Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Poverty, Dignity, and Lay Spirituality in Pore Caitif and Jacob's Well

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Poverty, Dignity, and Lay Spirituality in Pore Caitif and Jacob's Well

Article excerpt

This essay will demonstrate that^n?^ Well, the early fifteenth-century sermon cycle, derived the doctrinal material within its exposition of the Creed and Ten Commandments from the late fourteenth-century collection of treatises known as Pore Caitif} This connection provides a somewhat surprising new addition to the list of sources used by the unnamed writer of Jacob's Well? Genetically and structurally, Jacob's Well and Pore Caitif ate quite different. A collection of homilies containing many illustrative narratives, Jacob's Well methodically follows a complex metaphorical scheme: the human soul evolves from a filthy well to a purified spring with the help of sacramental and doctrinal 'tools'.3 Pore Caitif, for its part, contains few exempla and does not place its treatises within an overarching allegorical framework. Of course, this very structural flexibility may explain Pore Caitif s use by late medieval writers of varying ideological stripes, including the Well writer himself.4

Even as he drew upon Pore Caitif, however, the Well-wtiter found material to omit or change along the way. Several of the Well-writer's additions and omissions alter Pore Caitif s references to les s -privileged members of the Christian community, including the poor and the elderly. Taken together, these revisions suggest that for the Well-writer, Pore Caitif s emphasis on individual faith at times crosses the line into insularity. As we shall see, Pore Caitif s compiler envisages that his text will attract and help perpetuate a kind of 'virtual' Christian community. Instead of inhabiting the same physical space or participating in ritual together, his readers and listeners will individually contemplate Christian truths - knowing all the while that many other believers share their desire for a fulfilling spiritual life. While the Cailif-compiler leaves this experience potentially open to everyone, at times his text seems to embrace an individualistic social ethos: he does not ignore his audience's responsibilities to others, but in some passages he heavily qualifies these duties. The Well-writer's revisions indicate that he disapproves of these moments. For this writer, individual spirituality can only flourish via encounters with other people and negotiations with religious and social institutions.

The interplay between Pore Caitif "and Jacob's Well sheds light on two influential strands of scholarly thought concerning late medieval religious and social life. First, it reminds us that intellectual broad-mindedness does not always translate into egalitarian social beliefs within late medieval religious writing. Nicholas Watson acknowledged as much in his influential 1996 article 'Censorship and cultural change in late-medieval England', which argued that an enlightened fourteenth- century body of religious writing gave way to derivative and ideologically restricted successors in the wake of Arundel's 1409 Constitutions.5 Even the 'golden age' of the late fourteenth century had an elitist dimension, however: Watson detects 'the notion that the lay audience for vernacular theology should rather be the aristocracy than society as a whole' in several of the texts he describes.6 Building upon this insight, I think we need to remain attuned not just to attitudes of religious texts toward intellectual activity on the part of lay people, but also to their statements (whether implicit or explicit) concerning social class and community responsibility. Which lay people in particular are invited to stretch themselves spiritually and intellectually? What blind spots exist in even a relatively expansive vision of Christian community?

Reading Pore Caitif alongside Jacob's Well also sheds light on another key issue: writers' evolving (or, perhaps, devolving) characterizations of poverty during the later Middle Ages. The work of David Aers, Michel Molla t, Miri Rubin, and others has demonstrated that attitudes toward the poor in late medieval Europe changed in the years following the Black Death. …

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