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Ready to sing 'O Sisters too'

20 January 2017

A collaboration between a new medieval drama project and the first girl-choristers’ choir to be founded in Oxford since the university’s medieval beginnings might help us to rethink how we use our churches and chapels today, argues Jonathan Arnold

The Yorck Project/WIKI

Bloodshed: Massacre of the Innocents, Matteo di Giovanni (1435-1495)

Bloodshed: Massacre of the Innocents, Matteo di Giovanni (1435-1495)

“THAT woman . . . is a woman!” So declares the shocked Sir Edmund Tilney at the sight of a woman playing a female role in a Shakespeare play (Shakespeare in Love). We may be familiar with the idea that men or boys played women’s roles in Elizabethan drama, and we might assume that this was also the case in previous centuries — especially, you might think, in the Middle Ages.

Not so, however: recent research has discovered that women, particularly nuns, were involved in the production and performance of many kinds of medieval drama. A forthcoming production of a medieval liturgical drama, in New College chapel, Oxford, will attempt to give us a better understanding of the sights and sounds of late-medieval drama; and even, perhaps, an opportunity to learn from our medieval ancestors the many colourful and stimulating ways by which this kind of experience might help us to engage with the gospel.


A NEW project on medieval convent drama (http://medievalconventdrama.org) has found a surprisingly large and detailed amount of evidence for female involvement in drama from convents in what are now France and Belgium. Although the Dissolution destroyed many monastic and conventual documents, there is even reference to convent drama in England, notably at Barking Abbey.

As most of the dramatised stories were biblical, the project seeks to discover how women in these communities approached the stories; what manner of productions were laid on; what the devotional or educational aspirations were for the plays; who the audience may have been; and whether the liturgy and music within the drama had any specific impact or aims.

In some cases, male roles were also taken by women, giving a complete reversal of what, many years later, became the Shakespearean norm.


REFERENCES also survive of female performance outside the convent, including women singing in the Coventry Innocents play (c.1500), and the singing and dancing of a group of “Virgins” in the Candlemas and Killing of the Children plays in the Digby manuscript (c.1512) .

These “Digby plays”, although not convent dramas in themselves, are being staged in a new production in New College chapel, Oxford, on 8 February, shortly after the feast of Candlemas, and will bring to life the biblical, liturgical, and musical drama of late-medieval England.

The director of the play (and project leader of the Medieval Convent Drama project), Professor Elisabeth Dutton, of Fribourg University, Switzerland, intends to use young female performers as the singing and dancing virgins of the medieval script; and also to have some older girls playing some of the speaking and dancing roles.

These female parts will be taken by members of the recently formed Frideswide Voices: the first liturgical girl-choristers’ choir to be founded in Oxford. Established in 2014, the choir promotes opportunities for girls, aged between seven and 14, to sing within the liturgy in Oxford college chapels. Through weekly rehearsals and services, girls gain a rounded choral education singing Anglican repertoire.

Frideswide Voices are “in residence” this academic year at Christ Church Cathedral (Michaelmas Term, 2016), New College (Hilary Term, 2017), and at Magdalen College (Trinity Term, 2017), and have also sung at Exeter, Jesus, Oriel, Queen’s, and Worcester colleges, besides St George’s chapel, Windsor Castle; Salisbury Cathedral; and (soon) St Paul’s Cathedral.

In co-founding the choir, Tanya Simpson sought to address the imbalance of opportunities for boy choristers with those for girls: “There was no opportunity for girls to experience singing within the liturgy; to gain all that boys could from the training experiences of choristership.” Likewise, the director, Will Dawes, sees room for more equality: “In this day and age, it seems only fair that there is an opportunity for girls — in a city of great choral foundations — to have a go themselves. We’re not trying to break the system, but we are trying to reshape it slightly.”


SO, HOW will these modern-day choristers in the Anglican tradition be incorporated into the pre-Reformation medieval liturgical drama? The Digby manuscript of the play contains a reference to “virgins who shall sing and dance”, although the biggest roles are male: Herod; and a non-biblical role for a clown, Watkin, who is Herod’s messenger, and is sent by Herod to recruit the soldiers to kill the children.

But, as Professor Dutton explains, the male characters in the play are subject to ridicule, especially by women: “The adult men are idiots, who are exposed as being cowardly and pathetic. The contrast between them and the innocent singing and dancing virgins will hopefully create an interesting dynamic in the play. . . Because Frideswide Voices choristers are aged between eight and fourteen, some of the older girls are going to play the mothers, who have two or three little speeches each.”

The original play is in English rather than Latin (the language normally used for biblical narrative and liturgy in the Middle Ages), which raises questions concerning the audience — if, indeed, that term can be used — and the purpose of the play. Professor Dutton explains that medieval liturgical drama, and the Mystery and morality plays that incorporated scriptural and liturgical material were not all performed in the same way. “We don’t know entirely about the audiences, but we do know that they weren’t all performed in the same spaces,” she says.

“The York [Mystery Plays], we know, used wagons, moving around the town. Some of the other plays, for example at Wakefield, seem to have been performed on different stages, but, rather than moving the wagons around, the audience moved around. But then you also have plays like the N-Town Mary Play [where N stands for the Latin nomen, or name, so that, wherever it was performed, they could insert the name of the town as appropriate], which I’m pretty certain was written to be performed in a church.

“It makes much more sense in a church space than it does in the outdoors, and it’s also clearly written to teach the liturgy, such as the Magnificat, in Latin and English.”

So these dramatic portrayals of biblical narrative were educational tools for teaching — by means of the spoken word, liturgy, and scripture — but they were also aids to moral improvement, Professor Dutton suggests, perhaps portraying the values of Mary’s Magnificat itself, with the wisdom of the wise overthrowing the powerful: “Because you have the purification in the Temple [Candlemas] and the killing of the children together in this play, you have two events, both of which have to do with children.” Thus the humble children and women making grown male tyrants look foolish depict a world where traditional power balances are overturned.


THERE is more theological and historical evidence why these two stories were joined into one play. “In Bethlehem”, Professor Dutton explains, “the location that was marked out as the site of the Slaughter of the Innocents — a place reverenced by medieval pilgrims as they walked around the holy sites in Bethlehem — was also considered to be the site of the circumcision of Christ.

“So there was a connection, iconographically, between the idea of the first shedding of Christ’s blood, in his circumcision at the presentation in the Temple, and the blood of the Innocents. For pilgrims, both events were commemorated at the same place.”

Members of religious orders who could not travel to the Holy Land were encouraged to make metaphorical pilgrimages at home. “We know that nuns were encouraged to make imaginative pilgrimages around the space of a convent, mapped out as visiting the holy places of Jerusalem,” Professor Dutton says.

So, although the “Digby Play” is not a convent drama, the connection between the biblical events would have made sense to a medieval religious audience, and, as “those two biblical stories are often treated together in convent drama that does survive from the continent, it seems plausible that something like this would have existed for a convent drama in English”.

A lay audience, then, would be invited to make the same biblical and devotional connections: “The plays have, in many cases, a function to teach people who either couldn’t read or, more likely, could read a little bit, but couldn’t read Latin,” Professor Dutton says. “Even if they could read Latin, most would have had very limited access to books. So their learning was done in this way, with a dramatic form, which combined the visual, the auditory, and even smells — incense could have been used, for example — that can help fix ideas in the mind and in the memory. There are clear lessons that can be taught.”


THERE were also several clear functions for music within the drama. Chant settings of Latin hymns, such as the Te Deum [We praise Thee, O God], would often be indicated in the manuscripts, thus giving an opportunity for the listeners to learn, or relearn, the music, and perhaps join in.

On 8 February, Frideswide Voices will sing chant settings appropriate to the period, and the audience will be encouraged to participate. Professor Dutton has also included the “Coventry Carol” from the Coventry Innocents play,because the carol also exists specified for performance by the mourning mothers in the killing of the children”. They will sing:


O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
‘Bye bye, lully, lullay’?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.


THERE is a wider brief for music within these kinds of production, too. “Music has such an extraordinary capacity to move people,” Professor Dutton says. “I thought there were four reasons that you have music in a play. One reason is — especially with a medieval drama where you don’t have big sets — to create a setting.

“It also can serve a practical purpose to cover action: for instance, when you’ve got to give an actor time to get changed. It can create a pause, a moment when you want to highlight reflection in an audience. Particularly in the Mystery cycles, when, if you’ve created a strong visual image, you want people to look at it for a moment, playing some music can help facilitate that. But I think the most obvious thing that music does is to move people.

“All medieval drama is, to some extent, religious in whatever way, and for a modern audience of people who don’t necessarily have faith, the fact that they will still respond to the music is extraordinary. I find it completely fascinating how uniformly people will respond to, for example, a really beautiful piece of church music, even if they have absolutely no faith at all.”


THE combination of drama, story, teaching, music, liturgy, movement, and dance seems to encourage us to break down the barriers between ideas of congregation, audience members, catechumens, or devotional pilgrims. For, in medieval liturgical drama, we cannot easily categorise those who attended, any more than it is easy to categorise the performances, which emphasised auditory, visual, even aromatic experience, and combined teaching with entertainment, liturgy with music, and devotion with humour.

So what will a modern-day audience take away with them from the performance, and should they suspend ideas of being an audience, or a congregation, or a group of bystanders, or pupils, or participants? Professor Dutton thinks yes. “I think so. We have such a problem with the way people behave in church today. Obviously a chapel was, and remains, a sacred space, but I don’t think people understood that as meaning you always had to whisper, or that they were not allowed to laugh in there.

“I wish to find a way of bringing home to people that churches were not a separate part of your life — places that you went to for a couple of hours on Sunday only — but were spaces where all sorts of aspects of life took place.”

This medieval liturgical drama can help us to see that the gospel, and the Church, are not just for Sundays but for every part of the rich tapestry of our lives. The young singers of Frideswide Voices, and the ancient text of the “Digby Play” will, it is hoped, create a vivid encounter with two Gospel stories in a new and dynamic way.

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