Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Fourth Deadly Sin: Slewþe

Sloth, defined as "a werynesse of goode deedes", is the fourth head of the beast, and it's neatly complex. Though not so minutely detailed as Pride, its component parts related better to each other, similar to the four branches of Wrath. Sloth, we are told, "makeþ a man haue euele bygynnyng, and wors amendyng, and alþerworst endyng" (26).

Note that, again, numbers of divisions may not equal those advertised!

Seven causes of evil beginning:
- Slackness.
- Softness, as he that lies on "þe deueles feþere bed".
- Idleness, as if "þe deuel fyndeþ hym ydel, he him setteþ a-swiþe [swiftly] to werke" - a lovely fore-runner of our "the devil finds work for idle hands" (27).
- Heaviness.
- Resting in sin.
- Pusillanimity, "þat is unboldenesse... like to hym þat dar nought gon in þe weye for þe snayl þat scheweþ his hornes". Lorens does write lovely similes!

Seven causes of evil amending, which seem sequential.
- Untrewþe, which after working on SGGK I refuse to translate as "untruth" as these editors do. It is described as "whan God put good wille in a mannes herte for to do wel, þan comeþ þe deuel", who tells him he has many years until he must face divine judgement, and so tarries him from the will to do well.
- Recklessness, or "rechelesschep" in the translator's words, which follows logically from untrewþe.
- Forgetfulness of what one ought to do, which springs from the first two sins.
- Default of heart, when a man no longer has the desire to do well.
- Too great zeal, when over-rigorous penance or fasting or amending puts a man off and turns him away.
- Weariness, which grows more every day.

Six causes of evil ending:
- Unbuxomness. Disobedience, that is, but the Middle English word is better![1] Note that variants on this have already appeared under Pride (rebellion) and Wrath (war against god/superiors).
- Impatience.
- Grudging.
- Anger. Again - haven't we seen this already? Say - ire? wrath?
- Self-contempt. Similarly - war against self, anyone?
- Despair.

I think the crucial difference between apparently synonymous sins is the focus on cause. The focus is on which of the deadly sins gives rise to the emotion, rather than the outward effect. Though the manifestation of one may be very similar to another, if one is to confess properly one must know in great detail what one has done and why - not merely actions, but the "entente" behind the actions. I suspect that a good part of the reason for this text's existence is to help people analyse these emotions - their own, for the confessing party, or other people's, for the one who hears the confession.

As to the anomaly between the number of sub-divisions promised and those given, I'd account for the differences either by supposing that the French text he had used roman numerals, and the English translator occasionally misread 'ui' for 'uii' (easier to do than you'd suppose, especially in many contemporary gothic scripts, and especially if you were expecting seven as the more apocalyptically significant number); or that there are in fact seven sins in the French and twice he managed to omit one in translating, or elide two together by not noticing the divisions.

A characteristic of the text which makes the omission particularly prominent is its insistence on counting as it goes along. "The first twig/branch of x is y... The second is... The fourth head of the beast, the sixth vice of this kind". I would be interested to see whether this is present in the French, or to what extent it appears in the eleven or so other Middle English translations. If it is in the French, it is remarkable that the translator manages to make the same mistake so often - he always omits, he never (so far, at least) adds. If it is not in the French, it may indicate our translator's awareness of the difficult division, and of the possibility of error: that he imposed this extra structural check on it as a safeguard. And we ought not forget the difficulty of translating such a pedantic set of terms, so very dependent on semantics. Perhaps in some cases there were words for which he simply couldn't find two adequately differentiated English equivalents, and so merged the entries without correcting his account of the numbers.

It's interesting to see that, though there are actually six divisions to each of these categories, he states that there are seven for the first two and only counts the last one correctly. Were there originally seven (or six) in all three categories, as the neatness of the structure would lead you to expect? Did he merely correct his promise of seven by the time he came to the last set?

Or have subsequent scribes - possibly even the editors of this edition - made any or all of the above mistakes for him?


[1] Yes, a buxom wench is an obedient one, not she of the weighty bosom. I shall not bother to trace the descent from "compliant" to "really hot stuff", because it would be rather depressing and I'm sure you can all do it anyway.

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. To avoid a proliferation of identical numbers in brackets, any unattributed quote is on the same page as the last attributed quote. A new page is indicated by a new citation.

1 comment:

Lady D. said...

This sinning is a complicated business, isn't it? I'm sure you could do a full PhD in it today - if it were still on the curriculem - so to speak!