Mankind’s Latin: A Conundrum

This week our Artistic Director contemplates Mankind’s ability to read and write in Latin.

In the modern (and western) world, we take it more or less as read- pun intended- that people are literate. While I’m sure it’s exciting for parents, to watch their child take first, tentative steps into reading, it’s a normalised step in our learning process. Whether it comes easily or not, there is a presumption that we will acquire literacy at some point in our young lives. Of course, there is still illiteracy in the world, especially if we take a widely global perspective, but for you, reading this, it’s probably something that’s been taken pretty much for granted.

This is a relatively recent development. In the Middle Ages, an ability to read and write was nowhere near as commonplace as it is today. Most people didn’t need to read, and didn’t really have the time to learn. Class status mattered: the more wealth you had, the more powerful you were, the greater the odds you would have at least some degree of literacy. While there is a substantial argument that “literacy” can be auditory as well as actually accessing words off a page, it is the traditional meaning of literacy that matters for this discussion, and agreement seems to remain that most medieval peasants were not, in the usual sense of the term, “literate”.

And yet, Mankind, our eponymous peasant, who is clearly shown to be poor, overworked, and largely powerless in his society, is capable of writing. And not just writing, but writing in Latin, and understanding what he writes. We see him print onto a badge which he wears. These aren’t words we’ve heard him given by Mercy; it’s something he clearly understands on his own. What’s up with that?

There is no indication that Mankind has ever been of a higher station than he is at present- he’s not a down-on-his luck nobleman who might have learned as a child and just happens to find himself in poor circumstances. There was more social mobility by the late fifteenth century than previously: post-plague economic circumstances were to the advantage of the working class, as this labour force had diminished and was therefore more valuable, and a distinct merchant and middle class was rapidly developing. But even so, Mankind’s poverty is one of the central issues of the play, and why the Vices can tempt him away so easily- he is desperate for a life that is not all drudgery for little reward. Even in the late 1400’s, a peasant farmer would not have the resources of either time or money to be learning to read. (The printing press, invented around 1440, predates the play by a few decades, but was still a way from the mass-market-cheap-paperback phase, by a few centuries.)

A casual discussion with a colleague recently ended up with the question of whether he could be a monastic lay-brother. These were members of a monastic community who were not educated, or ordained, as clergy, but who performed the manual labour functions of the community, such as farming, cooking, etc. Although I have never found any academic suggestion of this possibility, I find it a rather intriguing idea. Titivillus suggests that Mankind should take a woman, “and your own wife betray”, which certainly argues against it. But this is the only real hint that Mankind has a spouse, and earlier Nought has offered to find Mankind a wife, which would suggest he might not be married. Of course, marital status is only one potential clue, but it would certainly make the Vices’ temptations more scandalous if the “spouse” they were encouraging Mankind to betray was the church to which he had committed himself. Mankind’s spiritual ignorance and weakness are perhaps the strongest arguments against his having any formal association with a religious order, but the idea, none the less, would be interesting to explore more fully.

The truth is that there is no immediately obvious, logical explanation for why Mankind is able to write, in Latin. And this is one of the challenges of medieval plays, which we have to keep in mind. Today’s theatre is so much the product of years of “reality” being the goal, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that fifteenth-century playwrights weren’t really interested in writing “characters”, not the sort we think of today, who are fully realised and realistic. Their goals were the ideas of the piece as a whole, the moral lesson, not the individuals inhabiting the drama. As a rather amusing article argues, you certainly can use modern acting methods, including “The Method” itself, to approach medieval drama. (1) But you have to accept that everything won’t weave together with perfect smoothness, and there may be aspects that don’t entirely make sense to logic, either historically or internally to the character. Mankind should not, logically, be able to read and write, and yet he can, and does. These are the moments where medieval drama becomes challenging, and we have to accept that it is a slightly different species than twentieth-century drama. While I’m sure some actors would have a hard time working with the “you just have to accept” attitude that medieval drama occasionally requires of them, the vast majority of people seem to be able to get to the emotional core of the character, regardless of these inconsistencies. And that is exactly what the drama demands, and what it was intended to give its audience.

Our Mankind, of course, is set in the twenty-first century, when it’s entirely probably that Mankind can read and write (though Latin is still beyond the pale for most of us). That discrepancy had nothing to do with our decision to move the play’s setting forward, but it is rather nice that it can help with the difficulty.


(1) Tydeman, Bill, ‘Stanislavski in the Garden of Gethsemane’, Medieval English Theatre 5.1, 1983, p. 53-57.