The medieval devotional practice of imitatio—the imitation of saints and biblical figures—was arguably a foundational element of medieval acting. Popularized by Saint Francis, who made imitatio a form of public, rather than private, devotion, the practice provided laypersons with access to sacred people and events by allowing anyone to imitate, and therefore participate in, sacred history. This essay focuses on the laywoman Elisabeth of Spalbeek (ca.1246/7–1304), who practiced imitatio Christi—the imitation of Christ—everyday for ten years, enacting a violently physical portrayal of Christ's Passion in which she portrayed both the holy and wicked characters. She performed despite being an invalid, ostensibly due to divine possession that enabled her to perform while in trance. Philip, the abbot of Clairvaux, witnessed Elisabeth's performance and wrote a detailed description that sanctions her divine possession, while employing theatrical terminology taken from the rubrics of liturgical dramas to describe her actions. Elisabeth's performance connects medieval acting to devotional practice, demonstrating that the techniques and motivations of acting in vernacular religious dramas drew from the practice of imitatio.


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