Two Moral Interludes, The Pride of Life and Wisdom: Introduction


1 For the possibility of mixed professional and nonprofessional casts for large plays, see Johnston, “Parish Playmaking,” pp. 326–27.

2 King, “Morality Plays,” p. 243.

3 See especially Craik, Tudor Interlude.

4 See B. Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, and Bevington, From ‘Mankind’ to Marlowe.

5 Davis, Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. lxxxv.

6 Banns are also found preceding The Castle of Perseverance, the Chester plays, and the N-Town plays. Banns are also seen in other contexts; the reciting of banns was a required preliminary an­nouncement of an impending marriage, and one example survives of banns advertising the arrival of a touring doctor, listing the ailments he is prepared to cure. See Voigts, “Fifteenth-Century English Banns.”

7 On the kingship of every individual see Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Book 8.

8 This assumes that Norman Davis’ expansion of the incomplete stage direction at line 470 (“Et eat pla”) is correct (Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments, p. 104).

9 A good reproduction of the miniature can be found in Hours of Etienne Chevalier, plate 45.

10 Riggio, Play of Wisdom, pp. 6–18.

11 Eccles, Macro Plays.

12 See, especially, C. Spivack, “Feminine vs. Masculine,” pp. 137–44; Clark, Kraus, and Sheingorn, “‘Se in what stat thou doyst indwell,’” pp. 43–57; and Nisse, Defining Acts, pp. 125–47.

13 On the play’s connections with the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, see especially Riggio, “Staging of Wisdom,” and Gibson, “Play of Wisdom,” both in Riggio, “Wisdom” Symposium, as well as Gibson’s Theater of Devotion, pp. 108–26.

14 Morton was suggested as a possible patron for the play by Milton McC. Gatch, “Mysticism and Satire,” pp. 342–62; the Howards and de la Poles were proposed by Alexandra F. Johnston, “Wisdom and the Records”; Wisdom as household drama is discussed by Suzanne Westfall, Patrons and Performance.


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Two Moral Interludes, The Pride of Life and Wisdom: Introduction


The surviving morality plays, or moral interludes, as they were generally known to their contem­por­aries, comprise a group of five texts from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries: The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, Wisdom, and Everyman. Each of these plays deals allegorically with the life of man and his struggle against sin, and their structure is for the most part based on a sequence of temptation, fall, and redemption. Scholars have been hesitant to call this group of plays a genre, since each play differs from the others in sub­stantial ways. The Castle of Perseverance, for example, describes the whole ontology of man, opening before his birth and ending after his death with his judgment before the throne of God. Everyman, in contrast, deals only with the final journey towards death. The group of plays is held together, however, by their consistent use of allegorical figures, by their use (in most cases) of a central representative human figure (variously called Mankind, Everyman, or Hu­manum Genus), and by their personification of the forces of good and evil which act upon him. Some of the plays (Mankind, Wisdom) require consider­able theatrical resources and skill, sufficient to imply that they may have been intended for professional performance; The Castle of Perseverance, on the other hand, with its large cast of thirty-six players, must have been written for nonprofessional players or for a mixed group of professionals and nonprofessionals.1

The background to these plays lies in part in the allegorization of both good and evil which found its earliest expression in the Psychomachia of the late fourth-century poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. This poem describes a battle for the soul of man in which seven evil char­acteristics (Idolatry, Lust, Wrath, Pride, Indulgence, Greed, Discord) are pit­ted against seven virtues (Faith, Chastity, Patience, Humility, Sobriety, Good Works, Concord). Since the battle takes place within the mind of man, there is no representative human figure. Prudentius’ allegorical mode was immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages, and became one of the primary models for the allegorization of human characteristics, leading eventually to such texts as the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, as well as Robert Grosseteste’s Chasteau d’Amour. The second impetus behind the morality plays can be seen in the canon Omnis utriusque sexus of the Fourth Lateran Coun­cil (1215), which confirmed and elaborated earlier legislation and tradition requiring an­nual confession of all Christians, thus laying the ground for one of the most extensive educational programs in the history of the world. Faced with the necessity not only of educating the priesthood in the tech­nical aspects and methodology of confession and pen­ance but also of explaining to the laity the taxonomy of sins, allegory — the person­ification of individual sins, virtues, personal char­acteristics, or abstract qualities — was quickly adopted as an effective tool.

It is easy, however, to overestimate the importance of both these influences. The Psycho­machia provided only the most general model of an allegorical battle, while the nature of sin as presented in these plays was both well-known and orthodox, so the plays’ purpose is less educational than, as Pamela M. King describes it, “to confirm and to celebrate rather than to argue.”2 From the late fifteenth century, the form and structure of the morality play was adapted in a variety of new directions, giving rise to a genre now most commonly known as the “Tudor interlude.”3 Where the morality play takes as its subject the whole moral life of man, the Tudor interludes focus on specific aspects of this life: e.g., the political (Skelton’s Magnyfycence, Bale’s King Johan), educational (Wyt and Science), or social (Youth, Hick Scorner).

The frequent use in the morality plays of a “Vice” figure distinguished from the allego­rized sins, such as Backbiter in The Castle of Perseverance, Mischief and the three Worldlings in Mankind, and Lucifer in Wisdom, has been seen as influencing Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Iago as well as Marlowe’s Mephistopheles.4 Indeed, for many years this possible influence on the canonical plays of the Elizabethan theater represented the sole interest in the moral­ity plays. Those days are now past, and performances of all of these plays (with the excep­tion of the fragmentary Pride of Life) have shown them to be highly effective vehicles for moral thought based on a keen understanding of the potential of allegory as a technique for the concrete representation of abstract ideas.

The Pride of Life

Although the date of the play now known as The Pride of Life has not been established with certainty, there is no question that it is the earliest of the surviving morality plays. The text of the play was written on one side of a parchment account roll from the Priory of the Holy Trinity in Dublin, where it appears on the back of the accounts for 30 June 1343 to 5 Jan­uary 1344. Since the play is fitted into the blank spaces around the accounts, this would provide an earliest possible date for its composition. For reasons which will shortly become apparent, it is difficult to date the play with any precision, and a date as late as the “first half of the fifteenth century” has been proposed.5 This is perhaps a bit extreme, and a date to­wards the end of the fourteenth century seems more likely.

The text of the play is incomplete, and it seems certain that a second leaf containing the missing portion of the play was lost at some time in its history. The whole surviving portion of the manuscript was destroyed in June 1922, when the Four Courts building in Dublin, in which the manuscript had been placed along with others belonging to the canons of Christ Church, Dublin, was blown up. Fortunately, a transcription had been made of the play in 1891 by James Mills, deputy keeper of the Public Records. Mills published his trans­cription, along with a photographic facsimile of part of the roll, made by a zinc-based photographic method. This photograph and Mills’ transcription are now the only surviving records of the original text. The photograph is not terribly clear, but it does allow a comparison between the manu­script and Mills’ transcription, indicating clearly that his text is quite accurate — an important point, given the very sloppy way in which the original had been written. The text (as it survived in 1891) was written in eight blocks in blank spaces on the roll, these eight parts comprising lines 1–38, 39–126, 127–60, 161–96, 197–234, 235–326, 327–416, and 415–502. Some text appears to have been lost in the breaks between lines 126–27 and 326–27, and lines 415–16 were written twice, in each of the last two sections. Whatever text would have followed line 502 was lost before Mills transcribed it.

Fortunately, like many other medieval plays, The Pride of Life begins with a set of banns, a versified advertisement preceding the play proper.6 In some cases, like The Castle of Persever­ance, the banns were intended to precede the play by some days, perhaps as much as a week; in The Pride of Life they provide an introduction immediately preceding the play itself. These banns (lines 1–112) summarize the action of the play, and from them it is possible to recon­struct the action of the missing text, although only in a general way, and with many questions left unanswered.

Although the outline of the action follows the typical structure of sin and redemption, there are many differences between The Pride of Life and the morality plays of the fifteenth century. The central character is a king, rather than a clearly representative human figure. He is identified in the play as “Rex Vivus” — “King Life” or “The King of Life” — an epithet which may indicate that he is in fact intended to represent mankind as a whole.7 Unusually among the morality plays (Mankind is the only other example), The Pride of Life is concerned with only one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Rex Vivus’ sin is pride, and his royal status may have been chosen as appropriate to a prideful character. Nor does his temptation and fall into sin form a part of the action of the play; Rex Vivus is already full of pride at the opening of the play, delighting in the kind of bombast familiar from the biblical plays in such characters as Herod and Pilate. The king proclaims to the audience:

King ic am, kinde of kingis ikorre,
Al the worlde wide to welde at my wil;
Nas ther never no man of woman iborre
Ogein me withstonde that I nold him spille. (lines 121–24)
descended from famous kings
Against; could not; destroy
This stanza sets up the action of the play, for it is not “man of woman iborre” whom the king is to meet in battle but Death himself, as his pride (and his reliance on his two bodyguards, Health and Strength) leads him to challenge Death to a fight. There is no overt person­ification of pride, since the king has already fallen into the sin; virtue is represented by his wife, the queen, and the bishop, both of whom attempt to talk him out of his foolhardy challenge. The king’s messenger, Mirth, seems positioned to occupy the position of a tempter figure or Vice, such as are found in many of the later moralities, but temptation is not a part of the play’s action, and Mirth acts as no more than a messenger.

The queen points out to Rex Vivus that Death overcomes all men, but he ignores her ad­vice to fear God, supported in his pride by Health, Strength, and Mirth. Summoned by the queen, the bishop delivers a homily on the sorry state of the world (derived from a well-known poem, “The Abuses of the Age”), warning the king to think on his end. The king re­acts in anger, and the surviving text comes to an abrupt end as Mirth is sent off to issue a challenge to Death. From this point on we must rely on the banns to fill in the rest of the play. Death kills Rex Vivus, whose sin of pride is thus repaid, and his soul is taken off by “the fendis” (line 96). The king’s soul appears to be saved, however, as the banns explain the intercession of the Virgin, whose prayers will be taken into account as the soul is weigh­ed in judgment. The banns do not indicate whether the Virgin does in fact intercede on the king’s behalf as a part of the play, whether she or the fiends appear on stage, whether her intercession is successful, or whether her intervention is motivated by the prayers of the queen and the bishop. It seems quite likely that all of these elements combined to provide a dramatic conclusion to the play, though the state of the text does not allow us to be certain.

The play is clearly intended for “place and scaffold” staging, with the bulk of the action taking place on the scaffolds. At least two of these seem to be required, one each for the king and the bishop; other scaffolds (for Heaven and Hell, perhaps, or for Death) have been sug­gested, but are not necessary on the basis of the text as we have it. The king’s scaffold at least would also need a curtained booth of some kind, since he asks his body­guard Strength to “draw the cord,” and the following stage direction indicates that he is enclosed in a curtained structure (“clauso tentorio”). Some of the action would have taken place in the “place” or “platea,” the undifferentiated space at ground level between the scaffolds through which Mirth would move to issue the challenge to Death.8 Control over the “place” must be con­stantly negotiated with the audience, who may very well be in the way of movement, and Mirth’s ex­planation to them of his errand at the close of the sur­vi­ving portion of the play is just such a speech of spatial negotiation. Mirth’s lines are mirrored in both the morality plays and some of the biblical plays (notably the N-Town plays) when characters tell the audience to get out of the way. Clearly many more occasions in which a character must lay claim to a space are not directly reflected in the lines, but would have depended on the specific occasion and the distribution of audience. Such a situation is also implied by Jean Fouquet’s minature of The Martyrdom of St. Apollonia, where spectators are seated on many of the acting areas which are not at the moment in use.9


With the exception of Everyman, which survives only in printed sources, Wisdom (also known as Mind, Will, and Understanding) is the only one of the morality plays to come down to us in more than one copy. A complete manuscript of the play is found in the Macro Manu­script, named after an eighteenth-century owner, the Rev. Cox Macro, and now in the Folger Library, Washington, DC. The manuscript also contains The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind. A second copy of the first 752 lines of Wisdom also survives in MS Digby 133, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Milla Cozart Riggio has established the very great likelihood that the Macro text of the play was copied from the Digby manuscript, though the possibility that both were copied from a now-lost text cannot be ruled out.10

The play differs from the other moralities in its characters, its structure, and its theo­logical content. The central human figure is represented here not by one character but by nine — Anima, the human soul; her five attendant senses; and her three human faculties of Mind, Will, and Understanding. The play is structured around the marriage of Anima to Wisdom, who is explicitly presented as an avatar of Christ, and around Lucifer’s efforts to destroy this marriage through the seduction of her human faculties. Within this overarching structure, the action of the play proceeds in four sections; although this division is not in­dicated in the manuscripts, it seems clear enough that at least one editor has printed the play divided into four scenes.11 The first of these scenes explains (in a format clearly derived from the late medieval sermon) the relationship between Wisdom and Anima. This relationship is also presented visually through the very elaborate costuming described in the play’s expansive stage directions. The description of Anima dressed in white (indicative of her purity) with a black over-mantle (symbolizing original sin), as well as her status as potential bride to Christ, are derived primarily from the writings of the German theologian Heinrich Suso, whose Oro­logium Sapientiae was translated into English earlier in the fifteenth century as The Seuene Poyntes of Trewe Loue and Euerlastynge Wisdome, of which relevant passages are printed in Appendix 1.

The second “section” of the play involves Lucifer’s very successful seduction of the three faculties or Mights: Mind, Will, and Understanding. The three Mights appear to be pre­sented as clois­tered monks, and Lucifer’s argument is designed to convince them of the superiority of the active life in the world over the contemplative life of the cloister. Much of Lucifer’s argu­ment is derived from Walter Hilton’s Epistle on the Mixed Life, the relevant passages of which are also printed in Appendix 1. Lucifer adopts Hilton’s point (following Ecclesiastes 3:1) that all things have their appropriate times. He subtly twists Hilton’s state­ment that we must sometimes act with Martha in governing the household with work, and sometimes with Mary in setting aside the business of the world to worship God; he also uses Hilton’s des­cription of Christ’s life as a combination of the active and the contemplative modes.

The third part of the play demonstrates in the most flamboyant manner the fallen state of the three Mights, who have changed their monastic habits for the dress of fashionable gallants. They have each changed their names, and they call in their followers for a series of masque dances, accompanied onstage by minstrels. Each group is dressed in the livery of its master, described in stage directions as explicit as those for Wisdom and Anima’s costumes. Mind has become Maintenance (a complex idea involving the purchase of followers’ support; the closest modern equivalent would be “graft”); he is followed by Indignation, Sturdiness, Malice, Rashness, Wretchedness, and Discord. Their livery is comprised of several images of force — red beards, lions rampant on their badges, and a weapon in the hands of each; their dance music is played aggressively on trumpets. Understanding has become Perjury, and his fol­lowers (Wrong, Slight, Doubleness, Falsehood, Rapine, and Deceit) are dressed as jurors. As he introduces them, Understanding notes that the “jurors in one hood bear two faces,” which likely implies that they wear two-faced masks. They are accompanied by a bagpipe. Will’s meta­morphosis into Lechery appears to involve some serious gender-bending: his followers are six women, three of them disguised as (male) gallants, the other three dressed as women. Their dance is accompanied by a hornpipe. This third dance breaks down into a fight among the three faculties indicating the level of discord into which they have fallen. The fight is settled by Will, and the three discuss their next moves — Under­standing/Perjury and Mind/Maintenance will haunt the law courts and the government in order to take bribes, while Will/Lechery intends to head for the nearest brothel. As they plot their strategies in language which suggests substantial understanding of the law on the part of the audience, Wisdom returns to rebuke them for their fall. They pay little attention until Anima reappears, “fouler than a fiend,” with a pack of “small boys” dressed as devils who run out from under her mantle. The three Mights repent their sins, and the devils are driven from the stage. Anima, Mind, Will, and Under­standing leave the stage to seek mercy, as Anima sings a penitential passage from the Lamen­tations of Jeremiah. Wisdom, alone on stage, presents a sermon to the audience on the subject of the nine things which most please God, a text well-known in both Latin and Eng­lish versions, sometimes attributed to Richard Rolle (a closely related Latin version is printed in Appendix 1).

Anima returns, accompanied by her full retinue of faculties and senses, all of them cos­tumed as in the opening of the play with the addition of crowns. She describes her faults, both in her “inward wits” (the three faculties) and her “outward wits” (her five senses), pointing out that since her own contrition is not sufficient for redemption, she must now ask Wisdom for God’s grace. His reply, the most dramatic moment of the play, describes the pain of Anima’s fall as equal to that of the Crucifixion, which pain has now been remedied through Anima’s penance and the gift of grace. In passages again based on Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection (see Ap­pendix 1), the three Mights indicate their own participation in Anima’s redemption, and she closes the play, concluding that human perfection can only be achieved through the avoidance of sin and the renewal of grace.

Unusually among the morality plays, Wisdom raises significant issues of gender. Anima herself is clearly feminine, and is presented as a bride of Christ; her attributes, however, include not only her five interior senses, represented by the five (female) virgins, but also her three clearly masculine mights or powers, Mind, Will, and Understanding. To a certain extent, these mixed-gender attributes can be seen to reflect the gender ambiguity inherent in Christian theology, especially as it is seen in the Canticles — a major source for the play. The extreme cross-dressing of the third masque dance, however, presents gender ambiguities in a manner which can be seen as highly subversive. An important question raised in recent discussions of the play is the extent to which this subversive quality extends to gender roles elsewhere in the play.12

No performance history for the play survives, though it is evident from the extensive stage directions, as well as the marginal directions at lines 685 and 785, that the play was in­tended for performance. Some limited information can, however, be gleaned from the playtext and its manuscript concerning its performance. First, the large cast of actors, singers, and dancers, as well as the very elaborate costuming described by the stage directions, indicate sponsorship by a very wealthy person or institution. A monk by the name of Hyngham wrote two lines of verse at the end of the play as the owner of the book, and he has been identified as Thomas Hengham, a member of the monastic community at the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, Norfolk, in the 1470s. Bury was a notably wealthy house, and was visited by royalty on numerous oc­casions. The playtext itself also provides some useful information: the discussion of the ad­vantages of the mixed life over the contemplative life which forms the basis of Lucifer’s seduction of the three Mights implies an audience for whom the theological status of the mix­ed life would be of interest. This need not have necessarily been a monastic audience; own­er­ship of books on the subject shows that thoughtful members of the laity were also interested in the topic.13 The lives of vice which the three Mights adopt after their seduction are strongly rooted in the world of the London law courts, and an understanding of this part of the play would require some competency in the law on the part of the audience, as well as an understanding of the most significant law-and-order problems of the period. Again, this does not necessarily imply an audience of lawyers, since training in the law was seen as an appropriate preliminary to the administration of an estate, and in the litigious society of the late fifteenth century knowledge of the law was widespread among the gentry. Monks and lawyers may well have been among the spectators for Wisdom, but the primary require­ment for the audience would be a substantial degree of education. A mixed audience at the abbey of Bury St. Edmund’s would certainly be a pos­sibility, but a wealthy secular household would also be a likely venue for the play’s performance, and households in the vicinity of Bury which might have housed the play would include those of John Morton, bishop of Ely, the Howard dukes of Norfolk, or the de la Pole dukes of Suffolk.14


The manuscript texts have been lightly modernized to normalize the scribe’s incon­sistent use of u/w and i/j. Some consistency has also been introduced in the spelling of ambiguous words, so the second person singular pronoun always appears as “thee” and the definite article as “the”; “of” and “off” are likewise regularized, and all roman numerals are spelled out. Clear scribal errors are corrected without comment, and passages in the damaged portions of The Pride of Life which have been reconstructed conjecturally are indicated by square brackets. Most of these conjectures derive from the suggestions made by Norman Davis in his EETS edition of the play. Latin words and phrases in the text are translated in the notes.


The Pride of Life

Indexed as item 2741 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:

• Dublin, Christ Church Cathedral, now destroyed; “partly available in facsimile in J. Mills, (Dublin, 1891).”

Editions and facsimiles:

Coldewey, John, ed. Early English Drama: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1993.
Davis, Norman, ed. Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments. EETS s.s. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
———, ed. Non-Cycle Plays and the Winchester Dialogues. Leeds: Leeds University Press, 1979.
Happé, Peter, ed. Tudor Interludes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Mills, James, ed. The Account Roll of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Dublin, 1337–1346, with the Middle English Moral Play “The Pride of Life.” Dublin: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1891.


Indexed as item 1440 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:

• Folger MS V.a.354 (the Macro manuscript) NIMEV: Folger Shakespeare Library 5031
• Bodleian Library MS Digby 133

Editions and facsimiles:

Baker, D. C., J. L. Murphy, and L. B. Hall, Jr., eds. The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bod­leian MSS Digby 133 and E. Museo 160. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. [the text from the Digby manuscript]
Bevington, David, ed. The Macro Plays: A Facsimile Edition with Facing Transcription. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1972.
Coldewey, John, ed. Early English Drama: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1993.
Eccles, Mark, ed. The Macro Plays. EETS o.s. 262. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Riggio, Milla Cozart, ed. The Play of Wisdom: Its Texts and Contexts. New York: AMS Press, 1998.
Walker, Greg, ed. Medieval Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

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