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Teatr i sacrum w sredniowieczu

Theater and the Sacred in the Middle Ages

Reviewer: Jolanta W. Best

Teatr i sacrum w sredniowieczu

(Theater and the Sacred in the Middle Ages) By Andrzej Dabrówka. Wroclaw: Fundacja na Rzecz Nauki Polskiej, 2001. 670 pages. Index and English summary. Hardcover. In Polish.

The book was published by the Foundation for the Benefit of Polish Scholarship. The aim of the Foundation is to promote original and innovative writings of Polish authors in the areas of fine arts and social sciences. Andrzej Dabrówka is the author of numerous articles and books, and he is employed by the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN) in Warsaw.

Dabrówka sees himself as a "cognitive analyst," and he asserts that cognitive structures in language, literature, and art bridge various disciplines and theories (p. 49). His work has a twofold structure. The first and major part (chapters II-IV) investigates the ontology of the sacred and uses the prism of phenomenology of religion to interpret it. The author analyzes aspects of the sacred through the philosophical tradition of Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Mircea Eliade, and others. He also outlines the main steps of his argument: 1. religion as a cultural system, 2. sacramentalism, 3. the idea of recapitulation 4. holistic aesthetics for medieval creativity between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries.

The second part (chapter V) applies these theoretical points to dramatic material. The author compares various forms of piety (biblical, folk, and sacramental), and seeks parallels between mystery plays, miracle plays, moralitets, and farces. He states that the early medieval genres incorporated both the sacred and the profane, and that the medieval dramatic forms offered a unique articulation of God ("God's will in the world, " p. 407) and of divine matters. Consequently, the medieval theater is impossible to fully appreciate and understand without the knowledge of the religious life from which it sprang.

Dabrówka asserts that the medieval theater depicted dynamic civilizational changes. The theatrical genres echoed the religious, social, and cultural processes of the Middle Ages. The author rejects the thesis of Jean Delumeau that the medieval epoch was not Christian, but rather pagan (58). He is closer to Clifford Geertz and Osborne Hardison who are of the opinion that the Middle Ages were more Christian than is sometimes asserted. Dabrówka seems to be influenced by Geertz in that he strongly reaffirms his definition of religion as a cultural system (60). He also postulates complex links between beliefs and culture, and he posits that the main distinction between the two is that religion possesses metaphysical elements that are not always present in culture.

The relationship between the sacred and the profane has been analyzed in the works of Emile Durkheim (1912), Rudolf Otto (1917), and Gerardus van der Leeuw (1956). These authors postulate a kind of cohesion and balance between these two opposing realms. Dabrówka works within this tradition, but he proposes an additional inquiry based on the sociological methods of Howard Becker. He refers to the "Becker's ladder" (62-65). It allows him to emphasize the developmental processes in the sacred. An alternative clarification by Eliade links "sacredness" with ontological reality (126-9). Finally, spiritualization and transcendentalization (149) are viewed as the ultimate ontological aspects of the sacred.

Dabrówka associates medieval religiosity with the idea of sacramentalism and recapitulation. Sacramentalism has to do with a transition from direct to symbolic relation to God. The rise of sacramentalism occurred in the thirteenth century, when the difference between the presence of the sacred in the universe and in the sacraments was first fully articulated. A common, obligatory, and formalized system of rules was established, to be obeyed under the supervision of the Church. If received properly, the sacraments lead to a salvation of individual souls and transformation of secular activities into spiritual values. Sacramentalism played a vital role in the Middle Ages by triggering a variety of political, cultural, and social developments.

Dabrówka states that the theological idea of recapitulation was formulated by St. Paul and it had to do with seeing Christ as the head of the Church. He defines recapitulation as a peculiar aesthetic which popularized a lifestyle based on the image of Christ. It encouraged conversion from an extrovert to an introspective personality ("czlowiek wewnetrzny," 362) and strove to facilitate and promote the salvation of the human soul through various religious practices, ceremonies, rituals, and creativity. The typical hero of recapitulation appeared as a Sinner in mystery plays and in moralitets.

Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, the concepts of sacramentalism and recapitulation laid the foundation for a holistic aesthetics. Among elements of this aesthetics were spirituality and ontology of the sacred. God is the human beings' ultimate goal, and various forms of piety can be not only tolerated but also encouraged in order to facilitate reaching Him. The concept of recapitulation also strengthens social cohesiveness and facilitates communication among members of society.

Dabrówka further states that medieval civilization was based on the principle of "explicitness." That means that the entire cultural system could be clarified and objectivized through form and language. The relation between the whole structure and its elements can likewise be objectified through language. Dabrówka borrows the concept of explicitness from Erwin Panofsky who used it to explain Gothic architecture. Dabrówka uses the term rather loosely, to emphasize that in the Middle Ages, culture was more of an open book than it is today. The idea of elitism and of superior knowledge was alien to members of medieval society, and esoteric knowledge, had it existed, would have been considered improper and harmful. The medieval theater was founded on these principles.

Dabrówka's book is ambitious. In addition to sketching out the philosophical roots of the medieval theater, he comments on an entire gamut of artes liberales as practiced at that time. The bibliography is thirty-three pages long. Numerous footnotes help the reader interpret the material in the proper context. The quantity of information sometimes is overwhelming. Some footnotes occupy a disproportionate amount of space on the page (pp. 229-230, 232, 242, 271, 376). The book is rich in material but at places it seems that the author tried to convey too much information in the space he allotted for it.

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