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Spanish Literature

Medieval Castilian Drama

Karoline Manny

A New Poetics For Early Medieval Castilian Drama

These descriptions are in no way an exhaustive summary of the evidence hispanists have found of medieval drama. They have been chosen as examples to illustrate the variety of types of spectacle/entertainment in medieval Spain. The early Middle Ages in Spain saw two extremes of activity. The first is spectacle with very little literary value such as jousts, tilting, songs, dancing, and gesticulating. The second is texts presented to an audience with very little dramatic quality in their delivery such as epic poetry, biblical stories, and morality sermons. Later, these two extremes seem to coalesce. In court celebrations jousting and tilting become mock battles that take place on primitive stages such as galley ships and carts with facades of castles. Songs, dances, and gesticulating have developed into mimed, sometimes allegorical, performances on carts in which performers sang or gesticulated to represent or imitate other people. Although there is still little literary value in these activities, their developing theatricality (seen in the use of a stage and props and in clear imitation) is undeniable. At the same time these court activities emerged, in churches biblical stories and morality sermons begin to be performed in the form of tropes and playlets in the vernacular. These works possessed limited visual elements of the theater (such as props or costumes), but did exhibit the rudiments of literary theater-conflict expressed in dialogue--such as that which arises from the search for Jesus, either in the manger or in the tomb, or Herod's disbelief in another king. Finally, by the fifteenth century modern critics have extant examples of spectacles that very closely resemble what the twentieth century mind recognizes as drama. In the court, elaborate stages are set when the courtyard is decorated with the Canopy of Heaven and fire breathing monsters. This stage is the backdrop for costumed devils and other allegorical characters to perform the Danza de la muerte, entremeses, or mummings. In the church, especially with the flowering of the Corpus Christi celebration, the stage takes the form of carts on which paid actors dress in costume and use props to portray the lives of saints, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus.

Because few examples of spectacle are extant in Castile, it is impossible to make an argument that certain forms evolved from others. It is not impossible, however, to argue that a wide range of spectacle, much of it eminently dramatic in nature, existed--thus debunking the idea that medieval Castile knew no tradition of theater. Rather than proposing a single definition for medieval Castilian drama (for a country and time period that knew no such definition itself), it would be more profitable to examine the degrees of theatricality in the works that are extant. A useful way to illustrate the varying degrees of theatricality in these works is a graphic which has 10th and 11th century spectacle without text, such as jousting, dances, mimes, and gesticulating, at one extreme. At the other extreme are texts with little spectacle, such as biblical stories and morality sermons. Working toward the middle and through time to the 12th and 14th we find other forms that more closely resemble dramatic spectacle, such as mock battles, tropes, the Dance of Death and the dialogues. In the middle we find "protodrama" such as the autos, representaciones, and entremeses of the 15th century. In this way, we acknowledge the primitive nature of these works, without disregarding their contributions to Castilian drama.


Spectacle with no text:




Text with no spectacle:

Biblical stories/ Morality sermons/ Minstrels

10th-11th century





Spectacle with some literary value:

Mock battles staged on carts and ships

Allegories related with statues and song/dance


Text with some theatricality:


Dance of Death


12th-14th century











14th-16th century






NOTE: This graphic is meant to show passage through time (on the y axis) and varying degrees of theatricality (on the x axis). In this graphic, the term representación refers to liturgical plays dramatizing biblical stories performed inside the church or in court. Other similar, but not necessarily synonymous terms might be farsa ( any religious play, especially those with a comic interlude) and égloga (a term derived from greek--ekloge--meaning "selected" ). Auto, in contrast, refers specifically to those works performed on pageant carts during the Corpus Christi celebrations. Entremés refers to plays, secular, allegorical, and occasionally religious in nature, performed in court between banquet courses. Paso may be an interchangeable term in the late Middle Ages.


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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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