Actors' Roles from Medieval France -- Graham A. Runnalls

Graham A. Runnalls

[French Studies XLII (1988) 398-407]

In Medieval France the relationship between the theatre and other literary genres is paradoxical. In many respects the theatre was much closer to other genres than is the case nowadays. Critics have often sought to underline the dramatic, para-dramatic, or at least oral nature of much medieval literature, and there is no doubt that many strictly non-theatrical works were, to some extent, performed by jongleurs or others; this would have been the case with lyric poetry, chansons de geste, romances, lais, fabliaux, sermons, etc. On the other hand, the theatre differs from the other genres in that it reached and involved a much wider range of social classes; arguably, it was the medieval genre which was most familiar of all to the 'menu peuple'. Mystery plays, morality plays, farces, sotties, miracle plays, etc. were accessible to all.

To some extent, the paradox in the relationship between the theatre and other genres can be explained by chronological change. The non-dramatic oral genres flourished mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, whereas the theatre became much more important in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The distinctiveness of the theatre is also apparent from the way in which it has survived. Although much medieval literature was not written with an eye to posterity, the frequent copying and circulation of manuscripts of non-dramatic material ensured that a very large number of literary texts of all sorts has come down to us in the twentieth century; it is almost the norm that such texts have been preserved in several copies. Yet, once again, the theatre is an exception. It is very rare for more than one manuscript of the same medieval play to have survived. The plays were performed in ad hoc locations with no permanent theatre and were normally written with only one particular performance in mind. Once played, the piece would not be used again - at least, not by the same people - and so the manuscripts were regarded almost as disposable items. Nevertheless, the types of manuscript which preserve the five hundred surviving medieval French play-texts are probably much more diverse in nature than is the case with other genres and, despite the relative unimportanct of play manuscripts at the time, each type had a distinct function.

In the case of mystery plays, for example, one frequently found type of manuscript is the one which contains the complete text of the play including all the speeches, the names of the speakers and some basic stage directions, preceded by an Incipit and followed by an Explicit; the manuscript is written up neatly, by one or at most two or three scribe (Type A). This first type, which is a kind of master-copy, often referred to as the (livre) original, can be the basis of several other, different, types

When used by the meneur du jeu or play-director, the manuscript will contain many more stage-directions and other sorts of instructions to the director; the text will be corrected or very slightly revised; it may include the names of the actors or references to the time and place of the performance (Type B). Or else it can be completely adapted for the meneur du jeu, as happened in 1501 at Mons, where there was a manuscript consisting simply of the first and last line of each speech, a number indicating the number of lines of each speech, the names of the characters and the actors who played them, and very complete stage directions (Type C). Types A or B could be used as a basis for a final 'fair copy', which would be kept in the town or guild records; this type would be more carefully written and have been subject to no real wear (Type D). Alternatively, A or B might be borrowed by another town, or used many years later by the same town, in which case it would probably be heavily revised. This could result in a 'new' A or else the old manuscript would be subjected to crossings-out, marginal additions, insertion of extra pages and revised stage-directions (Type E). Occasionally, one of these manuscripts might be written up in a de-luxe format, with illuminations, rubrics, etc., perhaps intended as a gift to an important person or institution (Type F). On rare occasions, e.g. Gréban's Passion, the Passion de Valenciennes of 1547, and Milet's Destruction de Troyes, several 'identical' copies of an F-type manuscript were made. It seems probable, too, that towards the end of the Middle Ages some manuscripts of plays were simply designed for private reading (Type G).

Yet the seven types of manuscript mentioned above - and they are meant to be seen only as types and not as exact and mutually exclusive categories - do not cover all the possible sorts of play-manuscript. If one thinks carefully about how a play was planned, prepared, rehearsed and finally performed in the Middle Ages, one can see that other types of manuscript were needed. Nowadays, if a group of people decide to put on a play, they simply buy as many copies of the printed edition as are required (or else photocopy them!); thus each actor will be able to have his own copy in order to learn his words. Such a luxury was clearly not possible in the Middle Ages. Enough documentary evidence survives to inform us how this problem was solved. For example, in Montferrand in 1477, when the town planned to perform a Passion Play, after one Hervé Pamparel had been sent to borrow the livres - the text - for the performance, Antoine Garnier was given the task of writing out the roles. (1) This reference and others like it show that each actor in a medieval play was given his own role (also referred to as roole, rollet, roullet); this consisted simply of his own lines, and the last words of other actors' lines that immediately preceded his own. These 'cue-lines' often - but not always - rhymed with the first line of his own speeches. (2) Not surprisingly, the surviving examples of manuscripts preserving these actors' roles are extremely few in number; they were often small scraps of carelessly-written text, roughly treated and heavily used during rehearsal, and after the performance thrown away as useless. They constitute yet another type of play manuscript (Type H), at the opposite extreme from the fine solid manuscripts of Types D or F. They are, however, particularly interesting, not only because of their rarity, but because their function was much more closely tied to a real performance.

The purpose of this article is to describe and discuss a recently-discovered example of an actor's role.

1. The roles that have survived pose many problems. Not only are they few in number, they are also almost always fragmentary, some consisting of only 20 or 30 lines. Moreover, they are not identical in format, and it is often difficult to understand how exactly they were used. These difficulties are also compounded by the fact that, in two cases, the original manuscript fragments, having been discovered, have now been lost again.

The most frequent type of role, of which those found at Fribourg and Digne are examples, consists of a long strip of narrow paper, made by cutting the normal paper folio of 30 by 20 cms into two halves, and by attaching together, by stitching or pinning or glue, as many of these strips as were necessary for the complete role. The text was written only on one side of the paper which, as its name suggests, was rolled into a scroll around a stick or baton, to which the bottom of the role was nailed. The top of the role began with the name of the character, then came the first cue-word (the immediately preceding speaker's last word), and then the full text of the actor's speech, followed, as appropriate, by more cue-words and more speeches. The role ended with an Explicit. The cue-words were indented to a half-way position across the line, whereas the actor's text occupied the full width of the narrow strip. Occasional stage directions were written to the right of the text, and enclosed in a rectangle. Other short ink lines, placed to the left between the lines of the text, also indicated the timing of movements implied by the text. It is supposed that the actor gradually unrolled his scroll as the play progressed, until his role was complete. He did not need to turn the paper over. Most of the examples of this type of role are relatively short, hardly exceeding 150 lines each; it is not clear, therefore, whether this type of role could be used in the case of a really long part, e.g. a major character in a mystery play. The examples found at Digne and Fribourg are roles from farces, which are nearly always short, or from morality plays, which are often quite short, or else from secondary characters in plays that might have been longer. In any case, most of them are incomplete and fragmentary. However, there is no reason in principle why the system of the one-sided narrow scroll could not have been used for longer parts; the actor could have used several scrolls, if necessary. The system seems eminently practical and flexible.

The Sainte Barbe role is quite different., even if it proved impossible for Jacques Chocheyras to establish which play it comes from, it is obviously a long role. There are two surviving complete Sainte Barbe mystery plays, one of two 'journées', the other of five; in both Sainte Barbe, the heroine, has a large number of lines to say. The Sainte Barbe role is quite different in format from the type described above. Though consisting of indented cue-words preceding each of Barbe's speeches, it takes the form of a small, stitched cahier, made up of a number of 30 by 20 cm folios inserted inside each other and folded in half, thus making a booklet of 20 by 15 cm pages. The text of the role is written, without interruption, on both sides of every sheet of paper. The actor would obviously have been obliged to turn over the pages of his role as he rehearsed the play. This is quite a different system from the other, perhaps more suited to a major role. The Sainte Barbe role, however, is unique, whereas there are several examples of the first sort.

2. The role that is the subject of this article is different from both types discussed so far, and is, as far as I am aware, the only example of its format. Moreover, it has only recently been discovered (3) and is thus unpublished. Its third claim to attention is that it preserves fragments of a hitherto unknown morality play.

3. Description. The manuscript (Archives Nationales A XIX 1732, Manche) contains fragments of the role to be used by the actor who was to play the part of Péché in a late French morality play. It consists of two pieces of paper, A and B. A measures 27 cm by 19 cm; B measures 27 cm by 16.5 cm. Each piece of paper was folded in half, to make four pages. In each case, only the first three pages contain text; the fourth side is left blank, although the role is obviously not complete. It is not known how these two fragments survived, but they are almost certainly two folios from a cahier of four or six (or more) folios, the rest of which have been lost.

Both fragments have been slightly trimmed at the edges. The most frequent format of a full folio (often called a bifolio) in the later Middle Ages measured 40 by 30 cm. (4) A number of these, usually six or eight or twelve were put together and folded in half to make a cahier of pages each measuring 3o by 20 cm. Our two fragments are examples of such pages, folded in half again, and then trimmed at the margins (perhaps by a bookbinder who used these scraps of old paper to make a binding). These calculations enable us to conclude that the trimming was relatively slight, and that only a few lines of text have been lost. Fragment A has probably lost just one line at the bottom of each page; B has probably lost about 4 lines at the top of each page.

An internal study of the manuscript suggests that A and B were juxtaposed folios of a cahier, and that A was the first of the cahier (it is the start of the role of Péché). But the cahier would have consisted of several other folios, now lost. Thus, if each fragment is considered as consisting of four pages (i.e. of 2 folios, each with a recto and a verso), then the correct order of reading would be Ai recto; Ai verso; Bi recto; Bi verso; B2 recto; B2 verso (this page is left blank); A2 recto; A2 verso (blank). Several pages are lost between B i verso and B2 recto.

The manuscript poses a number of problems. It is not clear why the fourth side of each fragment is left blank; and the text itself is difficult not only to identify but also to follow, since we only have fragments of the role of one character. We therefore do not know to whom he is speaking, how many other characters are present, and how much action takes place between each of his speeches. There follows an attempt to provide a résumé of the fragments.

4. Résumé.
A 1 recto. Envie has complained to Péché that someone (X) is annoying her; but Péché says that they are both helpless against X. Péché then tells Siècle to get ready to welcome l'Homme and to allow him to see all of Siècle's treasures.
A 1 verso. Péché welcomes l'Homme and treats him like a lord. He tells the person who has accompanied l'Homme that l'Homme can have all he wants, since Siècle is Péché's servant. Péché drinks to their health. Siècle suggests that someone else (X?) might come; Péché replies that, if that is the case, he, Péché, will have to leave.
B 1 recto. Péché invites l'Homme to drink, eat and enjoy himself, and then instructs Siècle to give l'Homme all he wants.
B 1 verso. Péché curses Eglise (=X?) and swears that Eglise will never gain control of l'Homme. Péché promises to help someone (l'Homme?) and invites him to enter somewhere.
(Probable gap in the text.)
B 2 recto. L'Homme is very ill; Péché tells him to wait until he is better. Péché continues to curse Eglise who is still annoying him.
A 2 recto. Péché suggests that l'Homme (?) should go to the house of Vieillesse, but l'Homme complains that he is in the grip of Maladie. Péché says he is powerless against Maladie; l'Homme will have to wait until the illness has run its course.

5. The Source. The fragments correspond to no known medieval play, whether published or not. (5) But, in spite of its fragmentary nature, it is not difficult to gain a general idea of the theme of the complete play. It is clearly from a religious morality play, of which the main subject is the journey through life of l'Homme, or Mankind. Along that journey he is tempted by Péché and his allies; among these is Siècle, often known as le Monde or Mundus. At the beginning, Mankind is fit, healthy and eager; in the later stages he meets Maladie and Vieillesse. The only ally he has, according to our fragments, is Eglise.

The outline of the play is thus recognizable as typical of many morality plays, even if it cannot be identified with any others that have survived. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is the character known as Siècle; as far as I am aware, no other French morality play has such a character (though his moral 'function' is often attributed to Mundus or le Monde).

6. Its use as a role. Whereas it is not at all difficult to see how the Fribourg roles were used in practice (see i above), the role under discussion poses a number of problems. Firstly, as already mentioned, the fourth side of each double page contains no text (i.e. B2 verso and A2 verso). Secondly, there are signs that the folios were pinned or attached to something firm. There is a small vertical cut, about one cm high, half-way up the outside edge of each folio, about 0. 5 cm in from the edge. The size of this cut is the same as those found at the bottom of the Fribourg roles, serving the purpose of attaching the scroll to the baton around which it was rolled. But there is no question of the role of Péché functioning in this way. One possible explanation is that the role was written up in one or more cahiers, each made up of a number of double folios; before these were folded in half, the right hand edges were all stitched or stapled to a firm (wooden?) base. After folding and copying, the cahier would be read in the usual way until the half-way point was reached; then only the recto of each page would be used. After the recto was read, the page would be folded over the back of the wooden base. However, this hypothesis is not entirely satisfactory.

7. Dating and localization of the manuscript. The fragments were found in the Archives Nationales, in a bundle of diverse documents from the Manche region. One of the fragments has a clear watermark, which is very similar to two watermarks in the catalogue published by Briquet. (6) He defines the mark as 'une licorne sanglée'; the two examples in question, numbers 10371 and 10372, are attributed to Rouen, in 1508 and 1512 respectively, and were found in the Manche Archives. The Northern/Norman origin is confirmed by a few dialectal features apparent in the language of the text: the demonstrative pronoun cem (19, 27), cen (48); courouchier (8); vieul (27); ayra (24, 5 3); saira (64); suir (39). It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the play was performed in the Rouen area around 1510. There was much dramatic activity in and around Rouen at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, (7) but it has proved impossible to link our role with any known text or performance.

8. The Text. We have printed our text with the minimum of changes, and have tried to preserve the appearance of the manuscript page. The text has been punctuated and capital letters used in accordance with modern practice. Acute accents are used to show tonic e in final position and before final s. Words in brackets are suggested additions. Only two manuscript lessons have been corrected (15; 38). All the lines of the fragment have been numbered sequentially, including the cue-words, which are indented as in the manuscript. There is no glossary since no words are rare.


Fragment A
1 recto

me travaille. 1
Peché incipit:
Envie, fille, ne vous chaille!
Vous y perdrés vostre parler.
Vous gengniés chose que (ne) vaille.
Contre elle n'avons nul pouer!
Contre elle n'avons nul pouer!
Contre elle n'avons nul pouer!
emprinze. 10
Contre elle n'avons nul pouer!
Siecle, qui est riche et puissant,
il te fault l'Omme recepvoir
o grant honneur; convient sçavoir* (sçavant)
et tresors luy desplier.
Il doit avec toy demourer;
aussy de toy doit avoir gage.
Balle luy cern que doit aver

1 verso

(...) tient. 20
Nous (vous) mersions grandement,
franc seigneur tres courtoys et sage.
O moy ayra ses grant delitz,
quant il les vouldra demander,
car le Siecle est a moy submis;
cem que je vieul, fait acorder.
Or sus, bevés a plaine tasse!
Je boit a deux des plus hardis! 30
Non fera, Siecle, ou je te dy,
s'il il vient, il m'en fault aller.

Fragment B
1 recto

Boif, mengu, fait a ta voulenté!
Ciecle, mon amy, entend ça!
Vecy l'Omme qui est venu,
qui encor (est) de biens tout nu*,
lequel te veult tousjours suir
et du tout a toy s'aservir.
Pour tant convient toy conseillier.
je te vieul bien cy expliquier,
devant tous nous cy en present,
que l'Omme doit certainement
de tes biens estre poss(ess)eur;
et afin qu'i en soit en seur,
promait luy et sy luy acorde
tout cen de quoy je te recorde.
Sy nom, tu me courouceras.

1 verso

l'Eglise, celle faulce liesce,
sy s'en va fort desesperee.
jamaiz en nul jour ne journee
ne l'aira en gouvernement!
N'en parle plus!
G'iroy, quar je vous ayme moult.
Quant vous m'avés, vous avés tout,
et plus que vous ne demandés!
J'en seray bien, soys certains,
sans ja avec luy retourner.
Je vous diray, pour abregier.
Entrés ens, sy sairés que c'est.

Fragment B
2 recto

L'Omme, grant folie te tient.
Atend que tu soys en santé.
Sy fait! Maiz c'est quant on est mort!
peu 70
Non faictes, nom!
Maro, vez cy pour forsener!
L'Eglise me fait tropt dommage!

Fragment A
2 recto

Ne te chault plus des amoureulx!
Et qu'as tu?
t'emprye. 80
Je ne puis contre Maladie.
Il faut qu'il ait de toy sa part.
Il te fault ung peu endurer,
tant que le mal ait prins son cours.
mains. 86


1. La Passion dAuvergne, edited by G. A. Runnalls (Geneva: Droz, 1982), pp. 33, 37-38.

2. For evidence of a similar practice in England, see A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act in, scene 2, where the inexperienced Flute, playing the part of Thisbe, does not understand how to use his role and thus mistakenly speaks all (his) parts at once, cues and all.

3. The fragments were discovered by Bruno Roy, of the University of Montréal; we discussed them together, and, knowing of my interest in actors' roles, he generously allowed me to publish them. I would also like to thank the British Academy, which subsidized a lengthy stay in France during which I worked on a large number of play manuscripts.

4. C. Bozzolo, Pour une histoire du livre manuscrit au Moyen Age (Paris: CNRS, 1984).

5. My own opinion in this matter is supported by Werner Helmich, who is one of the foremost specialists on French morality plays. He, too, did not recognize the fragments.

6. C. M. Briquet, Les Filigranes, jubilee Edition, facsimile of 1907 edition with supplementary material edited by A. Stevenson (Amsterdam: Paper Publications Society, 1968).

7. E. Gosselin, Recherches sur les origines et l'histoire du théâtre à Rouen avant P. Corneille (Rouen: E. Cagniard, 1868), extrait de la Revue de la Normandie, 1867-68.

HTML par
French Medieval Drama Database Project