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Steven F. Kruger

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | History of Religion | Medieval Studies | Religion


Cleanness, Gawain-Poet, Middle English, Patience, Wyclif


The 14th-century Middle English poems Cleanness and Patience, homiletic retellings of biblical stories which appear in the same manuscript as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, offer moral lessons to a general Christian audience, but the introduction to Cleanness, with its reference to men whom "prestez arn called," suggests that a central feature of their rhetoric is anticlerical critique. Priests do not appear as exemplars but as potentially filthy hypocrites who inspire God's harshest wrath, since their sins may contaminate Christ's body in the Eucharist.

Using Cleanness's opening lines as a guide, this dissertation reads both poems as a set of warnings and exhortations aimed particularly at clerics. Throughout Cleanness, priest-like characters such as Noah, Abraham, and Daniel struggle against ritual defilement, and Patience presents an extended example of a single character, the prophet Jonah, who shirks his duties as an absentee priest. These contextual readings situate the poems within the rich textual environment of 14th-century anticlericalism, including the works of archbishop Richard FitzRalph; poets John Gower, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer; Oxford dissidents and Bible translators such as Nicholas Hereford; and, most notably, John Wyclif, the Oxford philosopher and preacher who inspired the heretical Lollard movement.

The opening chapters present an overview of the anticlerical tradition in England and a summary of the central issues driving critique in the late 14th century. Subsequent chapters present close readings of Cleanness and Patience which foreground congruences between the Gawain-poet's rhetoric and the anticlerical polemic favored by his contemporaries. Since anticlericalism became identified in the late 14th century with heretical positions on the sacraments such as Donatism and Lollardy, this analysis pays close attention to the poet's references to baptism, penance, and the Eucharist, and concludes that, though he embraces clerically administered sacraments as essential elements of the Christian life, he shares many of the Lollards' concerns about priestly corruption and its effects. The final chapter gives a similarly contextual reading to the two "canonical" works of the poet, Pearl and Sir Gawain, in which references to the priesthood are often overlooked, yet, I argue, crucial to each poem's meaning.