Virginia Langum, Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins in Late Medieval Literature and Culture

Virginia Langum, Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins in Late Medieval Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), ISBN 978-1-137-44990-0, HB, 225 pages.

In western culture, the concept of the seven deadly sins, the late-Antique barometer of morality which juxtaposes the ‘vices’ with the ‘virtues’, has, in various guises, remained an important part of our thought and lexicon. The language of ‘sin’ and its connection to the body and medicine remains popular within the spheres of politics, science, and the media, to name a few, and it is the perennial relevance of sin that Virginia Langum treats in her 2016 monograph, Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins in Late Medieval Literature and Culture.

In her comprehensive study of the deadly sins – pride, envy, wrath, avarice, sloth, gluttony and lechery – Langum argues that these seven cardinal vices became established as part of an integral, yet flexible, framework during the late Middle Ages, which interconnected the body and soul with medicine and morality. For Langum, an associate professor at Umeå University, the period between the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Reformation was a fertile one for confessional literature on the seven deadly sins as the 13th and 14th centuries witnessed a growing emphasis on the importance of understanding the ‘essentials’ of the Christian faith, and the seven deadly sins, being considered a catechetical subject, increasingly attracted exegesis in  pastoral, medical, scholastic, visionary, and literary works both in Latin and the vernacular. At this time, Langum observes that, ‘even the most humble vernacular pastoral manual recognised the significance of medicine and the medicalized body in relation to the sins, whether functioning metaphorically, metonymically, or materially (193).

The methodology employed throughout this book can best be described as interdisciplinary. Incorporating literary theory, the history of ideas, religious history, the history of emotions, and foremost of all, the history of medicine, Langum’s approach traces the vicissitudes of each term for the seven deadly sins with the determination of an intellectual historian, whilst always seeking to place its meaning within a wider cultural context. The introduction of the study establishes clear parameters for its key concepts: ‘medieval,’ ‘medicine,’ and ‘seven deadly sins.’ Here, Langum observes that medieval theologians distinguished between a ‘sin’ (peccatum), a single evil act, and a ‘vice’ (vitium), a bad habit or repeated evil actions (13). The deadly sins were envisaged further as fundamentally emotional acts; the emotions, generated from the four bodily humours helped to elide the differing areas of medicine, body, and sin together. A common feature of Langum’s analysis of each sin will thus involve how medieval doctors and theologians thought that uncontrolled emotions or passions could morph within the body from unintended desires into deadly sins. Consequently, in respect to the historiographical alignment of this monograph, Langum self-identifies with historians of emotion such as Barbara Rosenwein and Elena Carrera who have each contributed to the downfall of the reductive teleology of Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1924) and Norbert Elias’ The Civilising Process (1939), through the recognition of the diverse and nuanced relationships of premodern emotions to medieval culture(s) (4-5).

Following the definition of terms, Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins is divided into two parts. The first part is principally concerned with the definition of the three areas that are used to analyse each sin: metaphor, metonym, and materiality (29-81). It was in the Late Middle Ages, Langum argues, that the image of the Christus medicus, that is, the idea of ‘Christ the Physician,’ emerged as the result of the blending of medicine with the theology of the seven deadly sins. The image of Christ, or rather the Christian faith, as a doctor administering remedies for sin was an idea that could be conveyed through metaphor (the correlation between spiritual failure and disease), metonymy (the interaction between medicine and the passions) and materiality (the belief in medicine as a physical cure for sin).

Having established the importance of this framework, part two follows a regular rhythm of exploring the aforementioned metaphorical, metonymic and material relationships of each deadly sin (83-191). Medical sources unsurprisingly feature prominently in Langum’s analysis, drawing on the Latin and vernacular works of Guy of Chauliac (d. 1368), Lanfranc of Milan (d. 1306) and John Arderne (d. 1392). Yet, to define each sin, medical texts generally are supplemented with encyclopaedic and scholastic works such as Bartolomeus Anglicus’ (1204-1272) On the Properties of Things (De proprietatibus rerum) and Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) Summa Theologica. And to show the how these medico-scholastic views diffused among the growing segment of society literate in the vernaculars of the day (English, French, German) Langum predictably draws on the enormous bulk of literature on the seven deadly sins (Lorens d’Orleans’ Somme le Roi, William Peraldus’ Summa on the Virtues and Vices (Summa de virtutibus et vitiis), and the Fasciculus Morum), alongside visionary and literary works (Ancrene Wisse, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, John Gower’s The Lover’s Confession (Confessio Amantis) and Mirror of Man (Mirour de l’Omme)).

Utilising this broad source base, then, Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins establishes a persuasive account of the different metaphorical, metonymic and material relationships between each sin and medicine. Pride, for example, metaphorically was considered the worst of all the sins, likened to the diseases of frenzy and madness through its association with vainglory and disobedience; metonymically, it was associated with the head, the highest point of the body and location of the spirit (spiritus) or rational soul (anima); and materially, pride became established as a cause of the plague (82-103). Langum, moreover, reveals clearly how each sin was imagined as more or less connected to the body or the soul - pride and envy were regarded as distinct sins of the soul; wrath and avarice straddled the boundary of both; whereas gluttony and lechery were intimately connected with sins of the flesh.

The major strength and weakness of Langum’s methodology is its thematic nature. Through metaphor, metonymy and materiality, this book intimately details how each sin was imagined in connection to medieval attitudes to the body and soul, disease and culture, and showing how granularity of each sin corresponds with the developments in medieval culture at the macro level. Occasionally this methodology allows Langum to pinpoint the transformation of a specific sin in time: sloth, for instance, around the 13th century transitioned from becoming a vice of the soul (acedia) to being consolidated as a sin of the flesh by the 15th, firmly associated with the bodily sins of lechery and gluttony (146). At some points, though, Langum’s preference for her three themes takes precedence at the expense of detailing the change over this three-hundred-year period that each deadly sin underwent or the events it was tied to, a tendency which occasionally strays into overly descriptive accounts.

Nevertheless, this is only a minor quibble, and the strength of Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins lies in Langum’s ability to show how each sin could possess multiple intersecting levels of meaning. Aimed at an academic audience, this monograph complements literature not only concerning sin and medicine (Newhauser and Ridyard, 2012; Demaitre, 2013; Green, 2014), but also the emotions (Rosenwein, 1997; Carrera, 2013; Boquet and Nagy, 2018), the medieval body (Bynum, 1995; Hartnell, 2018) and the connection between the soul and body (Knuutitla, 2004). Langum’s study, therefore, is relevant not only to scholars working on the subject of sin or medicine but will prove insightful for anyone working in these areas. As Langum puts it, ‘medicine is integral to better understanding cultural meanings of living and suffering’ (193). Overall, then, by bridging intellectual and cultural history, this study greatly advances our understanding of how two differing subjects – theology and medicine – came together in the medieval imagination, and how the intersection between them, facilitated polysemic conceptions of sin and the body in the late Middle Ages.

Jack Ford, University College London