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The Liturgical Drama of Christmas

By Sonja Maurer-Dass

Christmas in the Middle Ages revolved around numerous religious practices and liturgical feast days, most of which incorporated music into the celebration of the medieval mass. Currently, a significant quantity of medieval Christmas music is extant, reflecting the prominent role of music during the Christmas season, most notably in the religious practices of Christmas week and its corresponding liturgical feast days. Christmastide not only included the celebration of Christmas Day, but there were also masses celebrated in commemoration of St. Stephen on December 26th, and Saint John the Evangelist on December 27th, The Holy Innocents on December 28th, and the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on January 1st.

The music of Christmastide differed from the music of Ordinary Time in that special chants were sung and additional masses celebrated. In addition to plainchant composed specifically for masses on these occasions, another noteworthy musical genre made a frequent appearance in the church during the medieval Christmas week — the liturgical drama (that is, dramatized re-enactments of biblical stories, often accompanied by song). This theatrical art form provided the opportunity for congregations to experience these stories through music and drama, while cathedrals served as the performance venues.

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This is an in-depth look at the music of liturgical drama and its role within medieval Christmas celebrations. Specifically, the focal piece will be the Officium Pastorum which was performed on Christmas Day. Additionally, The Play of Daniel (which was performed on the Feast of The Circumcision of Jesus) will be briefly discussed. The historical background on the origins and development of the liturgical drama will be provided, and the story of the Officium Pastorum will be explained. Accompanying this, the traditional medieval staging and music of the Officium Pastorum (specifically from its performance in Rouen, France) will be detailed.

Quem quaeritis?

The history of the medieval liturgical drama begins with the question Quem quaeritis? which is Latin for, whom do you seek? Dating back to the tenth century, “Quem quaeritis” originated within the Catholic Church as a Proper chant and trope; that is, a chant that changed according to the liturgical season and which was a musical addition to existing chants. In particular, Quem quaeritis originated as part of the Easter liturgy and represented the biblical question posed by two angels to the Three Marys regarding the disappearance of Christ’s body after his burial. The first three lines of this trope formed a dramatic, sung dialogue that eventually led to the development of small theatrical works. These works ultimately formed the foundation of the liturgical drama:

Angels: “Whom do you see in the tomb, O Christian women?”

Three Marys: “Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified, O heavenly being.”

Angels: “He is not here, but he has risen, just as he foretold. Go! Sat that he is risen. Alleluia.”

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In his book The Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain, Richard B. Donovan states that the earliest record of the Quem quaeritis performed as a drama is preserved in the Regularis Concordia (965-975, England). By the eleventh century, the Quem quaeritis dialogue had developed into a large collection of musical plays that extended beyond the Easter liturgy to include saints and other biblical events, notably Christmas.

In Drama of the Medieval Church, Karl Young dedicates a section of the work’s second volume to liturgical dramas based upon the Nativity. Young notes that the Christmas liturgical dramas were “imitations” of Easter plays, demonstrated by the adaptation of the Quem quaeritis for the Officium Pastorum (the liturgical drama for Christmas Day). Whereas the Easter liturgical version of Quem quaeritis was sung as a dialogue between the angels and the Three Marys, for the Officium Pastorum, the dialogue was adapted to include the midwives attending Christ’s birth and the shepherds who were notified of his birth by an angel. In this Christmas rendition of the Quem quaeritis, the midwives — while situated around Christ’s manger — asked the following question:

Midwives: “Whom do you seek in the manger, shepherds, say?”

Shepherds: “The saviour Christ the Lord, the child wrapped in in swaddling clothes, just as the angel said.”

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Officium Pastorum

The Officium Pastorum recounts the Nativity story according to St. Luke in which shepherds were informed by angels of Christ’s birth, and subsequently traveled to Bethlehem to see the infant. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, the shepherds witnessed the child lying in a manger accompanied by Mary, Joseph, and — according to a pseudepigraphal medieval tradition— midwives who assisted in the birth of Christ.

During the Middle Ages, the Officium Pastorum was performed on Christmas Day at the end of Matins (which was a mass celebrated at midnight). Young notes that the designation for this drama’s performance at the end of Matins reflects the Biblical account of the shepherds as told by St. Luke, as the story was believed to have occurred in the earliest hours of Christmas morning. Conversely, Young also states that on some occasions, the play was performed prior to mass, and would thus serve as a prelude to the Christmas liturgy with the performers playing active roles as shepherds and midwives throughout the singing of the mass. The most elaborate example of this can be observed in Rouen’s rendition of the Officium Pastorum.

Full-page miniature of the Nativity of Christ, with the Virgin Mary and Joseph above and the infant Christ, along with a midwife. From a 10th century manuscript of the Benedictional of Æthelwold – British Library MS Additional 49598 f. 15v

During the performance in Rouen, France (in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), the altar within the church served as the central focus of the performance, behind which a manger was placed that cradled statues of the Virgin and Child. As Young notes, this performance involved five choristers who wore character-appropriate costumes, and who proceeded to the west entrance of the choir. Following the entrance of the shepherds, a young boy—who played the role of an angel—heralded the birth of Christ and was responded to by seven singers who sang the words, Gloria in excelsis. Following this proclamation, the five shepherds proceeded to the manger while singing with the choir. Once the shepherds arrived at the altar, they knelt before the manger and were introduced to the statues of the Virgin and Child by two priests who represented midwives, and who stated Ecce virgo. While still kneeling, the shepherds responded by singing, Salve, virgo singularis and then joined the choir in singing, Iam vere scimus.

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Following Christmas Day, liturgical dramas were performed for each feast day of Christmastide. In Spain, Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26th) was often celebrated by re-enactments of the saint’s martyrdom, and on December 27th, Saint John the Evangelist was duly honoured by dedicatory masses. On December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents was honoured by performances of The Play of the Innocents; however, one of the most notable liturgical dramas belonging to this week was The Play of Daniel which was performed on January 1 for the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.

The Play of Daniel

The Play of Daniel was composed in the thirteenth century by the subdeacons and students of the cathedral school in Beauvais, France. The drama concerns the biblical figure Daniel, and recounts three notable scenes from his story: the writing on the wall, the lions’ den, and — most relevant to the Christmas season — the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth.

The work consists of a combination of solo voice compositions and choruses, and the final musical work of the drama, Te Deum, follows Daniel’s prophecy concerning the Messiah’s future arrival, firmly establishing this play’s biblical connection to Christmas week. However, what specifically ties The Play of Daniel to the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus? Margot Fassler posits that the play may have been composed and performed for this religious celebration as a “reformation” of the Feast of Fools, a Northern French tradition that coincided with the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.

Although today the liturgical drama rarely appears as a facet of musical celebration during Christmas, to the congregations of medieval Europe, the liturgical drama provided one of the first visual and musical spectacles of the Christmas season outside of regular liturgical practices.

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Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at Western University where she is researching eighteenth-century French musical exoticism and its relationship to Enlightenment philosophy. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Musicology specializing in fifteenth-century English music from York University. Her master’s thesis, “We with Merth Mowe Savely Synge: Henry V, Royal Musician,” examines Henry V’s role and influence in the development of late medieval English choral music with special attention given to The Old Hall Manuscript. You can follow her on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass

Further Readings:

The Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain, by Richard B. Donovan (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1958)

“The Feast of Fools and Danielis Ludus: Popular Tradition in a Medieval Cathedral Play,” by Margot Fassler, from Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 65-99.

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools, by Max Harris (Cornell University Press, 2011)

Drama of the Medieval Church, by Karl Young (Clarendon Press, 1933)

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: A medieval Nativity scene – Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5205 réserve, fol. 10v.

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