Title Background

The Man in Foul Clothes and a Late Fourteenth-Century Conversation about Sin.

The Man in Foul Clothes and a Late Fourteenth-Century Conversation about Sin.

By the fourteenth century the figure of “man in foul clothes” had long since changed his wedding cloak to a dirty and ragged garment, symbolizing a state of persistent sin; the man, however, had also become a figure through which the institutional church might be interrogated. This essay looks at “that man as he is given a contemporary identity, and sometimes a voice, by late-fourteenth-century English and vernacular writers” (2). It considers the Pearl-poet, the author of St. Erkenwald, Langland, Julian of Norwich, and Chaucer, whose texts form a set of inter-related, non-Wycliffite explorations of the “issues of sin and judgment as they define the very identity of the church,” explorations that are “more devastating and more searching” than the heterodox inquiries (2). Staley posits links between Cleanness and the A and B texts of PPl and suggests further that the B text engages the preoccupations of the long text of The Showings and The Canon Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale. With regard to PPl, direct correspondences to Cleanness are identified, such as Daniel’s interpretation of dreams (A.8.135–40, B.7.157–64, C.9.306–8), or the family histories of Noah and Cain (A.10.142–81, B.9.123–41, C.10.214–29), which evoke figures of or in poverty or filth. The paper’s main focus, though, is on Conscience’s banquet in B.13 and the figure of Haukyn there. By staging Haukyn’s contrition in the face of interior qualities such as Patience and Conscience, rather than representations of external sacerdotal or ecclesiastical figures, L moves Haukyn “into the starker realm of consciousness claimed by tragic soliloquy,” a move that is at the same time linked to penitential conventions and “divergent from the inherent controls provided by those manuals” (28). The remedy for sin, for both Haukyn and Will, lies beyond the scope of the poem. The essay concludes by suggesting that the possible textual conversations outlined here form a particular, late-fourteenth century London “discourse about sin that uses the man in foul clothes to explore the ecclesiastical position upon or vulnerability to the doctrine of judgment” (47).


Studies in the Age of Chaucer 24 (2002): 1–47.


Staley, Lynn.