Table of Contents
2. Gulâ – Gluttony
3. Luxuria – Lust
“Whether we are willing to admit it or not, all of us are engaged, to some degree or another, in an ongoing battle with sin and vice.” (Dunnam and Dunnam Reisman 1 [in the following abbriviated as D&DR 1]) If this is the case, we need to become more aware of the ‘important’ sins and strive for as much knowledge about them as possible.
As this essay is written as part of a course concerning medieval literature, it will focus on a particular medieval work illustrating the seven deadly sins: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This collection of Middle English stories was written at the end of the 14th century. The different tales are told by pilgrims who are on a journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The most interesting story which is discussing the subject of sins, is the Parson’s Tale. “The theme of the Parson’s Tale is Penitence, and it is treated under the three main heads of Contrition, Confession, and Satisfaction.” (Cooper 402) A “large proportion of the Tale [is] taken up by the analysis, in the course of the Confession section, of the seven deadly sins.” (Cooper 402) The Parson claims that these seven sins are the source of all other sins, “now been they cleped chieftaynes, for as much as they been chief and spryng of alle othere synnes” (Chaucer Verse 386 [in the following abbreviated by “V386”]) and therefore it is reasonable to focus on these when investigating the subject of sin. However, this paper is unfortunately bound to a very small number of words and can therefore not analyse all seven sins. It will therefore only focus on two, commonly known as the sins of the flesh: gluttony and lust. Consequently, the body of this paper is divided into two sections; each will examine the relevant part of the Parson’s Tale. An overview of the receptions of the sins of the flesh in the Middle Ages and today will be given, in order to understand their gist. This will be done by combining old and new definitions, determining the subcategories and examining occurrences of the sins. Because the New Testament is a source which is frequently used by Chaucer, and to guarantee a complete understanding of the sin, each section will also analyse different sections of the bible. Besides that, the modern understanding of the sin will be discussed and each chapter will be closed off with a brief summary. Finally, the argumentation is rounded off with a conclusion that sums up the findings of this paper and the question of how much the perception of the sins of the flesh has changed over time will be answsered.
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2. Gulâ – Gluttony
To begin the investigation of the sin gulâ, several understandings of the sind are going to be observed. The Parson defines gluttony as an “unmesurable appetit to ete or to drynke, or elles to doon ynough to the unmesurable appetit and desordeynee coveitise to eten or to drynke” (V817). These days this picture has not changed too much as gluttony is commonly understood as overindulgence. “It is living to ‘eat, drink and be marry’”, as Dunnam and Dunnam Reisman (163) put it, and it is “mad pursuit of the bodily pleasures that never completely satisfy.” (D&DR 160) While all this is compatible with the definition of the Parson, Dunnam and Dunnam Reisman also point out that “[…] the person who […] smokes too much is as gluttonous as the person who overeats.” (D&DR 161) Therefore, excessive smoking is a new subcategory of gluttony – a sub-sin that was not known by the Parson since it did not exist at Chaucer’s time. He names five subcategories of the sin of gulâ, which are represented by the five fingers of the hand of the devil (cf. V830): The first is drunkenness, a constitution in which a person loses his or her sanity and rationality. The second is also a kind of drunkenness that leaves the sinner confused and disorientated. The third subcategory of gluttony is to devour one's food and the fourth is to eat so much that “the humours in his body been distempered” (V826). The last considers drunkenness again: A person commits the sin of gulâ when he or she drinks so much that it causes a mental blank – a so-called blackout. (cf. V821-827).
The Parson also refers to the five sorts of gluttony which the Saint Gregor names: First, eating before mealtime. Second, worrying while eating and drinking. Third, immoderate or excessive eating. Fourth, eating like a gourmet. Fifth, eating greedily (cf. V828-830). Unlike the five categories of gluttony named by the Parson, the ones by Saint Gregor all include eating. But even though there are several differences in the definitions of the subcategories of gluttony, they all share one common fact: the loss of “all balance and proportion” (Holloway 35). As all definitions include this part more or less directly, it seems to be one of the central aspects when defining gluttony, and will be discussed in the following.
“Food will not bring us close to God” (1 Corinthians 8: V8). Is that not a contradiction to sacred meals and other food regulations that are part of religious practice? What about Thanksgiving or the feast that Abraham gave to “celebrate God’s intervention in his life” (D&DR 172)? Is feasting sinning? Even though the Parson does not touch this aspect of gluttony, it is still worth looking at to understand this sin. Dunnam and Dunnam Reisman state that feasting “is a part of our Christian faith” and “Christian faith is sociable; fellowship is at the heart of it” (173). Following this train of thought, they later draw the conclusion that it is “given that food and drink aids to fellowship. We feel most festive and filled with goodwill and openness to others when we share a meal”. (173) Therefore, feasting is not a part of gluttony, but an aid for Christian faith.
Another aspect which the Parson does not explain is the reason why people commit the sin of gulâ, so one begins to wonder why people overeat and drink too much. Professor Sam Keen, an American author and philosopher who has done a lot of research in the fields of life and religion, comes to an explanation which is not only comprehensible, but also satisfying: Gluttonous behaviour is caused by boredom and inner emptiness. Regarding this, he states the following:
Once the nerve of feeling has been deadened, the bored person seeks some stimulation that will give him or her a sense of being alive. […] Quite often, the inner emptiness leads to an exaggerated sense of hunger and addition. Obsessive eating drinking, smoking, consuming are the most common ways of trying to fill the inner void.
As we now know what gluttony is (and what not) and why people commit this sin, one should also analyse how it can be avoided. The Parson says that the remedy is “abstinence” (V830), as well as “attemperaunce” (V832), “suffisance” (V832) and “ sparynge” (V834). But how can one be abstinent, frugal and modest in regards of food? The answer, which the Parson does not name, is as simple as it is brilliant: fasting. Dunnam and Dunnam Reisman discuss this “antidote for gluttony” (176) and even explain the purpose of fasting: “It is denying ourselves food as a discipline of remembering what food is all about, remembering the source of food, remembering how blessed we are to have it [and] remembering those who do not have it […].”
One last interesting finding in the Parson’s story is, that he states that the sin of gulâ has ruined and perished this world (cf. V818) and that gluttonous people are “the enemys of the croys of Christ; of whiche the ende is deeth, and of whiche hire wombe is hire god, and hire glorie in confusioun of hem”. This picture of the belly being the god of a person already appeared in the eleventh book of the New Testament called the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. St. Paul of the church of Philippi states there: “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ […] Their end is destruction; their god is their belly; and their glory is in their shame” (Philippians 3:18ff.). Chaucer obviously almost copied this passage, as he does not only use the same imagery, but almost the same wording.
In brief one can sum up the findings of this chapter as follows: Gluttony is the overindulgence of food and drinks, as well as smoking and is mostly caused by boredom and inner emptiness. Therefore, it is a perversion of something that is good and right as it is a loss of all balance and proportion. Feasting is, however, not sinning as it aids the Christian faith, and the antidote of gluttony is abstinence in the sense of fasting.