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Acting as kindling for Dante’s Inferno and often sensationalized in film and contemporary culture, the seven deadly sins have fascinated and preoccupied religious and non-religious alike for centuries.
For ASU English Professor Richard Newhauser, deconstructing their expression in medieval literature is a pursuit that has spanned most of his academic career.
“I had long had an interest in ethics and religion (and not just my own religion), so focusing on allegories of the vices and virtues was hardly difficult as the next step,” he explains. “What has then held my attention for the majority of my years as a scholar is the endless variety of ethical thought found in reflections on the seven deadly sins and contrary virtues.”
Newhauser has authored, translated, edited or co-edited ten volumes on sin and morality in the Middle Ages. He is now at work on an eleventh: a translation and edition of a medieval “encyclopedia” of sin—William Peraldus’s Summa de vitiis (Compendium on the Vices).
The Compendium is divided into nine sections. The first is a general introduction to “vices.” The next seven sections describe the nature of and absolutions for—you guessed it—the seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, avarice (greed), acedia (sloth), pride, envy, and wrath.
The ninth section is concerned with what Peraldus labeled the “sins of the tongue”—such as lying, swearing, and cursing. Newhauser says this add-on demonstrates the importance of medieval “verbal culture” and especially points to how the text was expected to be used—by itinerant preachers and those hearing confession.
“Priests needed to know what kinds of questions to ask of penitents,” he says.
A Thirteenth-Century International Sensation
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council under Pope Innocent III had taken steps toward centralizing the Church’s power and reaffirming existing doctrine, partially in reaction to the rise of heretical movements. One of these steps was legislating that holy men spend time among the faithful, preaching, and that all Christians go to confession at least once a year.
But how to control the message? Good sermon material was hard to come by, and more and more parish priests were winging it—waxing philosophical or worse, resorting to mystical or apocryphal musings.
Enter Peraldus (c. 1200 - c. 1271), a French Dominican friar. Peraldus dutifully collected and interpreted the best ethical resources of the time. In c. 1236 he published the Compendium. You could call it a “how to” manual on doctrinally sound homily-writing, with an emphasis on confessional etiquette.
The Compendium was an international "bestseller,” so to speak, when it was first published in the early thirteenth century.
Roughly six hundred hand-copied versions of Peraldus’s text survive at institutions across the globe. When printing became mechanized, the work was disseminated even more widely. The Compendium was so important that in the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, purportedly said, in medieval French, that we all would be just fine if this Compendium were the only book left on earth.
“There is not an area of culture in the late Middle Ages that is not touched on, not influenced by this text,” says Newhauser.
But the dozens-upon-dozens of versions were never collated or compared, and no complete English version is available yet. Since the text has been the source of much of what is known about medieval sin and absolution—and inspiration for the writings of Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer, the “Father of English Literature”—this needed to be rectified.
Not Just for Medieval Penitents
Over the past four years, Newhauser has been collaborating on The Peraldus Project with researchers Siegfried Wenzel (University of Pennsylvania), Bridget K. Balint (Indiana University), and Edwin Craun (Washington and Lee University). The group has been painstakingly transcribing, comparing, annotating, editing, and translating the Latin into English for an authoritative edition.
This summer, Newhauser plans a research trip to Berlin to view yet another set of manuscript copies of the Compendium. He wants to get things just right, as he believes the text to be of major importance to our understanding of Western culture as a whole.
“Obviously, this is not on the reading list for every Americanist, but it has much wider use than just for medievalists,” he says. “Breaking through preconceived truisms about what the past was like (or even whether it is important to know about the past) . . . is helpful in theorizing critically our present state of culture.”
Newhauser says that the Compendium teaches many of its lessons through stories, which will be of use to those studying literature. Some of the manuscript copies are illuminated with decorative text and images—which art historians could explore. Anthropologists as well as medical historians will likely be fascinated by details of medieval childbirth practices—for example, the Compendium describes a practice of placing spoons on laboring mothers’ bellies. Others concerned with theology, music, and political theory will also find something of interest.
At ASU, the project has benefitted from Newhauser’s willingness to engage undergraduates in research. Rodmanned Nikpour, an honors student, began working with Newhauser on the Peraldus text beginning in 2013, proofreading the collaborators’ Latin transcriptions and verifying the identification of source material originally used by Peraldus. The two have received several ASU internal grants for the partnership, including a CLAS Undergraduate Summer Enrichment Award, a Sun Angel Excellence in the Humanities Research Scholarship, and two Barrett Faculty Support Grants.
It has been a massive undertaking. Regional variances in dialect and copying style make reviewing hundreds of folios—or manuscript leaves—of medieval Latin, with two columns of text and a large number of abbreviations on each page, eye-crossing work.
Newhauser and Nikpour found that the best way to proofread the transcription of each manuscript is, in fact, to have one person read aloud from a reproduction of the manuscript while the other follows along in the typed text.
“It’s really the easiest way to get into the text, to hear the differences and to catch the mistakes,” Newhauser explains.
This approach makes sense, anyway, when transmitting a text that was intended as an exemplar of good sermonizing.
Nikpour graduated this May with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and certificates both in classical studies and in symbolic, cognitive and linguistic systems. Unfortunately, this means that Newhauser has lost one of his best assistants.
Nonetheless, he said that work on the edition, which will be published in three volumes by Oxford University Press, will finally be complete by fall 2015.
Image of a knight preparing to battle the seven deadly sins, from a thirteenth-century copy of Peraldus’s Compendium (MS Harley 3244, folios 27v-28r), housed in London’s British Library.
Background header image from 1925: Students, faculty, and staff in front of the Old Quad. L to R are the Science Building (now the University Club), Old Main, and the Auditorium/Gymnasium (where now sits the Language and Literature Building). UP UPC ASUB C357 1920s #42. [Note: the image on the linked page is transposed, and the Science Building on the right.]