265. Cleanness, possibly by The Pearl Poet (c. 1390)

Also known as Purity, this is an alliterative poem believed to be written by the same hand that penned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Patience. This poem illustrates examples from the Bible on impurity of soul, particularly disobedience to God’s will, and lechery. Three stories in particular are examined : the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Feast of Balshazzar and the mysterious disembodied hand writing on the wall.

The detail given in each story, while perhaps not actually present in the Old Testament as we know it, is a great effort, and made me think more about the stories: (i) how the Ark was rudderless and therefore could not be steered, left to float and spin in the random currents, and the selfishness of the raven, first released to seek dry land and not bothering to return; (ii) how the Lord promised never to loose universal destruction on mankind afterwards but when faced with the immorality of Sodom, there were actually four cities destroyed, (iii) the Angels who stayed with Lot and warned him to leave Sodom were served salt in their soup by Lot’s wife, and therefore it was into salt that she was transformed, and (iv) the disrespectful treatment of the temple vessels, including the Menorah, with Belshazzar’s concubines drinking their wine from them.

My version was printed alongside The Owl and the Nightingale, and St Erkenwald in the Penguin Black Classic in a volume which was quite a treat to read, edited and translated by Brian Stone. While I only rate Cleanness a 5, it was still an enjoyable read, and since the other two poems were a 9 and a 7, I am very pleased I have a copy of this out of print collection.

Meanwhile in the 1380s:

  • Charles V of France dies, leaving the throne to the 11-year old Charles VI. His uncles, the Dukes of Berri, Anjou and Burgundy vie for control, 1380.
  • The Peasant’s Revolt led by Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, march on London, demanding concessions from King Richard II, 1381. They get their way and are then executed.
  • The Bible is translated into English, 1382.
  • England and France agree to a truce in the Hundred Years’ War 1389.

from The Book of Key Facts (Paddington Press, 1978)


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