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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

III. The Early Religious Drama

§ 18. Early Moralities

The religious dramas hitherto discussed were chiefly designed to serve the purpose of visibly representing the facts of Scripture; but, in the later Middle Ages, there grew up another kind of dramatic poetry with a moralising, didactic tendency; the dramatis personae were now, altogether or for the most part, personified abstractions. This species is also international; in France, it was called moralité, and, accordingly, in England, literary historians generally use the name of “morality” for a play of this class, whereas, anciently, they were called “moral plays” or “moral interludes.” The theme running through all these plays is the contention between the personified good and bad powers of the soul for the possession of man: a subject first dealt with in Christian literature about the year 400 by Prudentius in his allegorical epic Psychomachia, where the great battle between virtues and vices is, like a Homeric combat, broken up into a series of single fights between Ira and Patientia, Superbia and Humilitas, Libido and Pudicitia, and so forth. Prudentius was one of the authors most frequently read in schools during the Middle Ages, and the main subject of his poem was sundry times imitated; so, in the Vision of Piers the Plowman, where the combat is imagined as the siege of a castle in which man and Christianity are shut up. In all these imitations, man, as the object of battle, takes a more prominent place than with Prudentius.

But it was only at a comparatively late date that the contention between the good and the bad powers of the soul was put into dramatic form: no instances are to be found earlier than the last decades of the fourteenth century. About this time, a brotherhood existed at York, formed for the express purpose of producing the Pater Noster play. Wyclif tells us, that this was “a play setting forth the goodness of our Lord’s Prayer in which play all manner of vices and sins were held up to scorn, and the virtues were held up to praise.” It would seem that this play was founded on an idea in medieval moralising literature, according to which each of the seven supplications of the Pater Noster contained a means of protection against one of the seven deadly sins; and the correctness of this supposition is attested by the fact that one of the plays acted by the York brotherhood had the title Ludus Accidiae (“a play of sloth”). Most probably, this play belonged to the species of moralities; and we may form the same conclusion as to a play on the Creed, which, from 1446, was acted every ten years by the Corpus Christi brotherhood at York. But, from the fifteenth century, we possess English and French examples fully revealing to us the character of the new species.