THE ART OF EQUIVOCATION AND FOURTEENTH CENTURY VICE

9 Dec

Medieval Morality Inversion

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             Nothing is more mercurial than a liberal society and the attitudes and morals of those citizens who live within it. What’s acceptable today is unacceptable tomorrow, the waxing and waning of human values seemingly as ephemeral as the moon. That being said, the sins as described by Evagrius, have not always been regarded, even during the medieval period, with the same, strict uniformity or enjoyed the same level of adherence. In fact, contemporary society would no doubt disagree with his compilation upon principal and unashamedly cite political correctness as its raison d’etre. Consequently the measure with which we weigh the sins can be reduced to their quotidian import with regard to what is expedient, how they affect society and will their abuses be tolerated? One only has to observe the imperialistic ambitions of American geo-political maneuverings in the Middle East, in what are clearly self-aggrandizing nation building endeavors, to understand this.

            The taxonomy of the sins as originally proposed by Evagrius and proliferated by Cassian were in essence, not just a tool to bring the supplicant closer to God, but to engender a lifestyle that would be convivial to all. A fail safe control mechanism that would draw the boundaries of societal acceptance, coerce appropriate behavior and allow trespassers of etiquette to be duly punished. The idea was simple enough, but actually adhering to them as the centuries have revealed, has been fraught with difficulties and excess. This is not a modern issue by any notion and one can trace the paradox of doing wrong in order to do right throughout the annals of history. This becomes clear when one probes the original meaning of some of the sins and explores how they mutated through time. The changing attitudes towards sin, especially Avarice and Wrath, are particularly conspicuous during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Black Death which swept through Europe during the fourteenth century. By examining these deadly sins and their subsequent metamorphosis from their original intent it is possible to analyze the degree to which their meanings have changed, even to the point where instead of being considered sinful some of the tenets are now considered virtues. 

            The Seven Deadly Sins were instrumental in the medieval period to illustrate the dangers of human frailty. Not only where they a guide to life but also a means of control by which the Roman Church could exercise its power and ensure the subservience of its congregations. The priests, through the ever present threat of sinning, could literally damn a man into hell or praise him into heaven. The Church-centric world of the medieval period was the norm and church going an expectation and therefore, there would have been a familiarity by both the clergy and the lay population with the taxonomy. Imagery of the Seven Deadly Sins would have been emblazoned in the painted murals of the religious buildings they attended or they would have been a gentle reminder on the cleric’s lips as to their relevance to daily life. The sins were taught in a simplified, easy to understand format (given the dearth of literacy during the period) to the people either visually or preached from the pulpit. Despite their lack of formal education the message was abundantly clear and congregations were put in mortal fear of their souls. The Seven Deadly Sins were beyond reproach and an empirical devise with which a man could recognize his own failings and in doing so attempt to correct his human weaknesses by treading the path of the righteous. Although this was true of the period, it would appear that there was also ample wriggle-room.

            Life in medieval times was seen as an interim to heavenly reward, the afterlife being far more important than the temporal sufferings of the great unwashed. Therefore, in order to ensure one’s place on the path of righteousness, one had to abide by clerical law and pray fervently in the hope of divine intervention or suffer eternal damnation. Needless to say the system was based upon human frailty and inevitably therefore, doomed to failure. In a society that was established on the estates of being and where feudalism was the accepted hierarchy, the differences between those who had and those who had not must have been abyssal. Little wonder then that the boundaries of sin where blurred to account for these differences and manipulated according to the crisis of the moment. The fourteenth century witnessed everything from abundance to plague and starvation to war as well as religious and political upheaval. Not so different from the great state of being that shapes our own modern twenty-first century lives.

            Ownership of property and land was based ultimately on position and therefore on God’s grace. If God had deigned that one was to fulfill one’s mortal role in a particular category of the estates then one should of course accept one’s lot in life and make of it what one could. This gift from God it would appear was not enough and often those with temporal position felt that despite being divinely rewarded it was their duty in life to acquire as much as they possibly could during their lifetime. The sin of Greed being a venial sin could easily be dismissed, as power and position trumped any notion that the holding and acquisition of wealth was bad. So long as one was contrite in prayer and contributed to the Church and gave alms for the poor then the pursuit of earthly delight was reasonable if not forgivable. According to Goddard, “Research on late medieval and rural economic social history reveals that the privilege of land and money was without doubt controlled by the manorial Lords” (89) Huge tracts of land in England known as the wastes, which then constituted much of the barren moorland to be found throughout the British Isles, were jealously possessed by its then owners. Rather than wasteland, manorial lords saw the means for profit in a land which until the Norman Conquest had been in the hands of the commoners. The waste lands were part of the common heritage and were used to graze animals and to supply sundry basics such as wood. That was of course until greed reared its ugly head and the inevitable realization by the already wealthy of the immense profits to be made from them. There are countless accounts of commoners being prosecuted for using the lands without permission or utilizing the raw materials found upon it. The quarrying of material to manufacture mills stones, despite the economic boon they would provide to the local community and the tithes paid by the miller to the incumbent Lord, was punishable by death in the county of Devon. “All the furzes, heath moors, marshes, commons, ways and waste grounds,” (33) land which had been communal, now constituted pure profit to those granted tenancy by the crown. This acrimonious business was not confined between the lords and the peasants but also between the king and his barons: the question of greed eventually coming to a head at Runnymede in 1215. King John, writes McKechnie, God’s representative on earth and answerable to none other than the almighty, was malicious in both reign and taxation. (12) “ Renowned for his jealousies, wrath and avarice, he was eventually forced by those able to wield a sword against his dictatorship to sign the Magna Carta diminishing some of the powers of the crown and forever setting in motion the rights of free men.” (3) Greed and acquisition of wealth by any means was, in the opinion of the crown, a God given right despite the tenets of the Seven Deadly Sins. The king’s attitude towards them was not dissimilar to the manorial lords who regarded their gargantuan estates as theirs alone. Clearly the idea of sinning was arbitrary when it came to collecting what was “rightfully” one’s due, no matter the consequence to those affected. The acquisition of land by the crown by usurpation wasn’t halted, writes Goddard, until 1359 under the council of the Black Prince who “ensured that land given could not be retaken through right of writ.”(33) No matter the pedantic nature of the King the tenant Lords could be sure that unless forfeited by an act of treason, the land would be theirs in perpetuity. Not so the experience of the serf who had no rights under English law and therefore remained subject to the whims of the manorial lords. Clearly the distinction between sin and sinning was based on ones proximity to those “of the manor born,” and therefore the ability to eke out a life at the expense of the lord’s profits was clearly not recommended if one wanted to enjoy a full and rewarding life. Despite the veniality of the lordship’s sin and the opportunity for the serf to enjoy the eventual treasures of heaven, this would have been poor reward after suffering prosecution and even death at the hands of a land grabbing tyrant. Clearly God was on the side of the rich and the sin of greed merely a question of semantics providing that manorial justice and not heavenly truth was being applied.

            Just as with any paradoxical situation the observance of the Seven Deadly Sins lends itself to interpretation and therefore their relevance is a product of contemporary attitudes. The accidental execution of venial sins and the misappropriation of vice instead of virtue is fundamentally a narrow path to walk and one which even we, living in a supposed modern progressive society, have difficulty in avoiding. Although in retrospect we clearly see the misappropriations of the common land as theft and the punishment of the serfs as unjust, this would have been viewed quite differently by those guilty of the exploitation.  Although one could suggest, in mitigating the gross injustices visited upon the poor, that they were simply the victims of moral hypocrisy. That is to suggest that despite the manorial lords best intent to preserve what was rightly theirs, or the King his, there would still exist a conscious awareness that one was doing wrong even when acting within the law or through the supposed grace of God. This hypocrisy is apparent in the actions of the barons towards their King who held him accountable for what they themselves were committing on their own lands and to their own people. Clearly sin, at least in this instance, was in the eyes of the beholder – the peasants – rather than the perpetrators. Many of the virtues themselves could be perceived as sins and therefore digression from the higher and narrow path to Truth is understandable thanks to their ambiguity and therefore perhaps excusable under the auspices of medieval canonical law. In Prudentius’ Psychomachia he describes a battle between the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. All individual combat is easily won by the Virtues except in the instance of one. Avarice initially takes the upper hand when his character is mistaken for Frugality rather than Avarice. It is only when the vice is discovered to be appropriating the virtue that Avarice can be defeated.

            The idea that man is beyond helping himself despite the taxonomy of the Sins is never clearer than in Langland’s parable told by the Friars when confronted by the dreamer in Piers Ploughman. When seeking the home of Do-Well the dreamer questions the notion of virtue when, “…even as the Bible says, even the just man falls into sin seven times a day.”(82) The Friars concede that mankind is afloat on an ocean that tosses and turns and though the dreamer may fall and flounder, as long as he stays within the boat, he will be saved.(83) The boat of course is an allusion to the Church and the sea, the troubles and vices of the world. Consequently admit the Friars, even the most conscientious person succumbs to sin. Newhauser writes that it only through the painstaking analysis of sin that there can be any possible recognition of guilt.(5) “Theologians were aware of the ambiguity,”(5) and despite their attempts to resolve it, moral hypocrisy remained, as Langland observes, a very real medieval concept.

            The relevance of ambiguity with regards to sinning is founded during the medieval period in political and social upheaval and the necessitating of centralized policy. Emphasis and even mutability can be found in the medieval texts and one perceives that although retribution is set in stone, the hell fire to be endured wasn’t always as hot as the priests declared. This isn’t untrue of religion itself which, insidious in nature, tends to adopt that with which a society is familiar with and usurps it for its own ends. Evidence can be found of local saints being beatified into the Catholic pantheon and even traditions and customs being adopted on a regional basis in order to make the “new” religion more appealing. Just as local customs became Christian doctrine so too the Deadly Sins were applied with an uneven hand. The perception that sin is mutable is not a recent one and is an idea that is recurrent throughout history. One often hears of Victorian values and yet we know that they were not the same as either those of the Georgians or the Edwardians. Sin is culturally relevant and therefore, is based on the period in which it is experienced or dependent upon a quotidian political climate. Often in contemporary culture, in order to accomplish certain goals, pride and greed are interchangeable as well as absolutely necessary.  Norman Cantor writes, “Through economic necessity or, as in the context of extraordinary situations such as the plagues of the fourteenth century, people are often empowered to take advantage of that which ordinarily would be beyond their scope. (12) In his book, In the Wake of the Plague, he explores the devastating effect the epidemic had on Europe and what affect the near extinction of the entire population had on the socio-political and religious way of life, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards the Seven Deadly Sins. The upheaval of contemporary living and the ensuing social chaos it created meant that nothing, as he describes, would ever be the same again; including the values of those who survived. Suddenly the boot was on the other foot and those who previously had little or no power found themselves in positions of influence. Labor was suddenly valued, food was at an optimum and the fact that the plague could kill a king as easily as it could kill a peasant leant itself to a new psychological paradigm. The serf suddenly had an opportunity to exact some kind of retribution and enact those lessons which they’d been taught so painfully well.

            The great plagues that wiped out more than a third of the population after sweeping through Europe helped to assimilate the dilemma of sin. When work was plentiful peasants were more than happy to accept a reduced wage; however, due to the untimely death of the working population the power of the medieval proletariat, as opposed to the power of the medieval bourgeoisie, became the standard.(28) Workers fomenting their new found status and their own inherent appreciation of avarice could now withhold their labor and demand higher wages, much to the chagrin of the lords who’d regularly, thanks to their own tenuous relationship with avarice, abused and underpaid them. The lack of available labor was so prolific thanks to the horrific death toll extorted by the plagues that records reveal children, women and prisoners were set to work alongside the men in order to curtail the shortage of willing hands. The rise of avarice and even the recognition by women of their previously unattributed value, thanks to the economic prosperity generated by global catastrophe, changed by definition the sex of the working class and consequently a woman’s economic value. (29) This was something that had been unthinkable, writes Goddard,  prior to the pestilence, as evidenced by the diverse labor force used to complete “Royal Works” of the post-plague period (233) The plague didn’t only bring death and disease but also moral enlightenment. Thanks to the economic pressures and demographic inequality the accepted attitudes toward sin were suddenly liable to revision. A man who had been happy with his lot was now capable of doubling his earnings and even of owning land. The pressure of labor was such that some peasants ultimately became wealthy land owners themselves (yeomen) and challenged the natural order of things. (65) Just as wealthy industrialists in the nineteenth century had challenged the birth right of the gentry, money was the new key to influence. It was money rather than blood that was asserting political and social change on what had, up until the period, been accepted as self-evident and God ordained. Men weren’t just greedy for wealth, but for position and power as well.

            Avarice and pride weren’t the only acceptable faces of revisionary sin and in a post plague period gluttony also had its part to play. Diet was a matter of class and meat was primarily, especially the likes of game, consumed by the gentry. The serfs existed on a diet of cereal and occasional dairy but were forced to farm live stock for those who ate it. The problem with livestock farming was that it was inefficient, as the animals had to graze on land which could otherwise be used for cereal. Further, the animals had to be fed from the harvest that was supposed to feed the serfs. Despite the inconstancy of harvests due to the unusually wet summers of the period the meat dishes were still required by the gentry. Rather than acquiescing to Mother Nature and accepting to share the burden of meager harvests, the gentry insisted that the forfeiture of food and consequently the malnutrition and death that followed was borne by the serfs. Once again sin was obfuscated by rank, the restrictions of piety not pertaining to all estates. Newhauser relates the story of Augustine and the “rich and aristocratic Proba” who finding herself living in grandiose circumstances and unbelievable opulence garnered by what is related as “great cruelties” questioned whether she was succumbing to the sin of Avarice. Augustine responded that “so long as she lived in abundance but distanced herself from the “riches of the heart she did not have to reject the superfluously of her surroundings.”(6) Newhauser describes how the clergy of the day had difficulty in defining sufficiency and that the Church, given the acquisition of fantastic riches over the ensuing centuries, not unlike Proba, must have been asking themselves the same question? Similarly the survivors of the plague found themselves enjoying a disproportionate advantage as well as abundance and so it is hard to moralize on their greed and avarice considering the conspicuous wealth of the estates to whom they were subject. Therefore to strip off the mask of Avarice as in Prudentius Psychomachia would be to expose the post-plague acceptability of new found affluence as a possible sin. Fortunately for the sinners they didn’t have to wait for God’s wrath but instead could look forward to extra taxation and judicial decree by a King who needed their wealth more than they did. King Richard, writes Dean, installed legislation that limited the wages of the workers as well as imposing recurring poll taxes that would force the peasants to exchange their sin of avarice to that of wrath. (119)  

            Warfare, a constant drain on financial resources, was rife during the period. If it wasn’t the French, then it was the Scottish or the Irish: bloody murder decreed by imperial expansion and the divinely ordained birthright of being English. Although God was apparently on England’s side at Crecy and Poitiers under the generalship of Edward III, the warlike activities of the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was not seen in the same religious light. Their willingness to burn, murder and pillage cast the peasants as outlaws, despite the fact that once again it was the circumvention of the sins that had caused their grievances. Avarice, however, came at a price and those who survived the Black Death didn’t have it all their own way for long. The ensuing power struggle between the factions of the “estates” as they tried to hold onto what they’d gained thanks to the ravages of the plague, with those who’d previously been manorial lords. Sinning or rather hypocrisy had once again become necessary and this time by the hand of King Richard. If he was to fill his coffers, wage war and enrich both himself and his followers then the money had to come from somewhere. Naturally the burden fell to the poor who, with little or no means, were required to staunch a crumbling monarchy. Notwithstanding his years the King took it upon himself to ignore any religious instruction he’d ever received and instead, do what he felt was “best” for the country. The negation of the sins, for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, hopefully struck him as ironic when surrounded by the angry mob at Smithfield.

            John Ball one of the leaders of the rebellion understood that in times of struggle it was men who would stand and fight who were required, not those who would quibble and quake. In order to supplant the idea of rebellion in the minds of God fearing citizens it was necessary for him to equivocate with the sins and, rather than perpetrate them, he bent them to his will and in so doing turned vice to virtue. Ball would have been aware of the ambiguity of sin just as, according to Newhauser,(5) Pope Gregory had been. Gregory noted that prodigality, avarice and inconstancy could all be juxtaposed with mercy, parsimony and flexibility (10) and likewise, Ball understood that the vice of wrath was the antithetical virtue of valor and justice. He proposed in a letter, writes Dean, that it was necessary “to stand manly together to help truth, in order that truth will help them.”(136) In short they were tired of paying taxes for foreign wars, of bearing witness to the nobles enriching themselves in spite of the peasantry and seeing their only asset, their labor, financially restricted. John Ball and his followers wished to instill the revolutionary idea that a man should be paid an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor; a principle that socialists throughout the twentieth century have fought and died to uphold. Thinking only to lose his chains and not his head by uniting the workers of medieval England he lists the Seven Deadly Sins in his letter and appropriates each to the royal aberration of power. In his list of seven he actually only names six. The seventh, wrath, he saved as the virtue he hoped to inspire in his followers in order to carry the day. Unluckily for John Ball the rebellion failed and the wrath he hoped to serve on the king was revisited disproportionately upon him with capital justice and royal revenge.

            Having analyzed The Seven Deadly Sins and Evagrius’ original intent to create a platform from which one could lead a principled and God-fearing life, it is possible to perceive the morality shift that has been their constant companion. The hypocrisy of which Gregory the Great wrote in defining the virtues that closely resembled the Sins was not only a medieval conundrum but also a contemporary paradox with quotidian relevance. Many of the tenets of medieval vice, just as they were then, are now seen as modern virtues.  Despite the dichotomy of immoral war we honor our warriors, applaud our self-aggrandizing governments and continue to vote for those charlatans we think will do us the most good in order to selfishly improve our own social and financial standing. Capitalism by default demands this and so we endeavor to better our international neighbors whilst scaling the dizzying heights of corporate ladders.  Brimming with self-righteousness and driven by self-obsession, we ignorantly shun those with diverse beliefs, avoid those with alien ethnicity and minimal wealth and enact just laws to ensure that the tired, poor and impoverished masses don’t sully our neighborhoods and impact our property values whilst infringing upon housing association regulations. In short, as with all compartmentalized human society, there is more than a tang of hypocrisy wrapped in faux piety and the outward sheen of virtuosity camouflages those characteristics we would rather not display. The perversion of the original taxonomy of the Sins is clearly not a modern dilemma by any notion and one can trace the ambiguity of committing sin in order to appear virtuous throughout the annals of history.

monk-with-nun

 

Bibliography

Cantor. Norman F. University Press. In the Wake of the Plague.  NY. 2001. Print.

Dean, James M. Medieval English Political Writings. Medieval Institute. Michigan. 1996. Print.

Goddard. Langdon.Muller .Survival and Discord in Medieval Society. Brepols Publishers N.v.

Turnhout, Belgium.2010. Print.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman. Trans. A. V. C. Schmidt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.

McKechnie, William Sharp. Magna Carta: a commentary on the great carter of King John. Glasgow. J.Maclehose and Sons, 1905. Print.

Newhauser, Richard. “On Ambiguity in Moral Theology: When the Vices Masquerade as Virtues.” Trans. Andrea Nemeth-Newhauser. In R. Newhauser. Sin: Essays on the Moral Tradition in the Western Middle Ages. Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS869. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Essay I.Print.

Prudentius. Psychomachia. Trans. H. J. Thomson. In Prudentius, vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library, 387. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949, reprint 1969

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One Response to “THE ART OF EQUIVOCATION AND FOURTEENTH CENTURY VICE”

  1. Jennifer Fawcett December 11, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? – John Ball, The Blackheath Sermon

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