‘Uncleanness is like a goat’

‘Uncleanness is like a goat’

‘Uncleanness is like a goat’
A Booke of Christian Prayer, Richard Yardley, 1590
Canterbury Cathedral Library, W2/X-2-13

This month’s ‘Picture This…’ image comes from A Booke of Christian Prayer, printed in 1590 by Richard Yardley and Peter Short (Canterbury Cathedral Library, W2/X-2-13). In order to educate the reader, books of prayer can famously contain examples of behaviour to avoid and imitate in written and picture form. So what does the unusual figure of a young woman holding flowers and a bird, whilst standing on top of a goat, act as an example for? The image depicts the allegorical embodiment of Chastity accompanied by pictorial symbols of the characteristics of her virtue. In this particular book, Chastity is one of many ornate woodcut page borders illustrating various proverbs and wise sayings which accompany the text that they surround. The prayers on the page with Chastity are devoted to ‘the afflicted and persecuted’ and ‘love towards our neighbours’. So, whilst praying for the virtues of charity and mercy through the text, the user would also have been able to reflect upon chastity through the imagery.

The image of Chastity is heralded under the aphoristic title at the top of the image stating that ‘Chastite is secret and cleane’. Clean refers to something pure, undefiled and void of stain while ‘secret’ implies something hidden, concealed and kept from public knowledge and here could be linked to demure modesty. Juan Luis Vives’ treatise called ‘Instruction of a Christen Woman’ stated that chastity was ‘the queen of virtues in a woman': an obvious link to the Virgin Mary.

Here, Chastity is depicted as a beautiful, young woman clad in flowing robes of a Classical style, W2-X-2-13-sidethus reinforcing the derivation from the four cardinal virtues of Classical antiquity: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Humility. The lilies in Chastity’s left hand are a common symbol of purity and chastity, also associated with Mary and other virgin saints. In Chastity’s other hand is a goose or a swan, it is unclear exactly which, although both have interesting iconographic and allegorical interpretations. Geese were known to keep careful watch and were praised by the Romans when their honking warned of an attack from Gauls in 390BC. Ovid considered geese better than dogs as guards; therefore, is it possible that Chastity is holding a goose to act as an unusual guardian of her virtue.

However, the bird could also be interpreted as a swan, its whiteness representing purity and mirroring the white of the lilies in Chastity’s other hand. Swans are also symbolic of love, fidelity and monogamy as they mate for life. In the Middle Ages, certain objects were considered magical with the properties to identify lack of chastity and infidelity, one of which was a swan.

At the bottom of the image there is a caption stating that in opposition to Chastity is the vice of Uncleanness. Uncleanness is the vice of moral and physical impurity and lust and is here shown as a grumpy-looking goat being trampled under Chastity’s sandal-clad feet. The male goat was traditionally viewed as a lascivious creature with such hot blood that it could dissolve a diamond. Aside from their proverbial lecherousness, from which the insult ‘dirty, old goat’ originates, goats have other symbolic values. In ‘the Parable of the Sheep and Goats’ from the Gospel of Matthew, sheep symbolise righteous men who will go to Heaven for their virtuous and charitable behaviour, while the goats represent those who will be condemned because of their failure to act charitably to those in need.

In Classical and Hebrew culture, goats were also used sacrificially and in the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement one of two goats was chosen for a sacrifice while the other was released into the wilderness with the sins of the people symbolically laid upon it. It is literally an ‘escaped goat’ (hence the term ‘scapegoat’) which represents sin.

On a simpler level, just by looking at the image as a whole the good and bad models of behaviour that it represents can easily be discerned. The beautiful figure of Chastity, named for clarity, takes up most of the border space, emphasising her importance as a model for emulation, trampling the negative figure beneath her feet. By viewing the image as a contrast between top and bottom the viewer can clearly see what the prescribed mode of behaviour is without unpicking the image in detail, although more meaning could be understood through closer examination during private reflection.

W2-X-2-13-bottomThe bottom border of the page holds two biblical quotations to reinforce the behavioural exemplars of the image through warnings against sin. Each quote is accompanied by the miniature bust of an exotic-looking man, bearded and turbaned, with their index fingers indicating the first few words of their biblical passages. The top one comes from 1 Peter v. 3 and condemns vanity and those who place importance on physical appearance and material goods. The second passage, from Proverbs 5, warns against ‘a forbidden woman’ and the sin of adultery. Together the two passages complement the images of Chastity and the goat by warning against the vices of vanity, lust, pride and the sin of adultery.

The viewer of this page of A Booke of Christian Prayer can learn many lessons, both implicit in the imagery and explicit in the texts. Alongside the prayers for charity and compassion the viewer would have reflected upon the virtues of chastity and purity through the accompanying imagery. They would also have been warned against the terrible vices of impurity and lust which are encapsulated in the memorable proverb that ‘Uncleanness is like a goat’.

Zoe Boden: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent.
Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading:

  • Kelly, Kathleen Coyne, and Marina Leslie Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages (London: Ontario: New Jersey: Associated University Press, 1999).
  • Werness, Hope, B, The Continuum Encyclopaedia of Animal Symbolism in Art (London: New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004).