Werewolves, Dragons, Dances of Death and Boy Bishops – Medieval Theatre Comes to Durham

Medievil Durham theatre
Medievil Durham theatre

Durham City is to host a twelve-day festival of medieval theatre. Taking place between July 1st and July 12th, Theatrum Mundi will stage the types of entertainments that people would have enjoyed during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One of the plays which will be performed, The Sacred and the Profane, will feature children dressed as skeletons celebrating a torch-lit ‘dance of death’, a rather gruesome medieval spectacle inspired by the plague known as the Black Death. This play will also feature a twenty-foot-long dragon (inspired by North-East ‘worm’ tales), a singing werewolf and a procession of ‘boy bishops’. Boy bishops were an ancient English custom in which boys dressed up as bishops and imitated their actions.

The festival is being put on by a team of researchers from Durham University, who specialise in studying the types of theatrical entertainments people would have enjoyed in the North-East from Anglo-Saxon times till 1642. Professor Barbara Ravelhofer, the director of the festival, stated, “The festival is a great opportunity for people to engage with our research project and to experience sights and sounds that would have been commonplace in medieval times. We are very excited to be staging the festival and would invite anyone interested to come along.” Professor Ravelhoffer referred to The Sacred and the Profane as “a colourful show of Renaissance dance, costume and drama.”


Another of the festival’s plays is entitled The Harrowing of Hell, the main part of which may be the oldest surviving play in Britain. It was probably written on Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, in the early 1470s. The play is based on the idea that Christ descended into Hell after his Crucifixion to rescue the souls of the dead who were trapped there. The Harrowing of Hell will be staged together with a traditional Easter play, named Peregrini. Only recently rediscovered, Peregrini is thought to be an excellent example of a type of play which was once put on all over Europe. Both these plays will be staged on July 1st and July 8th in Saint Oswald’s Church. Tickets cost five pounds, and can be purchased on the door or from the Durham World Heritage Site Visitors’ Centre, Owengate.


If you don’t fancy putting your hand in your pocket, you will be able to enjoy some plays for free. On Sunday 10th July at 8.30 pm a free performance of The Sacred and the Profane will take place on Palace Green. On Friday 8th July a play called Mankind will be staged in Durham Market Place at 12.30 pm. Another free event will be the performance of The Crucifixion from The York Mystery Cycle. This play will be performed on a special ‘pageant wagon’ at 6 pm on Friday July 10th on Palace Green. On 9th and 10th July, at the Durham University Music School, people will be able to try on medieval costumes and see ancient musical instruments.

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