«Abstract Criticism of Cleanness has been marked by sharp critical divergence on both thematic and formal concerns, and I investigate how the context ...»
Criticism of Cleanness has been marked by sharp critical divergence on both thematic and
formal concerns, and I investigate how the context of 14th century debates on access to
vernacular religious texts might allow reconciliation of these opposing theoretical stances. While
detailed attention has been paid to the narrative voice in other works of the Pearl-poet, the same
has not been done for Cleanness. I combine a close reading of the poem with a survey of the
major currents of criticism on it and with research into the significance of vernacularity in the period, and I conclude that Cleanness is structured by the coherent voice of a narrator teaching vernacular readers the importance of spiritual discipline. This paper places Cleanness within its historical context of the growing importance of English, and this context reveals that it is a virtuosic poem deserving its position next to the more celebrated works of the Pearl manuscript.
Keywords Pearl-poet, vernacularity, Medieval England, religious debates, narrative voice “As lauce leues of þe boke:” Cleanness and the Perils of Vernacular Reading Cleanness is written in English. This most obvious fact is not insignificant, for it provides an essential context for considering its content in light of contemporary discussions about vernacular religious texts. Cleanness comes out of the final decades of the fourteenth century, in which English was increasingly used in contexts previously reserved for French and Latin.1 Many fourteenth century writers express no anxieties about vernacular religious texts having detrimental effects upon their audience (The Idea of the Vernacular 216), and the church used English texts to educate the laity (Watson, “The Politics” 338). However, the availability of scriptural materials in the vernacular, whether in literary texts, sermons, or translations, was a source of anxiety.2 Because of concerns about the laity’s incapacity to navigate complex doctrinal issues, the educated, Latinate clergy were responsible to “translate Church doctrine” (Potter 79) into terms appropriate to the laity’s level of moral rectitude and education. Cleanness, with its detailed renditions of scriptural material, should be examined in this context of discussions about the benefits and dangers of religious content in the English vernacular.
The poems of the Pearl manuscript, positioned alongside the works of such writers as Chaucer and Langland, participate in a “deliberate… effort to assimilate and displace” (Idea 319) French and Latin. These works thus engage in the development of a specifically English community, and the role of vernacular texts in informing that community's character and stability was a central concern to many writing in English (Idea322). Cleanness investigates the consequences of vernacular access to scriptural narratives and explores how this access might affect the spiritual wellbeing of its audience. While vernacular texts could strengthen the English Its dating is uncertain (Staley 3), but critical consensus places it in these decades.
Later, particularly beginning with Arundel’s 1409 Constitutions, the church heavily restricted access to vernacular texts with religious content.
community, they also presented dangers. The church was concerned that the laity might not have the “ability and willingness to understand what they should from their reading” (Idea 212).
Furthermore, the restriction of “divergent readings” (Idea 115), particularly by those lacking sufficient education, prevented the fracturing of communities united by shared doctrine and helped to preserve a collective religious integrity. As English became “fashionable” (Potter 78), possession of English texts became “a status symbol” for “the lay aristocracy” (Idea 131).
Cleanness, with its courtly ideals3 and its probably aristocratic audience (Watson, “The GawainPoet 294), educates its readers about the potential pitfalls attending increased access to religious texts by a vernacular audience lacking the education and spiritual discipline to read them correctly.
Understanding Cleanness as an exploration in the dangers of reading allows some of the opposed readings its complex structure has elicited to be reconciled. Responses vary from enthusiastic claims that Cleanness aims “actually to render” its readers clean (Potkay 109) to the queasy recognition that “Cleanness holds its gaze too long on unclean things” (Ferhatovic 163).
Morse argues that the poem’s main message urging repentance is conveyed via its “vivid picture” (11) of the consequences both of cleanness and filth, but Wallace’s discussion of the “problem of interpretation” (97) arising from the poem’s ambiguous imagery and Frantzen’s argument that its severe denunciation of sin is accompanied by almost “salacious” (457) descriptions complicate the relationship between the poem’s stated didactic ends and its narrative techniques. These readings need not, however, be mutually exclusive when placed in the context of discussions about the perils of reading vernacular religious texts. By drawing readers into a Keiser argues that Cleanness is a celebration of courtly ideals, and certainly the poem is “elaborately decorative” (17) in places.
bewildering maze of complexity and ambiguity that demonstrates how easily sin-prone humans go astray, the narrator engages his audience in an interactive lesson in which he demonstrates the hazards awaiting the undisciplined reader of narratives of sin and judgment, warns them of pitfalls they must avoid in future reading if they wish to enter the kingdom of heaven, and points them toward the course of action necessary to ensure their salvation. This degree of narrative subtlety and coherence, demonstrated by Benson as functioning similarly in Patience, positions Cleanness as rightly situated with the other, more broadly acclaimed works of the Pearl-poet.4 The Cleanness-narrator directly addresses his readers with the repeated command, “war þe” (545, 1133, 1143), and thereby interrupts the solitary activity of reading. Throughout the fourteenth century conceptions of the individual reader developed, in which the reader was “distinguished as a singular person possessing a unique point of view (Kimmelman 26). This development was accompanied by a self-reflexive interest in the process of reading itself, a theme Cleanness takes up.5 Individual reading was conceived as potentially dangerous because textual ambiguity required informed and skilled interpretation to achieve the right meaning of the text (Copeland 158).6 As vernacular access to religious texts increased, clergy educated the laity in right reading habits by such methods as including in devotional manuals instructions about how they should be read (Taylor 50).7 These strategies were necessary to contain the interpretive responses of the laity, who lacked the habitual discipline inculcate by Latin grammar, which Discussions of Cleanness are often prefaced with a disclaimer that the poem has either been ignored or treated dismissively. The poem’s sophistication has been sufficiently proven, however, and it no longer deserves to bear this appendage.
As Kimmelman notes, such self-reflexivity is key to Chaucer’s work (31), and this aspect of Cleanness can be positioned within these broader literary currents.
Copeland, discussed by Rhodes (14-15), argues that a new understanding of textual interpretation arose out of Augustine, one that allowed for and dealt with textual ambiguity.
Even the Wycliffite Bible displays anxious recognition that instead of writers, it is readers “who control the process by which what they say is understood” (Idea 215).
enforced conformity to authoritative hierarchies (Breen 83) and was understood as paradigmatic “for human virtue” (Breen 39).8 Vernacular religious texts needed to incorporate these interpretive “safeguards” (Breen 28) to protect their readers’ spiritual wellbeing. However, some religious texts are more danger-fraught than others, an understanding the Cleanness-narrator acknowledges when he states that while the praise of cleanness comes in “fayre formez” (3), its “contraré” (4), that is, “the condemning of uncleanness” (Prior 10),9 is accompanied by “kark and combraunce huge” (4), which involves a burden of interpretive responsibility that the spiritually undisciplined reader will be unable to support. Cleanness reveals this danger via its vacillation between detailed fascination with the sins the exempla are supposed to condemn and the narrator’s scathing proclamations of the judgment awaiting those who take this kind enjoyment in sin. This narrative structure makes apparent readers’ susceptibility to finding pleasure in sin and their need to develop the spiritual discipline of right reading habits.
While educated and spiritually disciplined clergy were supposed to mediate correct teaching to the laity, if the clergy were corrupt, then they could be an unreliable source of guidance and doctrine. An alternative to reliance on an unreliable clergy was for lay audiences to read religious material for themselves, and lay anti-clerical critique coincided with increased attempts to make religious texts available in the vernacular. Cleanness both presents religious narratives in the vernacular and begins with an acknowledgment of clerical corruption. That Breen further argues that “efforts to develop a vernacular habitus” (5) provide the basis to conceptualize the development of a community of English readers.
The syntax of this line is controversial as the referent for “þe contraré” is ambiguous. Prior backs her reading of this line with her reading of the poem as a whole. In their footnote Andrew and Waldron translate the grammar as “speaking against cleanness.” They state that the reading, “one would have difficulty in illustrating the commendability of purity from stories of impurity” (111), is implausible because the attempt to present a positive account of cleanness from negative exempla is the task the poet undertakes; however, this difficulty is precisely the territory through which the narrator takes readers.
members of the priesthood may be “honest vtwyth and inwith alle fylþez” (14) points to a problematic gap between actuality and appearance, and the narrator acknowledges concerns that those charged with providing doctrine for the edification of the laity may not have the required spiritual integrity to fulfill this task properly. However, the poem’s anti-clerical critique is incomplete. Those clergy who are clean receive “gret mede” (12), and priestly mediation of religious narrative provides the narrator some of his material, both what he has heard in “masse” (51)10 and what he has “herkned and herde of mony hyȝe clerkez” (193). This mediated access to religious material is supplemented by what he has “red… myselven” (194). Thus, he is both concerned with the quality of doctrine provided by the clergy and with personal reading practices. As the poem progresses the narrator demonstrates that this problem of a corrupt priesthood cannot be corrected by an incautious adoption of responsibility for scriptural interpretation by individuals lacking disciplined reading habits.
The parable of the wedding feast, with such details as the “onyȝed” (102) and the “balterande cruppelez” (103) being invited, emphasizes the radical inclusivity of the invitation to the kingdom of heaven. This emphasis echoes the “Lollard vision” (Idea 342) of nonhierarchical religion, central to which was access to scripture in the vernacular. If, however, the most wretched are invited to God’s feast, this rendition of the parable makes another point brutally clear: unyielding judgment awaits those who come spiritually unprepared. The man who incurs the lord’s wrath has a fouled “abyt” (141),11 a word whose connotations extend beyond clothing to include “moral disposition” (MED), and which thus anticipates the nature of his offence, being Andrew and Waldron translate this line as: “as Matthew tells in his gospel read at mass” (114).
Breen tracks the changing use of “habit” from specifically religious garb and comportment to include that of the laity, a process she argues was part of an endeavour to “Latinize English”and thereby develop a habituated vernacular readership.
“sowlé” (168) with sin. “Habit” evokes the context of debates about vernacular texts and whether those without the religious discipline ingrained by Latin grammar are capable of sound reading practices (Breen 27). This discussion about who is fit to handle holy things echoes throughout the parable of the wedding feast, whose point that those encountering the sacred must “be quoynt” (160) is clear and unambiguous and therefore appropriate for a vernacular audience.
Having made his warning explicit, however, the narrator now takes readers through a process of learning just how easily soiled their reading habits can become.
The Flood narrative, the first of three negative exampla, “þrynne wyses” (1805) which reveal how “vnclannes tocleves” (1806) God’s heart, reveals the difficulty, the “combraunce” attending accounts of divine “malys mercyles” (250) unleashed upon “fylþe vpon folde” (251).
At first glance, this exemplum does appear to find “fayre formez” for itself and its readers. The account of “fleschlych dedez” (265) skims along in swift generalizations, after which it focuses on the details of God’s precise measurements for the finely crafted ark and concludes with salvation of the righteous, a “comly and clene” (508) sacrifice, and God’s “cortays wordez”(512) forming a covenant. Upon closer examination, however, the path to this pious conclusion is beset by perilous distractions. For example, a detailed, sympathetic account of friends embracing and lovers’ farewells follows a declaration that all God’s “pyté” had “departed” (396) from these sinners. The disjunction between God’s wrath and the narrative’s empathetic identification with those being destroyed reveals the tendency of humans to place their allegiance wrongly, to pity those whom divine wrath has marked only for destruction, and in pitying, to call into question the rightness of God’s judgment.