The Middle English confession manual and the morality play

Edward L DeRosa, Fordham University


The twenty-first canon, Omnis utriusque sexus, of the Fourth Lateran Council made annual confession and communion mandatory for all the faithful, after they had reached the age of discretion. A number of thirteenth-century English bishops produced pastoral manuals for the education of parochial clergy in the implementation of this canon which were to go on to influence pastoral care for the next two centuries and beyond. Herein are edited seven Middle English confession manuals of the fifteenth century which are direct descendants of those Latin manuals produced by the thirteenth-century bishops. These manuals come from the following manuscripts: Cambridge University Library MS Additional 3042 ff. 79r-80v, MS Brotherton 501 ff. 82r-86r, MS Douce 60 ff. 213r-227v (excl. ff. 215v-216r), MS Harley 1268 ff. 76r-81v, MS Rawlinson D.913 ff. 16v-17v, MS Royal 8.F.vii ff. 41v-45r, MS Sloane 1584 ff. 7v-11r, and Society of Antiquaries MS 687 pp. 359-381. MSS Douce 60 and Society of Antiquaries 687 witness to the same manual while the other manuscripts are each unique witnesses to different manuals. The edited manuals are considered in relation to the portrayal of penance in five morality plays, four of which are of approximately the same period and provenance as six of the manuals. These plays are The Castle of Perseverance (1400-25), Wisdom (1465-70), Mankind (1465-70), Mary Magdalen (end fifteenth century), and Everyman (c. 1495). The plays show the seven deadly sins and their opposing virtues, the commandments, the priesthood, baptism, confession, contrition, satisfaction, absolution, and the language of these theological concepts all dramatized in ways that are recognizable in the confession manuals. This leads to the conclusion that the authors of these plays were intimately familiar with the confession manual tradition, if not some of these very manuals, and the hypothesis that the morality play itself was an important part of the Church's post-Lateran IV promulagation of Omnis utriusgue sexus in the East Central Midlands.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|British and Irish literature|Religious history|Theater

Recommended Citation

DeRosa, Edward L, "The Middle English confession manual and the morality play" (1995). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9520604.