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
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: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003