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Glutton's black mass: 'Piers Plowman,' B-text, passus V 297-385.

Lines      Event

297-306    Glutton, on his way to church to hear Mass and make
           confession, is persuaded into the tavern

307-19     He is greeted by a company of revellers

320-36     The bartering for garments

337-45     Drinking ('Lat go the cuppe!') and singing 'till
           evensong'. He pisses 'in a pater-noster while'

346-59     He attempts to walk home and is eventually put to bed by
           his wife and a serving-girl

360-63     He sleeps till Sunday evening, wakes and asks for drink

364-85     He goes to confession and swears to live a better life


Glutton on his way to church, but tempted instead into the ale-house, is a commonplace of medieval homiletic depictions of that particular Deadly Sin. As G. R. Owst has shown, a remarkably close parallel to the Langland passage occurs in John Bromyard's Summa Praedicandium. Bromyard observes, 'Volentes ire ad verbum Dei [diaboli] ducunt ad tabernam' ('The devils lead to the tavern those who wish to go to God's word').(1) Dan Michel, in his Ayenbite of Inwyt, written in 1340, compares the miracles God performs in his church with those of the Devil in his 'church', the ale-house: whereas in God's temple the lame miraculously walk, vision is restored to the blind, etc., in the devil's temple, those who had entered in sound condition lose, through drink, power over their limbs and the ability to focus.(2)

Chaucer's Pardoner, ironically while drinking at an ale-house, relates a sermon in which gluttons indulge themselves in a tavern, 'with-inne that develes temple'. By such over-indulgence, the Pardoner warns his congregation, gluttons make sacrifices to the devil; furthermore gluttony leads to other sins - the gluttonous blaspheme by naming parts of Christ's body, and this re-crucifies him; they often indulge in lechery, a sin that is 'annexed unto glotonye'; the entertainers in the tavern (acrobats, fruit-sellers, singers, etc.) are the 'develes officeres'. The character Great Oaths is often paired with Glutton in homilies,(3) and Langland specifically mentions Glutton's swearing (in 307 and 370).

In an edition of Piers Plowman I remarked, 'We watch the reckless orgy in the ale-house, and we are constantly reminded of the house in which Glutton should be kneeling: "othes", "conscience", "treuthe", "repented", "on his knowes", occur in a context of brilliant incongruity. Glutton drinks "til evensonge", and so much has he drunk that the length of time of his urinating is reckoned as "a pater-noster while".'(4)

What I omitted to note was that, in addition to the black comedy in the contrast between the services in the two 'temples', the passage specifically parodies the events of Holy Week. It cannot precisely parody the Services themselves from Good Friday until Easter Day, because, unlike all other days of the year, Mass was not celebrated on Good Friday (Parasceve) or Holy Saturday; the host was, however, brought into the church on Good Friday, but only the priest took communion.(5) At the beginning of the passage, we learn that the day of the week for Glutton's intended journey to hear Mass is a fasting-day, because Beton, the woman who brews the ale, tells him that she has pepper and peony-seed, garlick and fenel-seed she can put in the beer, 'for fastynge dayes'. We then watch the tavern orgy until Glutton is finally put to bed, and at that point we hear that he slept all Saturday and till sunset on Sunday, thus confirming that it was on a Friday that the drinking-bout took place.

Friday is a fasting-day because it commemorates Good Friday; and Glutton had been on his way to church to hear Mass, the mystical re-enaction of the breaking of the body and shedding of the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. In the parodic service in the tavern we might well expect a reflected image of the Mass. The 'congregation' is seated on the bench, and includes two wayward priests, 'the Clerk of the chirche' and 'Sire Piers of Pridie'.(6) Sharing their lines, and therefore visually next to the priests, are prostitutes, and we recall Chaucer's Pardoner's words that gluttony and lechery are 'annexed':

Clarice of Cokkeslane and the Clerk of the chirche... Sir Piers of Pridie and Pernele of Flaundres

The incidents that follow, though not in strict order, are parodies of the events from Good Friday to Easter Day. In Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and John, 19:23-4, the story is told of the Roman soldiers at the cross who cast lots for Christ's garments: in John's account, we find the extra detail that, because the coat was expensively made, the soldiers decide not to cut it up but to cast lots for it. In the Good Friday liturgy, the third and final Lesson was, indeed, taken from The Gospel according to St John 18-19, the Passion story from Christ's being taken prisoner in the garden by the brook of Cedron until his entombment.(7) A bathetic parallel to the episode of the garments occurs in the Gluttony passage: after Glutton's welcome by the other customers at the tavern, there follows a discussion over the value of some clothes and how they should be equitably distributed. They find it difficult 'by hir conscience acorden in truthe' [= difficult in all conscience to agree the true value]. But a solution is finally agreed upon. These garments are, in fact, almost valueless, they are 'peny-worthes'. Bargaining might well have been more apt for Avarice than for Glutton (indeed at a gathering of the Seven Deadly Sins in an early fifteenth-century homily, it is Covetise who 'beginneth for to bargen'),(8) and the fact that Langland transfers a bargaining episode to the Glutton-description reinforces the implication that he is anxious to evoke the Good Friday final Gospel reading. Furthermore, in the late Middle Ages there was, as Eamon Duffy remarks, a 'dramatic embellishment' in the Good Friday Service at the moment when John 19:24 was read: '. . . that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots.' (The reference is to Psalm 22:18.) 'The clerks parted and removed two linen cloths which had been specially placed for the purpose on the otherwise bare altar' (Duffy).(9)

After this episode, we are told, one could hear the words 'Lat go the cuppe!' (line 337) as the tavern 'congregation' drink. If 'Lat go' means 'pass from one to another', the rioters apparently share a communal cup.(10) The oppositions we expect in parody continue with their contrasting associations. In the first place, the association is with the Communion cup. The wine of the Eucharist is sustaining both literally and metaphorically.(11) It is physically real wine, and simultaneously it has a spiritual reality. In the Langland passage the oppositions of parody are clear: the evil worshippers' self-indulgence in the Devil's temple is in opposition to the feast of the Mass which commemorates self-sacrifice. At the same time, the request ('Lat go the cuppe!') recalls the biblical account of prayer in the Garden of Gesthemane, when Christ prays that the bitter cup of sacrifice may pass from him. Or again in John 18:11 (read, as I have remarked, at the Good Friday liturgy), Christ says, 'Calicem, quem dedit mihi Pater, non bibam ilium?' (Vulgate), 'Wolt thou not, that I drynke thilke cuppe, that my fadir ghal to me?' (Wycliffe).

In the Good Friday ritual, the Liturgy of the Word (with its final reading of the chapters from John), was followed by the Veneration of the Cross, which had been carried to the middle of the choir or nave. Those present knelt before it while two priests sang the Ecce lignum crucis ('Behold the wood of the cross'), followed, in some uses, by an antiphon and a psalm. The altar was prepared for Communion (taken by the priest only), this rite having been commenced at the Pater noster.(12)

Immediately after 'Lat go the cuppe!', we hear that the congregation remains 'till evensong', singing from time to time, and Glutton's parody of The Lord's Prayer in the Devil's temple is to urinate for the length of time it would have taken to recite it:

He pissed a potel [= 4 pints] in a Pater noster while

(line 342)

Then Glutton 'blew his rounde ruwet at his ruggebones ende' ('blew a small trumpet from his backside') and the stench caused much discomfort to the drinkers: '... alle that herde that horn held hir nose after'. The association may be with the consternation among the devils in Last Judgement plays when the horn is sounded to announce the end of the world.(13) But the horn-call in the grotesque parody is not blown by an angel. It is Glutton's fart.

In the Gospel account of the resurrection, Mark 16:2, the two Marys met the risen Christ valde mane ('very early in the morning'), orto iam sole ('at sun-rise') on Easter Sunday (in John 20:1, 'when it was yet dark'). In Mark 16:9, we are told that Christ himself rose early: Surgens autem mane. Both the angels at the tomb, and then Christ himself ask Mary Magdalene why she weeps. In the Glutton episode, we see that he is helped to bed by two lamenting women, 'With al the wo of this world' - which would seem, on the literal level, rather inflated phraseology, were it not that it takes on fuller significance in the context of parodying the women's grief at the crucifixion, and Mary's at the sepulchre. Glutton falls unconscious in an attack of 'accidie' ('sloth'), sleeps all Saturday, and re-awakens on Sunday. In this account of Glutton's 'resurrection' we find that (again setting up the opposition to Christ's resurrection) it was not at sun-rise but at sun-set that the slothful Glutton came to life again:

. . . he sleep Saterday and Sonday, til sonne yede [= went] to reste.

When Glutton finally comes to, his first words are to ask for drink. In this alerted context, the reader's mind may well recall the word from the cross: sitio, I thirst. In the John 19:28 version it says 'that the scriptures myght be fulfyled', he sayde, I thyrst' (Tyndale). It is likely that this refers to Psalm 69:21, 'in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink'. Glutton's request, however, is for the literal, self-indulgent, drink. The Glutton episode ends circularly with the true confessional, the object of his original quest, though there is ample reason to suppose that Glutton's weeping regret for his misspent life is unlikely to be long-lasting.

God's church and Devil's tavern were regularly juxtaposed by the homilists, with the events in the Devil's 'temple' grotesquely reflective of those in God's Owst cites an example where all the Deadly Sins, having assembled in 'ghowre chirche the taverne', are finally dismissed by Wrath: 'He chargeth that noon of hem parte from other in charite . . . And then saide thai alle "Amen".'(14) The constant echoes of the Services and events from Friday to Sunday of Holy Week in Glutton's eighty-nine lines of black comedy give point to what might otherwise appear to be merely random details of his orgy.

COLIN WILCOCKSON Pembroke College, Cambridge

1 For a full discussion, see Owst, literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1933), particularly p. 224 (including the footnote which dates Bromyard's Summa Praedicandium c. 1360-1368), and pp. 437-49.

2 Cited in Owst, p. 438.

3 M W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (Michigan, 1952), p. 164.

4 Colin Wilcockson (ed.), Langland: Selections from 'Piers Plowman' (London, 1965), pp. xiv and 113-14 (notes on lines 304 and 314).

5 John Harper, The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy (Oxford, 1991), p. 144.

6 See A. V. C. Schmidt (ed.), The Vision of Piers Plowman (London, rev. edn, 1987), note on Passus V, 312. All quotations in this article are from Schmidt's edition.

7 Harper, p. 144.

8 MS St John's College, Oxford 94. ed. J. F. Royster, 'A Middle-English Treatise on the Ten Commandments', Studies in Philology, VI. Cited by Owst, Literature and Pulpit, pp. 440-1.

9 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven and London, 1992), p. 29.

10 J. A. W. Bennett, in his edition of the Prologue and Passus I-VII (Oxford, 1972), notes that Gower, Confessio Amantis, VI. 60, uses the phrase 'baillez ca the cuppe' [= give the cup, then].

11 For a discussion of this fusion of literal and metaphorical use of images of food and drink in the poem as a whole (though without specific analysis of the Glutton Passus V passage) see Jill Mann, 'Eating and Drinking in Piers Plowman', Essays and Studies (1979), pp. 26, 43, particularly pp. 27 and 39.

12 Harper, pp.144-6.

13 See, for example, The Last Judgment (Wakefield) in David Bevington (ed.), Medieval Drama (Boston, 1975), p. 641. The devils refer to the angel trumpet sometimes as a horn. sometimes as a trumpet.

14 Literature and Pulpit, pp. 440-1.
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Title Annotation:character in Anglo-Saxon poem
Author:Wilcockson, Colin
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Words:2155
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