French Theater – from Middle Ages to Renaissance

French Theater – from Middle Ages to Renaissance

French theater, at the beginning of French theater history, as in many other European countries and cultures, stands the Latin spiritual play “Visitatio sepulchri” (Mary’s visit to the tomb of Christ), which was created in the late 10th century.

It is an expression of the close connection between theater and church typical of the Middle Ages. Since the spiritual play became increasingly important in the course of the liturgy – in addition to the mass, scenes from salvation history were reenacted, the contents of which were also to be theatrically illustrated to believers who did not speak Latin – the play was transferred from the church to a stage relocated in front of the main portal, on which the various venues (paradise, earth, hell) were shown.

Middle Ages

The first religious plays in the vernacular, Old French, date from the 12th and 13th centuries: it is the anonymous »Jeu d’Adam« (Adam’s play) from the 12th century about the fall of man, the »Jeu de Saint-Nicolas “(Nikolausspiel) by J. Bodel, which already shows a gradual detachment from the liturgical context, as well as the” Miracle de Théophile “(around 1260) on a pact of the devil by Rutebeuf as an example of Marian veneration. From the 13th century, the liturgical Game differentiated further: After the “miracle” (miracle play), in which a distressed figure is saved by the Virgin Mary, built in the 14th century, “The Mystery” (Mystery play), in which scenes from salvation history or the lives of saints were depicted. The spectacular scenic presentation in a public square played a special role: Heaven and Hell, Earth and Paradise were played on a simultaneous stage shown; Around 100 amateur actors were involved in the performances, which often lasted several days, which presented a sequence of religious scenes and comic interludes under the guidance of a director and moderator; Elaborate costumes and stage decorations, musical interludes, sophisticated stage machinery and sometimes gruesome scenes let the text take a back seat. Organizationally, the mystery play was in the hands of a collective, either the entire city or those citizens who formed “confréries” (brotherhoods) for charitable purposes and performed religious pieces in honor of their patron saints. The mystery play enjoyed great popularity until it was banned in 1548. At the same time as the spiritual game established itself with Adam de la Halle and his “Jeu de la Feuillée” (1276, a satirical-burlesque sequence of scenes about the author’s life) as well as his “Jeu de Robin et de Marion” (around 1284, shepherd’s play) and secular drama. In the 14th century, vernacular theater was increasingly shaped by the urban population and in the 15th century by the now emerging guild-like societies such as the “Enfants-sans-souci”, which organized the performance of secular, serious and comic plays that were integrated into the festival culture. The places of performance shifted more and more from the church to the urban area, in palaces, bars and shops, on the market square and on stages that were set up as part of fairs and public festivals.


The rediscovery and imitation of antiquity led in terms of content and form to a break with the forms of medieval theater, which, however, continued to be performed by bourgeois amateur theater groups for a long time. The reception of ancient tragedies and comedies as well as ancient poetics was supported by the group of poets Pléiade; the first French tragedy based on the ancient model is “Cléopâtre captive” (first performed in 1553, published in 1574) by Etienne Jodelle. While this renewal of the French theater was taking place in humanist circles of a learned audience, the Ballet de Cour enjoyed itself at courtgreat popularity, which consisted of spoken, sung and danced scenes and was used for entertainment with its elaborate costumes, decorations and special effects. In 1548 the most respected bourgeois troupe, the Confrérie de la Passion, which also had the monopoly on secular theater productions in Paris, set up the first permanent theater in Paris in the Hôtel de Bourgogne, which it rented to traveling actors.

French Theater - from Middle Ages to Renaissance