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Mankind: Introduction


1 Robert Potter’s English Morality Play provides a comprehensive introduction to the theol­ogical and dramatic traditions that defined the morality genre.

2 Speaking of late medieval morality plays in the tradition of “English theatricality,” Stanton B. Garner, Jr. says “these plays are aware of their own existence in performance, draw upon per­formance in various ways, and in fact constitute some of the most sophisticated artistic and moral explorations of theatricality in English drama” (“Theatricality in Mankind and Everyman,” p. 273). On Mankind’s “metatheatricality,” see also Twycross, “Theatricality of Medieval English Plays,” p. 73.

3 Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe, pp. 8–25.

4 The fact that the devil Titivillus is masked would make it easier to have the same actor play the parts of both Mercy and Titivillus, as Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter point out (Masks and Masking, p. 243).

5 Typical of the allegorical morality genre, Mankind uses images of clothing to represent the state of the soul. As Mankind falls into worldly sin he discards his farmer’s robe for increasingly brief jackets which symbolize not only the “new gyse” of fashion but also frivolous youth; see Tony Daven­port, “Lusty fresche galaunts.”

6 See Bevington, Mankind to Marlowe, p. 15, and Smart, “Some Notes on Mankind,” pp. 306–08. The play’s language drew scabrous attacks from late ninteenth and early twentieth century scholars like Hardin Craig, who called it a “very badly degenerated version of what was once a typical morality” (“Morality Plays and Elizabethan Drama,” p. 69); and a “play of the utmost ignorance and crudity” performed by players “whose appeal was to the uneducated and vulgar” (English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages, p. 350). According to E. K. Chambers, the play exhibits a “very degraded type of morality aiming at entertainment rather than edification” (English Litera­ture at the Close of the Middle Ages, pp. 61–62). A. P. Rossiter calls it “a dirty play written for inn-yard amuse­ment” (English Drama, p. 107), and Arnold Williams suggests it seizes “every chance for irrelevant low comedy, so that the tone of the piece is now that of the burlesque theater or the lower sort of music hall”(Drama of Medieval England, p. 156).

7 Clopper, “Mankind and Its Audience.”

8 Marshall, “‘O ye Soverens that Sytt and ye Brothern that stonde ryght wppe.’”

9 Pettitt, “Mankind: An English Fastnachtspiel?” p. 191.

10 According to Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, p. 79.

11 Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens give a succinct summary of the complicated and fluid calendrical details of “pre-Lent” (Oxford Companion to the Year, pp. 602–08). See also Pettitt, “Mankind: An English Fastnachtspiel?” p. 192; on European dramatic traditions of Carnival, see Konrad Eisenbichler and Hüsken, Carnival and the Carnivalesque. On Shrovetide games that have persisted across the centuries, see Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, pp. 98–108.

12 Hans-Jürgen Diller argues that the quête in Mankind “reminds us of a Heischegang, a begging tour as it is known from popular customs around Christmas and Shrove Tuesday” (“Laughter in Medieval English Drama,” p. 14). Such features of the season were especially associated with young men, which leads Diller to posit an audience of college students in the Cambridge vicinity for the play (p. 15).

13 Pettitt, “Mankind: An English Fastnachtspiel?” p. 193.

14 Axton, European Drama, p. 201. Neville Denny, “Aspects of the Staging of Man­kind,” argues even more emphatically and at greater length for the importance of Mummers’ Play style and stage “business” in Mankind.

15 Richard Axton says, “If it was for the folk the play was certainly not by the folk, and one is tempted to see it as the Shrovetide jeu d’esprit of a group of Cambridge clerks” (European Drama, p. 201).

16 Coogan, Interpretation of the Moral Play, Mankind, pp. 10–56.

17 Coogan, Interpretation of the Moral Play, Mankind, p. 55.

18 Ashley, “Battle of Words.”

19 Ashley, “Battle of Words,” pp. 136–38, especially notes 17–20.

20 The theme of a battle between Carnival and Lent is also found in the visual arts, for example Peter Brueghel’s famous painting of The Fight between Carnival and Lent; see color plates 3 and 4 in Stechow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, pp. 56–59.

21 See, for example, Watkins, “Allegorical Theatre,” p. 77. In making his argument about the homoerotic context of male lechery in Mankind, Garrett Epp too notes that allegory is a “notoriously slippery medium, particularly in the theatre” (“Vicious Guise,” p. 305); thus, while “effeminacy is per­sonified in order to condemn it as vicious,” the identity that is imposed on the char­acters, “threatening to turn them into a discourse of pure vice and virtue, is inhabited by an actual body that is not so easily defined or contained” (pp. 304–05).

22 Gash, “Carnival against Lent,” p. 82. As Gash points out, the term “Christmas” had a much less restricted sense than it does now, and could refer to the ex­tended season of festivity that began in December and lasted until Shrove Tuesday (p. 83).

23 Gash, “Carnival against Lent,” p. 94.

24 Peterson, “Fragmina Verborum,” p. 163.

25 Gash, “Carnival against Lent,” pp. 85–86. See also the historical analysis of competing contem­porary reports of the Gladman incident by Chris Humphrey, Politics of Carnival, pp. 63–82. Hum­phrey argues that festive misrule is not “intrinsically political” but becomes so when its imagery is relevant to a local situation (p. 78).

26 Gash, “Carnival against Lent,” p. 95.

27 On this Lollard tenet, see Forest-Hill, “Mankind and the Fifteenth-Century Preaching Controversy,” p. 22.

28 See Alexander, “Labeur and Paresse.”

29 For a survey of the “plebian voice” (especially that of agricultural labor) in the period after the peasant’s rebellion of 1381, see Aers, “Vox Populi and the Literature of 1381.” On Piers Plow­man’s relation to the 1381 uprising, see Justice, “Piers Plowman in the Rising,” in his Writing and Rebellion, pp. 102–39.

30 On the couplet, see Friedman, “‘When Adam Delved.’”

31 For images of Adam’s spade, see Camille, “‘When Adam Delved’: Laboring on the Land.” Clopper observes that while the image of Adam is certainly recalled in Mankind’s labor, there is a significant difference in the depiction of Mankind’s fall from that of Adam because of the comic portrayal of his adversaries: “But this is no Adam facing off the Arch-enemy of man; instead, we have a somewhat pompous farmer who is oblivious to the presence of his third-rate ‘tempter’ . . . The scene of Mankynd’s fall best illustrates the play’s ambience; it is a serious action treated comically without losing its significance” (“Mankind and Its Audience,” p. 353).

32 Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, p. 82. See especially her discussion of the “Disgruntled Laborer,” pp. 84–89, and the references cited in her notes 28, 29, 30, and 43 for the laws, attitudes, and repre­sentations of labor and peasants in late medieval Europe.

33 For Victor I. Scherb, “Mankind is more than just a product of past texts . . . he was also a social reality — a fifteenth-century laborer, and the playwright exerts himself to bring that social reality before his audience” (Staging Faith, p. 119).

34 Scherb, Staging Faith, pp. 124–26.

35 Robertson, Laborer’s Two Bodies, p. 168. Hers is the most in-depth analysis of Mankind’s topical satire on the fifteenth-century problems with agricultural labor, which were addressed but also exacerbated by the 1446 statutes.

36 Coogan’s 1947 study was the lone exception in supporting the idea that Mankind demonstrated a careful three-part structure and intellectual design. See especially Interpretation of the Moral Play, Mankind, pp. 92–110.

37 Stock, “Thematic and Structural Unity of Mankind,” pp. 386–87. For a recent discussion of the play’s critical fortunes with an emphasis on what production can tell us, see also Brannen, “A Century of Mankind.”

38 Stock, “Thematic and Structural Unity of Mankind,” p. 407.

39 Neuss, “Active and Idle Language,” p. 44.

40 Neuss, “Active and Idle Language,” p. 44.

41 Ashley, “Battle of Words,” p. 130.

42 Garner, “Theatricality in Mankind and Everyman,” p. 278.

43 Garner, “Theatricality in Mankind and Everyman,” p. 278.

44 Ashley, “Battle of Words,” p. 131.

45 Towneley Plays, ed. Pollard, p. 375, line 251. Margaret Jennings provides the fullest compendium of medieval references to this minor devil, “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon.” See also Neuss, “Active and Idle Language,” pp. 55–64.

46 On this topic, see Ashley, “Battle of Words,” pp. 128–30. W. A. Davenport argues that the am­plification of Titivillus into an important character in Mankind parallels the development of the minor demon Treselincellis into a more important spiritual threat in Peter Idley’s mid-fifteenth-century Instructions to His Son, whether or not the treatise was an actual source for the play (“Peter Idley and the Devil in Mankind.”).

47 Dillon, “Politics of ‘Englysch Laten,’” p. 57.

48 Dillon, “Politics of ‘Englysch Laten,’” p. 52.

49 Dillon, “Politics of ‘Englysch Laten,’” p. 59.

50 Forest-Hill, “Mankind and the Fifteenth-Century Preaching Controversy,” p. 20.

51 Forest-Hill, “Mankind and the Fifteenth-Century Preaching Controversy,” p. 29.

52 Liliana Sikorska argues that the dramatic effect of the entire play is dependent upon the use of such “highly rhetorical” directives which “have a non-literary illocutionary force, in the sense that their primary point of reference is the actual world, not the one represented in the play” (“Mankind and the Question of Power Dynamics,” p. 214).

53 King, “Morality Plays,” p. 250.

54 Twycross and Carpenter, Masks and Masking, p. 251.

55 Twycross and Carpenter, Masks and Masking, p. 251.

56 Smart, “Some Notes on Mankind,” pp. 48–55.

57 On the importance of the monastery at Bury St. Edmunds for the history of the Macro manuscript and for East Anglian drama in general, see Gibson, Theater of Devotion, especially pp. 107–17. Gibson argues that the monks of the Benedictine monastery at Bury “helped create one of the most diverse and important English dramatic traditions of the fifteenth century” (p. 108).

58 Coldewey, “Non-Cycle Plays and the East Anglian Tradition,” pp. 189–210.

59 Scherb, Staging Faith, p. 21. On pp. 23–24, he lists the manuscripts surviving from Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex.

60 Happé, “Macro Plays Revisited.”

61 Donald C. Baker, “Date of Mankind.”

62 Although the reassembled manuscript no longer follows the original numbering in an early hand — which puts Wisdom on pages 98–121, Mankind on pages 122–34, and Castle of Perseverance on pages 154–91 — critical editions of Mankind have retained these page numbers.

63 Eccles, “Macro Plays,” p. 29. Richard Beadle reviews the complex arguments among textual scholars over the hands found in Wisdom and Mankind, finally supporting the argument of Eccles that one scribe copied both Wisdom and most of Mankind (“Scribal Problem in the Macro Manu­script.”). More re­cently, Beadle has argued that Hyng­ham is the scribe who copied the plays (“Monk Thomas Hyng­ham’s Hand in the Macro MS”).
Mankind is without a doubt the most amusing and controversial morality play surviving from fifteenth-century England. As an allegory about the vulnerable situation in which most people find themselves — torn between good judgment and the temptation to misbehave — the play’s moral action is conventional. Its theological message that God’s mercy is available to even the most abysmal sinner until the moment of death is likewise totally orthodox.1 However, the predictable seriousness of the subject is balanced and complicated by the high jinks of four disreputable characters (Mischief, New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought), who sym­bolize worldly temptation, and by the sensational tricks of the demonic Titivillus, who manages to seduce the Mankind character into sin. Against the pious rhetoric of the chief good charac­ter Mercy, the Worldlings and Titivillus send a barrage of teasing wit, nonsense patter, and outright lies that lead Mankind astray and simultaneously enter­tain the audience. The striking presence of pop­ular dramatic modes has generated considerable scholarly de­bate, but Mankind is now widely accepted as the most theatrically effective early English play.2


According to David Bevington, Mankind epitomizes the kind of play in the repertory of a traveling troupe of actors and may represent the beginnings of popular professional drama in England.3 Unlike another well-known fifteenth-century morality play, the Castle of Perse­verance (which has a huge cast and is designed for place-and-scaffold staging), Mankind would require only six actors and limited costumes and props. Bevington argues that one actor could play the parts of both Mercy and Titivillus, who are never on stage at the same time — a tech­nique of “doubling” commonly used by sixteenth-century troupes before the establish­ment of per­manent theaters in London. Props called for are mundane and portable: a rosary, a flute, a spade, a writing implement and paper, a noose, fetters, a board, a bag of seed, a scourge for Mercy, a large-headed mask4 and a net for the devil, stolen goods, and several jackets of different lengths.5 Mankind also contains the first evi­dence of commercial support for theater, a scene (lines 459–72) in which the Worldlings col­lect money from the audience to bring on the chief attraction, the devil Titivillus.

Since we have no information about actual productions of Mankind, critics have specu­lated about its staging based on details in the text. References to a “hostler” and “tapester” and the play’s bawdy language first led to the suggestion that it might have been performed in an inn or on a stage set up in an innyard for a rustic village audience.6 However, the presence of lit­urgical language and puns on Latin words indicate venues where the audience included the literate classes — such as the private hall of a rural manor house,7 religious guild,8 or college. Tom Pettitt argues that references to “this house” (line 209), the exit at a “dore” (line 159), and the crowding of the audience around the acting area “suggest indoor performance, perhaps in the great Hall of a domestic or institutional resi­dence.”9 Mercy’s address to two classes of spec­tators — “ye soverens that sytt and ye brothern that stonde ryght uppe” (line 29) — like­wise suggests a diverse audience. Perhaps the most plausible conclusion is that Mankind is a play whose ap­peal cuts across class lines and social categories and could therefore be pro­duced in a wide variety of settings.


Despite its portability and wide appeal, the play’s themes and allusions associate it with a particular time of year: the pre-Lenten season. During this winter period of variable length that stretched from Epiphany (January 6) to the beginning of Lent at Ash Wednesday four to six weeks later, carnivalesque activities were common throughout Europe. Carnival authorized the free expression of the “grotesque body” theorized by Bakhtin — a body “unruly, excre­mental, rude, and unregulated” and “crudely rebellious,” terms that describe the vice figures in Mankind.10 The Mediterranean countries celebrated Carnival, Germany and Scandi­navia had Fastnacht or fastelavn, while in England Shrovetide (the three days before Ash Wed­nesday) was celebrated with special foods, cock-fighting, and football games.11 The boisterous games of the Worldlings (New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought) in Mankind call to mind such seasonal amuse­ments, including the invitation to play football (line 732), while their extensive scato­logical fooling would not be out of place in a Carnival play.

There are also motifs recognizable from winter Mummers’ plays, including cries to the audience to “make space,” the deliberately teasing buildup to the entrance of the devil Titi­villus with his big head, the quête or taking of a collection at the moment of greatest excite­ment,12 the mock beheading and castration of the three Worldlings and their mock curing by Mischief, as well as the offer of “game” or performance that includes comic song, dance, and “ribald repartee.”13 Finally, there is the absurd and improvisational patter of the vice figures which suggests to Richard Axton the “nonsensical, gnomic quality of the folk-play idiom.”14

In addition to the popular revelry of the season alluded to in Mankind, there are both serious and parodic references to the liturgy of pre-Lent and Lent.15 Sister Mary Philippa Coo­gan has shown that Mercy’s speeches draw on liturgical verses of Lenten services, begin­ning with Ash Wednesday.16 She emphasizes the portrayal of Mercy as a priest and friar who would be expected to preach the necessity of penitence and annual confession at that time of year, con­cluding that “Mankind seems to have been written especially to encourage people to keep a good Lent.”17 I have also made the argument that the liturgy and homilies of the Sundays after Epiphany are the sources for a majority of the themes and biblical allusions in Man­kind, whether those are preached by Mercy, used by Mankind as he attempts to fight off his tempters, or perverted in the nonsense babble of the Worldlings.18 The major litur­gical themes eare the wisdom and power of God’s word, which arm the soul for the battle against evil — the temptations of foolish talk and the lies of the devil. Images of sowing seed also recur during this post-Epiphany season, with references to such parables as the sowing of weeds in a field of good seed (Matthew 13:24–30), the man who sows seed on various kinds of ground (Luke 8:4–15), and the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16). These images were usually understood to refer to language as well as actions that would lead to salvation or damnation at the Judgment Day, as I have shown.19

Mankind, then, dramatizes a battle between Carnival and Lent, between festive revelry and sober penitence.20 There is disagreement, however, about how successfully the Lenten sermons of Mercy might have weighed against the comic spectacle provided by the worldly and demon­ic characters of Mankind. Do the vices ultimately intensify or undermine the moral and doc­trinal instruction? Some critics suggest that the vices are given such dramatic vitality that they upstage Mercy.21 Anthony Gash sketches out the medieval antithesis of official ecclesi­astical doctrine and popular festive culture, arguing that the play — usually treated as a mor­ality — enacts a balance or “ambivalence.” For Gash, “it is more usefully seen as com­pounding two genres, one official, the other unofficial, by punning between the morality play structure (the fall, repentance and salvation of mankind) and a festive structure (the battle be­tween the licence of Christmas and the prohibitions of Lent).”22 The vices, he suggests, “open up every form of equivocation which the closed formal discourse of Mercy seeks to seal off.”23 Michael T. Peterson goes even further, arguing that the presen­tation of a plurality of dis­courses within the play in effect undermines God’s position as the supreme guarantor of meaning.24


The unruly and “grotesque body” on display in Mankind is also socially subversive, and we know that pre-Lenten winter festivities could occasionally provide an opportunity for political protest — as they did in the case of John Gladman, a Norwich guildsman dressed as the “King of Christmas,” who in 1443 led a riotous procession (of a type identified as a Shrove Tuesday procession in the records) with other artisans and fellow citizens to manifest their unhappiness at the policies of local monastic officials.25 Mankind, the protagonist of our play, is portrayed not as an urban citizen but as a poor farmer in a rural setting; however, Gash calls attention to “a variety of doctrinal unorthodoxies and anti-clerical resentments which were probably an abiding facet of peasant and plebian attitudes.”26 Some of these, like Mankind’s claim that he could skip church since prayer would sacralize his field (line 553) and transform it into a church-like space, were persecuted as Lollard heresy in fifteenth-century East Anglia.27

The figure of the rural laborer was a resonant one for late medieval culture.28 The four­teenth-century alliterative narrative Piers Plowman uses the peasant as protagonist for its allegory, which combines both spiritual search and social critique.29 John Ball, the country priest who led the 1381 peasant’s uprising, famously preached political insur­rection based on the proverbial couplet: “Whanne Adam dalfe and Eve span, / Who was thanne a gentil man?”30 Within Mankind, the symbolism of working the earth operates at multiple interpretive levels. Typologically, Mankind has connections to Adam, whose original sin of disobedience to God was punished by a life of work, symbolized in medieval iconography by a spade.31 Throughout the play, however, the spade takes on a positive moral valence as the symbol of the peasant’s work ethic, the main defense he has against temptation.

The spade is Mankind’s chief attribute from the time he first enters — presumably prop in hand — acknowledging man’s creation by God, “Of the erth and of the cley we have owr propagacyon” (line 186). Mercy warns him about the dangers of temptation and urges him “Do truly yowr labure and kepe yowr halyday” (line 300). Still under the influence of Mercy’s moral teachings, Mankind gets to work despite the pestering of New Guise, “Thys erth wyth my spade I shall assay to delffe” (line 328). He then uses it with comic efficacy to beat off the annoying distractions of the three Worldlings after a scene in which they mock his digging: “Go and do yowr labur! . . . / Or wyth my spade I shall yow dynge . . . / Have ye non other man to moke, but ever me?” (lines 376–78). As the vices cry over their wounds, Mankind acknow­ledges with a biblical quote (1 Samuel 17:47) that his weapon was not a sword or spear, “Yyt this instrument, soverens, ys not made to defende. / Davide seyth, ‘Nec in hasta nec in gladio sal­vat Dominus,’” to which Nought responds with a parody of the Latin, “No, mary, I beschrew yow, yt ys in spadibus” (lines 396–98). Only when the devil Titivillus places a board under the soil, frustrating his digging, does Mankind finally discard the spade — that is, gives up a socially and spiritually virtuous activity — “Here I gyff uppe my spade for now and for ever” (line 549). A stage direction on the side calls attention to Mankind’s defeat, symbolized by the cast-off spade: “Here Titivillus goth out wyth the spade” (after line 549).

While drawing on the various universalizing metaphors linking the spade with human labor, Mankind also calls attention to the economic realities underlying the misbehavior of mar­ginal groups like the “disgruntled laborer” that Claire Sponsler identifies as troubling the “social imaginary of late medieval England.”32 As Mankind attempts to do his work, the vices remind him of the relative fruitlessness of his physical labor, with the implication that he will never make a living at it (lines 351–75). They may be reprehensible idlers, but their jokes ar­ticulate some of the complaints of agricultural laborers.33 In addition, as Victor I. Scherb points out, the “thievery and murder urged by the Vices reflect local conditions in East Anglia during the 1450s and 1460s,” when crime and violence were endemic to a region in economic crisis.34

Kellie Robertson terms the vices’ “wandering ways” a kind of “camp criminality” that “highlights contemporary fears about vagrancy and non-work,” arguing that rather than assum­ing a binary of work and idleness the play actually interrogates such categories.35 She reads the play as “part of a larger response to anxieties about the spiritual and social regu­lation of ‘true labor.’”


Until the mid-1970’s, Mankind was nearly universally condemned as being a corrupt and unsuccessful morality play.36 Lorraine Kochanske Stock has assembled the verdicts of early critics; they include the accusations of plotlessness, structural imbalance by too many vice figures, and corruption of the serious morality by pointless humor, obscenity, and unnecessary horse­play.37 The mid-1970s were pivotal in changing that early critical assessment, as multiple articles appeared that, although written independently, made the case for the thematic and structural unity of the play.

Stock calls attention to Mercy’s recommendation of patience as an important virtue in the fight against temptation. She argues that the Instruction and Temptation scenes in Mankind contain verbal echoes of the Book of Job, beginning with Mankind’s reference to his own flesh as “that stynkyng dungehyll” (line 204). Mercy asks Mankind to follow the example of Job, and Mankind does pin the text for Ash Wednesday (based on the Book of Job) to his chest to re­mind him of his mortality: Memento, homo, quod cinis est, et in cinerem verteris. Stock also asks us to see the three vices as parodies of Job’s three friends, and finally chides critics who have “concentrated their energies on sanctimoniously denouncing the scatological ele­ments in the play, devoting little attention, if any, to the eschatological concerns of Mankind.”38

Paula Neuss pointed out that Mankind, adapting a strategy from medieval preaching, uses verbal images that are “repeated and interrelated in varying patterns” so that “some­thing spo­ken becomes something seen.”39 For Neuss, the theme to which all images are related is that of “Accedia, or Sloth (as the Castle of Perseverance is concerned with Covetousness, or the Pride of Life with Pride).”40 Neuss’s article focuses in particular on the necessity to avoid such forms of Sloth as idle language and impatience, which lead to the fatal sin of despair. In the penulti­mate scene of the play, a desperate Mankind contemplates suicide, calling for a rope to hang himself after succumbing to temptation, because he is sure that he has forfeited mercy (line 800). Only Mercy’s entrance to offer forgiveness — available up to the Last Judgment he re­minds both the protagonist and the audience — rescues Mankind.

In a related argument, I have argued that the play is thematically and dramatically structured by a “battle of words” — where the “confrontation between good and evil is dramatized as a battle of good words (‘predycacyon,’ ‘talking delectable,’ ‘few wordys,’ and ‘doctrine monytorye’) against misleading or evil ones (‘ydull language,’ ‘japyng,’ ‘many wordys,’ and ‘fablys delusory’).”41 The theme of language in the play is stylistically embodied in the diction and rhyme scheme employed by the different characters. Mercy, the preacher and father confessor to Mankind, uses an elevated style appropriate to his doctrinal mes­sage; it is a stately eight-line stanza rhyming ababbcbc, with polysyllabic words of Latin der­ivation. The four vices maintain a breathless stream of jokes, derision, and vulgarity, speaking in eight-line tail-rhyme stanzas, typically rhyming aaabcccb. Indeed, as Stanton B. Garner, Jr., comments, “words themselves acquire a near-physicality which renders them verbal equivalents of stage props.”42 He goes on to suggest that as the vice figures parody Mercy’s preaching, “mimickry and rhyme deflect attention away from the meaning of words and onto their more strictly phonetic characteristics, while doggerel breaks the logic of syntax on which comprehension depends, setting words loose in a non-referential free-for-all. . . . ‘Misshe-masche, driff-draff.’”43 Mankind’s moral state is signaled by the style he adopts — the aureate style when following Mercy and pell-mell rhythms when swayed by the vices.44

The centrality of language to the play’s action and message perhaps explains the choice of a devil (usually known as Tutivillus) to be the chief demonic agent of Mankind’s sin. In sermons and treatises, Tutivillus was a minor devil charged with collecting verbal misde­meanors: syllables dropped by priests in saying mass, gossiping words exchanged by women in church, idle words, etc. Tutivillus was to put these offending words or parts of words into his sack — or write them on his scroll — and bring them to the Last Judgment. The Town­eley cycle Judgement play, in fact, concludes with a long scene featuring the demon Tutivillus, who describes himself as the devil’s registrar and now master lollard, collecting ill-spoken words (“fragmina verborum / tutivillus colligit horum”) as he ushers the damned off to hell.45 In Mankind, his name has been altered to Titivillus, and he plays the important role of the demonic trickster who succeeds in causing Mankind’s fall into idleness and sin. With his lies he is the dramatic embodiment of verbal temptation.46

Recent criticism has explored Mankind’s thematics of language by scrutinizing even more intensely Mercy’s Latinate English as the controversial representation of fifteenth-cen­tury preaching. Janette Dillon focuses on the Worldlings’ parody of Mercy’s latinate dis­course by using Latin themselves:
Not only do they mock Mercy with Latinate English, translate obscenities into Latin and
mingle Latin with English in a kind of macaronic carnival; they also make up pseudo-Latin
words from English roots, utter mock prayers and blessings, . . . construct a prolonged
pseudo-trial (suggesting the Last Judgment) in a mix­ture of English,
Latin, and pseudo-Latin and play with the sheer sound of Latin until it is reduced to nonsense.47
The play dramatizes issues of ecclesiastical discourse that had been politicized in the Lollard and anti-Lollard rhetoric of the fifteenth century. The use of English rather than Latin by the clergy or writers was a hotly debated topic, and Dillon proposes that Mankind invites its audience to defamiliarize the “priestly dialect” that linked “Latinity and truth.”48 Mankind, she says, challenges the “excessive Latinity” of orthodox preaching, and thus suggests that Latin may be used to utter blasphemies just as plain Eng­lish may be used to utter sacred truths.49

Lynn Forest-Hill, too, takes up the theme of language as it was used within the context of fifteenth-century East Anglian preaching manuals that addressed the threat of Lollardy. Forest-Hill argues that Mankind belongs to the large number of works of the century ad­dressed either to Lollards or to the problems they posed to orthodoxy. The vernacular works of Reginald Pecock, for example, were examined for heresy, but he defended his orthodoxy and explained that he chose to write in English in order to “challenge the heret­ical opinions of the Lollards in the language they themselves favored.”50 The play echoes preaching manuals that condemn people who mock preachers, but also includes dis­cussion of what makes preaching effective — namely, the intentions of both speaker and listener.51 The mere uttering of words in Latin does not guarantee legitimacy; in the play, for ex­ample, Mankind writes and quotes biblical verse in Latin, but then falls to temptation, while the devil enters declaring “Ego sum dominancium dominus, and my name ys Titivillus” (line 475). The audience of Mankind was obviously expected to differentiate be­tween a virtuous use of language and a vicious one — whether that language was Latin or English.


Typically, the morality play addresses its edifying message as much to the audience as to the central character, and Mankind develops the technique with great sophistication. When Mercy makes his long aureate speeches of doctrinal and moral instruction at the beginning and the end of the play, he is alone on the stage addressing the audience: “O soverence, I beseche yow yowr condycyons to rectyfye / . . . I have be the very mene for yowr restytucyon. / Mercy ys my name, that mornyth for yowr offence. / Dyverte not yowrsylffe in tyme of temtacyon, / That thee may be acceptable to Gode at yowr goyng hence” (lines 13 and 17–20). He ends his forty-four-line speech again “beseeching” the audience to pay attention to his warning about the devices of the tempters, “I besech yow hertyly, have this preme­dytacyon” (line 44).52 Our protagonist, Mankind, enters for the first time only at line 185 after Mercy has been taunted by the four vice figures, demonstrating the truth of Mercy’s words and dramatizing the linguistic nature of the upcoming temptations. Likewise, at the end of the play, Mankind exits the stage after line 902, leaving Mercy to address the audience in a parallel speech to the opening: “Wyrschepyll sofereyns, I have do my propirté: / . . . / Serge your condicyons wyth dew examinacion. / Thynke and remembyr the world ys but a vanité, / . . . / Therefore God grant yow all per suam misericordiam / That ye may be pley­ferys wyth the angellys above / And have to your porcyon vitam eternam. Amen!” (lines 903, 908–09, and 912–14).

When New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought reach the height of their diverting activity, they invite the audience to join with them in singing an obscene “Crystemes songe” (line 332). As Pamela King notes, the result is that the audience succumbs to idleness of the tongue — a major sin the play preaches against — even before the protagonist.53 Titivillus the devil, too, when he enters to seduce Mankind into sin, establishes a partnership with the audience, as Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter have argued.54 The audience’s desire for sensation had already been manipulated when the vices collected money with the promise of seeing the “man wyth a hede that ys of grett omnipotens” (line 461). Titivillus is invisible to Mankind, so it is the play’s audience who can visually participate in the temptations the devil enacts. They become “accomplices in his plots and his joke against Mankind,”55 and when Titivillus says, “I am here ageyn to make this felow yrke”(line 556), he is speaking to the audience. He then calls for their silence as he begins to whisper sinister thoughts into Mankind’s ear as he sleeps: “Qwyst! Pesse! I shall go to hys ere and tytyll therin. / . . . / Ande ever ye dyde, for me kepe now yowr sylence” (lines 557 and 589). Through the scene, the audience itself is tricked into com­plicity with the devil’s machinations against Mankind, a technique of addressing and impli­cating the audience that is present throughout the play, whether good or evil char­acters are on stage.


The intense and sustained engagement of this morality play with its audience is only strengthened by the dialogue’s topical humor based on references to people and places they probably knew. Mankind is written in the East Midland dialect found in Cambridgeshire, Nor­folk, and Suffolk. References in the play confirm its placement in Cambridgeshire; for ex­ample, the three vices New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought say they will find several men that W. K. Smart has identified as actual historical residents of the region in the late fifteenth cen­tury.56 Place-names given in the dialogue between lines 505 and 515 confirm the East Ang­lian con­nection. These include Fulbourn, Bottisham, and Swaffham to the east of Cam­bridge, and Sauston, Hauxton, and Trumpington south of Cambridge. Norfolk place names are Walton, Gayton, Massingham, and another Swaffham. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, is men­tioned in line 274, which is significant because two of the early owners of the manuscript came from Bury: Reverend Cox Macro and Thomas Hyngham, a monk at the monastery there.57

Despite its many unique features, therefore, the play Mankind clearly belongs to “the most important regional theatrical tradition in late medieval England” — that of East Anglia.58 As Victor I. Scherb notes, judging by the number of surviving texts alone, “East Anglia was the West End or Broadway of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England.”59


Mankind survives in a unique fifteenth-century manuscript that also contains two other Middle English morality plays, the Castle of Perseverance and Wisdom. The Macro Manuscript (MS V.a. 354 in the Folger Library collection, Washington, DC) is a compilation of plays copied from separate sources, as well as unrelated pieces. Peter Happé argues that the Macro plays — with their mixture of Latin learning and staging references — appear to serve two purposes, both as devotional text and script for performance.60 Clues to the dating of Mankind may be found within the text, most significantly the reference to a coin called the “royal,” first minted in 1464–65. Moreover, the Worldlings in their joking patter refer to every late fif­teenth-century English coin except the “angel.” Since the angel was issued in 1468–70, it has been argued that the play was probably written between 1465 and 1470.61

The texts of Mankind and Wisdom were owned in the late fifteenth century by a monk named Hyngham, who names himself as owner on fols. 121v and 134r at the ends of Wisdom and Mankind, respectively. In the sixteenth century, Robert Oliver also put his marks on the two plays, claiming ownership on fol. 134v of Mankind. A later owner of these two plays and a third, the Castle of Perseverance, was the Reverend Cox Macro (1683–1767), from whom the manu­script — now containing the three morality plays and other nondramatic works — received its name. After Reverend Macro, the manuscript passed to a relative, John Patteson of Nor­wich, and in 1820 was sold to the Gurney family of Keswick Hall, Norfolk, who put the three morality plays into a separate volume. In 1936, the Folger Library bought this manuscript and, in 1971, the library rebound the Macro manuscript, including all the original pieces.62

The present edition is based on David Bevington’s facsimile edition of The Macro Plays to which we compared other editions, especially the Early English Text Society edition of The Macro Plays by Mark Eccles. In the manuscript the play presents few major textual prob­lems, but, as Eccles notes, the scribe who copied Wisdom then wrote most of Man­kind “so hastily that more emendations are needed.”63 After this scribe produced most of the text of Mankind (fols. 122–132), another concluded the play (fols. 132v–143). Both scribes sepa­rate the speeches of different characters by a line across the page. The main textual challenge is that a single leaf, the original second leaf of seventy to eighty lines, is missing from the play between fols. 122 and 123, the present lines 71–72.

In this edition we have followed METS guidelines in writing thorns and edths as th and yoghs as g, gh, y, or s. We have regularized by capitalizing proper names and adding modern punctuation (virtually no punctuation appears in the manuscript). Certain emendations follow modern spelling conventions, e.g.,“beseche” for “be seche.” Others were made to retain line sense when a likely scribal error occurred, e.g., “butcher” for “botther.” However, we have re­mained true to late Middle English habits by retaining different spellings for the same words, e.g., “ther” and “there”; “you” and “yow.” When an incomplete or abbreviated word appears, we have expanded it with a form that is compatible with other lines in the play.


Indexed as item 3495 in Boffey and Edwards, eds., New Index of Middle English Verse:

•Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library 5031, fols. 14–37. [The Macro Manuscript]

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