Middle English Word of the Moment

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Seventh Deadly Sin: Þe Synne of Mouþ

And so we come (somewhat tardily) to the last sin - the fragile vestige of an excuse for me doing this sequence, as it is tangentially relevant to an essay I'm working on. It is not called gluttony, but "the sin of the mouth". Proper and improper uses of the mouth were an ongoing topic of discussion at this time. It was the point of exchange between the body and the outside world, and so constantly ambivalent. Food and drink entered by it, nourishing the body but presenting the temptation of gluttony and instigating the fleshly processes of digestion[1]. At death the human soul left the body via the mouth; devils could enter by it to possess the body; and of course the spirit of God entered physically in the form of the host at communion[2]. AThe mouth also had the duty of speech, which could range from blasphemy, damaging slander or lies, to strategy, peace-speaking, theological learning, teaching others or singing the praises of God[3].

With this in mind, it isn't so surprising if Lorens felt the need to address all the categories of sin that belong to the mouth, and should elide them under the seventh that we call gluttony now. He explains (in translation), "The seventh head of the beast is the sin of mouth. And because the mouth has two offices, whereof one serves for the swallowing of meat and drink, and the other to speech, therefore it is principally divided in two; that is to say, in the sin of gluttony, that is in food and drink, and in the sin of wicked tongue, that is to speak folly." (46)

I will quote more than usual today, with the excuse of essay relevance, and because he has so many beautifully sarcastic analogies:

First will we speak of the sin of gluttony, for that is a default and an evil that pleases the devil wonderous much and much displeases God, for through that sin hath the devil great power in man and woman, as clerks read in the gospel that God gave leave to the devils to go into swine, and when they were within the swine, they made them all run into the sea headlong and drown themselves. [This was] a token that gluttons that lead their life in gluttony as swine, the devil hath power to enter within them and drench them in the sea, that is to say in hell, and to make them to eat so much that they burst, and to drink so much that they drown....

This is the fisher of hell that fishes and takes the fish by the mouth and by the throat[3]. This vice displeases much God, for a glutton does great shame to God when he makes his god of a sackful of dung, that is to fill his belly, that he loves more than God and doubts, and therefore he serves it all of its asking.

God bids him fast; his belly bids him fast not, 'but eat thy food all in ease, and sit to your meal long enough, and thou shalt eat better and more'.

God bids him rise early; his belly bids him lie still, for he is too full to rise so early. 'I may sleep, for church is [at] noon hour; it will wait for me'.

And when he does rise, he begins his prayers and says "Ah, lord God, what shall we eat today? Where shall we find anything that is enough?"

And after these matins, then come the laudes: "Ah, lord God, we drank good wine yester-eve and ate good food."

Then shall he begin to weep for his sins, and say, "Alas, I am almost dead: the wine was too strong yester-eve; my head acheth."

This man has an evil god. This god and this vice brings a man to shame, for first he begins to be a tavern-goer and an ale-goer, and next he is a dice-player, and next he sells his heritage and all that he hath, and after that he becometh a harlot and a thief, and so cometh he to be hanged.
(46-48)

There are five branches of gluttony:

Eating early or late. Eating early is a sin, for "it is a foul þing for a man of good age þat may not abide tyme of day to ete" (48). Late hours are just as bad, for it is associated with going to bed late and rising late and wasting the whole day: "þei wasteþ tyme and turneþ vp-so-doun, for of þe nyght þei makeþ day" (49). Teenagers beware.

Eating and drinking too much.

Eating too hastily.

Eating too richly.

Being a gourmet. That is, "to delyte in queynte and deynteuous metes [foods]" (52). I'm afraid our family is damned.

Following this comes a denunciation of the tavern, which is the schoolhouse of the devil. In this, the inverse of the holy church, the devil reverses the miracles of God:

In holy church is God wont to do miracles and show his virtues: [he makes] the blind to see, the crippled to walk right, madmen to come into their right wits, dumb men to speak, deaf men to hear. But the devil doth the contrary of all this in the tavern. For when a glutton goes to the tavern he walks right enough, and when he comes out then all this is lost, for he has no wit nor reason nor understanding. These are the miracles that the devil doth (53-54).

Next come sins of the tongue, which may be divided into ten branches: "ydel, auauntyng [boasting], losengerie [flattery], bakbityng, lesynges [lying], forswerynges, stryuynges, grucchynges, rebellynges, blasphemye" (55).

Idle words cause the speaker to lose their time by spending it in folly, the good that they ought to be doing instead, and the treasure of their heart. Idle words are not, in fact, idle, but dear and full of harm. There are five kinds of idle words:
- Gabbling like a water mill.
- Bearing worrying news (Gandalf Stormcrow, anyone?).
- Exaggeration "wher-yn is moche vayn glorie" (56) (it was THIS BIG).
- Dirty jokes.
- Sarcasm. Methinks Lorens is occasionally guilty of this one himself. Though, reading closer, sarcasm is only bad if it is made "vpon goode men". Presumably one can be as sarcastic about sinners as necessary.

Avaunting, which comes in five kinds:
- Boasting about past deeds.
- Boasting of what one owns.
- "Surquidrye", which of course appeared under pride as well. Here it is defined as the sin of he "þat bosteþ and seiþ, 'I wole do so and so, and I wole venge wronges; I wole ... do meruailes [wonders]'" (57).
- Disparagement.
- False humility. Here falls Gawain.

Losyngerie, or flattery, which again divides into five:
- Indiscriminate praise (Chaucer the Pilgrim in the General Prologue?).
- Praise of children.
- Untruthful praise.
- Servile complaisance.
- Glossing over the faults of others.

Backbiting. Interestingly, to take a brief diversion into the realm of the monstrous, flatterers are likened to mermaids ("There is a thing that shows itself in the sea or other waters that men call meremaidens, that have the body of a woman and tail of a fish, and they sing so pleasingly that they have power to bring men who hear them into sleep, such as shipmen... and when they have brought a man to sleep, they slay him and devour him" (58-59)), and backbiters are compared to sirens ("There is a kind of adder that is called siren and that runs faster than any horse[5]... and she is so venomous that nothing may save a man that she envenoms").
- Lying to lay blame on others.
- Exaggerating the misdeeds of others.
- Devaluing the good deeds of others.
- Detraction. These sinners "ben like þe scorpioun þat makeþ good semblaunt as wiþ his visage [shows a fair face], and enuenymeþ wiþ his tail" (60). I think Lorens had never seen a scorpion's face. They're about as attractive as spiders'.
- Depicting the entire person in a bad light.

Lying.
- White lies, to help other people, which are the least culpable branch.
- Lies to please other people - this includes minstrels and story-tellers.
- Harmful lies.

Forswearing.
- Swearing "wiþ grete hete" (61)
- Swearing "lightly, þat is for nought and wiþ-out resoun" (61).
- Swearing by habit.
- Swearing foolishly.
- Breaking an oath.

Strife.
- Striving against others.
- Chiding.
- Despising.
- Speaking evil of others.
- Reproving.
- Threatening.
- Stirring discord.

Grudging, the recourse of "he þat dar not chide" (64).
- Grudging against man.
- Grudging against God.

Rebellion, "þat is to be rebel", as Lorens helpfull explains (66).
- Rebellion against advice.
- Against God's commandments.
- Against reproof.
- Against teaching.

Blasphemy, which is "as seynt Austeyn [Augustine] seiþ, whan a man bileueþ or seiþ of God þing þat a man scholde not bileue ne holde ne seye, or whan a man ne bileueþ nought þat he scholde holde" (67 - yes, the double negative is permissible in Middle English grammar). It comes in many kinds, such as when people blaspheme without thinking and use God's name in vain, or when witches and necromancers use it for their spells, or a man blasphemes from wrath and spite. Blasphemy is seldom forgiven.

Here endeth the seven deadly sins and all their branches, and whoever will study well in this book, it will profit him, and he may learn to reckon all manner of sins and to shrive himself well, for there is no man who may shrive himself well nor keep himself from sin if he knows them not. Now shall he that readeth attentively in this book look to see if he be guilty of any of these sins, and if he be guilty, repent him and shrive him and keep him to the best of his power from any other that he is not yet guilty of, and beseach meekly of Jesus Christ that he keep him from all those and any others; and so may he keep us all, amen. (68)

And may we remember never to praise our children, or speculate on the stock market, especially in its current state, or to engage in carnal acts with a common woman.


[1] Many saints, particularly female ones, were supposed to have done without food for days, months or years at a time, being nourished entirely by either the Eucharist or the Holy Spirit. Or occasionally her own miraculous milk, in the case of Christina the Astonishing, but she's hardly representative. Just... well... astonishing. This equation of holiness or purity with abstaining from food was mirrored, of course, in the more usual routine of fasting on certain days or at certain times. People in holy orders - halfway between saints and ordinary humans, you might say - had more restricted diets (many orders of monks were largely vegetarian) and were required to fast more often.

[2] Caciola, Nancy. “Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 2. 42 (2000): 262-306. I would cite the pages specifically, but I don't have it by me. The whole article is worth a read, though. Sadly does not contain any reproductions of mediaeval pictures of the moment of death, with the soul in the form of a little bird, human, or wafty flame-shaped thing leaving the mouth of the newly deceased - I shall try to find an example tomorrow and cite that here.

[3] It's possible to trace a very forceful debate about the proper use of the mouth throughout Dante's Commedia, particularly the Inferno. For a discussion of the symbolism of the boar's mouth in mediaeval literature as it pertains to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, see Thiébaux, Marcelle, “The Mouth of the Boar as Symbol”, Romance Philology, 22 (1969): 281-99. She examines how the boar's mouth is a symbol of damage and destruction (or even just thoughtless, spiteful talk like Kay's), and is particularly often used as a metaphor for the slanderer who gives away the secret of a pair of lovers and thus brings about destruction and calamity.

[4] What does this say about contemporary fishing techniques? Or is it simply a baited hook in the mouth, then a stick through the gills (throat) once the fish is caught?

[5] Incidentally, the fastest land snake is the African Black Mamba, but it only reaches the speed of a running human. Unfortunately, it combines this with being the only land snake who'd prefer to attack and chase you rather than escape, given the chance, so running is both a good idea and largely futile. And people think Australia's fauna is scary...

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...

Oh and I so love my food. It's a good job they didn't have chocolate then or I'm sure that would have deserved a special mention.

I've really enjoyed this series, Ceirseach - thankyou for taking the time to share it.