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Medieval and early modern sample essay

The medieval and early modern periods were eras with distinctive issues and ideals. Some of their key themes were very similar, such as the importance of religion and the role it played in everyday life, while other matters were unique to their time, such as the medieval selling of indulgences, or the early modern Reformation of the Church. These examples illustrate clearly the mixture of change and stasis in the two ages, as a subject shared by both periods yielded so great a diversity of issues. The distinction of the eras makes it evident that some change did occur, but as the period of time between them was not very great, the change must be limited. Everyman and Dr Faustus are respectively medieval and early modern drama texts that share common issues. However, the way in which they handle them varies, and allows an exploration of whether the people and culture of the medieval and early modern period differed by slight degree or strict demarcation.

The medieval age of English history is epitomised as a strongly religious time, where Christianity provided a strict identity and purpose in life. Belief in Heaven, Hell and Judgement was very real, as was the constant fear of sin and damnation. The Church was able to manipulate the devout faith of its followers by selling fake holy relics and religious indulgences. The laymen believed it was necessary for them to obtain such items in order to purify themselves of sin, and enter Heaven without suffering through Purgatory. Medieval drama did much to reinforce these beliefs, being completely liturgical. Morality plays were first performed at religious holidays, and warned audiences about sin and salvation, with personification of the psychomachia. They all shared a highly similar narrative structure as good and evil battled for the soul of an initially virtuous man who had become caught in vice. This person represented the whole of humanity, and the play would show how, despite temptation and with the help of Christian values, he realised his error and won salvation.

By the early modern era, neither the faith in Christ nor in Judgement had diminished, but the understanding of them had altered. People became frustrated with the “ecclesiastical despotism” that was rife in the established Church, and there was widespread dissatisfaction with the papal organisation which, according to Erasmus, was felt to be dominated by ignorant monks. The subsequent Reformation changed the form and understanding of religion, making it more accessible to the average person by removing the intercessory functions of priests and bishops, and giving ordinary people more control over their spiritual state. This religious change also had political implications. The disestablishment of the Church created a degree of civil unrest among Catholic and Protestant groups, as factions sprang up with each viewing the other as traitorous, either to England or to God. However, this was not the only face of the early modern era. As the beginning of the Renaissance, it was also “a time of heady intoxication with…learning and…discovery.” The exploits of the European sailors and the excitement over new civilisations are allegorised by Faustus’ discovery of magic and the power it wields.

As a liturgical morality play, Everyman submits itself fully to the pre-Reformation teachings, and absorbs the conventional attitudes. It was written to encourage medieval audiences to avoid material pursuits, and to ensure they involved themselves in good deeds and were prepared for Judgement. Death was a constant escort in medieval England, and could be expected at any time. As such, Everyman does not convey fear of death itself, but rather of how God will judge man after it, as the protagonist proclaims “Full unready I am such reckoning to give” and begs for more time in which to make his “counting-book…so clear That my reckoning I should not need to fear.” To achieve this salvation, Everyman is advised to turn to the Catholic rites of confession and penance, and to scourge himself to remove his sins. As Cawley highlights in his introduction, morality plays were “less interested in man’s earthly life than in his spiritual welfare in the life to come.”

Religion is as prominent in Doctor Faustus, but Marlowe presents a contrasting attitude to that of Everyman. His play provides a mocking critique of religious customs, and particularly ridicules Catholic rituals. Marlowe dresses Mephostophilis in the habit of an old Franciscan friar, as Faustus comments “That holy shape becomes a devil best,” illustrating an air of contempt for the Catholic clergy. He further associates Catholicism with evil and devilry as he conjures Mephostophilis by chanting in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. This mockery of Catholicism may be testament to contemporary social attitudes rather than the personal view of Marlowe himself.

In the medieval era, it was highly uncommon for anybody to speak out against the Church, either through fear or because it was all they knew, but the Reformation encouraged writers to criticise the papacy and the earlier Church, often as a form of public entertainment. Writers often allied Catholic characters with themes of idiocy or ineptitude, as Marlowe does in his portrayal of Pope Adrian as “a humourless megalomaniac, void…of commonsense” . Marlowe manipulated the public disdain of Catholicism to criticise established religion in general, challenging many commonly held views, especially regarding forgiveness and salvation.

Everyman’s central theme suggests that God’s mercy always allows sinners to repent, regardless of how much wrong they have done. This belief is illustrated when, despite Death telling Everyman to “Come hence, and not tarry,” Everyman is able to go to Confession and purify himself from sin. Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Five Wits are sent to accompany him to the grave, helping Everyman to realise God’s compassion. Good Deeds guide Everyman into the grave and beyond, providing protection and support when he needs it. In comparison, Faustus also finds that he is sent good forces to protect him from eternal damnation. Unfortunately, these forces are not strong enough to withstand Mephostophilis.

The latter’s evil and cunning defeat nature itself, as he dissolves Faustus’ congealed blood with a chafer of unearthly fire to ensure Faustus bequeaths his soul to Lucifer. A Good Angel and a pious Old Man are also sent to rescue Faustus’ soul, but their efforts are overcome just as quickly, as the devils entice Faustus with hellish delights and overpower his weak soul. The Good Angel urges Faustus to “leave that execrable art” and turn to repentance, but each time Faustus considers prayer the Bad Angel dispirits him, dramatising the internal battles raging within the protagonist’s soul.

Marlowe does not conclude that everyone can find redemption in God, as despite striving to turn to Him in his final moments, Faustus is torn apart by devils and condemned eternally. The playwright provides a cynical view of salvation, as the Good Angel and the Old Man fail to save Faustus, despite seemingly plotting as much as Mephostophilis to win the protagonist’s soul. Marlowe provides further dubious similarity between the two sides, as in their last scene the angels appear to work almost as one, completing each other’s speeches and reinforcing the same message that it is too late for Faustus to repent. The play appears to be concerned with punishment rather than deliverance and salvation, as Faustus is warned that “He who loves pleasure must for pleasure fall.” In contrast, Everyman is forgiven for a lifetime of sin in his last few moments.

Although both plays treat the same ideas of religion and redemption, they portray divergent views. This may be explained by the contemporary change in religious understanding. Some scholars argued that people’s destinies were predetermined, regardless of their actions, while others claimed there was hope for everybody. As Lester notes in his introduction, medieval writers believed that because of mankind’s fallen state, man relied on the grace and salvation earned by Christ and ministered by the Church. In this respect, the distinction between medieval and early modern seems to be vast. However, the fact that both plays have handled the same issues, albeit in different ways, suggests that the difference is of degree rather than demarcation.

As well as the religious elements, Doctor Faustus incorporates Renaissance themes of discovery and knowledge, as Faustus finds a “world of profit and delight, of power, of honour, of omnipotence” has opened to him. Fundamentally, it is a craving for ultimate knowledge that drives Faustus to necromancy, as he proclaims, “A sound magician is a demi-god: here tire my brains to gain a deity!” By integrating such humanist ideals into the play, Marlowe creates a dimensional personality for Faustus, which the audience can appreciate and respond to. They witness the development of the character, forcing them to become emotionally involved in the mental turmoil he endures, and keeping them engrossed until the very last line of the play. Professor Bradbrook suggests that Doctor Faustus is primarily an examination of the protagonist’s “mental development, rather than simply…the form of Faustus’ fortunes.” The rationale behind Faustus’ detailed growth is that it makes him a real person, with whose experiences the audience can sympathise.

Everyman’s character is not developed in the way his counterpart’s is. He is generic and seen as part of the wider universe rather than as an individual. The dramatist has been careful to portray Everyman as representative of mankind rather than as a character in his own right. He is not given a personal history nor is any indication provided that might differentiate him from anybody, with the effect of making Everyman relevant to all audience members. He personifies every man and the trials of every person. His example can be applied to anybody, and everybody can see that the salvation he reaches is available to them as well. In this manner, Everyman is as accessible to the audience as Faustus is, although in different ways and with variant purposes fulfilled.

There are further similarities between the medieval and early modern plays, some of which have been adopted directly from the former. The use of allegorical and highly functional characters is prevalent in both plays, although it is not as common among other Renaissance texts. In Everyman, each character serves a distinct purpose, showing Everyman how he has misplaced his trust in worldly matters and must turn to Christian teachings for salvation. Fellowship and Kinship tempt Everyman astray by offering to distract him with feasting, drinking and women. Even material Beauty and Knowledge cannot help him, leaving Everyman to seek out Confession, Contrition and Good Deeds. Doctor Faustus is very much in keeping with this medieval attribute.

Mephostophilis is the embodiment of temptation, as he distracts Faustus from repentance whenever he feels the protagonist waver, and later admits “‘Twas I that, when thou wert I’ the way to heaven…led thine eye.” The Good Angel and Old Man are personifications of good, devout Christians who try to save Faustus. They too can be seen as tempters, as they try to win his soul. The two plays also share personification of the Seven Deadly Sins. Mephostophilis conjures them as a distraction for Faustus, allowing him to delight in the sins, while in Everyman the sins are allegorised in the behaviour of the protagonist’s dearest people and possessions, suggesting that Everyman has allowed the sins to master him.

As well as thematic similarities, there are several production parallels between the medieval and early modern drama. However, these are veiled by the immense changes that occurred on the stage in the intervening years. Before the Renaissance, plays were performed on and around large wagons, which were carted from one designated area to another. The set was very simple for transportation purposes, but this helped make it apprehendable for the common peasants. The staging was very different for Doctor Faustus, but some of the same ideas regarding spacing and costumes were used.

The pageant-wagons had to make use of limited space, and used an upper room to serve as a balcony, heaven, or a distant location. In later theatre the same concept was utilised, with a single spot serving a multitude of functions. Costumes were also sparse, but symbolic props indicated particular roles and characters, another theatrical convention that early modern dramatists relied upon before professional actors were hired in the permanent theatres, and elaborate costumes and sets were made. The new theatres allowed more believable storylines to develop as settings and characters became more realistic, allowing the fiery devils of Doctor Faustus to achieve their optimum effect.

However, there is one dramatic convention that is key to Doctor Faustus, which was not common in medieval works. Faustus’ soliloquies provide an insight to his character that cannot be gained in morality plays, and are actually symbolic of tragedies. While Everyman’s genre is made clear by its fully functional characters and its reliance on the protagonist’s generic nature, Marlowe’s play balances medieval aspects with contemporary humanist elements and manages to create a new genre that combines elements of morality and tragedy, creating an increasingly real persona. Faustus is distinguished from his medieval counterpart by his illustration of the psychology and passions that drive him. He concedes to his hubris and allows his ambition and lust for power to destroy him, something Everyman cannot do. The tragedy element is vital to Doctor Faustus as that is what gives it the memorable depth and allows the drama to move away from being a simple morality play.

In conclusion, it is evident that despite their classification as two separate periods, the medieval and the early modern eras share many themes and issues. Their similarities are not limited to literal points, and incorporate social and customary ones. The eras do have their differences, as is illustrated by their distinction and by their changing contemporary outlooks. Marlowe’s handling of the plays’ shared subjects differs from that of Everyman’s, as the former had a variant combination of social factors to draw his conclusions from. However, the time lapse between the two periods was not great enough to warrant a complete overhaul of thinking and customs. As Cookson realises, “the traditions of the Middle Ages still weighed heavily” over the early modern writers. At the point at which Doctor Faustus was composed, the difference between medieval and early modern was still of degree rather than strict demarcation.


§Bradbrook,MC Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy 2nd Edition (Newcastle: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

§Cawley,AC (ed.) Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays (London: Everyman’s Library, 1967)

§Cookson,L Doctor Faustus (Hong Kong: Longman Group UK, 1987)

§Davies,T Humanism (New York: Routledge, 1997)

§Henderson,P Christopher Marlowe (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1966)

§Lester,GA (ed.) Three Late Medieval Morality Plays (London: Ernest Benn, 1981)

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