Volume 71, Issue 1, Winter 2019
The Most Important Virtue?
The Surprising Recurrence of Temperance in the Pearl Manuscript
The narrator of the Middle English Cleanness states that God punishes sexual sin more harshly than any other sin. This essay argues that the rest of the BL Cotton Nero A.x manuscript continues to develop the virtue of temperance, which governs sexual behavior, as a central theme. Pearl uses temperance to bring home the dreamer’s sin and God’s justice, while Patience and SGGK employ the interrelation between temperance and fortitude in ways that make temperance foundational. Interrogating the interdependence of the virtues allows the poet to challenge the traditional hierarchy of virtues, in which temperance is the lowest, thus making the case that temperance is paradoxically foundational to other virtues, like justice and fortitude. In this way, the poems not only make a case for the value of temperance, but they also expose ambiguities in orthodox accounts of the virtues.