The Seven Deadly Sins and Their Antidotes

By Florence Eccleston

Reblogged from Introducing Medieval Christianity.

Personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins in a fourteenth-century manuscript (British Library, Yates Thompson MS. 21, f. 165

The motif of the Seven Deadly Sins was extremely popular in the late medieval period, featuring in everything from literature, hymns, sermons, and manuals to wall paintings, manuscripts, and morality plays. The sins were Superbia, Avaritia, Luxuria, Ira, Gula, Invidia, and Acedia, now generally understood as Pride, Avarice (or Covetousness), Lust, Wrath (Anger), Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth (Laziness). They followed a loose hierarchy. Pride, the most demonic sin from which sprung the rest, came first. It was followed by the ‘spiritual’ vices, envy and wrath. Then came the vices related to the flesh: sloth, then gluttony, avarice, and lust. All were believed to fatally affect the individual’s spiritual health. As Dan Jon Gaytrygge’s mid-fourteenth century sermon expressed it, ‘For als the venym of the neddire slaas manes body, swa the venym of syn slaas manes saule’ (‘for as the venom of the adder slays man’s body, so the venom of sin slays man’s soul.’)

The idea of enumerating sins in this way originated in the early medieval period, and the motif of the Seven Deadly Sins in particular relies on a list made by Pope Gregory I in 590. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Gregory’s list was being defended, deliberated, and extensively explained. A rationale was evolved to explain why seven (a number of great religious significance) and why those specific sins (a tricky matter to prove), and subsets of vices were added to each sin. After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 advised annual confession and gave the church greater authority for the remittance of sins, this definition of sin began to appear more frequently in popular literature, sermons, and guides for confessors. The Council stated that the worshippers should ‘faithfully confess all their sins at least once a year to their own (parish) priest and perform to the best of their ability the penance imposed’, the priest ‘carefully inquiring into the circumstances of the sinner and sin’. The Council added ‘let this salutary decree be published frequently in the churches, that no one may find in the plea of ignorance a shadow of excuse’. Clearly it was extremely important for every member of the laity and clergy to protect both themselves and/ or their parishioners from spiritual death and eternal damnation.

Lay people and clergy alike needed tools for recalling and identifying the sins to be confessed, and the numerical device of the Seven Deadly Sins proved very popular. The sins were so frequently expounded and depicted in art that it is likely everyone would understand them. By confessing their Deadly Sins, the perpetrator could achieve complete absolution and a penance to perform as atonement. (More minor sins, called venial sins, could be forgiven without the sacrament of confession, as long as the sinner had made a sincere resolution to reform their behaviour.) Confessing sins was not just about punishment: it encouraged regular self-reflection, and the act of penance and the provocation of shame was believed to bring the soul closer to God and reclaim individuals from a life of sin.

A tree of the Seven Deadly Sins and their fruits (BL Arundel MS. 83, f. 128). For discussion of such images, see this article

The Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century seems to have increased the prevalence of the Seven Deadly Sins motif, as preparing for death and the afterlife became a primary concern. Dying without fully confessing one’s sins was greatly feared, since it would lead straight to hell. The scale and suddenness of the pandemic, with its estimated 30-60% mortality rate, made this fear a very pressing issue. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the ever-present threat of death and subsequent fear for the fate of one’s soul became a widespread theme in art and literature.

Paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins in churches would warn the worshipper of the danger and help them to gain protection against Purgatory and Hell. A famous example is found at Trotton in West Sussex, where the Last Judgement mural on the west (back) wall of the church, dating to the last two decades of the fourteenth century, presents the Seven Deadly Sins leading directly to damnation. Christ is depicted at the highest point, atop a cloud, performing judgement from the heavens. Below him to his right are the Seven Deadly Sins, personified by a naked man surrounded by scenes of each sin emerging from the mouths of dragons. Above, an angel sends a soul to hell on Christ’s command. The painting instructs the parishioner on the key behaviours to avoid in life to escape eternal damnation in the afterlife.

Antidotes to the Seven Deadly Sins

Increasing cultural emphasis on death and the afterlife in the second half of the fourteenth century did not just respond to a fear of hell, but also led to a greater interest in codes of morality and virtuous behaviour. The ‘remedies’ to the Seven Deadly Sins were cited in art and literature, and were also classified into Sevens: the Seven Heavenly Virtues and the Seven Works of Mercy. The Seven Virtues combined the four cardinal virtues (Justice, Temperance, Prudence, and Courage) and the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity), and were thought to protect against the temptation to sin.

The Seven Works of Mercy referred to actions rather than attitudes, but were also thought to enhance the ability to avoid sin. They are divided into two groups of seven: corporeal (‘bodily’) works, which deal with physical and material needs, and spiritual works, which concern the needs of the soul. The corporeal works are:

  • To feed the hungry
  • To give water to the thirsty
  • To clothe the naked
  • To shelter the homeless
  • To visit the sick
  • To visit the imprisoned or ransom the captive
  • To bury the dead

Unlike the Seven Deadly Sins, this enumeration is based directly on a list in the Bible. The first six works are listed in Christ’s Parable of the Sheep and the Goats as acts of charity which will lead to salvation. The last was added in the early medieval period to bring the number up to seven, influenced by the emphasis in the Book of Tobit on giving proper burial to the dead. In the Trotton wall-painting, the antithesis to ‘sinful’ man, surrounded by the Seven Deadly Sins, is ‘good’ man personified as a Franciscan friar, surrounded by the corporeal Works of Mercy. These behaviours are therefore sharply classified into good and bad, moral and immoral. Depictions of the Seven Works of Mercy are also frequently found in medieval art, as in the example below:

The Works of Mercy in a fourteenth-century manuscript (British Library, Yates Thompson MS. 31, f. 110v)

The spiritual Works of Mercy are:

  • To instruct the ignorant
  • To counsel the doubtful
  • To admonish sinners
  • To bear patiently with those who wrong us
  • To forgive offences
  • To comfort the afflicted
  • To pray for the living and the dead

Neither of these groupings are in direct opposition to the Seven Deadly Sins, and treatises looking exclusively at both the Seven Heavenly Virtues and the Sins are rare. In other words, the sins and virtues do not mirror each other as positive and negative moral positions: for example, the opposite of lust, chastity, is not found among the Seven Virtues, or in any of the actions recommended by the Seven Works of Mercy. Thus although the Seven Deadly Sins is a very common motif in medieval art, it was not usually paired with the moralities, and it was even rarer for them to be directly opposed. More often they formed two separate codes of morality – what to do, and what not to do.

However, performing – or not performing – the Seven Works of Mercy was also a question of sinful behaviour, and so could also be used for confession. A late fifteenth-century instruction for priests, published by Wynkyn de Worde, lists the numerical devices to work through during confession: ‘Synnes be confession of the sevene dedly synnes, […] and thanne in not fulyllyng the seven werkes of mercy’ (‘Sins are confession of the Seven Deadly Sins… and then in not performing the Seven Works of Mercy’). This emphasises that sin is defined not only by sinful action but also neglect of moral duties. It is possible to sin by omission (failing to perform a duty) as well as by commission (committing an actively sinful deed).

Both the Sins and Works gained popularity in the Middle Ages as practical tools to analyse moral behaviour. These lists were aids to the memory and the conscience, helping Christians to interpret and reflect on their own actions and providing simple, memorable guidelines on how to behave more virtuously.

Further reading

For a survey of the Seven Deadly Sins from Late Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages, see Morton W. Bloomfield, Seven Deadly Sins: An Introduction to the History of a Religious Concept, with Special Reference to Medieval English Literature (East Lansing, Michigan, 1952).

Richard Newhauser, The Seven Deadly Sins: From Communities to Individuals, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions Series, No. 123 (Brill, 2007).

Richard G. Newhauser and Susan J. Ridyard, eds., Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: The Tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins (York Medieval Press, 2012).

A great online resource is Miriam Gill, ‘The Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy in English Medieval Wall Painting: Imperfect Parallels’ (University of Leicester), available at https://www.le.ac.uk/arthistory/seedcorn/imperf.html

A Note From Florence:

I began writing for Introducing Medieval Christianity in the second year of my undergraduate degree in History of Art after seeing a call for articles open to anyone at any stage of their academic career. I wanted to broaden my interests and knowledge of other disciplines, and I thought researching and writing would be a good place to start. I emailed Eleanor with some possible topics, and wrote my first article ‘Light and Colour in Medieval Christianity’. Since then, I’ve written three more articles, as and when I had the time and inspiration! It has been really great being able to communicate my interests and research to a wider audience. 

Where Do Myths, Legends and Folktales Come From?

By Carolyne Larrington

Reblogged from March 2019.

The British Isles have a very long history, stretching back well before written records began. Much of what we might think of as early history is really legend – tales about the Druids, the story of Cædmon (the ‘father of English poetry’, who lived at Whitby Abbey) and the exploits of King Arthur for example. Interwoven with our understanding of history are the threads of myth, legend and folklore; these shape and colour our understanding of both our past and our present.

WHAT ARE MYTHS, LEGENDS AND FOLKLORE?

Myths are usually understood as stories about gods or divine figures. They answer big questions such as: how was the world created? Where do humans come from? How did we learn to make fire, or to smith metal? What is the origin of the gods? The term ‘myth’ may be used more loosely to cover whole cycles of tales, like the stories of the Irish gods or the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, dealing with Welsh semi-divine characters. Stories that explain where certain peoples come from are known as ‘origin myths’; the most important and enduring origin myth for Britain is the legend of Brutus, a refugee from Troy who sailed to these shores and slew all the giants who were then the only inhabitants, giving his name to the British Isles.

Legends deal with heroes, imagined as human or superhuman, such as St George, Robin Hood, or Hereward the Wake. Sometimes there is a semi-historical basis for these stories. Hereward was a real person, descended from Viking lords on the one hand and English nobility on the other, who led a resistance movement to the Normans after the Conquest. Legends usually have a close connection with a particular place, such as Sherwood Forest, home of Robin Hood, or Tintagel, where King Arthur is said to have been conceived, Stonehenge, or Dover Castle, where the skull of Arthur’s famous knight, Sir Gawain, was long preserved.

Folklore covers a range of beliefs, from the existence of fairies who dance in certain places when the moon is full, to the habits of the Loch Ness Monster, to the belief that witches can turn into hares and steal milk from cows. Many of our most familiar stories, of dragons, black dogs, kelpies or hobs, are folkloric; they contain motifs which are commonly found in other stories told across Europe, or they tap into beliefs that are widely held across the British Isles.

Myths and legends have the remarkable property of often being rooted in particular places, and yet their general outlines tend to be surprisingly universal. Similar stories occur all over the world, varying only in particular details. So, versions of Cinderella or the Three Men who went to Search for Death can be found in places as far apart as China, India, Britain and North America. Sometimes it’s clear that these stories spread through migration, and were then passed down by word of mouth across the generations – thus, quite a few English folktales and ballads made it to North America and are still in circulation to this day.

WHY ARE THEY SHARED?

The explanation for these internationally shared tales may be that they are rooted in general human experience. Our shared biology and universally similar life-cycles, from birth, marriage, child-rearing, ageing and death, may generate broadly similar stories: about true love or the perils of raising children, or futile attempts to surmount the barrier between life and death. Such dilemmas and difficulties are common to humans wherever they live, giving rise to universal patterns in the world’s store of traditional tales.

Experts are divided about exactly how stories develop and spread from place to place, but it is clear that myths and legends have always had important roles in our culture. Short tales are crucial in imparting vital information or life lessons in a memorable form – think of The Boy Who Cried “Wolf”, for example. Useful lore is transmitted from generation to generation in a brief and comprehensible form. They explain why small children shouldn’t be allowed to stray near a dangerous body of water or why it may be a bad idea to go up into the mountains alone. Groups that know how to pass on such stories improve the life-chances of those who hear them, and those folk in turn pass on the stories to their children.

Traditional tales often hinge on ethical or moral issues, or they permit insight into the way other people think. So they insist that you should keep your promises – and should avoid making rash ones; that courage and perseverance will be rewarded and that the wicked do not prevail in the end. It’s not always the big, beefy hero that is lauded in such tales; cunning and quick-wittedness, associated very often with the youngest child, or with a poor person can solve the immediate problem and win the day for the hero.

The arrival of Uther Pendragon and Merlin at Tintagel (© Bibliothèque nationale de France)

FAMOUS BRITISH MYTHS

The British Isles have their myths and legends, preserved in some of our earliest written records. The story of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who battled monsters and a dragon, probably originated in eighth-century Northumbria, although it was not written down until the early eleventh century. Irish legends of gods and heroes were also written down in the twelfth century or later. In Welsh there are heroic poems from as early as the sixth century; one such poem contains the first ever reference to the hero Arthur.

England’s most famous heroes are probably King Arthur and Robin Hood.

KING ARTHUR

Arthur is a blended type of heroic figure. Some of his characteristics stem from a legendary Welsh hero who fought monster-cats and dog-headed men and who went off to the Underworld to steal a magic cauldron. Yet Arthur also takes inspiration from a British war-leader, mentioned in early chronicles, who led his people against the invading Saxons. Arthur’s first full biography was related by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1138, but elements of the story were already widely known across Europe. In the mid-fifteenth-century, Sir Thomas Malory who was confined as a prisoner in the Tower of London, wrote down the best-known version of the Arthur story, incorporating into it tales of the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail. Malory included the ancient mythic ending, in which Arthur does not die after his last battle, but rather is borne away by boat to the Isle of Avalon. He will return to come to the country’s aid in Britain’s darkest hour.

ROBIN HOOD

There are references to various men called Robin Hood in thirteenth-century records, though it is not until 1377 that we hear of tales of ‘Robin the Outlaw’ being told in the tavern. Legends about Robin and his men, clad in Lincoln Green, who haunt Sherwood Forest, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, are first printed in the late fifteenth century. Later still, Robin is transformed from a thuggish and immoral thief to a dispossessed nobleman in exile in the greenwood.

These two myths became very popular once again in the Victorian period. Both stories were mobilised for political and ideological purposes. Arthur, the great king who ruled over much of the west and whose knights battled evil, rescued maidens and sought the Holy Grail, served as a model for Britain’s imperial and enlightened rule. Wherever the British went, the myth suggested, they tried to behave nobly, to establish law and order, and to bring Christian values to ‘less civilised’ peoples. Robin Hood and his Merry Men spoke to ideas of a peculiarly English democratic tradition and independence of mind. Robin stood for fairness and justice, for a certain amount of distribution of wealth, and he hated the hypocrisy and corruption of the establishment: the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and the bloated and greedy churchmen whose treasures Robin regularly stole. Robin came to stand for the sturdy average Englishman, mistrustful of authority, but loyal to his rightful king, gallant towards women and with a marked sense of humour. Both these mythic figures had important work to do in the contemporary culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

HOW DO WE KNOW ABOUT THESE STORIES?

British myths, legends and folktales have survived in all kinds of different contexts. Some – like the stories of Brutus or Hereward the Wake – are recorded in medieval chronicles that purport to be ‘actual’ history. Others were written down as entertaining tales in early manuscripts, and from there were put into book form once the printing press was invented. Still other stories were not written down until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, when people captured legends and folktales that were on the verge of dying out; many of our best sources for traditional stories are to be found in late eighteenth-century books of ballads or in Victorian folk-tale compilations.

Myths and legends began to be recorded just as soon as humans mastered the technology of writing. Often the very first texts were hymns to the go

King Arthur book sculpture



ds or collections of mythological stories that became organised into cycles, explaining how the world was created, how humans came into existence or why Death is necessary. Such stories are recorded in the Bible – the Fall, Noah’s Flood, for example – and in Greek myth. Hero-tales are also among the most ancient of story-types.

In contrast to these very ancient written sources, most of the world’s myths and legends have been preserved in oral versions, passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. The recording of these tales began only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when explorers, scholars and anthropologists became interested in tradition, and were motivated to learn tribal languages and to record with pen and ink (and subsequently electronically) the vivid and unfamiliar tales they were told.

MYTHS AND THE MODERN WORLD

Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries myths, legends and folktales began to be seen as the province of children. They could be retold in simple and wholesome ways, shaped in order to point up important morals and to recommend particular models of behaviour. The King Arthur myth became a staple of children’s literature, and the Knights of the Round Table, in particular such figures as Sir Galahad or Sir Lancelot, were held up as exemplifying the ideal of chivalry.

In the twentieth century, writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and after them, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling seized on the myths and legends of the British Isles to inspire new fantasy worlds for both children and adults. The Old English epic of Beowulf, the first dragon-fighter in our tradition, inspired Tolkien’s Smaug in The Hobbit. The legend of King Arthur and the Sleeping Knights features in Garner’s stories about Alderley Edge; he also transposes a story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi to contemporary Wales in The Owl Service. Susan Cooper melds together Welsh legend, Arthurian myth and the tradition of Herne the Hunter. Pullman and Rowling appropriate both English and wider European folk-tradition in the worlds of their novels: house-elves and black dogs jostle with giants, witches and fairies, talking bears and hippogriffs.

The detailed fountain at Witley Court portrays the Ancient Greek  hero Perseus saving a maiden, Andromeda, from a deadly sea monster. This tale may be the original example of the ‘hero saving a maiden in distress’ theme that frequently occurs in myth and legend.

These authors wrote initially for a young adult audience, but the children and teenagers that learned to love this kind of story-telling grew up to appreciate – and to write their own – fantasy of various kinds. From the Star Wars films, which depend on classic models of the hero and the princess, good and evil, quests and family identity, to the powerful mythological elements that underlie the work of George R. R. Martin and the hit HBO TV series ‘Game of Thrones’, the elements of traditional story have crossed over into popular culture. ‘Game of Thrones’ contains elements of Old Norse myth – the ravens and direwolves, the Long Winter and the wights. The tale of Atlantis is reflected in the history of Valyria, and Westeros has its very own King Arthur, the lost heir who must reclaim his kingdom, in the form of Jon Snow.

Vampires and werewolves, creatures from European tradition symbolise contrasting elements in human nature: violence and desire, beauty and horror, featuring in titles such as the Twilight series and Buffy the Vampire-Slayer. Also drawing on myth from Scandinavia is the Thor franchise, while other superhero series use similar tropes of hero and monster, re-tooling and modernising many of the characters, themes and stereotypes of myth and legend. They are staples of video games that are often set in fantasy universes and structured around the quest as a framework.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE IN MYTH

Alongside the grand figures of gods, demi-gods, heroes and monsters that feature in the great myths and legends of the British Isles, there are many less well-known stories that often adhere to particular landscapes and places. One such is the story of how Merlin came to magic the Giant’s Dance stone circle away from Ireland across the sea to form Stonehenge as a monument to the great Romano-British battle leader Ambrosius Aurelius.

Many famous historic sites of the British Isles have long and fascinating pasts, and have played their part in the events that have shaped the nation. But just as many – perhaps even more – are linked to myths, legends and folktales, from the great legendary cycles of Arthur or Robin Hood, to figures such as Wayland of Wayland’s Smithy on the Ridgeway. He was a legendary smith, the most skilled craftsman of all, whose brutal story of maiming and cruel vengeance is retold in Anglo-Saxon sculpture and poetry, and in Old Norse legend. Britain’s landscapes and historic buildings form the backdrop to the vivid and exciting myths, legends and folktales of our spoken and written heritage; stories that fascinate, astonish and move us still today.

Carolyne Larrington teaches medieval literature at the University of Oxford and researches widely into myths, legends and folklore, in particular in Old Norse-Icelandic and Arthurian literature. She is the author of The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles (2015); Winter is Coming: the Medieval World of Game of Thrones (2015), and The Norse Myths (2017).