Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Fifth Deadly Sin: Auarice

Avarice is an odd one. Firstly, it seems to forbid any kind of profit-making at all, not just what we traditionally think of as the usury that was the sole province of those nasty Jews. Secondly, it contains many elements that I find it impossible to reconcile with the idea of avarice at all, no matter how far I stretch my imagination - assaulting priests, for example. Thirdly, it is longer and more detailed than any of the other sins we've seen so far, even pride. Fourthly, though we were told that pride is the first sin and the root of all the others, here we are told that avarice is "þe roote of alle yueles, as seiþ seynt Poule" (30). The attribution partly explains the anomaly - various theological authorities have doubtless stressed relative sins differently, and it's natural to take the most extreme view of each when you want to emphasise the gravity of the sin under discussion.

However, all these elements together suggest a deep and widespread concern about the sin - whatever it actually is - and about capitalist tendencies and profit, possibly related to the increased social mobility generated by the economic fluxes in the wake of the plagues. Only - Lorens' original predates the plague. I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It's possible that the translator added to or expanded on his source, of course, but if he did that here I find it hard to believe he didn't do it elsewhere, and the style as a whole just feels too consistent and organised to believe it.

Avarice has ten boughs:

Usury, which has seven types.
- Lending against collateral.
- Inheriting and refusing to return money made by usury.
- Lending through agents.
- Lending the goods of other men, or buying/borrowing them for little and lending them for much more.
- Giving credit for usury, or buying cheaper than the goods are worth and selling them dearer (well, that's everyone in our retail and hospitality industries done for).
- Speculating.
- Lending to people in dire financial straits and making them work off the loan for more than it's worth.

Theft has four types.
- Common theft, of men who live by theft.
- Hidden theft, when one "steleþ slighly bi-hynde and queynteli grete þinges or smale as to bigile a man or bitraye a man bi suteltee" (32-33). I'm not quite sure how we would interpret that nowadays, but I'm hardly an expert on various forms of theft.
- Privy theft, which is theft not from strangers but from those one deals with or serves, such as withholding rent. Incidentally, this is the sin women commit when she knows the child she carries within her is not her husband's and therefore "schal bere þe heritage þere he haþ no right" (33).
- Fellows in theft - accessory.

Rapine, or abuse of office.
- False executors, who rob dead men.
- Wicked lords who extort from those under them.
- Thieving innkeepers.
- Avoiders of debt.
- Extortionate prelates.
- Oppressive officials, like the Summoner in the Friar's Tale.

Challenge, which seems to be specifically related to litigation. This sounds more familiar! Many scholars come to learn at the court of this "lady of couetise", we are told, and they may be divided into seven (or, in fact, six) kinds:
- False plaintiffs.
- People who falsely flee 'what is right' - a court summons, perhaps, or ought it to be understood more generally?
- False witnesses.
- Lawyers who undertake cases they know to be false.
- False notaries and attorneys.
- False judges.

Sacrilege. I cannot understand why this appears under avarice. The sub-divisions don't make it any clearer, since in few instances is there any profit to the sinner.
- Mistreatment of the Eucharist and other sacraments.
- Violation of church buildings.
- Defilement of sacred spaces, as by brawling or lechery on hallowed ground.
- Violence towards men or women of religion.
- Theft from the church.
- Misuse of church property.
- Refusal to give food/water to a beggar when requested.
- Refusal to give up what belongs to the church, such as tithes and offerings.
- Breaking the Sabbath.

Simony. I wonder if Chaucer's Pardoner's name is Simon? It's a nice name.
- Buying or selling sacraments.
- Selling the Word of God - ie, preaching for silver.
- Selling church offices.
- Selling church livings.
- Selling benefices.
- Selling vows.

Malignity, or shrewedness, when a man doesn't turn away from doing great harm to another man for a little profit to himself.
- Forsaking God and turning heathen for profit. This includes people who make this choice "for drede of pouerte" (39). Remember, boys and girls, God wants you to starve to death.
- Murder for profit.
- Destruction of property for profit.
- Sowing of discord where one stands to gain by it.
- Oppressing the poor for profit. It's the Summoner again!

Merchandising.
- Selling dear and buying cheap (again, I'm sure I've written this one already).
- False swearing.
- Weighing things falsely.
- Giving credit.
- Substituting inferior goods for those purchased.
- Concealing truth.
- Misrepresentation.

Schrewed craftes.
- Prostitution.
- Professional fighting. Presumably this excludes tournaments, for they are chivalric and heroic. So long as they don't "fyght for wynnyng of siluer" (41), I suppose they'd get out of it!

Wikked pleyes - gaming, dice, hazards. Many sins come from these habits!
- Covetousness.
- Usury.
- Profanity.
- Bad example.
- Waste of time.

We close with six sarcastic "comaundementes" for the covetous:
1. That he "kepeþ wel his good" - that is, his profit or what he has won.
2. That it "litle nought in his hond".
3. That "his good wexe [increase] euere day more and more".
4. That "he ne yeue [give] no þing ne do non almesse [give no alms] ne no curtesie".
5. That he "lene nought [lend not] to pore men ne wommen ne put his good in perel".
6. Finally, let him "restreyne hymself and his meyne [children] from mete [food] and drynke for to spare þe more his good". (42)


Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from The book of vices and virtues: a fourteenth century English translation of the Somme le roi of Lorens d'Orleans. Ed. W. Nelson Francis. Early English Text Society OS 217. London: Oxford University Press, 1942.

2 comments:

Lady D. said...

I think this one was written specifically for Hugh Despenser (in fact, most of the book!). But avarice was his speciality!

Also - tournaments... as far as I'm aware even these were frowned upon and discouraged by the church so it's possible that fighting in such was also considered a sin. Of course, the knights involved were probabaly rich enough to buy a pardon anyway.

Ceirseach said...

In many cases they were. There was always a tension between chivalry as a social code or set of ideals and religion as one, so of course the official church line would often be CHIVALRY DISTRACTS YOU FROM GOD. But I suspect attitudes would vary from place to place and person to person, like with anything else!