Origin of Modern Comedy—Ecclesiastical Buffoonery—Jougleurs and Minstrels—Court Fools—Monks’ Stories—The “Tournament of Tottenham”—Chaucer—Heywood—Roister Doister—Gammer Gurton.
As the early drama of Greece arose from the celebration of religious rites, so that of modern times originated in the church. This does not seem so strange when we remember that religion is in connection with abstract thought, and with an exercise of the representative powers of the mind. And if we ask how comedy could have been thus introduced, the reply must be that the ideal of former ages was very different from our own. In the days when the mind was dull and inactive, striking illustrations were very necessary to awaken interest in moral and spiritual teaching. They changed in accordance with the progress of the times and country—sometimes the medium was fables or other such impossible fictions, sometimes it was similitudes from nature, as parables, and sometimes dramatic performances. Whatever drama the Jews had was of a religious character. It is supposed by some that the words—“When your children shall say unto you, ’What mean ye by this service,’” refers to some commemorative representation. However this may be, we know that about the year 100 B.C., Ezekiel, an Alexandrian Jew, wrote a play in Greek on the Exodus, which somewhat resembled a “mystery.” Luther thought that the books of Judith and Tobit were originally in a dramatic form; and, even among the Jews, a comic element was sometimes introduced—as in the ancient Ahasuerus’ play at the feast of Purim—with a view of attracting attention at a time when people had little reflection, and were not very particular about the intermingling of utterly incongruous feelings, whether religion and cruelty, or religion and humour.
We have traced the gradual decline of the drama in Rome, until it consisted but of buffooneries and mimes; and so its revival in modern times commenced with performances in dumb show, the low intellectual character of the age being reflected in popular exhibitions. The mimi were people who performed barefooted, clothed in skins of animals, with shaven heads, and faces smeared with soot. The Italians gradually came to relish nothing but a sort of pantomime, and it seems to have occurred to the Roman Church, always enterprising and fond of adaptation, that they might turn this taste of the people to some account. Accordingly, we read of religious mummings in Spain as early as the sixth century, and in 1264 the Brotherhood of the Gonfalone was founded in Italy to represent the sufferings of Christ in dumb show and processions. In France the performance of holy plays, termed Mysteries, dates from the conclusion of the fourteenth century, when a company of pilgrims from the Holy Land, with their gowns hung with scallop shells and images, assisted at the marriage of Charles VI. and Isabella of Bavaria.