Comparing Notions of Piety in The Wakefield Mystery Plays, The Book of Margery Kempe, and Le Morte D'Arthur
The monastic lifestyle that Launcelot and his knights adopt after their conversion is one that Margery Kempe might approve of -- doing penance, singing mass, fasting, and remaining abstinent. (MdA, 525) But Launcelot's change of heart is not motivated by the emotions that move Kempe, nor is his attitude towards God the same as can be found in The Book of Margery Kempe and The Wakefield Mystery Plays.
In the Wakefield plays, God wins piety through outright threats. He appears to his followers in visions, as he does in Kempe, but never as a benevolent or comforting presence. Kempe receives her only comfort in life through God's constant reassurances of her holiness in the face of the condemnation of her peers; in the Creation play, it is God who casts out Adam and Eve, just as Kempe is cast out of traveling party after traveling party. The fear of being similarly punished keeps other Wakefield characters in line. Noah begins his play with a speech detailing the mistakes of the those who have angered the Lord: "First on Earth and then in hell . . . but to those no harm befell/who trusted in his truth." And God responds: "Vengeance I will take,/ On earth for sin's sake,/My grimness thus will wake/Both great and small." (WP, 91) God promises that "All shall perish less and more that so spurned my plan." Faced with the choice of loyalty to God or death, Noah's faith looks suspect, as does Abraham's. Abraham's initial speech is similar to Noah's, recounting man's previous sins and later promising God, "To hear thy will, ready I am,/And to fulfil whatever it be." (WP, 109) When toying with the idea of offending against God's will, Abraham quickly decides, "Nay, I would rather my child were dead." (ibid.) Kempe's God, Malory's God, would never resort to intimidation to win fealty and obedience.
Malory never mentions Hell or the threat of damnation in his Guenever's explanation of her conversion. Guenever instead elucidates to Launcelot her desire to "have sight of the blessed face of Christ, and at doomsday to sit on His right side." (MdA, 523) Her desire to be close to the Lord arises not from fear, as does Abraham's, nor from a childish desire to be reassured of her central goodness in the face of contempt, as does Kempe's. She believes in a heavenly reward for her penitence, but does not mention terror or parental comfort. Malory might find offensive the idea that God would have to sink to bullying to enforce adherence to His orders.
But then, the courtly characters in Malory don't seem very interested in Biblical imperatives to begin with. Illegitimacy (Launcelot's sons), incest (Mordred's conception), killing, and lying (Launcelot's stalwart denial of his 40-year affair with Guenever) are rampant in the court and very little condemnation of this continual flouting of the rules is seen. What does upset one of the more...