The Seven Deadly Sins

In the fourth century, Greek monk and theologian¬†Evagrius Ponticus first conceptualized the idea of eight offenses or “wicked human passions” having a negative effect on human behavior and relationships. Over the next several centuries, church leaders ranked and reworked this list into what we now know as the Seven Deadly Sins.

Pope Gregory ranked the Deadly Sins according to the degree in which they offended against the holy virtue of love. Pope Gregory’s order from worst to least is¬†pride, envy, anger (wrath), sloth, avarice (greed), gluttony, and lust. Later theologians dismissed the idea of ranking the sins, as all of them were considered “deadly” to living a holy and fulfilled life.

Medieval understanding of the sins included not only the sin itself, but a corresponding punishment in Hell, ranging from being thrown in snake pits or submerged in freezing water to burning in fire and brimstone. Church teachings at the time also developed to include the idea that a corresponding Heavenly Virtue was necessary to overcome the grip of sin:

Pride – Humility
Envy – Kindness
Wrath – Patience
Sloth – Diligence
Avarice – Charity
Gluttony – Temperance
Lust – Chastity

Most of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales indicate ways in which a person is within the grip of one or more of the Deadly Sins, showing what lessons the characters may learn from their transgressions or hope to improve by application of one or more of the Virtues. In this way, the Canterbury Tales reflect the daily role of the church in medieval life.

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