At some unknown date in the fifteenth century a now nameless author produced the most famous of English morality plays. Everyman is an allegory whose characters are unprepossessing abstractions: Knowledge, Beauty, Five-Wits, Discretion, Strength, Goods, Good Deeds, Fellowship, Kindred, Confession, Death, Everyman, and God. In the prologue God complains that His commandments are ignored by nine men out of ten six days out of seven, and sends Death to remind the terrestrials that they must soon come to Him and give an account of their doings. In the space of a line Death descends from heaven to earth, finds Everyman meditating earnestly on women and gold, and bids him come into eternity. Everyman pleads unprepared-ness, asks for an extension of time, offers a thousand-pound bribe; but Death grants him only one mitigation—to be accompanied into eternity by some chosen friend. Everyman begs Fellowship to join him in the great adventure, but Fellowship excuses himself bravely:
If thou wilt eat, and drink, and make good cheer,
Or haunt together women’s lusty company,
I would not forsake you....
Everyman: Then bear me company in my far journey.
Fellowship: Now, in good faith, I will not that way.
But if thou wilt murder, or any man kill,
In that I will help thee with a good will.45
Everyman appeals to Kindred, his cousin, who rejects the invitation because “I have the cramp in my toe.” Everyman calls upon Goods to aid him; but Goods has been so firmly locked away that he cannot be freed to render any help. At last Everyman entreats Good Deeds; she is pleased that he has not quite forgotten her; she introduces him to Knowledge, who leads him to Confession, who shrives him clean. Then Good Deeds descends with Everyman into his grave, and angelic songs welcome the purified sinner into paradise.
The author almost, but not quite, triumphed over an ungainly dramatic form. The personification of a quality can never qualify as a person, for every man is an irritatingly complex contradiction, unique except when part of a crowd; and great art must portray the general through the unique, as through Hamlet or Quixote, Oedipus or Panurge. Experiment and ingenuity would need another century to transform the dull morality play into the living Elizabethan drama of infinitely variable man.
The great literary event in fifteenth-century England was the establishment of its first printing press. Born in Kent, William Caxton migrated to Bruges as a merchant. In his leisure he translated a collection of French romances. His friends asked for copies, which he made himself; but his hand, he tells us, became “weary and not steadfast with much writing,” and his eyes were “dimed with overmuch lokying on the whit paper.”46 On his visits to Cologne, he may have seen the printing press set up there (1466) by Ulrich Zell, who had learned the new technique in Mainz. In 1471 Colard Mansion organized a printing shop in Bruges, and Caxton resorted to it as a means of multiplying copies of his translation. In 1476 he returned to England, and a year later he installed at Westminster the fonts—perhaps the presses—that he had brought from Bruges. He was already fifty-five, and only fifteen years were left him; but in that period he printed ninety-eight books, several of them translated by himself from the Latin or the French. His choice of titles, and the quaint and charming style of his prefaces, laid a lasting mark on English literature. When he died (1491) his Alsatian associate, Wynkyn de Worde, carried on the revolution.
In 1485 Caxton edited and published one of the most lovable masterpieces of English prose—The Noble Histories of King Arthur and of Certain of His Knights. Its strange author had died, probably in prison, some sixteen years before. Sir Thomas Malory, in the Hundred Years’ War, served in the retinue of Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and represented Warwick in the Parliament of 1445. Lonesome for the license of war, he broke into the home of Hugh Smyth, raped Hugh’s wife, extorted a hundred shillings from Margaret Kyng and William Hales, broke again into Hugh Smyth’s house, and again raped the wife. He stole seven cows, two calves, and 335 sheep, twice looted the Cistercian Abbey at Coombe, and was twice clapped into jail. It seems incredible that such a man should have written that tender swan song of English chivalry which we now call Le Morte d’Arthur; but after a century of dispute it is agreed that these delightful romances were the product of Sir Thomas Malory’s incarcerated years.47
He took most of the stories from the French forms of the Arthurian legends, arranged them in tolerable sequence, and phrased them in a style of wistful, feminine charm. To an aristocracy losing chivalry in the brutalities and treacheries of war, he appealed for a return to the high standards of Arthur’s knights, forgetting their transgressions and his own. Arthur, after outgrowing fornication and incest, settles down with his pretty but venturesome Guinevere, governs England—indeed, all Europe—from his capital a Camelot (Winchester), and requires the 150 knights of his Round Table t pledge themselves
never to do outrage nor murder... by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy... and always to do . . gentlewomen succour, upon pain of death.48
Love and war are the mingled themes of a book resounding with the combats of incomparable chevaliers for dames and damosels beyond compare. Tristram and Lancelot cuckold their kings, but are the soul of honor and bravery. Encountering each other armored, helmeted, and visored, and hence with their identities concealed, they fight for four hours, until their swords are incarnadined and dull.
Then at last spake Sir Lancelot and said: Knight, thou fightest wonderly well as ever I saw knight, therefore, an it please you, tell me your name. Sir, said Sir Tristram, that is me loath to tell any man my name. Truly, said Sir Lancelot, an I were required, I was never loath to tell my name. It is well said, said Sir Tristram; therefore I require you to tell me your name. Fair knight, he said, my name is Sir Lancelot du Lake. Alas, said Sir Tristram, what have I done? for ye are the man in the world that I love best. Fair knight, said Sir Lancelot, tell me your name. Truly, said he, my name is Sir Tristram de Liones. O Jesu, said Sir Lancelot, what adventure is befallen me! And therewith Sir Lancelot kneeled down and yielded him up his sword. And therewith Sir Tristram kneeled down and yielded him up his sword.... . Then they both forthwith went to the stone, and set them down upon it, and took off their helms .... and either kissed other an hundred times.49
What a leap it is from this airy realm, in which no one ever worked for a living, and all women were “gentlewomen,” to the real matter-of-fact world of the Paston Letters, those living missives that bound a scattered family together in affection and finance in the England of the fifteenth century! Here is John Paston, who practices law in London or on circuit while Margaret rears their children and manages his property at Norwich; he is all business, stern, stingy, competent; she is all submission, a humble, able, timid wife, who trembles at the thought that she has offended him;50 such were the Guineveres of the actual world. And yet here too are delicate sentiments, mutual solicitude, even romance; Margery Brews confesses to Sir John Paston II that she loves him, and mourns that the dowry she can bring him falls far below his state; “but if ye love me, as I trust verily ye do, ye will not leave me therefore”; and he, master of the Paston fortune, marries her despite the complaints of his relatives—and himself dies within two years. There were hearts tender and bruised under the hard surface of that disordered age.