The Virtues and Vices in Medieval Society

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Most of us have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins. The concept is familiar enough that a major movie (Seven) was built around the concept of a serial killer who selects victims who have committed or exemplify these sins--pride, envy, wrath, avarice, sloth, gluttony, and lust. However, the Deadly Sins are more than just a clever movie plot. In the Middle Ages, they, along with the corresponding Seven Virtues, were a concept the average medieval person would have been quite familiar with. The Virtues and Vices figure prominently in art, literature, theology, and philosophy. Where did these concepts come from, and what would a medieval person have known about them? This article will explore these questions.

Before I discuss the Virtues and Vices specifically, however, it is useful to look at the topic of religious education in the Middle Ages. Most of this article will focus specifically on what is often called the "High Medieval" period--that is, the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, with perhaps part of the fifteenth included as well. This was a period which saw the rise of urban life, the creation and flourishing of universities, and rising standards of religious education in general for both clergy and laypeople. By the end of this period, laypeople are taking an active and educated interest in religion, forming guilds and confraternities, following lay devotions (such as the rosary and the use of books of hours), and seeking to access the Bible not just through the Church, but on their own.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Church had always promoted an educated laity, although it certainly sought to control that education. Theology, the "queen of the sciences" of the Middle Ages, was always seen as a study which required a great deal of fundamental education. The Church’s seeming reluctance to make the Bible accessible to laypeople had at its root the idea that the Bible was a very special text, and to read it and understand it in its many depths of meaning (every passage was seen to have at least four meanings: literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical) required years of training and study. Lack of education was seen as an inducement to heterodoxy and outright heresy. It is no coincidence that at least one order (the Dominicans) made education and educated preaching its primary weapon against heresy.

The Church had always viewed religious education as a responsibility, but as the laity became more educated in general, the simple explanations of the Credo, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria no longer sufficed. The laity wanted to know how to live as good Christians in their daily lives--how to do good works and avoid sin. In other words, they wanted to learn a practical type of theology, one which provided guidelines for life. The Virtues and Vices--not new concepts, but newly important--provided such a framework.


History and Evolution

The concept of Virtues and Vices is quite old, and existed independently of the Christian Church. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics discuss virtues in great detail. The idea of virtues and vices is present in the Stoic Distichs of Cato (which was translated into many vernacular languages, including Old Norse), and most societies had a set of ideals of good and evil behaviour, often fixed in number. The early Christian Church, which inherited this idea, took some time to settle on fixed numbers of virtues and vices, however. The vices also fit into the Church’s evolving view towards sin. While all sin--that is, transgressions against divine and natural law--was seen as negative, some sins, because of their severity, soon came to be seen as serious infractions. These became the "deadly" sins (sometimes called "capital" or chief sins), and as the idea of penance evolved, it was these sins which had to be confessed, absolved by a priest, and penance performed if one hoped for salvation.

The early Church placed serious sins into three categories: idolatry, fornication, and bloodshed. The writer Hermas expanded and elaborated on the idea; he lists 12 vices "which unrepented of, exclude one from the Kingdom of God"--unbelief, incontinence, disobedience, deceit, sorrow, wickedness, wantonness, anger, falsehood, folly, backbiting, and hatred. Augustine, the most influential of early Christian authors, does not list serious sins, but provides three categories--carnal pleasure, pride, and unnatural curiosity--which comprehend all sins. Sins which, according to Augustine, would exclude one from the church included murder, adultery, impurity, theft, fraud, and sacrilege.

By the sixth century, authors were beginning to settle on a set number of vices. John Cassian lists "eight principal vices": gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, dejection, languor (or sloth), vainglory, and pride. Pride is seen as the source of all the others and is the principal sin. Gregory the Great revised this scheme, seeing pride as the root of all the deadly sins, which are vainglory, envy, anger, dejection, avarice, gluttony, and lust. He was also the first to develop fully the idea of subcategories of the deadly sins.

Penance in the early Church, especially before it was accepted as the de facto "state religion" by Rome and later, by the Germanic successor kingdoms, was often quite strict. For serious sins, it could take years and could only be performed once for any of the deadly sins. Typical penances involved exclusion from the Church community (often by doing public penance in rags outside the church door) with only gradual re-admittance. As the Church was accepted, gradually a less severe system of penance (although still quite severe by later standards) evolved. Surviving texts known as penitentials tell us a little about some of these penalties. The penitential of Cumman, c. 650, listed eight vices: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, dejection, sloth, vainglory, and pride (envy is classified under pride).

Penances ranged from "a hour of silence or 15 psalms" (for lying through ignorance) to seven years (for "defiling one's mother.") The penalties are both fairly severe and quite specific, and the distinction between venial sins (e.g. less severe sins which were absolved through partaking of the sacraments) and deadly sins is already present. By this time, most confession and penance was being done privately. Significantly, sin was already viewed as a sickness of the soul, with the priest acting the role of the doctor, and with contraries curing contraries, as a practitioner of the theory of the humours would already know.

The "contraries," of course, are the virtues. The history of the virtues is harder to trace. The early penetentials, while noting opposites "cure" vices, often simply explain what one must do, rather than breaking it down to a concept contained in one word. But this is not to say that the idea of virtues was a new thing. The concepts of faith, hope, and charity can be found in the letters of St. Paul, and these become the three "theological virtues," while the others--prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice--become the four "cardinal virtues." Augustine, Ambrose, and the other early Christian authors took over these four virtues from Plato, Aristotle and other classical authors and philosophers.

Somewhere between 900 and 1000, the standard number of vices became the seven I listed at the beginning of this article, in order to correspond with seven virtues. Even then, there was always some variation, and so some later authors continued to include dejection (the one that usually drops out) as a deadly sin.

The first of the deadly sins was always Pride (superbia). As we have seen earlier, pride was often viewed as the root of all of the vices. Pride, simply put, is placing oneself above God, so its contrary virtue is Faith (fides). Subcategories included disobedience, bragging or ostentation, hypocrisy, contempt, arrogance, impudence, and taking pride in one's bad deeds.

Envy (invidia) consisted of two main categories: sadness at another's good fortune, or glee at another's misfortune. Its contrary virtue is charity (charitas), which is sometimes translated as love, since it desires that your neighbor prosper, rather than wishing him ill luck.

Wrath (ira) includes madness, blasphemy, insanity, provoking others to wrath, spreading scandal, homicide, and ferocity. Its contrary virtue is Hope (spes), because it rejoices in the future, rather than dwelling on the turmoil of the present.

Sloth (accidia) includes pettiness, cowardice, negligence, being remiss in one's duties, mistrustfulness, indolence, and sluggishness. Its contrary virtue is fortitude (fortitudo), whose active forms include magnanimity and constancy and passive include security and good faith.

Avarice (Avaritia) includes simony (the sale of clerical offices), sacrilege (or usurping the place of God), usury, fraud, theft, blind ambition, and desiring the goods of others. Its contrary virtue is justice (justitia), because justice gives to each their due, rather than stealing and retaining the things of another.

Gluttony (Gula) includes drunkenness, gluttonous eating, and soft living. Its opposite is Temperance (temperantia) which suppresses extremes, and includes abstinence, continence, and modesty.

Lust (Luxuria) includes fornication, adultery, incest, sodomy, sex with those in orders or under vows, masturbation, and "abuse" (any sex outside the "marital debt). It also includes love of worldly luxuries. Its opposite virtue is Prudence (prudentia), which keeps the incorrupt from corruption and includes providence, circumspection, caution, and docility.

The first letters of the Seven Deadly sins form the medieval Latin word saligia, from whence the verb saligiare (to commit a deadly sin) is taken.

Incidentally, it should also be mentioned that one time, minor indiscretions of these varieties were not considered deadly sins, and that it was also part of the priest’s job when someone came to confess to determine whether there were any mitigating circumstances to be considered. It was only when the transgression was major or was repeated over and over that the penance became severe--otherwise, the priest would likely assign prayer. Fasting and almsgiving (for those who could afford it) were the penance assigned for more severe sins.

Now that you know the Seven Virtues and the Seven Vices, how were they used as themes in literature and art? First, we should look at the Knightly Virtues. The idea of the Knightly Virtues comes directly from the ideal of the Christian knight which began to arise about the time of the Crusades. These virtues came to form a kind of moral code for the knightly class. Initially, the focus was primarily on the seven virtues I’ve already mentioned, but this later expanded to include other virtues which were in keeping with these ideals. For instance, Raymond Llull's Book of the Order of Chivalry emphasizes the role of the seven virtues in the life of the perfect knight, and strength against the deadly sins. Llull was a cleric, writing in the thirteenth century, when these sorts of treatises were first appearing. Here are a few excerpts which demonstrate how Llull treated the Seven Virtues and Vices:

First and foremost, if a knight not be of good faith, all is for naught that he does, for he may never have the other virtues or good customs, but for faith all is but sin that every man does. With Faith, men have hope, charity, and are servants to truth.

Hope is a noble virtue, which causes knights to trust to have victory in battle. With hope, he has more trust in God, not in his horse, harness, or sword. Through hope, the courage of knights is reinforced, and cowardice overthrown. Hope is the principal instrument that governs knighthood in honour.

A knight that does not have charity will be cruel and evil, which does not agree with the honour of knighthood.

All knights are needful of justice, for a knight without justice is without honour, and without justice there can be no knighthood. An injurious knight is an enemy of justice, and casts himself out of the order.

Prudence is a virtue that knights must have. It is a knowledge that men have of good and evil, and though which they become the enemy of evil and friend to all good things.

The virtue of temperance is the knowledge of the middle way between too much and too little, and the knowledge of one's own measure. The knight who is temperate in largess gives neither too much nor too little; he is neither a coward nor foolhardy; in eating and drinking he is neither a glutton nor so hungry that he is wretched; in speech he does not use too many words nor so few that he is not understood; also, in his clothing he is neither excessive or wretched. Temperance is the rule of all wisdom.

With fortitude, the knight fights against his enemies though noblesse of heart, temperance, and abstinence. It makes him courageous and hardy.

As the ideal of Christian knighthood, which came in these works to be seen as almost a Holy Order unto itself, developed through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the "knightly virtues" expand to comprise more qualities. In addition to those mentioned above, loyalty, truth, chastity, brotherly love, humility, largesse, franchise or beneficence, hardiness, prowess, pity, honesty or frank speech, fear of God, and shame (that is, unwillingness to bring shame upon oneself) are all qualities which may appear in lists of such virtues. One also sees in literature increasing mention made of these themes, especially in the stories of King Arthur and his knights. For instance, in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain bears a shield with a five-pointed star, symbolizing the five virtues--franchise, brotherly love, chastity, courtesy, and pity—which pertain most to him.

The Virtues and Vices were not just themes for knightly literature, however. In the various mystery and morality plays which became increasingly common in the later Middle Ages, the Virtues and Vices personified often played major roles. The Vices were often comedic figures--the pompous windbag nobleman dripping with jewels to represent Pride, the fat man stuffing his cheeks with food for Gluttony, the "dirty old man" representing Lust, and so forth. The Virtues were usually portrayed as angelic creatures dressed in white who save Our Hero from the wiles of such creatures. The authors of such dramas certainly figured that no one would want to imitate such comic figures, and so through laughter, a moral lesson was taught. You might also catch glimpses of the Virtues and Vices illustrated in sculpture or paint inside medieval churches.

The Virtues and Vices thus became concepts that most people in the Middle Ages would have known about and understood from a very early age. Today we still consider many of the virtues worthy of imitation and the vices worthy of avoidance.


Grosseteste, Robert. Templum Dei. J. Goering and F.A.C. Mantello, trans. Toronto, 1984.

Kaueper, R.W. and Kennedy, E. The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny. Philadelphia, 1996.

Llull, Ramon. The Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry or Knyghthode. W. Caxton, trans. Amsterdam, 1976.

McNeill, J.T, and Gamer, H. Medieval Handbooks of Penance. New York, 1990.

Copyright 1999, Susan Carroll-Clark.