Everyman is like an extraordinary martini, balancing perfectly on a razor’s edge of disaster. Everyman is all ratios—mortal fear shaken with ecclesiastical didacticism, a couple olives of humor plopped in to give it some finish. Put into context, though, Everyman is really an quietly radical sermon on the necessity of the local priesthood, the sacraments, and faith in Roman Catholicism to see the soul safely to heaven. Everyman should feel stilted, should make you choke on its preachiness, but there’s something delightful about it.
Everyman starts off with a seemingly Noah-era speech by a post-crucifixion God—men don’t pay him any attention, he’s sacrificed everything for men, he’s sick and tired of their selfish ways. Curiously, God bounces between the singular and plural third person when speaking about humans:
Everyman liveth so after his own pleasure,
And yet of their life they be nothing sure:
I see the more that I them forbear
The worse they be from year to year;

I hope well that Everyman
In my glory should make his mansion,
And thereto I had them all elect;
But now I see, like traitors deject,
They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant,
Nor yet for their being that I them have lent;
The character Everyman is both singular and plural, then—someone who has done quite well and lives a comfortable life, but also all of us, all humanity (at least in the Christian framework). Unlike our own plays, we’re not supposed to see Everyman as a fully realized individual with his own past, concerns and hopes, but more like a mirror. Everyman is us.
And that’s what I think is so funny about the first part of Everyman, even all these centuries later, especially as his friends and family abandon him. We hear the familiar echoes of our own family and friends—we’ll be together forever, I’ll never abandon you, I’d walk through fire for you—mantras learned from countless greeting cards and pop songs, things we ourselves have said and that have been said to us, filler that feels right when it seems in those moments when it seems something needs to be said. When Fellowship and Cousin and Kindred abandon Everyman, we laugh because it accords to our own cynicism about the frailty of human relationships. As Billie Holiday sang in “God Bless the Child”:
Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone and spending ends
They don’t come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much
God has sent Death, his messenger, to Everyman with the summons to come account for his sins. Everyman tries to bribe Death, to appeal to Death’s sense of compassion, to avoid him, but of course to no avail—Death comes for everyone eventually, has no need for money and no sense of compassion. Death is a functionary of God’s court of final judgment, a summoner.
Everyman, like most of us, is secular-minded, and he doesn’t think much of death—it’s just an abstraction that’s always in the far future until, of course, it’s not. As I noted above, he begs his friends and family to come with him, to comfort him, and he refuses. Then, he’s abandoned by his goods; in a really funny exchange, Everyman claims ownership and Goods sets him straight:
Goods: What, weenest thou that I am thine?
Everyman: I had wend so.
Goods: Nay, Everyman, say no;
As for a while I was lent thee,
A season thou hast had me in prosperity;
My condition is man’s soul to kill;
If I save one, a thousand I do spill;
Weenest thou that I will follow thee?
Nay, from this world, not verrily.
Everyman learns that he can count only only Good Deeds and Knowledge to stick with him through the process of death and judgment; in other words, the charitable acts he has done and the theological learning he has acquired. Through Knowledge, he learns that he can free the bound Good Deeds through the sacrament of confession, and this is where Everyman begins to turn. After his abandonment by his crew, his kin, and his stuff, Everyman begins to embrace death and judgment, fearful as they may be. Instead of resisting death, he takes on the responsibilities of preparing himself for it, and he knows to do so through the teachings of the Church, and particularly, the priests and the sacraments they administer. It bears considering at some length:
Knowledge: Everyman, hearken what I say;
Go to priesthood, I you advise,
And receive of him in any wise
The holy sacrament and ointment together;
Then shortly see ye turn again hither;
We will all abide you here.
Five-Wits: Yea, Everyman, hie you that ye ready were,
There is no emperor, king, duke, ne baron,
That of God hath commission,
As hath the least priest in the world being;
He beareth the keys and thereof hath the cure
For man’s redemption, it is ever sure;
Which God for our soul’s medicine
Gave us out of his heart with great pine;
Here in this transitory life, for thee and me
The blessed sacraments seven there be,
Baptism, confirmation, with priesthood good,
And the sacrament of God’s precious flesh and blood,
Marriage, the holy extreme unction, and penance;
Gracious sacraments of high divinity.
Everyman: Fain would I receive that holy body
And meek to my ghostly father I will go.
Five-wits: Everyman, that is the best that ye can do:
God will you to salvation bring,
For priesthood exceedeth all other things;
To us Holy Scripture they do teach.
And converteth man from sin heaven to reach;
God hath to them more power given,
Than to any angel that is in heaven;
With five words he may consecrate
God’s body in flesh and blood to male,
And handleth his maker between his hands;
The priest bindeth and unbindeth all bands,
Both in earth and in heaven;
Thou ministers all the sacraments seven;
Though we kissed thy feet thou were worthy;
Thou art surgeon that cureth sin deadly;
No remedy we find under God
But all only priesthood.
Everyman, God gave priests that dignity,
And setteth them in his stead amount us to be;
Thus be they above angels in degree
Knowledge: If priests be good it is so surely;
But when Jesus hanged on the cross with great smart
There he gave, out of his blessed heart,
The same sacrament in great torment:
He sold them not to us, that Lord Omnipotent.
Therefore Saint Peter the apostle doth say
That Jesu’s curse hath all they
Which God their Savior do buy or sell,
Or they for any money do take or tell.
Sinful priests giveth the sinners example bad;
Their children sitteth by other men’s fires, I have heard;
And some haunteth women’s company,
With unclean life, as lusts of lechery:
These be with sin made blind.
Five-wits: I trust to God no such may we find;
Therefore let us priesthood honour,
And follow their doctrine for our souls’ succour;
We be their sheep, and they shepherds be
By whom we all be kept in surety.
Peace, for yonder I see Everyman come,
Which hath made true satisfaction.
It’s a big chunk of text, but it sets out some interesting points, particularly in context. Like a lot of medieval texts, it’s hard to pin down when Everyman was written, but it seems fairly certain that it comes from the late 15th- to very early 16th-century; in other words, in the last few decades of the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly over western Christianity. Its emphasis is on the traditional tools of Catholicism, including the locally administered sacraments, and the characters talk at length about the good priest and the actions that bring dishonor on the priesthood. In this sense, it echoes a lot of the same themes as Chaucer’s description of his perfect parson (Canterbury Tales General Prologue), written about a hundred years prior to Everyman:
A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre Person of a Toun;
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes Gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benygne he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversitee ful pacient;
And swich he was y-preved ofte sithes.
Ful looth were hym to cursen for his tithes,
But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute,
Unto his povre parisshens aboute,
Of his offrýng and eek of his substaunce;
He koude in litel thyng have suffisaunce.
Wyd was his parisshe, and houses fer asonder,
But he ne lafte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In siknesse nor in meschief to visíte
The ferreste in his parisshe, muche and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wroghte and afterward he taughte.
Out of the gospel he tho wordes caughte;
And this figure he added eek therto,
That if gold ruste, what shal iren doo?
For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
And shame it is, if a prest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.
Wel oghte a preest ensample for to yive
By his clennesse how that his sheep sholde lyve.
He sette nat his benefice to hyre
And leet his sheep encombred in the myre,
And ran to Londoun, unto Seinte Poules,
To seken hym a chaunterie for soules,
Or with a bretherhed to been withholde;
But dwelte at hoom and kepte wel his folde,
So that the wolf ne made it nat myscarie;
He was a shepherde, and noght a mercenarie.
And though he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to synful man nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But in his techyng díscreet and benygne.
To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,
By good ensample, this was his bisynesse.
But it were any persone obstinat,
What so he were, of heigh or lough estat,
Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys.
A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience;
But Cristes loore and his apostles twelve
He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.
Again, we see the same concerns—priests who were local and acted as shepherds to their parishioners, priests who administered the sacraments with humility and grace, priests who shunned simony or lives of sin. The echoes almost seem to have been intentional, and they could well have been.
The exchange between Five-Wits and Knowledge is also marked deeply by what’s missing—no mention of monks, friars, indulgences, relics, chantry priests, etc. Death seems to give a nod towards Purgatory (He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart, /
His sight to blind, and from heaven to depart, / Except that alms be his good friend,
In hell for to dwell, world without end.), but there isn’t the kind of emphasis on it one might expect. At a time when the Church was deeply riven by controversies (Martin Luther didn’t happen in vacuum—he merely screamed what others were whispering), Everyman ignores almost all to set out a strong case for the purity and necessity of the local priest—the guy you know, the bloke about town, the man who taught you your catechism and told you about the widow who could use some help and is at your bedside at your time of death, listening to your last confession and blessing you on the final pilgrimage, not the stranger with the unintelligible arguments and fancy clothes and odd accent, trying to put his hands in your pockets or up your daughter’s skirts. This, I think, is the quietly radical argument of Everyman—the Church isn’t Rome or Councils  or decrees or the pissing contests between monks and friars; the Church is your parish, the people you know.


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