As The Norton Anthology of English Literature says, “By far the larger proportion of surviving literature in Middle as in Old English is religious” (7). This shouldn’t be surprising since we know education had a religious affiliation; men were educated, went to “universities” to become clerics. “The church offered a path for gifted commoners to make a career” (7), but left the majority of commoners illiterate. The fact that Latin was the language of education and books were time consuming to produce and expensive only compounded the problem.
The situation was alleviated somewhat with William Caxton’s introduction to type-setting in 1474, when he printed the first book in English. This new method of printing was the key to increasing the availability of texts and lowering the cost. But the church had overwhelming influence and plenty of funds to produce literature and wasn’t terribly interested in a literate following, it only meant more people would be reading and developing their own interpretations of the scripture.
The church knew that the stories and ideas of the Bible could effectively be passed on through sermons and mystery and morality plays. Although they both have the primary mission of conveying biblical messages, mystery and morality plays have considerable differences. The “mystery” in mystery plays refers to “the spiritual mystery of Christ’s redemption of humankind” (308). Mystery plays were typically written in “cycles” (a series) that would begin with the Creation, chronicle the major events of the Old Testament through the New Testament and the Last Judgment.
The mystery plays “endeavored to make the Christian religion more real to the unlearned by dramatizing significant events in biblical history and by showing what these events meant in terms of human experience” (363). They are thought to have evolved from the liturgies and plays that were conducted in Latin. Mystery plays produced in the vernacular in the streets of towns were a way of reaching a wide audience that included educated laypeople and clerics as well as the unlearned folk. The authors of these plays usually broadened their appeal by giving the characters of the plays the appearance and characters of contemporary men and women.
The Wakefield Master, “probably a highly educated cleric stationed in the vicinity of Wakefield” (319), did this in his play The Second Shepherds’ Play. “As the play opens, the shepherds complain about the cold, the taxes, and the high-handed treatment they get from the gentry–evils closer to shepherds on the Yorkshire moors than to those keeping their flocks near Bethlehem” (319), this convention would only help the lay people identify with the characters and make the religious message, that Christian charity doesn’t go unrewarded, seem more personal.
The Christian charity of the shepherds is seen first in their offering a sixpence to Mak’s newborn son and then in their mercy toward him when they find out his “son” is really a stolen sheep in disguise. This farcical parody of Christ in the manger is then offset by the moral of the story as their charity is then rewarded with a visit from an angel, singing Gloria in Excelsis, who tells them of the birth of the savior. While the mystery play was “sometimes boisterous comedy” (309), the morality play opted for a more austere, overtly didactic approach.
Everyman is a strong example of this. While the name might imply an attempt at personalizing the lesson, the lesson itself keeps the audience at a distance with its direct sermonizing. Where The Second Shepherds’ Play opened with Coll complaining about the weather and social injustices, Everyman opens with a messenger to preach to you the moral of the story. The names of the characters reinforce the moral lesson through allegory, with every character behaving “entirely within the limits” as “defined by his name” (364).
Where The Second Shepherds’ Play might seem like entertainment that happens to have a subtle message, Everyman appears to be a message or lesson that happens to subtly seem like entertainment. Most of the morality plays do seem to “share with the mysteries a good deal of rough humor” (363). The fact that Everyman’s friends and relations abandon him so quickly in his hour of need might be construed as rough humor, but that humor is over-shadowed with the directness of the message of the play which is stated at the beginning and reinforced in the summary at the end of the play.
The influence and importance of religion in this period can be seen in more than just the mystery and morality plays, even “Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ is actually a sermon with an exemplum” (7) and The Canterbury Tales isn’t exactly what would be categorized as a religious piece. Chaucer, himself, felt compelled to pray for forgiveness for writing The Canterbury Tales in his “Retraction. ” The Church had a powerful influence on Medieval literature.
Events from the Bible were the subjects of poems such as “Adam Lay Bound,” as well as plays such as The Second Shepherds’ Play. And the teachings of the Church were also as prevalent in literature, as can be seen by Chaucer’s “The Parson’s Tale “and morality plays like Everyman. Although the tone may change from piece to piece the underlying message is the same, the Church is an integral part of Medieval literature.