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My condicion is mannes soule to kill"—Everyman's Mercantile Salvation


Roger A. Ladd


Readings of Everyman commonly focus on the sacramental politics of the play, on its relationship with the play Elckerlijk, or on its differences from raucous moral comedies like Mankind. As a result, its affinity with another tradition within fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English literature has gone largely unexplored. The plays’s focus on the tension between “Goodes” and “Good Dedes,” in particular its choice to use “goodes” as a primary signifier of material sin, draws sharp connections between Everyman and other texts exploring how to balance material success with spiritual success in the form of salvation. In its use of the common pun on “good” and exploration of confession, Everyman echoes Piers Plowman; in the play’s suggestion that good deeds and particularly alms can be a primary route to salvation and antidote to evil, it echoes the more clearly mercantile York Mercers’ Last Judgment. Everyman thus participates in a larger literary project of the late Middle Ages, in its attention to the tension between salvation and the evils of profit. In its solution to that problem, a pious attention to the forms of the church and to charitable bequest, Everyman falls solidly in the camp of the successful merchants of its day — as Everyman faces his damning goods, he very strongly evokes the father in the mid-fifteenth-century “Child of Bristowe,” drawn to hell by his own goods. While the antimercantilism sometimes appearing in Langland and Gower’s poetry retained staying power in the day of Everyman, by the end of the fifteenth century it was finally possible to imagine pious solutions to the problem of profit.

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