Evidently, a traveling companion for life’s final journey is not easy to find. All of life’s little pleasures, like Fellowship, Beauty, and Strength abandon Everyman on the journey. In the end, after a little pick-me-up in the form of Everyman’s confession, Good Deeds is the only one to consent to the journey.
The church had made a division between venial sins, which could be forgiven without the sacrament of Confession, and capital sins resulting in damnation. A largely illiterate audience couldn't be expected to remember each of the Seven Deadly Sins, or even the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. This was an issue of deep significance.
A call to education about the Seven Deadly Sins came from the Fourth Lateran Council (1214). This council established a practice of annual confession.
All the Faithful of both sexes shall, after they have reached the age of discretion, faithfully confess all their sins at least once a year to their own (parish) priest and perform to the best of their ability the penance imposed, receiving reverently at least at Easter the sacrament of the Eucharist, unless perchance at the advice of their priest they may for a good reason abstain for a time from its reception; otherwise they shall be cut off from the Church during life and deprived of Christian burial in death. Wherefore, let this salutary decree be published frequently in the churches, that no one may find in the plea of ignorance a shadow of excuse.
Let the priest be discreet and cautious that he may pour wine and oil into the wounds of one injured after the manner of a skillful physician, carefully inquiring into the circumstances of the sinner and sin, from the nature of which he may understand what kind of advice to give and what remedy to apply, making use of different experiments to heal the sick one.
This mandate required priests to teach congregations to recognize and recall their sins, so English bishops wrote syllabuses for clergy to learn and teach to their congregations. Because of their severity, The Seven Deadly Sins were featured in these syllabuses or catechisms.
To help the faithful with their memories, as well as with their abstract reasoning skills, such concepts were personified, giving them human form and human traits. Giving a face to such abstractions as the Deadly Sins helped citizens know which sins were the worst and what sins required confession.
Once given human form, the Deadly Sins could be painted on cathedral walls, pictured in books, and appear on the stage. From these platforms, personifications could help people remember which sins to avoid the most. The Seven Deadly Sins do not appear in Everyman, but the play does borrow the technique and personifies such abstracts as Beauty, Intelligence, Fellowship, and Good Works.
In this play, the character Everyman could be seen as a personification as well; instead of representing one individual man, he is meant to represent mankind in general. The same technique was present nearly two hundred years later in John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, when the character Christian represented mankind on an Everyman-esque journey.