The Quem quaeritis Trope
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 C.E., the Roman provinces lost contact with the dramatic tradition that the Romans had inherited from the Greeks and spread to all their colonies from the Indus River in Asia to the northern forests of what is now Germany and west to Ireland. The Christian church had spread with the empire, too, but it tended to persist in the remnants of the old regime, now run by local tribal chiefs. The Latin-speaking clerics still had manuscripts of Roman drama, and clearly they must have preserved some hidden dramatic performances for themselves, but the church's dramatic theater was entirely subsumed in the performance of the sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony. By the tenth century C.E., bishops apparently had begun authorizing the dramatization of some parts of the biblical narrative as an inducement to parishioners to experience the lessons with more feeling. From the shallow root of the first recorded dramatic embellishment or "trope," called "quem quaeritis" after its first words, a tradition of English sacred drama emerged that fused with revivals of classical drama in the sixteenth century to create the "Elizabethan drama" of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson.
Scholarly opinion has come to differ widely about specific way the Quem quaeritis trope developed into medieval mysteries (plays re-enacting Biblical events). According to some reconstructions of the most elaborate form of this proto-drama, two choirs, usually situated on opposite sides of the nave or cross-bar of the cathedral, or on opposite sides of the church doors, address each other with the first two and second two lines of this short paraphrase from the Vulgate Bible. The "three Marys"* come to his tomb on the third day after his crucifixion only to find the stone rolled away from its door and an angel standing in the doorway. The angel asks them the question in the first line, they reply with the second line, and the angel answers their request with the last two lines:
Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, O Christians?
Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, O angel.
He is not here, He has arisen as He foretold:
Go, announce that He has arisen from the grave.
The usual scholarly source for the text and for Bishop Ethelwold's stage directions for the Benedictine monks at Winchester comes from the Regularis Concordia, a manuscript document written in Latin around 965, or about 30 years before the Battle of Maldon was fought.
* The four gospels are in agreement that Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who Jesus reformed, was a visitor at the grave, but they disagree about the rest. Matthew has her accompanied by Mary the mother of James, Mark agrees but adds one "Salome," Luke agrees about the two Marys but adds Joanna, and John says only Mary Magdalene was there. After nearly ten centuries, the faithful had merged these accounts into a popular belief that there were simply "three Marys."
Russell A. Fraser, "Introduction: The English Drama from Its Beginnings to the Closing of the Theatres," in Drama of the English Renaissance; The Tudor Period. Ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1976. 3.