Andrzej D¹brówka; Andrzej Dabrowka
THEATRE AND THE SACRED IN THE MIDDLE AGES.
Religion, Civilization, Aesthetics.
Wroclaw 2001; ISBN 83 - 912844
- 5 - X
Review in „Speculum” (vol. 88. 2, 2005, pp. 557-559)
The book presents a theory of relationships
between the forms of devotion and early dramatic genres. The historical background
is the circumstances of the Church becoming independent of the Empire (libertas
ecclesiae, investiture, the Gregorian revolution of the mid-11th century).
A theological and philosophical
aspect of the transformation of piety at the time was the specification
of the ontological status of the sacred (spiritualization) and "shifting
it to Heaven" (transcendentalization). This was accompanied by an evolution
in human perception of the kind of links between God and the world; a transition
from direct contact to mediation took place. At first it was possible, for
instance, to call God to settle a dispute (God's trial), but since the beginning
of the 13th century the ordeals have been forbidden by the Church, limiting
the presence of the sacred to the sacraments; it is only through them that
God can intervene (sacramentalism). All earthly matters not concerning the
salvation of the soul are given over to man as his sole responsibility to
be dealt with as he chooses (the world of the profane).
At this point the civilizational
aspect appears: in opposition to a popular theory of Western civilization
as a process of increasing individual self-control as a result of the consolidation
of state power (Norbert Elias), I argue for the need to take into account
purely religious conditions. It was only when the state apparatus and the
Church structure became clearly distinct and when the world of the sacred
(sacrum) and the profane (profanum) were separated that the essence of Christ's
mission, i.e. the establishment of a church as a mystical body, could be fulfilled.
This is expressed by the idea of recapitulation formulated by St. Paul, according
to which Christ is the head of the Church.
The decay of (Carolingian,
but also Ottonian) religious-and-political unity was accompanied by an increase
in the importance of the battle for souls, which – due to the mutual independence
of the two great centres of power (the Church and secular rulers) – could
not make use of force (universalism of obedience) and from then on had to
consist in acquiring convinced and involved followers; an enormously important
role in the process was played by various forms of art, including theatre.
The concepts of sacramentalism
and the religious component of the civilization explain certain social behaviours
in a new way. Together with the third concept, that of recapitulation, they
make it possible to formulate a holistic aesthetics for the religiously inspired
creativity in the period spanning the 11th and the 15th centuries, which I
attempt to do in Chapter IV. The common denominator or the most universal
aim of different forms of art, i.e. the basis for the aesthetics of recapitulation,
is the Church-building duty. The application of art to observe, reveal, articulate
and control values contributes to their harmonization and standardization,
as well as to the removal of doubt, making religious symbols more homogenous,
accumulating evidence of their correctness and strengthening the aura of their
factuality. Thus I confirm the theory of religion as a cultural system (Clifford
Geertz). This property of religion makes the medieval theatre, even its apparently
secular forms, impossible to understand without considering the religious
life at the time.
The accomplishment of the tasks
mentioned above (the gaining of souls for the system) or even their imposition
would not have been possible without appreciating the basic role of the cognitive
aspect of religious life, which means that one should assume the absolute
mediation of individual mind, equipped in a specific manner, and of imagination,
taking advantage of a given projection apparatus.
The last chapter (V) is devoted
to the application of the proposed theory to dramatic material.
Firstly, I follow the process
of the sacred becoming transcendental, as observed in the main, traditionally
distinguished early genres. All the time I am looking for proofs of the rightness
of the religious system, transferred in those texts.
As a next step I check (in each genre paragraph
22-26) how the dramatic material reflects the development of forms of piety
in their relation to the sacramental reduction of the sacred. The proposed
procedure joins the forms of piety distinguished at the beginning as observable
types of human attitude to God with the range of His will as known by man.
- (1) demonstration of the reality of the
holy, omnipresent and continuous sacred: mystery plays prove the authenticity
and the central role of the Incarnation in the history of salvation;
- (2) demonstration of the occasional sacred,
an interaction between the world of the sacred and the world of the profane:
miracle plays prove the operation of the sacred in the world of the profane
- (3) the demonstration of the punctual sacred
which manifests itself in sacramental life: morality plays prove the self-sufficiency
of a religious man, the effectiveness of self-creation, with God in heart;
having learned the rules the man takes his salvation in his own hands;
- (3a) the sacramental sacred proves its
legitimization in revelation (not only in the catechism, liturgy or canon
law); the Incarnation tends to be presented as the settling of all previous
accounts and the opening of a new way towards the salvation of the whole
human race, a new one, which had been transformed into the mystical body
of the Church; recapitulation drama (this type emerged after the research
had been completed on the basis of certain unusual structures); in this
case a generally social, communal, and not only the Church-building, aspect
of the sacraments is stressed (institutional morality play); the aim is to
confirm the factuality of the system and to socially control the "legality"
of individual attempts at salvation;
- (4) the demonstration of sacredness of
the lower levels and secularization: farce, other genres, "outside" motifs
in genres 1-3, which reveal instability, futility, wretchedness or the criminal
nature of the actions of a man who ignores the sacred.
Piety (of the three types 1-3) finds its expression,
to a considerable extent, also through the liturgy and liturgical drama.
- (1) The biblical piety of the pre-scholastic
period is associated with the sacred of a continuous – universal, dispersed,
pre-logical – nature. The typical genre was the mystery play; there we see
God in action but we do it as mankind, not as individuals; man gets to know
God's will in its full sense.
- (2) Folk piety is associated with the occasional
sacred (most often as part of the cult of the saints). The miracle play
shows how the sacred manifests itself directly in the interest of the just,
who are frequently unjustly accused. "God reveals His will in a miracle or
the actions of a saint"; in time the presence and operation of God in the
sacraments increases: baptism, the eucharist. The relationship with God assumes
a contractual character, in line with the principle of sacrum commercium
(merit; something for something).
- (3) The sacramental piety is associated
with the sacred of a spiritual and discontinuous character (it is crystallized
in the sacraments). We see in morality plays that God's will is revealed
not through a direct revelation, not through a miraculous intervention, but
rather through a dialogue between man and the sacramental values; if God
appears at all, as at the beginning of Everyman, He is beyond the ontological
boundary (here: He makes use of the mediation of Death), His will is not
a factor affecting the course of action.
- (4) There are genres where God's will (the
sacred of each form) is ignored, neglected, fought against by the wicked (the
Godless, outsiders), whereas it should be (and sometimes is) defended by
the good (the pious, "ours") – the main theme and message of farces; the
action takes place in the sphere of secular behaviours (the sacred of the
lower levels and the secularization in Howard Becker's sense – a sociological
theory of graded sacredness as a scale of invariability of behaviours).
The third measure which was
put to use on the texts was the degree of increase in man's rights and duties,
i.e. the development of his subjectiveness. All the time it must be borne
in mind that his participation in a community must be preceded by the choice
or acceptance of the basic truths regarding himself and the world.
These three aspects (the ontology of the sacred,
different forms of piety, and subjectivity) made it possible to prove and
supplement the system of the early dramatic genres, but first of all to
better contextualize it historically (through making the division more dynamic
and setting it in the context of social communication), and also enabled
the cognitively advantageous placing of the theatre among other forms of
- (1) In mystery plays God is the truth; there
is no place for man's problems, he is not the subject; nothing is required
from him and nothing depends on him; destiny is decided by God.
- (2) In miracle plays only God Himself knows
the truth; the human truth is insufficient; man is not self-reliant and depends
on the sacred; although man shows independence in his individual actions,
other than care for salvation, but they lead him to ruin, from which he
can be saved by God's will (deus ex machina).
- (3) In moralities man has been shown the
way to the truth; in the personal morality the independent subject is responsible
for his own and his brothers' and sisters' salvation, which is attained
through sacramental life, not through a miracle; the dominating motif of
institutional moralities is the care for the state of various organizations,
structures and aspects of social life, where certain earthly values falling
within the range of the sacred of the lower levels are realized. The subjects
responsible for groups have to act with a view to strengthening endangered
- (4) In the farce man does not know the
truth and is deceived by the "truths" of other people, behind which there
usually hides the devil; in farces act subjects which are free and irresponsible,
devoid of any restraints (sine nauta navis), clearly disrespecting the sphere
of the sacred; the plot implies and exemplifies the sad consequences of such
by Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wroclawskiego.