New Perspectives on Urban Entertainment in the Middle Ages

29th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: Saturday, April 4, 2009

Carol Symes, That Was Entertainment? Looking for Evidence in the Early Middle Ages

The study of urban entertainments in the era that followed the fragmentation of the Roman empire in the fifth century, and preceded the rise of towns in the twelfth, is fundamentally challenging.  For one thing, there were very few European communities during this period that can be counted as “urban” by ancient or modern standards; for another, it is often assumed that there was little that could be called “entertainment,” because people were too downtrodden and oppressed to have fun.  In this paper, I will take up a challenge articulated in my book on the role of performance in shaping the public sphere of a prominent urban community in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in which I examined the historical circumstances that produced the earliest surviving vernacular plays of medieval Europe.  There, I posited that it would be possible to study the workings of theatre even in communities that had not generated or kept the scripts of plays or other explicit records of performance, by asking new questions and using evidence in new ways.  I proposed that we look more closely at the performative contexts in which all medieval artifacts were potentially generated, displayed, received, and understood, and that we reach beyond the teleologies and value-judgments implicit in traditional narratives of the performing arts’ development.   In this paper, accordingly, I would like to ask:  Is it really demonstrable that the varieties of entertainment available to city-dwellers of the late antiquity disappeared in subsequent centuries?  And if so, did the urbs of the early Middle Ages foster its own species of urbane revelry?  What modes of playful communication and creative exchange were developed in these communities?  How can we discern what people of the time regarded as entertaining?  Are there ways of recovering indigenous practices of entertainment that have hitherto remained disguised from view because of their unfamiliarity in the eyes of scholars?  Questions like these will drive my inquiry over the next few months, and I will hope to offer some tentative answers in April.

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