From Courtly/Urban Medieval Narrative Literature to Rural/Guild-Sponsored Drama: A Transition in Place, Estate, and Function

        Though we are still in the medieval and Middle English periods, we are witnessing a subtle shift from Chaucer's elegantly constructed, rhymed couplet narrative poems (ca. 1380-1400), designed to be read aloud in small gatherings at court or in townhouses of the emerging urban "middle class," to the more rough-hewn verse drama, Everyman (composed some time after 1485), designed to be performed by amateur actors on temporary outdoor stages in regional urban centers outside London (e.g., York in Northumbria, or Chester on the edge of the Marches of Wales).  The regional theater tradition sprang up in the late middle ages as craft guilds sought ways to express their rising economic power and moral values by backing the writing and performance of dramas with clear moral messages.  We might suspect that they were implicitly or explicitly opposed to the more morally ambiguous, courtly sophistication of poems such as those Chaucer wrote, though he also created some rather starchy moral works.  We will see many signs of a tension between rural England's traditional morality and the emerging international, even multi-cultural values of London and the royal court.  In the next two centuries, even London will begin to split into the City (bankers, merchants, craftspeople) and the Court (nobles and petit nobles, the courtiers, including poets, who serve them, and the lower servants who serve everyone).  Rural nobles will build great country houses in imitation of royal palaces, and their courts also will sustain local poetic traditions that imitate the styles of court poets.  Out in the countryside, however, amateur poets produced a lot of short, often satiric rhymed verse, and better trained poets, probably members of the clergy, wrote two types of plays for the guilds: "mysteries" or dramatized stories taken from the Bible, and "moralities," allegorical dramas that teach Christian morality to the (probably illiterate) masses. See Absolon's description as a skilled "Herod" in the "Slaughter of the Innocents" plays and the Wife of Bath's travels to see "plays of miracles" performed by Jesus like the raising of Lazarus from the dead (MT l. 276 and WoBPro l. 564).  Everyman is one of those moralities, designed to teach the rejection of worldly attachments and the embrace of a rather strict, stoic Christian life of confession, contrition (wearing a "hair shirt"), repentence, and charitable giving.  Of the Canterbury pilgrims, perhaps only the Parson and Plowman really meet this play's criteria for salvation.  Imagine a dorm-room visit from your strict, church-going Granny who is fond of invoking the fear of Death and damnation to correct your sinful misbehavior! 

        Your Granny also might also warn you to consult a quick set of tips about how to read dramas.  Chaucer's poems can be read "dramatically" at court, as Chaucer "did the voices" of various speakers but did not perform the actions in costume.  Dramas were meant for performance by multiple actors, in costume, with minimal props and scenery, but in public before a diverse audience of mostly non-noble people.