Communal purity and Jewish "filpe" in cleanness.
Cleanness scholars have long noted its focus on divine judgment and on the disastrous consequences of breaching God's covenants. In her 1978 book, Charlotte C. Morse argued that through the narration of biblical stories, the poet prepares his audience for divine judgment by teaching them how to achieve the purity necessary for salvation. (3) In that same year, S. L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman noted that God's judgments in the poem bring destruction to all but an increasingly select few, "a saving remnant," with whom God establishes a covenant of moral behavior. (4) More recently, Monica Brzezinski pointed to a link between the poem's concerns with divine judgment and with covenantal history. She observed that the Cleanness poet places particular emphasis on "the last passage of the covenant, from the Jewish nation to the gentiles," which symbolizes God's rejection of the Jews in favor of the New Israelites, the Christians. (5) It is this final transmission of the divine covenant, and the supersessionist perspective it represents, with which this essay is concerned.
While many scholars perceive the God of Cleanness as a merciless judge, other critics, such as Lawrence Clopper and Nicholas Watson, view the poems deity less harshly. Nicholas Watson has contended that the God of Cleanness reacts with violence "only when not operating within a covenant which constrains him to pity for his creation" (6) Thus, while the poem does present a wrathful and destructive Old Testament God, it also repeatedly reminds its audience that within the new covenant, and through the sacraments of the Church, God's mercy is available to the penitent Christian. By pointing to the new law, which assures the faithful of God's mercy, the poet mitigates the terror of the poem. (7)
Although Watson's observation lends enormous insight into the poem, his argument fails to consider fully the repercussions of the poet's strategic audience positioning. This essay argues that by locating readers temporally and spiritually in the new covenant, and by calling specific attention to the transmission of God's covenant from Jew to Gentile, the poet builds a model of Christian community structured on the triumphant defeat of Jewish beliefs and behaviors. Through its emphasis on the supersession of Christianity over Judaism, Cleanness participates in and contributes to anti-Judaic discourse.
The poet first reminds his readers of their privileged place in salvation history by relating the New Testament parable of the Wedding Feast. This narrative, which would have been familiar to the poem's audience, represents the Jews' denial of Christ's Incarnation, God's consequent rejection of the Jews, and the transmission of the divine promise from the Jews to the Gentiles. (8) Having established his readers' location within the confines of the covenant of grace, the poet then guides them along a journey of Old Testament vengeance and destruction through the biblical episodes of the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the fall of Babylon. The Wedding Feast parable that introduces the poem provides readers with a lens through which to view this string of events. Taken together, these biblical exempla demonstrate the method by which God ultimately elevates and separates Christians from others. This biblical winnowing process culminates in God's rejection of the Jews and the final passing of his covenant to the Christians, as symbolized by the Wedding Feast parable.
In filtering the Old Testament history through a New Testament lens, Cleanness not only situates its audience temporally, spiritually, and morally in the age of grace but also emphasizes the supersessionist viewpoint implicit in its figural reading of Hebrew scripture. The biblical episodes reinforce a dichotomy of sin and righteousness by representing the transgressive targets of God's wrath as Jews and the virtuous recipients of divine grace as Christians. Those who fail to keep "trawpe" with God and to obey his covenants have negative attributes conventionally seen as "Jewish," such as blindness, carnality, and disrespect for God, while positive figures, including Jewish patriarchs, display "Christian" attributes of faith, courtliness, and gratitude towards God. Moreover, the poem fosters the ideal of post-expulsion English communal purity by demonstrating, through the Old Testament exempla, that it is necessary to purge contaminating elements of sin and disbelief from the community of the righteous. By its repeated reminders of "Jewish" disobedience and apostasy and by its focus on individual and societal purity, Cleanness reflects and also reinforces anti-Judaism.
Openly practicing Jews had been absent from England since their expulsion in 1290, but their presence, perpetuated through "words, texts and images" remained fixed in the English imagination. (9) As both progenitors and rejecters of Christianity, Jews were simultaneously necessary and threatening to Christian belief. After the 1290 expulsion, England could view itself as a locus of communal purity, having cleansed itself of the dangerous contamination of Jewish disbelief, but in the absence of actual Jews, the figure of the Jew had to be continuously recalled and rejected to preserve a corporate Christian identity and to reassert its purity. The purifying effects of England's Jewish expulsion are thus reorganized as part of the history of both Old and New Testament processes of communal cleansing. Indeed, as Steven F. Kruger has argued, despite their physical absence, "Jews and Judaism were living realities for the medieval Christian" but "those 'living realities' were experienced ... through the constructions of fantasy and ideology." (10) This (usually) negative figure of the "spectral" or "virtual" Jew had a very real role in the construction of Christian communal identity in post-expulsion England.
Cleanness, written in the temporal and spiritual safety of the new covenant as well as in the purified physical location of Judenrein England, reinforces the necessity of ridding society of the "filpe" of Jewish disbelief. Beginning with the apostle Paul, Christians explained the Jewish failure to embrace Christ in terms of their "carnal" reading, an attention to literality that allegedly prevents Jews from understanding the Christological message hidden in Hebrew scripture. According to Paul, a veil covering Jews' hearts dulls their senses and blinds them to Christian truth (2 Cor. 3:13-16). (11) Later exegetes such as Gregory the Great developed these ideas, characterizing Jews as carnal; according to this view, Jews' excessive concern with pleasures of the flesh led them away from God, rendering them blind and ignorant. Gregory, like Augustine, blamed the Jewish deicide on their scriptural misreading, which prevented them from recognizing the Messiah. (12) In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, theologians began to argue that Jews had indeed recognized Christ and had knowingly and maliciously killed their Savior. (13) The coexistence of these contradictory views led to a conflation of anti-Jewish stereotypes that characterized Jews both as worldly, literal, corporeal, ignorant of Christian truth as well as envious and knowingly malicious. In Cleanness, negative characters consistently display these "Jewish" qualities, which set them apart from the positive characters, who correctly interpret God's signs and obediently and politely do his bidding.
Over the course of the poem, the Cleanness poet uses his readers' spiritual and temporal location within Christ's covenant to manipulate them into a variety of positions and viewpoints. He first forces them to empathize inappropriately with the "Jewish" sinners as they confront God's violent fury, but as he guides readers through salvation history, he gradually repositions them as God's privileged, who can take pleasure in witnessing his righteous destruction of the sinful. While the poems readers may be sinful, they, unlike the damned Jewish sinners of Cleanness, may still achieve salvation through the sacrament of penance. Over the course of the poem, as readers travel through biblical time, they learn to triumph in God's righteous destruction of those who repeatedly refuse his grace.
A key device the poet uses to orient his audience is the sixth beatitude from the Gospel of Matthew: "Blessed are the clean at heart: for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). This beatitude is the theme to which the poem consistently returns and which functions to contrast those included within the covenant of grace with those who are excluded from it. The poet first paraphrases the beatitude, promising his audience that, '"pe halpel clene of his hert hapenes ful fayre, / For he schal loke on oure Lorde wip a leue chere"' (27-28). (14) Having made this promise, however, he then immediately negates it, effectively converting the beatitude into a threat. He warns, "to pat sy[??]t seche schal he neuer / pat any vnclannesse hatz on, auwhere abowte; / For He pat flemus vch fylpe fer fro His hert / May not byde pat burre, pat His body ne[??]e" (29-32). The poet's inversion of the beatitude functions to turn his audience's gaze outwards onto those who are "unclan" and to construct an opposition of inclusion and exclusion, salvation and damnation, that will form the focus of Cleanness. Over the course of the poem, the poet will reinforce this opposition through his relation of the New Testament parable of the Wedding Feast as well as through exempla from Old Testament history (Matt. 22:1-14). At the same time, however, the poet's inversion complicates the binary opposition between the saved and the damned, the Christian and the Jew, by warning the audience that salvation is provisional. Like many contemporary medieval devotional works, Cleanness urges its audience to engage in a continuous examination of conscience to resist sin.
The parable of the wedding feast related at the beginning of the poem reasserts the audience's position as God's chosen. Medieval exegetes traditionally read this parable as representing the Jews' rejection of Christ and his consequent rejection of the Jews in favor of the Gentiles. The poet narrates this parable not once, but twice, a reiteration that not only emphasizes its importance to the poem as a whole but also underlines its function in situating its readers. In the parable, a lord invites his vassals to a feast to celebrate his son's nuptials. But the invitees, rather than consenting to their lord's request, all refuse, each providing an excuse for his absence:
On hade bo[??]t hym a bor3, he sayde by hys trawpe: "Now turne I peder als tyd pe toun to byholde." Anoper nayed also and nurned pis cawse: "I haf [??]erned and [??]at [??]okes of oxen, And for my hywes hem bo[??]t; to bowe haf I mester, To see hem pulle in pe plow aproche me byhouez." "And I hafwedded a wyf," so wet hym pe pryd; "Excuse me at pe court, I may not com pere" (63-70).
Most patristic and medieval exegetes agree that the king's vassals refer to the Jews, on whom God first bestowed his blessing; while commentators differ as to the exact meaning they attach to the invitee's excuses, all highlight Jewish carnality, which leads them to privilege earthly pleasure and profit over fidelity to their covenant with God. (15) In refusing the lord's invitation, the vassals repay his kindness and courtesy with rudeness and ingratitude. Having "renayed" on their covenant with God by refusing the grace of the Incarnation, the Jews forfeit their election. Through its Old Testament exempla, read figurally through the lens of the New Testament, the poem returns repeatedly to God's rejection of the Jews and his consequent elevation of Christians to their current status as the verus Israel, the true people of God.
In response to the vassals' refusal to attend the wedding feast, the lord grows furious and declares that the men's rejection of his hospitality will prove to be to "herr owne sor[??]e" (75): '"For, certez, pyse ilk renkez pat me renayed habbe, / And denounced me no[??]t now at pis tyme, / Schul neuer sitte in my sale my soper to fele. / Ne suppe on sope of my seve, pa[??] pey swelt schulde"' (105-8). In the lord's eyes, the vassals violate their feudal contract by failing to attend the feast that he has laboriously prepared for their pleasure.
Thus they have forfeited their place at court. Moreover, "More to wyte is her wrange pen any wylie gentyl" (76)--that is, the Jews, aware of their obligations to God, deserve more blame than the Gentiles in refusing his request. In the vassals' place, the lord orders his servants to "gotz forth ... to the grete streetez" (77) of the city to invite the "wayferande frekez, on fote and on hors, / bope burnez and burdez, pe better and pe wers" (79-80) to the feast. In the lord's judgment of the vassals' behavior, he leaves no room for forgiveness: the disobedient and ungrateful "wrecchez" will "neuer" enter the lord's court again.
The poem's audience, of course, consists allegorically of the lord's newly invited guests, the Christians who inherit Israel's covenant with God when the Jews "renaye" on their covenant through their rejection of Christ. The poet highlights the parable's importance by citing scriptural authority for the narrative, crediting the Gospel of "Mapew" as his biblical source. In addition, he manipulates his material, expanding upon and embellishing the fourteen verses recorded in the gospel. Indeed, he dedicates one hundred and fifty-nine lines to the parable's narration and explication, adding new details as well as conflating the Wedding Feast narrative with the similar parable of the Great Supper from Luke chapter fourteen. (16) While the Matthean parable refers to the incarnation and the earthly union of Christ and the Church, the Lucan parable of the Great Supper refers to the promise of a reward in heaven, the fulfillment of the beatific vision. (17) The feast in Cleanness, then, represents both the Eucharistic feast available now on earth and the celestial banquet to come. The poet's conflation of the two parables suggests the past, present, and eternal consequences of the Jewish rejection of Christ: their forfeiture of God's grace, their expulsion from the community of the Church, and their exclusion from the sight of God promised in the beatitude.
The poet's composite rendition of the parables presents a lavish courtly scene, which emphasizes not only the cleanness and richness of Christ's court but also the courtesy and hospitality of the lord himself. Most scholars, noting the courtly values promoted in Cleanness as well as in its companion texts, Pearl, Patience, and Gawain and the Green Knight, agree that the poem was composed for an aristocratic audience. (18) In Cleanness, the narrator presents Christ in aristocratic terms as a "Prynce of parage noble" who is "ful cortays" (167, 1089) to those who adhere to his standards of purity. At the feast, the lord provides his guests with rich dainties, with "menske and with mete" as well as with "mynstrasy noble" (121). Indeed, he supplies "alle pe laykez pat a lorde a[??]t in londe schewe" (122). Like a truly hospitable host, moreover, he not only offers rich food and drink but also mingles with the company to make certain that they find the feast enjoyable:
inmyddez pe mete iae mayster hym bipo[??]t Pat he wolde se pe semble pat samned was pere, And rehayte rekenly pe riche and pe poueren, And cherisch hem alle with his cher, and chaufen her joye. Pen he bowez fro his bour into pe brode halle And to pe best on pe bench, and bede hym be myry, Solased hem with semblaunt and syled fyrre, Tron fro table to table and talkede ay myrpe. (125-32)
The poet underscores the lord's courtesy by emphasizing his fair treatment of his guests; the lord invites all, from the richest to the most lowly, to enjoy themselves. As indicated by the lord's anger at his vassals' refusal to attend the feast, the God of Cleanness values courtly behavior. The promotion of courtly values as those pleasing to God serves to identify the poet's aristocratic Christian audience with Christ and to create an opposition between the audience and the Jews, the vassals who refuse their lord's courteous invitation to the feast.
Yet that binary is not absolute: another of the poet's choices complicates the audience's position and reminds them of the Christians' precarious place in relation to God. Included in the wedding feast section of the poem is a highly embellished version of Matthew's parable of the Guest without a Wedding Garment, in which an improperly dressed guest incurs the wrath of the lord. As he courteously moves among his company, the lord notices a man who "watz not for a halyday honestly arayed--/ A prall pry[??]t in pe prong, vnpryuandely cloped, / Ne no festiual frok, bot fyled with werkkez" (134-36). Although the man's filthy attire angers the lord, he refrains from punishing the offender immediately, pausing first to demand the guest's reason for dressing in "wedez so fowle" (140). The guest, however, eyes fixed on the ground, fails to answer. In his fear of the lord's wrath, the man becomes "so scoumfit of his scylle ... / That he ne wyst on worde what he warp schulde" (151-52). Rather than pleading for the lord's forgiveness, the guest remains silent, crazed with fear. Only then, incensed by the man's silence, does the lord order his punishment: '"Byndez byhynde at his bak, bope two his handez, / And felle fetterez to his fete festenes bylyue; / Stik hym stiffly in stokez, and stekez hym perafter / Depe in my doungoun per doel euer dwellez'" (155-59). The guest certainly receives a harsh sentence for his crime, as the lord casts him into the dark pit "perafter," but unlike the vassals who refuse the lord's invitation, the man in foul clothes is first granted the opportunity for redemption; it is his failure to avail himself of the lord's mercy and to repent that brings about the man's punishment.
The story of the improperly dressed guest suggests the poet's concern that his audience will become complacent in their privileged position. He explains the significance of the clothing: "Hit arn py werkez, wyterly, pat pou wro[??]t hauez, / And lyned with pe lykyng pat ly[??]e in pyn hert" (171-72). These garments represent the deeds each Christian performs in life; to achieve the "frelych feste" (162) of the beatific vision, Christians must don clean garments that God will find "frely and fresh" (173). While all who are "ful[??]ed in font" are called, only those who keep themselves free of sin by availing themselves of the cleansing sacraments of confession and penance may "se p[e] Sauior and His sete ryche" (164, 176). Addressing the audience directly, the poet tells them to apply the lesson to their own lives. He warns them, "war pe wel, if pou wylt, py wedes ben clene / And honest for be halyday, lest pou harme lache, / For aproch pou to pat Prynce of parage noble, / He hates helle no more pen hem pat ar sowle" (165-68). Be sure to maintain a clear conscience, he cautions, for God will punish severely those who approach him soiled with works of filth. But as becomes clear over the course of the poem, while it is impossible for fallen humanity to remain free from sin, Christians, like the man in foul clothes and unlike the Jews, may receive God's mercy through the Church.
Thus, while the poem orients its readers firmly within the new covenant, Cleanness reminds them that their position still remains precarious. Salvation, the poet emphasizes, depends upon a Christian's continuous examination of conscience in order to resist sin. God's standards of purity are exacting, and the sacrament of penance is a necessary condition for attaining the level of cleanness required for salvation. Persistent reminders of the Christian's dual role: as sinner, but also as privileged recipient of divine grace, repeatedly arouse and then dispel audience anxieties about divine vengeance. While such an orientation invites an inspection of conscience and exhorts the poem's audience to penance, it also implicitly turns the focus outwards upon those for whom absolution is not an option. This dual positioning ideally leads the audience to alleviate their own anxieties about God's judgment by projecting fantasies of eternal damnation onto those outside the community of grace. Throughout the poem, the poet will continue to manipulate these anxieties, to instill and then assuage them, by alternating Old Testament tales of divine vengeance with reminders of the audience's privileged position as Christians.
Once the poet has situated his audience through the parable of the Wedding Feast, he then carries them back to the beginning of salvation history. Using exempla that progress forward through biblical time towards the end of the old law, he demonstrates the process of communal cleansing through which God has filtered out undesirable elements to create his select group. Each biblical story, as Clark and Wasserman have noted, outlines "a carefully wrought series of inclusions and exclusions necessary" for God to create the community of the faithful. (19) These exempla reinforce the distinction between those who achieve the beatific vision and those who do not. The righteous characters in each exemplum display courtly characteristics that the audience can recognize as desirable, behaviors that align them with the aristocratic God who presides at the wedding feast. Those who sin against God in turn show a disrespect and ingratitude akin to those displayed by the vassals who refuse to attend the wedding feast. The literal and typological significance of the exempla reaffirm the audience's privileged location within the covenant of grace while establishing the righteousness of God's divine vengeance. In each Old Testament narrative, God destroys all but a chosen few, his "saving remnant" of righteous servants who will become the forefathers of the Christian Church.
The series of Old Testament exempla both urge readers to penance as they vicariously experience the terror of God's wrath and remind them that they, unlike the unredeemable sinners of the Old Testament, can be saved. For the Christian audience, God is not unheeding and vengeful but "mercyable" to the penitent sinner. The Old Testament narratives literally trace salvation history while typologically reaffirming the truth of Christianity and the exclusive position of the Church. In addition, these narratives set up a contrast between those inside the circle of the Church--who are hospitable and courtly, graciously accepting God's gifts and obeying his will and those outside, who care more for the sins of the flesh than for the grace of God, a gift that they repeatedly reject. As readers travel through the course of history that the poem relates, they gradually learn to distinguish themselves from the recipients of God's wrath and to identify themselves with the righteous.
The first main biblical narrative that demonstrates God's process of selection is that of the Flood. As Wallace has noted, while most medieval versions of the Flood--those in the mystery plays, for instance--place the audience within the ark with Noah and his family, the Cleanness poet seals the audience out, leaving them in the company of the drowning victims. (20) The poem's narration of the Flood focuses on the sinners, whose cries for mercy are ignored by the uncontrollably wrathful God. Rather than creating objects of scorn, the poet represents people with whom the audience can empathize. As Noah and his family board the ark, the biblical type of the Church, the audience is bombarded by images of the dying wild animals howling in fear, people crying out fruitlessly for mercy, and lovers and friends parting for the last time:
Summe swymmed peron pat saue hemself trawed, Summe sty[??]e to a stud and stared to pe heuen, Rwly wyth a loud rurd rored for drede. Harez, herttez also, to pe hy[??]e runnen; Bukkez, bausenez, and bulez to pe bonkkez hy[??]ed; And alle cryed for care to lye Kyng of heuen, Recouerer of [??]e Creator pey cryed vchone, pat amounted pe mase His mercy watz passed, And alle His pyte departed fro peple pat He hated. Bi pat pe flod to her fete flo[??]ed and waxed, Fen vche a segge se[??] wel pat synk hym byhoued. Frendez fellen in fere and fapomed togeder, To dry[??] her delful deystyne and dy[??]en alle samen; Luf lokez to luf, and his leue takez, For to ende alle at onez and for euer twynne. (388-402)
The Flood victims call out anachronistically to "Kryst" for salvation, but the sinners' cries for mercy come too late. In contrast to other representations of the biblical Flood, these victims of God's wrath invite sympathy. In these highly emotional scenes of violent destruction, it is the sinners to whom the audience is drawn, not the righteous Destroyer who displays "malys mercyles and mawgre" (250) towards the people he created.
Yet while the poet orients the audience's sympathy towards the doomed sinners, he simultaneously reminds them that their sympathy is misplaced. The same water that drowns the victims of God's wrath prefigures the cleansing water of baptism. Indeed, the poet makes that connection twice, reiterating the point to emphasize its importance: to preserve purity, God must destroy "filpe." As he instructs Noah to build the ark, God reveals the dual purpose of the Flood: it will both "wasch alle the worlde" (323) of sin and impiety and "quelle alle that is quik" (324). This juxtaposition of cleansing and destruction repeats a few lines later, when God again declares that the rains that flood the earth "schal wasch alle the worlde of werkes of fylthe" but that "no flesch vpon folde by fonden on lyue" (355, 356). The cleansing waters of the Flood will wash away sin, thereby protecting the righteous Noah and his family from contamination, much as the water surrounding England protects the island kingdom from the expelled Jews.
The poem's first exemplum, then, offers conflicting messages. While the poet hints at the typological meaning of the cleansing waters, he simultaneously emphasizes a literal reading of the Flood. Although he explicitly informs readers, using God's "wrakful wordez" that the Flood's victims have engaged in "vnworpelych werk" (301, 305) that has enraged God and thus brought about their own deaths, the poet also encourages his readers to sympathize with the doomed sinners through his graphic images of their suffering. And though he states that Noah is a "wy[??]e wonyande" who is "Ful redy and ful ry[??]twys" (293, 294) in the eyes of God, the poet gives little reason for the audience to identify with this sole just man. The narrative of the Flood, like the story of the improperly dressed guest, does more to arouse anxieties than to alleviate them. But as the poem travels forward in biblical time, its distinctions between the righteous and the damned become more distinct, and the audience learns with whom it is appropriate to empathize. From exemplum to exemplum, the damned become more deliberately and stubbornly sinful and the righteous become both more sympathetic and more explicitly didactic about the requirements for salvation.
The forward movement through salvation history, from the Flood to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, reveals the passing of the divine covenant from all of humanity, as represented by Noah and his descendants, to the Jews, as represented by Abraham. God seals his exclusive covenant with the Jews through his promise to Abraham and Sarah, the miraculous conception of Isaac. Yet, as Brzezinski has noted, while on a literal level God's promise to Abraham represents the passing of the covenant to the Jewish nation, on a typological level it represents its passage away from them, as the engendering of Isaac prefigures the Incarnation, the salvation the disbelieving Jews refuse to accept. (21)
Abraham provides a model for righteousness and obedience, but he also reinforces the poem's supersessionist message. First, when Abraham sees three men approaching, he correctly interprets the true nature of the visitors. Following the conventions of over a millennium of Christian exegesis, he recognizes the triune God and addresses the three men in the singular, as "Hende Lorde" (612). Courteously serving the Trinity "a morsel of bred to baume [his guests'] hertte" (620), Abraham shares a meal with God that prefigures the Eucharistic feast and points back to the wedding feast that frames the poem and situates its audience. These Christological references disconnect Abraham from his Jewish identity and recreate the biblical patriarch as a proto-Christian. Abraham's courtesy and hospitality, furthermore, align him with his courtly audience as well as with the lord of the wedding feast parable. God, who is represented throughout as the Trinity, rewards his host for his courtesy and promises the "olde" Abraham an heir who will "after hym wynne / With wele and wyth worschyp pe worpely peple / pat schal halde in heritage pat [God] haf men 3arked" (650-52). God's covenant with Abraham and Abraham's elderly "barayn ay bydene" (659) wife Sarah's unlikely pregnancy prefigure the Annunciation and the miraculous birth of Christ. Through figural interpretation, God's promise to Abraham represents his new covenant with the Christians, the real spiritual descendents of Abraham.
This demonstration of God's grace immediately precedes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God's next violent removal of filth. Of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, God spares only Abraham's kinsman, the righteous Lot, and his family. Lot, like Abraham, is presented as a courtly lord; both he and his gatehouse are "ryal and riche" (786). And, like Abraham, Lot immediately recognizes the two "myry men [??]onge" (783) who enter the city as divine. Concerned to protect the "swete men tweyne" from the lust of the Sodomites, Lot graciously invites the angels to "ly[??]t at [his] loge" for the night (788, 800). Lot, too, serves a meal to his guests; he piously orders his wife to bake the angels bread "wyth no sour ne no salt" (820), once again pointing to the sacrament of communion. Through his depictions of Lot's courtesy and righteousness, the poet once again connect him to Noah, Abraham, and the aristocratic audience of Cleanness.
Lot's character and behavior contrast sharply with those of the Sodomites, who display a "Jewish" carnality. Outside Lot's house, the Sodomites gather en masse, beating on his gates with "kene clobbez" (839) and clamoring to satisfy their unnatural lust, enkindled by the angels' beauty. While Lot, in his spiritual understanding, immediately recognizes the angels' divine nature, the Sodomites are blind to the visitors' true identity. Their deep entrenchment in sin allows them to see only the angels' physical beauty, which inflames their perverse fleshly desire, and their spiritual blindness becomes literal when the angels curse them, striking them "as blynde as Bayard watz euer" (886). The Sodomites' carnality and blindness function to remind the audience of the New Testament Jews' willful rejection of Christ and the new covenant.
The lustful and violent Sodomites, unlike the Flood victims, do not invite audience sympathy. In this exemplum, the poet describes the events mainly through the eyes of the righteous Lot. Yet even from Lot's viewpoint, the violence of the cities' destruction is terrifying. Indeed, the poem emphasizes Lot's fear, which indicates his understanding of God's power. While Lot clearly demonstrates his valor when threatened by the earthly, physical danger of the crowd of Sodomites, his bravery fails when he contemplates the wrath of God. Awakened by the angels, who instruct him to collect his family and escape the coming destruction, Lot, "ful ferd at his bert" (898), struggles to understand the logic of fleeing from God: "Lorde, what is best?,'" he questions. "'If I me fele vpon fote pat I fie mo[??]t, / Hov schulde I huyde me fro Hym pat hatz His hate kynned / In pe brath of His breth pat brennez alle pinkez? / To crepe fro my Creatour I know not wheder, / Ne wheper His fooschip me fol[??]es bifore oper byhynde'" (913-18). Rather than focusing on the fear of the sinful, the poet directs the readers' attention to Lot. As "pe rayn ruel[s] adoun, ridlande pikke / Of felle flaunkes of fyr and flakes of soufre" and "po citees ... sunkken to helle" (953-54, 968), he guides his readers into safety with Lot and his family.
In contrast to the lengthy and detailed depiction of the victims of the Flood, the poet's representation of the doomed Sodomites receives a mere four lines. Finally cognizant of God's power and his wrath, the sinful Sodomites realize that they are subject to a "wrake that no wy[??]e achaped" (970), and, in their despair, they cry out "that Kryst my[??]haf rawpe" (972). Their appeals for Christ's mercy invite the audience's pity even as they are reminded that the dying Sodomites, unlike the poem's privileged readers, are not eligible for salvation through Christ's mercy.
Before progressing to his final exemplum, the poet delivers a short homily on the Incarnation, intended to exhort the audience to penance. This section of Cleanness functions not only to instruct readers in the requirements for salvation through the sacraments but also to reposition them and to align their sympathies more firmly with God. Stressing Christ's courtesy as well as his cleanness, the poet again connects Christ to his courtly audience. He furthermore links the "nobleye" of Christ's "norture" (1091) with his cleanness. Relating Christ's miracles of healing, the poet explains that when the sick and lame called on the lord for his "Cortayse and claymed His grace" (1097), Christ "heled hem wyth hynde speche" (1098-99), which rendered everything "Wel clanner pen any crafte cowpe devyse" (1100).
At the same time, the Cleanness poet urges his audience to imitate Christ. Unlike earthly humans, who are "sore and synful and sovly vchone" (1112), Christ is "kyryous and clene" (1109). But although humanity is sinful, Christians differ from the Old Testament Jewish sinners portrayed in the poem because they may avail themselves of God's mercy. The poet is now able answer the question "How schulde we se, pen may we say, pat Syre upon throne?" (1113): Christians may achieve the beatific vision through the sacraments of the Church. Christ's ability to make the impure pure, he asserts, allows even the most sinful to "schyne pur[??] schryfte" (1115), to cleanse themselves through penance. The poet offers words of hope to his readers as he exhorts them to participate in the sacrament: "[??]is, pat Mayster is mercyable, pa[??] pou be man fenny, / And al tomarred in myre whyle pou on molde lyuyes; / pou may schyne pur[??] schryfte, pa[??] pou haf schome serued, / And pure pe with penaunce tyl pou a perle worpe" (1113-16). The sacrament, administered by "the prest" will polish even the most soiled soul "Wel bry[??]ter pen pe beryl oper browden perles" (1132). The poet's additional comment that Christ's immaculate cleanness allowed him to "brek ... pe bread blades wythyouten" (1105) reminds the audience of the sacrament of communion, the closest that humanity can come to the beatific vision while on earth.
Inserted between two examples of the cleansing power of divine vengeance through God's righteous eradication of sinners, this homily emphasizes the Christians' privileged position in God's grace. By reminding the audience of the Incarnation and the age of grace in which Christians live, the poet reassures readers of their temporal and spiritual position within the new covenant. Unlike the lord's vassals, who, having rejected his invitation once, will "neuer" regain a place at his court, the poem's readers may benefit from God's mercy. While the Jews have rejected the Incarnation and thus permanently forfeited their opportunity to avail themselves of God's grace, Christians, through the mercy of God, may still achieve salvation through the cleansing sacrament of penance. But even here, the poet qualifies his comforting message of God's mercy with a dire warning against returning to sin after absolution. Such a relapse demonstrates "untrawpe," a rejection of God's grace akin to that of the sinners of the Old Testament exempla and the vassals who refuse to attend the lord's feast: "Bot war pe wel, if pou be waschen wyth water of schryfte, / And polysed als playn as parchmen schauen, / Sulp no more penne in synne py saule perafter, / For penne pou Dry[??]tyn dyspleses with dedes ful sore, / And entyses Hym to tene more trayply pen euer, / And wel hatter to hate pen hade pou not waschen" (1133-38). Do not renege on promises to God, the poet cautions, for broken vows will anger God even more than any initial sin.
Immediately after warning his audience of the dangers of reneging on oaths to God, the poet returns to the Jews, God's faithless vassals with whom the poem began, by recalling an event of Jewish reneging and God's just punishment: the historical destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in 687 BCE. The narration of Jerusalem's fall parallels the poem's warning about the dire consequences of relapsing into sin. But while this connection suggests identification between the audience as possible repeat sinners and the sinful characters of this two-part exemplum, this episode actually serves to sever the tie between the audience and the victims of God's wrath. The Cleanness poet emphasizes God's many kindnesses to the Jews, to which they purportedly responded with faithlessness and ingratitude:
For pat folke in her fayth watz founden vntrwe, pat haden hy[??]t pe hy[??]e God to halde of Hym euer; And He hem hal[??]ed for His and help at her nede In mukel meschefes mony, pat meruayl is to here. And pay forloyne her fayth and fol[??]ed oper goddes, And pat wakned His wrath and wrast hit so hy[??]e Pat He fylsened pe faythful in pe falce lawe To forfare pe falce in pe faythe trwe. (1161-68)
Like the penitent sinner who returns to "filpe" and like the vassals who refuse the lord's invitation to the wedding feast, the faithless Jews under the idolatrous king Sedecias turn away from their covenant with God, relapsing into idolatry.
God responds to the Jews' faithlessness with just punishment: "Forpi oure Fader vpon folde a foman hym wakned: / Nabigodenozar nuyed hym swype" (1175-76). He allows their pagan enemies to conquer them, destroy their temple, and lead them into captivity in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar's razing of Jerusalem and the ensuing Jewish exile fulfills Old Testament prophecies of divine punishment and represents typologically the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the current Jewish diaspora (Isa. 13:14-22, 2 Kings 20:6-19, Ezek. 12:13-14). Flavius Josephus connects the two events in his Jewish War, and Jews as well as Christians link Babylon and Rome, lamenting the fall of both temples on the same day, the annual commemoration of Tisha B'Av. (22) Christian legend presented the destruction of Jerusalem as divine vengeance on the Jews for their rejection and murder of Christ. Cleanness's fourteenth-century audience would have been intimately familiar with the legend from the liturgy as well as from sermon exempla, hagiographical compilations, and romance. (23)
The poet capitalizes on audience knowledge of the fall of Jerusalem to remind readers of the assumed perfidy of contemporary medieval Jews and to justify the removal of their contagious presence from England through the expulsion. (24) Indeed, in 1290, Edward I used the anniversary of the two calamitous events to announce his order for Jewish expulsion, a strategy that implicitly represents Edward as an agent of divine justice and presents England as a figure for the promised land, a new Jerusalem. (25) Cleanness's implicit connection between the two stories of Jerusalem's destruction links the purified space of post-expulsion England with the purity attained by God's vengeful eradication of sin in Old Testament exempla.
In his recreation of the biblical story, the Cleanness poet highlights and embellishes upon the traditional figural relationship between the two conquests of the holy city. He ameliorates Nebuchadnezzar's character, creating a "noble" (1218) pagan king who respects God and trusts in Daniel, God's prophet. (26) By doing so, the poet highlights the typological relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and the later pagan agents of God's wrath, Titus and Vespasian, the leaders of the Roman army that destroyed the second temple. In addition, he sets the victorious Babylonian king in opposition to the defeated Jewish king, Sedecias, who failed in "leaute ... to his Lorde hende" (1172) by "vs[ing] abominaciones of idolatrye / And lett[ing] ly[??]t bi pe lawe pat he watz lege tylle" (1173-74). In contrast to Sedecias and his people, who violate their covenant with God and abandon him in favor of idols, the pagan king "be Soverayn ... praysed / Pat watz apel ouer alle, Israel Dry[??]ten" (1313-14). Unlike the ungrateful Jews, Nebuchadnezzar gives thanks to the true God for his victory.
Sedecias and the faithless Jews, like the Sodomites in the previous exemplum, demonstrate the "Jewish" quality of spiritual blindness, for which Sedecias receives appropriate recompense:
Pe kynges sunnes in his sy[??]t [Nebuchadnezzar] slow euervch one, And holkked out his auen y[??]en heterly bope, And bede pe burne to be bro[??]t to Babyloyn pe ryche, And pere in dongoun be don to dre[??]e her his wyrdes. (1221-24)
Nebuchadnezzar's punishment of the Jewish king centers on his sight: the pagan agent of God forces Sedecias to view his sons' brutal deaths and then gouges out the Jewish king's eyes, literalizing his blindness.
The Jewish people, no less than their leader, suffer the wrath of God. First they experience "pe hote hunger" of famine (1195) during the long siege of the city before the army finally enters Jerusalem. The poet seems to revel in the carnage as Nebuchadnezzar and his army, "Wyth be swayf of be sworde" (1268), slaughter women, babies, and priests, whose bloody entrails burst out of their battered bodies:
Pay slowen of swettest semlych burdes, Baped barnes in blod and her brayn spylled; Prestes and prelates pay presed to depe, Wyues and wenches her wombes tocoruen, Pat her boweles outborst aboute pe diches, And al watz carfully kylde pat pay cach my[??]t. (1247-52)
The poet depicts the violence in graphic detail, his language entirely devoid of pity, as he describes the Chaldeans slaughtering the Jews, capturing those who escape the sword and bringing them, naked and bound, "to Babyloyn per bale to suffer" (1256).
The final episode of the poem, Belshazzar's feast, forms the antithesis of the "frelych feste" (162) with which the poem begins, as the Babylonian king throws a banquet to honor his own pride and fleshly desires. This episode reiterates typologically the message of the Wedding Feast parable: it is the Jews' ingratitude that forces God to reject his original people. In contrast to his "noble fader" (1338), Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar honors "not Hym pat in heuen wonies" (1340) for the kingdom he inherits through God's grace. Instead, like the Jews, he falls into idolatry and worships "fals fantummes of fendes, formed with handes, / Wyth tool out of harde tre, and telded on lofte" (1341-42). In this exemplum, the poet aligns Belshazzar with both the Jews and the devil. Belshazzar demonstrates the "Jewish" characteristics of carnality, pride, spiritual blindness, and contempt for God by using the holy vessels of Solomon's temple to serve "Satanas pe blake" (1449) in pursuit of earthly pleasure.
In order "To vouche on avayment of his vayneglorie" (1358), Belshazzar arranges a great feast in his own honor. Once again, the poet equates courtliness with godliness and places his courtly audience in opposition to the negative figure of Belshazzar, who violates the rules of courtly etiquette by disrupting the social hierarchy and setting his concubines "won dece" (1399) above his "kny[??]tes" and his "barounes" (1396-97), bidding all "ladis hem calle" (1370). With his "mynde ... on misschapen pings" (1355) and his wit "blemyst" (1421) with his unnatural desires, Belshazzar himself grows "dronkken as be deuel" (1500), while his concubines, like dogs, "lape" their wine from the holy temple vessels, meant only for the "solempne sacrefyce" to God (1434, 1447). In his "Jewish" qualities of lust, pride, gluttony, and blasphemy, Belshazzar ignites God's wrath.
God, however, fails to act hastily in his ire, instead first sending a warning to the idolatrous king and allowing him to repent. Suddenly, as Belshazzar gluts himself with earthly delights, he sees an apparition:
Per apered a paume, with poyntel in fyngres, Pat watz grysly and gret, and grymly he wrytes; Non oper forme bot a fust faylande pe wryste Pared on pe parget, purtrayed lettres. (1533-36)
As the disembodied hand of God scrawls its mysterious message on the wall, "Such a dasande drede dusched to [Belshazzar's] hert / pat al falwed his face and falyd 19e chere" (1538-39). The terrified king, unable to understand the message, finally consults God's prophet Daniel, who interprets the writing "also cler as hit on clay stande" (1618). The prophet warns the king of his impending doom, explaining that "Py wale rengne is walt in we[??]tes to heng, / And is funde ful fewe of hit fayth-dedes" (1734-35). To punish Belshazzar's "untrawpe" Daniel explains, God will send enemies to conquer Babylon just as he sent the Babylonians to punish the Jews.
Yet Belshazzar's spiritual blindness is such that he fails to comprehend even Daniel's clear explanation. Instead of repenting, Belshezzar rewards Daniel for his wisdom, has him "dubbed in ful dere porpor" (1743), and orders all to honor him. Not only is the Babylonian king unable to read for himself the visual sign, the writing on the wall, but he is also incapable of understanding Daniel's direct explanation of the warning. Unlike the unsuspecting victims of Noah's Flood, Belshazzar receives fair notice of his own destruction. Thus, as "Baltazar in his bed [is] beten to depe, / Pat bolge his blod and his brayn blende on pe clopes" (1788-89), the audience can take pleasure in his violent demise. The king's refusal to understand God's message, even after Daniel's interpretation, cuts him off from audience identification, and his blasphemy and discourteous behavior figurally link Belshazzar with New Testament and contemporary medieval Jews, who are unwilling or unable to understand their own scripture. His failure to respond correctly to God's commands further connects Belshazzar to the failed vassals of the parable of the Wedding Feast.
By the conclusion, the poet has redirected his readers' fears of divine judgment into righteous satisfaction at the vengeance God wreaks upon his enemies. From a position of identification with the victims of the Flood, the audience has moved into one of righteous wrath at the deliberate and malicious sins of Sedecias and Belshazzar. In this way, over the course of the poem, Cleanness carries its Christian aristocratic audience from doubt and fear of God's punishment to knowledge of salvation through its necessary tools, the sacraments. The poem concerns itself with both personal and communal purity; it instructs readers to preserve themselves constantly from sin in order to achieve the beatific vision, just as its horrific depictions of God's punishment exhort them to confession and contrition. Through its historical representations of God's vengeance, the poem also enlarges its exhortation to individual penance into an call for collective purity through communal purgation or annihilation of sin. Old Testament exempla provide historical proof of God's periodic purging of sin from the community of the faithful, justifying the cleansing efficacy of England's Jewish expulsion. According to the poem, those whom God chooses to expunge are not pagans uninstructed in the mysteries of the faith but willful and knowing deniers of God's grace, the Jews to whom God first offered his covenant. Jews failed to accept God's message of salvation, a sin that the poet suggests may infect others if not eliminated. The poem sees communal expulsion or annihilation as a type of spiritual cleansing analogous to the individual sacrament of penance that the Church offers to and indeed requires of penitent Christian sinners. In doing so, the poem assures its audience that removal of contaminating elements from Christian society performs a function necessary for salvation. The poem's reinforcement of Church sacraments and its justification of ethnic cleansing urge Christian readers to unite against internal and external threats to orthodoxy and communal purity.
University of Wisconsin, Whitewater
(1) David Wallace, "Cleanness and the Terms of Terror," Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet, ed. Robert J. Blanch, Miriam Youngerman Miller, and Julian N. Wasserman (Troy, NY: Whitson, 1991), 96.
(2) Theresa Tinkle, "The Heart's Eye: Beatific Vision in Purity," SP 85 (1988): 454.
(3) Charlotte Morse, The Pattern of Judgment in "Queste" and "Cleanness" (Columbia: U. of Missouri Press, 1978).
(4) S. L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman, "Purity: The Cities of the Dove and the Raven" American Benedictine Review 29 (1978): 297.
(5) Monica Brzezinski, "Conscience and Covenant: The Sermon Structure of Cleanness," JEGP 89 (1990): 171.
(6) Nicholas Watson, "The Gawain-Poet as a Vernacular Theologian," A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, ed. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson (Cambridge: Brewer, 1997), 306. See also Lawrence M. Clopper, "The God of the Gawain-Poet;' MP 94 (1996): 1-18.
(7) Wallace, "Terms of Terror," 90.
(8) The Cleanness poet attributes the parable to the Gospel of Matthew, but the poet's narration synthesizes Matthew's parable of the Wedding Feast (22:1-14) with the parable of the Great Supper from Luke (14:15-24). The parable of the Great Supper is the liturgical reading for the third Sunday after Trinity in Saturn use; the parable of the Wedding Feast is the reading for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity.
(9) Sylvia Tomasch, "Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew," The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 246.
(10) Steven F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew (U. of Minnesota Press, 2006), xxi.
(11) All biblical references are to the Douay-Rheims version of the Vulgate: Richard Challoner, ed., Holy Bible: translated from the Latin Vulgate; diligently compared with the Hebrew, Greek, and other editions in divers languages (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1971).
(12) Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (U. of California Press, 1999), 80-81. For explanations of figural or typological readings of scripture, see Eric Auerbach, "Figura," Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Meridien, 1959), 11-71.
(13) For changing conceptions of Jewish guilt, see Cohen, Living Letters, 147-312, as well as his earlier article, The Jews as the Killers of Christ in the Latin Tradition, from Augustine to the Friars," Traditio 39 (1983): 1-27. See also Anna Sapir Abulafia, Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (London: Routledge, 1995), esp. 120-36.
(14) Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, eds., Cleanness, in The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, 5th ed. (U. of Exeter Press, 2007), 111-84. All quotations from the poem are cited below parenthetically.
(15) For instance, Honorius Augustodunensis saw the invited guests as representing three groups of people: first, the Jewish rulers, who cared only for pride and property; second, the Jewish people, who are subjugated to the yoke of the Law; and third, the Levites, who, as priests, were joined to the Law as husbands to wives. For a summary of patristic and medieval interpretations of the parable, see Stephen L. Wailes, Medieval Allegories of Jesus' Parables: An Introduction (U. of California Press, 1987), 153-66.
(16) T.D. Kelly and John T. Irwin, in "The Meaning of Cleanness: Parable as Effective Sign" Medieval Studies 35 (i 973): 232-60, refer to the poet's paraphrase as "a combination of the versions given in Matthew ... and in Luke" but medieval exegetes generally treat the parables as two separate entities. For an example of another Middle English vernacular writer's treatment of the material, see Adrian J. McCarthy, ed., Book to a Mother (Salzburg: Institute for English and American Studies, 1981). See Kelly and Irwin, "Meaning of Cleanness," 236-40, and Wailes, Medieval Allegories, 153-66.
(17) According to Wailes's Medieval Allegories, 38, medieval authorities did not read the parable of the Wedding Feast as signifying the kingdom of heaven because "no soul admitted to such a banquet ... would be subsequently expelled from it" (38). Wailes refers here to the episode of the guest without a wedding garment (Matt. 22:11-14 and Cleanness, 134-59).
(18) See, e.g., John Nicholls, The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawain-Poet (Woodbridge: Brewer, 1985); David Aers, "Christianity for Courtly Subjects: Reflections on the Gawain-Poet," in Brewer and Gibson, Companion, 91-101; and Watson, "Vernacular Theologian." For arguments that the poems audience was an ecclesiastical rather than a lay audience, see Jane K. Lecklider, "Cleanness": Structure and Meaning (Cambridge: Brewer, 1997), and Francis John Ingledew, "Liturgy, Prophecy, and Belshazzar's Babylon: Discourse and Meaning in Cleanness" Viator 23 (1992): 247-79.
(19) Clark and Wasserman, Purity, 294.
(20) Wallace, Cleanness, 93. See, for example, the "Noah" play from the N-Town cycle, in Douglas Sugano, ed., The N-Town Plays (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2008); or Richard Morris, ed., Cursor Mundi, vol. 1 (Oxford: EETS, 1874; reprint 1961), lines 1553-2000.
(21) See Brzezinski, "Conscience and Covenant"; see also Michael Twomey, "The Sin of 'untrawpe' in Cleanness" in Blanch, Miller, and Wasserman, Text and Matter, 127-28.
(22) Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G. A. Williamson, ed. E. Mary Smallwood (London: Penguin, 1981), at numerous points attributes the destruction of Jerusalem to divine punishment. The burning of the Second Temple, e.g., "foreshows to His people the means of salvation, and that it is through folly and evils of their own choosing that they come to destruction" (6.317-18).
(23) For the importance of the siege of Jerusalem legend in late medieval devotional culture, see Stephen Wright, The Vengeance of Out Lord: Medieval Dramatizations of the Destruction of Jerusalem (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989), 2-10.
(24) In the late fourteenth-century poem Titus and Vespasian, the poet explains that the current Jewish condition of exile and servitude repeats the earlier Babylonian captivity. The linkage of the two events demonstrates the continued ingratitude of the Jews for the grace God has offered them. See J. A. Herbert, ed., Titus and Vespasian (London: Roxburghe Club, 1905), lines 863-70.
(25) Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), 85. See also Amnon Linder, "Jews and Judaism in the Eyes of Christian Thinkers of the Middle Ages: The Destruction of Jerusalem in Medieval Christian Ideology," From Witness to Witchcraft: Jews and Judaism in Medieval Christian Thought, ed. Jeremy Cohen (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1996), 111-23.
(26) Representing Nebuchadnezzar in a positive light is unusual but not unprecedented. The Anglo-Norman Jeu d'Adam, e.g., similarly contrasts Nebuchadnezzar favorably with the Jews. See Arthur Robert Harden, ed., Jeu d'Adam, in Trois pieces medievales (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1967).
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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