Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.03.18, Newhauser and Ridyard, eds., Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

13.03.18, Newhauser and Ridyard, eds., Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

Unlike vice, the notion of sin fits uneasily within modern culture. In an increasingly post-Christian world, the idea appears increasingly alien that sin can be something whose prime victim is its perpetrator because such antisocial behavior, activity which undermines personal integration into and relationships within communities, has direct implications and impact for the fate of the soul after death.

It was not so in the Middle Ages. Sin and salvation were intimately linked, with sin and its penalties (the weight of penance due as satisfaction to God in the afterlife rather than the human acts of reconciliation) overshadowing all human existence. For the late Middle Ages, in the church constructed after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, mechanisms to divert humans as sinners from the road to perdition and aid them along the path to salvation became a major concern, reflected in the demand for annual confession, in texts associated with and reinforcing the so-called "pastoral revolution," in the proliferation of indulgences, and in sermons.

Confronting the challenge of personal responsibility for anti- social activity, the tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins--more extensively the tradition of vices and virtues--neatly distilled the categories of stimuli to negative behavior, but the basic lists of sins were only the starting point in the total dissection of sin and sinfulness. The principal--deadly--sins had their derivatives, in complex chains of descent; and each had its particular remedy. The tradition of the sins existed not just to instill into parishioners the mantra that they should avoid pride, lust, avarice, anger, sloth, gluttony, and envy. It extended to the detailed dissection of sins and provision of remedies, and into broader consideration of human relationships. It was an academic tradition, but one which necessarily spilled out into the wider culture of Everyman and Everywoman.

The academic tradition continues in modern scholarship dealing with those medieval (and later) understandings; the volume under review falls firmly within it. It contains thirteen articles covering differing aspects of approaches to sin between the fifth and seventeenth centuries. Several originated in papers presented at the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium or to a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer School in 2006. Most are firmly medieval, only two move beyond 1500. Expectations for comprehensiveness or generality raised by the sub-title's reference to a "tradition" may not be satisfied: most of the contributions are firmly and narrowly focussed, rarely setting their discussions against a full "tradition." Intriguingly, despite the volume's title, many of the essays refer to "vices" rather than "sins," but that does not seem to affect the analyses.

Newhauser provides the volume's Introduction, conceived to some extent as an independent essay: "Understanding Sin: Recent Scholarship and the Capital Vices." As a historiographical survey, it concentrates on work of the past two decades. Necessarily, it contains introductory comment on the succeeding contributions, but rather sets the tone for the book by making no concessions to non- specialists: the surveyed works are certainly about sin, but the "tradition" of the Seven Deadly Sins is taken for granted, and not itself introduced or explained.

The following thirteen articles are split into two groups. The first, comprising seven contributions, looks at "The Sins in Religious, Intellectual and Pastoral Contexts"; the final six are gathered under the umbrella of "The Sins in the Musical, Literary and Visual Arts." The labels might suggest a succession of articles dealing in turn with the treatment of the sins in each category, and in terms of a long-lived tradition; but that is not what is offered. These are usually very specific essays, limited in focus, period, and context.

The contributions in the first Part succeed each other in something like chronological order, but not exactly. James B. Williams is the first off, with "Working for Reform: Acedia, Benedict of Aniane and the Transformation of Working Culture in Carolingian Monasticism." He fits Benedict's insistence on monastic manual labor into a discourse attacking sloth as part of the general and comprehensive program for monastic reform in eighth- and ninth- century Europe.

Kiril Petkow then moves things to a different plane, offering a broad chronological discussion of "The Cultural Career of a 'Minor' Vice: Arrogance in the Medieval Treatise on Sin." Examining a selection of texts from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, he surveys the evolution in treatments of arrogance as a sub-division of superbia. Tracing changing semantic, moral, and theological evaluations, he also argues for a secularization of the concept of arrogance in the later Middle Ages as a consequence of social change.

Moving into the thirteenth century, Cate Gunn considers "Vices and Virtues: A Reassessment of Manuscript Stowe 34." This is the first of the closely focussed discussions, concentrating on a single early English text on Vices and Virtues. The article dissects the text as an early contribution to the flood of works on pastoral care produced to implement the pastoral revolution initiated in the aftermath of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

The scholastic theology of sin in the late thirteenth century provides the focus for Eileen C. Sweeney, who examines "Aquinas on the Seven Deadly Sins: Tradition and Innovation." Aquinas's treatment of the sins is considered in comparison with preceding scholastic analyses, requiring some comment on existing traditions; yet in his Summa theologiae he breaks the mould, subjecting the vices (and virtues) to an Aristotelian analysis with virtue as the mean between vices of excess or absence.

With the next two contributions, the chronological succession again slips slightly. Holly Johnson considers how "A Fifteenth-Century Sermon Enacts the Seven Deadly Sins." That is succeeded by Nancy McLoughlin's analysis of "The Deadly Sins and Contemplative Politics: Gerson's Ordering of the Personal and Political Realms." Johnson's contribution concentrates on a Good Friday sermon preached in England, possibly by the Franciscan Nicholas Philip, between 1430 and 1436. In addition to the analysis, Johnson provides an epitome of the sermon in modern English, and includes a full edition of the Latin text. McLoughlin's essay adds to the recent spate of scholarship on Gerson, here drawing on his pastoral works and sermons. Dissection of some of his more politically motivated sermons shows how he integrated a concern to eradicate sin and vice with the need for political reform in the turbulent France of Charles VI.

To end this half of the volume, Richard G. Newhauser offers "'These Seaven Devils': The Capital Vices on the Way to Modernity." Using Spenser's Faerie Queene as his initial anchor and final point of reference, Newhauser offers a wide-ranging examination of treatment of the sins in England from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, essentially to test Morton Bloomfield's thesis that attitudes to the sins experienced a fundamental change as part of the transition to modernity. This essay at last provides something approaching an introductory overview for the volume, to offer a real sense of the "tradition" of its title, while proposing its own modifications to Bloomfield's arguments.

The six contributions in Part II clearly defy any formal organization: they are much more obviously individual pieces, drawing out discussions of the sins in a range of cultural contexts and separate works. The articles are arranged in chronological order; but what matters is the spread of genres and works put under examination. Ann Walters Robertson opens this section with a consideration of "The Seven Deadly Sins in Medieval Music." There is a strong sense that she feels herself on thin ice, struggling to find something to fit within the demands of the volume. In the end she deals in detail with a series of thirteenth-century songs, scored in differing musical genres. This raises an interesting issue, for songs are texts, not music per se. Robertson generally concentrates on words, songs as lists and catechesis, but the uses opportunities for commentary provided by the combination and allocation of voices in performance.

Peter S. Hawkins does not face such issues. Shifting the focus onto literature, he directs attention to "The Religion of the Mountain: Handling Sin in Dante's Purgatorio", moving briskly through his exposition. Following Hawkins, Carol Jamison deals with a segment of the Confessio amantis to dissect "John Gower's Shaping of 'The Tale of Constance' as an Exemplum contra Envy." She compares Gower's treatment of the tale with those of Nicholas Trivet (briefly) and Chaucer (an almost continuous counterpoint), arguing that Gower reshapes the story for didactic purposes, so that Constance epitomizes charity as a remedy for envy.

Painting provides the medium for Henry Luttikhuisen's contribution. He offers an extended examination of sin "Through Boschian Eyes: An Interpretation of the Prado Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins." Each element of the challenging pictorial composition is analyzed and explicated: the separate panels of the central roundel depicting the sins; Christ as the centrepiece providing an imago pietatis at the iris of what may be an all-seeing eye; and the corner paintings of the Four Last Things. The same work also makes a brief appearance in William C. McDonald's essay, "Singing Sin: Michel Beheim's 'Little Book of the Seven Deadly Sins', a German Pre-Reformation Religious Text for the Laity." The "Little Book," a song-cycle produced in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, derives from a vernacular prose tract on the sins ascribed to the fourteenth-century scholar Henry of Langenstein. Beheim reconfigured and transformed the text in his versification. As a discussion of a song-cycle, McDonald's essay complements Robertson's earlier essay; but Beheim's songs were more obviously intended to feed into popular culture and provide moral guidance. As such they also contribute to pastoral care and instruction, through an unexpected medium.

Drawing the volume to a close, Kathleen Crowther makes this segment's token gesture to sin in early modern culture in her discussion of "Raising Cain: Vice, Virtue and Social Order in the German Reformation." The broad title conceals yet another closely focussed discussion, here of a play written in 1553 by Hans Sachs, The Unequal Children of Eve. Adapting an earlier medieval tale for Lutheran catechesis, Sachs shaped his depiction of the opposition of vice and virtue to convey a message which supported Lutheran social ideas and validated a hierarchical social order. As in Newhauser's essay, Crowther seeks to test Bloomfield's thesis that the sixteenth century was a transitional period in treatments of the sins, here finding more continuity with medieval traditions than the thesis might allow, at least into the middle of the sixteenth century.

As so often with volumes of essays, the thematic focus of the title imposes a somewhat deceptive unity on the contents. The essays do all discuss the sins, and so will be useful for scholars working on sin in medieval and early modern culture; but the implied spine of a tradition is not really there to draw them together. The essays' individual specificity provides little sense of a coherent tradition transmitted continuously through the thought and culture of medieval and early modern Europe. Indeed, their focussing is sometimes so intense that there is little attempt to contribute to a broader discussion: token acknowledgements of the standard listings and scholarly analyses seem to suffice. That is a problem with the compilation; not with the scholarly value of the separate essays. Beyond their concern with sin, these have obvious wider resonance and significance, and the potential to fertilize other scholarly fields. Even for those who do not work on the sins, this is a volume worth looking through just in case it contains something which might be useful.