The Medieval Review 11.02.14

Ashley, Kathleen M. and Gerard NeCastro. Mankind. Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institue Publications, 2010. Pp. vi, 85. . $13 ISBN 978-1-58044-140-7.

Reviewed by:

John Geck
University of Toronto
john.geck@utoronto.ca

For about twenty years, the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series has been an invaluable resource to teachers of medieval English literature by providing inexpensive volumes of important Middle English works ideal for student and classroom use. Mankind, one of TEAM's latest publications, is no exception, supplying students and teachers with a sound transcription of the play in the original language, copious explanatory and textual notes, a full bibliography, and an informative and useful introduction. Kathleen Ashley and Gerard NeCastro are well- suited for this task: Ashley's prior work on the language of Mankind is an insightful contribution to our understanding of the text, while NeCastro's online text editions of medieval and Tudor plays are a terrific asset to both students and scholars.

Mankind, one of only three complete pre-1500 Middle English morality plays, is unique according to a number of measures, including its small cast size, its scatological and sacrilegious humor, and its ability to speak to a wide-ranging audience. In short, it is a morality play ideal for introducing the genre to university students. The play casts the allegorical and eponymous Mankind as a farmer, instructed by an aureate English-speaking Mercy on how to live a virtuous life. Mercy, though wanting only the best for Mankind, is also a bit of a prig, and is continuously mocked by the villains of the play Titivillus, Mischief, and the so-called Worldlings (New- Guise, Nowadays, and Nought). The troublemakers employ fake Latin, crude humor, and vicious pranks to tempt Mankind to sin. Although the Wordlings are at first successful, Mankind is finally brought to repentance by Mercy, who finally directs his moral message to the crowd as the play ends.

Mankind remains in only one manuscript, where it appears with the other two complete pre-1500 English morality plays, The Castle of Perseverance and Wisdom. This manuscript, Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library's MS V.a.354 (Item 5031 in the New Index of Middle English Verse), and commonly known as the Macro Manuscript, is a compilation of a number of items in different hands brought together after production, and named for the Reverend Cox Macro (1683-1767), an early owner of the texts. Mankind and Wisdom are largely composed by a single scribe in an East Anglian dialect, an indication of the region's status as a major producer of theatrical works. Little else is known for certain about the play's composition or production, as Kathleen Ashley makes clear in her introduction. Whether it was designed to be performed by a travelling troupe in the yard of an inn, or by a small group of players at a guildhall or a private residence is unknown, and the date of composition has variably been argued to be 1465-1468, 1468-1470, or 1471.

The text of the play itself is clearly and accurately reproduced. Orthography is regularized, with the eth (though called an "edth" in the introduction due to a typographical error--the only one apparent in the edition) and thorn replaced with "th", and the yogh, even more confounding to new readers of Middle English, with "g", "gh", "y", or "s", as needed. Beyond these and other slight changes, the text is presented as it appears in the manuscript, retaining variant spellings, but formatted for easier reading. Marginal glosses of difficult words and translations from Latin, and footnotes rewording particularly challenging lines allow for quick but thorough analysis. Finally, the most complex manuscript issues are noted in either the explanatory or textual notes at the end of the book. These notes are exceptionally thorough, providing further cultural and religious details to aid in understanding, and supplying not only notes on textual emendations, but also a quick listing of how almost all other major editions of the play have treated the lines. The only minor inconsistency in these sections deals with marginal insertions at lines 125-128 and 130, and again at 200-1. Whereas the position of the former set of lines is discussed only in the textual notes, the latter is mentioned in both the textual and explanatory notes. This is, of course, an exceedingly minor point, and only serves to illustrate the overall precision and attention to detail that shape these sections.

Ashley's introductory material is ideal for students encountering the play for the first time and for scholars seeking a reintroduction to the text. Flowing smoothly from item to item, the introduction discusses both the more practical aspects of the play (its context in the manuscript, as an East Anglian play, and as a form of festive entertainment; how it may have been performed and staged; and the methods employed to engage the audience) and a number of literary interpretations (such as social protest, language, and the varying registers employed by different characters). Ashley successfully covers all but the most recent (and concurrently published) scholarship on Mankind, providing students with a solid bibliography for research papers. For the most part, the central theme of the introduction is the language of the various characters, which is much in keeping with Ashley's earlier work on the play. This includes an examination of the aureate and Latinate English employed by Mercy, a formality frequently matched by his stately rhyme scheme (ababbcbc), which we can note here puts it in line with the ballad style used by Chaucer in The Monk's Tale. Serving as a foil to Mercy's high style is the periodically fake Latin and unceasing vulgarity employed by the demons in their tail-rhyme verses. Ashley also notes that Titivillus, known throughout the Middle Ages as the demon that collected errant words of gossips in church and the mispronounced Latin syllables of priests, is a fitting antagonist to Mercy. Finally, in demonstrating the ways in which the audience was engaged by the players, Ashley discusses the way in which the Worldlings request the help of spectators in singing a "Crystemes songe" (line 332), which leads to a sacrilegious version of the Sanctus, ending with a phrase translated to "hole-lick, hole- lick, hole-lick" (line 343). The real genius of the play is revealed as it draws the audience into sin, thus causing each viewer to occupy Mankind's tenuous position between salvation and damnation.

Also of interest is Ashley's discussion of the East Anglian context of the play, its possible connections to Bury St. Edmunds, and the local personages and villages named in the play in lines 505 to 515. This section of the play is particularly interesting, since it not only provides us with the most insight on the exact location and date of the composition and production of Mankind, but also gives some guidelines on how the play might be most effectively performed today. Ten individuals are named in this section by the Wordlings as possible targets of theft. Three are avoided, likely as a result of their positions in local and regional politics. A modern version of the play could take into account likely well-known local figures or audience members and use these names and locations to replace those in the text, a technique suggested in the explanatory notes for these lines. In this short section, Ashley relies heavily on Walter Smart's 1916 and 1917 articles on the play, which successfully identified only two of the three, namely William Allington of Bottisham and Alexander Wood of Fulbourn, both of whom were justices of the peace for the area. To these identifications, we can add that the third individual, William Hammond of Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire, also held a local appointment as escheator in 1468, a fact brought to light just after the publication of this edition. All three were granted their appointments by Edward IV, referred to as Edwardus nullatenus by Mischief at line 690, and whose six-month deposition from power and exile may coincide with the play's composition. The possible political themes present in the play and the issues of social upheaval and economic crisis common to later fifteenth-century England are also addressed by Ashley in her section "Social Protest" (4-6). If anything lacks from the East Anglian discussion, it is very little. Earlier in her introduction, with regard to the dating of the play, Ashley discusses John Marshall's "'O Ye Soverens that Sytt and Ye Brothern that Stonde Ryght Wppe': Addressing the Audiences of Mankind" (European Medieval Drama 1 [1997], 189-202). While the dating of the play is a major feature of Marshall's article, he also goes into great detail on the East Anglian context. Some reference to his conclusions in this section would be helpful to readers, though it may well have rendered the introduction overly complex for the broader intended audience.

In all, this edition is extremely useful, exceptionally informative, and delightfully affordable. It is an ideal text for use not only in the classroom, but also for anyone seeking a thorough introduction to Mankind and the various interpretations surrounding it. For generations of students, the dour Everyman has long been presented as the quintessential morality play, and the plenitude of affordable editions is the likely cause far more than any entertainment value the play might offer. With this edition, one hopes that Everyman might soon share, in equal parts, the stage with the more amusing and invigorating Mankind, and that students will achieve a broader understanding of the humor and vivacity that can be present in the morality plays.