Historical notes: A promise kept for 366 years in Oberammergau

IN 1633 the soldiers returning home after the Thirty Years' War brought with them the black death.

They did not realise that the bacillus Yersinia pestis was spread by the fleas which were carried by the black rats which accompanied the soldiers. But the village of Oberammergau in the Bavarian alps of southern Germany was one of many which, free from the plague so far, tried to keep things that way by preventing anyone entering the village from outside. One newly married villager, however, had left in an unsuccessful search for work, and returning, knew how to slip past the guards and the watch-fires. One of the presents he brought back to the village was the bubonic plague. Within the next few months, 84 people from a population of only about 600 had died from it.

So the villagers made a promise. Gathering in front of the large crucifix which still hangs in the parish church, they vowed that if God would halt the plague, they would re-enact the last week of Jesus's life every 10 years as a thank-offering. From that day, nobody else died of the plague in Oberammergau. The next year, 1634, the first Oberammergau Passion Play was performed in a meadow in front of the church. From 1680 they decided to hold it at the beginning of each decade.

With two exceptions, which have been compensated for by extra performances, they have kept their promise every 10 years since then. Few of us today would think we were bound by a promise we had made a few months past; the villagers of Oberammergau see themselves as under an obligation to do what their ancestors vowed 366 years ago. No make-up is used, so already many villagers have grown long hair and beards in order to take a part in the play which will be performed from May to October 2000.

In the 17th century, Passion Plays were quite common in many parts of Europe. Like the stained glass windows, the mystery plays, performed in carts in the street, were the "poor man's Bible," enabling even the illiterate to become more familiar with the stories of Scripture than many of us today. I discovered there are at least 76 places, from Sri Lanka to Arkansas, which perform Passion Plays regularly today. But Oberammergau is the only place where the play has its origin in a vow, and has been performed without a break for three and a half centuries.

The so-called "mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria protected Oberammergau from those who wanted to close down the "harmful" passion plays - some of the early plays were quite crude, with demons using strings of black sausages for the disembowelling of Judas Iscariot. Thomas Cook, a Baptist from Leicester, organised a "Cook's Tour" by train and coach to the village in 1871, and in the same year the future King Edward VII of England attempted, unsuccessfully, to remain incognito when he visited the Passion Play.

The text at Oberammergau is ancient but continually evolving, with a chorus commenting on the devotional meaning of the action in the style of the Pietists, and tableaux vivants when the actors freeze for several minutes in the gestures of scenes from the Old Testament.

In Germany they are particularly conscious of the need to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, so the portrayal of Jesus and his disciples is as Jewish as that of the High Priests, and potentially offensive phrases have been omitted. Each time the play is produced, they take advice on the text from Lutheran and Roman Catholic Biblical scholars. So they try to make the portrayal of the last week of Jesus's life true to contemporary understanding of the historical sources. Those who are lucky enough to have a ticket for the Oberammergau Passion Play, feel that they are sharing in a piece of living history.

Michael Counsell is the author of `Every Pilgrim's Guide to Oberammergau and its Passion Play' (Canterbury Press, Norwich, pounds 6.99)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links