Medieval Special Effects

By Cait Stevenson

A curious pair of payments are noted in the registers for the plays put on by the drapers’ guild of Coventry in the sixteenth century: 8 pence for “the keeping of hell mouth” and 4 pence for “the keeping of fire at hell mouth.” Besides being lines I want on my CV, these snippets provide us a line into special effects on and off stage in the late Middle Ages. From cauldrons boiling on cue to the Fall being a, well, fall, medieval theatre was unquestionably theatre.

Miniature from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan Library & Museum, , MS M.945, f. 107r

In this case, we learn that the “entrance to hell” needs a bit more care than the Sunnydale High library plopped on top. It’s an actual mouth, with mechanical jaws that open and close, and it was filled with fire. The hellmouth in the 1437 Passion play in Metz was even more elaborate. It was an automata that swallowed and vomited its victims on its own, and its eyes glittered. Meanwhile the hellmouth at the Corpus Christi play in 1493 Toledo spewed fire with the aid of rockets.


The evocation of Hell, in fact, was possibly the single most successful creation of late medieval and early modern artisans. The 1510 Passion play in Chateaudun took place on a single long stage, with the audience seated in just two rows along its length and the sets for Heaven and Hell marking each end. Those who sat in the latter area got a full sensory experience. The aimless, wordless screaming of on-stage demons and the howls from the damned mixed with crashing and banging of pots and pans—the grating, painful opposite of the dulcet harmonies of Heaven. And if descriptions of hell in visionary literature are any guide (Frank Tobin posits that drama had a major effect on the apocalyptic visions of Mechthild of Magdeburg), the set of Hell stank like mad. All the nasty smells concentrated in different parts of the city—warm excrement from the tanners’ treating hides, urine from the dyers’ wares, guts and blood from the butchers, and the stench of fester and sepsis by hospitals—wafted around the hellmouth.

It’s, uh, not a surprise that the town of Chateaudun could charge a lot more for seats in front of the Heaven stage than the Hell stage.


Fold-out miniature on paper showing the setting of the first staging of the play at Montbrison in 1587, with the set, the actors, and the audience. British Library MS Harley 4325 f. 58

Heaven had its own stock of special effects, too. Spanish Passion plays, typically staged in churches, would have a special platform attached to the lofted ceiling on which Christ descended to greet Mary, and then she was elevated into “Heaven” above. In 1439, meanwhile, with delegates from all over the medieval world gathered for the Council of Florence, the council went all out. In addition to Christ and Mary descending and rising, an elaborate system of ropes moved angels and clouds around them to simulate the sky.

Medieval people eagerly appropriated the techniques of drama for their own purposes, too! The showrunners (and I do mean showrunners) for the wedding festivities of Camilla d’Aragona and Costanzo Sforza in 1475 sought to outdo even the descent and ascent to Heaven. During the first night’s feast:

Everyone thus being seat at table at the aforementioned time, and everything being ready, the circular door in the zodiac on the hall ceiling suddenly opened—and the Sun swept down through it in a cloud of gold surrounded with golden rays and burning lights. And, silence being commanded, recited verses in rhyme. (trans. Jane Bridgeman)

The personified Moon would later repeat the feat in rays of shining silver.

But not all special effects were so elaborate—or celebratory. In the 1230s, a newcomer to Marsal named Sybil seemed to be the town’s holy woman and prophet. Except—the evidence for her battles with demons was her own puncturing of feather pillows. The wonderful spicy scent left behind by the angels who spoke with her had been purchased locally. And the demon stalking the townspeople at night, threatening them for their support of Sybil? Sybil herself, wearing a costume.

Painting Anna Laminit by Hans Burgkmair around 1502

As you can imagine, the hostility of the local chronicler reporting these events makes it impossible to know whether Sybil was a con artist seeking fame or an excessively devout woman who believed it was God’s will to manifest the signs of sanctity around her. On the other hand, Anna Laminit in 1503 Augsburg, who was definitely a con artist (she was later executed for a decade-long scam she pulled on an ex-lover), painted crosses on her clothing with blood from her nosebleeds to fake miraculous signs from God.

Special effects were so ubiquitous that they even made the circuit of stories passed around the Mediterranean world in different guises, like the flying horse with a peg in its nose recounted in Canterbury Tales and 1001 Nights. In the last age of al-Andalus, Ahmad al-Hazragi railed against Christianity, including a scientific debunking of supposed Christian miracles. The miraculous cross and lamp suspended in midair in a church dangled there through the aid of magnets hidden in the walls; the hand of God filtered through a veil along the wall was a trick of lighting and, well, a priest. Legends of India and Jerusalem became polemic against Spanish Christians…a literary sleight of hand to match the “miracle.”

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson