Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Miracle of Theophilus

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About the scene and clip:
This is the story of Theophilus, who sold his soul to the Devil and who was rescued by the Virgin Mary (this medieval legend is the primary source of the Faust story). The performers have amplified the brief account given in The Golden Legend with details from Rutebeuf’s Miracle of Theophilus. They have also added an interlude, in the modern spirit, of Mary’s fight with the Devil. The scene is performed by two actors who take turns reading and reciting, with recourse to cartoon-like illustrations projected as a slide show, and recorded music.

About the work:
The work known as the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) is a massive compilation of stories about the saints by an Italian Dominican, Jacobus of Voragine (or Varazze), Archbishop of Genoa, writing around 1260. Organized around the Catholic liturgical year, The Golden Legend tells the lives and stories of many important saints, as well as of Christ and the Virgin Mary. It was very widely known; preachers and storytellers often told stories from The Golden Legend, and it inspired much medieval art. The work as a whole and stories drawn from it were translated into many vernacular languages. About 900 manuscripts of the The Golden Legend survive, and at the end of the Middle Ages it was even more frequently printed than the Bible. Le Miracle de Theophile is a play by Rutebeuf, a major 13th-century French poet, who wrote works in a variety of genres, including saints’ lives and miracle plays.

About the genre:
Stories about the saintly wisdom, heroism, or miracles of remarkable men and women exist in many religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Such stories are termed “hagiography.” In medieval Europe, the saint’s life or legend was an extremely popular type of work. A great many stories (and plays) about male and female Christian saints exist in Latin and in all the vernacular languages. These works may focus on the saint’s dramatic death by martyrdom, or recount the remarkable miracles performed by the saint, or may relate the entire life of the holy man or woman. Among the most important collections of saints’ lives and legends is The Golden Legend by Jacobus of Voragine. Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a tale of martyrdom. Miracle and pious tales about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, constitute a special, and highly important, category of saintly legends.

This story also belongs to the tale tradition. The tale, like the epic, is an ancient genre and one found everywhere in the world. Many tales are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are recited or told by amateur and professional storytellers and performers. Other tales are the work of literarily sophisticated authors and are often intended to be read aloud or silently from written texts. Some tales circulate separately, while others are part of collections, which may be set in complex frames (as in the case of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There are many sub-groups of tales with specific characteristics; see for example the “lai” and the “fabliau.”

About the edition/translation:
From The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William G. Ryan and Helmut Ripperger, New York Press, 1969, pp. 528-9. Latin: Iacopo da Varazze, Legenda Aurea, ed. Giovanni Paolo Maggioni, 2nd ed., Firenze, SISMEL, Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998, 2 vols. Rutebeuf, Le Miracle de Theophile, trans. Richard Axton and John E. Stevens, in Medieval French Drama, Oxford, Blackwell, 1971, pp. 167-92.

About the performer/ensemble:
Jenn Jordan completed her BA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at New York University in 2005, and plans to attend graduate school; she is a member of the Advisory Board of this website. Adam Jones completed his BFA at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 2004.

About the production:
This performance took place at the Tank–an “off-off-Broadway” venue in New York City–in July 2005. It was part of an evening of performances of medieval narrative organized by Jenn Jordan, a member of the Advisory Board of the website, and Timmie Vitz. Videography by Kennon Hewlitt (a Film student at New York University).