Miracle play: Broadly defined, a medieval religious drama presenting the life of a saint, the performance of a miracle, or a story from the Bible. Some scholars make a distinction between miracle plays and mystery plays, limiting the former to nonbiblical material, such as stories of St. Nicholas and miraculous intercessions of the Virgin Mary, and reserving the latter for biblical material, stories from the Old or New Testament. Others use the term miracle play to refer to a drama featuring any miracle, whether or not that miracle is described in Scripture.
Miracle plays began to develop in the tenth century, arising within the Christian Church as dramatized parts of the liturgy. Liturgical dramas, which were written in Latin and performed by clergy during church services, featured biblical stories. Following a 1210 papal edict barring clergy from public acting, however, miracle plays became the province of towns, trade guilds, and confréries (brotherhoods), a shift that led to several additional changes, including: (1) use of the vernacular rather than Latin; (2) performances in halls and town squares on festival days; (3) expansion of the subject matter to nonbiblical material; (4) the organization of plays, particularly those featuring biblical stories, into cycles; and (5) a certain degree of secularization, such as the incorporation of comic elements. In England, cycles of plays were typically performed over several days, often with scenes or episodes staged on moveable pageant wagons drawn through a number of places in the town to make the drama available to everyone.
EXAMPLES: Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicolas (Play of St. Nicholas) and Rutebeuf’s Miracle de Théophile (Miracle of Theophilus), both from the thirteenth century; the fourteenth-century French cycle Miracles de Notre Dame; Lazarus, from the Wakefield cycle (c. 1350); the Digby play of Mary Magdalene (c. 1480).