Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Third Deadly Sin: Wraþþe

The fourth head of the beast is ire, or wrath. The first thing Lorens hastens to assure us is that "þer is an ire þat goode holy men han ayens [have against] euele" (25). This is not a sin but a virtue. The sin of the same name is a "felonie of herte", divided into four branches which symbolise the four wars of an angry man.

With himself: When "wraþþe is ful in a man, he turmenteþ his soule and his body so þat he may haue no sleep ne reste". It may drive him to take a fever, to refuse food, or to "suche a sorwe þat he takeþ his deþ" - whether of suicide or by wasting away, we aren't told.

With God: Usually begun by "sum worldely loos or harm, or for siknesse or for deþ of his frendes", this war causes a man to "grucce... ayens God oure lord", and may drive him to blaspheme.

With his inferiors: This man is angry to those who are "vnder hym", such as his wife and his children, and to his servants. He may beat them, or break "pottes, coppes and disches" as if he were "out of his witte, and so is he" (25-26).

With his neighbours: There are seven twigs to this branch, which seem to be consecutive rather than separate - strife, then anger hidden in the heart, then hate, then contention, then will for vengeance, then manslaughter, then deadly war. War, we are told, is bad. It causes "mochel [great] euele and gret perel þat mowe [may] neuere be amended". It seems people have been observing this for millenia, and yet we haven't got the message yet.

The mention of war leads to a small digression on its evils. I will translate it as literally as possible here (excepting the last line):

For when there is war between two great lords, it falls oft that there are many dead that have no guilt, churches robbed and broken, towns burnt, abbeys and priories and great houses destroyed, men and women and children disinherited, great lands detroyed, and many other things that are done by the word of those that are beholden to amend [evils, but] who purchase that war, the lord and all those that are in his service in such doings. And therefore they are in great balance [ie, jeopardy] of salvation, for they cannot either yield or amend the harms that are done, and they must either yield or hang. "Rendre ou pendre", dit ly fraunceys.

I wonder if it's secular justice that threatens to hang lords who will not call a halt to the ravages of war, or divine? Or perhaps their enemies? The last half of that passage is a little unclear in its syntax, and that coupled with his recourse to the French in the last line suggests to me that the anonymous translator might have found the French hard to follow at this point, patching it over with vagueness.

I find the division of wrath into four parts interesting. After seeing "war with oneself" and "war with god", one naturally expects "war with others". After seeing "war with one's inferiors", I expect the fourth to be "war with one's superiors". But perhaps resenting those above you is supposed to be synonymous with war against God. There are other places where resentment against secular authority (parents, masters) is elided with resentment against God - Rebellion (the sixth twig of Presumption which is the third branch of Pride), for example.

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.


Lady D. said...

Apologies for the delay in getting around to reading these posts - I wanted to give them the time they deserve - and I haven't had much of that lately!

Yet another interesting foray into Medieval psychology. I find it fascinating that all of the things described still have great relevancy today. We really aren't so different, are we?

Ceirseach said...

Definitely not - just our language and formulae for understanding ourselves. He does have a knack for evoking just that particular frame of mind in a few words or a brief image, a very recognisable state of mind that doesn't depend on era or defunct social context. I think that's part of the really internalising penitential literature that was developing at this time - the focus on the internal, the motivation, the movements of human desires and drives, which of course are much easier to relate to than other kinds of literature which depend on cultures and thought modes which don't apply anymore.