When one imagines the Medieval time period, images of illiterate, mutton-eating Vikings who live in filth appear. Certainly, thoughts of class and theatre never enter the brain. The words medieval” and “theatre” shouldn’t belong in the same sentence, unless it’s a dinner and a show kind of talk. However, that was not the case. There were problems with illiteracy, but the time period was much more religious and progressive. In the Early Medieval theatre, Christianity was new and quickly spreading, creating a struggle among the churches on how to explain it to those who were highly illiterate. Therefore, churches began staging dramatized versions of Bible stories and events that helped people understand the stories. These performances were considered Liturgical Dramas, plays acted within or near the church that related stories from the Bible.
Unfortunately, in the 5th century AD, Western Europe was in a state of chaos due to political instability with the fall of the Roman Empire. Fortunately, this lasted until the 10th century AD with the establishment of the Byzantine Empire, pushing towards a more Christianized population. In this new century, new playwrights such as Hrosvitha, a German aristocrat canones, who wrote six plays that not only glorified God but gave women of the time a voice. She imitated her plays from the works of comedic playwrights Ovid, Terence, and Virgil by replacing characters with religious subjects and denaturalized the binary conceptions of gender. As a tenth century Christian, she accepted the idea that women were naturally inferior to men because of Eve in the Garden of Eden. She praises her intellectual abilities to God, stating that God grants gifts to people and that people are responsible for the degree to which they utilize those gifts. However, Hrosvitha looks to the teachings of Paul, who stated “there is no male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ”. In contrast, even though Paul saw no gender, he also wished for women to not have any leading role in the church. Defying Paul’s teaching, Hrosvitha says “I am not in love with myself that I would cease to preach the virtue of Christ…in order to evade criticism”; to break away from traditional molds rather than hold them in.
Hrosvitha’s works suggest that “the category of gender is separable from that of sex and that gender is socially constructed” (Butler). Her plays served the purpose of speaking truth to those in power and challenging male dominance. As Butler states, “as long as there is theatre, as long as there are women, as long as there is an imperfect society, there will be women’s theatre.” Hrosvitha can be considered one of the first feminists.
In the 15th century, an unknown author wrote Everyman, which tells the story of how a man’s good and bad deeds are counted for or against him in the afterlife. The story opens with God lamenting about how humans have been “living without dread in worldly prosperity” (HalSall) and have lost sight of who God is. God decides that Everyman must make a pilgrimage, from which he cannot escape, and that he will face a reckoning without delay or tarrying (HalSall).
Death, working as God’s messenger, goes down to Earth and confronts Everyman. Everyman, stand still. Hast thou thy Maker forget?” (HalSall). Here, Death states that God commands Everyman to take a “long journey” (HalSall), and from that journey, God will make a judgment upon him. As expected, Everyman states, “full unready I am such…” (HalSall), asking for a longer respite. “I may say Death giveth no warning: to think on thee, it maketh my heart sick, for all unready…that my reckoning I should not need to fear…spare me till I provided of remedy” (HalSall). Death denies giving him more time but allows him to find a companion for his journey. “Yea, if any be so handy that would go with thee and bear thee company” (HalSall). The first companion Everyman asks is Fellowship. “I trust that he will bear me company; therefore to him I will speak to ease my sorrow. Well met, good Fellowship, and good morrow” (HalSall). However, when he hears of the meaning behind Everyman’s journey, he refuses to go. “Now, by God that all hath brought, if Death were the messenger, for no man living today I will not go that loath journey- not for the father that begat me!” (HalSall). Although Fellowship says that if Everyman seeks to have someone killed, Fellowship will be glad to help. “But and thou wilt murder, or any man kill, in that I will help thee with good will!” (HalSall). Everyman then calls upon Kindred and Cousin and lays out the purpose of his journey. “Of all my works I must show how I have lived and my days spent…I pray you thither with me, to help to make account for saint charity” (HalSall). Both Kindred and Cousin respond by refusing. Kindred states, “Take good heart to you, and make not moan.”
As one thing I warn you, by Saint Anne, you shall go alone, warns Cousin. He explains that he has an unready reckoning to account for and needs to make tarrying. Everyman then seeks out Goods, whom he has loved the most. However, Goods refuses to go with him, stating that God will punish Everyman harshly if Goods appears in His presence. Everyman feels defeated as everyone he has asked to journey with him has said no. He decides to go see Good Deeds, who is weak. Good Deeds agrees to accompany Everyman, but she is too weak to move because Everyman has not loved her enough in his life. Good Deeds summons her sister, Knowledge, to accompany them to Confession. In Confession’s presence, Everyman begs for forgiveness and repents his sins.
In what was a common means of showing repentance towards God, Everyman scourges himself. My flesh therewith shall give a quittance; I will now begin… take this body for the sin of the flesh,” (HalSall). Afterward, Everyman is absolved of all his wrongdoings and Good Deeds become strong again. “Now, Everyman, be merry and glad; your Good Deeds cometh now; now is your Good Deeds whole and sound…” (HalSall). Having enough strength to continue on Everyman’s journey, Good Deeds summons Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits to agree to go with them to a priest to partake in sacrament. “For priesthood exceedeth all other things; to us Holy Scripture they do teach. And coverteth man from sin heaven to reach…” (HalSall). After the sacrament, Everyman tells all where his journey now ends. “I have received the sacrament for my redemption, and then mine extreme unction: blessed be all they that counsel me to take it! And now my friends, let us go without longer respite; I thank God that ye have tarried so long…” (HalSall). They all depart, except for Good Deeds who says, “I will bide with thee, I will not forsake thee indeed; thou shalt find me a good friend at need,” (HalSall). Knowledge, however, decides to stay with him until his soul leaves Everyman’s body at the time of his death. “…I will not depart from hence, till I see where ye shall be come,” (HalSall). Finally at peace, Everyman states, “Into thy hands, Lord, my soul I commend…” (HalSall). Everyman dies in peace and goes into his grave with Good Deeds at his side. Knowledge, not being able to follow, states about Everyman’s passing, “Now hath he suffered that we all shall endure; the Good Deeds shall make sure. Now hath he made ending; Methinketh that I hear angels sing and make great joy and melody, where Everyman’s soul received shall be,” (HalSall).
Everyman’s soul is welcomed into Heaven by an Angel. Now the soul is taken, the body fro; thy reckoning is crystal clear,” (HalSall). As the play closes, a Doctor appears and gives a speech to those watching, warning about how one should live before death. “And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion, they all at last do Everyman forsake, save his Good Deeds, there doth he take. But beware, and they be small before God, he hath no help at all… for then mercy and pity do him forsake. If his reckoning is not clear when he does come, God will say – ite maledicti in ignem aeternum” (HalSall). In the end, Everyman is a portrayal of everyone on Earth, both men and women, who struggle with the sins of daily life. His struggle to find peace with God before death is a struggle most humans face. In some way, shape, or form, most fear what will happen to them in the afterlife, but as Everyman found, in the end, all you are left with are your “Good Deeds.” Live nobly, honorably, and unselfishly, and you’ll be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven. Don’t let your “Good Deeds” die.
- Brogan, H. (2020, February 4). The Middle Ages. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/government/The-Middle-Ages.
- Butler, C. D. (2016). Queering the Classics: Gender, Genre, and Reception in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from Queering the Classics: Gender, Genre, and Reception in the Works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim.
- HalSall, P. (1998, August). Medieval Sourcebook: Everyman, 15th Century. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/everyman.asp.
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Canoness. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/canoness.
- Rea, K. G. (2019, November 15). Medieval theatre. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/Western-theatre/Medieval-theatre.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2009, May 5). Liturgical drama. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/liturgical-drama.