Easter Trope Drama

Liturgical factors  (language, people, ceremonies and institutions) are not likely to decrease their importance for the explanation of earliest drama.

It is so obvious, that no such discussion is any more possible in the search for the sources of vernacular religious poetry. I don’t know how many European languages have to point to a Latin liturgical sequence as source of its first poem or carol that was created and performed as vernacular trope needed to accompany the Latin singing.

In Central Europe the Latin Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes… gave birth to vernacular tropes in German, Czech, Polish and Hungarian – performed as Easter procession songs parallel to the sequence Victime paschali laudes. All of them are reflecting the sequence’s words surrexit Christus (from the verse 3b: Angelicos testes…), and they share the melody drawn from its beginning verse.

In my paper I want to pay attention to the second part of the Victime-sequence:

2b. Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando,
Dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus.

Its content is an extremely compressed Redemption history, echoing or preceding the separate episodes as Processus-Belial, the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ. In the duel between devil and Christ, represented metaphorically by Death and Life we can find the starting point of the long career of narrative and visual genres developed around the character of personified Death, known best from the death dances, but preceded by treatises, short narratives, dialogues and simple dramas. Some of  them will be reflected upon.



Andrzej Dąbrówka (Warszawa)

Mors et Vita – Another Easter Trope Drama?

The duel between death and life: Victimae paschali laudes (2b)

The literary style of allegoresis generated a rich harvest, whose diversity makes it impossible to assess its volume or even to only estimate numbers of works or its percentage. The main technique in question, the personification, can be found everywhere in all genres, not only in lyrical poems or in heroic epics (frequent parodies included), further in moralizing and didactic works, also used in school curricula and preachers repertoires, even allowed in theological exegesis. More than that, we see allegoresis applied in liturgical texts undergoing very strict procedures of promulgation executed by bodies rather suspicious towards imaginary and visual expression, and allowing it only after deep consideration, or tolerating its strong embedding in tradition.

A good case in point can be the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes, one of a few left after the Tridentine reform bringing discipline in rituals and forms of liturgy and removing most of the apocryphal narration and poetic invention.


Victimae paschali laudes

immolent christiani


2a|         Agnus redemit oves Christus innocens patri

reconciliavit peccatores

2b|         Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando

dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus


3a|         Dic nobis Maria quid vidisti in via

sepulcrum Christi viventis et gloriam vidi resurgentis

3b|         Angelicos testes sudarium et vestes

surrexit Christus spes mea praecedet suos in Galilaeam


4a|        Credendum est magis soli Mariae veraci

quam Judaeorum turbae fallaci

4b|        Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere

tu nobis victor rex miserere.[1]


The extreme popularity of the Victima-sequence was a result of its place in Easter liturgy,  and its soon getting vernacular progeny. The latter is very well known for everybody acquainted with the origins of European poetry in the vernacular:  in German, Czech, Hungarian, Polish – to name the closest ones. We all know those carols translating and re-troping the phrase of the Latin trope „surrexit Christus”. The number and importance of this progeny could possibly have obliterated other paths of our Easter trope, not marginal at all, as I’m showing below. What we do see after having heard in the first stanza the topic of the feast of the paschal sacrifice (immolent Christiani), is the recalling (in the second stanza) of the episode preceding the Paschal offering, alluding to the earlier events which actually started the Passion: the Temptations in the Desert (after Christ’s baptism),










and to the Agony in the garden of Gethsemane, started with Christ addressing his disciples, but also his death: „My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” (Tunc ait illis: Tristis est anima mea usque ad mortem: sustinete hic, et vigilate mecum. Matthew 26:38).










The stanza is generalizing the roles of the protagonist and antagonist in their contest for the power over the world and its creatures.
Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando,
Dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus

The question of man’s salvation is being conceptualized as a matter of life and death in general, and accordingly as a duel of the two characters, two personifications who clashed with each other in a combat. The poet doesn’t allow the individual aspect of life’s personification to be obliterated and is giving verbal expression to this “person’s” real existence by speaking metaphorically about his life in personal categories, as “the duke of life” (dux vitae).

And turning our attention back to the subject of the feast – the death sacrifice of that duke – the poet doesn’t forget the balance of that duel, worded in an artistic paradox, saying that the killed duke is alive and reigning.

The impersonation of the introduced characters is not complete: their semantic status is that of oscillating between the sphere of metaphor for real persons (Christ=duke of life, Satan = death), and the sphere of personification, standing for general abstract concepts like life or death.

So is also the duel only a metaphor of a combat.

A matter so important that it cannot be reduced in status to mere rhetorical figure, the duel had to be characterized as uncommon, miraculous: duellum mirandum. This semantic ambivalence or oscillating if not coupling is a common feature of complex allegories and even of single personifications.[2] They take a part of their expressive force from the semantic oscillator ‘concrete-abstract’. It happens even in case of independent or self-providing personifications, as Death we know from the danse macabre, who left the status of a skeleton playing in mortuaries, and was promoted to the function of God’s servant, but couldn’t remove from its transcendent emploi the obligation to remain always somebody’s death, the act of dying of each separate human being.

This quality reflects the distributive character of the life phenomenon that is possible only in separate individuals. In the same way death cannot be different than distributive in its working. It may be so obvious but the thrill we experience from looking at artistically performed death dances, all their ambivalent charm, comes from stating those distributive necessities: death doesn’t kill life in general, but only individual beings and this is what we should be watching with horror: that everybody has to take into account a sudden kidnapping and including into her procession.

In the Paschal sequence death is “the dying of all people, of all human race and of all life (omnia viventia), and even she is the personal perpetrator of this dying.[3]

Nam ego sum mors, que claudo omnia vivencia et finem eis impono
Deo volente et permittente et non est, qui se abscondat a meo dominio.

We hear that in her self-presentation in the Latin dialogue Colloquium de morte which was the source of the Slavic versions of the conversation of Polycarp, also of the Polish Dialogus magistri Polycarpi cum morte.[4] In both the bold and curious teacher, has to listen to her boasting about her power over all life, but to see her well-known scythe, and the lesser known attribute, sort of „Pandora’s box” containing all diseases and causing the extermination of all creature.[5]

The necessarily distributive character of death is responsible for the construction of death figure in the Victima-sequence as a personal enemy of God and his creation. She has to be sort of knight challenging another knight – Life. For the duel to be one between equals (otherwise it would be not credible as a serious combat) the second knight figure had to be someone more than an individual although special human person, but it had to mean also the life of each human.


(First part of my paper delivered to the 14th congress of the SITM, Poznań July 2013

See the pdf-file here)



[1] Standard text in the Database Cantus: ID 508002http://cantusdatabase.org/node/395050 The phrase „mors et vita” has there two entries: one in the sequence Victimae Paschali laudes (ca. 20 records), and another in the antiphon for  the feast of the Inventio Crucis: Mors et vita apposita sunt tibi si non ostendas mihi crucem Christi, Cantushttp://cantusdatabase.org/node/377216  Sung with English text at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biToVpwMWgw

[2] See the “simultaneous realities” in allegory, C. Erickson, The Medieval Vision, Oxford 1976, p. 8, and N. Crohn Schmitt 1982: 312, applying the notion to the interpretation of the allegorical drama The Castle of Perseverance; N. Crohn Schmitt, The Idea of a Person in Medieval Morality Plays, in: C. Davidson C. et al. (ed.), The Drama of the Middle Ages. Comparative and Critical Essays, AMS Press, New York 1982. 1982: 304–315.Cf. also oscillation of meanings in the characters in the Erfurt morality play (H. Linke, Figurendarstellung in der Erfurter Moralität. Geistliche Dramatik als Lebensorientierung, „Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum” 1995, 124.2, p. 129–42.1995), and the „plurality of truths” in Piers Plowman, G. Rudd, Managing Language in „Piers Plowman”, Piers Plowman Studies IX, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge 1994.

[3] Nam ego sum mors, que claudo omnia vivencia et finem eis impono Deo volente et permittente et non est, qui se abscondat a meo dominio.

[4] Editor’s title: Czesława Pirożyńska, Łacińska Rozmowa mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią. Dialogus magistri Polycarpi cum morte [in:] Średniowiecze. Studia o kulturze, t. 3, Wrocław 1966, pp.74-187.

[5] …omnes morbos creaturarum in vase ferreo portans in sinistro brachio et tota existens pallida et in manibus tenens falcastrum horribile, coram se habens celum apertum et retro se infernum


Informacje o Andrzej Dąbrówka

Tenured professor, Institute of Literary Research (Polish Academy of Sciences), Warsaw.
Ten wpis został opublikowany w kategorii art, books, conferences, literature, medieval studies, personal, poetry, Poland, research, theatre i oznaczony tagami , , , . Dodaj zakładkę do bezpośredniego odnośnika.

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