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The Five Senses of Sin

By Danièle Cybulskie

After the Black Death, there were many complaints about how the priests who filled the gaps left behind were not as learned as those who had come before, and that their Latin was especially poor. The fact was, however, that a widely Christian Europe still needed priests, whether they were ready or not.

A parish priest could often be a man who worked on his own without a lot of outside support or mentorship once he’d finished school. When the spiritual welfare of the community was riding on his shoulders, it was important that he remember how to care for his flock. So, what was a forgetful or poorly-educated priest to do?

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Fortunately, in the tradition of helpful medieval instruction manuals comes Instructions for Parish Priests, a treatise surviving in several fifteenth-century manuscripts. Written by John Mirk and based on a prior treatise (he says) Instructions for Parish Priests is a long poem written entirely in Middle English rhyme in order to be helpful to those priests who had little Latin. It goes over everything from how to live a moral life as a priest (be humble, shave, stay away from women and anything fun), to how to take confession and give the last rites.

Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(onfessio) of a cleric hearing a confession. British Library MS Royal 6 E VI f. 354v

Because Mirk’s goal is to make the priest’s duties as memorable as possible, there is a passage in Instructions for Parish Priests that covers the questions a priest should ask his parishioners about venial sins in confession, based on the five senses. As the body is always unhelpfully leading the soul into temptation, what could be more straightforward than tackling it through the means by which it does so?

Mirk starts with perhaps the easiest sense: sight. He asks if the person has seen anything that has tempted him into sin, and to think hard on it because that is definitely a way that people have been tempted before:

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Has þow I-seyn any thynge
Þat tysed þe to synnynge?
Be-þenke þe, sone, welle I pray
For mony þyngus þat falle may.

(Have you seen anything
That enticed you into sinning?
Think, son, well, I pray
For many things may fall that way. / Many things that can fall, may.)

He then moves on to hearing, getting much more specific this time:

Hast þow I-had gret lykynge
For to here euele thynge,
Or nyce words of rybawdy,
Or such maner harlotry?

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(Have you had great liking
To hear evil things,
Or nice words of ribaldry,
Or such in the manner of harlotry?)

Obviously, a priest would not want a parishioner to enjoy listening to people talk about sex in case it leads them into trying some of the things they hear about for themselves. But given that medieval humour and storytelling made extremely heavy use of sexual themes – from fabliaux to romances – it would be difficult indeed for anyone to be able to say they hadn’t enjoyed listening to any of it at all. Even for the priest, himself.

The third sense the priest is to ask about is the sense of smell. When I first read this section, I will admit to curiosity as to how smelling anything could actually be sinful, but Mirk taps into the way smell affects us and stirs us as people:

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Hast þow I-smelled any þynge
Þat hath tend thy lykynge,
Of mete or drynke or spysory
Þat þow has after I-synned by?

(Have you smelled anything
That tended to your liking,
Meat, or drink, or spicery,
That has led you to sin afterwards?)

That is, have you been lead by the nose, as it were, into temptation? Food and drink might easily tempt a person to gluttony, while longing for spices might move a person to unnecessary decadence. Mirk doesn’t extend his suspicion to perfume here, but then again, he’s covered sexual temptation with other senses – and he’s limited himself to four lines per verse.

Taste follows. It’s a pretty straightforward sense, all things considered, so Mirk dedicates half his verse to reminding the sinner to tell all, so that he might be forgiven:

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Also hef þou synned hast,
In mete or drynke by lusty tast,
Þat also þow must telle me,
Hef I schale a-soyle the.

(Also, if you have sinned
In food or drink by having lusty tastes (being greedy)
You also must tell me that
If I am to help you.)

Finally, Mirk reaches his most specific questions yet, and of course they are concerning touch. The sense of touch can no doubt stir envy in a person, or perhaps sloth if the bedclothes are particularly comfy, but there is only one category of sin with which Mirk is concerned when it comes to touch: lust.

Hast þou I-towched folyly,
Þat þy membrus were styred by,
Wommones flesch or þyn owne?
Hef þou hast þou moste schowne.

(Have you touched with folly
So that your members were stirred by it?
Either women’s flesh or your own?
If you have, you must reveal it.)

Although the Early English Text Society edition from 1868 by Edward Peacock (which I’m using for the original Middle English verses here) glosses this demurely as “Hast thou sinned in touching anything that thou shouldest not?”, Mirk is very clear that he means touching that causes a sexual stirring. Sex in the Middle Ages (at least, according to church doctrine) was meant to be for procreative purposes only, so touching that causes stirring for the sake of stirring is strictly a no-no. It’s enough of one – and a common enough one – that this is what the whole verse is dedicated to.

Miniature of a human ear complaining to a personification of Nature that she has given him no such protection as the eye was given with the eyebrows – British Library MS Egerton 1121 f. 38r

With that, Mirk wraps up by saying in essence: here are the five senses; be sure to tell me if you’ve used them responsibly since we last saw each other. He then segues into more specific questions which are much more vaguely thematically related to each other, and therefore much more difficult for a priest to remember. With his layout of the five senses and the way in which they might lead a sinner into temptation, however, Mirk’s already covered all the major bases for a parish priest to remember if he’s struggling with what to ask those who have come for confession.

Because learning about what not to do is a really great way of learning about a society, John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests is worth a read all the way through. Although in Middle English, it’s widely available through Peacock’s EETS edition (the five senses begin on page 41).

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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