Item 38, The Wounds and the Sins: Introduction


1 On the origins and development of devotion to the wounds, see Gougaud, Devotional and Ascetic Practices, pp. 80–91; for the introduction of this cult to England, see Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts, pp. 84–90.

2 Meditations on the Passion, printed in Rolle, English Writings of Richard Rolle, p. 35.

3 On the development of these correspondences, see Bloomfield, Seven Deadly Sins, pp. 83–104.

4 For an example of a lyric contrasting the seven blood-sheddings with the seven sins, see C. Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, pp. 218–19.

5 See Bonaventure, Opera omnia, 8:261 and 8:264–65.

6 For the contents of C and its close relationship with MS Pepys 1584, see McSparran and Robinson’s introduction to the facsimile, Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. On the relationship of this manuscript to Ashmole 61, see the General Introduction.

7 NIMEV 3356; see Wilson, Descriptive Index of the English Lyrics in John of Grimestone’s Preaching Book.

8 For a facsimile of this MS, see Hogg’s Illustrated Yorkshire Carthusian Religious Miscellany.

9 For discussion of examples, see Gray, “Five Wounds of Our Lord,” pp. 164–65. For a few examples, see Mâle’s L’Art Religieux de la Fin du Moyen Age en France, pp. 108–10.

10 On the “Gregorian” and other arrangements of the seven deadly sins, see Bloomfield, Seven Deadly Sins, pp. 72–87.

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Item 38, The Wounds and the Sins: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

This simple poem of eight quatrains matching the seven wounds of Christ with the seven deadly sins was among the most popular lyrics of late medieval England. It sur­vives in eleven manuscripts and probably dates from the very end of the fourteenth cen­tury. Though the poem features a few arresting images, its popularity likely stemmed from its convenient conjunction of two of the most widespread schema of medieval piety, the wounds of Christ and the seven deadly sins. The poem provides a very simple way to con­template the Passion while enumerating (or identifying) one’s sins, and this utility must have been the source of its appeal.

Devotion to the wounds of Christ was not a new practice in the fifteenth century, but it reached its greatest height in this period, with the spread of the Mass of the Five Wounds.1 The origins of this devotion go back to the influential meditations on the Pas­sion ascribed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Anselm in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The brands of piety espoused by the Dominicans and Franciscans — and the cachet provided by St. Francis’s stigmata — further developed interest in the wounds in the thirteenth and fourteenth cen­turies. The wounds were often imagined as wells from which the faithful might be sustained or as places of shelter. The fourteenth-century English mystic Richard Rolle provided the most vivid contemplation of the wounds in Middle English, describing the wounds as innumerable stars that shine by day and by night, as the cells of a honeycomb, and as a dovecote: “For a dufhouse is ful of holys, so is Thy body ful of woundes. And as dove pursued of an hauk, yf she mow cache an hool of hir hous [enter a hole of her house] she is siker [safe] ynowe, so, swete Jhesu, in temp­tacion Thy woundes ben best refuyt [refuge] to us.”2 This idea of the wounds as refuge came to center around the wound in Christ’s side, which in turn led to the con­tem­plation of the blood and heart of Christ. In the sixteenth century, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ eventually displaced the devotions involving the wounds, but not before these devotions pro­duced an enormous amount of verse, prose, and visual art.

The seven deadly sins had their own long development in both theology and popu­lar belief, and as early as Hugh of Saint Victor’s twelfth-century writings the seven deadly sins were juxtaposed with the seven nations of Canaan overthrown by the Israelites, the seven petitions of the Pater Noster, and the seven virtues. Other works compared them to the seven sacraments and the seven works of mercy.3

Medieval writers tended to see numerical correspondences in all aspects of the Bible, and they found correspondences between the five wounds of Christ (in the hands, feet, and side), the five senses in which he was afflicted, and the five senses (or “wits”) through which man­kind can be tempted. They also found correspondences between the seven words spoken by Christ from the cross and the seven deadly sins, or between the seven deadly sins and the seven times Christ shed blood (at the Circumcision, on Mount Olivet before the Passion, at the scourging, from the crown of thorns, the wounds in the feet, the wounds in the hands, and the piercing of his side).4 The series of fives applied to the five-pointed star on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain in the Green Knight suggests how such correspond­ences could be used as a kind of talismanic protection, providing both a key to under­stand­ing the hidden connections of universal order and to overcoming the world’s dangers.

Upping the number of wounds from the usual five to seven, as this poem does, provided another convenient correspondence that would allow the Passion to take its customary place at the center of all medieval devotion. Some of St. Bonaventure’s Good Friday sermons make a very similar correspondence, but the poet responsible for this poem may have hit upon the idea independently.5 Matching the wounds and sins involved taking some liberties with the traditional representations of the wounds and introducing some curious incongruities (see Explanatory Notes to lines 13 and 20), but the appeal of making these two lists correspond seems to have outweighed the difficulties. In two manuscripts that preserve The Wounds and the Sins (C and Cambridge, Magdalene College MS Pepys 1584), the poem is linked into a similar series of correspondences, appearing after a sequence of poems on the seven works of bodily mercy, the seven works of spiritual mercy, the five senses, the five spiritual wits, and the seven deadly sins in isolation.6 In C, the sequence continues with prose texts on the twelve articles of belief, the seven sacraments, the three arrows at Doomsday, and the eight tokens of meekness. The mnemonic potential of these kinds of schemes was widely appreciated by the laity, and such numerical schema offered a useful means of catechism. Perhaps this is also why a similar poem appears in Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ MS 18.7.21, the commonplace book of the fourteenth century preacher John Grimestone.7

Another possible use of The Wounds and the Sins appears in a different manuscript that preserves the poem, British Library MS Additional 37049. This devotional miscellany was probably produced in a northern Carthusian charterhouse, and it illustrates the poem with Christ on the cross, wounded and bloody, on fol. 30r.8 Illustrations of the wounds became increas­ingly widespread in the fifteenth century, available as manuscript drawings, on parch­ment rolls, in stained glass, and as printed woodcuts.9 Ashmole 61 offers a simplified version of this same practice in Rate’s drawing of a badge with five suns, a common form of iconog­raphy for the five wounds, on fol. 106r after The Short Charter of Christ. The Wounds and the Sins is not unlike that drawing: a small, crudely made device that nonetheless evokes the most heartfelt concerns of late medieval piety.

Manuscript Context

The religious contents of Ashmole 61, like much fifteenth-century piety in general, are centered around the Passion and the body of Christ. In The Wounds and the Sins, Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms, and The Stimulus Consciencie Minor (items 32 and 33) the suffer­ing body of Christ helps the reader identify sin, develop genuine contrition for sin, and remedy sin. All of these texts, like The Northern Passion and The Lament of Mary (items 28 and 30), in­volve vary­ing degrees of visualizing the Passion, an event meant to be re-created frequently in the devout imagination just as it is re-created in the various texts here. The technique of inhabiting Christ’s own voice (or Mary’s) to reproach the sinner — and thus suffer for the sake of one’s own sins — appears frequently in all of these works.

The Wounds and the Sins can also be compared to The Stations of Jerusalem (item 34): the lyric reimagines the Passion by mapping it onto Christ’s body, just as the travel text maps the Passion onto the space of Jerusalem. The Wounds and the Sins has fewer obvious connections with the items that immediately adjoin it, though Saint Margaret (item 37) cer­tainly involves a very Christ-like passio.


Among the eleven manuscripts that preserve this text there is considerable variation in the order of the stanzas, variance not uncommon in Middle English lyrics. The main tradition, represented by British Library MS Harley 2339, C, and several other manuscripts, presents the sins in the following order: pride, wrath, gluttony, lechery, envy, avarice, and sloth. A variant arrangement, pre­served in P, orders the stanzas to conform with the “Gregor­ian” scheme: pride, wrath, envy, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lechery.10 Ashmole 61’s text is closer to that of the main group (especially in the form of the final stanza) but presents the stanzas in yet another order: pride, envy, gluttony, lechery, wrath, avarice, and sloth. Possibly Rate has tried to present the wounds in something of a systematic order, keeping the stanzas on the wounds in the two hands and the feet together in sequence. In other respects, his text is fairly close to the main group of texts represented by MS Harley 2339, with only minor errors.

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton, ed. Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century. Pp. 227–28. [Prints the text of MS Harley 2339.]

Davies, Reginald T., ed. Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology. Pp. 207–08. [Prints the text of P.]

Person, Henry A., ed. Cambridge Middle English Lyrics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1953. Pp. 9–11, 68–69. [Prints the texts of variant versions in Cam­bridge University Library MS Mm.4.41 and P; prints MS Harley 2339 in notes.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 4200 and 4185 (see also 3356)
Greentree, Rosemary. The Middle English Lyric and Short Poem.

See also Best, Bloomfield, Duffy (2005), Gougaud, Gray (1963 and 1972), Jeffrey (1975), Pfaff, Wenzel (1986), and Woolf (1968) in the bibliography.

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