By Matthew Z. Heintzelman
Paper given at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2003
Introduction: I would like to start with two responses to the performance of Christmas plays that provide some insight into their effect on the socialization of the Christian communities in which they were performed. The first passage:
To begin with, there are performances at several places on the holy Christmas day, both in the Holy Night and in the evening at vespers. Depicted in this way is the blessed birth of our bringer of blessings, Christ, including the representation of the stable in Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the threeKings, etc., as well as the boys (choir?) dancing up and down during the “resonet” in the public assembly, and clapping hands together to show the great joy which all people have or should have from this birth. [Neumann 363; Georgius Wicelius (1501-1573)]
This is probably how the organizers of medieval Christmas dramas wished to see their productions remembered: the sanctity of the event, the beauty of the story, the performance creating a community joy at the birth of Jesus. One can see that this author finds the play to be a unifying or integrating force for the Christian community. However, roughly contemporary with this description is the following one (which many of you will probably recognize):
In the bishopric of Cöllen (Cölln or Köln?) it happened once during the Christmas season and on Christmas eve, that they performed the cradle play with the child, and took a large student from the choir who was supposed to be the Christ child, and lay the child Jesus in the cradle. And Mary rocked it, and the child began to cry quite uncontrollably. When it did not wish to be quiet, Joseph quickly ran to prepare a mush or broth for the child Jesus and feed him so that he would be quiet. But the more he cooked, the more the child cried. When it nevertheless did not wish to be quiet, the good Joseph took a spoon of the hot mush, ran to the cradle and shoved the spoon of hot mush into the throat of the child and burned his mouth so badly that he forgot about screaming and weeping. The child quickly jumped up in the cradle and grabbed Joseph by the hair and they began hitting each other. However, the child was too strong for the good Joseph, for he threw him to the floor and treated him in such a way that the people in the church had to come to Joseph’s aid. [Neumann 3764; Jörg Wickram, Rollwagenbüchlein]
Now it should be quite clear that these two passages, written in the midst of the struggles of the sixteenth-century Reformation, are not entirely unbiased, nor are they to be taken at face value. The second text, by Jörg Wickram, is a satire meant both to entertain and to discredit the performance of such religious plays. At the same time the first author, Wicelius, wishes to support the Catholic traditions of the past.