The personification of the different sins in Passus 5 of Piers Plowman had me thinking about how word connotation evolves. I was probably influenced by reading Kat’s post about Gluttony, but I was most interested in the description of Wrath. Wrath’s actions seemed to mostly consist of insulting people and inciting anger in petty squabbles until line 159, where he says:
“I, Wrath, made her vegetables out of wicked words,
Until ‘You lie!’ and ‘You lie!’ leapt out at once,
And each slapped the other across the cheek;
If they had knives, by Christ, each of them would have killed the other. ”
This may have just been the writer’s personal approach to the word, but I tend to think of “wrath” as something far more violent and savage. While this passage itself seems pretty heated, the rest of the description sounded tame to me. I wonder what sermons tended to focus on- the conflicts between neighbors and things like that, or actual violence between people such as physical abuse or purposeful sabotage. Envy seemed to be the one always plotting the demise of other people, and Wrath seemed a little robbed of a vengeful attitude. I don’t care about judging the writer’s quality, but it did make me think about what “Wrath” meant to the original readers vs. what it means to me. A somewhat current interpretation of these same sins can be seen in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, one of my favorite series of all time (and, I would argue, one of the most relevant to literary studies). Wrath takes a human form in this series as well, a cold and calculating man who reaps brutal vengeance on his enemies. He does not seem to be bothered by mere conversation, however, and never resorts to insults. His actions are usually decided far in advance and carried out as planned- no one messes with Wrath and lives.
My personal understanding of “wrath” is different than both of these characterizations. I understand it to mean a quick temper, something where offenses are dealt with too harshly. For example, if someone made called me stupid and I punched them in the face I would consider that “wrath” because I returned an offense with far more force than I received. Like “unnecessary roughness” in sports. My point here is not to argue about the meaning of words, it’s just that when we experience these texts we may not be experiencing them in the way that the original readers did. In fact, we definitely aren’t. But I always wonder just how different our experiences are. Without similar life pressures and experiences, how can we possibly connect with the author’s intent? We probably can’t. But does that mean it isn’t worth trying? Nah. Does it mean we can’t gain valuable understanding from these texts? Nope. It just means that our understanding doesn’t dominate.