Miracle Plays of the Middle Ages: An Essay by Simpy Sharma

Introduction: During the mediaeval periods, miracle plays were very popular in Europe. They were based on the lives of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop, and Virgin Mary. They were mainly presented in churches to communicate the Bible's lessons to illiterate audiences. The illustrated miracles done by saints include saving people from natural disasters, healing the sick, and assisting those in need. These plays were written in vernacular language so that amateur actors could perform them and uneducated people could comprehend them and therefore embrace the church's power. Miracles are supernatural occurrences such as healing visions or other miracles linked with Saints.

Religious education provided by miracle plays

A.C. Cawley identifies various common themes and motives in these plays. Primarily the conflict between good and evil giving a moral message to the commoners which sizes the importance of living a righteous life by avoiding sins. He explains that these plays often feature are allegory characters such as the deadly sins who represent evil and cautions the audiences not to fall prey for them. Having this as the central theme there these miracle plays often depicts the battles between the virtues and sinful characters. One can often see let the characters in the play often face insurmountable challenges but at the end there ultimately saved by the supreme intervention of God or saints which depicts the power of faith and the importance of religious devotion. Such divine interventions were meant to inspire the audiences to have faith in God and trust in his power does reinforcing the Christian religious beliefs and practices. Having such beliefs in supreme God, these players solved as a tool of propaganda during medieval ages that had taught and reinforced the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. These please appealed to the emotions and religious sensibilities of the audiences who were illiterate and had no access to the formal education, having used dramatic elements to convey their hidden religious messages.

The element of entertainment

Furthermore, these plays to give a break from the monotonous and difficult lives of medieval peasants. Having colourful and lively dance performances elaborate costumes and music had given a break do the audiences. The element of humour and music blended with culture not even entertained the masses but promoted religious messages and values. Certainly, the entertainment value of miracle drama plays the crucial role in their success and popularity and hence they have played an important role in shaping up the religious and cultural history of medieval Europe. Pollard in an article "The Mystery of the Mystery Play “has significantly expressed that by incorporating humour music and spectacle These plays manage to capture the attention of the masses. The involvement of comic scenes and characters such as Clowns fools and body merchants provided light hearted contrast to the religious themes which were serious in nature therefore helped to capture the attention of the illiterate masses and indirectly playing an important role of contributing towards the religious agenda of the church. This humorous element made them curious about these plays.

Another important factor discussed by the author is spectacle which is a key component of miracle plays. Pullard elaborates please featured elaborate sets costumes special effects such as fire to bring a sense of awe in the audiences. These elements added to the entertainment value of the plays and created a sense of wonder among the audiences. Along with spectacle music was also an integral part of these plays. Dancing music have helped the place to attain an overall sensory experience and helped to engage the audiences on a large scale for a longer.

Social cohesion

These plays have fostered social cohesion in medieval communities by promoting cooperation and communication among various strata of life and thus contributing to the development of these communities over the time. In "Miracle Plays, Social Networks, and the Creation of Medieval Towns" by John R. McNeill examines the crucial role played by Miracle plays in the development of medieval towns. The performances of these plays have undoubtedly helped to create social networks that facilitated trade communication and cooperation among the diverse groups within these towns and thus contributing to the development of society. The Urbanization of medieval Europe was facilitated by these plays as the residents of the neighbouring towns head off had often visited the places where these plays were performed and hence, they shared their identity.

Miracle Plays as Precursors to Renaissance Secular Drama.

In addition to the above discussed components, we must not forget that these plays have paved the way for other forms of drama including morality plays and eventually the secular plays of the Renaissance. The miracle please has immense importance in the history of drama and literature as they have undoubtedly served as the base for development of theatre as an art form. As Europe transitioned into the Renaissance. The influence of secular themes was clearly visible in the forthcoming dramas replacing the religious themes prevalent earlier. However, the influence of miracle plays continued to stay for a longer as the writers of secular drama drew the techniques and themes of their predecessors and created new forms of drama. One such example can be seen in morality please which used which used allegorical characters to explore the moral and ethical themes. Search morality plays were very popular during the 15th and 16th century.

The Religious Themes of Mediaeval European Miracle Plays

These players typically focused on various religious themes and biblical episodes based on the lives of Saints.

• Redemption has long been a prominent motif in many miracle plays, with characters falling into sin or temptation and finally being saved by a divine intervention through faith. The significance of Christian faith in the Saints or the Virgin Mary has long been a major emphasis of Christians.

These plays conveyed moral teachings to commoners, emphasising the character's morality and the value of living a decent life in the absence of temptations.

The ultimate faith in the almighty to seek divine intervention is frequently emphasised in these plays, as is the influence of belief in affecting human actions and decisions.

Another major aspect that stands out in these plays is the intervention of gods or other supernatural beings in human affairs to achieve the desired conclusion. This team is frequently intertwined with belief in a greater power that oversees the universe.

Episodes of sin and retribution have played a crucial role in teaching humanity that sins are frequently punished. The Divine Justice and the repercussions of immoral activity rule this theme

The miracles accomplished by God and the Saints in form of healing and resurrection, emphasises the presence of the Supreme Lord. The idea of miracles wrought by Saints is a central component of mediaeval miracle plays.

Having belief in Christian teaching to shape up one's life, overcome problems, and find peace in the afterlife is also emphasised in these plays, which implicitly illustrates the supremacy of the church by highlighting the importance of the church in defining religious beliefs and practises of the mediaeval period.

A Multitude of Titles for Miracle Plays

Miracle plays have played an essential part in the lives of commoners even after the mediaeval eras. They not only provided education and entertainment, but they also served as community builders, bringing spiritual solace to those in need. They were proofs of Christian theology that enlightened the minds of the seekers. The various miracle plays that we see throughout the history of English literature are as follows.

The Coventry Nativity Play

The Play of Saint Catherine

The Play of Saint George

The Play of the Sacrament

The Play of the Antichrist

The Harrowing of Hell

The Play of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The Play of the Marriage at Cana

The Play of the Resurrection

The Play of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary


Cawley, A.C. "The English Mystery Plays: Their Background and Development." Essays and Studies, vol. 6, 1952, pp. 104-126.

Pollard, Tanya. "The Mystery of the Mystery Play: Entertainment and Ritual in Medieval Drama." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2005, pp. 47-64.

McNeill, John R. "Miracle Plays, Social Networks, and the Creation of Medieval Towns." The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 4, 2003, pp. 953-982.

By Simpy Sharma