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Jacob’s Well and Penitential Pedagogy Moira Fitzgibbons Marist College Freres and fele o3ere maistres 3at to 3e lewed folk prechen, Ye moeuen materes vnmesurable to tellen of 3e Trinite That lome 3e lewed peple of hir bileue doute. Bettre it were by manye doctours to bileuen swich techyng And tellen men of 3e ten comaundement9, and touchen 3e seuene synnes, And of 3e braunches 3at burione of hem and bryngen men to helle, And how 3at folk in folies hir fyue wittes mysspenden . . . —Piers Plowman XV:73–761 Jacob’s Well, a sermon cycle composed in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, in many ways fulfills Anima’s vision of a positive educational plan for the laity. Using the metaphor of the human soul as a foul, stinking well badly in need of cleansing and repair, the unnamed Well writer—who was almost certainly a parish cleric writing for an audience primarily composed of lay men and women—places basic Christian precepts like the Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Commandments at the center of his text.2 1 Piers Plowman, The B-Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone Press, 1975), p. 538. 2 Jacob’s Well survives in one manuscript, MS Salisbury Cathedral 103. In print, the work is available in two parts. The first fifty sermons are edited within Jacob’s Well: An English Treatise on the Cleansing of Man’s Conscience, ed. Arthur Brandeis, EETS 115 (London : Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1900). The last forty-five sermons have been edited by Clinton Atchley in ‘‘The ‘Wose’ of Jacob’s Well: Text and Context’’ Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1998). I have silently regularized Brandeis’s and Atchley’s use of italics and brackets, respectively, to indicate omitted or abbreviated letters in the manuscript. My citations use ‘‘i’’ and ‘‘ii’’ to distinguish between these two editions. Citations are by page number. For the dating and authorship of Jacob’s Well, see Brandeis, Jacob’s Well, pp. x–xiii; Robert Raymo, ‘‘Jacob’s Well,’’ in A Manual of Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500, ed. Albert E. Hartung (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967), p. 2262; and Leo Carruthers, ‘‘Where Did Jacob’s Well Come From? The Provenance and Dialect of MS Salisbury Cathedral 103,’’ ES 71 (1990): 335–40. These studies date the original composition of Jacob’s Well to the first two decades of the fifteenth century. The uncertainty surrounding the text’s exact dating makes it impossible to state conclusively whether the Well writer is writing before or after Archbishop Thomas Arundel ’s Constitutions of 1407–9, which set strict limits on the content and scope of vernacPAGE 213 213 ................. 11491$ $CH7 11-01-10 14:01:49 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER While this decision allows the Well writer to avoid the abstruse speculative theology criticized by Anima in the epigraph above, it does not provide him with a straightforward answer to vexing questions concerning the kinds of knowledge that should be taught to lay Christians. As this essay will demonstrate, teaching the fundamentals of the faith is anything but simple for the Well writer. The ‘‘fals techyng’’ of the Lollards represents one danger to his flock, but other challenges loom just as large: he wrestles with the recalcitrance of his own congregation, the guidelines imposed upon preachers by ecclesiastical authorities, and the self-interested activities of the fraternal orders, whose authority he both mocks and cites. In many portions of his text, the Well writer addresses these problems by adopting a rigidly hierarchical pedagogical stance toward his listeners . Particularly in the early parts of Jacob’s Well, he urges his listeners to focus exclusively on repairing their own sinful souls and to value childlike compliance above all other virtues. As the work progresses, however, this mode of instruction begins to break down. New metaphors involving childhood and learning emerge, and the separation between individual examinations of conscience and wider forms of intellectual inquiry proves impossible for the Well writer to maintain. In the text’s final exemplum, he not only urges his audience to embark on a search for truth but...


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