Most of us have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins. The concept is familiar enough that a major movie (Seven) was built around the concept of a serial killer who selects victims who have committed or exemplify these sins--pride, envy, wrath, avarice, sloth, gluttony, and lust. However, the Deadly Sins are more than just a clever movie plot. In the Middle Ages, they, along with the corresponding Seven Virtues, were a concept the average medieval person would have been quite familiar with. The Virtues and Vices figure prominently in art, literature, theology, and philosophy. Where did these concepts come from, and what would a medieval person have known about them? This article will explore these questions.
Before I discuss the Virtues and Vices specifically, however, it is useful to look at the topic of religious education in the Middle Ages. Most of this article will focus specifically on what is often called the "High Medieval" period--that is, the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, with perhaps part of the fifteenth included as well. This was a period which saw the rise of urban life, the creation and flourishing of universities, and rising standards of religious education in general for both clergy and laypeople. By the end of this period, laypeople are taking an active and educated interest in religion, forming guilds and confraternities, following lay devotions (such as the rosary and the use of books of hours), and seeking to access the Bible not just through the Church, but on their own.
Contrary to popular misconception, the Church had always promoted an educated laity, although it certainly sought to control that education. Theology, the "queen of the sciences" of the Middle Ages, was always seen as a study which required a great deal of fundamental education. The Church’s seeming reluctance to make the Bible accessible to laypeople had at its root the idea that the Bible was a very special text, and to read it and understand it in its many depths of meaning (every passage was seen to have at least four meanings: literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical) required years of training and study. Lack of education was seen as an inducement to heterodoxy and outright heresy. It is no coincidence that at least one order (the Dominicans) made education and educated preaching its primary weapon against heresy.
The Church had always viewed religious education as a responsibility, but as the laity became more educated in general, the simple explanations of the Credo, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria no longer sufficed. The laity wanted to know how to live as good Christians in their daily lives--how to do good works and avoid sin. In other words, they wanted to learn a practical type of theology, one which provided guidelines for life. The Virtues and Vices--not new concepts, but newly important--provided such a framework.