“Everyman” ctd.

Everyman continues bargaining with Death. “Can I get a deferment for twelve years? My ledger will be then nicely balanced.” “No way. You can ask your friends for help, though.” “Can I come back from this pilgrimage?” “No, you fool, reincarnation is unheard of in Christianity.” “Can I bring any friends with me?” “Surely, if anyone agrees. Did you really think your life and possessions were your own? They were just a loan and somebody else is going to take your inheritance soon.” “Can I get a deferment for at least one day?” “No way, the whole point of this morality play is that Death comes suddenly.”. Death then exits, leaving Everyman to make his preparations. Everyman laments his fate, but then notices Fellowship approaching. Fellowship asks “Why so down? Did anybody hurt you? I will revenge you on him, even if I should die in the process!” But as we are going to learn, words and deeds are two different things.

As you can see, there is a lot of financial vocabulary in this play. OK, they say “biding” rather than “deferment”, but that’s the medieval Business English. The audience are clearly middle-class, merchants and financiers, who are familiar with the balance sheet and financial terminology.

“Everyman” ctd.

God continues his complaint: since people pay not attention to the matters of eternal life and are preoccupied with their riches, he is going to send Death to every man/Everyman and ask him for his reckoning. The summoned Death appears and promises to search the whole world. Soon he finds Everyman and  tells him that he is the messenger from God who wants to see his reckoning. Everyman says he is not ready and asks Death who he is. When Death introduces himself, he jumps to the bargaining stage in the Kubler-Ross model, offering Death a thousand pounds, but Death naturally dismisses the offer, saying that if he took bribes, he would own the world, but he is incorruptible.

I haven’t mentioned that this drama is written in a sort of uneven line, with rhymes appearing from time to time in couplets, but not in any sort of regular way. I can only guess this is a result of the adaptation from the original Dutch, where some rhymes were borrowed verbatim, if the Dutch words were similar enough to the English ones, or otherwise ignored.


All right, the medieval play read during every single Eng. Lit course. There are other morality plays, more entertaining (e.g. Mankind with its comical devil Titivullus) or with more elaborate concept (The Castle of Perseverance) but I think what made Everyman a staple of all college courses is that it’s fairly late (written at the end of the 15th century), so all it takes is some modernization of spelling to make it quite feasible to a modern reader. The editors of the NAEL in the introduction write that Everyman is a translation of a Dutch play Elckerlijc, although it could also be the other way round and the Dutch play would be the translation of the English one. From what I’ve read elsewhere, the odds are 90% the English play is the translation of the Dutch one, but I understand it’s hard to give up your claim on cultural primacy, tenuous as it is.

Morality plays are heavily dependent on allegory, so they are full of characters embodying various features of character, virtues, vices etc. Thus, the individual on stage stands for a whole class of things, or as in the case of Everyman, for every viewer.

The play begins with the Messenger entering the stage and announcing what the play is going to be about, i.e. the preparation for death. Then God (or to be more precise, Christ – let’s not get into the theological discussion about the Trinity) appears and he complains about the ingratitude of humankind, who despite his sacrifice on the cross still prefers to wallow  in sin.

Robert Henryson ‘The Cock and the Fox’ the end.

The third hen wife picks up the subject of the worthless husband and says she believes what happened to him was God’s just punishment for his pride and lechery. Now, it seems to me a bit inconsistent, as just a moment ago another wife was accusing him of lacking potency. But I guess when people gang up together against somebody, they don’t pay much attention to consistency. The cock’s owner awakes from her swoon and sets her dogs on the fox – the Scottish widow seems to have much more of them than the English one. The fox sees he’s being pursued and in danger of getting caught. The cock advises him “Why don’t you tell him that I am your best friend and I swear I won’t move?” This is a bit less believable than in Chaucer’s version, even though in either case, the fact that the cunning fox listens to the advice of his victim strains credibility. Anyway, the story ends pretty much like in Chaucer: when the fox opens his maw, the cock flies to the nearest branch and even when the fox promises to be his servant for a year for free, he is not fooled the second time.

The story ends with Moralitas, in which the author explains his allegory: the cock stands for pride, which is one of the cardinal sins and brought about the fall of Lucifer, while the fox stands for flattery and false friends, who should be avoided at all costs. The fable overall is shorter and less elaborate than Chaucer’s version – Henryson doesn’t play with the mock-heroic style, nor is he as interested in displaying his learning, although in Chaucer’s case it may be attributed to the fact that the narrator of his story is a priest and so he may be a bit pedantic. It’s interesting to see how the moral goes in subtly different directions: in Chaucer’s case it is along the lines “lo, how mighty have fallen”, which really means nothing to an average non-mighty reader. Henryson’s moralizing seems to me to be more applicable to a more general readership.

Robert Henryson ‘The Cock and the Fox’ ctd.

The fox continues his flattery, but says “However, you’re not the man (the cock?) your father was, because when he crowed, he would close his eyes and turn three times around”. The cock tries to repeat this feat and sure enough, he is immediately seized by the fox. His wives Pertok, Sprutok and Coppok start yelling and lamenting. When they see the fox is gone for good, Pertok kicks off officially the widow phase. “Who is going to take care of us, who is going to be our clock, who is going to break the bread for us, and most importantly, who is going to be our lover?”. Sprutok says “Cut it off, sister wife and get ready for the life of a merry widow. Chauntecleer was often angry and jealous and frankly, not that good in bed.”. Pertok then indeed stops her lamenting because she was motivated only by lust, not love. Pertok then answer “indeed, a twelve men like him wouldn’t suffice for us. I promise you to find within a week a guy who better satisfies our appetites.” I think I’ll switch to “man” instead of cock, because chickens are here very antropomorphized, to the extent that the crying Pertok is described as “ryvand hir hair, upon his breist can beit” (tearing her hair, upon her breast did beat).

Robert Henryson ‘The Cock and the Fox’

Robert Henryson is probably the best-known of the poets who were called in older handbooks “Scottish Chaucerians”. Now critics try to avoid this term, because I guess it makes them look like paltry imitators and seems to imply that Scottish literature is just a pale reflection of its smarter southern neighbour. But while you should be (I think) a bit ashamed of writing fan-fics for such crap as Twilight (even if the said fan-fics bring you gazillions), there is no shame in writing fan-fics inspired by the genius that Chaucer was. Incidentally, we know next to nothing about Henryson, apart from the fact that he may have been the headmaster of the grammar school in Dunfermline and there are no reports of him ever becoming immensely rich. He wrote, among others, something which looks like an intensely grimy and gloomy sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, in which Criseyde ends up as an STD-infected prostitute in the Greek camp. The piece selected for the NAEL is fortunately a bit more cheery, as it is an animal fable, based on the same story as Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”. Incidentally, animal fables were the standard school fare, so Henryson’s interest in them, as a teacher, is quite understandable.

I will try to do my best not to repeat myself and focus on the differences between Chaucer’s and Henryson’s version. First of all, instead of Chaucer’s couplets Henryson writes the story in the elegant seven-line stanza known as “rhyme royal”, used also by Chaucer. The editors do their best to convince the readers that linguistically, Henryson’s Scots is not that much more difficult that Chaucer’s English. It’s true, which is not to say it’s a piece of cake, but with footnotes you can manage. The editors point out that some of Henryson’s forms are already closer to modern English than Chaucer’s, e.g. the use of “-s” ending in the 3rd person singular verbs instead of “-th”. I am an ignorant when it comes to historical grammar, so I wonder whether it’s a particular feature of the Scottish dialect or it’s just something that happened in the language spoken all over Great Britain a century after Chaucer.

Henryson leaves out all the disputes between Chauntecleer and his wife about the nature of dreams (which is a VAST IMPROVEMENT, in my opinion) and cuts to the chase, with the fox trying to befriend the cock. The fox in this version is called Lawrence, not Reynard, and he starts by appealing not so much to the cock’s vanity, but to filial love. “Your father was my best friend, he often sent me scraps from the farm when I was hungry and he practically died in my arms”, he says. The last one I can actually believe.

I can’t refrain from mentioning that the name of the editor of the collection from which the NAEL version comes is Denton Fox.

Thomas Malory ‘Morte d’Arthur’ – the end

Guinevere’s body, after all the church ceremonies, is wrapped in fine waxed cloth, put in a coffin of lead and in another coffin of marble. Lancelot swoons during the burial and the Bishop, thinking he mourns his lover, upbraids him for it. Lancelot explains he doesn’t mourn Guinevere as his lover, but he remembers the beauty and nobility of her and Arthur as the royal couple and repents his role in their downfall. After Guinevere’s burial he hardly eats and drinks and is physically shrinking. After six weeks he calls his friends and asks for the last rites. They answer with the usual false cheerfulness “there’s nothing wrong with you etc.” but Lancelot answers “I know better how I feel’ and receives the sacraments. A few nights after that the Bishop wakes up all his companions laughing in his sleep. When they ask him what happened, he tells them he saw in his dream Lancelot entering heaven, surrounded by a host of angels. Lancelot’s friends are again in denial, saying “no, surely he’s not dying”, but when they check on him, he is indeed dead, with a smile on his face and sweet odour emanating from his body, as the medieval tradition claimed about saints’ bodies.

After Lancelot’s death, fulfilling his last wish, his companions transfer his body on the same bier that was used for Guinevere, to his castle Joyous Garde, which, as Malory notes, according to some was in Alnwick, and according to others in Bamburgh. There his body is laid out in an open coffin, as was the custom in those days, notes Mallory. During the ceremonies Lancelot’s brother, Sir Ector de Maris, who’s been searching for him throughout the whole of Great Britain for seven years, arrives and mourns him. The ceremonies last fifteen days (I guess it was a fortunate thing that his body was miraculously preserved). Then he is buried.

The coda is as follows: after Arthur’s death, Constantine of Cornwall is chosen to be the king of England and he invites the former Bishop of Canterbury to be the bishop again. The other knight-hermits go to their respective homelands to be hermits there, except four who turn knights again, go on a crusade to the Holy Land and die there on a Good Friday. The story ends with Malory’s request for the prayer of his readers for his well-being, if he’s alive, or his soul, if he’s dead.

Malory’s story, at least as represented by the excerpts in the NAEL, is rather melancholy, but I guess it’s to be expected of the tale with “Death” in its title. It’s also grittier than I remembered, what with all the blood and guts spilling. Malory very often argues with other versions of the story, quoting “the French book” as the authority. I wonder whether he thought of himself as a fiction writer or as a historian. But probably this differentiation makes no sense in the Middle Ages at all.