Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Question: How did marionettes get their name?

Although Asia has traditions of puppetry that may go back thousands of years, it seems that puppetry as we know it in the West is a relatively recent phenomenon that we can trace back about 500 years.  This is not to say that nobody had any sort of puppets before the 16th century -- using dolls or stuffed animals to tell stories seems like an obvious activity -- but we don't have much historical information about these local folk traditions.  Puppetry seems to have become a widespread cultural phenomenon quite quickly, spreading from the cultural centers of Europe, particularly France.  While most folk puppets were dolls on sticks, French puppet masters promoted the use of wooden puppets with articulated joints, which became the predecessors of our marionettes.

As is the case today, puppets were seen as both a way to entertain and educate.  Roman Catholic leaders were particularly interested in using them to educate the masses, many of whom were illiterate, about religious stories and theological concepts.  This was tied to a movement we now call the "Counter-Reformation," which emphasized the need to educate all believers in proper doctrine.  It seems that the most common type of puppet show taught about the inevitability of death and the need to resist temptation, and the puppet shows were essentially performed versions of the danse macabre, which we discussed in class.

Other shows, though, taught theological concepts such as redemption and virgin birth.  Puppets representing Mary were common enough that the term "marionette," which is derived from French and means "little Mary," became the generic term for puppets suspended from string.  Since puppetry itself was spread from France, it is not surprising that the term "puppet" also has a French derivation.  "Popee" means "doll," and so "puppet" means "little doll."

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