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)

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