Andrzej Dąbrówka

Mediewistyka, �redniowiecze

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Teatr i sacrum w średniowieczu: Religia, cywilizacja, estetyka (FUNNA: Wrocław 2001); 672 pp. [THEATRE AND THE SACRED IN THE MIDDLE AGES: RELIGION, CIVILIZATION, AESTHETICS; English Summary] Andrzej Dabrówka
THEATRE AND THE SACRED IN THE MIDDLE AGES. Religion, Civilization, Aesthetics.
Wroclaw 2001; ISBN 83 - 912844 - 5 - X
Contents (pp. 671-672 )
Bibliography (pp.587-621)
Name index (pp.627-652)
Subject index (pp.653-670)
Summary (pp. 623-626) - see below
A review in English - "The Sarmatian Review"
Review in „Speculum” (vol. 88. 2, 2005, pp. 557-559)


The book presents a theory of relationships between the forms of devotion and early dramatic genres. The historical background is the circumstances of the Church becoming independent of the Empire (libertas ecclesiae, investiture, the Gregorian revolution of the mid-11th century).
    A theological and philosophical aspect of the transformation of piety at the time was the specification of the ontological status of the sacred (spiritualization) and "shifting it to Heaven" (transcendentalization). This was accompanied by an evolution in human perception of the kind of links between God and the world; a transition from direct contact to mediation took place. At first it was possible, for instance, to call God to settle a dispute (God's trial), but since the beginning of the 13th century the ordeals have been forbidden by the Church, limiting the presence of the sacred to the sacraments; it is only through them that God can intervene (sacramentalism). All earthly matters not concerning the salvation of the soul are given over to man as his sole responsibility to be dealt with as he chooses (the world of the profane).
    At this point the civilizational aspect appears: in opposition to a popular theory of Western civilization as a process of increasing individual self-control as a result of the consolidation of state power (Norbert Elias), I argue for the need to take into account purely religious conditions. It was only when the state apparatus and the Church structure became clearly distinct and when the world of the sacred (sacrum) and the profane (profanum) were separated that the essence of Christ's mission, i.e. the establishment of a church as a mystical body, could be fulfilled. This is expressed by the idea of recapitulation formulated by St. Paul, according to which Christ is the head of the Church.
    The decay of (Carolingian, but also Ottonian) religious-and-political unity was accompanied by an increase in the importance of the battle for souls, which – due to the mutual independence of the two great centres of power (the Church and secular rulers) – could not make use of force (universalism of obedience) and from then on had to consist in acquiring convinced and involved followers; an enormously important role in the process was played by various forms of art, including theatre.
    The concepts of sacramentalism and the religious component of the civilization explain certain social behaviours in a new way. Together with the third concept, that of recapitulation, they make it possible to formulate a holistic aesthetics for the religiously inspired creativity in the period spanning the 11th and the 15th centuries, which I attempt to do in Chapter IV. The common denominator or the most universal aim of different forms of art, i.e. the basis for the aesthetics of recapitulation, is the Church-building duty. The application of art to observe, reveal, articulate and control values contributes to their harmonization and standardization, as well as to the removal of doubt, making religious symbols more homogenous, accumulating evidence of their correctness and strengthening the aura of their factuality. Thus I confirm the theory of religion as a cultural system (Clifford Geertz). This property of religion makes the medieval theatre, even its apparently secular forms, impossible to understand without considering the religious life at the time.
    The accomplishment of the tasks mentioned above (the gaining of souls for the system) or even their imposition would not have been possible without appreciating the basic role of the cognitive aspect of religious life, which means that one should assume the absolute mediation of individual mind, equipped in a specific manner, and of imagination, taking advantage of a given projection apparatus.
    The last chapter (V) is devoted to the application of the proposed theory to dramatic material.
    Firstly, I follow the process of the sacred becoming transcendental, as observed in the main, traditionally distinguished early genres. All the time I am looking for proofs of the rightness of the religious system, transferred in those texts.

  • (1) demonstration of the reality of the holy, omnipresent and continuous sacred: mystery plays prove the authenticity and the central role of the Incarnation in the history of salvation;
  • (2) demonstration of the occasional sacred, an interaction between the world of the sacred and the world of the profane: miracle plays prove the operation of the sacred in the world of the profane through miracles;
  • (3) the demonstration of the punctual sacred which manifests itself in sacramental life: morality plays prove the self-sufficiency of a religious man, the effectiveness of self-creation, with God in heart; having learned the rules the man takes his salvation in his own hands;
  • (3a) the sacramental sacred proves its legitimization in revelation (not only in the catechism, liturgy or canon law); the Incarnation tends to be presented as the settling of all previous accounts and the opening of a new way towards the salvation of the whole human race, a new one, which had been transformed into the mystical body of the Church; recapitulation drama (this type emerged after the research had been completed on the basis of certain unusual structures); in this case a generally social, communal, and not only the Church-building, aspect of the sacraments is stressed (institutional morality play); the aim is to confirm the factuality of the system and to socially control the "legality" of individual attempts at salvation;
  • (4) the demonstration of sacredness of the lower levels and secularization: farce, other genres, "outside" motifs in genres 1-3, which reveal instability, futility, wretchedness or the criminal nature of the actions of a man who ignores the sacred.
As a next step I check (in each genre paragraph 22-26) how the dramatic material reflects the development of forms of piety in their relation to the sacramental reduction of the sacred. The proposed procedure joins the forms of piety distinguished at the beginning as observable types of human attitude to God with the range of His will as known by man.
  • (1) The biblical piety of the pre-scholastic period is associated with the sacred of a continuous – universal, dispersed, pre-logical – nature. The typical genre was the mystery play; there we see God in action but we do it as mankind, not as individuals; man gets to know God's will in its full sense.
  • (2) Folk piety is associated with the occasional sacred (most often as part of the cult of the saints). The miracle play shows how the sacred manifests itself directly in the interest of the just, who are frequently unjustly accused. "God reveals His will in a miracle or the actions of a saint"; in time the presence and operation of God in the sacraments increases: baptism, the eucharist. The relationship with God assumes a contractual character, in line with the principle of sacrum commercium (merit; something for something).
  • (3) The sacramental piety is associated with the sacred of a spiritual and discontinuous character (it is crystallized in the sacraments). We see in morality plays that God's will is revealed not through a direct revelation, not through a miraculous intervention, but rather through a dialogue between man and the sacramental values; if God appears at all, as at the beginning of Everyman, He is beyond the ontological boundary (here: He makes use of the mediation of Death), His will is not a factor affecting the course of action.
  • (4) There are genres where God's will (the sacred of each form) is ignored, neglected, fought against by the wicked (the Godless, outsiders), whereas it should be (and sometimes is) defended by the good (the pious, "ours") – the main theme and message of farces; the action takes place in the sphere of secular behaviours (the sacred of the lower levels and the secularization in Howard Becker's sense – a sociological theory of graded sacredness as a scale of invariability of behaviours).
Piety (of the three types 1-3) finds its expression, to a considerable extent, also through the liturgy and liturgical drama.
    The third measure which was put to use on the texts was the degree of increase in man's rights and duties, i.e. the development of his subjectiveness. All the time it must be borne in mind that his participation in a community must be preceded by the choice or acceptance of the basic truths regarding himself and the world.
  • (1) In mystery plays God is the truth; there is no place for man's problems, he is not the subject; nothing is required from him and nothing depends on him; destiny is decided by God.
  • (2) In miracle plays only God Himself knows the truth; the human truth is insufficient; man is not self-reliant and depends on the sacred; although man shows independence in his individual actions, other than care for salvation, but they lead him to ruin, from which he can be saved by God's will (deus ex machina).
  • (3) In moralities man has been shown the way to the truth; in the personal morality the independent subject is responsible for his own and his brothers' and sisters' salvation, which is attained through sacramental life, not through a miracle; the dominating motif of institutional moralities is the care for the state of various organizations, structures and aspects of social life, where certain earthly values falling within the range of the sacred of the lower levels are realized. The subjects responsible for groups have to act with a view to strengthening endangered institutions.
  • (4) In the farce man does not know the truth and is deceived by the "truths" of other people, behind which there usually hides the devil; in farces act subjects which are free and irresponsible, devoid of any restraints (sine nauta navis), clearly disrespecting the sphere of the sacred; the plot implies and exemplifies the sad consequences of such behaviour.
These three aspects (the ontology of the sacred, different forms of piety, and subjectivity) made it possible to prove and supplement the system of the early dramatic genres, but first of all to better contextualize it historically (through making the division more dynamic and setting it in the context of social communication), and also enabled the cognitively advantageous placing of the theatre among other forms of creativity.

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