As we have covered previously in our exploration of medieval literature, religious writings were of utmost importance to the medieval canon. Part of the importance of such writings was their instruction in redemption; humanity, born into sin, needed a moral compass to overcome their natural predisposition to fallibleness.
In fact, it is not uncommon for secular texts during this period, texts which are written outside of the genre of sermons or homilies, too, at some point in the body, have a coda or caveat which begs the reader to help save the author’s soul (Treharne 100-01, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction). Texts such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Life of Saint Edmund, and even Bede all inserted such measures to help them ‘hedge their bets’ and write while still retaining salvation. It should be noted, though, that historians are unsure how earnest these insertions were any doubt that they were to be taken very seriously by the reader. Ultimately, many believe that such instances of pleading were more or a literary device than anything else.
But, overall, the goal of judgment and salvation, of convincing people to accept Christian faith, was best dealt with by priests, people who in their sermons, would need to perform the text as much as recite. And so we see textual performance become an act, something which was considered at length prior to actually performing it to a congregation. As such, priests would often incorporate whatever materials they thought would engage the listener; it was not uncommon to see pieces of poetry interspersed among the more morality driven prose. Genre, therefore, was not as fixed as it is today (105); sermons, yes, instructed in religious matters and homilies disseminated parables, but with poetry intermixed with each variety of text, and all matter of others, it is difficult to differentiate where one genre ends and another begins.
In the secular tradition, what is known as Body and Soul texts, berates the living through offering them a nightmarish dream sequence of what will await them in final judgment should they disregard the preacher’s warnings on damnation (106). These texts would dramatize sinfulness by personifying sin itself as an exaggerated– and grossly disgusting– human or monster. The purpose of such texts, of course, was to warn the commoner to regularly attend church and so acted as a social regulation device.
During the later 14th and 15th centuries, the church in England was keen on solidifying and extending their power. So social regulation, of defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior, through the establishment of laws and dogma, was often the default recourse among church officials. Thus, from the 14th century onward, but likely even before then, we see a mixing of church and state; this is perhaps best exemplified during the anti-Semitic royal edict of 1290 which expelled all Jews from England, thus bringing to fruition the long history of antisemitism in medieval literature which often denotes Jewish people as the enemies of the faithful and foes to be denounced and fought. If we see anything in this moment in history, it is that what is produced, disseminated, performed, and consumed through the church’s hierarchy and mass appeal– via literature– eventually comes back to roost, thus forcing remembrance today that texts and literary bodies were taken seriously as the cultural lifeblood of a community and could have either ruminative effects on the social body or devastatingly bigoted ones.