fourteenth-century alliterative poem “Cleanness” (sometimes called “Purity”) narrates, in
rather excruciating detail, the agonies God inflicts on filthy sinners. Its author is
unknown, though he’s generally referred to as the Pearl or the Gawain poet, after two of his
more popular poems. “Cleanness” didn’t catch on quite like the others, no doubt because it is an
example of that oh-so fun medieval poetic genre, homiletic verse — didactic sermons thinly
veiled in poetry.
Now, while these poems are only as subtle as the Trojan horse, and about as yummy
as cherry cough syrup, they can occasionally make for good reading. For one thing, you get to
learn lots of great stuff, like how to lace up the armor of chastity, why everything is Eve’s
fault and how to interpret especially sticky Bible passages (“Mom, if Mary never . . . , then
how. . . ?”). All this and alliteration too!
So, much as I’m sure you want to rush out and read some homilies, maybe you’re a little* * *
surprised to find one here. Sermons in a sex column? Not to worry. Not wanting you to miss out
on this vital phase in medieval letters, I culled one of the raciest passages in the history of the
genre. In it, God has caught wind of some male/male sex practices taking place on Earth, and
he’s not happy about it. The excerpt below is his curious response: he condemns sodomy, as the
jaded among us would expect, but not from the reactionary Church position we’re used to hearing
today. Instead, he argues that sodomy doesn’t make any sense considering how much fun
straight sex can be. Now there’s an argument! And from the mouth of God! So, here it is, an
unlikely endorsement from on high for a particularly tangible form of terrestrial paradise.
translated by Jack Murnighan
The great sound of Sodom sinks in My ears
And the guilt of Gomorrah goads Me to wrath
I shall research that rumor and see for Myself
If they have done as is heard on high.
They have learned a lifestyle that liketh Me ill,
And found in their flesh of faults the foulest,
Each male making mate of men like himself
Fondling the fellows as if they were female.
Yet I designed them a deed and taught them to do it
And deemed it in My dominion the dearest of dances
And set love therein, making such sex the sweetest.
The play of paramours I portrayed Myself,
And made one manner much merrier than all others:
When two who are true tie to one another
Between this male and his mate such mirth may be made
That paradise proper would prove hardly preferable.
They must take to each other in the manner most true
Stealing to a secluded spot, silent and unseen,
And the flame of their love will fire up so free
That all the sorrows of this life will not it slake.
The original Middle English version