Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The First Deadly Sin: Pride

The first deadly sin is also the most intricate. It takes Lorens eleven pages to explain all its permutations, while wrath, the third, takes less than one. This is justified, perhaps, by the fact that pride"was þe first synne and bigynnyng of al euele" (11). We are told that it has "seuene principal braunches" and that each of these branches "haþ many smale twigges". This is Lorens' breakdown of pride, branches, twigs and all.

Untruth is divided into three branches, of which the first is evil, the second is worse, the third even worse:

-- Villainy: Ingratitude to God, in which the sinner forgets God and all his goodness and all that he has received from God, which is against nature.

-- Madness: Wasting those precious gifts which God gave to him (the sinner is always male), spending the virtues of his body and soul in idleness and folly.

-- Reneging: Giving those precious gifts into the hands of God's enemies, "þat is, body and soule and alle oþere goodes he putteþ in þe deuel seruice" (14). Reneging is of three types:

----> Either "he leueþ [believes] not as he scholde" (15), as heretics do.

----> "Or for he is out of þe feiþ, as men forsworn" - ie, excommunicated.

----> "Or elles for he leueþ more þan he schulde", as diviners and witches do. Superstition is a sin of pride - who knew?

Despite, the second branch of pride, comes in three kinds:

-- False valuation of self and others: The sinner looks down on others or believes himself not sinful.

-- Not honouring where he should: Failing to do reverence to God, to his father and mother, etc.

-- Disobedience where he should obey.

Presumption: Arrogance or "ouerboldeness" (16). There are seven branches here too[1].

-- Singularity: Believing himself to "kunne [know] more or be of more myght or be worþier þan oþere" (17).

-- Prodigality: Wasting one's goods in order that he might be held "large [generous] and courteis" (17).

-- Foolish undertaking.

-- Boasting.

-- Scorn.

-- Rebellion. This is "þe sixte twigge of þis stoke [stick]... whan a man is rebel to hem [them] þat wolde hym good" (18).

Foolhope, or ambition: The fourth branch of pride. It has no sub-divisions, but Lorens assures us that it "spredeþ in many wises [ways]", its twigs too many to name, giving rise to evils such as flattery, foolishness, malice, treasons, poisons...

Vainglory: "fool [foolish] likynge in vayn preisynges" (19). It has three branches, wherein "þe deuel byeþ [buys] wiþ þilke [that same] ernes-peny"[2] the three types of goods that a man has from God.

-- Goods of kind: Health, fairness, strength, doughtyness, nobility, good tongue, good voice.

-- Goods of fortune: Highnesses, honours, richess, delights, prosperities.

-- Goods of grace: Virtues and good deeds.

Hypocrisy: Beautifully described as the sin that "makeþ schewe þe good wiþ-out þat is not so wiþ-ynne" (21).

-- Foul hypocrisy: The sinner does "foule" things, sinning privately and presenting an honest face in public.

-- Foolish hypocrisy: The man who keeps himself "clene ynowgh [enough]" in body, and performs many penances and and many good deeds so that people may believe them good. Interesting here (though implicit throughout the book) is the clarity of the focus on intent - good deeds are not good per se, they are good only if they were undertaken for the right reasons.

-- Sly hypocrisy: Intent on great "dignitees and offices", the sly hypocrites do all that a good man should do so that "no man may knowe" who they really are, until they attain the highest office they can. At this point they will "schewe... þe vices and schrewednesse þat first was hid in here [their] hertes... and þan knoweþ men openly þat þe tree was neuer good" (21).

Pusillanimity: At least, so this editor glosses it. The word doesn't occur in the text. Instead, it is described as "foly drede", that is, "whan a man leueþ to do wel for þe world... and douteþ [fears] more þe world þan God" (22).


Again, such a focus on intent. It would be very easy to believe that your fear of worldly eyes was a fear of God's eyes, I imagine. How often do we convince ourselves that the desire to avoid repercussions is in fact pure conscience? A proper confession by the standards of these manuals would require an exquisite self-consciousness and a good deal of brutal self-examination. In the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, in which annual confession was made mandatory for all Christians, the necessity to educate people (and priests) so that they knew what was a sin and how to examine themselves and others for it, this sort of literature proliferated, and the highly individualised soul-searching and interiority that characterised it gradually crept into the character of the age, if there is every such a thing. But I spent enough time talking about that in my thesis, and therefore will not get into it here.


I find it curious that pride is described as "þe first synne and bigynnyng of al euele". Allegorically it makes sense - the reason it is the "first" sin on the list is that, according to mediaeval thinking, it gives rise to all the other sins. Reading it as the sin behind the Fall supports this and allows it to be "first" in terms of human history. But there's so many other ways the sin of Adam (and/or Eve) could be understood. Gluttony would be the most literal one. Curiosity, which could be interpreted as a division of pride (presumption, rebellion against authority). Avarice, envy - even sloth, which (according to Lorens) contains recklessness and forgetfulness, either of which could be responsible. It could even be attributed to wrath, one branch of which is "war against God".

Categorising this specific act according to the sin, then, is as much a matter of "what sin do I want to call this" as "what sin is it". The same could probably be said for any act beyond the most simple. I think it says much for the mediaeval concern with proper estate and condition, with not presuming beyond what one ought to do or be, that pride is the "first" sin - that Lorens spends eleven pages detailing its many twigs.


[1] That is, he promises seven. But count them! He does this quite often. The odd thing is that he numbers each of the elements as he goes along, too, so it's not just a case of me failing to notice where one sin ends and the next begins - it's someone failing to edit properly, probably the translator skipping a line by accident, or even Lorens himself leaving out one category by accident.

[2] Earnest-penny. Vainglory is the devil's earnest-penny, we are told, and also the "gret wynd þat felleþ doun... highe toures and highe steeples". It's a good thing Bilbo never read this book, or he might have given Gollum the wrong answer to that riddle!


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.

1 comment:

Lady D. said...

Yet another interesting post - I never realised that sinning was so complicated. I wonder if there was another category of pride whereby people boasted of sinning more than anyone else - can't have been too hard.

I think my poor Hugh (Despenser) fails on most of them - and you've only just started!