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  • Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: The Tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins Edited by Richard G. Newhauser and Susan J. Ridyard
  • Thomas Tentler
Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: The Tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins. Edited by Richard G. Newhauser and Susan J. Ridyard. (Rochester, NY: York University Press in association with Boydell & Brewer. 2012. Pp. xvi, 338. $99.00. ISBN 978-1-903153-41-3.)

Thirteen authors examine a variety of representations of the Seven Deadly Sins over many centuries, in words, music, and art. Generalizations about the decline of the heptad and its replacement by the Ten Commandments are accepted or confronted and revised. The subjects range from the greats (St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Gerson, Hieronymus Bosch, Edmund Spenser, Philipp Melanchthon) to the less famous and the obscure. Richard G. Newhauser’s learned introduction provides a valuable [End Page 576] overview, but there is a singular attraction in the diversity of the subjects and the richness of the details—which this brief review can only list and suggest.

James B. Williams recounts the central role played by St. Benedict of Aniane (and the Carolingian reformers) in expanding the definition of acedia from spiritual to physical labor, and intimates a wider influence through Benedictine pastoral work. Kiril Petkov believes that the seven deadly sins are now more likely to elicit praise than condemnation—except for the “minor vice” of arrogance, whose ancient and medieval identity as vainglory continues to arouse “moral indignation.” Kate Gunn identifies traditional sources (Cassian, St. Gregory the Great) for the twelfth-century dialogue Vices and Virtues. “Intended for use, not for show” (p. 84), it occupies a transitional place among guides to confession prior to 1215 (with comparisons to the more forward-looking De vera et falsa penitencia, which it quotes, and the Ancrene Wisse). Eileen Sweeney compares Aquinas’s treatment of the seven deadly sins in De malo (dependent on Gregory the Great) and the Aristotelianized Summa theologiae 2a 2ae. Abandoning ascetic dualism, the Summa accepts the passions as natural (gluttony preserves life, lust promotes procreation, anger can be righteous, etc.). Yet sexuality is the place where Aquinas “loses a little of his unflappable detachment” (p. 95). Holly Johnson presents a fifteenth-century Franciscan preacher’s ingenious interweaving of interrelated heptads—deadly sins, diseases, Christ’s sufferings, and cures—in a meticulous analysis of the sermon’s argument, logic, and rhetoric. Nancy McLoughlin describes Gerson’s application of the deadly sins to defenses and critiques of medieval hierarchies, most particularly the Church, secular authority, and the university (which Gerson “equated with charity, reason and divine wisdom” [p. 154] but also found prone to its own set of vices) in a court sermon that does not spare the monarchy. Newhauser adds extensive documentation of the persistence of the seven sins after its putative abandonment, inspiring polemical satire (of Catholics and between Protestants), adapting the late-medieval struggle between virtue and vice to the stage, and providing continuity among social critics from Langland to Spenser. Anne Walters Robertson gives a close and revelatory analysis of the text, music, and political message of a fourteenth-century motet based on the popular allegorical satire Fauvel (an acronym of the seven vices). Peter S. Hawkins’s exploration of “The Religion of the Mountain” delineates with precision the theological and literary qualities that make Dante’s Purgatory a dramatic transition from a static hell up the transformative mountain. Beginning with a dismissal of the death-of-the-heptad thesis, Hawkins ends with a poignant appreciation of Purgatory 22’s “canticle-long celebration of artists and poets”—suggesting that we moderns have a lot in common with Dante. Comparing John Gower’s treatment of “The Tale of Constance” with those of Chaucer and Nicholas Trivet, Carol Jamison shows that Gower has fashioned an exemplum against envy that celebrates its remedy, charity. Gower’s version provides yet another example of the assumption documented throughout this collection that evil vices produce evil social consequences. Henry Luittikhuizen analyzes each of Bosch’s seven sins of the Prado tabletop, but also focuses on the eye at the center—rejecting a reductionist reading in the...


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