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During the fifteenth century in English literature nothing much seems to happen; except Malory there are no great writers of repute, and even no works of first-rate importance can also be marked. For this sad state of affairs, there are several reasons. The long drawn out struggle with France, the Hundred Years’ War, drags to its wretched end, and is quickly succeeded by the ferocious and blood-thirsty Wars of the Roses. A poor, half-witted king reigns long over a divided and unhappy land, though he was later deposed, yet still after his deposition for a long period of twenty years there is no ruler with a strong hand and a determination to give peace and plenty to his people. Not until Henry VII seized the throne in 1485 did the political troubles display the signs of ending, and it took him all the twenty-four years of his reign to rebuild a strong and united England. Since the literature is an outcome of a peaceful mind, therefore it is no wonder, if this period did not give any literature of sorts.
This reflects only one half of the story; there exists another and a happier part. During the fifteenth century the condition of the people steadily improved; the citizens of the towns, protected and the strong guilds into which they banded themselves, grew ever more prosperous and powerful. The serfs, or agricultural labourers, through the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 had put up a claim that they too be considered as human beings. Though that rebellion had been put down with great cruelty, yet its result was that bondage gradually disappeared from England, and by 1500 practically no labourer had to remain bound to the estate on which he was born, give free labour and to give a portion of his own produce to his lord or to work without wages.
During these years the Renaissance, which is identified as the great awakening of men’s minds, was spreading swiftly throughout Europe. Through this new learning, which the Renaissance brought, the keen spirit of discovery reached England later than most of the other countries; some of its effects became palpable in this land even before Henry Tudor became king. Sometime in 1476 or 1477 William Caxton set up the first printing press in England, and Edward IV and his nobles personally visited his press to honour him. The establishment of the printing press was a landmark incident in the history of the Renaissance, which has swept the simple, self-satisfied spirit of the Middle Ages away forever. Even a century beforehand, in the days of Chaucer, John Wycliffe had taken up the task to translate the Bible into English and to send forth his “poor priests” to carry the Gospel story throughout the length and breadth of the land. For his yeoman’s service he is also called the “morning star of the Reformation.” He is also the forerunner in England of the tremendous religious movement, accompanying the intellectual Renaissance, to split the one and undivided Church of Western Europe into two sections, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant.
Even the Lollards played a significant role in the fifteenth century in teaching the common people to educate and stir in their hearts a sense of dignity and freedom. Though their effect of preaching and teaching did not immediately manifest in literature, it was profound no doubt. They helped to disseminate literature by enabling the people to understand and appreciate it. This can easily be understood if the story of the rise of English drama is studied. This story began centuries before the advent of the Shakespearean plays, perhaps before the Norman Conquest. It is a fact no one can exactly tell when, since the tale has no beginning, yet the Old English forefathers had invented well-known stories to amuse themselves in a crude way.
The story of drama had its early beginning in the church; it was written and produced there. When the priests of the Middle Ages realised that everybody loves acting, then they employed this love to teach their simple unlettered parishioners Bible stories. They exhibited “living pictures” in the church, particularly at Easter, when the story of Christ’s Death and Resurrection was dramatised, and at Resurrection, when the story of the Nativity was presented. Some of the Nativity plays were so beautiful that they have been preserved and are still produced today at Christmas and other times.
Earlier only priests acted parts in these mystery plays, as they are called, therefore they were written in Latin. Since they were performed only in the church, sometimes they formed part of the service. Even the whole congregation could participate by joining in the hymns, which were sung during the play. The Norman priests who came to England after the Conquest made these mystery plays very popular. Very soon, not only Bible stories but also stories of saints, or miracle plays, were shown by the priestly actors. One of these, the Play of St.Katherine, was acted at Dunstable in 1100 by the scholars of the monastery there.
Gradually when the plays grew in popularity, they had to be more elaborately produced, because the spectators also increased, and therefore churchyard was used instead of the church to perform. Evidently people wanted to know the words, for plays were written in Latin as well as in English as early as 1220, about the same time as English poetry once began to be written. Since the priests alone could read the Bible, which was written in Latin, therefore they alone could perform mysteries. But the case with miracle plays was different, for they were performed in schools, guilds, and other non-priestly associations, generally in honour of their patron saints. Though the clergy did not look favourably upon this practice, they could not stop it, for they also needed outside help in respect of their own performances. In the miracle plays and moralities comic characters began to appear, and it was felt to be hardly fitting for a priest to take such parts.
All these plays were meant to educate the people. The beauty of the moralities or morality plays was that the audience was taught not by Scripture or the holy life of the saints, but by allegories or parables in which characters were not real people but virtues and vices, such as Justice, Mercy, Pride, Vice, Gluttony. Vice was displayed as the great ‘funny man” of the plays; he was servant of the Devil, and it was his business to tease his master for the amusement of the audience., and at the end of the play he picked him up and carried him off to the lower regions. In fact, the circumstances made the Devil a comic character. In the Christian Gospel of Matthew Herod, as the ruler of Judea orders the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus became the stock “villain.”
The example of the priests in producing plays was soon copied; in the thirteenth century if not earlier wandering troupes consisting of professional actors began to tour England. The Church tried its best to forbid them, but it failed to cut any ice when great guilds and trading companies themselves organised series of plays in towns. This marked the end of the monopoly of the Church in organising plays. Once the beginning was made there was no looking back, in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteen centuries town after town began to have its own cycle of plays. Each guild had made its own play, choosing mainly a Bible incident befitting its trade. The shipwrights, for instance, would act in the story of Noah’s Ark. Normally there would be thirty, forty or fifty trades in a town, so a town would have thirty, forty or fifty plays. On holidays, say All Saints’ Day or Corpus Christi, the plays were performed, one in each street, and the whole town would gather to see them turning the day into a real festival. Each company acted independently, maintaining its own moveable stage and a wagon with two stories; in the lower room the players dressed; in the upper room, which was open, they performed the play. After the play, the wagon was pulled into the next street to begin the performance once again. So in every street of the town there used to be continuous performance throughout the day. These plays were the objects of great entertainment in those days for the people.
The manuscripts of four of these cycles or groups, the Chester plays, the Coventry plays, the York plays, and the Towneley plays, which were probably enacted at a village near Wakefield, are still extant. It cannot be said exactly how old any of these cycles are, yet we can presume, they all belong roughly to the fifteenth century.
The Renaissance had to be heralded in order to transform this rough-and-ready, half-religious, half-popular drama into the powerful drama of the Elizabethan Age; it is just as the Old English language which is the foundation upon which Modern English has been built, this medieval drama has also acted as the foundation stone based on which the subsequent greatest drama in the world has been built.