Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Sixth Deadly Sin: Lecherie

Well, people always seem to focus on sin #6, but lust just doesn't seem to concern Lorens much. It takes up about three pages, not even so many as sloth. The division of lechery seems not so organised as most of the others, or else it's over-organised. He seems to re-start the categorisation twice.

Firstly we are told that by lechery the devil tempts a man "in fyue maneres" (43): by foul looks, then foul words, then foul kisses, then foul touchings, then "comeþ a man to do þe dede". Presumably a woman does also.

Then we are told that this sin is divided into two parts:

Lechery of the heart, divided into four degrees by the spirit of lust.
- First he makes thoughts and figures of sin come into the heart.
- Next the sinner delights in these thoughts, though refusing to act on them.
- Assent of the heart, reason and will to the deed.
- Then comes greater desire and "grete brennynge [burning] wille þat þei haueþ to synne". This is followed by a mention of how women dress up to attract lustful looks, thinking no harm of it, but that as Solomon says "sche haþ no membre on hire body þat nys a grynne of þe deuel" (44), and she will have to answer for it come Judgement Day.

Lechery of the body is divided into lecherous looking, hearing, speaking and touching, and "in alle þe fyue wittes", and particularly "in þe foule dede". Lorens backtracks a little after this to assure us that it isn't just about sex (I translate): "To that sin belong all things that a man's flesh is moved to, and desires fleshly lusts, such as outrageous eatings and drinkings and beddings easy and delicious, and soft shirts and smocks and sweet robes of scarlet, and all other eases of the body that is more than need is." Ye-es. That might sound more convincing if it was less sensual. Whose soft, delicious body is that sweet robe of scarlet clinging to, Lorens?

We then seem to revert to the beginning again, and are told that the sin of lechery is divided into many branches. I count fourteen, all of which (to contradict his previous assertion) are about sex, specifically about whom one has sex with.

Between unbound persons: between people who are not bound by a vow not to have sex, but aren't married to each other.

With a comune woman: No prostitutes allowed. This is "fouler" than the previous sin.

Man unbound with woman bound.

With a married woman: "auoutrie", adultery. This is a double sin if both are married.

Unlawfully within marriage: when a married couple do "þing forboden... agens kynde [nature] and agens þe ordre of wedloke" (45). No details are given, but depending on place and time this usually included everything but missionary-style vaginal sex with the man on top, not in a holy space (consecrated ground) or a forbidden time (such as Lent), and not committed excessively. Or possibly enjoyed excessively.

Incest, ie, with his mother or daughter or the children of his godparents.

With other close relatives. I do wonder why these two weren't conflated.

With one's spouse's kin.

Unbound woman with a clerk in holy orders.

Unbound person with a person of religion.

Between monk and nun.

With a prelate.

And here I thought we were passing over the love that dare not speak its name. Not so - we can condemn it without actually naming it. Number 14 and last:

Unnatural ways. I translate: "The last is so foul and so hideous that is should not be named, that is sin against nature, which the devil teaches to a man or to a woman in many ways that may not be spoken, for the matter is so foul that it is abomination to speak it; but nevertheless be it man or woman that be guilty thereof he must tell it openly in his shrift to the priest as it was done. For because the sin is fouler and shamefuller, in so much is the shrift worth more for the shame that he hath that shriveth himself thereof, for that is great part of his penance. This sin is so displeasing to God that he made rain fire and stinking brimstone upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and sunk into hell five cities. The devil himself that purchases that sin is squeamish thereof when any does it" (46).

So there you are. Spite the devil and commit an unnatural sex act today? I do wonder, given the emphasis on how sinful it is to even name this act (we're told three times in the first sentence), if the sinner is rather caught in a bind on coming to confession. Yes, the shame is important to his penance, but if speaking it is a sin ought he write all the sordid details on a slip of paper and hand it through the screen to the confessor? We wouldn't want to compound the sin in the moment of confession, after all.


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...

Oh I so love this one! Given human nature, this must have been one of the most common of the types of sin at confession!

And the last one is priceless! If Edward II and his favourites were... ahem... enjoying themselves in un-natural ways as is most likely the case, then their confessors must have found themselves working overtime!

Ceirseach said...

If they actually confessed. Maybe they couldn't SAY it? Or maybe they did various things that didn't actually count as unnatural - I remember reading about an intellectual German (I think?) man in the 15th or 16th century who had relationships with various other men, who solved the problem of not committing sodomy or subordinating one man to another by insisting on lying side by side and using hands or friction against thighs. Sounds like the authorities didn't buy the distinction, though. Probably thought he was just being a smartalec. :)