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The Great Chain of Being

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So, I was thinking about it–it has been mentioned here before that the split in “taste” between the more highly educated and the less highly educated, or maybe the general public and the high art tradition–is of relatively recent vintage.  Everybody in classical Greece heard Homer and saw the plays of Sophocles, who was a popular as well as a high art author.

But it occurs to me that this may be something of a trick of the light.  The vast majority of people in the classical world, in Rome as well as in Greece, could not read or write.  The Jews were the only civilization in the ancient Mediterranean who even attempted something like universal literacy, and from what has come down to us, it looks like they concentrated on scripture, commentaries on scripture, and disputations on law, with the odd secular history thrown in.  I know of no store of Jewish comedic plays or love poems in the era of the  Roman Empire or the years immediately afterwards.

It occurs to me, then, that this idea of two cultures–a high art tradition existing next to a popular art enterprise (if not tradition–more on that later)–might be older than we think, or than we can know.

If I look at the England of the Middle Ages, for instance, if I look at everything we know about it, instead of just those works that have come down to us in written form, there does seem to be a lot more going on than there might seem to be at first glance.

In the first place, what works do come down to us as part of the canon almost necessarily reflect the preferences of relatively priveleged people.  They would have to, because only such people could read.

What’s more, the aristocracy and the group we would now call the educated upper middle class–the professionals whose literacy skills made them invaluable to the running of the Court and the Kingdom–were the only ones with the money to pay for manuscripts, which were difficult to produce and expensive to come by.  Chaucer had a vast audience among these people, but if his numbers were reproduced in the publishing world of today, he’d probably look like a “literary” author with a very small audience indeed.

Some of what was produced for the entertainment and edification of the classes underneath these two has come down to us, but not really very much.  If there were songs and stories performed in homes and in the streets, they have largely been lost.  We don’t know what they were like.

The art in churches was commissioned for those members of the public who were illiterate, in the hopes of teaching them through pictures what they were unable to read for themselves in their Bibles.  But that art reflected the tastes and preferences of the educated people, in and out of the clergy, who paid for it and commissioned it.  

We also have reports of street entertainments that are both bizarre and repulsive, but I think we can safely rule them out as art.  I doubt if they were intended as art.

Of what has come down to us that we can accurately identify as “popular” art, we’re basically left with two things:  morality plays, and nativity scenes.

For those of you who have never seen or heard of a morality play, it’s difficult to know where to start.  The plays were written by authors who have remained anonymous to this day, usually members of traveling theater groups who went from town to town to put on shows. 

A number of these have come down to us, and a few years ago the Modern Library, I think, put out an edition with eight or ten of them.  It might have been Penguin. 

The most famous of them, and certainly the most complex of the ones we have left, is called Everyman, and tells the story of a man named Everyman, who journeys through the world and its snares until he finally heeds True Friendship and fixes his sights on Virtue.

I’m not capitalizing all that in order to be sarcastic.  In morality plays, characters have names like Lust, and Chastity, and Greed, and Gluttony, and the serve as representatives  of ideas rather than as characters in the sense we use the term.

What’s more, there are really only two available plots-either Our Hero meets the challenges placed before him on his journey to Heaven and Eternal Life, and gets there, or he doesn’t, and he falls into the pit of hell and is condemned to burn forever. 

One of the things that distinguishes morality plays, and that upsets modern readers or viewers of them, is the utter lack of individuality of any of the “characters” that supposedly inhabit them.  There are no actual people in morality plays, only incarnated ideas, and the ideas are as bald and unsubtle as it was possible to get and remain in the Christian tradition.

This is very odd in a number of ways.  Certainly individuation was not unknown in the dramatic tradition the Middle Ages inherited from antiquity.  Sophocles, Euripedes and Aristophanes created very distinct and memorable characters

And even if we accept the argument that such ancient authors would have been unknown to the sort of poor authors who wrote for the traveling troupes, either because they were temporarily lost altogether or else existed only in a learned language like Latin, we know that there were troupes who performed other kinds of plays at royal courts, plays that corresponded much more closely to what we think of as theater. 

The morality play, then was in its way a genre, and from what we can tell, the single most popular genre of its time.  People who had very little, who were often close to starvation, paid good money to see these things.

And it’s impossible to know, really, why they disappeared.  Chaucer lasted bcause generation after generation discovered his work and passed it along, but his work was written and aimed at a literate audience.  Most of the audience for morality plays couldn’t read or write, and once the troupes began to be replaced by acting companies working in formal theaters–theaters which had to attract wider audiences in order to stay solvent–it was the tastes of the educated (and more monied) that survived. 

Would the morality play as a genre, or its equivalent in secular temrs (an allegory whose “characters” are really ideas), have survived if its audience had been literate and there had been the equivalent of the penny press to keep them available?

I don’t know.  I only know that they didn’t.  These days, morality plays are a curiosity interesting to scholars of the Middle Ages and literary historians, but they are not part of the canon as it is usually understood.  Certainly, by any standard of what makes “good” literature used by anybody, highbrow or middlebrow or low, in the twenty-first century, these plays are God awful.  Their plots are formulaic, their dialogue is wooden, and their characters are nonexistent.  The most avid fan of the worst kind of modern formula novel wouldn’t be able to sit through ten minutes of a morality play without getting disgusted, even if the morality on offer was the twentieth century variety.


If “standing the test of time” is the first requirement for making it into the canon–and it is–then it would be a good thing to know just why the morality play as a genre did not stand the test of time, and why no individual morality play made it either.

If it is because the work is inherently weak, and weak work doesn’t lst–which it doesn’t–that’s one thing.  If it is because the work wasn’t available to be cherished and built on by people who would have cherished it and built on it if they had had the chance, well, that’s something else again.

It’s interesting to think that there might have been a different and parallel literary tradition in English, with different assumptions and a different canon than we have now. 

And no, I’m not going over into relativism, so don’t start.

I’m going to go find something comforting to drink.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll go on and on about nativity scenes, which have more to do with the literary tradition in English than you’d think.

Written by janeh

November 17th, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Great Chain of Being'

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  1. Not only was the preservation of literature a result of the taste of the wealthy literate populace, also preserved was that literature that reflected the religous and political stance at the moment.

    As far as the 50 year rule goes, it doesn’t work for me. In the distant past when I was an undergrad studying Lit, the canon did not include Jane Austen, no matter how popular she was or how widely read. I had a professor tell me that Mark Twain was too “idomatic” to be in the canon.

    At a guess, morality plays didn’t hang around because writers like Marlowe and Shakespeare came along. Their perspective on the complexity of morality must have made the old morality plays look like children’s work.


    17 Nov 09 at 12:14 pm

  2. If we circle back to people living their lives through narratives, morality plays in the middle ages make more sense. The narrative of that time included God, Evil and other avatars as real presences in the lives of the people, real participants in each personal narrative. Each person was expecting to meet and confront Greed, and (if lucky) Lust, and other sins, and if they quelled their temptation, they would gain the greatest reward.

    It seems they were among the first popular non-biblical works presented to regular people. It’s not surprising they were so primitive. Neither the authors or the viewing public had any training in how to communicate subtlety. And they still didn’t get very far from standard religious messages, heaven or hell being the only acceptable resolutions. For a very long time, post-Greek & Roman, art not based on the Bible was just not done.

    Please note here that we’re talking strictly Western culture. The Chinese and other Asian cultures had popular entertainment for a long, long time, shadow plays, opera and other types, presenting myths and legends, etc.


    17 Nov 09 at 1:30 pm

  3. I don’t think you can necessarily say that more complex work like that of Shakespeare made the morality plays look too simple. I think Jane is speculating on what was lost – we simply don’t know enough about the morality plays (and possibly other works) to know how they functioned in the culture because that culture was unwritten, and very little therefore survived.

    I don’t think the literate upper class and the illiterate lower class cultures were necessarily completely isolated from each other – at a later stage, court dances became adapted into peasants’ folk or country dances. But it is intriguing to wonder how the illiterate peasants’ art forms functioned, whether they did indeed have some power and force we can’t appreciate because of all the lost bits, and because we are so irretrievably literate.

    Logically, it seems that it would be easier and more efficient to get art (including literature) which reflected on complex ideas if you are literate, because of the standing on the shoulders of giants thing. But also logically, we don’t know much about what medieval peasants got out of their music and theater and stories. It was centuries before anyone thought of writing them down, and then they were rapidly bowlderized to make them into children’s stories indeed. Maybe they were the equivalent of bread and circuses, prime time TV and best sellers. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe they influenced the literate crowd – or maybe they merely provided a different reflection of society and human nature.


    17 Nov 09 at 3:07 pm

  4. Some decades ago when I was an undergraduate in English, I took a course, Major American Writers, that included Mark Twain. So, opinions of English professors on who was or was not part of the canon seem rather arbitrary.

    Pamela by Samuel Richardson is sometimes referred to as the first novel. It was extremely popular in the 18th century. It espoused morality and virtue out the wazoo. I found Pamela ridiculous. It is (or was some years ago) read as part of a curriculum. I can’t imagine anyone reading it for pleasure. Yet it remains a part of the canon, at least according to Harold Bloom. Why?


    17 Nov 09 at 5:38 pm

  5. We do know something about Morality plays – we have some of them. As Jane mentioned, Everyman, is one of the more complex morality plays, it is still assigned in some Lit classes. We know that the message is that Lust is an absolute sin in a morality play. Dante sees lust as a sin but one common to human nature. Shakespeare sees lust as something that can make fools of us, but he doesn’t suggest that it is a sin.

    There have been quite a few books written about the role of literacy in understanding complex ideas. However, I’m not completely convinced that literacy is the sole or even a major factor – maybe it is.

    I do agree that what we have from the middle ages does not necessarily represent the truth about how people lived or what they did and thought. I’ve always thought that they lived much like most people – put food on the table, make music whenever possible, make toys for the kids, try to be a good person, and hope no disaster hits.


    17 Nov 09 at 5:46 pm

  6. First question is whether the same condition existed in countries in which an aristocracy speaking a foreign language had not displaced the entire ruling class. We’re talking French as a prefered language probably down to Plantgenet days. Caxton is contemporary with Richard III–and after him comes chapbooks. Ben Johnson and Kit Marlow are practically waiting in the wings. Morality plays could be what happens when everyone who IS anyone speaks another language.

    But morality plays may not be the whole underclass picture, and those songs and stories not wholly lost. If I were looking at popular taste in England prior to widespread literacy, I believe I’d be looking at ballads, or at some of the Middle English poetry, which also does not seem to reflect the viewpoint of the upper classes. They’re sometimes recorded late, but sometimes describe fairly accurately events which took place during this period of great cultural division–again, not always from the viewpoint of the ruler. (Does the name “Robin Hood” sound familiar?) And I would be looking at fairy tales and folk religion. Much has been lost, but not all.

    Certinly some forms of art have been lost–court masques and radio drama, for instance. DaVinci did court masques, and some of the top-ranked writers of the 20th Century wrote radio dramas, which were read by some of the great names of stage and screen. I would not think a type of art inferior because it has not survived. Time and chance happen to all things.

    As for the Jews, the absence of comedy is intriguing, but perhaps a people who already had the Book of Ruth and the Song of Songs which is Solomon’s had no need of additional love poetry and stories.


    17 Nov 09 at 5:48 pm

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