Engraving by Daret, of a man being taken away by Death (in a book by de Goberville)Everyman

(late 15th century)


(A man is suddenly called to that final and fatal journey we all must take-- but he's not ready!)

All text except quotations is copyright 2001 by David Lahti, and represents his views alone.
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CONTENTS:Page from Medieval Hymnal Depicting Archangel Michael Weighing the Souls of the Dead

Summary and Reflection

Tidbits of Significance

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Summary and Reflection

"It was medieval of Macy's to fire her because she'd had a breakdown," somebody said, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This derogatory sense of "medieval", originating in the early 19th century and commonly used today, is a clear example of how language can subconsciously draw us into prejudice. In this case, it is difficult to use the word in its derogatory sense without being tempted to think that anything coming out of the Middle Ages has got to be rude, block-headed, and barbaric. Fortunately, art and literature have the power to transcend such prejudices to some extent. Through them any person can confront the face of medievalism and make a fresh decision as to its nature and worth. Our connection with that far-away time will still be fuzzy, certainly. But something must be gained, as it is in electrical connections, by the removal of intervening components: centuries of history and hearsay which modify, reinterpret, and often weaken the signal. Works like Everyman can give us a direct and remarkably fresh line. We may not understand or even be able to fully appreciate the significance of what we experience (a knowledge of history can aid one in the appreciation of literature), but at the very least the power will be undampened, and the signal free from distortion.


Everyman is the allegorical tale of a man suddenly called to face his Maker. Everyman's complaints of unreadiness do not deter the determined Death, who is commanded by God to send Everyman on his fated pilgrimage. Everyman has neglected God, and so he knows his pilgrimage will be a fearsome one unless he receives some help. His seeming friend Fellowship and his loved ones Kindred and Cousin desert him at the very mention of such a journey, despite having promised to follow him anywhere. Likewise he is unable to rouse Goods (possessions), who is unable to follow anyone anywhere. His last hope is Good Deeds, but this one speaks from the cold ground of having been bound by Everyman's sins, and therefore unable to help. Good Deeds does recommend his sister Knowledge, who informs Everyman of his sins and takes him to a friend Confession, who gives him a jewel (penance) and tells him to ask God for mercy, promising that if he does so, he will discover the oil of forgiveness. When Everyman follows these directions, Good Deeds rises from the ground and is able to help him. Everyman, Knowledge, and Good Deeds are then accompanied by "three persons of great might": Beauty, Strength, and Discretion. With them come "Five Wits" (senses), who are to be Everyman's counselors. In further preparation Everyman gives to charity, and receives the sacraments from a priest. They undertake the journey, all of Everyman's acquaintances helping him along the way, until he finally reaches his grave. Here Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits will go no further. Knowledge stays for a while longer, but eventually Good Deeds is Everyman's only remaining friend. With his help, however, Everyman, whose "reckoning is crystal-clear", is welcomed warmly into Jesus' presence by an Angel.


Everyman provides us a universal message or theme, intertwined (one might say tangled) with a parochial one. The universal theme is that life is fleeting, and we know not when we will be taken from it.  This idea, together with the play's simple and direct style and cohesion, is what makes the work a gem of world literature, one which can forever be read with ease, enjoyment, and edification. The play urges us to live as though this were the last day of our lives. Make things right. As Christian children still pray before bedtime, "Help me to do everything as if I were doing it for You". Keep your lamps lit, bridesmaids, for you know not when the Bridegroom will return home (Matthew 25:1-13). These exhortations have special meaning to Christians, and of course it is a work of a Christian author and culture; but they can easily be received and interpreted universally, as the title of the play and the name of the main character claims. Truly we must all embark on this final journey to death, on which neither our friends, kin, nor goods will accompany us. If anything will help us on that road, few will disagree that ultimately it will be something inside of us, "spiritual" one might say, rather than material things or even people.


What particularly are those spiritual things, or virtues, likely to be? And how specifically are they likely to help us? Here we are brought to the parochial message of the play, the particularly late-medieval Roman Catholic answer to those questions. Faith, Hope, and Love, so central in the New Testament and in early Christianity, have no role in the work, having been replaced by the primacy of Good Deeds ("All fleeth save Good Deeds, and that am I", l.873). These deeds, moreover, largely have to do with giving money and submitting to the rule of priests. Somehow the salvation of a Christian soul was accomplished without a mention of Jesus' death and resurrection. How different all of this is from the professions of Jesus, Paul, Augustine, or even Aquinas! In this play we can therefore see the ripeness of Catholic Europe at this period of time for the Reformation. For indeed, the Protestant movement and the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation (which, incidentally, continues to this very day, as one can see by the reforms instituted in the Second Vatican Council), were involved in the reversal of some of the cultural evolution that had occurred in Christianity and its doctrine and practice over the previous millennium and a half.


The fundamentally Christian themes therefore have meaning that can be universalized, and so appreciated by those who are not Christian. Many of the specifically medieval Roman Catholic themes, however (though not all-- take the relevance of Beauty, for instance) are not only not universalizable, but I believe they are superficial. I doubt any Christian, including any devout and thoughtful Roman Catholic, would adhere to them. These may be obstacles to a religious appreciation of the work (while augmenting a historical appreciation). But, we should be careful of being too hard on Everyman for this reason. What piece of literature can we name that does not, when attempting to promote a universal theme, tangle with it a parochial one? And, something else which is more controversial in matters of religion, but nonetheless an important question: might not some parochial claims actually be true? Might what is true be in fact a minority opinion? Unless we have some steadfast basis from which we could refute this-- and I believe we do not-- then the mere fact that a work comes out of and reflects a particular religious tradition can never be in itself a reason for us to cast it aside.


Theological and spiritual points:

-Adam's sin is considered the reason for all death (144-145.)

-Life and goods are lent, not given (161-167, 435-445).

-Good deeds are considered the focus and key to salvation. Redemption is accomplished by acknowledgment of sin and repentance, by which a soul is made worthy enough to please God. Confession happens in church. Penance is assigned such that man may atone for his own sin (522ff). [See my comments above on the theology of the work]

-Everyman's prayer reveals his faith, even though works are saving in his explicit theology (581-607).

-Intercession of Mary seen as useful for Everyman's salvation (597-604).

-Discretion, Strength, and Beauty enlisted to accompany Everyman during his life (657-662). [Beauty is especially interesting in this list.  After the Age of Reason it (unfortunately) seems to have lost importance]. But all these, and Five Wits (senses), break their promises to stay with Everyman at his death. [It is indeed strange how the aspects of our life do seem to "make promises" to stay with us forever; our life seems immortal while we are living it.]

-A plug for the holiness and superiority of priests (712-749) [how over the top!]. This is followed by a caveat regarding priests that are bad examples due to simony (selling religious favors) or lechery (750-763).


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Tidbits of Significance (numbers refer to lines; language is partially modernized by A. C. Cawley).


"I pray you all give your audience,

And hear this matter with reverence,

By figure a moral play:

The Summoning of Everyman called it is,

That of our lives and ending shows

How transitory we be all day."

-Messenger, 1-5.



"The story saith: Man, in the beginning

Look well, and take good heed to the ending,

Be you never so gay!"

-Messenger, 10-12.



"Living without dread in worldly prosperity:

Of ghostly sight the people be so blind".

-God, 24-25.



"I see the more that I them forbear

The worse they be from year to year.

All that liveth appaireth fast;

Therefore I will, in all the haste,

Have a reckoning of every man's person;

For, and I leave the people thus alone

In their life and wicked tempests,

Verily they will become much worse than beasts".

-God, 42-49.



"I proffered the people great multitude of mercy,

And few there be that asketh it heartily.

They be so cumbered with worldly riches

That needs on them I must do justice,

On every man living without fear.

Where art thou, Death, thou mighty messenger?"

-God, 58-63.



"O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind!"

-Everyman, 119.



"I may say Death giveth no warning!"

-Everyman, 132.



"To think on thee, it maketh my heart sick,

For all unready is my book of reckoning."

-Everyman, 133-134.



"…the tide abideth no man".

-Death, 143. [Note: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations has the earliest source of this saying as John Heywood's 1546 collection of Proverbs. But here we have it a few decades earlier. By the way, Robert Greene's modification of this proverb in his 1592 Disputations to "time nor tide…", which we still see today, is redundant. The Middle English "tyde" itself means "time".]



"Death…What, weenest thou thy life is given thee,

And thy worldly goods also?

Everyman. I had wend so, verily.

Death. Nay, nay; it was but lent thee;

For as soon as thou art go,

Another a while shall have it, and then go therefro,

Even as thou hast done."




"For thou mayst say this is the day

That no man living may scape away."

-Death, 182-183.



"For he that will say, and nothing do,

Is not worthy with good company to go".

-Fellowship, 237-238.



"And yet if thou wilt eat, and drink, and make good cheer,

Or haunt to women the lusty company,

I would not forsake you while the day is clear,

Trust me verily."

-Fellowship, 272-275. [Illustration of the "fair weather friend"]



"Lo, Fellowship forsaketh me in my most need."

-Everyman, 305.



"It is said, 'In prosperity men friends may find,

Which in adversity be full unkind.'"

-Everyman, 309-310.



"Lo, fair words maketh fools fain;

They promise, and nothing will do, certain."

-Everyman, 379-380.



"Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide,

In thy most need to go by thy side."

-Knowledge, 523-524.



"All earthly things is but vanity:

Beauty, Strength, and Discretion do man forsake,

Foolish friends, and kinsmen, that fair spake-

All fleeth save Good Deeds".

-Good Deeds, 870-873.



"And forsake Pride, for he deceiveth you in the end".

-Doctor, 899.



"For after death amends may no man make".

-Doctor, 912.


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Read this when...Allegory of Redemption by Wolf Huber

Read this when…

…you are thinking of the fleeting nature of life, and need example or encouragement to renew your ambition to live it rightly before it is too late.


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If you like this, you'd also like...


(for the allegorically minded:)

-Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).

-John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress (1678, 1684).

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (1860).

-Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (1941).


(for the cherisher of medieval morality and mystery plays:)

Despite the dates below, most such works developed over several preceding centuries.

-Castle of Perseverance (15th century)

-The Fall of Man (York) (15th century)

-The Second Shepherds' Pageant (Wakefield) (15th century)

-The Resurrection (York) (15th century)


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