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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 3. Fraternities, orders and dances of death

This fashion of writing mock testaments appears to have become popular. Evidence of its influence on the new court poetry is found in such love complaints as The Testament of the Hawthorne. But the most interesting of later testaments is The Wyll of the Devyll, printed and composed about 1550 by Humphrey Powell. The tract was probably inspired by Manuel’s Krankheit der Messe, and the greater part is taken up with savage invective against the Roman Catholic church, the devil, on his death-bed, bequeathing his vices and superstitions to papists and priests. But the booklet has a popular side. The devil, in disposing of his treasures and worldly experience, does not forget others who are likely to appreciate them; men of law receive two right hands to take money of both parties; with Shakespearian insight into vice, lechers are presented with “a crafty wytte to wrest the Scriptures and to make them serve for filthy purposes”; idle housewives are given more of the same society to keep them company; dicers receive a thousand pair of false dice; butchers are supplied with fresh blood to sprinkle on their stale meat, and other tradesmen with other means of deception. The book is most significant. Its range covers the great religious controversy of the century and penetrates with singular felicity into the minor abuses of society. Yet it appears in an essentially popular literary form, and shows how considerable a part of the reading public was found among the common people.

Except in its form, The Wyll of the Devyll belongs mostly to the attack on social and occasional evils which figured largely in the works of Brinkelow, Crowley, Awdeley, Harman, Bullein and others. Meanwhile, the literature of classified character continued its own development uncoloured by contemporary events. To this type belong several broadsides, such as the XX Orders of Callettes or Drabbys and its counterpart the XX Orders of Fooles, registered in 1569–70, and A New Ballad against Unthrifts. The Galley late come into Englande from Terra Nova, laden with Phisitiens, Apothecaries and Chirurgians is now lost. In 1575, Awdeley printed the XXV Orders of Knaves, in which “brief and sarcastic catchwords out of the immemorial bill of charges against those that serve” are worked into condensed portraits of remarkable distinctness. But the French Danses Macabres of the fifteenth century had already shown that subjection to death was the most effective classification of human types. The song of The Shaking of the Sheets, first alluded to in Misogonus (c. 1560), exposes, with malicious felicity, the futility of life’s different pursuits in the face of death. These verses were meant to accompany a symbolic “jigge” or masquerade, which seems to have been a common practice since the performance of a danse macabre in the Parisian cemetery of the Innocents in 1424. The subject was even more frequently represented by woodcuts with explanatory verses. One of the most curious is a broadside without title or date containing a representation of Death pursuing the Priest, the King, the Harlot, the Lawyer, the Clown (i.e. countryman), followed by ten stanzas in which each type boasts of the power he or she holds over the others, and Death of his power over them all. Another early broadside entitled The Daunce and Song of Death has four engravings of the Miser, the Prisoner, the Judge and two Lovers, with a moral verse under each, the whole concluding with an apologue. This spirit of type-satire continued till the Civil War. Its last and most striking development is the Theophrastian character, in which the sixteenth century view of society reappears in a form inspired by the fashionable classicism of the Jacobean age.