Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

Mercy takes Redcrosse by the hand and leads him through a narrow and steep path, removing briars and thorns out of his way. She brings him to a hospice run by seven bead-men, who are the allegorical representations of the seven works of corporal mercy; they are also the positive counterparts of the Seven Deadly Sins at Lucifera’s court.  I find it very interesting that Spenser constructing his allegorical figures of various works of charity uses so easily the motifs of Catholic culture. I’m not sure if at this point he was even aware of the original meaning of the word “bead-man”, who in the Middle Ages was like a “prayer for hire”, somebody who would pray for someone else for alms, which was of course a practice abhorrent to the Reformers. But his bead-men are essentially the idealized versions of monks, helping all those in need, amassing no private fortunes and leading austere and pious lives. Now of course this was not the ideal everybody lived up to (viz. Chaucer’s depictions of clergymen and nuns) but the Reformers’ point in the dissolution of monasteries was that it’s not individuals who are responsible for the abuses of the system, the whole system is wrong. And yet here when Spenser wants to portray seven kinds of charitable works, he envisages them essentially like seven benevolent monks.

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