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Weapons of conversion: Mankind and medieval stage properties.

In the final scene of the medieval morality play Mankind, the character Mercy employs a dramatic piece of stage violence in order to insure Mankind's repentance and salvation. Having promised the audience that he will proceed forth and do his "propyrte" (765), (1) Mercy interrupts the four vices of the play--Nought, New Guise, Nowadays and Mischief--just as they are teaching the sinful Mankind how to hang himself by the neck in his despair. In an act of direct physical intervention, Mercy rushes into the acting space, threatening the villains with a brandished weapon:

MYSCHEFF: How, Mankynde! Cumm and speke wyth Mercy, he is here fast by.

MANKYNDE: A roppe, a rope, a rope! I am not worthy.

MYSCHEFF: Anon, anon, anon! I haue yt here redy, Wyth a tre also bat I haue gett. Hold pe tre, Nowadays, Nought! Take hede and be wyse!

NEU GYSE: Lo, Mankynde! do as I do; pis ys pi new gyse. Gyff pe rope just to py neke; pis ys myn avyse.

MYSCHEFF: Helpe pisylff, Nought! Lo, Mercy ys here! He skaryth ws wyth a bales; we may no lengere tary.

NEU GYSE: Qweke, qweke, qweke! Alass, my thrott! I beschrew you, mary! A, Mercy, Crystys coppyde curse go wyth you, and Sent Dauy! Alass, my wesant! Ye were sumwhat to nere.

(799-10, my emphasis)

Mischief's unwitting but dramatically and theologically accurate assertion that Mercy "is here fast by" reminds us of the importance of presence and absence in the early morality plays. When medieval allegory is dramatized, a character's proximity to the other characters and set pieces can be used to reinforce levels of meaning. Blocking can provide a level of visual signification beyond those established verbally, and allegorical relationships may be introduced and developed through staging as well as through dialogue. (2) But in this particular scene, physicality moves beyond mere presence, absence, and relative distance, and Mercy forces his person upon the vices through an act of physical violence. Mankind--occasionally an allegory of location (3)--here becomes an allegory of action.

At this point in the play Mercy initiates the traditional role of the force of moral conversion, rescuing Mankind from a state of sin and despair. He ultimately proves himself a personification of a divine mercy: unsolicited, aggressively and autonomously driving away Mankind's sins. (4) For his actions here to have full allegorical as well as physical expression, it is important not only to make sure that the actor playing Mercy uses appropriate gesture and blocking, but also to ensure that his weapon--the bales mentioned by Mischief in the passage above (807)--is properly represented. Too many modern productions pay too little attention to costuming, stage settings, and stage properties in the medieval and early modern allegorical drama, and non-verbal levels of meaning can be either underdeveloped or else completely obliterated.

Earlier in the play, we see Mankind using a spade to enact the planting of his crops. When the vices taunt him in an effort to keep him from his labor, he uses his spade to drive them away (327-400). In an article, Stephen May rightly asserts that Mankind represents more than just a common farmer or field laborer, despite his agricultural accoutrement. His spade is symbolic rather than realistic. The spade, in fact, provides an iconographic link to the original Fallen Man, to Adam: "Mankind is (as his name suggests) an ideal representative of Fallen Man in general, not a real representative of a particular social class." (5) A misunderstanding of the significance of a stage property (such as the spade) in an allegorical drama can lead to a vital misunderstanding of the play's iconography and allegorical framework, and to accurately represent the bales in the final movement of action, we must understand exactly what property was intended. Mercy's bales can be, in fact, a weapon of lucid spiritual and allegorical signification. Simply casting Mercy with a staff or walking stick runs the risk of dismantling the intended allegorical significance of the scene and can render Mercy's actions gratuitous or else out-of-character.

In the EETS edition of the play, Mark Eccles glosses the word bales as a "rod" or "scourge." (6) In his more recent student edition (Blackwell), Greg Walker specifies further, translating the word as a "scourges" or a "whip." (7) The more common variant baleys comes from the Old French baleis (nom. sing. or acc. pl. of balei), and the OED defines the word as "a rod; also a bundle of twigs used for flogging, a 'birch,' a scorge." (8) The MED offers a similar definition under balei (also bales, balys): "a rod or switch for flogging," or, figuratively, "a source of tribulation, scourge." (9)

It is clear that the instrument is some sort of switch or a whip, commonly used for flogging or scourging; but its possible allegorical significance for a fifteenth-century audience needs further qualification. If we look at earlier medieval examples of the word bales or baleys, we find a limited, but nonetheless distinct semantic tradition, with the word often associated with a rod, switch or scourge used as a physical corrective for a lack of moral or educational discipline or as a means of spiritual cleansing. For example, a mid-fourteenth-century poem by William of Shoreham--sometime vicar of Chart-Sutton in Kent--puts the weapon in the hands of Christ as he drives the moneychangers from the Temple. This is the earliest citation referred to by the OED:
   Ine pe temple swete ihesus
   Pyse ordre tok at ones,
   Po pat bought he makede a baleys,
   And bet out for pe nones, Ymene,
   Po pat bought and sealed ine godes house
   Pat hys a house of bene. (10)

Jesus "makes" a baleys with which he drives the moneychangers from the Temple, employing the weapon to cleanse, to correct, and to drive out wrongdoing.

A similar form of the word survives in a manuscript from the next century, containing the pro-Lollard tract the Lanterne of Light. Formerly attributed to Wyclif, the Lanterne was written as a response to Archbishop Arundel's anti-Lollardy Constitutions of 1408. (11) It uses the word balys to illustrate the "he who spares the rod..." proverb:

Noli sub-trahere a puero disciplinam, si enim percusseris eum virga non morietur tu virga percutis eum & animam eius de inferno liberabis' pat is to seie. 'Nile pou wipdrawe teching from pi childe for pough pou bete him wip a yeerde, he schal not die perou pou beetist him wip a baleys & pou schalt delyuer his soule from hell he pat sparip pis balys, hatip his childe.... (12)

Aligning the word with yeerde--or a branch or switch from a tree--the author uses yeerde when discussing the disciplining of a child, and then switches to baleys to discuss spiritual discipline and salvation. Again, the bale(y)s is employed as a spiritual corrective, assuring the betterment of the sinner through physical violence.

The mid-fourteenth-century Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of Manhode, a translation of Deguileville's Le Pelerinage de vie humaine, also makes a distinction between yerdes and baleys (both pl.):

She plaunted pe hegge for pilke pat gon be wey biyounde, to pat ende pat pei mown not passe to pis hal withoute enduring of peyne. She plauntede it also for to take perof yerdes and baleys, and for to hafte perwith hire mailettes alle rimes pat it be neede: for in many places she hath to doone with hem, for to withdrawe with sinneres from yuel. (13)

Grace Dieu instructs the pilgrim about the nature of Penitence's hedge: she has planted it with yerdes and baleys for the "eduring of peyne." The wayward sinner is physically afflicted in order to "withdrawe" him from evil.

Langland had already offered several notable uses of the weapon in Piers Plowman, but with a less overtly sacred meaning. In the A text, for instance, Dame Study's words to Piers do not necessarily carry a spiritual connotation but do uphold the idea of an instrument of educational discipline: "Gramer for girles I garte ferst write, / And bet hum wip a baleis but yif pei wolde lerne. (14) In the B text of the poem, Wrath tells Repentance that he is "chalanged in pe Chapitrehous as I a child were / And baleised on pe bare ers and no brech bitwene," (15) using bales in its verb form. Later "Ymaginatif" instructs Piers to:
   Amende pee while pow myght; pow hast ben warned ofte
   Wip poustees of pestilences, wip pouerte and with angres;
   And wip pise bittre baleises god betep his deere children:
   Quem diligo castigo. (16)

This example approaches the most overtly spiritual use of the word in the poem: God "teaches" his wayward children with pestilence, poverty, physical affliction, and with "bittre baleises." Langland tends to use the word bales (or baleis) to describe an instrument to punish naughty or errant children, allowing the allegory itself to suggest the instrument's sacred dimension.

In the early fourteenth century, Margery Kempe's Book posits Jesus on the receiving end of baleys (pl). During his scourging and buffeting he meets a multitude of harsh weapons: "And per pei bowndyn hym to pe peler as streyte as pei cowed & beetyn hym on hys fayr white body wyth baleys, wyth whippis, & wyth scorgys." (17) Margery makes a distinction here between the baleys, whippis and scorgys but envisions them all as weapons of torture used during Christ's passion.

Baleys is also entered into the Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary from the middle of the century. Once it appears as its own entry and twice under other entries. As the work probably has its origins in and around Norfolk--as do Mankind and Margery--we might begin to suggest a possible regional semantic tradition for this usage:
   Baleys: verga, -e; fem., prime.
   Strypynge, or scorgynge with abaleys....
   Scoryn with a balyes.... (18)

Both Margery and the author of the Proptorium equate the term with a scourge (Latin verga), a weapon for physical punishment. Neither specifies a particular edifying or corrective association for the instrument, but the bale(y)s is consistently described as an tool for flagellation used most often in a spiritual or anagogical context. It is a weapon for shriving and for correction--whether that be through Christ's sacrificial flagellation on the pillar or through the disciplining violence applied to the wayward sinner or self-imposed by the zealous penitent.

In the drama of the period, the bales makes one other important theatrical appearance: it is used briefly, but not merely rhetorically, in the contemporaneous play of Mary Magdalen from the Digby manuscript (Bodleian MSS. Digby 133). This play also has origins in East Anglia, most likely in or around Norfolk. After the death of her father, Mary is "attacked" by her three spiritual enemies: the World, the Flesh, and Lucifer. They, in turn, employ the services of the seven deadly sins and of Mary's own Bad Angel, who launch an assault on the Castle of Magdalen. Despite the full-fledged attack of this multitude of baddies and allegorical machinery, Mary ultimately heeds the words of her Good Angel and decides to follow Christ. After her conversion, Lucifer is characteristically enraged, and he has Bad Angel and the seven sins beaten for having allowed her to escape:

REX DIABOLUS: Ya, thys hard balys on pi bottokkys xall byte! In has, on pe I wol be wreke! Cum vp, ye horsons, and skore away pe yche, And wyth thys panne, pe do hym pycche! Cum of, pe harlottys, pat yt wer don!

Here xall pey serva all pe seuyn as pey do pe frest. (19)

Here again, no particular spiritual significance is related, but Lucifer does describe his bales (balys) as being "hard," suggesting an instrument of wood of relative thickness. Beyond this, we can immediately sense the mock Day of Judgment at work through the scene, with Lucifer sitting in judgment in a throne above the hellmouth and the baddies below him confessing their transgressions. (20) Bad Angel and the seven deadly sins are driven into hell by devils, threatened with Lucifer's "hard balys" in a travesty of God's loving castigation of his errant children.

A purely semantic question posed by the Mankind manuscript is worth a mention, because it involves what many believe to be a variant of bales appearing earlier in the play. After Mercy's opening sermon to the audience, Mischief enters and makes fun of his highly Latinate language and pedagogical tone. He ends his mockery with a suggestion of playful intent: "... ser, I am cumme hedyr to make yowe game" (69), but a lacuna in the manuscript interrupts the scene. After the missing leaf we find New Guise addressing a troupe of musicians:

NEW GYSE: And how, mynstrellys, pley De comyn trace! Ley on wyth pi ballys tyll hys bely breste!

(72-73, my emphasis)

Here New Guise is encouraging the musicians to play a common dance step while instructing someone else to harass his companion Nought in an effort to get him to do an absurd dance. Nought responds by suggesting that his neck will get broken in the attempt, and the two carry on with their wild antics and scatological humor.

Eccles glosses ballys here as he does bales:, as a rod or scourge, side-stepping the context of the scene and ignoring the widely variant spellings. (21) In his edition of the play (New Mermaids), G. A. Lester takes some liberty interpreting the scene, adding a few stage directions:

[Here a leaf is missing from the manuscript. Enter NEWGUISE and NOWADAYS with NOUGHT, whipping him to make him dance]

[NEWGUISE]: And ho, minstrels! Play the common trace! [To NOWADAYS] Lay on with thy baleys fill his belly brest! (22)

Lester suggests that New Guise is urging Nowadays to "ley on" Nought with his "baleys" to get him to dance in a more frantic manner.

However, Walker offers a more plausible suggestion in his recent edition of the play. The ballys mentioned here could refer to the bellows or bagpipes used by the musicians, so that we might gloss the word as "bellows" or "belly" (for a bagpipe or an organ). (23) This certainly helps to put New Guise's comments to the musicians in context, and it precludes the need to explain such widely variant spellings of the same word. Rather than encouraging Nowadays to whip his companion, New Guise is urging the minstrels to play their instruments vigorously so that Nought will look foolish as he tries to dance. A ballys here is a musical instrument (or part of one), rather than the scourging hales wielded by Mercy later the play.

Mercy's use of the bales to effect salvation in the final scene of Mankind mirrors the shriving of the penitent in the cloistered cell. Through costumed drama, it physically demonstrates the violent spiritual effect that divine mercy was thought to have on the heart of the wayward Christian. In fact, some form of this effect appears in almost all of the surviving morality plays: when the Mankind figure must be physically rescued by a divinely sanctioned abstraction from a group of tempting, vicious abstractions.

In the opening of The Castle of Perseverance, for instance, Humanum Genus sides with his Bad Angel, choosing to go into service for the World and ignore his Good Angel. He makes his way to World's scaffold on the edge of the playing space, is welcomed up by World, and is dressed in World's livery. He is eventually sent by World to Covetousness' scaffold, where Covetousness gives him money and possessions. One-by-one, he is introduced to each of the seven deadly sins, welcoming each of them up into his presence. His Good Angel, lamenting his sinfulness, requests the help of two new characters, both of whom appear completely unannounced by the text. Penitence ("Shryfte") and Confession will answer Good Angel's request and to rescue Mankind. At his bidding, they make their way over to Covetousness's scaffold carrying a weapon of their own:

PENITENCIA: Wyth poynt of penaunce I schal hym prene Mans pride for to felle. Wyth pis launce I schal hym lene Iwys a drope of mercy welle. Sorwe of hert is pat I mene;

Wyth spete of spere to pe I spynne, Goddys lawys to pe I lerne. Wyth my spud of sorwe swote I reche to pyne hert rote. (24)

Penitence's flourishing alliteration plays on the details of the weapon, which must be a sizable lance if it is to reach the top of World's scaffold from the ground level. He effectively uses it to exact Humanum Genus' sorrow-of-heart, causing him to quit World's service and to repent. Humanum Genus comes down from Covetousness's scaffold, introduces himself to Confession, and is taken to the Castle of Perseverance in the center of the playing space.

Mercy's position in Mankind is similar to that of Penitence: he becomes a theologically based deus ex machina who assures Mankind's conversion through an act of physical violence. But Mercy's bales differs from Penitence's lance in that it actively drives away sin, rather than merely effecting contrition; it represents a good abstraction fending off evil abstractions, assuring Mankind's "sorrow-of-heart" by actively ridding him of his evil impulses. As a stage property, a staff or walking stick proves insufficient for the allegorical necessities action.

In practice, the bales should be represented by a wooden rod or switch with which to flog the vice as they devoid the acting space. But the actor playing Mercy and his fellow actors should be instructed as to its original intent and have an understanding of the scene's allegorical action. Based on the necessities of the allegory and on other contemporary uses of bale(y)s in this form, the weapon should come to represent violent punishment for a lack of self-discipline and a means for spiritual cleansing. This explains Mankind's affected, self-defacing response to Mercy. For the play's fifteenth-century audience, it would have served as a vivid iconographic reminder of Prov. 23:13, a demonstration that God's love comes unsolicited, and is insistent and severe.

As a spur for our conscience, divine mercy must exact violence in our hearts, causing us to detest out sins in order to reject them. Allegorical violence in the morality plays typically illustrates this relationship we have with God as his wayward children. Mercy's bales, Penitence's lance, and the weapons of conversion of the late-medieval theatre remind us that quem diligo castigo; divine mercy can be a violent thing.


(1) The Macro Plays, ed. Mark Eccles, EETS, OS 262 (Oxford U. Press, 1969), 179. References to the play will be from this edition and will be cited by line number in parentheses following the quotation.

(2) The most obvious example of this practice is probably provided by the unique stage plan of The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1400-25), reprinted as the frontispiece to The Macro Plays, ed. Eccles (from Folger MS. V. a. 354, f. 191v). In the play, Humanum Genus moves between the central castle and the scaffolds indicated on the outer ring on the plan, signaling changes in his moral alignment during the course of the play. Scholars continue to debate the relative significance of movement and blocking in this grand allegorical drama. See Joseph L. Baird and Arthur Forstater's "'Walking and Wending': Mankind's Opening Speech," Theater Notebook 26 (1971-2): 60-4; Catherine Belsey's "The Stage Plan of The Castle of Perseverance," Theater Notebook 28 (1974): 124-32; Edgar T. Schell's "On the Imitation of Life's Pilgrimage in The Castle of Perseverance," JEGP 67 (1968): 235-48; and Richards Southern's highly influential The Medieval Theatre in the Round: A Study of the Staging of 'The Castle of Perseverance' and Related Matters, 2nd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

(3) Earlier in the play, for instance, Mercy commands the vices to leave Mankind's vicinity ("Out of pis place I wolde ye went," [1. 148]). Later they seem unable to re-enter his immediate presence, and are reduced to taunting him from across the "place":

MERCY: Wythin a schorte space I must nedys hens.

NOWADAYS: pe sonner pe leuer, and yt be ewyn anon! I trow yowr name ys Do Lytyll, ye be so long fro hom. Yf ye wolde go hens, we xall cum euerychon....


We are led to believe that the vices are unable to enter Mankind's presence when Mercy is with him. Later Mankind asks, "Wher spekys pis fellow [Mischief]? Wyll he not com nere?" To which Mercy replies, "They wyll be here ryght son, yf I owt departe" (253-7).

(4) In a similar scene in Skelton's Magnyfycence (c. 1519-20), we see Good Hope intervene to stop Magnyfycence from stabbing himself, after Dyspare and Myschefe have brought him a knife (2347-8). John Skelton, Magnyfycence, Medieval Drama: An Anthology, ed. Greg Walker (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 351-407.

(5) Stephen May, "A Medieval Stage Property: The Spade," Medieval English Theatre 4: 2 (1982): 86. Kathleen Ashley takes this notion further, suggesting that the spade is an effective allegorical means for fending off vice: "... he picks up his spade and beats them off [the vices]. In the very old tradition of the Psychomachia, virtue here triumphs over vice. I would argue further that the spade represents the word of God which is invariably in medieval texts described as a defense against temptation." (Ashley, "Titivillus and the Battle of Words in Mankind" Annuale Medievale 16 [1975]: 138).

What she fails to recognize, however, is that Mankind's apparent "triumph" over the vices in this scene is really just a momentary abatement. Despite the rich iconography associated with Mankind's weapon, Mankind himself understands that its physical nature renders it powerless against the abstract vices. For this, he cites biblical precedent:
   By pe subsyde of hys grace pat he hath sente me
   Thre of myn enmys I haue putt to flyght.
   Yyt pis instrument, souerens, ys not made to defende.
   Dauide seyth, 'Nec in hasta nec in gladio saluat Dominus.'


(6) The Macro Plays, 231. Eccles points out that Manly reads balef rather than bales, while Brandl suggests bale (180, footnote 807), either of which would provide a more easily defined, if less plausible, alternative. Also see: John Matthews Manly, Specimens of the Pre-Shaksperean Drama (London: Ginn, 1897); Alois Brandl, Quellen des weltlichen Dramas in England vor Shakespeare (Strassburg: K.J. Trubner, 1898).

(7) Medieval Drama: An Anthology, ed. Greg Walker (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 276 n808. Likewise, in the recent New Mermaids edition of the play, G. A. Lester offers the translation "whip", though he uses the more common spelling variant of baleys in his slightly modernized text. See: Mankind, Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, ed. G. A. Lester (London: Norton, 1981), 50n806.

(8) OED, 2nd ed., 1989.

(9) Middle English Dictionary, ed. Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn (U. of Michigan Press, 1956), 626.

(10) William of Shoreham, The Poems of William of Shoreham: AB. 1320 Vicar of Chart-Sutton, ed. M. Konrath, Pt. 1, EETS, ES 86 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1902), 46, no. 148, 11. 1282-88, my emphasis.

(11) For a discussion of the text and its auspices, please see Lilian M. Swinburn's introduction to The Lanterne of Light (MS. Harl. 2324), EETS, OS 151 (London: Kegan Paul and OUP, 1917), vii-xvii.

(12) The Lanterne of Light, 94-95, 11. 5-6. The opening quotation is from the Vulgate, Prov. 23:13.

(13) The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of Manhode, ed. Avril Henry, vol. 1, EETS, OS 228 (Oxford U. Press, 1985), 90 (3755-61).

(14) William Langland, Piers Plowman: The A Version, ed. George Kane (Oxford U. Press, 1960), A.XI.132-3.

(15) William Langland, Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone Press, 1975), B.V. 174-5.

(16) Langland, B.XII.10-13. This sentiment is often expressed in the drama. At the end of Skelton's Magnyfycence, for instance, Good Order praises Magnyfycence's conversion, saying, "Syr, your fasycyan is the grace of God, / That you hath punysshed with his sharpe rod" (2347-8).

(17) The Book of Margery Kemp, vols. 1 & 2, ed. Sanford Brown Meech, EETS, OS 212 (Oxford U. Press, 1940), 79: 22-4; 190.

(18) The Promptorium Parvulorum: The First English-Latin Dictionary, ed. A. L. Mayhew, EETS, ES 102 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1908), 31, 442, and 454. Sanford Brown Meech, following the weight of scholarly opinion, suggests that the author was quite probably Galfridus Grammaticus, who inherited the anchorage at the Friar's Preachers of Margery's confessor, the "ankyr" of her Book. See Meech's introduction to The Book of Margery Kemp, p. x. The PP's translation of baleys from the Latin verga follows Matthew Paris' Chroica Majora (a. 1259): "Ferens in manu virgam quam vulgariter baleis appellamus," cited in the Middle English Dictionary under balei(s).

(19) The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS. Digby 133 and E Museo 160, ed. Donald C. Baker, John L. Murphy, and Lois B. Hall Jr., EETS OS 283 (Oxford U. Press, 1982), 48, 11. 735-9, my emphasis.

(20) For a discussion of the play's staging, see Darryll Grantley's "Producing Miracles" in Aspects of Early English Drama, ed. Paula Neuss (D. S. Brewer: Cambridge; Barnes & Noble: Totowa, 1983), 78-91; Meg Twycross' "The Theatricality of Medieval English Plays," The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge U. Press, 1994), 37-84; or Donald Baker and Louis Hall's introduction to the EETS edition of the play, ix-xv.

(21) Eccles 231. He notes that Manly reads bowys.

(22) Lester 7, 11.71-3.

(23) Walker, 261n73.

(24) The Castle of Perseverance, 43-4, 1377-1400.


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Author:Chambers, Mark
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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