Friday, 9 September 2016

Seven Sins to Ten Commandments

Daily Draw, Ship of Fools Tarot, Four of Cups

The image of a sleepy fool about to receive a rude awakening has been adapted from a Narrenschiff image that satirises sloth. In the middle ages through to the fifteenth century the chief vehicle of the moral tradition in the West was the doctrine of the seven deadly sins. In order of severity: pride, envy, anger, avarice, gluttony, sloth and lechery. 

They were often divided into sins of the spirit and sins of the flesh with the former to be avoided more than the latter. Pride, envy and anger were in the first category and gluttony, lechery and usually sloth in the second. Avarice could be one or the other. 

According to John Bossy they formed a system of community ethics making more excuse for sins of concupiscence that for those of aversion. The reasoning being that sins of aversion destroy community but without some dalliance with the sins of concupiscence there is unlikely to be a community at all. 

This doctrine of sin expounded by parsons, friars and town preachers is expressed by the parson in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. For him pride, envy and wrath came first. Pride being a social phenomenon which consisted of putting claims of status before those of sociability. 

Envy had two main forms - jealousy of other men's prosperity and pleasure in their misfortune. It implied the doctrine of limited good - the idea that there is a finite amount of good fortune in the world so that what accrues to one member of a community must be taken from the rest. The parson thought it the worst of all sins because it was the most directly opposed to solidarity and charity (meaning love of God and one's neighbour) and the root of much backbiting and discord. 

Rather than denoting bad temper, wrath meant a longstanding firm hatred of a neighbour expressed in acts of malice or vengeance against him. This included manslaughter, cursing, swearing and verbal abuse but also usury, the withholding of wages and alms, witchcraft, conjuring and divination.

The fifteenth century witnessed the Church sanctioned transition from the seven deadly sins to the Ten Commandments as the principle moral system. The results were nothing short of revolutionary. 

Henceforth sins against community previously regulated by private arrangement were replaced with punishable sins against God, the State and the Church. In the new order a drive for chastity, respect for authority and property were to supersede the medieval concern for charity.  

Source: Bossy, J. (1985) Christianity in the West, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 


  1. I think I'd put pride first too. Without being able to see our own faults, we'll never do anything about them.

    1. I think I remember Al Pacino's character in Devil's Advocate saying something along the lines of pride being the worst one of all - leads to all the others.

  2. Luckily there were seven virtues too as a kind of road signs on how to behave :)

    1. Yes you're right. Thanks for reminding me. That can be tomorrow's research project. Slightest encouragement and off I go...:D

  3. Pride so confuses me. Although I've left the ability of mankind's religions to judge me, I personally stumble over pride. Am I proud or am I being prideful. I guess it is good to have one fault to worry over...
    I LOVe your blog.

  4. Thanks Sharyn! I think there are healthy and unhealthy forms of pride. In my 20s I was very pride in the superior sense - a reaction to shame of growing up without much money. I'd like to think I've mellowed now to pride in a job well done or a goal reached while being mindful not everyone has the privileges I enjoy.