Actors and the Church in Earlier Times

Salvete, omnes!

It seems that the Church, up even until the time of Aquinas, had a real problem with actors.

I even read that they might be (but were they always?) excommunicated for participating in the profession in earlier days. First of all, is this true?

Was it also sinful even to see a play? Any (secular) play? Could one have been excommunicated for this?

When did this disdain for actors and this considering of acting sinful change? And why? Indeed, it seems that it was something to be repented of even up to the time of Aquinas.

Why was acting once considered sinful rather than only certain types of acting such as that which clearly promoted immorality?

Was acting universally considered a sin in earlier times? Again, what changed?

I heard that plays were once banned on Sundays, yet, (apparently?), they could still be performed other days of the week? If acting was so sinful, why was it allowed both for actors to act other days of the week and for people to go see them other times of the week?

Was even reading plays sinful? What about those which might be considered even to some degree actually morally edifying, even if secular? Could one get excommunicated even for reading plays? Even “better” ones?

Perhaps some of what I have read/heard is true and other parts not. Please do help me to understand all this and to correct me where I am wrong.

Gratias multas.

I can’t confirm this, but I believe I read that often times in Ye Olde Theatre, the actresses would often just be prostitutes.

There’s a wiki page on this. Might point you in the direction of some good reference articles. Seems the issue was until quite recently:


Yep. Just read this article.

However, it seems to be rather poorly written and I notice that at least one date cited is incorrect. I never make it a habit to rely on Wikipedia for topics such as this anyway.

That being said, the article seems to cite rather spotty instances of excommunication/censure, so I’m wondering if the Church Universal ever explicitly considered acting sinful and worthy of excommunication?

In the very early years of the Church, through the beginning of the fourth century, people in certain professions were not permitted to join the Church. Soldiers and gladiators, because they could take human life; prostitutes and makers of idols, for obvious reasons; and actors, because of the nature of theater at the time.

I think there is more to this story.

I am currently preparing a document for my Church History website about the history of Catholic literature. In it, I will particularly focus on early evidence of high culture in Christendom. This includes plays, stories, and epics of the type that the Greeks produced (Greek tragedies, Greek comedies, the Illiad and the Odyssey, etc., except I will be presenting Catholic stuff from the early Church that was comparable to that earlier material.)

At the time, in Greek culture, the boundaries between these things were not always clear. Greek plays, whether tragedies or comedies, often had more in common with poems than they did with our own modern plays…at least in their written form…at least that’s my current understanding, though I could be wrong. The written form of a play mostly contained dialog (that is my understanding anyway), often written in verse, with little in the way of stage directions or information about what the props should look like or how to design the masks (actors typically wore masks in those days with exaggerated features that represented the emotions of their characters). Decisions about these stylistic things were made by the director of the play rather than the author, and the actual script was more similar to a poem. Thus, when Aristotle wrote his book The Poetics, he includes poems, epics, and plays all in the same category. (At least, that’s how I read it.)

Well, this mentality sort of got adopted by the Roman empire and, by extension, the Catholic culture that grew up inside it. So, in fact, you do find Catholics in this period writing plays, epics, and dramatic poems, all of which we might put into the general category of “Catholic drama.”

Among the notable examples:

In the 300s, a play called Christus Patiens was written by Apollinaris of Alexandria. In the style of a Greek tragedy, it tells the story of the Passion of the Christ and its characters include Jesus (obviously), Mary, a centurion, a choir, and even Pontius Pilate. As was common for the time, there is not much stage direction or prop information, but the play largely consists of lengthy dialogues by the characters describing their feelings and the actions that were happening on stage. If you like, you can read an English translation of Christus Patiens here.

The next time I see Catholic material that is definitely meant to be a play (so far, anyway) comes from the 900s. In that century, Roswitha of Gandersheim wrote a series of plays in the style of the Roman playwright Ovid. Her plays were often stories of fictional women who endured great trials for the sake of the faith, and they are well-known among scholars for containing vivid action sequences. Roswitha was one of the major contributors to the Ottonian Renaissance through her plays and other literary works. You can read an English translation of the Plays of Roswitha here.

In the 1000s, there was a popular Catholic play called Sponsus, which means The Bridegroom. Another was called Officium Stellae, which means The Play of the Star. Two others were called Tres Filie and Tres Clerici, which means Three Daughters and Three Students. These two plays, composed in the same town (Hildesheim, Germany), are different plays but certainly related. So that’s four Catholic plays from the 1000s, and all four of them have been translated into English by Peter Dronke in his book Nine Medieval Latin Plays.

The next Catholic playwright I am aware of is St. Hildegard of Bingen. In the 1100s, she was famous for many, many things, but among them was her play Ordo Virtutum, which means The Order of the Virtues. This play almost singlehandedly created the genre of the Morality Play, which was a very popular genre in the High Middle Ages. It includes two choirs, one male and one female, a lead female role and a lead male role (the female plays the soul, the male plays the devil), and the plot is about the soul’s attempt to avoid the snares of the devil and follow the path of virtue. You can read it here (pdf), but it is also contained in the book by Peter Dronke that I linked you to above, along with eight other medieval plays. One more notable example from that collection: the Carmina Burana, a collection of religious and secular poems from the 1100s and 1200s. It is very famous for many reasons, and one of its many sections contains a play about the Passion of Christ. [cont’d next post]

[Cont’d from last post]

As you may have noticed, we’ve jumped from the 300s straight to the 900s and plays became very popular after that. But what about that 600 year gap? Were there no Catholic plays during that time? I am confident that there were, and one of the reasons I think so is because the dramatic genre had many other works in it that were ripe for dramatic expression. I’ll get to them in a bit, but I also want to mention that the medieval period also had groups of travelling entertainers such as troubadors and court jesters. Surely some of these people dramatically acted out the Catholic fictional stories, tragedies, comedies, and epics of the time period!

Among those Catholic fictional stories, tragedies, comedies, and epics were the following:

In the 400s, the Psychomachia by Prudentius. This fantastic tale takes the form of a great battle between the Seven Deadly Sins and their corresponding virtues. All of them are anthropomorphized into person-like versions and battle it out with virtue winning every time over vice. It was very dramatic and popular in its time, and surely some group at some point acted it out, because it’s already nearly a one-act play! (Read it here.)

In the 500s, St. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. This absolutely beautiful text, one of the masterpieces of the medieval period, is not only useful as a philosophy textbook, it is also filled with songs sung by an anthropomorphized character called Wisdom, who (in the story) appears to St. Boethius while he is in jail in the form of a beautiful woman and comforts him with revelations about the true nature of wisdom and the charity God has for His creatures even in the midst of woe. It was so influential in the medieval period that I don’t know if even a single generation could have gotten away without somebody performing its beautiful music and story. (Read it here.)

In the 600s, Beowulf came out. Today many people don’t even know it’s a Catholic story, but that is because few people read it today. It is comparable in its depth to such tales as the Illiad or the Odyssey, and although the protagonist Beowulf is himself a fictional character and a pagan, the narrator of the story is clearly Catholic, which is why he frequently cites the Bible: “On Cain’s posterity did the eternal Lord wreak that slaughter, [because] he slew Abel. [Cain] profited not by that violence; but [God] banished him far away, the Maker for that crime banished him from mankind.” (Beowulf Book 1) Clearly, the author of Beowulf was a Catholic. And this tale of a hero who conquers a dragon in preternatural locations is obvious fodder for theatrical material, so who knows? Maybe somebody made a play out of it. (Read Beowulf here.)

In the 700s the Irish Catholics gave us the Ulster Sagas, which include such wonderful tales as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the Táin Bó Flidhais, and Deidre. (Read the Cattle Raid of Cooley here.) These Irish tales show the dramatic flair of the Isle of Saints and Scholars, and give evidence that they knew the poetic art as well as the Greeks had.

In the 800s and 900s, the tale of Walter of Acquitaine and the tale of Digenes Akritas show that late medieval knight-errantry had its precursors in the early medieval period. These heroic adventurers fulfilled all the characteristics that were performed by the heroes of later epics like the King Arthur Saga or other chivalrous works. And, like their predecessors, these are all filled with material that would make great theatre! Catholics of this time weren’t by any means unable to make such material.

Finally, also in the 900s, we have the Irish Immrama, which was a popular genre about seafarers that compares favorably to Homer’s Odyssey. The adventurers in these Irish tales, which include the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of Hui Corra, and the Voyage of Snedgus, all involve fanciful places and mysterious creatures encountered by seafarers who dared to go past the western horizon into the deep Atlantic sea. They once again show the Irish talent for extravagant storytelling, which is the very stuff of theatre, and is evidence of the kind of high culture that produces theatre.

So, no, I don’t think it’s quite true that Catholicism forbade theatre. We’ve got enough examples of Catholic plays from the medieval period, some by saints and others by nuns and scholars, that there must have been a place for them in Catholic culture, and beyond that we’ve got material that is very similar to plays and contains the kind of material that playwrights tended to produce. Even in the period where I myself have not yet discovered any plays, other researchers have discovered the kind of high literature that breeds plays and is evidence of the kind of people who made them. I hope that helps. I hope someday to have a more complete picture for you. God bless!

There is actually some amazing material here (and I’m sure there will be many saves from this thread, LOL!)! Thanks for it!

Still, I am wondering about pretty much strictly secular actors and how the Church related to them. From earliest times, it seemed to take a very low view of the profession and, I would think, not because actors originally started out as slaves or because of the pagan connections (though perhaps the latter did exercise significant influence), but to make acting–at least secular acting?–in and of itself sinful, to make actors sinners, again, even to the time of Aquinas who marks them among those who should repent, is striking!

(BTW, I am still interested in responses to the first questions I posted in my OP.)

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