This article focuses on the technical term liturgical drama; for general aspects of medieval performance, see the article on medieval theatre.
Origin of the term and its dissemination
The term was widely disseminated by well-known theater historians like Heinrich Alt (Theater und Kirche, 1846), E.K. Chambers (The Mediaeval Stage, 1903) and Karl Young. Young's two-volume monumental work about the medieval church was especially influential. It was published in 1933 and is still read today, even though his theories have been rejected for more than 40 years. Many college textbooks, among them the popular books by Oscar Brockett, propagated the theory of "liturgical drama" even into the 21st century.
In his 1955 book on the origins of theater, Benjamin Hunningher refuted the notion that plays developed out of the liturgy. He noted that the church setting of the mass does not allow for entertainment, and Christian theologians had severely critized theater artists for centuries. As McCall wrote in 2007:
Western Europe was effectively without mainstream drama from the moment that Christianity gained political influence in the fourth century. As early as the second century, the decadence of late Roman drama and the reputed immorality of its practitioners had made the theater one of the professions that had to be abandoned before receiving baptism. Augustine, as is well known, prided himself for having left behind the life of the theater.
By using the liturgical drama theory, authors like Young and Chambers had imposed the Darwinian model of evolution on medieval performance culture, argued O.B. Hardison in 1966. In the wake of Hardison's book, the evolutional theories were commonly considered to have been disproven. Critics argued that there is no logical or structural chronological development in the various play texts that have survived from the Middle Ages. Using Darwinian precepts implied that "drama could develop only from a liturgy that was somehow already embryonically 'drama' itself." Yet no one was able to present a demonstrable "evolution" of simpler into more complex forms when it came to comparing liturgies and dramas.
By examining factors such as "historiography, etymology, source study, and analysis" of the texts themselves, Clifford Flanagan and, most recently, Michael Norton, have shown that the term liturgical drama is problematic.
What makes a "Drama"?
Scholars argued against the over-determined term liturgical drama, calling to mind that just because the mass often included dramatic exposition, commentary, and counterpoint, that did not make it a drama. There may be liturgy in drama and drama in liturgy, but there are several other options. While narrative structures abound in several part of the mass and its readings, liturgies may also convey visual impressions, solemn processional entries, complex tableaux or lyrics. Stories are not necessarily part of the classic elements of medieval liturgies, like visitatio sepulchri, Passion plays, Jesus descending the cross, shepherd's plays, sorrows of the Virgin Mary, or Corpus Christi plays. Liturgy and drama are, for today's standards, subcategories of a greater phenomenon which the 21st century terms performance or enactment.
The example of Cistercian nuns crowning Marian statues in their monastic enclosure at Wienhausen shows the limits of "liturgical drama". Caroline Bynum has shown that the crowning ceremonies included alternating clothing for Mary, even royal crowns were donated to the statues. The nuns, for their part, dressed and crowned themselves on given occasions in the liturgical year. The example shows clear aspects of performance and liturgy.
- Alt claims that the altar was the originary site of Christian performance, which then gradually moved westward in a process of evolution that led through the nave, later reaching the portal. Heinrich Alt, Theater und Kirche: In ihrem gegenseitigen Verhältniß (Berlin 1846), p. 336ff.
- Young, Karl (1933). The Drama of the Medieval Church. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Brockett, Oscar (2003). History of the theatre (9th ed.). Boston, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon.
- Hunningher, Origin of the Theater, listed in bibliography below.
- McCall, Richard D. (2007). Do This: Liturgy as Performance. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-268-03499-3. OCLC 76937329.CS1 maint: date and year (link)
- Hardison, O.B. (1965). Christian rite and Christian drama in the middle ages: essays in the origin and early history of modern drama. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
- Fifield, Merle (1971). "Quod Quaeritis, O Discipuli". Comparative Drama. 5.1: 53–69.
- Clifford Flanigan, Liturgical Drama and Its Tradition: A Review of Scholarship 1965–1975, in: Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 18 (1975) 81–102 und 19 (1976) 109–136.
- Batoff, Melanie (2019). "Michael Norton, Liturgical Drama and the Reimagining of Medieval Theater . (Early Medieval Drama, Art, and Music.) Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2017. Pp. ix, 272; 3 musical examples and 7 tables. $89. ISBN: 978-1-5804-4262-60". Speculum. 94 (1): 259–261. doi:10.1086/701397. ISSN 0038-7134.
- Bynum, Caroline (2015). ""Crowned with Many Crowns" Nuns and Their Statues in Late-Medieval Wienhausen". The Catholic Historical Review. 101.1: 18–40. JSTOR 43900074 – via JSTOR.
- Olivia Robinson and Aurélie Blanc, 'The Huy Nativity from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century: Translation, Play-Back, and Pray-Back', Medieval English Theatre 40 (2019) 
- Benjamin Hunningher, The Origin of the Theater (The Hague, 1955).
- Michael Norton, Liturgical Drama and the Reimagining of Medieval Theater (Kalamazoo, 2017).