The Cultural Context of the Fleury Playbook: liturgy & drama in a corner of 12th century France

Meeting chaired by Dr Rex Valentine

Wyndham Thomas

Research Fellow in Music, University of Bristol

26 October 2004

The manuscript known as the Fleury Playbook occupies pages 176-243 in a composite volume of sermons, biblical texts, liturgical dramas and sequences (polystrophic hymns) now held in the Municipal Library of Orléans in central France as MS 201. This collection of ten religious plays is named after the Roman town of Fleury – nowadays known as St Benoît-sur-Loire – where it was kept at the Abbey of St Benoît (Benedict) until the dispersal of much of the monastic library during the anticlerical aftermath of the French Revolution. All the plays are set to music in a style recalling the unaccompanied plainsong of the liturgy from which the genre undoubtedly evolved. It is generally agreed that the manuscript was compiled in about 1200, around the time when the Abbey of St Benoît-de-Fleury (as it now likes to be known) was being extended into its present form by linking the nave of the earlier monastic church of St Mary with the massive independent tower-porch (dating from c 1050) at its west end. The Playbook is a unique source of a repertoire that is sometimes called ‘medieval opera’ and provides us with valuable information about musical characterisation and performance practice of the period (although it is most

unlikely that it exerted a direct influence on baroque and later music dramas of this name).

Of the ten dramas that constitute the Playbook, the first four are based on the reputed miracles of St Nicholas, whose cult had spread rapidly throughout Europe following the translation of his remains from Myra (now Kale in south west Turkey) to Bari (in south east Italy) in 1087. The next two plays relate the well-known biblical stories of Christ’s Nativity and the Massacre of the Innocents; then follow two Easter plays (the Resurrection story and the meeting between Christ and two of his followers on the road to Emmaus) and, finally, two plays concerned with conversion and rebirth (the Conversion of St Paul and the Raising of Lazarus). There has been a considerable amount of scholarly dispute concerning the choice and sequence of these subjects but it is generally agreed that, in part at least, the selection of plays creates a cycle of sung dramas which provide colourful commentaries on major feasts and seasons in the church year from Advent (6 December is the Feast of St Nicholas) through Christmas to Easter and beyond. The function of such musical adornments is best appreciated if compared with the liturgical use of vestments, ornate altarpieces and incense, or the presence of ecclesiastical sculpture, stained glass and woodcarving – not to forget the powerful delivery of sermons and the communal singing of relevant hymns and chants. Indeed the rubrics (or stage-directions) in the playbook call for such ecclesiastical ‘props’ – often specifying the singing of antiphons or hymns such as the Te Deum and describing in great detail the costumes or priestly robes to be worn, the use of candles (to represent a star) and Gospel books, in addition to more conventional disguises such as beards or pilgrims’ dress (‘carrying a bag together with a long palm branch’). Processions also are a significant feature of the plays – not least at the beginning of the Resurrection play, when the three Marys approach the sepulchre singing an extended planctus (lament).

It is clear, therefore, that the larger context of the Playbook would have been the monastic community, which most likely instigated the collection (and, perhaps, composition) of the dramas. We know from contemporary sources that the monks, especially the trained singers in the schola cantorum (choir), would themselves have performed the plays during (or after) one of their daily offices in their abbey church (eg Matins or Vespers) and that ‘audiences’ would have included other members of their community, either exclusively as is suggested by the rubrics of Peregrinus (‘The Pilgrim’ – a title commonly applied to the Emmaus play), or perhaps extended to include local lay people on the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. In many cases the rubrics specify exact ecclesiastical locations (such as the quire) and there is considerable evidence to suggest that, in the Middle Ages, Easter sepulchres (specified in the Easter play, Visitatio Sepulcri) might have been permanent structures on the northern wall of the chancel, capable of housing the necessary evidence of resurrection and at least one ‘angel’. However, the plays vary widely in the vocal demands made on the performers. Some, such as Iconia (the third of the St Nicholas miracles) or Interfectio Puerorum (the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’), require substantial reserves of memory and stamina whereas others, like Tres Clerici (the second of the St Nicholas miracles), comprise numerous repetitions of the same (or slightly varied) melody – rather like a very long hymn – and this has led some scholars to speculate that these might have been performed by children (oblates or novices in the monastery). Furthermore, it has been proposed that the texts of such plays might have been written as exercises in Latin versification by students in the abbey schools and subsequently set to music (by their teacher or the cantor, perhaps) for them to include in the more secular festivities associated with the election of a boy bishop – Nicholas, being, inter alia, the patron saint of children.

Overall, this is a rich and varied context, albeit underpinned by a general understanding of (selected) hagiography and biblical narrative. It could be argued that the plays are multi-purposed in that they served to illustrate or comment on familiar stories (for those steeped in Latin vitae and the Vulgate texts) and also to entertain and educate those lay (or youthful) brothers whose devotional media might have been visual or aural rather than intellectual or book-based. Parallels with sermons are appropriate in that, for some, the visual clarity of computio digitorum (physically counting the main points of a homily on the fingers) would have been more accessible than intellectual engagement with fine points of biblical interpretation or canon law. In several of the Fleury plays there is direct reference to preaching (as in ‘The Conversion of St Paul’) or simulation of preaching style (as in ‘The Pilgrim’, where the choir chant Old Testament verses to supply authority for Christ’s claims). As has been mentioned, the plays have survived intact largely because they were bound into a book with sermons and a few scraps of liturgical music (some time before c 1500), thus providing a roughly contemporary evaluation of their purpose – or, at least, one of their uses. Although I will not enlarge on this here, it is also possible that the plays were copied in this manner to provide a body of contemplative moral reading rather like Adam de la Bassée’s Ludus super Anticlaudianum which also combines a highly characterised Latin narrative with liturgical (and secular) musical quotations.

However, it is clear that liturgical dramas were intended to be performed – to be sung and acted as proto-operatic plays at specific points in the Church’s calendar as illustrations of Christian virtues and their triumph over evil. Like later operas, they contain recitatives, arias and choruses; they call for stylised gestures and colourful costumes; they require special effects of staging, lighting and (occasionally) dumb show. Taken as a whole, the ten plays survey the instructions of the Ten Commandments and, in particular, the Christian themes of conversion, faith and prayer. Their musical contents draw heavily on the vast collections of religious song, which date back to the beginnings of monasticism (c 400) and, before that, to the Jewish Tabernacle. As in opera, the ‘recitatives’ are mostly short dramatic exchanges, which contain the main narrative information. Sometimes these are taken directly from liturgical sources such as the Quem queritis trope (which is thought to have originated at St Benoît-de-Fleury and which forms the basis of most subsequent Easter plays), or else are newly composed in this style. The ‘arias’ tend to be more extended planctus which dwell on a particular emotion, such as the lament of the three Marys (referred to above), Rachel’s lament (in ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’) and Eufrosina’s lament for her captured son Getron (in Filius Getronis, the fourth St Nicholas play). Although planctus are mostly sorrowful and characterised by frequent repetitions of the word Heu (Alas!), the third St Nicholas play (Iconia) by contrast contains an impassioned cry of rage, Vah peri (Woe! I am dead!), set to a rapidly descending scale of seven notes, as the Jew discovers that his treasure has been stolen. ‘Choruses’ are mainly drawn from liturgical sources such as antiphons and hymns, especially the processional conductus (eg Adam novus veterem in the Emmaus play), although occasionally the choir is required to participate in the dramatic action by declaiming biblical texts (see above).

In taking well-known biblical and hagiographic stories as their subject matter, the plays have a comparable function to the many carvings, which decorate the capitals of the pillars and door-plaques in the abbey of St Benoît-de-Fleury. These range from depictions of animals and plants (God’s creations) to the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgement. Old Testament stories of Abraham and Isaac, etc, keep company with the Flight to Egypt and the Temptations of Christ – and it is these together with the emphasis on the lives and miracles of Saints (particularly St Benedict) that create the most meaningful visual parallels with the narrativity of the Fleury Playbook. This second (but not secondary) context underlines the contemplative and educative nature of the plays. Whether in the tower-porch (where the eye is drawn to the clearly visible capitals), in the chancel and crossing (where the capitals are less clearly discernible - albeit familiar to the monastic community), or the great North Door (where the newly restored tympanum plaques illustrate the translation of the remains of St Benedict and his sister, St Scholastica to Fleury in 672), the message of the sculpture is to remind viewers of the majesty of God’s creation and the example of the Saints. The carvings above the North Door constitute three stages in a dramatic narrative as they depict Fleury monks carrying the chest of relics from Monte Cassino, the miraculous resurrection of a young boy and a young girl along the way, and the progress towards Fleury itself (where the remains of Benedict were to rest until the present day). Frozen action such as this is also present in adjacent capital carvings of the miracles of St Benedict in the chancel, quire and crossing of the abbey. It matters not that there are no comparable sculptural depictions of St Nicholas at St Benoît-de-Fleury; the cultural relevance of the carvings is that they utilise a common dramatic principle with the liturgical plays – that of ‘stations’ or stages in a dramatic narrative, rather like the fourteen Stations of the Cross (to be found in most Catholic churches) or (in more recent times) the sequence of ‘stills’ used to simulate movement in early film. To take one well-known example: the action of ‘The Conversion of St Paul’ starts in Jerusalem; then moves to the second ‘station’ in Damascus; finally returning to Jerusalem, where Paul is introduced to the other Apostles by Barnabas. The play’s rubrics stipulate that platforms should be erected to represent these locations and that there should be two platforms at Damascus to signify the house of Judas and the Head of the Synagogue respectively, with Ananias’s bed between them. It is obvious that there should be some movement between these ‘stations’ but, equally, that the main dramatic action should be focused on them – as with neighbouring carvings, for example, of St Benedict’s temptation by the Devil. In this sense the plays are animated sculpture; living enactions of written histories; moving pictures set to the music of the angels – for there is no question but that singing the plays to plainsong-like melodies both enhances their aesthetic quality and dignifies them with the music of worship. The cultural context of the Fleury Playbook is the sum of monastic life: its daily offices and ceremonies, the architecture, sculpture, books and music; its system of education, its writing, preaching and thinking; above all, its singing and sense of drama. It is possible (although unprovable) that the ten plays were collected together to coincide with the consecration of the newly extended Abbey of St Benoît-de-Fleury in 1218 but, even without this specific festal focus, history has accorded the Playbook the status of the single most significant anthology of medieval liturgical dramas.

Wyndham Thomas has published new editions of the Fleury Playbook, in three volumes, available from Antico Edition, PO Box 1, Moretonhampstead, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ13 8UA.