English Mystery Cycle Dramas The Doctrine Of Repentance And The Mystery Cycles

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The Doctrine Of Repentance And The Mystery Cycles

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "The Doctrine," in Drama and Religion in the English Mystery Plays: A Re-Evaluation, Stanford University Press, 1961, pp. 19-42.

[In the following essay, Prosser discusses the importance of the doctrine of repentance to the medieval worldview and, hence, to understanding the mystery cycles. Prosser argues for the educational role of the performances in relation to liturgical doctrine.]

In light of the history of both the Church and the theater, it is appropriate to begin a study of the mystery cycles with the doctrine of repentance. Knowledge of this doctrine is essential for an understanding of all medieval literature. Repentance was the key to salvation in a world that still believed man culpable for sin, not the pitiable pawn of social and physical necessity. Even more, then, is the doctrine important for the medieval drama, which was frankly written to show Christians the way to Redemption.

Repentance had been a key doctrine since the days of the early Church, although the doctrine did not become refined and codified until the middle of the twelfth century, when Peter Lombard recognized penance as a sacrament in the strict sense. Growing emphasis on the doctrine is reflected in an edict of the Fourth Lateran Council, the "Great Council" convened by Pope Innocent III in 1215. Canon XXI, the famous Omnis utriusque sexus, required annual confession and communion. Suddenly, all the faithful, on pain of minor excommunication, were required to confess at least once a year, each to his own parish priest. At the same time, the Church recognized that neither priesthood nor laity were adequately prepared to fulfill the injunction. Equally suddenly, then, the Church instituted an intensive campaign of education in essential repentance doctrine.

The thirteenth century thus became the century of emphasis on penitence and preaching. The two were closely interrelated. Most historians attribute the new emphasis on preaching to the advent of the friars (the Dominicans reached England in 1221, the Franciscans in 1224). There is general agreement that the preaching friars swiftly gained power among the people and that the diocesan clergy soon realized they must enter into direct competition. Therefore, historians believe, bishops called for increased instruction of the parish priest specifically to combat the new threat. This causal argument may, however, be post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It seems probable that the intensive program of education was instituted not to meet the new competition but to prepare both parish priests and their parishioners to fulfill the requirements of the Utriusque sexus. That the reform of the clergy and emphasis on preaching grew directly out of the emphasis on the requisite doctrine of repentance is attested by many documents, among them the decree by Walter of Cantilupe, Bishop of Worcester, in 1240. Parish priests were to preach the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Creed, and the Seven Sacraments for a specific purpose: to teach the penitent the correct way to examine his conscience and to present his confession.

Throughout the century, the campaign to reform clerical discipline and combat ignorance grew rapidly. In 1222 (before the influence of the friars, it should be noted), the Bishop of Salisbury was appalled to learn that many of his parish priests could not pass a simple test on the first prayer in the Canon of the Mass. Some even refused to answer. In the same year the Council of Oxford, convened by Stephen Langton, branded some of the clergy as "dumb dogs." The Council reaffirmed the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, and the reform movement gained impetus. Shortly thereafter, Robert Grosseteste issued a set of Constitutions requiring priests to know and teach the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Sacraments, and the Creed. Others followed with like instructions: the Bishop of Worcester in 1240, the Bishop of Chichester in 1246. In 1281 John...

(The entire section is 7,365 words.)