Swiss towns put on a play: Urban space as stage in the sixteenth century

by Kaspar von Greyerz

In sixteenth-century Swiss towns, the ritual function of urban plays, put on stage most frequently during Carnival and at Easter, was primarily that of a communal festival. In Catholic Lucerne the Easter plays were announced in advance from the pulpit. Members of the community eager to perform were asked to communicate their interest to the city council, who made the final decision about the distribution of the roles. Women (who, with few exceptions,1 were not admitted to the theater stage before the second half of the seventeenth century) were excluded. Actors had to pay for their costumes - with the exception of that of Judas, which, at least in 1583, was paid for by the Lucerne council.2 From the 1470s onward, when acting in Easter plays became the concern of laymen (hitherto it was in the hands of the clergy), two urban confraternities became the chief promoters of the annual performances. As in all other German and Swiss cities, the stage was erected in a public square; in Lucerne the wine market served as the location for performances.

In 1546, 10-year-old Felix Platter watched two plays in Reformed Basel: Valentin Bolz’s St. Paul’s Conversion (Pauli Bekehrung), which was presented on a stage erected for this special occasion at the Basel corn market,3 and another play performed earlier that year, Susanna, which was presented on a stage at the fish market.4 Platter’s description, which he wrote in 1612, when he was 76 years old,5 vividly illustrates the communal aspects of sixteenth-century urban theater:

“The play St. Paul’s Conversion was staged at the cornmarket. Valentin Boltz had written it. I watched it from Felix Irmi’s corner house at the Hutgasse. Burgomaster von Brun6 was Saulus, Balthasar7 played God the Father in a round heaven attached to the Peacock.8 From there the lightning, a fiery rocket, took its course, which ignited Saulus’s trousers when he fell from his horse. Rudolf Fry9 was the captain. Under his standard he commanded about 100 burghers, all in his colours. The thunder up in heaven was made with barrels filled with stones, etc.

“A long time before that, Ulrich Coccius10 put on stage Susanna at the fishmarket. I watched the play from the house of my tailor, Wolf Eblinger. The stage was erected on top of the fountain and there, directly at the fountain, was a case made of tin, where Susanna washed herself. There sat one in

Urban space as stage in the 16th century 87

a red garment, a Merianin, engaged to Ulrich Coccius, but not yet married.11 The role of Daniel was performed by Ringler,12 [who] was still a little boy.”13

Another Basel autobiographer, the minister and diarist Johannes Gast, throws additional light on the performance of St. Paul's Conversion and its highly communal nature:

“It was a very fine day, when the play about St. Paul’s conversion, directed by Valentin Bolz, was performed publicly with great splendor by the burghers. The city council had decided on the venue, which, on its orders, was encircled by a wooden fence. Well-to-do burghers and city councilors took their seats within this enclosure. The common people watched from three ascending wooden scaffoldings. After the play, when the actors, as usual, took a walk in town, fairly strong rain surprised them. This is why, the next day, which was very sunny, they promenaded around almost during the whole day.”14

In addition to serving as communal festivals, plays in sixteenth-century Swiss towns could also help to solidify urban religious identities or to strengthen political bonds between cities of the Swiss confederation which were strained by religious differences - two functions that could well contradict one another.

In the city of Bern, the painter, dramatist, and statesman Niklaus Manuel Deutsch wrote plays which gave eloquent expression to his early commitment to the cause of the Protestant Reformation. Most of these plays were put on stage in the center of town immediately following their composition and must have left a strong impression on the urban public. Take, for example, The Eaters of the Dead (Die Totenfresser), also called About the Pope and his Priesthood (Vom Papst uncl seiner Priesterschaft). Strongly anticlerical, this play explores countless criticisms of Catholic priests: the discrepancy between clerical and Christian life; indulgences; the incompetence of the priests; the so-called ‘whore’s levy,’ which was the fee owed to the Bishop of Constance for every child fathered by one of the diocese’s priests. The final scene shows the pope with all the worldly regalia of a prince at war, while Dr. Lupoid Schuchnitt (I’m-not-Afraid) seeks the nearness of Christ.15

However, Niklaus Manuel’s plays were exceptional not only for the literary quality of his texts. In no other Swiss city was the public stage used as strategically in favor of the early Reformation movement as by Manuel in Bern. With his initiative, it became an instrument in the propagation and advancement of the new faith - elsewhere, this confessional instrumentalization of the theater did not become common until later in the sixteenth century.

In contrast to the propagation of urban religious identities, another play by Valentin Bolz, Mirror of the World (Weltspiegel), which was performed in Basel in May 1550, sought to strengthen political bonds between the Swiss urban communities. A moral play which lasted two days and involved 150 actors, it was above all concerned with the unity of the Swiss confederation, which was hampered by religious strife. In the final scene representatives of all thirteen cantons of the confederation got on stage and re-enacted the original oath which (supposedly) had created its nucleus in 1291.

These two examples from Bern and Basel are powerful reminders that the urban space as stage could unite as well as divide. A few generations later, however, the increasing confessionalism of the clergy brought about the demise of communal lay theater in the Swiss Reformed towns. Its reappearance in the later seventeenth century was in the hands of itinerant groups of professional actors.


  • 1 The Basel performance of the play Susanna on 23 May 1546, discussed below, was one such exception.
  • 2 Emil Ermatinger, Dichtung und Geistesleben der Deutschen Schweiz, Munich: C. H. Beck, 1933, p. 185.
  • 3 This was printed twice by the Basel printer Jacob Kündig in 1551 and 1552 under the title Tragicomoedia: Sant Pauls bekerung: Gespilt von einer Burgerschafft der wytberuempten fry statt Basel, bn jor M.D.XLVI. Jetzund gebessert und geniert mit Figuren.
  • 4 In all likelihood Susanna was written by Sixtus Birk (Xystus Betulejus), c. 1 SOO-1554. Next to Pamphilus Gengenbach (d. c. 1524), Valentin Bolz, and Johannes Kollros (c. 1487—c. 1558), he was one of the four prominent dramatists of sixteenth-century Basel.
  • 5 Considering the time lag between the theater performances he enjoyed in his childhood and the actual composition of his autobiography, we should not be surprised that Platter misjudged the time that had passed between seeing St. Paul's Conversion and Susanna. The latter event did not take place “long before” St. Paul's Conversion, as he assumes. Rather, the two performances were held on 23 May and 6 June 1546, respectively. See Felix Platter, Tagebuch (Lebensbeschreibung, 1536-1567), ed. Valentin Lötscher, Basel and Stuttgart: Schwabe & Co., 1976, p. 18 (editor’s introduction).
  • 6 Bonaventura von Brunn (1520-1591). He was actually burgomaster from 1570 to 1591; another instance where we have to be aware of the fact that Felix Platter wrote this long after the event. See ibid., n. 257.
  • 7 Balthasar Han (1505-1578) was a city councilor and a noted glass painter. See ibid., n. 258.
  • 8 The ‘Peacock’ (Pfauenburg) was the building at the corner of Sporengasse and the market square. See ibid., p. 82, n. 259.
  • 9 Hans Rudolf Frey (1496-1551), city councilor and cloth merchant. See ibid., n. 261.
  • 10 Ulrich Coccius (Koch) (1525-1585), a prominent Basel theologian. See ibid., n. 262.
  • 11 Margareta Merian (1525-1570), later married to Ulrich Coccius. See ibid., p. 83, n. 266.
  • 12 Ludwig Ringler (c 1535-1605), later a city councilor and well-known glass-painter. See ibid., n. 267.
  • 13 Ibid., pp. 82-83. Translated by Kaspar von Greyerz.
  • 14 Johannes Gast, Das Tagebuch des Johannes Gast ,ed. Paul Burckhardt, Basel: Benno Schwabe & Co, 1945, p. 270. Translated by Kaspar von Greyerz.
  • 15 For Manuel’s plays see Niklaus Manuel, Werke und Briefe, ed. Paul Zinsli and Thomas Hengartner, Bern: Stämpfli Verlag, 1999.

Smoke, sound, and murder in sixteenth-century Paris1

by Alan E. Bernstein

François Rabelais (1483-1553), Franciscan priest, humanist, physician, advisor to cardinals, rebel, and novelist, wrote among other things Gargantua (1535), Pantagruel (1532), The Third Book, The Fourth Book (1552), and The Fifth Book, a posthumous and perhaps partly genuine compilation (1564). Within these works his writing ranges from coarse caricature to pedagogical pining. He exposed the foibles of humans and human society. His satire was so biting that the University of Paris, supported by the parlement of Paris, the country’s highest court, placed Gargantua and Pantagruel on a list of prohibited books in 1545. The next year, he defiantly published The Third Book.

In that work, the misogynist Panurge (Overdrive) considers marriage but fears cuckoldry. Exercising due diligence, he consults a theologian, a physician, a philosopher, and a lawyer. His friend Pantagruel (Food-is-All) advises him to ask a fool and supports his suggestion with a Parisian anecdote:

“In Paris, where food stands are set up in front of the Petit Châtelet, by the grill of a cook who sold grilled meat, a porter flavored his bread in the smoke of a roast and considered it downright tasty. The cook stood by in silence, but after all the smoky bread had been devoured, the cook grabbed the porter by the throat and insisted that he pay for the smoke from his roast. The porter answered that he had done no damage to his meat, had taken nothing of his, and owed him nothing. The fumes in question were dispersing in the air anyway and going up in smoke. Never had anyone ever heard that in Paris the smoke from a roast had been sold in the street. The cook replied that the smoke from his meat was not intended to nourish porters and he threatened that if the porter didn’t pay up, he’d take the hooks [used to carry heavy loads] as compensation.”2

As the argument intensified, a crowd of gawkers, including Sire John, the town fool, gathered around. The cook proposed and the porter agreed to let the fool decide their case.

“Once he had heard their arguments, Sire John ordered the porter to take a piece of silver from his belt. The porter placed an old coin from the days of King Philip in the fool’s hand. Sire John took it and put it on his left shoulder as if to check its weight, then he drummed it in the palm of his left hand as

90 Alan E. Bernstein

if to test its purity. Then he held it in front of the pupil of his right eye as if to check its minting. All this the gaping crowd watched in silence as the cook waited confidently and the porter in despair. At last the fool banged the coin several times on the grill. Then, with presidential majesty, holding his fool’s wand in his fist as if it was a scepter, ... clearing his throat two or three times for effect, he said loudly: ‘The court declares that the porter who flavored his bread with the smoke of the roast has adequately paid the cook with the sound of his coin. The court therefore orders that each party return to his particular domicile, without disbursement, and for cause.’ The Parisian fool’s decision seemed so equitable, indeed so admirable, to the aforementioned doctors that they doubted whether the case could have been heard as well by the parlement of the place, or even among the Areopagites [of ancient Athens] - so judiciously did it seem to have been rendered. Consider, therefore, taking the advice of a fool.”3

The setting Rabelais assigned the story is crucial to its meaning. The Petit Châtelet is a gatehouse that defends the island in the Seine and the oldest bridge to the south, the Petit Pont, from the large square at the foot of the Rue Saint-Jacques. Its counterpart, across the Seine, is the Grand Châtelet, which defends the oldest northern bridges, collectively called the Grand Pont (see Figure 21.1). More important for the context of the story, the Grand

Plan of Paris in the sixteenth century, detail (adaptation from images in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France by Douglas Hollis)

Figure 21.1 Plan of Paris in the sixteenth century, detail (adaptation from images in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France by Douglas Hollis)

Smoke, sound, and murder in Paris 91

Châtelet also houses the parlement. Therefore, Rabelais’s contrast of the fool and the High Court is that between the Petit and the Grand Châtelet. In Rabelais’s tale, the city center is a field that unites and separates polar opposites: the fool’s wit and the High Court’s law, literature and censorship, professional fools and foolish professionals. Thus, in the story of Sire John, it is “the aforesaid doctors,” simple onlookers in the square, whom Rabelais sarcastically cast as doctors of law, who endorse the verdict.

Rabelais knew both sides of this contrast. As a youth he received a humanist education in Greek and Latin. He attended the University of Paris at the College of Montaigu, studied law, then became a physician at the medical school in Montpellier, and toured the universities of France. Throughout his life, though, established institutions limited his options. Despite censorship and the threat of the stake, he spoofed the nobility, chivalry, religious orders, prophecy, and visions. For example, in The Third Book, Pantagruel and Panurge go as pilgrims to consult the ‘Holy Bottle.’

Strikingly, the social tensions Rabelais enfolded in his tale expressed themselves perversely - and tragically - some decades later. On 15 November 1591, while Paris endured military, political, and religious strife, assassins seized Barnabé Brisson, an accomplished jurist and president of the parlement based in the Grand Châtelet. Exploiting urban social dynamics similar to those in Rabelais’s tale and hoping thereby to gain popular support for their murder, they hanged him at the Petit Châtelet. The next day, the assassins displayed Brisson’s body at the Place de Grève, across the river. During the trial of Brisson’s murderers, a witness testified how role reversal had excited one of the assassins, Adrien Fromentin, who, at the lynching, jeered, “He [Brisson] was judged as he had judged others!”4

Thus, what Rabelais made the dynamics of his joke, the murderers of 1591 took as a license to kill. This draws our attention to the danger, in history as well as today, that one person’s spoof may be another person’s plan of attack. Parody may properly inspire critical thinking, but it can become dangerous when it incites people to a literal re-enactment of itself.


  • 1 I gratefully acknowledge help on this essay from JoAnne Gitlin Bernstein and Jonathan Beck.
  • 2 François Rabelais, Le Tiers Livre, ed. M. A. Screech, Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964, ch. 37, p. 259. Translated by Alan E. Bernstein.
  • 3 Ibid., pp. 259-260.
  • 4 Quoted in Élie Barnavi and Robert Descimon, La Sainte Ligue, le juge, et la potence, Paris: Hachette, 1985, p. 26. See Matt. 7:1-2.
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