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Spanish Literature

Early European Religious Drama in the Middle Ages

Karoline Manny

The first clearly dramatic activity in the Peninsula, in which performers impersonated characters, was the liturgical trope. The term trope, from the Latin tropus (turn), refers to a brief text of 1-5 lines interpolated into the Church Service. It was originally a musical term referring to a brief text of 1-5 lines interpolated into the Mass to serve as a "verbal amplification of some passage of the liturgy." 9 Tropes are normally associated with the Roman-French rite of the Catholic liturgy. Tropes for the Mass were recorded into tropers and graduals, while tropes for the Divine Office were recorded into breviaries and ordinaries (also called consuetudo, liber consuetudinis, directorium, agenda, and consueta). The troper or breviary contained the words, while the gradual or ordinary contained a description or "stage directions." If one of these sources is lost or separated from its partner, modern researches are obviously left with half a work--as has been the case in several discoveries in Spain. Critics such as Karl Young, Richard Donovan, Fernando Lázaro-Carreter, and Charlotte Stern see the tropes as the first examples of European drama. Lázaro-Carreter affirms, "puesto que ya existe un texto dialogado e interpretado ante el público por clérigos, que encarnan personajes evangélicos...podemos hablar, aunque su extensión sea tan exigua, de auténticos drama litúrgicos,"(given that there already exists a text of dialogue that is interpreted in front of an audience by the clergy, who represent liturgical characters...we can speak, although its extension may be meager, of authentic liturgical dramas.) 10

As Lázaro-Carreter notes, the most primitive tropes are the secuencia: brief interludes based on the singing of the Alleluia on Easter Sunday. The Benedictine monk, Notker Balbulus (840-910) is most famous for the production of these pieces in Saint-Gall (Switzerland). Later tropes can be divided into five separate groups: Visitatio Sepulchri, Officium Pastorum, Ordo Prophetarium, Ordo (or Officium) Stellae, and those dramatizing the lives of the saints. The Visitatio Sepulchri tropes are performed during the Easter Cycle of the liturgical year, and are the dramatization of the antiphon Quem quaeritis in sepulchro? when the Angel of God announces to the three Marys the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion. The Officium Pastorum are included in the Nativity Cycle and are the dramatization of the antiphon Quem viditis pastores, dicite? when the shepherds are seeking the newborn Christ. The next forms of tropes are not as closely linked to the liturgy. The Ordo Prophetarium arises from a 5th-6th century sermon, Contra judaeos, paganos et arianos, which was occasionally delivered on Christmas instead of the Officium Pastorum. In the Ordo Prophetarium various persons (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, David, Moses) from the Old Testament testify to the divinity of Jesus. One of these characters, Sibila Eritea, gave rise to the Cantus Sibyllae (Song of Sibyl)--which was very popular in Spain. The Ordo/Officium Stellae, another Nativity variant, has the theme of the adoration of the Magi.

The oldest extant trope in Europe is from the Visitatio Sepulchri cycle. Researchers found it in a manuscript from Saint-Martial de Limoges. It dates to approximately 993.

Psallite regi magno, deuicto mortis imperio! Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicole?


Ihesum Nazarenum cricifixum, o celicole.


Non est hic, surrexit sicut ipse dixit; ite, nunciate quia surrexit. Alleluia, resurrexit Dominus, hodie resurrexit leo fortis, Christus, filius Dei; Deo gratias, dicite eia! 11

Lázaro-Carreter describes the performance of this trope in England, citing an account recorded by Saint Ethewold between 965 and 975. He states "un clérigo, revestido con el alba y con una palma en la mano, debía sentarse junto al Monumento, ad imitationem Angeli, mientras que otros tres, representando a las tres Marías se acercaban a él fingiendo buscar algo; era entonces cuando el ángel, mediocri uoce dulcisone, entonaba el tropo..." 12

The oldest extant trope of the Officium Pastorum cycle is from a codice of Limoges from the 11th century:

Quem quaeritis in presepe, pastores, dicite?

Saluatorem Christum Dominum, infantem pannis inuolutum, secundum sermonem angelicum.

Adest hic paruulus cum Maria matre sua, de qua dudum uaticinando Isaias dixerat propheta: Ecca uirgo concipiet et pariet filium; et nunc euntes dicite quia natus est.

Alleluia, alleluia! Iam uere scimus Christum natum in terris, de quo canite omnes cum propheta dicentes:

Psalmus: Puer natus est! 13

Also arising in the 11th century in England, France, Switzerland and Germany are the Ordo Prophetarium and Ordo Stellae tropes. Lázaro-Carreter cites an example of the Cantus Sibyllae from Laon (France), in which the priest was described as, "veste feminae, decapillata, edera coronata, insaniente simillima." He sang:

Iudicij signum: Tellus sudore madescet;

e celo rex adueniet per secla futurus,

scilicet in carne presens, ut iudicet orbem.

Vnde Deum cernent incredulus atque fidelis

Celsum cum sanctis, eui iam termino in ipso. 14

Finally, in the 12th century, tropes recounting the lives of the saints originate in France, England, Germany and Switzerland. The most popular saints were Saint Nicholas, Saint Paul and Saint Catherine. Unlike the other tropes, this type was most often performed in monasteries and cathedral schools. 15

The number of these religious plays still extant today, and their diffusion throughout Europe, are indicative of their great popularity. Nevertheless, because of the unique circumstances in Medieval Spain, namely the Arab presence, their numbers in the peninsula are not so great. The Mozarabic rite of the Catholic liturgy, which has never been proven to produce liturgical tropes, dominated the peninsula. Eastern Spain, Catalunia in particular, was greatly influenced in the Middle Ages by France--an important producer of religious tropes. Because of this influence, the eastern dioceses of the peninsula converted to the Roman-French liturgy in 800, much earlier than the rest of Spain. Not surprisingly, most of the extant tropes in Spain originate in the eastern dioceses of Barcelona, Girona, Vic, and Urgell. The earliest Latin Easter play found in Spain is the Verses Pascales de III Mariis from the 11th century. It is contained in the Ripoll troper. Another codice from Ripoll dating to the beginning of the 12th century conserves a more extensive Resurrection play. A very valuable find was the 13th century version of the Resurrection plays copied by Andrés de Almunia in Vic. Not only the text, but also the stage directions are extant for this collection. Finally, the Girona chapter library houses a 14th century consueta with descriptions of 8 plays. Unfortunately, the breviary that contained the scripts for these plays is lost.

Western Spain, however, did not convert to the Roman-French rite until 1085. Thus the first Visitatio Sepulchri does not appear in Western Spain until the 11th century, the first Nativity Cycle drama until the 12th century and the first Cantus Sibyllae until the 13th century. Donovan has done the most thorough search for Spanish tropes. His research retrieved 10 tropes in Western Spain found in 10 different cities. Donovan found some of the tropes in more than one monastery. One of his most important findings is the Visitatio Sepulchri trope from the mid fifteenth century in Compostela and its accompanying stage directions. These stage directions, and references preserved with the other tropes, reveal that altar boys, choirboys and priests impersonated angels, the Marys, shepherds and the Magi. The actors occasionally used special robes as a type of costume. These playlets generally took place in front of the choir, lectern and altar.



9 Donovan, 10.

10 Lázaro-Carreter, 18.

11 As cited by Young, 210 and Lázaro-Carreter, 18.

12 Lázaro-Carreter, 18.

13 As cited in Young, II 4, and Lázaro-Carreter, 19.

14 As cited in Young ,II 150, and Lázaro-Carreter, 20.

15 Lázaro-Carreter, 20.



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Copyright (C) 1998, Karoline Manny. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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