Middle English



Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Everyman is successful, popular and riding high when Death comes calling. Forced to abandon the life he has built, he embarks on a last, frantic search to recruit a friend, anyone, to speak in his defence. But Death is close behind, and time is running out.

One of the great primal, spiritual myths, Everyman asks whether it is only in death that we can understand our lives. A cornerstone of English drama since the 15th century, this adaptation by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was presented at the National Theatre, London, in April 2015.

Everyman (ed. Lester)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Death summons a man to the reckoning of his life, and his journey towards judgement makes up the matter of one of the best surviving examples of morality plays. Everyman, the central character of the play, is not a person but a place-holder representing all of mankind.

As he converses with Knowledge, Good Deeds, Beauty and Goods, striving to secure a favourable account of his time on earth in order to reach everlasting life, a dramatic allegory is woven about the brevity of life and the necessity of living it well. The play is exceptional in its genre for this narrow focus on the last phase of life, and conveys its message with awe-inspiring seriousness.

The play is poised between the late medieval and early modern eras, recalling the medieval Biblical mystery cycles while anticipating the early modern period’s focus on the individual. It is uncertain whether the original text was ever performed in its time, as it may have been read as a religious treatise. However, a hugely popular revival at the beginning of the 20th century led to many more recent productions, often with a woman in the title role, proving that the play’s themes of mortality and spiritual pilgrimage have retained their power and resonance across the centuries.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The eponymous character of Mankind is a plain, honest farmer struggling against worldly and spiritual temptation in a morality play that is remarkable for its bawdy and energetic humour. The instructive sermon from the figure of Mercy which opens the play is soon interrupted by mocking Mischief, the three comedic Vices and the malicious devil Titivillus, who hijack the play and lead the audience through a whirl of lewd jokes, bawdy song and theatrical tricks which compromise the spectators as much as they do the character of Mankind. The competition for Mankind’s soul between Mischief and Mercy allows the play to move between riotous exuberance and careful theological discussion, showing by example and instruction the right way to live a Christian life.

Mundus et Infans

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The whole life of a man is staged in Mundus et Infans, as Child grows up into Manhood and succumbs to Folly in an exemplary morality play structure of transgression and redemption.

The protagonist’s beginning is as ‘Infans’ – or ‘child’ – he is renamed ‘Dalliance’, then ‘Wanton’ and then ‘Love-Lust-Liking’, before he matures into ‘Manhood’. Mundus – or ‘world’ – invests him with a knighthood, but he fails to uphold chivalric values and is led astray from Conscience by Folly, an engaging and mocking villain, into a life of arrogance and debauchery. Notable for the characters’ clearly differentiated idiolects, Mundus et Infans is a vibrant and emphatic staging of moral teaching, a map of human life and a meditation on time and decay. Mundus et Infans survives in an edition from 1522, and is likely to have been composed before 1520.

By the end of the Middle Ages, dramatic activity was pervasive across England. Plays on religious subjects were acted from Cornwall (in Cornish) to Newcastle: saints’ plays, Passion plays, full cycles of mystery plays that dramatized the past and future of humankind from the Creation to the Last Judgement. Morality plays that set out the requirements of a good life such as would enable those living to make it safely through that Judgement were becoming increasingly widespread; and occasions such as maygames, mummings and church-ales (fundraising events in which a parish church would lay on drink and entertainment) provided further opportunities for quasi-dramatic performances.

Over the course of the sixteenth century, most of this was lost. An abundance of records testify to the frequency of such events, but only a tiny proportion of English texts survive, and we know very little of the form taken by vernacular drama before the fifteenth century. There is just one early play, the remarkable Play of Adam, written in the twelfth century in Anglo-Norman (the English variant of Norman French), which contains some fascinating instructions as to its costuming and staging. Latin liturgical dramas were performed in England, and one actor’s parts in English, for three plays set into such a liturgical context, survive as the ‘Shrewsbury Fragments’. We have a single miracle play (in the strict sense, on a Eucharistic miracle), the Croxton Play of the Sacrament. The Reformation obliterated the saints’ plays almost entirely: only two, on Mary Magdalene and the conversion of St Paul, are still extant, both dating from around 1500. The Passion plays that were a distinctive feature of many small towns, especially in the south of the country, have left only two brief texts of a similar date, on Christ’s burial and Resurrection. We have just one Middle English Robin Hood play to represent what seems to have been an energetic tradition of popular drama. The only mummings that survive are verses written by Lydgate for elite urban or court performance; the supposedly ancient ‘mummer’s plays’ of St George were apparently an eighteenth-century creation.

The morality tradition has fared rather better in terms of survivals. In the fifteenth century, it typically took the form of an outline of the whole life of man as embodied in a single representative individual: The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Mankind. The great civic cycles of Corpus Christi plays (so called because they were originally associated with that day) have left a more substantial set of texts, though far more has been lost. We have the complete cycles of York and Chester; another composite cycle that was long thought to be that of Wakefield but which is now generally believed to be a composite made up of plays from a number of sources; and an East Anglian cycle known as the ‘N-Town’ cycle (so called because the banns, the spoken announcement sent ahead of its performance, declared that it was to be acted in ‘N town’, with the speaker filling in the name of whatever the place was to be), which incorporates a series on the life of the Virgin. We also have two plays from Coventry, one each from Norwich, Newcastle and Northampton, and another connected with Suffolk. Other cycles – those that were acted at London before Richard II, for instance, or later at Preston or Kendal -- have disappeared completely, leaving so skimpy a record of their existence as to suggest that many others may have disappeared without trace. There was an active programme of suppression under Elizabeth, on the grounds of doctrinal purity and public order. York’s cycle survived because the master text was kept with the civic records; the ‘Wakefield’ cycle because it had been copied in the course of the return of Catholicism under Mary Tudor, apparently for a member of the recusant Towneley family (the surname that gives it its alternative title). Chester’s was the only one to be copied after the Reformation was complete, existing now in a number of mostly partial copies made in the 1590s; but none was ever printed.

Performances of the cycles took one of two forms. At Coventry and York and elsewhere the plays that made up the cycles were acted on specially designed pageant wagons that moved in procession around the city, halting at established stations, each play following from the one before so that the audience at each station could see the whole series over the course of a long day (or three days, at Chester). The N-town cycle by contrast was performed in a single large outdoor gameplace, where the stage area represented multiple locations between which the characters could move.

Fashions change, and the new drama of the Elizabethan public theatres, acted both in London and on tour around the country, joined with official government disapproval in speeding the disappearance of so much of this drama. The Elizabethan playwrights derived their stagecraft from the openness of medieval drama rather than from the restrictive rules of humanist theory, but increasingly through the sixteenth century education was dominated by humanist principles, and the humanists made it part of their agenda to emphasise their superiority to what they saw as the barbarity of the Middle Ages. That the great civic cycles had been comparable in their ambition and their mixture of religious devotion and urban promotion to the great festivals of ancient Athens, drawing in spectators from miles around, was first ignored, then forgotten. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century, when the freedom of time and space of the Elizabethan stage was again being recognized and valued, that the mystery plays came back into their own. Increasing numbers of revivals have confirmed their extraordinary theatrical potency, in annual restagings of the York cycle, in Tony Harrison’s Mysteries as adapted for the National Theatre, and in numerous smaller or partial performances. They had lasted long enough in their original form, however, for Shakespeare to have seen them, and for the Elizabethan dramatists to revel in their freedom of space, time and generous inclusiveness, with kings and shepherds, princes and gravediggers, participating in a single representation of the world.

Helen Cooper, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English, University of Cambridge