhurst J.B.L. (London: Harrison, 1927-8).

Catherine Vincent “Rites et pratiques de la pénitence publique à la fin du Moyen Âge : essai sur la place de la lumière dans la résolution de certains conflits » Actes des congrès de la Société des historiens médiévistes de l’enseignement supérieur public (vol. 31, 2000), pp. 351-367.

Catherine Vincent Fiat Lux : lumière et luminaires dans la vie religieuse en Occident du XIIIe siècle au début du XVIe siècle (Paris : Les Editions du Cerf, 2004).

Geneviève Bührer-Thierry « Lumière et pouvoir dans le haut Moyen Âge occidental : célébration du pouvoir et métaphores lumineuses” Mélanges de l’école française de Rome (vol. 116-2, 2004) pp. 527-37.

Eric Palazzo « La Lumière et la Liturgie au Moyen Age » Pris-Ma : Recherches sur la Littérature d’Imagination au Moyen Age (Tome XVII / 1, no 33, 2001), pp. 91-104.

Catherine Gauthier L’encens et le luminaire dans le haut Moyen Âge occidental Liturgie et pratiques dévotionnelles (thèse de doctorat : UNIVERSITÉ LIBRE DE BRUXELLES, Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres, 2007-8).

[1] Matthew 25: 1-13


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:

LP Poster-page-001

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

LP Poster-page-001

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

Harlaxton Medieval Symposium: Workshopping Barking Abbey’s Depositio

The priest takes the cross at the start of the Depositio.
The priest takes the cross at the start of the Depositio.

From the 17th to the 20th of July, the Medieval Convent Drama project left the majestic mountains of Switzerland for a beautiful, wonderfully weird English manor (at least to my very Swiss, very rural eyes!). It was such a pleasure for me to return to the Harlaxton Medieval Symposium after having performed there in 2015 in Elisabeth’s production of John of Beverley, and I was lucky enough to benefit from the Dobson scholarship this year. The theme of the symposium was ‘Performance, Ceremony and Display in Late Medieval Britain’. After Elisabeth’s paper, ‘Putting on the Role: the Performance of Medieval Convent Drama’, we gave a workshop together entitled ‘Exploring Performance, Ceremony and Display with the Nuns of Barking Abbey’.

The workshop had been designed with the assistance of Matthew who provided us with musical notation for the chants of the Barking Abbey’s Depositio and who recruited four brilliant singers/actors to bring them to life. The aim of the workshop was to consider contemporary performance of medieval plays as a tool to increase our understanding of their medieval performances. Because of the nature of our research, we were particularly focused on conventual performance and decided to choose the Depositio (a ceremony performed on Good Friday) as a case study for the workshop. We had never performed this ceremony before but had experimented with Barking Abbey’s performance practices in our April production of the nunnery’s Elevatio and Visitatio Sepulchri. We felt it would be valuable to continue exploring such practices with the additional help, this time, of a room full of distinguished medieval scholars. We were especially interested in establishing a discussion around the many decisions, often unforeseen, which need to be made when one wants to perform a play. It is easy to overlook some of these when simply studying a text, but staging it forces directors and actors to confront unclear parts of the play, or those open to interpretation. It is an illuminating process for the researcher who is suddenly bound to deepen her reflection on certain areas she had not considered in details before (such as, for instance, liturgical vestments). We also hoped the workshop would show how the effect of a play can dramatically differ in performance and can suggest some of its impact on a medieval audience, or at least raise new interrogations for the scholar. The music, for example, lengthens the play and transforms it into something quite different, bringing with it additional sounds and emotions. Performance does not generate direct answers but it draws our attention to new questions, new possibilities, and new interpretations.

The priests wash the body of Christ, after taking him down from the cross.
The priests wash the body of Christ, after having taken him down from the cross.

After changing the spatial arrangement of the room to make it look as much as possible like a church with an altar and choir stalls, we started the workshop with a theoretical introduction, detailing the situation of the abbey, the numbers and the identity of the medieval audience and actors, the content and date of the plays, and presenting the project’s previous productions. The participants were then given two versions of the Depositio. The first, a ‘script’ version, similar to the one we had given our actors /singers, had been edited and featured a translation of the rubrics, a translation of the chants in the footnotes, musical notation, and additional speech markers. The second was a simple transcription of the Latin manuscript. We asked the participants to gather into groups and discuss the staging of the play using their handout, as well as the plan of the abbey church which was projected in front of them: how would they do it, how do they think it was done? We tried to help them by giving them questions to lead their reflection: Who sings what? Who does what? How do the various groups move through the space of the church? Where are the cross and the sepulchre? What costumes do the participants wear? What happens to the props?

The procession begins. Christ is carried by the priests to the sepulchre.
The procession begins. Christ is carried by the priests to the sepulchre.

In the third part of the workshop, groups were invited to share their thoughts on the staging of the Depositio. We tried to do this question by question but the discussion proved difficult to focus, as each group had something to say about a different topic. It was, however, incredibly useful to have so many and such various opinions expressed on the Depositio and we are very grateful to everyone who contributed. The following points were raised (there were more, particularly concerning drama and liturgy. However, I have not included them in this blog post since they would require much more space and I am still trying to figure out how to really comprehend and articulate them. They will definitely require another post!):

1) The singers. It seemed odd to musicologists for the priests to start the chants Super omnia ligna and Ecce quomodo moritur iustus, to be followed by the cantrix, and then by the choir. According to them, the normal practice would be for someone to start the chant and to be joined by a second person or group of people, rather than to have three groups as is the case here. They advised looking through the Barking Ordinal (in which the plays are recorded) to check whether this occurs during other ceremonies throughout the year or whether it is an isolated practice. Some suggested the priest would start the chants and be followed by the cantrix who would sing the second part. She would only begin it briefly and give the choir the note before being joined by the rest of the nuns. The second option suggested was that the priest sing the first part of the chant, which would then be entirely repeated by the cantrix. The choir would sing the second part.

2) The procession: The procession seemed very short, which participants felt rather defeated the point of having one in the first place. Some argued the procession might go outside and wondered if this was a practice at Barking Abbey; others questioned the position of the sepulchre and suggested it might be located much further away from the high altar than we had anticipated. Finally, some discussed the three antiphons sung during the procession (In pace in idipsum, Habitabit, Caro mea). They are quite brief and might therefore imply that the procession they accompanied was also short. Alternatively, they might be followed each by a psalm, as they are during the Holy Saturday liturgy, even though psalms are not here indicated in the Ordinal.

3) The sepulchre: Other questions and reflections related to the detachable Christ figure and to the sepulchre. A participant suggested Barking’s temporary sepulchre might be covered with patrons’ coats of arms and colours, and could be used as a display of patronage. Elisabeth’s research has shown her that some curtains, cloths, and carpets used to build Easter sepulchres were donated and recorded in wills. Connections between patronage, commemoration, and these dramatic ceremonies might thus be worth exploring. He also mentioned the possible significance of ‘burying’ the detachable Christ figure in the sepulchre on Good Friday (as seems to be the case in the Depositio) and of taking out a monstrance on Easter Sunday (as seems to be the case in the Elevatio). This ‘magic trick’, this transformation from a concrete representation of the body of Christ into the consecrated host could be read as a pedagogical demonstration of the nature of the host. It is not just a round, white piece of bread but the actual body of Christ. The process clearly shows the connection between the two, even if they look quite different.

Workshopping the staging of Barking’s Depositio has encouraged me to look further into medieval liturgy. I will certainly dig into the Barking Ordinal, but also consider more generally Holy Week celebrations in the middle ages, as well as processions and their practical aspects: light, smells, amount of people present.

The priests, abbess, cantrix, and the workshop's participants (who represent the rest of the convent) kneel before the sepulchre.
The priests, abbess, cantrix, and the workshop’s participants (who represent the rest of the convent) kneel before the sepulchre.

The last part of the workshop consisted of a performance of the Depositio. We would like to thank the singers who brought this ceremony to life for us. Assisted by the first row of participants—who represented the rest of the sisters sitting in the choir stalls and who processed with them to the tomb—they beautifully and solemnly performed the deposition of Christ into the sepulchre. This mise-en-scène was meant to give the participants an idea of what a present-day performance of this ceremony might look like. The aim was not to present them with a finite idea of how we should stage the Depositio, but with a ‘first draft’, a tentative version, in the hope of exposing the ability of modern performance to create discussion and to deepen research by forcing its audience, its directors, and its performers to engage with some often-overlooked aspects of dramatic practices.


The abbess and the cantrix processing during the Barking Depositio.
The abbess and the cantrix, followed by the rest of the convent, process during the Barking Depositio.


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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Rehearsing the Barking Abbey Plays


Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Elevation and adoration of the host
Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Elevation and adoration of the host

Our performance of the Barking Abbey plays is approaching quickly and as a first time director, staging it has confronted me with some expected challenges but also with some surprising questions that have changed my perception and given me new knowledge of the plays. We started rehearsing mid-February; the idea was to have at first only one rehearsal a week and to record the songs to give the actors the time and the tools to prepare at home. It however became rapidly clear that songs needed to be rehearsed together, particularly when the singers did not all have the same level. People used to singing modern songs but who could not read music felt a little lost. Learning medieval chant by heart is not that easy if you are not used to hearing and singing it. The tune does not appear clearly and if you cannot read music, you struggle to sing the songs. The problem I encountered was that some people could immediately sing them quite well (with the sheet music) and we could then work on movements and emotions, and that others took a long time to do so because they needed to learn them by heart. These rehearsals taught me that however easy it is to forget the importance of usic when reading the play, it is impossible to ignore it in performance. Rehearsing music needs time and when watching what Smoldon insisted on calling ‘music-dramas’, it takes a central place. The performance is an almost constant song and brings to life in unexpected ways the words on the page, creating moving or beautiful moments but also prolonging some of the texts I thought rather short and turning them into challenges for our actors. Singing changes the experience of the play for the actors as well. I play the small role of a novice and when I sing with other actors I feel bound to them in a community where we communicate with one another, more so than when we only move together during the procession. The time the song takes, the necessity to listen to and to be aware of each other, make it a communal experience even when we are standing in different parts of the church.

Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Procession following the Harrowing of Hell sequence.
Dress rehearsal at Maigrauge Abbey, Fribourg. Procession following the Harrowing of Hell sequence.

Directing this play has also resulted in a near-obsessive interest for liturgical vestments, movements and rituals, which had not been my prime concern when working on the play earlier. When Tamara Haddad, who is in charge of costume and I sat down to look more closely at what I thought were rather lengthy ‘stage directions’, we noticed the amount of information missing from the Barking Ordinal. The description of the officiating priest wearing ‘a cope’ which had seemed until then pretty straightforward now raised many questions: what colour was that cope, was it worn over an alb or a surplice, would the priest have worn stoles as he normally did under a cope, would the cincture have gone over or under the stole, how does one tie a cincture, would the stole have been crossed as it was during mass, what colour was the stole, how wide, how long, should the cope have a hood, do we really need to put our actors in cassocks no one will see, would priests have worn a maniple in such celebrations? We also discussed and argued over processional orders, how to cense a sepulchre containing a consecrated host, how to hold a monstrance, how to hit your breast when confessing, etc. Thankfully, a Dominican friar helped us answer those questions which were obvious to the writers of the Ordinal but certainly not to 21st-century literary scholars. Research into costumes and movement taught us about our knowledge (or lack of) and the knowledge and assumptions of the manuscript composer. It also made us realise the complexity and the precise symbolism of liturgical vestments and movements.


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:

Filmed Excerpts from the Performances of the Huy Nativities

Janine Barrett, Sarah Knoepfli, Daniela Lurman-Lange, Diana Helfer and Jasinta Lurman perform the visit of Mary’s mother and sisters to the Holy Family in the Huy Nativity, Eglise St Ursule, Fribourg, Dec. 17.

Following our performances of the Huy Nativity in December, we have prepared a short film featuring excerpts from the two indoor performances (the church of St Ursule in Fribourg and the chapel of the Carmel du Pâquier), as well as stills from the outdoor performance (University of Fribourg).  Many thanks to Tamara Haddad for editing these excerpts.

The production and this footage in particular will be discussed by Dr Olivia Robinson in July 2018 at the International Congress of the New Chaucer Society, Toronto.

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…

The Huy Nativities: Fifteenth-Century Christmas Theatre from a Carmelite Convent / La Nativité de Huy: du théâtre du XVème siècle provenant d’un couvent Carmélite

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

Nous annonçons notre première mise-en-scène: deux courtes Nativités, provenant de la maison Carmélite des Dames Blanches de Huy (Belgique). Celles-ci seront jouées par une distribution entièrement féminine, en partenariat avec les sœurs Ursulines de Fribourg et les sœurs Carmélites du Pâquier.

L’entrée est libre et les pièces sont ouvertes à tous!


Accounting and Remembering

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 en français!

Herod and his Clerc

Jane Bliss as Herod’s Fool







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!

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


Medieval Convent Drama at the H-WRBI 2017 Conference

KB 71 A 24 f 28r

(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. 

Follow us on Twitter!   @MedConventDrama




Performance of Digby ‘Herod’s Killing of the Children’ 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, that 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 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