London – The First Theatres – 1110 – Mysteries & Moralities

This article is from the book London – Volume 3 published in 1824 by Sholto and Reuben Percy – Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery – it covers the history of London’s theatres from the 1100s through to the 1800s.


London – The First Theatres – 1110 – Mysteries & Moralities

Rude as the early dramatic and scenic representations in the metropolis may now seem, they were proofs of an advance in intellectual knowledge and refinement of manners beyond those of our continental neighbours. To England, Germany was indebted for the drama, and in France it only became worthy of notice half a century after Shakespeare had raised it to its zenith of glory in England.

The mysteries, those precursors of the regular drama, which consisted of dramatic representations of religious subjects, either from the Old or New Testament, apocryphal story, or lives of the saints, are clearly proved to have been known in this country in the year 1110, which is more than a century earlier than the first record of them in Italy, where, according to  Dr. Burney, they were not known until the year 1243, when a spiritual comedy was represented at Padua. Matthew of Paris relates, that in the year 1110, Geoffrey, a learned Norman master of the school of the abbey of Dunstable, composed the play of St. Catherine, which was acted by his scholars; and Fitz-stephen, who wrote in 1174, speaks of the mysteries as quite common in the metropolis: “London,” he says, “for its theatrical exhibitions has religious plays, either the representations of miracles wrought by holy confessors, or the sufferings of martyrs.”

That the mysteries were one of the means used by the priests to sustain the Roman Catholic religion, is evident from the pope granting pardons and indulgences to those who attended some mysteries that were represented at Chester about the year 1398. By this time they had become so popular that the audience wished to have them in English, and it is related in one of the Harleian MS. in the British Museum, that the author of the Chester plays, Ranolph Higden, “was thrice at Rome before he could obtain leave of the pope to have them in the English tongue;”  the objection of the pope was no doubt that which the Roman Catholic church so often feels against the people being acquainted with the sacred Scriptures. The inference from this is, that the ancient mysteries were performed in Latin, and yet neither Matthew of Paris nor Fitz-stephen assert this.

Excerpt from London Volume 3 1824 by Sholto and Reuben Percy – Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery


Further reading and external links

William Shakespeare on Wikipedia

The Globe Theatre on Wikipedia

Sholto and Rueben Percy