Wednesday, 3 February 2016

On gluttony, by Vanora Bennett

So January is over, and with it that month of post-Christmas penance. You may have spent it dry or dieting, as I did. The start of February, nowadays, is when many people start again with a clean slate, feeling free to eat what they want.

I wrote about seasonal excesses of food last month, and here I am writing about food again. But the fascinating foodie posts of fellow History Girls Gillian Polack, yesterday, and Elizabeth Chadwick, a week or so ago, reminded me of one of my favourite bits of Chaucer – the Pardoner’s brilliant rant about gluttony and the other deadly sins. And since we are just starting to come off the brown rice and mineral water I thought it might be timely to share it with you here.

Reading The Canterbury Tales for the first time was, for me, one of the great pleasures of writing The People’s Queen, a novel about Alice Perrers, wife (maybe) of half a dozen rich old City of London merchants, mistress of the senile Edward III, and, once she’d stopped being a young woman in a hurry, patron of Geoffrey Chaucer. The historical Alice was an extraordinary, divisive, hard-headed, business-minded female, yet with enough charm and oomph too to help her associates in the City make loans at Court and cream off large percentages in the middle without anyone noticing or asking difficult questions. It took years for it all to come out. When it did, it caused a 14th-century credit crunch. As a result, Alice was much disliked in her lifetime. Still, she’s often held to be the prototype of Chaucer’s fictional Wife of Bath, that rambunctious, outrageous yet lovable female, who in the Tales is off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury for no other reason than to catch herself a fifth husband to keep her. And the Wife of Bath is loved to this day, dubious morals or not, for her quick wit and cheerful impatience with other people’s sanctimonious pomposity - so Alice must have been doing something right, at least for her protégé.

Naturally, to write about Alice and Chaucer, I had to read what he’d written about the Wife of Bath, and generally to immerse myself in Chaucer’s work. The “sermon” on gluttony has stayed with me ever since. It’s definitely one of the best bits.

Here’s what Chaucer gets his crafty character the Pardoner to say about gluttony (which, like all other forms of excess, was at odds with the medieval idea that well-being came from equilibrium - finding the tactful mid-point in anything, by whatever form of balance or blending or moderation was called for).

Chaucer gets the Pardoner going with the popular medieval notion that it wasn’t disobeying God’s wishes but just plain old gluttony – that is, the wish to eat an apple – that got Adam expelled from the Garden of Eden (“for while he fasted he was in Paradise”). But he moves quickly on to consider the medical problems of “excess and gluttonies” – if only the damage excess could do were better known, he argues, would people not be “more moderate / In diet, And at table more sedate”? He mocks the “short throat” and “tender mouth” that force men all over the world to slog to “get a glutton dainty meat and drink”. He quotes St Paul condemning the gluttonous.

"Meat for the belly and belly for the meat:
And both shall God destroy," as Paul does say.

And then he just takes off in this gloriously unselfconscious, stinking, dung-laden, farting, belching riff:

Weeping I tell you once again they're dross,
For they are foes of Christ and of the Cross,
O gut! O belly! O you stinking cod,
Filled full of dung, with all corruption found!
At either end of you foul is the sound.
With how great cost and labour do they find
Your food! These cooks, they pound and strain and grind;
Substance to accident they turn with fire,
All to fulfill your gluttonous desire!
Out of the hard and riven bones knock they
The marrow, for they throw nothing away
That may go through the gullet soft and sweet;
With spicery, with leaf, bark, root, replete
Shall be the sauces made for your delight,
To furnish you a sharper appetite.
But truly, he that such delights entice
Is dead while yet he wallows in this vice.

There’s more – much more – on all the sins, but this is enough to give a flavour. I read it as pure comedy (especially the fantastically gross “at either end of you foul is the sound,” something I’m often tempted to say to my teenage sons). I laughed out loud. And I put a few words from the next bit of the riff into my fictional Chaucer’s own mouth, when a twist in the story leaves him hung over and self-pitying after drinking with Alice.

But as with all good comedy it has darkness in it.

It was only after discovering yet another classic of medieval literature (yes, I know, shame on me for not being better read) – this time Dante’s Divine Comedy – that I realised quite how seriously the medieval world took gluttony.

Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain on the only bit of land in the southern hemisphere. Divided into many layers for different types of sinner, it’s a kind of brutal reform school for errant souls, where virtue is whipped back into pupils through a regime of punishments lasting many times longer than the sins that had originally got them sent there.

Of course there is a correctional classroom for gluttons.

All those who in life have over-emphasised food, drink and bodily comforts are confined to the sixth of seven layers – one for each of the deadly sins - to be purged. Their punishment consists of being starved in the presence of fruit trees whose fruit is always out of reach. Voices call out to them to consider examples of the opposite virtue of temperance - the Virgin Mary, who shared her Son’s gifts with others at the Wedding of Canaa, and John the Baptist who only lived on locusts and honey.

Medievals needed the threat of that punishment, it seems, because gluttony was the gateway to so many other sins.

O gluttony; full of all wickedness,
O first cause of confusion to us all,
Beginning of damnation and our fall

As Chaucer’s Pardoner saw it, getting hedonistically drunk and eating too much fine food was just a first step to lechery - getting slim, attractive girls of ill repute to join you in the fleshpots. And, once you’d sunk that low, even murder might be only a brief further step along the road to eternal damnation…

I’m going out for dinner tonight. I’ve been looking forward for all the dry January weeks to celebrating my son’s birthday with that first glass of February wine while cake is consumed. But now I’ve remembered all this, it’s looking a bit different.

Perhaps I won’t.

Vanora Bennett's website


Susan Price said...

Oh, you will. Go on go on go on go on go on

Gillian Polack said...

In Old French insults calling someone a glutton was a high level nasty thing to say. It was one of the insults you find in epic legends, just before the fights begin...