“The Nakid Text”: Glosynge as Distortion
Goodman, Thomas A.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 5 (1988)
In The English Church in the Fourteenth Century W. A. Pantin relates the story found in the Durham Cathedral Muniments of one Richard Helmslay, a Dominican, who preached in Newcastle in 1379-1380, attacking the secular clergy in general and in particular offering a new interpretation of the opening words of the twenty-first decree of the 4th Lateran Council of 1215, concerning annual confession. Interpreting the words Omnis utriusque sexus rather literally, Helmslay argued that all those of both sexes that is, only hermaphrodites had to perform their confession “at least once a year privately to their own priest”; presumably the rest of the lambs in the Church’s flock could roam where they might. Helmslay was reported to Rome, and later recanted both at Newcastle and at the diocesan seat of Durham (164-165).
The humor in this incident, of course, turns on the way Helmslay took the Council’s words literally, but in a manner quite other than they were intended. Helmslay’s gloss of the text of what was by now a well-established doctrine caused a bit of a stir he became known in the Roman curia as Frater Ricardus utriusque sexus (165). His joke suggests one of the ways in which interpretation was a topic of the day. Confession was a matter of Church teaching strongly buttressed with a literature of its own, replete with manuals of sin and confession. By the time Helmslay preached, much of this material, such as the Manuel des péchés, was available in English, the latter under the title of Handlyng Synne by Robert Manly of Bourne, a work he completed in 1303. Nearer the end of the century, at the proposed close of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer sets the Parson’s Tale, a work which is clearly part of this penitential literature, and which has lately been invoked, because of its position, as a guide to reading the preceding Tales, much as in its own time it was meant to serve as a normative guide for reading one’s conscience (Patterson, Wenzel). To translate was to make a statement, to say that something deserved a wider audience, a new English-speaking audience, and to translate was to interpret. Thus Helmslay’s twist offers a comic but nonetheless serious challenge to Roman authority, suggesting a penitential piety mediated not so much by Church authority as by personal conscience.