Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 23): John Gower (part 3)

Back to John Gower's Confessio Amantis:

The Confessor continues in great detail—greater detail than in the Lukan parable—of how much distress the impoverished Lazarus was in; not only was he starving but he was freezing as well, so sick that he could no longer more from where he lay (6.1006-1009). As Lazarus lay there dying and unable to move, the Confessor states:

The houndes comen fro the halle,
 Wher that this sike man was falle,
 And as he lay ther forto die,
 The woundes of his maladie
 Thei licken forto don him ese.

This section indicates that the dogs licked Lazarus’s sores because they pitied him and were trying to help. But the Confessor then says that Lazarus was so “full of such desese [disease]” that even this gesture of help was not enough to save him. So his soul “passeth” from his body, and God, the one “whom nothing overpasseth,” (6.1020) took Lazarus to heaven to Abraham’s “barm” [bosom], and had everything that his heart desired (6.1025).

Then is happened, “as it should,” the rich man suddenly died and went straight to hell. The “fiend” (i.e., Satan) dragged him into the fire, and as he suffered immensely from the intense pain of the flames, he looks up to heaven and sees Lazarus enthroned with Abraham. In response, he “preide” (prayed) to Abraham:

Send Lazar doun fro thilke Sete,
 And do that he his finger wete
 In water, so that he mai droppe
 Upon my tunge, forto stoppe
 The grete hete in which I brenne (6.1041-5).

Although Abraham responds first by calling the rich man, “Mi Sone” (my son), he is adamant that this great reversal had occurred because Lazarus in his lifetime had done “gret penance” and the rich man is deservedly punished with everlasting pain for his sin of sating his bodily lusts, whereas Lazarus receives the reward of endless joy in heaven:

Mi Sone, thou thee miht avise
 And take into thi remembrance,
 Hou Lazar hadde gret penance,
 Whyl he was in that other lif,
 Bot thou in al thi lust jolif
 The bodily delices soghtest:
 Forthi, so as thou thanne wroghtest,
 Nou schalt thou take thi reward
 Of dedly peine hierafterward
 In helle, which schal evere laste;
 And this Lazar nou ate laste
 The worldes peine is overronne,
 In hevene and hath his lif begonne
 Of joie, which is endeles (6.1048-1061).

The rich man was being punished in hell for his delicacy/gluttony, and his pain was eternal; he would never escape the fires of hell. Lazarus, on the other hand, was just beginning his eternal life of joy, after his painful life on earth. Abraham also refuses to send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s father—unmentioned in the Lukan parable—and the rich man’s five brothers, who all dwell in the same house, to warm them of the fate that awaits so they can avoid the eternal punishment the rich man is suffering:

I wolde preie an other grace.
For I have yit of brethren fyve,
That with mi fader ben alyve
Togedre duellende in on hous;
To whom, as thou art gracious
I preie that thou woldest sende
Lazar, so that he mihte wende
To warne hem hou the world is went,
That afterward thei be noght schent
Of suche peines as I drye.

As in the parable, Abraham refuses, because the rich man’s father and brothers had Moses and the prophets to warn them, and refuses again, when the rich man says that someone comes back from the dead to warn them.

The Confessor then delivers the moral of the story: Amans should embrace the truth of the parable. The sin of delicacy/gluttony occurs when those who have do not share with those who have not, just like the rich man, who had grown rich from the labor of others, would not even share a crumb of bread with poor, starving Lazarus:

This tale, as Crist himself it tolde,
Thou schalt have cause to beholde,
To se so gret an evidence,
Wherof the sothe experience
Hath schewed openliche at ije,
That bodili delicacie
Of him which yeveth non almesse
Schal after falle in gret destresse.
And that was sene upon the riche:
For he ne wolde unto his liche  1120
A Crumme yiven of his bred,
Thanne afterward, whan he was ded,
A drope of water him was werned.
Thus mai a mannes wit be lerned
Of hem that so delices taken;
Whan thei with deth ben overtaken,
That erst was swete is thanne sour.
Bot he that is a governour
Of worldes good, if he be wys,
Withinne his herte he set no pris  1130
Of al the world, and yit he useth
The good, that he nothing refuseth,
As he which lord is of the thinges.
The Nouches and the riche ringes,
The cloth of gold and the Perrie
He takth, and yit delicacie
He leveth, thogh he were al this.
The beste mete that ther is
He ett, and drinkth the beste drinke;
Bot hou that evere he ete or drinke,  1140
Delicacie he put aweie,
As he which goth the rihte weie
Noght only forto fiede and clothe
His bodi, bot his soule bothe.
Bot thei that taken otherwise
Here lustes, ben none of the wise;
And that whilom was schewed eke,
If thou these olde bokes seke,
Als wel be reson as be kinde,
Of olde ensample as men mai finde.  

Jesus himself told this parable, which heightens the importance of the moral message. The sin of gluttony/delicacy involves the lack of sharing one’s possessions with the poor, but the critical issue is not to “prize” (6.1130) those earthly possessions—to stand “above” them (he lord over them)—and also to use them to help others who are in need. People should not only feed and clothe their bodies but also feed and clothe their souls. At this point, the Confessor cites the emperor Nero as another negative example of delicacy and narrates a story about his excesses: to find out which activity was best for digestion, Nero had three men of eat and drink with him at a banquet. He then ordered one man to ride a horse, the second to sleep, and the third to take a walk. Then Nero had them killed and their stomachs cut open to see which activity was better for digestion. Since the man who had walked had better digestion, Nero started talking walks after his banquets. The Confessor concludes that this and other examples of Nero’s inordinate depravity means that people will always read about the drunkenness and lusts of Nero (6.1222-25).

As Peter Nicholson notes, Gower does thus not condemn wealth. Instead, he condemns the misuse of and lust for wealth to the exclusion of others. If the rich man had only helped Lazarus and others in need, he would not have been condemned. His interpretation indicates that renunciation of wealth is not necessary; neither is the complete avoidance of worldly pleasures (“bodily delices”). They should be used wisely, however, with a concern not only for the needs of the body but also for the needs of the soul. The final word is that one should enjoy pleasure wisely, unlike the rich man, Nero, and others who pursue pleasure without restraint (Nicholson 2005: 323).


Gower’s use of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable is not unique in this period. A comparable interpretation in the context of gluttony may be found in Robert of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne (214.6635-6720), but interesting divergent interpretations are found in such texts as The Pricke of Conscience (84.3062-66), William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B.16.252-71), or Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Summoner’s Tale.

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