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ELH 68.2 (2001) 315-334

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"Mark him wel for he is on of o": Training the "Lewed" Gaze to Discern Hypocrisy

Fiona Somerset

When Chaucer's narrator in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales points to the "farsed" "typet," "fyr-reed face," and voice "as smal as hath a goot" of the Friar, Summoner, and Pardoner, he is marking for his audience reliable indicators, written on the body for all to read, of the past behavior and present dispositions of his three most hypocritical clerics. 1 The bodies of the Friar, Summoner, and Pardoner advertise their habits quite openly--and not just for assiduous readers of physiognomy treatises or experts in the clerical discourse of hypocrisy, but, through the combined weight of Chaucer's implications, for any reader who can take a hint. 2 That Chaucer is tapping into well established discourses of antifraternalism and anticlericism here has been amply documented. 3 What I want to examine, with Chaucer as my pretext, is the particular kind of anxiety about the discerning of clerical hypocrites, and especially their discernment by laymen, or the "lewed," that comes to the fore in many late-medieval English writings. 4 A good example of the sort of concern about lay discernment that I am talking about, and of a typical device for dispelling it, shows up at what for clerics is an embarrassingly public moment in 1395, when the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, a manifesto posted on the doors of St. Paul's cathedral and the Westminster parliament building, ostensibly aims to make this capacity for discernment available to all.

The 1395 Twelve Conclusions and Roger Dymmok's voluminous Reply each "mark" their opponents for the wider lay audience they invoke. 5 They promise to show laypeople, the less well-educated readers they project as their audience, how to tell clerics who merely bear the appearance of sanctity from the veritably holy--how to tell "them" from "us." But when it comes to it, the Twelve Conclusions and the Reply deflect their attention, and that of their readers: rather than providing practical instruction in a method of discernment that would enable laypeople to tell true Christians from hypocritical ones, they instead descend into sexual innuendo of a kind that sorts oddly with the reasoned arguments and authoritative citations of scholastic discourse [End Page 315] that they direct at one another. In contrast to the reasoned, lucid argument the Twelve Conclusions' writers set forth in, for example, their discussion of idolatrous worship, the Lollards bolster their claim that "men of holi chirche" and especially members of "privat religions" are false Christians with the accusation that those men practice sodomy; and they provide their readers with this proof: "Experience for pe priue asay of syche men is, pat pei like non wymmen; and whan pu prouist sich a man mark him wel for he is on of o." 6 Near the end of Roger Dymmok's point-by-point Reply to every nuance and every implication of the Conclusions' arguments--a manner of proceeding in marked contrast to his usual practice of reporting, translating, and then refuting in meticulous detail what his opponents have written--when he comes to providing evidence of just why his opponents are hypocritical, Dymmok suggests that heretics teach women to make their bodies common property: "Docent namque mulieres nulli petenti ex caritate negare corpora sua, que doctrina, si licita credatur, aufert uerecundiam de fornicacione" [For they teach women for charity to deny their bodies to no petitioner; and this teaching, if it were thought legitimate, would remove all shame from fornication]. 7 From the promise to train the "lewed" gaze to distinguish true Christians from hypocrites there never follows, for either side, a logically laid out scheme of instruction accessible to less educated readers. Instead, the "lewed" gaze is retrained, displaced, and directed elsewhere.

The sort of reluctance to deliver promised enlightenment that these two works exhibit is very common among late-medieval English works written by educated clerical writers, nearly always in the vernacular...


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