Translating ‘Clergie’
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Translating ‘Clergie’
Status, Education, and Salvation in Thirteenth-Century Vernacular Texts.
By Claire M. Waters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

From the late twelfth century onward, educated clerics produced many works in Latin aimed at helping the lower clergy—the parish priest, and in due course the friar—in the care of souls, through preaching, liturgy, and confession. The implicit assumption behind the thirteenth-century revolution in pastoral care was that the laity had a much greater chance at salvation than earlier generations had believed. This was made possible in part by the development of Purgatory, where souls not purified in this life by monastic asceticism could nonetheless be prepared for admission to celestial joys.

In the thirteenth century, many of these pastoral texts were written in England, but very few were available in English. That development came only in the fourteenth century, with some early works such as Handlyng Synne (c. 1300) leading the way and widespread availability of religious texts translated into English, or composed in English, coming only after mid-century. These were part and parcel both of the literary efflorescence of late-medieval England (one need look no further than the Parson’s Tale) and of the lay religious commitment that, paradoxically, paved the way for the English Reformation.

Claire Waters’ Translating Clergie challenges us to complicate and refine this narrative with her careful analysis of a tradition too easily overlooked: religious texts composed in, or translated into, French in the thirteenth century. In England, French held a status between vernacular and learned, lay and clerical. The book’s title is a clever nod to the idea that clergie meant not narrowly “ordained to the clerical estate,” but more broadly “educated.” Translation, too, meant more than rendering a text into a different language: translatio is a form of transferre. Waters is concerned not only with the fluid boundaries of the semantic field of clergie, but also with how thirteenth-century writers used French to transfer the status of clergie, of learnedness in sacred matters, onto lay readers. In doing so, they aimed to make the lay reader or listener not only more responsible for his or her own salvation, but also capable [End Page 254] of the clerical task of leading other lay people toward salvation as well. The effect of this, often implied or explicitly stated in the texts themselves, was to diminish or even erase the difference between master and student, ordained and lay. This counteracted the Gregorian reform’s tendency to distance the clergy from the laity, not by bringing the clergy back down but by raising lay readers up. In the texts Waters analyzes, the similarity between people of lay and clerical status is considered in two ways: knowledge and love. While the writing or teaching cleric should have more knowledge, he and his lay reader were both students thirsting for more. Greater knowledge ought to lead to greater capacity for loving God, but a layperson could love (and be loved by) God just as deeply as a tonsured one. Both figures ultimately looked forward to the eternal condition foretold in First Corinthians when knowledge and love would be brought to perfection and the clerical/lay distinction would lose all meaning.

Death, these texts affirm, is the great leveler, but it also had other roles. It was the goal toward which pastoral and sacramental life pointed, the moment at which salvation was ultimately determined. This was used to instill in the laity the hope of heaven, the fear of hell, and the responsibility for using the unpredictable span of earthly life to prepare for judgment. But it also gave urgency to the pastor, who could not know how much time he had to fulfill his sacred obligations to his flock. The damnation of any soul in his care due to his negligence would be charged against his own soul.

Death also appears as the moment of reversals, as with Dives and Lazarus. A recurring theme in exempla is the apparition of someone recently deceased, and now suffering in hell or purgatory, to warn a living associate to mend his ways in time. Waters frames these stories as moments...


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