Surgery as Damnation in Cleanness

  • Jeremy J. Citrome
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The fourteenth-century homiletic poem Cleanness has at its core three Old Testament episodes: the Deluge (ll. 249–544), the destruction of Sodom (ll. 601–1048), and Belshazaar’s Feast (ll.1056–1804).1 This linear movement through sacred history is, however, interrupted after the second episode by a description of the Incarnation (ll. 1069–1108), which is depicted in language as flowery and reassuring as that of the three main episodes is grim and foreboding. This seeming arbitrariness of the poem’s narrative structure has led some readers to suggest for it a unifying schema that emphasizes its potential as eschatology. Theresa Tinkle, for one, has described the poem’s strategy as historiographic: “The homiletic movement gradually discloses the human need for and the divine offer of grace, roughly the progress of history from the Old to the New Testament.”2 For Tinkle, the poem presents history as a movement in ‘which our “urgent need for divine salvation emerges more and more vividly.”3 Sarah Stanbury, arguing along similar lines, regards the poem as “an explication of an historical process, the developing and unfolding knowledge of God that culminates in the beatific vision, the sight of God on his throne.”4 Yet why, in so broad a historiographical exercise, does the poet concern himself so rigorously with the corporeal, and especially with, as Allen Frantzen has put it, the “sights, sounds, and smells of Sodomy”?5 I will argue that this emphasis on corporeality derives from a broader medical metaphorics, deployed by the poet to illustrate this progress of divine justice from Old Testament vengeance to New Testament grace. In this schema, sodomy, in its perceived status as “unnatural,” serves as an appropriate sin with which to represent disease, while the grace of Christ, arriving with the Incarnation, is our “cure.”


Anal Fistula Medieval Text Ulcerate Wound Divine Justice Double Entendres 
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© Jeremy J. Citrome 2006

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  • Jeremy J. Citrome

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