Published on 05.04.2022

Professor Dutton: The SNSF Projects Grand-Master

Image: Professor Dutton (left) directing her actors and film crew at Christ Church College:  William Gager’s play Dido, 2013.

Elisabeth Dutton was appointed Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Fribourg in 2011, after having spent most of her earlier academic career in the UK, at the University of Oxford where she read for her BA, MA and D.Phil and then lectured for more than ten years, and at a number of universities in London. 

Dutton's research interests lie principally in the study of medieval devotional practices (the expression of one's religious feelings through such acts as prayers) and in investigating early dramatic performances from the medieval and early modern periods, performances which often focused on religious subjects, so that her two research interests meet in fruitful ways. Having trained in theatre and dance herself, Dutton has always been interested in supplementing traditional literary scholarship with what staging these plays in different contemporary settings can tell us, both about medieval performance and about our own attitudes to religion and devotion. Since such projects require a lot of time and resources, she has often sought - and with great success one might add - to subsidise them with third-party funding. In Switzerland, this has regularly involved the SNSF, which notably supported her last two major scholarly forays into medieval and early modern theatre with their Project Funding scheme. 

The first such project, partially funded by the SNSF from 2014-17, but also, among others, by the British Academy, was entitled “Early Drama at Oxford,” and involved the behemothian task of studying, editing, translating, staging, and filming plays that were historically performed in Oxford Colleges from the late fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, in both Latin and English. In the context of this research, Dutton was able to put on an after-dinner performance of William Gager's Dido in the dining hall of Christ Church College, Oxford (with, as pictured here, a Dido that was made to resemble Queen Elisabeth). It was a real coup, as this student performance took place in exactly the same spot where, about 450 years earlier, the play was first performed, by students as well, for the Polish Ambassador of the time. This confronted Dutton with similar staging and timing issues to her early modern counterpart. She also shares how the experience of staging such plays in situ helped her team grasp how many of them probably often contained little inside jokes at the College professors’ expense. 

Her next SNSF-funded project (2016-2020), turns from Oxford colleges to the convent as the location of performance. The “Medieval Convent Drama” project focuses on plays that were written and produced by female religious in convents in England, France, and the Low countries from the 15th to the 17th century. For this research, Dutton combined archival study with ethnographic enquiry, first editing plays that were in manuscript form, then experimentally performing them in various places, including modern convents, and finally conducting interviews with actors and audience members, particularly nuns. This research highlighted the double function of much drama, and more specifically convent drama, as both an educational and a devotional experience: one learned from these plays - about the biblical stories or about complex concepts such as the trinity or transubstantiation (the turning of the bread into the body of Christ in the eucharist) - but watching or performing these dramas was also a spiritual experience, bringing the biblical story to the here and now for the conventual community. A film of the medieval convent play based on Deguilville’s Pèlerinage de la vie humaine is currently in post-production. 

While access to certain convents constituted the trickiest aspect of the project, it was also probably the most rewarding for Dutton and her team. She for instance mentions that, when performing a play at the Carmelite convent of Le Pâquier-Montbarry, in the Canton of Fribourg, the audience of nuns suddenly burst into spontaneous singing of the scripted songs that the players were performing: they still knew the songs, thereby demonstrating how drama is a continuous tradition in certain conventual orders.

Dutton's interest in understanding medieval performances and their social and religious function is however only part of her goal in directing dramatic performances. Indeed, she always attempts to use the opportunity to reflect upon current religious and cultural issues. She for instance produced in 2004 a double bill that staged side by side the late medieval Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a particularly antisemitic play, with Steven Berkoff's Ritual in Blood (2001), a contemporary reflection upon the persecution of the Jews. This was such a success that it attracted considerable scholarly attention and was revived in a later professional production. This ongoing concern also forms part of the project she is currently developing—her most ambitious project to date: a comparative study of women and martyrdom in the dramatic traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths (in ta?ziyeh, a form of Shi'ite devotional drama, in purimschpil, a Yiddish tradition, and in early Christian drama). Not only will the similarities between the traditions be enlightening for gender concerns, but the project will also foster constructive dialogue between different religious confessions. 

Interested in applying for an SNSF Project? The next application deadline is 1st October 2022. Our team at SPR will be happy to assist you in this endeavour! Contact us at

Do you want to learn more about Professor Dutton's research? Here are links to her two project websites as well as to a few relevant publications: 

Medieval Convent Drama website

Early Drama at Oxford (EDOX) website

Elisabeth Dutton and Olivia Robinson, eds, Religious Drama and Community (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2021).

Matthew Cheung-Salisbury, Elisabeth Dutton and Olivia Robinson, 'Medieval Convent Drama: Translating Scripture and Transforming the Liturgy', in A Companion to Medieval Translation, ed. Jeanette Beer (Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2019), pp. 63-74. 

Aurélie Blanc and Olivia Robinson, ‘The Huy Nativity from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Centuries: Translation, Play-back and Part-Back', in Medieval English Theatre 40 (2018), pp. 66-97.

Olivia Robinson and Elisabeth Dutton, 'Drama, Performance and Touch in the Medieval Convent and Beyond’, in Touching, Devotional Practice and Visionary Experience in the Late Middle Ages, ed. David Carillo-Rangel, Delfi I Nieto-Isabel, and Pablo Acosta Garcia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), pp. 43-68. 

Elisabeth Dutton, ‘A Manifesto for Performance Research', in The Methuen Drama Handbook to Theatre History and Historiography, eds Claire Cochrane and Joanna Robinson (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), pp. 249-60.